My daughter Elodie is three and a half. And while, like many girls her age, she’s a big fan of things pink, frilly, and princessy, her heart truly skips a beat when it comes to the Octonauts. It’s her first request in the morning. It’s her favorite pretend time (especially with her little Peso doll). And consequently, it’s currently our biggest bargaining chip when it comes to doing discipline.
Most of the time when I watch a show with the kids, I sort of filter what I think they like. I break it down, talk about the education and developmental aspects, and filter it through my lens. (Well, okay — I will say, they’re totally adorable, and they super appeal to my inner oceanographer nerd).
But today I’m going to give you the reasons the Octonauts is great, not from my analysis, but from hers. Because, really, in the world of blogging, what better than to go directly to the source?
Mommy: Why do you like the Octonauts?
Elodie: Because big and tall!
Mommy: They make you big and tall? How?
Elodie: Because Captain Barnacles! He’s really big and strong.
Mommy: Who’s your favorite character?
Elodie: Dashi and Shellington and all of them. Who’s your favorite?
Mommy: Shellington. I love a Scottish accent.
Elodie: Me, too, Mom.
Mommy: What do you learn on the show?
Elodie: Captain Barnacles strike! I’m strong like Captain Barnacles.
Mommy: Okay, what do they do on the show?
Elodie: They, um, to your mission!
Mommy: Why do you love the show so much?
Elodie: Because there are biscuits. And sprinkles and sparkly ones.
Mommy: Where do they go on the show?
Elodie: To the missions!
Mommy: Where do they live?
Elodie: They live into the Octopod. It’s a squid! They live in a squid. They live in an octopod.
Mommy: What’s special about it?
Elodie: Tweak! She always makes stuff. And GUPS.
Mommy: Anything else you want to tell me about the show?
Elodie: No, actually. Well, Tweak always makes GUPS and wow, Tweak!
There you go, folks. Right from the mind of the foremost authority on the subject. You can catch Octonauts on Netflix.
Considering our abiding love for Daredevil, it’s no surprise that the adults in my household are mad about Jessica Jones. Mad in the good way. Mad in the shaking my fists at the sky and shouting, “Finally!” kind of way. I’m not a reader of comics much, but a big fan of all things Marvel. And, tired of seeing female superheroes erased from t-shirts and toys and posters, it’s good to be watching a show where she’s front and center. She’s a badass. She’s complicated. She’s flawed. She’s broken. She’s powerful.
Plenty has been said on this matter. I’ve finally finished the first season, and I’ve got lots of thoughts.
But I’m not talking about Jessica today.
Today I’m talking about Kilgrave. (Caveat: minor spoilers below.)
That was the strain this week with my three-year-old daughter who, after contracting a nasty case of strep, has been absolutely smitten with the Care Bears and Cousins show on Netflix.
While many parents might not find this exclamation to be anything other than another chime in the background, it’s meant a lot to me. As a child of the ’80s, the Care Bears—that greeting-card-turned-TV-series—was a huge part of my childhood. I watched all the movies, had my own Funshine and Brave Heart Lion, and stopped everything when my favorite, The Care Bears Movie II, came on TV.
Why The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation? Well, it was full of something that, even at a tender age (perhaps a tender-hearted age, too), I absolutely adored: mythology. It was the origin story, not only of the Care Bears, but the cousins, too. I could even argue it was the Empire Strike Back of the franchise. Yes, marketing ploy aside, I was hopelessly in love with the Care Bear cousins, and getting to see them grow up as babies and sing my favorite Care Bears song, “Growing Up.”
And that’s not to mention the seriously dark backstory with Dark Heart, the evil spirit who helps camper Christy make a pack to become “camp champ” and resulting in an honestly tear-jerking final, where friendship and caring triumphs over evil.
Remember it now? I thought so.
No, I wasn’t expecting the new Netflix series Care Bears & Cousins—which is a branch from the Care Bears 3-D animated series reboot—to be so hard-hitting. Something about ’80s kids shows had a certain dark tinge to them in ways that we just don’t see these days, save maybe occasionally in shows like the My Little Pony reboot. (Remember the My Little Pony: the Movie and the unstoppable purple ooze? Talk about nightmare material.)
But I was pleasantly surprised that, while the origin story is firmly tossed to the reboot rubbish heap and the cousins are much fewer in number (so far, we’ve got just four: Brave Heart Lion, Bright Heart Raccoon (my favorite!), Lotsa Heart Elephant, and Cozy Heart Penguin), their personalities and voices are done really well. Especially Braeden Fox’s Brave Heart who sounds so very much like Dan Hennessey’s original. Once I got over their new look and the fact that Funshine was now a dude, I really enjoyed time cuddling up with my daughter and just enjoying the little stories. A cool ship for the Cousins and Bright Heart’s steampunk inventions didn’t hurt, either.
For my three-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son (who pretends not to like it, but really loves it) the series is a great homage to the original. There are only six episodes so far, but it’s full of adventure, nostalgia, and positivity. Hoping they order more episodes soon and build up to a big, epic movie.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Summer is waning. Even here in North Carolina, where the hot season tends to linger a little longer than I’d like, we’ve had hints of autumn. My daughter just started preschool, and my son is back to school next week. But they had some great times this summer—we traveled, we relaxed (well, at least they did), and we immersed ourselves in some great books.
Prizes include a family trip to New York City, a Scholastic Study Corner Makeover, a tablet with Scholastic apps, a library of Scholastic books and more! Everyone who plays can also download free digital stories for their family.
Refrain from Brain Drain
The summer is almost over, but thankfully the Power Up and Read Summer Reading Challenge has you covered. Scholastic’s Maggie McGuire has 5 easy tips for making reading a priority for your child, like setting a weekly minutes goal, reserving special time to read together as a family, and celebrating reading accomplishments. It’s not too late to get your kids reading.
More Reading Resources
Scholastic has joined together with ENERGIZER® to power the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge and encourage families to find innovative ways to discover the power and joy of reading. It’s not too late to take part! Now through September 4th, visit Scholastic.com/Summer. Click the links below for a sampling of the fun resources you’ll find with Scholastic:
It’s been a crazy busy summer here in the house, and what’s probably the most exciting bit when it comes to reading is just how much my daughter Elodie is getting into the habit. She’s not yet at the age where she can read, but she’s absolutely in love with stories and pictures. Every night she wants me to read her another story (her favorite is still Please Mr. Panda, which she just can’t get enough of).
While this summer has meant new jobs, a big move, and lots of changes, reading books at night has become a huge part of our day. And, I’ll be honest—sometimes it’s the very best part of my day. You can tell by her adventures with the Energizer Bunny that it’s been a fun—and stylish—summer for all of us.
The Innovation Book Packet Giveaway
While you’re tracking your kids’ reading minutes, I wanted to share a great giveaway that they’re doing right now that’s just up the alley for our geeky readers. The innovation book packet is a collection of Scholastic titles showcasing fiction and non-fiction boos for kids to want to get lost in the world of science, STEM, and inventions. Awesome, right?
The packet includes:
The Magic School Bus and the Electric Field Trip
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Extreme Science Careers
Plus Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge materials including reading logs, pledges, bookmarks, and more!
In an effort to log as many minutes as possible through the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge AND to break the world record for summer reading, Scholastic is setting special weekly goals for young readers. Every Monday they’ll be announcing a #MondayMinutesGoal, the number of minutes for kids to read together in one week (by the following Monday).
Whether your child or student is reading independently aloud or together with you, you can join in. Here’s how:
Have your child log his/her minutes on the SRC website or on a paper log/piece of paper
Take a picture of him/her proudly displaying their minutes
Share it on social using #MondayMinutesGoal and #SummerReading and tag @GeekMomBlog!
We’ll pick a random winner.
US addresses only, prizing provided by Scholastic. Entries accepted through 8/7!
Sign up for the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge
The summer slide is real. And no, I don’t mean the kind that includes water and a slippery surface. I mean learning lag, which happens during the summertime when kids are out of school. Thankfully, our sponsor Scholastic and the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge is here to help. They’re challenging families like ours to “Power Up & Read”—powered by Energizer.
Teachers report that they end up re-teaching materials to kids during the fall because so much is lost over the summer. And with camps and family vacations—and the sometimes unbearably hot weather like here in North Carolina—it’s not surprising. After a demanding school year, the first thing my son Liam wants to do is not to read.
But we’re finding ways to help him, and you can, too. Picking books for him is the first big challenge. Thankfully, with the help of his teacher last year, we discovered a Minecraft series of novels. While they might not be my first choice of literature, they get his attention. He gets so invested in these books, you can hardly pry him away. Couple that with the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, and he’s got real motivation to continue reading—and to get rewarded all along the way. Bonus: There’s games he can play, and any time “screen time” is part of the deal, you know his attention is piqued.
What’s particularly nice is that we can let Liam choose his own books during the summer. With his ASD, the pressure to perform can be really overwhelming. But he doesn’t let it get to him this way. He can read whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
The free program runs from May 4 to September 4, 2015, and like I mentioned before, you can sign up for free on their website.
Even better is the new addition of short stories by some of the biggest names in kids’ writing. Kids can unlock stories by Blue Balliett, Patrik Henry Bass, Varian Johnson, Gordon Korman, Michael Northrop, Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pearce, Roland Smith, R.L. Stine, Tui T. Sutherland, Lauren Tarshis, Wendy Wan-Long Shang, and Jude Watson. For a fiction writer as I am, that’s a truly exciting reward! Not to mention, they’ve got a host of exclusive videos featuring kids’ authors, monthly Klutz books sweepstakes, and lots more.
The site is chock-full of great resources, including printouts, guides, and book lists for kids of all ages. And you can get Daily Digest tips and hey, even enter a prize packet for you that includes Scholastic tote bag, water bottle, a copy of Reading Unbound by Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith, a $10 gift certificate to Scholastic Store Online, Energizer® brand batteries, Scholastic books, and more.
Before retro was totally cool, and the hipsters took everything over, I had a long obsession with Danger Mouse. This was a nostalgia for the 80s in the 90s, when video on the Internet wasn’t exactly a possibility. I’d watched the original series as a kid, and loved it—and so did my parents. Penfold was, briefly, even the name of one of my first bands. Apparently it’s considered a “cult hit” of the 80s, but in my house it was the big time.
But I couldn’t find out much about Danger Mouse. I couldn’t just go find episodes. Heck, I remember trying Real Player for the first time, and being so excited to be watching the NEWS. Except I couldn’t see it. At all. I could almost sort of hear what they were saying. The wiggly lines just barely hinted at faces and the result was more often terrifying than inspiring. I ended up printing out a handful of .bmps that I found on a Netscape search, and put them in my locker.
Now, it’s almost 20 years later, and I may or may not have let out a squee of joy and did a happy dance, shouting out, “Oh, crumb!” when I heard that the classic series had made its way to Netflix. All ten seasons of the show are now there, and you really need to brush up on your lore because… well, they’re making a new series.
With everything “coming back” I’m honestly a little surprised that it took this long, but I’m overjoyed. I love the original, don’t get me wrong. But I really get a kick out of watching new iterations (I’m still stunned by how much I love the new TMNT, for instance) written for new generations. And old generations. Because it’s got to work both ways these days, y’know?
And did I mention Stephen Fry is voicing Colonel K?
The new series starts Spring 2016, so you still have time to catch up with favorites like Penfold, Greenback, and Danger Mouse himself.
In our house, viewing Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood usually starts something like this. The show clicks on, the music starts. My daughter, 3, starts dancing in anticipation. My son, 8, with high-functioning autism, starts whining and complaining that it’s the most terrible show in the world. Then it starts, and they’re both silent and rapt for the duration.
When I first saw ads for the show, I was a little reluctant. Riffing on Mister Rogers? With cartoons? It felt a little sacrilegious. Then I learned that the show was not just a rehash of Mister Rogers, my most favorite kid’s show, but a collaboration with people like Angela Santomero from Blue’s Clues. For our son Liam, Blue’s Clues was pretty much his favorite show in the world during his toddler years, in spite of being a very picky TV watchers (the show didn’t often feature his favorite thing in the world: cars). What I’ve always loved about Blue’s Clues is that it’s rooted in psychology, treating kids not as dumb little monkeys in need of entertainment, but as growing human beings in need of education and direction. It’s a lot to ask for a TV show, but it’s worked.
“They developed a whole curriculum based on Fred’s research and teaching,” says Linda Simensky, vice president of children’s programming at PBS. “It’s very carefully designed for a certain age group to get the rules of how the world works—to see what happens when things go right and when things go wrong.”
But that said, I’m going to admit, after viewing a few of the episodes I wasn’t a huge fan and didn’t quite get the hype. The show is cute and simplistic, employing many of the “play along” techniques Blue’s Clues became so famous for. Every lesson is a song, teaching kids ways to remember common solutions for every day problems.
That changed very quickly.
Learning Through Songs and Repetition
What started happening with those lessons, though, rather stopped my husband and me in our tracks. Many of Liam’s most common challenges come from tantrums. Autistic tantrums. That’s when, no matter what happens, the tantrum continues and continues—I think his record is three hours—regardless of the outcome. In these moments he’s in a red zone, and there’s very little we can do to get him back to the present outside of just waiting for it to be over.
One day, he had a particularly bad red zone tantrum, and he hurt a lot of feelings—including his sister’s. I found myself giving him advice from Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood: “It’s important that you don’t just say you’re sorry—say sorry, and ask how you can make it better. Being sorry is about more than words, it’s actions, too.”
He did. Even if a little grudgingly.
Then a few days later, Michael and I were having a disagreement. Not a full blown argument, but it was clear that we were both very frustrated. Our daughter Elodie came up to us, put her little hand in mine, and sang, “When you’re feeling frustrated, take a step back and ask for help.”
Michael and I goggled at each other. Did she just use Daniel magic on us? She did.
Parenting a kid who doesn’t listen and spirals out of control is hard on any day. And finding way to remain calm as a parent, let alone as the kid going through it, is perilous. We forget (and many other adults do, too) that while he looks and speaks like a big kid, when it comes to reasoning and social skills, especially in times of stress, he’s like a toddler. As I once read in a book about kids with these kind of challenges, being a parent to an exceptional kid means sometimes being their frontal lobe. Now, I don’t have time to be my own frontal lobe let alone his some days. But Daniel Tiger helps.
“Wow,” said to Michael one afternoon. “I think Daniel Tiger is helping us with Liam.”
He Likes It, He Really Likes It
Then, one day, Liam turned to us and said, apropos of nothing. “I think Katerina is autistic; she’s my favorite. She has a hard time with things sometimes, and she likes ballet more than anything.” Well, that’s interesting.
Our daughter Elodie loves Daniel, and she sings the potty song (“When you’ve got to go potty, stop and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way!”) every time she goes to the bathroom. Liam’s aware of what we’re doing on some level, but we’ve found that the sound, short advice can really cut through some of the worst of his behaviors.
Short, helpful strategies, based in real research and proven techniques. For days I’m too tired to remember what to do when Liam is going off the rails because the cream cheese was spread wrong on his bagel (true story) I can take a deep breath (take my own step back) and calmly translate the words of Daniel Tiger: “Take a step back, Liam. I can help. What do you want me to do?” He might roll his eyes at me, but it often stops him in his tracks and in this instance he doesn’t hit me or shout or stomp away. He says, “Can you get me a knife? That way I can fix it. Or maybe you can if I can’t.”
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is streaming on Netflix right now.
Is this what I’m to expect of my superhero stories now? A gut punch? A blinking out of the darkness of the theater (or my living room, but hey, I’m feeling like Ponyboy right now, mkay?) into a world that just doesn’t seem to make as much sense as it did before? A search for meaning? Weird dreams that I’m running from crazed Russians and bald-headed men in suits only to find out that I’m the one that’s been sent to save Hell’s Kitchen?
There have been other adaptations of Daredevil, but I don’t want to talk about those. I really don’t have to. That’s what rocks so much about Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix for me. Unlike so many other superhero retellings, it didn’t have to pay homage (*cough*superman*cough*) or lumber along trying desperately to re-invent itself and tell everyone that this time it’s different. It just kicked ass, took names, and moved along.
I’m babbling. But it’s a little hard to process.
My husband and I watched the entirety of Daredevil in about a week’s time. Sure, by binge TV standards that might not be too fast, but keep in mind we’ve got kids and jobs, and a crazy busy schedule. Essentially as soon as the kids were mostly asleep, we’d run to the living room and watch the next episode. We are, in every respect, a target market. Recent favorites include mostly anything Marvel’s done, Justified, and Game of Thrones. Even more telling than the time spent at the console was the fact that even though Game of Thrones premiered in the middle of our viewing, both of us really wanted to just watch more Matt Murdock kicking butt in Hell’s Kitchen and get our questions answered.
Okay, so no. It’s not going to change the way television is made. It might not be for you. But the series succeeds in many ways that, for me, were unexpected.
First, there’s no dumbing down to get a lower rating in the movie theater. This stuff is raw, gritty, bloody. It’s a superhero for adults with adult sentiments, viewers who aren’t interested in tie-in backpacks and t-shirts. This is so often the curse with comic book related film and television, it gets marketed to death and watered down so they can make money off of kids (and well, judging by my desk at work, some parents, too).
The other thing I noticed? It’s cut like a movie. One of my biggest complaints about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the gorram commercial breaks. Having to edit a show around commercial interruptions just makes for some really awkward moments in terms of pacing and plot. It made me really wish that S.H.I.E.L.D. could have the Netflix treatment. It gave them time in every episode to really paint the mood without rushing. And I think it’s one of the reasons that the villain is so very complex and almost… almost… someone you can pity. It’s also why it didn’t get bogged down in dreaded comic book origin story mode. It didn’t have to. It’s hard to do that when you’re pressed for time. But Daredevil, for the most part, was just time well spent.
And the performances? They were great. I mean, it’s got the luxury of being an ensemble cast. Even the (sometimes very short-lived) villains each had their own moments in the sun. Charlie Cox is growly and great, just a hint of his English accent punctuating his vowels now and again. He is what he needs to be, and is strongest when he’s trying to balance the guilt and shame of his chosen profession with his calling as a lawyer, often right in front of his friends.
More than anything, Daredevil just shows how much more room there is to go in the streaming TV medium. It has some hiccups (could’ve used some more complex women, perhaps; occasionally the gore got gratuitous, and the climax didn’t quite hold up to the very end) but it’s also just the first season. Considering it’s already been renewed, and how long it took for Matt to get his full suit (seriously, I cannot believe the interminable wait on that one) there’s a whole lot more story to tell.
We tried to go on a family walk today. You know how it is. Your dad, your brother, and the two of us. It’s been just you and me for a while now, but I thought the boys would like to come along… I keep thinking we’ll get it right one of these days.
But just like the last time, something triggered your brother and we ended up hiking up the hill on our own to get the car because he wouldn’t use his bike, and was screaming all sorts of terrible words. Words he uses a lot that someday you’ll get in trouble for using. Waking up the whole neighborhood. You just played with your Hello Kitty toys and sang to yourself like it was no big deal, and on we went.
You’re not even three yet and I’m talking to you like a teenager. I’m expecting things from you that are beyond your years, too. When I found out I was having a daughter, after six years being just your big brother’s mom, I burst into tears. It’s not that I worried you’d have autism, too—I didn’t actually know that’s what your brother had until after you were born—but I suddenly had this understanding that you would be like me. That you would experience life as a girl. A woman. I thought I was a feminist before you were born, but then I became a fierce lioness.
Your dad and I spend so much time worrying about your brother, fretting after him, taking him to appointments, and making the world around him safe that I worry we’re forgetting you. Or missing things. Or overlooking the fact that you see and experience all of this, and you don’t have answers, either. Well-meaning friends and family remind us of this sometimes, too. Which makes me fret even more. But this is our family. It’s just part of the entrance fee, I guess. They just want to make sure that we’re not losing you in the shuffle, I guess.
You ask me, “Why is he so LOUD?” “Why is he so MAD?” “Why does he hurt me?” Then say, “I love him…”
I expected you to share your brother’s characteristics—like him, you’re curious and funny, bright and musical. But I didn’t expect you to be so kind, so thoughtful. But, love, you’re so strong, too. You get right up when you’re pushed down, you move on when you hear an unkind word.
The world will say you’re the lucky one because you’re “neurotypical.” But they won’t understand that you’ll be different, too. You will be changed, every step of the way, because you are the closest person in the world to your big brother. You’ll understand him, maybe better than we even do. If your lives are kind, you’ll both outlive your dad and me, and you’ll just have each other. But you’re different because he’s different. And different isn’t bad, no matter what people tell you. Every step will make you stronger, and working to understand him and his challenges will make you a better person. It has made me one.
I never take your kindness for granted, nor your innate ability to trust me and to love me. Your concern, your gentleness… I wasn’t used to that in a kid. I’m a different mother to you than I am to him, and that can’t be helped. But as you sing along to Frozen with your ukulele and you give me that smile of mischief, I can’t help but think how you make all of this easier. We didn’t ask for a child with autism, but it’s like you’re his perfect compliment. You can learn so much from each other.
I hope you learn from your brother to question. To stand up for yourself even when the odds aren’t in your favor. I hope you get a little of his stubbornness—but not too much—and his ability to push boundaries. But wait until you’re past your teen years, maybe?
I already see him learning from you, becoming more imaginative, finding interest in the things he missed as a toddler. You’re teaching him more every day about patience and play and pretend, and it’s exhilarating to watch.
You have taught me to treasure each smile—from both of you—as frequent or infrequent as they might be. You’ve taught me to sing along to “Let it Go,” even if I worry about the high notes because, to you, it’s just like having Elsa in the flesh. You’ve taught me to love more and hug longer and try harder, because you’re watching everything I do, and you need me to be your mother, your teacher, and your sister sometimes… Thankfully, I had a little sister. I know how things work, even if I made some mistakes that time. I’m up for the challenge.
There are some difficult conversations in our future. There are some dark days. We’re working on it—your brother is making great progress. But there are days when I won’t have answers, but I’ll always be here to do my best hear you out. And if I tell you “I love you” one too many times, or if I cry my way through too many sappy movies, I hope you understand, at least in part, why it’s that way.
In the wide world of kids’ movie sequels, there’s a series that’s captured my heart—and the heart of my family—hook, line, and flaming sword…
Right out of the gate, I loved How to Train Your Dragon. I didn’t realize it was a book series, or else my interest would have been piqued even more. But being a family that leans Pixar, I really wasn’t anticipating such a smart, funny, touching movie that spoke so much to me. It’s not just because there’s dragons, though that’s a huge bonus. And it’s not just because it’s a medieval Norse-influenced setting, though that’s a big plus, too. When it comes down to it, it’s the heart of the movie that really gets to me. It’s about being different, and unexpected, and not fitting in, and not just championing on in spite of it—changing the world around you, and the perceptions of others, because of it.
You are probably familiar with Hiccup and Berk by now, the famed dragon tamer and his dragon-friendly island somewhere vaguely maybe near Sweden or Norway. The first movie takes his journey as a skinny, nerdy, totally different kid who’s supposed to be the next chief of his village but can’t seem to get anything right, to a beautiful hero story about friendship, family, and trust.
Yeah, it’s a lot. But it’s a lot of amazing, too.
As much as I loved the first movie, I wasn’t necessarily optimistic that the second could hold up to it. I mean, I’m an admitted sequel nerd (i.e., rather than rallying against remakes and sequels, I find the whole business to be rather fascinating, even when it’s terrible), but it’s hard to hold up to an original that just felt so… so very original.
“Mom, why are you crying?”
It’s the indignant peal of my son as we get about 4/5ths of the way into the movie. I’m not going to spoil away. If you’re like our family, you’ve got to depend on places like Netflix to get these titles, because… well, life. Plus, our son is high-functioning autistic. And he likes to scream and shout at movies, sit around in his underwear, and stalk around while we’re watching. These things are generally shunned by mainstream moviegoers.
I used to make fun of my mother. It’s easy to make fun of moms and their sometimes weepy tendencies. I never could understand what made her cry at Folgers commercials.
But then I had kids. And life got so much more wonderful and so much harder than it had ever been. And sometimes I still feel like a little kid from Berk who didn’t fit in; and sometimes I see that kid in my own son, who just isn’t cut from the same cloth as everyone. Plus, these kids—animated or not—are growing up. Becoming people. Growing facial hair. And oh, the feels.
I think it’s important that my kids see me cry when things move me. It’s important for me to explain to them why, too.
If you haven’t checked out the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, I highly recommend it. But it’s not for the soft of spirit, or even the mildly soft (my husband definitely teared up, too). It’s one of the best, most original family movies out there, filled with dragons and whimsy, but also tempered with so much heart.
If you have a young daughter who likes princesses, as I do, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Ever After High. Like Monster High before it, these dolls have a unique look that’s somewhere between Victorian princess and 80s punk rock. Now, aside from the book series and dolls, there’s a new show streaming on Netflix that follows the story of the girls in high school.
What’s particularly impressive about the show is that it’s not your garden variety fairytale show. No doubt spurred on by other popular shows like My Little Pony and even the Tinkerbell franchise, the storylines are complex and the central challenges are far more than makeup and crushes. In fact, the central factions in the show — the Rebels and the Royals — fall on two sides of an age-old question: do you follow your destiny, or do you challenge it? If you’re born to an evil queen, does that mean you have to be the same when you grow up?
Sure, it’s a show that the ten-and-under crowd will enjoy. But at the heart it’s a show that makes you think beyond fairytale endings. If you’re anything like me, you were probably the kind of kid who questioned all the fairytales I read, and wanted more satisfying endings. I far prefer my daughter, who’s absolutely besotted with her princesses, to be given a more complicated view. I love fairytales as much as she does, but there’s a real power in changing those expectations and asking the hard questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re so enduring.
And that’s to say nothing of the fashion on the show. As in their doll form, the characters on the show have a really amazing sense of fashion — and it varies greatly from character to character. I’d personally love to see someone chasing their own destiny in some of these gorgeous outfits.
Hey you. You use Pinterest, right? Cool. Awesome. Love to see you here. Love your Doctor Who board—like whoa. And your recipe collection was seriously inspiring.
But could you do me a favor?
Could you stop it with the phrase, “I could never?”
Not sure what I mean? Here. Let me help you.
I could never pull off that lipstick.
I could never find the time to do that craft.
I could never get the recipe right.
I could never be that fit.
I could never get my husband to agree.
I could never manage that hair color.
Why do we do this? Why do we see things we like/want to try/aspire to be/want to experience, and immediately cut ourselves down? Is it societal? Must be.
Think about it this way: If you heard your child speaking that way, what would you say? I’d turn around immediately and tell my daughter that she’s wrong. That she can try and do anything she wants, whether it’s teal hair or knitting herself a full-length Doctor Who scarf or perfecting a baklava recipe. That even if it doesn’t work right, that’s not what matters. Lipstick can be changed. Recipes can be tried again. Hair will grow.
Life is too short to cut yourself short! Not to get all Stuart Smalley on you, but y’know what? You. Are. Awesome.
Sure, Pinterest is good for dreaming. And sure, there are going to be things we never get to in our lives. But please, please. Rock that pin. Rock the ensuing selfie. Rock it, love it, embrace it. If it turns out wrong, tell the story, pour yourself a glass of wine, and laugh it off.
We have some of the coolest sponsors, and Jordandené is no exception. Tonight, I wore my new favorite sweatshirt—a teal number that reads in script: “We’re all stories in the end.” Doctor Who fans need no introduction, but if you happen to be curious, this very awesome shirt is a quote from the eleventh Doctor and a perfect accessory for this novelist.
Hey, it’s hard finding geeky fashion. It’s hard finding geeky fashion that fits, is comfortable, and is part of something great. Jordandené helps you find all of that, and then some, with their made-in-Brooklyn designs encompassing a wide variety of designs and fandoms. The company itself is all women, so they know what we’re looking for when it comes to clothes. I’m particularly fond of their line of quotes on sweatshirts, T-shirts, and tanks, meaning you can let your geek flag fly at the gym, under a blazer at work, or just lounging about at home. It’s geeky fashion that’s subtle, gorgeous, and wonderfully well made.
Sure, the gym and work is great. But if there’s another room in the house where I geek out the most, it’s probably the kitchen. I mean, I’m totally in my element there, throwing together dinners after work and totally getting in “the zone” with the alchemical herbs and spices around me.
While there are some cute options I’ve seen at local kitchenware stores, I’ve never come across anything as clever and awesome as what Jordandené offers. Whether you’re a Gryffindor or a Star Trekker, a Disney princess aficionado or a TARDIS junkie, they’ve designed the most amazing aprons you can imagine. The designs are distinctive and minimalist and totally stunning, especially with the flared bottom skirts.
My personal favorite? Robin. Sure, Batman is cool. But I get a little giddy over the colors when it comes to Robin, and the design is too good to pass up. Second place awesome goes to the TARDIS, of course. But you can make your decision.
And if clothes aren’t quite your thing, you’ll be glad to know that Jordandené also provides a large selection of kids clothes, tote bags, and jewelry. If you want to get some ideas on how to integrate this delightful geekiness into your wardrobe, you’ve got to check out their Pinterest pages, like this Harry Potter themed one, and their Polyvore collections like below.
Even more exciting than sharing all this is that Jordandené is sponsoring a giveaway for our littlest geeks—that’s right, one lucky winner (chosen at random) will get an Astroanimal Baby Onesie. Just enter the Rafflecopter below.
Having a pen pal is a rite of passage for most kids born before the age of the internet—you know, when communicating with people across the continent was kind of a big deal. I remember we got assigned pen pals in elementary school, and I can’t tell you for the life of me who mine was. I am, and remain, a very terrible pen pal.
With one exception.
My great Aunt C has lived in Northern California all my adult life, but in the 80s and 90s she traveled the world with her husband. Over the years she sent me postcards from Venice, from Bali, from China, telling me of the sights and sounds and expressing how important it was for me to travel.
It must have been knowing, and coveting, that freedom that inspired me to reach out to her like I did. I was twelve, and overwhelmed with absolute, crippling misery. The kind of crippling misery that only twelve-year-olds are capable of. We had just moved to Hatfield, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, that often didn’t show up on maps. Where I’d been in middle school, I was unceremoniously tossed back into elementary school in Hatfield, since sixth grade resided there.
I also left my best friend, Hilary—who was pretty much the only person in the world who got me—and didn’t fit in with anyone at school. Since I did all my growing at 11, I was approximately the same height I am now, so I was mistaken for a teacher more than once.
I went on and on in my letter to C about how horrible my life was. My grandmother (her sister) and I were never very close, and I didn’t expect she’d understand.
But Aunt C understood.
A few weeks after I wrote to her about my plight, which was clearly the worst plight in the history of plights, she wrote to tell me that she, too, understood not fitting in. That when she was growing up in the Midwest, she felt terribly alone. But there was an answer—there was a bit of magic—because not all was lost.
Read, she told me. Read, and you can go anywhere in the world.
I did. I read so much that I started to write. I couldn’t help it. All those worlds, those adventures, those people I met, they welled up inside of me and had to be let out into the world… changed a little (or hey, not at all, sorry Stephen King). It was Aunt C’s advice that changed me, that shaped me, that gave me hope. No one had ever respected my plight, had acknowledged how difficult it was for me. Everyone else had always said: “Oh, you’ll get through it,” or, “It’s tough for everyone.” There was so much unexpected power in being given permission to suffer and simultaneously granted a way out that was actually useful advice. No, “Try making new friends,” or, “Join a club,” or, “Get a new hobby”—this charge, to read, was the greatest I’d ever been given.
Then, as kids do, I became a teenager. I stopped writing as often, then stopped at all. By the time I was a college student, my days of writing to C came to an end for a while (though she did provide me with the funding to get my first computer). We saw each other on and off, mostly at a funeral or two, but it wasn’t until I went out to San Francisco about seven years ago that we started up our correspondence again, this time in email, after my son was born and not long after her husband died (Liam was born the same weekend her husband passed away).
Picking up the Threads
So it was that from 2007-2013 we wrote back and forth dozens of times, and I visited as often as I could. But in the middle of that, she fell ill. Cancer, for a second time. And things changed. After adventuring in Chinatown together in 2007—she was in her early 80s during my first visit as an adult—her life changed forever. The cancer, and its constant pain, left her much depleted. Her enthusiasm for communication dwindled.
It has not gotten better. Computers have become strange to her, her memory erratic, her handwriting unreliable. When I went to visit her last, my heart broke to see her change so. She had always seemed so ageless to me, a beauty who never knew her beauty, a bookworm who never saw her worth, but a woman who lived life with vivacity in spite of that all.
I call her when I can. And visit her when I can. Every time I visit her she sends me home with books, more books. I take them because I know it’s the richest give she can give. Most recently it was a collection of Rumi’s poems and a biography of our favorite potter, Maria Martinez (what are the odds, right?). But there are no more letters, and we’re an entire continent apart. There are conversations—she worries about my son Liam, who has high functioning autism, a great deal—but we fall into the same patterns again and again. While I visited her most recently, the conversation we’d had ten minutes before evaporated, and we repeated it again. Then again. I realized for the first time that the sharp, ebullient woman I know is fading away.
But not all. As we sat together a few weeks ago listening to the blessed rain, she leaned over to me and asked, “Do you remember that letter I wrote you? After you told me about school in Massachusetts and you hated it so much? I told you to read, do you remember that?”
I told her I remembered; I remember it every day. Twenty years have passed, but those words, they’re still there, still inside of me. I don’t know where that original letter is for the life of me, but it doesn’t matter. I can still see her neat typing on the page: READ. READ. The words are so clear they might as well be tattooed on my skin.
Words Left Behind
Our email correspondences are treasures to me now, as I prepare to watch her slip away again. I was a busy new mom when we first started writing again, but her joy and beauty and love always shone through. Across a whole continent, from California to North Carolina, it strikes me as still being astonishing. Letters like these are absolute treasures to me now.
I shall make note to find your book on the Vikings, etc. They made it as far as Istanbul, I know. Energetic sorts. Your uncle and I were agog in Istanbul. It was/is an incredible city, with much preserved history. One book “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk was my dead-on favorite last year. Despite a pep talk I couldn’t manage to convince my book group to read it.
The garden is slowly coming in to shape. My new Chinese neighbors were stunned by the grapefruit, and helped to pick tons. The lemon hedge is groaning with fruit, so I picked a grocery bag full to give recently. Oh yes, if I could figure out how to use my “Zio!” gadget on my computer, I could send you a snap of a large king protea. One blossom. I am proud of it!
Maybe I am getting a bit loony. But gardening does help to keep one busy. I have to be here, definitely, the first week of July, when all the apricots come in.
Please visit and we’ll make a return to Chinatown, or go to Marin County, or drive to Carmel.
We did not make it back to Chinatown, or Marin County, or Carmel, as it turns out. But that’s okay. Because the traveling I do with her, and will do until my last day, requires no physical transportation.
Yes. I will read. I will read and remember and write. And I will get a little loony in my garden, and visit Istanbul, and try, try, to do right by you, my dear.
Listen, I get it. I come from a long line of thrifty people. It’s in my blood. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I’m out there every Saturday with my mom, scouring the neighborhoods for tag sales (I live in the South now, but, y’all, it’ll always be a tag sale to me). Over the years I’ve managed to find priceless antiques, top shelf brand purses, and amazing vintage clothes—all at basement prices. My mom loves taking people to her house and making them guess how much she paid for things, then giddily explaining that it only cost her 25 cents for her amazing wall-hanging.
But now, I have a family of my own. And after years of being underwater with college debt, houses, cars, and the general insane expense of having two kids (seriously, how does an eight-year-old eat so much?), I’ve come to believe that there are certain non-negotiables when it comes to purchases. When it comes down to it, you want quality things for the most important components of your life.
Some of these really aren’t that expensive, some of them are. But I’ll make separate arguments and reasoning for each one.
Why does this matter?
No, I’m not saying you should go out and drop Benjamins like it’s 1997. I’m saying that moms have a habit of putting our own wants and needs on the back-burner. Of compromising for everyone else. No, a great cup of coffee isn’t going to change your life. But it can make a better, kinder moment. It might help you later that day, that month, that year, to find a little more zen in your life because you put yourself in a valued place for a bit.
It’s tempting to get cheap pillows, I know it is. But remember this: You sleep on your pillow every damn night of the week. You might scoff at a $100 price tag, sure. But a good pillow will last years and can make or break your bedtime routine. When it comes to good sleep hygiene, there’s no better first step than making sure your neck and back and shoulders, all places where I personally store a lot of tension, are kept nice and comfy all night long. I’m a big fan of Costco when it comes to finding foam pillows, my preferred type. But there are plenty on Amazon that will do the trick, too.
Life is too short for crappy coffee, I say. Sure, this likely has something to do as my years as a barista. But one thing I can no longer abide by is awful coffee to start out my day (tea = same thing). I can’t even drink regular coffee (hi, anxiety, nice of you to hang out with me every second of my life), so I’ve got to stick to decaf, and that’s even harder since decaf is significantly more expensive and significantly less tasty. My approach? Pour over coffee method with these beans. More than whole bean some places, maybe. But the taste makes my morning ritual fabulous. And still a helluva lot cheaper than going to Starbucks.
Okay, sure. If you have superhuman skin, that’s fine. If any old moisturizer doesn’t bother your face or cause you to break out in hives and Mt. Vesuvius-sized pimples, cool. Ignore this advice. But it’s my face. I really like to think hard about what I put on my face. I spent years, years I tell you, trying to find a moisturizer that wouldn’t leave me in agony. When I finally found one that I could use every day—Andalou Naturals Clarifying Oil Control Beauty Balm Un-Tinted with SPF30—and had SPF in it (something that usually triggers the nasty reactions mentioned above), I honestly didn’t care how much it cost. Moisturizing your skin is just about the most important thing you can do for your face, regardless of your age. Cheap, fragrance-ridden, questionable ingredient-filled tubes might be tempting, but again this is something going on your face. Your face. If there were ever a place to make sure you’re playing it safe, it’s there.
7) Shower heads.
Showers? What are you on about, Barron? Listen, I may have spent the better part of my graduate school career thinking about the Middle Ages, I never once took for granted that most blissful of modern conveniences: a hot shower. When it comes down to the end of a day, my brain is fried, my everything hurts, and I start seriously contemplating climbing out a window and running away to Bali… Well, there’s a good shower. Our house was built in 1968, and the fixtures it came with are what I think of as Army Grade. You know, they spit out water so fast at you, it’s like being pelted with glass. A $40 Waterpik later, and suddenly my shower is a spa, and I’m as happy as a clam… until I hear that scratching at the door.
Funny story. Once my husband Michael bet me that I owned more pairs of shoes than he had board games. I knew he would lose, since he’s already into the low 100s, but he had this perception that I had dozens and dozens of pairs. Turns out I had 16. I’m very picky with shoes. Y’know, women’s feet—just like their bodies—come in all shapes and sizes. And walking around all day in pain just isn’t my idea of living. When I get new shoes for work, or for play, I spend some serious time researching. Recent favorites include Franco Sarto boots (I have a red pair that wear like slippers and have clocked hundreds of miles in) and Merrell Women’s Vapor Glove Trail Running Shoe shoes. Target has some great shoes, sure. But my high arch and high bridge means that most shoes = aches. It means I get fewer shoes, sure. But I just can’t abide by aching feet. As my father in law says, “Oh, my dogs are barkin’.” I avoid the barking dogs like the plague.
5) Crafting supplies.
Yes, this can easily get out of hand. But bad paint and bad yarn are just a waste of money. Sure, that three-skein pack seemed like a good idea. But now you’re stuck with it for a whole afghan and it’s turning your fingers blue. Which is really weird considering the yarn itself is red. Better to save up for a really nice set of oil paints than struggle through a whole set of acrylics that just don’t get the job done. When it comes to your hobbies, make them count. Don’t break the bank, but make a list of what’s most important. Paint brushes: non-negotiable. Palettes: maybe not so much.
The art of writing may be dwindling, but not for me. When I’m at work I like to take notes, less for posterity and more just to help with memory later on down the line. But I’ve tried cheap pens and the result is always rather sad and unsatisfying. Paper Mate Inkjoy pens are one of my favorite new lines, and it’s far from pricey. Sure, there’s always Mont Blanc to save up for someday, but I’m happy with these colorful ones that suit just fine, whether I’m writing my next novel out longhand or scribbling a note to my husband. There is a special kind of rage I experience with crappy pens, and really, I prefer to avoid that if at all possible. No one should have to endure that fury, really.
2) Herbs & spices.
I know it’s tempting to go the McCormick route. But the quality of herbs and spices really matters when cooking. Not just because it adds good flavor, but because it’s one of the best things you can do to brighten up your meals without paying a ton. Sure, saffron might be a little out of the price range. But finding a local spice shop—I’m lucky to have Savory Spice Shop here in North Carolina—means access to freshly made blends. Throw out old herbs and spices. They’re tasteless and awful. Get good ones, and experiment. It’s an investment that will please everyone at the dinner table. My personal favorites as of late include Szechuan peppercorns, cardamom pods (amazing in aforementioned coffee), and Vietnamese sweet lemon curry.
1) Your purse.
Maybe you’re not a purse person. Then this isn’t a big deal for you. But my purse isn’t a status symbol—I couldn’t care less if I’m packing Michael Kors or Coach or Tori Burch (and LOL—yeah, none of those are even close to my budget). But what I do care about is something that fits my laptop. Some diapers. My wallet. My iPad. And it’s got to be able to take a beating, look cool, and essentially be a Bag of Holding all at the same time. I spend more time researching purses than I do researching cars. Some of my favorites include B. Makowsky (great cellphone slip pockets on the outside, high quality, and often available on clearance at Marshall’s) and Betsy Johnson (non-leather, most usually, but with lots of pockets and pizazz). I’ve actually taken a two-pronged approach. On the weekends I wear a cross body B. Makowsky bag that I got at a consignment store (I didn’t say you have to stop being thrifty!) and during the workweek it’s a Betsey Johnson tote I snagged at Stein Mart (they carry far more than old lady sunglasses and jogging suits). I swap my phone and my wallet between the two, and it’s worked incredibly well.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. A few others I could have included are vacuum cleaners, nail polish, and mascara. But maybe that’s another list altogether.
Either way, there are two factors at work here: Some are about the long tail, others are about better single moments. No matter what your time frame, if you save up for the purchases that really matter, it means less stress later on. And hope that you find little moments to put yourself first, instead of everyone else.
There’s no arguing that technology is redefining the way we, and our children, learn. We have all been there, scouring the App Store in hopes of finding just the right app to help our kids with a particularly difficult subject in school, and being inevitably disappointed in the outcome. Just because it’s a game doesn’t mean it’s fun—and just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s actually helpful. That’s where our sponsor, SkyMath, comes in hand.
SkyMath is a math program on the iPad that wants to leverage the power of learning apps and videos that are already out there to help your child master even the most challenging math concepts at the K-5 level. But don’t go thinking this is a run-of-the-mill math app on the iPad. Its entire approach is markedly different. The dedicated team behind SkyMath started in the most important way: they focused on creating a math experience that’s engaging and measurable.
You can see from SkyMath’s Kickstarter page, and in the app itself (for those of us lucky enough to get a sneak peek), that the artwork is stunning. SkyMath takes your child on a learning adventure, and every island has a different silly theme. Your child even gets to choose an adorable character to go on the journey with (my son chose the Otter as his player character).
The first set of islands serves as a placement test so SkyMath can figure out where your child is in math. With that information, the app creates a personalized learning path that’s tailored to your child’s math level. Parents will love how each island represents a math skill that their child needs to work on and the curated third-party apps and videos on each island really take the guesswork out of figuring out which apps are going to be the most helpful. With the number of recommendations available, the chances are good that your child will find the right apps and videos that he or she will love learning math with.
Throughout all of the gaming and practicing, SkyMath keeps track of the progress your child is making. Once your child has practiced enough to pass the post-test on each island, SkyMath moves your child on to the next math skill to work on. This focus on measuring growth and progress is a huge part of what sets SkyMath apart.
Which brings one of the most important aspects of the app into focus: incentives. Digital incentives are hard to grasp. For me, a mother of a high-functioning autistic child, finding the incentives that work (jellybeans) and the ones that don’t (long-term goals) is a big deal. But by tying real-world incentives that the parents can control in the app, the kids aren’t waiting for some digital happy face. They’re making real progress in the real world that you can celebrate with your child. Depending on your situation and your child, you can scale it from the small (those jellybeans again) to the large (trip to LEGO Land, anyone?).
Children are curious. They’re smart, too. They just need to be engaged and motivated most of the time. And a sad majority of apps out there really don’t take those concepts into consideration. SkyMath does. Built on careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of how children learn in the digital–and physical–world, I’m confident that SkyMath can make a real impact.
My daughter is two and a half. She loves lots of things, as cute little kids of her age do. Princesses. Play-Doh. Lego bricks. The odd dragon or insect. But what really gets her squealing is our ugly outdoor cat. Jolie, our cat, has long forgotten how to use a litter box or do much in the way of cleaning herself. So, seeing as the primary reason to buy a cat includes that they a) clean themselves and b) use the litter box, she spends most of her time outside. She’s great with the mice, so she earns her keep.
But in spite of Jolie’s less than desirable qualities, whenever it’s cold and we bring her in, my daughter Elodie lights up. “Kitty!” she cries, hands outstretched. Gently, calmly, she pets the cat and says the sweetest things to her you can imagine. Kids are just good that way, I suppose. But then again, Elodie’s never tried to bathe Jolie.
Thankfully, Netflix has provided ample help in the cute kitty department during these chilly days of winter. A whole slew of animal movies and shows are out there, two of which are personal favorites. The Adventures ofPuss in Bootsseries is a spin-off of the Shrek movies, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t enjoy it just as much as the kids. Add to that, for the younger set, there are soft, calm, and fuzzy options, too. This is especially nice when her big brother is hoarding the TV, and she can chill out with the iPad. My favorite? Milo and Otis. Controversy aside, I just love that movie. Maybe it’s Dudley Moore? Who knows?
Ringing in the New Year is the last gasp of fun during the winter holiday season. And while we adults have lots of ways to do it, it can be a challenge when you’re a kid. There’s no chance in the world that my kids are going to be able to stay up until midnight — and even if they could, I wouldn’t wish the next day on anyone.
That’s where Netflix got smart this year. We’re all familiar with Netflix’s on-demand entertainment, fun stuff anywhere you need it anytime you can manage. When they surveyed parents, they found that over a third of parents said they were planning early parties or fooling their kids into thinking it’s midnight… and they figured, why not make it cooler?
And why not party with one of the coolest party animals this side of Madagascar?
You can even run a marathon viewing of the show first! My kids love the prequel story style, essentially the origin story of King Julien… and my husband and I appreciate the vocal stylings of Andy Richter and Henry Winkler. You know, as you do.
If your kids are anything like mine, you’ve got a kid who’s in love–nay, pretty much obsessed–with sim games. Whether it’s through games like Minecraft or Puzzle Craft or any other amalgamation, my son is absolutely besotted with games that allow him to grow plants into crops and arrange the world around him. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to suggest next for him, but thankfully our sponsor Maxmium Games has the answer.
Our son is also a seasoned fan of Forza, and is particularly intrigued by sims that bring a little more reality to the situation. He’s super detail-oriented, and there’s no fooling him when it comes to games that cut corners in that way.
Which is why Farming Simulator 15 is such a great option. While there are other sim type games out there which may be, shall we say, slightly on the more questionable side when it comes to content, that’s not something you have to worry about with Farming Simulator 15. As the number after the name indicates, it’s been around a while. And if you’re kid is as into agricultural fun as mine, they’re guaranteed to have a blast.
One of our son’s favorite parts of the game is the fact that the tractors represent actual companies you’d find emblazoned on the side of a tractor in real life–like New Holland, Case-IH, Ponsse, Lamborghini, Horsch, and Kuhn. Didn’t know that Lamborghini made tractors? Well, like me you’re now enlightened.
Additionally, Farming Simulator 15 allows kids to play online with up to 15 others. There they can share mods, swap tips, and show each other around their own creations. For the Minecraft generation, this is a must. Plus, there’s other new features like logging and learning woodcrafting, definitely a fun new craft for kids who are looking to make their mark in the virtual world! Granted, my son’s favorite part is the new chainsaws, harvesters, chippers, and trailers. But that’s his thing. Thankfully there are games like this out there!
And that’s not to mention all the other fun activities you–and your kids–will find yourselves rather wrapped up in. Not everyone has close access to a farm, but I love that games like this teach about the growth and cultivation of food and animal husbandry. It’s so important that kids learn where their food comes from and get an appreciation for what farmers do. It’ll certainly make the next hayride you take more interesting! Who knows, it could foster a lifelong love of farming–you never know.
Want to get in on the fun action? We’re giving away a “farmtastic” Farming Simulator prize package. One random winner will get a fabulous prize package including the PC game, a “Rosie” the cow USB drive, a bumper sticker, a mug, and more!
So what do I know? Well, I’m a copywriter. I’m in my mid-thirties. I have kids and a mortgage. For the record, the closest I’ve ever been to getting in a real fight was back when I was sixteen and a friend and I had had a bit too much to drink. (It was England, that sentence is normal there). We threw exactly one punch each. Also, for what it’s worth, I have owned a Y chromosome since birth.
Or, to put that all another way: I am not, nor have I ever been, a female action hero.
So when I first considered writing stories that contained them, I was a bit worried it was going to be a problem. I mean, what the hell did I know?
Well, fortunately, I happen to know a fairly large selection of kick-ass women. Thanks to the simple demographics of this world, ever since I’ve been born, half the people I have met have been female. And, what’s more, a great number of them have kicked ass. It’s not like there’s a dearth of experience for me to pull from here. Hell, the person I know best in the world is my wife, and she definitely outguns me on both the X chromosome and ass-kicking fronts.
Now why does that matter? Because, writing any character at all, is a question of changing perspective. You need to learn how to see the world through someone else’s eyes. So knowing how my wife and how my female friends have seen the world, and how what they’ve seen has shaped their responses is invaluable. But it’s also experience everyone has. Hell, it’s a bit of a cliché, but everyone has a mother.
So when I wanted to write kick-ass women, I thought of my wife. I thought of my friends. I thought about the issues I’ve seen them face and how they’ve kicked ass responding to them. I’ve thought about how the way they kick ass isn’t just literally applying boot to derrière. It’s also been about dealing with problems in clever, creative ways. It’s been about being smarter than the issue. It’s been about knowing when to meet a problem head on and when to side-step it and come from a different angle. I’ve thought about what I’ve seen my wife and my friends do a thousand times. What everyone has seen. Because that’s the world we live in.
Honestly, I know exactly as much about being a female action hero as I know about being a male one. I’ve never been either. They’re both just individuals with individual points of view, shaped by their individual life experiences. Worrying that individuality ends at a gender boundary line is kind of absurd if you think about it for any length of time greater than two seconds.
So now I write about kick-ass women. And when I do, I’m really writing about the women I know. It’s just occasionally I’ll give them katanas to help them along the way.
As the mother of two kids in a very tech-connected geek household, apps are often on our minds. Which is why I’m so excited to share Tiny Hands Apps, our sponsor, with you.
Our daughter, the youngest, is only two. And while she’s fascinated with the iPad and certainly wants to use it like her brother does, there’s not much out there that caters to her. Generally speaking, it’s too complicated for her—and to be honest, I don’t just want to throw her the iPad to keep her busy when it’s not something that’s helpful for her.
That’s where Tiny Hands Apps comes in. Tiny Hands Apps are designed with toddlers in mind, from top to bottom. They’re educational and fun, and go beyond being just apps—really, they’re developmental apps. Everything is designed with a great deal of thought, not just a bunch of bright colors and sounds. In fact, Tiny Hands Apps are put together with certified child psychologists and produced in such a way to be exciting and interesting but never compromising on the content.
Even better? There’s no ads. No pop ups. No network access. Your littlest curious kiddos are free from the advertising crush that we so often see in games. It’s a gateway to learning without interruption.
A great example is Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House. Your toddler sees a friendly raccoon character, and a story to go along. But you’ll know that it’s far beyond that. Tiny Hands Raccoon Tree House includes sorting, classifying, hand-eye coordination, concentration, vocabulary… and so on.
But that’s just the beginning. The world of Tiny Hands Apps is full of bright and colorful fun, learning about the world and all that’s in it.
We all know that it’s almost impossible to avoid technology—and we certainly never would want to. But we always want to make sure that we’re delivering the best quality to our children, both appropriate and exceptional. If you have a toddler who’s ready, we can’t think of a better place to start than Tiny Hands Apps
Did you know that it’s the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing? That’s the mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon and coined some of the most memorable phrases of a generation—not to mention inspired generations to come.
One of my earliest space-centric memories revolves around a packet of pictures I got from NASA. I know the wait felt like forever after I sent in the request, but when the big manila envelope finally appeared in my mailbox—addressed to me—it was like Christmas morning. Inside were dozens of beautiful pictures of planets, galaxies, asteroids and other mind-blowing images. I remember spreading them all around my room, on the floor and over my bed quilt, and reveling in the vastness and beauty of space.
That feeling can’t be bought, of course. But it can be fostered. That sense of adventure in learning is what Space Scouts is all about. If your kids are anything like mine, they love getting mail. And Space Scouts has taken the excitement of mail subscription boxes and added education and exploration. Following Roxy and Jett, subscribers go on a space journey every month, as with each subsequent box they add to their story.
It’s not like a typical grab-bag subscription box. Space Scouts is meant to be an experience, from the first box forward. With activities, exercises, and fun facts, the story builds every month—starting with the introduction to Roxy and Jett and moving to the moon, the solar system, and beyond. These activities and adventures are meant to be part of a conversation with your kids, especially considering the importance of STEM education. So their website and social channels are designed in such a way to keep you in the loop, too.
Space Scouts is all about fostering a love of education through one of the oldest observable sciences in the world. For just $14.95 a month, you can get your little star-gazers started. Here’s what you’ll expect in your first and subsequent boxes:
Your child’s adventure begins with:
Introduction to the Space Scouts Program
Space Scouts Lunchbox
Space Scouts Solar System Poster
Space Scouts Activity Sheet
Space Scouts Sticker Scramble
Space Scouts Souvenir Toy
Space Scouts Constellation Card Startup Kit (cover & ring)
With two kids, a dog, and space at a general premium, having a guest room has never been an easy task for our growing family. We’ve made some sad attempts over the years to accommodate visitors, including a futon (shudder), a second-string queen sized bed (which ended up covered in marker), and an office/nursery combination.
A year ago, we finally moved to a house that had an additional bedroom, a flex space. Naturally, that means that for the last year, it’s pretty much stood as a testament to every last box we didn’t unpack, and included a mountain of computer junk.
When I had the chance to try out a new mattress from Simmons—the Simmons ComforPedic iQ™—I knew the time had come for a redesign. A DIY project of, well, moderate proportions (kids, job, deadlines).
First things first: Behold the mess of our guest room.
Believe it or not, this picture was taken after two room overhauls. We knew we couldn’t lose the office space—face it, we’re not the kind of family that can afford to let a whole room sit unused most of the time. But the setup we had didn’t work. My husband Michael works from home up to two days a week, but the big square table we had just wasn’t happening.
I envisioned a wall dedicated to the office, while the rest of the room could serve as a comfortable space for sleeping and resting guests. The ComforPedic iQ™ is a particularly nice choice for guests (and non-guests, as I have a feeling our 8-year-old is getting a bit jealous) because it’s all about, well, you guessed it: comfort. Seriously, I can attest to how comfortable it is—and not just in the ways you’d imagine. The mattress itself is built around Smart Response™ Technology, which naturally adjusts to the sleeper’s body weight and proportions. Plus, it’s topped with Ultra Cool™ Memory Foam to help regulate temperature. If you’re at all like we are, that’s a really important part of the equation. (Also, diamond dust. Yup. Diamond dust.)
Now, we purchased a bed a few years ago from Costco that we call the Space Bed. That’s because it’s a knockoff of another foam bed and was significantly cheaper. It certainly does its job, but the support is nowhere near as comprehensive as with the ComforPedic iQ™. In our testing of the bed, we found less aches and pains (and my husband suffers from sciatica, so we’re very familiar) and, in my case, less legs and arms falling asleep. Not to mention that you can, quite literally, feel it subtly adjusting to you as you relax. It’s kind of amazing.
So, good for the goose, good for the gander. Actually, in this case—better for the gander. (Wait, are my guests ganders? I’m confused.)
But I digress. I’m unapologetically addicted to Pinterest, and given the opportunity to design a bed in a small space, I decided to gather my craftiness and have a go. Initially, I was going to make a headboard out of some material I got over at the Scrap Exchange in Durham, and affix it to cardboard. But then I did some more Pinteresting and decided that, given I had extra curtain rods, a sort of medieval drapery action would do the trick. As a result, the whole room has a medieval feel. The yellow and black fabric was cut and draped (no sewing for this gal…) and then I hammered some medieval-looking mirrors to the backdrop. A duvet set from Amazon and Ikea added the final touch for the bed and, I’ve got the say, the final result is a lot nicer than I thought it’d be. I call it Mid-Century Medieval.
The desk situation is a more difficult nut to crack.
Initially, since our budget is basically as thrifty (not cheap) as humanly possible, we were going to use an old door to make a long desk. Now, I already have a DIY standing desk that I put together with some shoe organizers from Target and an old desk we had (total price: $50). But Michael needed something that would allow him to sit and stand during the day because he’s just not as awesome as I am.
Anyway, given that I didn’t want to turn our precious weekend into a sojourn and since we didn’t find anything serviceable at The Scrap Exchange, we went back to Costco and took a look around. While they have some really awesome and awesomely expensive computer desk arrangements, it was a simple, sturdy, foldable table that got my interest. Yeah, it’s pretty basic. No, it’s not gorgeous. But set with some more risers and some lightning, it really gets the job done. Most importantly, it allows for free movement in the room and it doesn’t crowd the living arrangement. And best yet? It was $50. Sure, we’ll likely spring for something nicer down the road, but the current setup is smooth. I’m thinking of upholstering the table with some oil cloth for some extra texture and color.
As a special bonus? For the last six years, we’ve been schlepping around a large Dwarven Forge collection, which is absolutely phenomenal stuff, but… well, pretty much took up the entire space of our closet. But with a bed comes an added magical plus: under-the-bed space. And wouldn’t you know, the whole collection fit there seamlessly. It’s sort of like the TARDIS of beds.
Oh yes, I also have a sword by my desk. Because you never know when you—or your guests—might have to fend off zombies. See? I’m thinking ahead.
This weekend, we have our first guest arriving. And for the first time in a decade, I’m ready to show the room off. I don’t feel like I have to make apologies for the crib/desk/blow-up mattress/futon lumps. It’s a room I’d like to live in, and where sleep will come easily to those who seek it. Zombie invasions, notwithstanding.
When Gina Likins walked into Carroll Hall at the University of North Carolina, she was reminded of the sleepovers of her youth. But this was no ordinary slumber party. This was Pearl Hacks, a 24-hour girls-only hackathon focused on getting young women excited about technology and programming.
In this piece at Opensource.com, Likins outlines the event’s workshops and goals. She also explains just why such events are important for young women around the world:
“All of this was fun, but also very important. The percentage of computer science degrees that are being earned by women has decreased in the past 20 years. So, why were more women earning degrees two decades ago than they are now? One suspected reason for this trend is that women feel unwelcome in the computer industry due to the predominance of men at conferences, coding meetups, and hackathons, which are a central part of coder culture. Some female and male programmers have started female-centric hackathons to help create spaces where women can feel more welcome and at ease.”
I talked about how I can scan visual clues, ideas, and scribbles, and then flesh them out later in the process. But that’s really just the beginning.
The Post-it Notes from the Post-it Brand Evernote Collection are compatible with Evernote and come in four different colors— Limeade, Neon Pink, Electric Blue and Electric Yellow. I used the various Post-it Note colors by assigning each color to represent a different kind of element in the story.
Characters: Electric Yellow
Objects of Interest: Neon Pink
Events: Electric Blue
Using the same process as before, I can brainstorm all the bits and pieces I’ve collected and take snapshots, just as before. You can see that the end result isn’t exactly totally organized, but just wait!
Whereas in the past I have that whole steam train method, having all the elements of the story means that I can, quite literally, manipulate it.
There are two parts to the opening scene. Sid Cates, the husband of the main character Annie Cates, is at Ned’s Saloon, drunk and going on and on about his insane wife. Unbeknownst to him, Jennie—one of the members of my posse—is listening to him. She’s a chimera, among other things, but also has a super hearing ability. She and her posse have been tipped off that something might be going amiss.
You’ll see that I’ve got all the elements in the image above. The object of interest is the sign for Ned’s Saloon. The main character is Sid Cates—and the location is the bar itself. There’s the layout and everything, so I can picture it a little better in my mind.
The second part of the scene changes slightly. The focus goes outside as Sid Cates leaves. Numedique—“Dick”—who’s a French-Canadian vampire (because reasons is watching the scene now, but it’s Araby who comes to the fore and has some words with Sid. There’s also a LeMat pistol, in case you’re wondering. This is a paranormal Western, after all.
But, that’s not how the story has to go. I can arrange and rearrange. In person or—if I’m within the Evernote app—on my phone, too. I can organize by color, and then by tag if I need to get granular (I can even specify if something is “in progress” “definite” or “so-so”—or whatever nomenclature I decide to use to indicate how fully baked the idea might be). Tagging is really helpful in this situation, and is easily done on both mobile and desktop versions.
This is a huge departure for me. But it’s really exciting. I could, for instance, swap out Dick and Jennie. Maybe Dick hears Sid first, outside—then he tells Jennie to follow Sid, and sends in Araby after. And I don’t lose anything by fiddling around and taking snapshots. When I’m settled on what I want, I just delete the other versions if I want to.
My plan is to open this up to the whole novel, and work scene by scene. It’s helping me as a whole, and see the whole rise and fall of things before I even dig in and start writing.
This approach, of course could work in a hundred different ways. Recipes? Chores? What colorful projects could you organize with the right tools? Tell us all about it.
Learn more about the Post-it Brand Evernote Collection by visiting your local office supply store or http://Postit.com/Evernote , Post-it Brand on Twitter (@postitproducts ) or Facebook (facebook.com/postit ).
Writing books while raising two kids, working full time, acting as editor at GeekMom, writing songs, playing ukulele, and crafting anything I can get my hands on? Pretty much impossible.
I came to a strange realization a few months ago, after a very difficult run on Watcher of the Skies, the follow-up to my novel Pilgrim of the Sky. It took forever. I felt like I could never give it the time it needed, and every time I got stuck, I’d be out for days.
Now, there are a thousand pieces of writing advice out there. But I didn’t have to look far. It was my longtime friend and critique partner Jonathan Wood’s posts on story process that really got me thinking about how I go about writing my novels. About narrative and thought and character and… planning.
Yeah. See. I’ve always written the same way. As a pantser. I just get an idea, with some other random ideas sprinkled throughout, and sort of barrel through from beginning to end like a steam train. I have no idea what’s on the track, let alone if there are tunnels or bridges along the way. It’s totally fun, exciting. But absolutely impractical when life itself is complex enough to make me lose sleep.
So how do I keep track of my ideas? How do I keep inspired when I’m too tired to get up and take a shower, let alone figure out what my characters are doing next?
I digitize. I think outside the box. I take it in small chunks, and I keep it visual as much as I can—all with help from the Post-it Brand Evernote Collection.
We’ve been using Evernote here in the Harrison-Barron household for a while now and we are big fans of using Post-it Products to really enhance the whole experience—bringing two things we already use together in one perfect way is just too good an opportunity to pass up. Writers rooms have used Post-it Products for decades, and geeks like me need Evernote to keep me organized. Makes sense to put them together, doesn’t it? And while I’ve been using Scrivener as my novel writing software of choice, I decided to give Evernote a try this time, using Evernote in conjunction with special Post-it Notes from the Post-it Brand Evernote Collection. My first step was character profiles. The novel I’m working on now is called Bone Dust, and it’s basically Men In Black meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the old west. It’s alternate history with some paranormal, some gunslinging, and lots and lots of fun (and explosions… as you do).
My first step was to write out little character sketches for each of my main characters. What they look like, what their motivations are, how they got to Bodie, CA, where the story starts. Sometimes this part starts by itself—other times, I’m working and I get an idea for a scene or a character. So I draw it down on a Post-it Note from the Post-it Brand Evernote Collection—and here’s where it gets fun.
It’s so simple – with one tap of Evernote’s Post-it Note Camera feature, my Post-it Notes are captured, digitally enhanced and saved in my my Bone Dust folder within Evernote. Now I have my notes with me wherever I am. That means if I’m waiting in line at the cash register, or at the doctor’s office, or at my desk.
Adding a Post-it Note to my Bone Dust file. I click on the plus sign to add a note, select the camera, and then swipe to select Post-it Note format.
Snap the picture and it automatically converts to a scanned image. Now my Post-it Notes can be automatically organized by color, flagged with a reminder and tagged with a keyword for future reference.
Over the last few weeks I’ve managed these little mini snapshots of each of my main characters. You can see what Araby’s looks like below. I like sharing these with my friends and followers, too, which I can do straight from the app. It keeps them in the loop with what I’m working on, and looks pretty badass, too.
Also I love doodling. Did I mention that? It’s super sweet that I put that hobby to good use.
I like to think that the process really lights up all parts of my brain. It allows me to keep that tide of creativity going no matter where I am. Part of the reason that I love the flexibility of the Evernote app so much is that it really allows me full creativity to scribble and capture, even if my schedule is insanely full.
But there’s more! Stay tuned for another look at how the Post-it Brand Evernote Collection is keeping this scattered author organized! How about you writers out there—fiction and non-fiction alike? What do you use to stay organized and on-track?
It’s possible that I’m getting older. But after two days of the craziness of SXSW, I decided that I was going to walk. And walk. And walk. Being something of a country mouse, I’ve always been fascinated by cities–especially newer cities. So on my last day in Austin as a Cottonelle corespondent, I did three things: I put on my favorite dress, got my hair done, and I put on my walking boots (this is Texas, after all).
My hair was done courtesy of the Cottonelle Refresh Lounge. Which really was, as a concept, one of the coolest ideas I saw at the con when it comes to brand efforts. And I’m not just saying that because they brought me out there. Walking around the conference I saw lots of attempts from lots of brands to “stand out” from the crowd. But there were no other places that really offered a sense of, well, refreshment and relaxation like the Cottonelle Refresh Lounge. Not to mention awesome hair. And a place to recharge my phone.
The crowd was pretty impressive, and I was tired. So instead of muscling my way in, I took myself and my fabulous hair and I walked. I’m quite a fan of the Old West, and the buildings around Austin certainly didn’t fail to impress. As I meandered through the crowds and out I thought it might be interesting to share the one thing that most SWSXers weren’t sharing: the beautiful city that hosts such an amazing conference.
If you weren’t following me on Twitter or Instagram, you might have missed it. So I’m sharing the gallery below. It was, in a word, refreshing. When I returned for a taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live and got ready to return to North Carolina, I was so glad I had a chance to experience Austin a little. Crazy cab rides with pugs in the passenger seat (which really happened) and adventures and all. I’ve got to say I was refreshed in more ways than I imagined, and I’ll always remember my trip to Austin, TX.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, and I’m about to head back into the fray. But I wanted to take a minute to recap some of the crazy fun happening at SXSW. If you’ve been following our Facebook and Twitter feeds, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m visiting Austin this week as a Cottonelle Correspondent, seeing the sights and chilling in this very cool city.
I’ve never been to Austin, and the last time I was in Texas I was a teenager. But this city’s got a really nifty pulse, and it embraces its offbeat nature with style and panache. At the airport I noticed fun t-shirts emblazoned with “Keep Austin Weird” and pretty much accepted the fact that this was going to be a place I could feel at home in.
Once I got to the convention center–after meeting a cabbie from Morocco and having a great conversation in French about how the Square is changing the way they do business (no, really!)–SXSW opened up all around. It’s hard right now to parse the convention from the city, but the pulse is amazing. The mixture of people is like no other–it really is a confluence of interests. I mean, on the plane trip I flew with a dude and his cello (like, his cello had his own seat) and the music, artistic, and tech vibe just gets stronger the deeper you go.
But I’ve got to take a second to talk about the food. I’m a bit of a food truck nerd, and while my culinary adventures are somewhat stymied by my wheat allergies (it’s not gluten!), I got a little giddy when I walked into the food truck rodeo area. Every truck looked amazing, but I ended up at Be More Pacific, a fusion of Filipino/American cuisine–because they had spicy coconut bacon fried rice. With an egg on top. Having gone most of the day without food, it was a balm unto my soul.
Conveniently across from the food is where I hung out for the rest of my short first day. The Cottonelle Refresh Lounge is set up right there at the corner of Red River and Chavez, and it’s hard to miss. I noticed a funny piece yesterday in the Atlantic about the lounge, but they’re missing the point. It’s not just about technology. If you are a convention goer, and bustling from event to event, finding a moment to relax is truly difficult. Sure, we’re talking TP. But it’s more than TP. It’s a reminder that no matter how many Google Glasses and Segways are in the world, we’ve all got to get comfortable. We all need a break. That’s the whole reason the Refresh Lounge is here.
I’m a mom. I get this. Even aside from SXSW travels, finding time to refresh is almost impossible. Why not make that time as good as it can be? Why not make it special? Clearly, Cottonelle isn’t shying away from cheeky advertising. You’ve seen their commercials, right?
Anyway. I got my hair done at the Refresh Lounge. It was kind of awesome. I also charged my devices, had some great conversations, and enjoyed a cool beverage. If you’re at SXSW, you can do the same. Just come visit the Refresh Lounge and by tweeting #LetsTalkBums you can get a free massage, makeup and hair touchups, recharge your devices, get storage, get a drink, or just kick up your feet and relax. An oasis amidst the chaos, fun though it might be! See you there.