writer attempting real life in the middle of everybody else's vacation

How to talk to your kid about sex, even if she’s smarter than you

(This post was approved by my daughter.)

My scary smart daughter (who named her hamster Gloria Steinem) posted a selfie in which she wore a sweatshirt that says “Super Awesome” and short shorts. Only you couldn’t see the shorts because the sweatshirt was so long and the shorts were so short. She captioned it, “Guys can show skin. So can we. #superawesome #judgemeidareyou.”

My initial reaction was horror, followed immediately by shame. I wasn’t ashamed of the picture. I was ashamed of my initial reaction.

I raised her this way. When she asks to hang out with her friends, I give some variation on, “Okay, but no sex, drugs, or rock-n-roll. Mostly no rock-n-roll. It’s the devil’s music.” She knows I’m kidding and that I trust her judgement. Because she’s never given me a reason not to.

We’ve had plenty of conversations about things like societal double standards and speaking up about inequity and injustice in various situations. And still, what people would think (or misunderstand) about the selfie mattered most to me in the nanosecond before I got a hold of myself. It was a good lesson for me about the difference between theory and practice.

I recently took her in for a teen well-check. During the appointment, she answered a bunch of questions in writing, apparently about sex. And when the doctor came back in to discuss her answers, I stayed in the room, with my daughter’s permission.

In sum, the doctor said, “Looks like you’re making really healthy choices right now. Don’t have sex until you’re married, but if you do, come in here and talk to me about options.”

That pissed me off. So in the car, I told my daughter that the doctor was wrong to impose her personal moral outlook about sexuality onto a young person as though it’s some kind of medical fact. I told her that there is no expectation for her to get married and that this kind of guilt about sex before an inevitable marriage can screw you up for the rest of your life. I told her that, in my opinion, that doctor is a misguided mess who can probably only have sex in the dark.

Of course I want my daughter to have safe and positive physical and emotional experiences related to sexuality. But starting out of the gate with a bunch of bullshit guilt is probably why so many in my generation (and before) are screwed up. I want her to be comfortable in her own skin. I want her to be able to enjoy a healthy sex life until she’s 100 if she feels like it.

If I knew exactly the right way to go about it, here’s what my daughter would know for sure: Sex is natural and good. It has consequences but we need not tie sex to all the baggage it’s traditionally been tied to. Take care of your body. Enjoy it. Never do anything you don’t really want to do. And always, always feel comfortable talking to me. I don’t have all the answers, but my goal will never be to shame you into or out of anything.

And it took me a while, but under her sweatshirt and legs selfie, I wrote:

“End the double standard. If you ever get arrested for something like going topless on principle, I’ve got your back. Love the way you’re thinking. Never stop asking WHY?”


My book didn’t sell and I’m not feeling clever about blog post titles

I’ve been honest about my process all the way through and I’m not going to let a little bump and a teeny bit of heartbreak end that.

By little bump and teeny bit of heartbreak, of course, I mean devastating blow to my career, ego, and ability to carry on oh my god it hurts I can’t breathe make it stop I’ll never write again my life is over what’s the point my work is a joke and not even a good joke kill me now

*agent slaps writer across face*

Seriously though. My trusty agent and I, we got close with this one. And a few times, we got really, really close, which makes it harder in some ways. But from the perspective of several major publishing houses, there’s not really a place in the market right now for my book. In (very) short, the writing’s there but the story is too hard to place. Too MG for some. Too YA for others. And attempts to manipulate it felt contrived because, well, they were.

To completely oversimplify a complicated thing, I couldn’t soften or harden it enough in a truthful way. We can submit it to a thousand more editors but I’ve heard the same thing enough to confidently make the decision to shelve it for now. That’s not giving up. That’s making a smart professional decision about a piece of my heart. It will brew. My boy will make his way back in a way that’s right. But it’s not going to be my debut novel. Good-bye for a little while, my love.






And while I’m kidding about my writing career feeling over, this does sting. Like a mofo, it stings. So what I’m doing now, aside from throwing myself into revisions of the manuscript I wrote while waiting for news on the previous one, is concentrating on the good things that happened.

Good things that happened:

My work was in front of editors at major houses. Getting to that point isn’t easy. They read it. My work. Mine. And some of them really liked it. And sure, the result is the same, but to a writer, there’s a significant-enough difference between ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW WITH THIS TRASH? and I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO PLACE THIS.

I learned that editors are honest, but they’re generally not the ferocious assholes I’d feared they’d be. I learned that if they don’t like something, they pass without many words. If they like something but aren’t going to acquire it, they’ll convey that by saying a bunch of lovely and true things about a writer’s work.

I learned that I’m lucky to have an agent who doesn’t sugarcoat things (ain’t nobody got time for that in this business) but who’s also willing to take risks with me when we decide together that it’s worth it. She worked her ass off on this, too, because she believed we’d find the right editor to take this risk with us. We didn’t (for now) but that doesn’t take away from how much I value her and how grateful I am for what she tried to do.

K, so don’t feel sorry for me. I’m doing a lifetime’s worth of that all on my own. Just say nice things to me. Actually, scratch that, too. Just be quiet while I grieve. And send cookies. If you really want to help, you’ll send cookies.

Stay tuned for updates on The Next Big Thing.


Mostly not about Robin Williams

We’ve been in my home state all summer with the intention of splitting our time between Key West and Northwest Michigan for a while. It’s stupid beautiful up here and there are a zillion and a half things I love about Michigan. If you say anything bad about her, I’ll cut you. But, as with family you’ve spent too much time with, I feel I’m in a position to point out and magnify her shortcomings. I’ll keep it to two gripes because I’m sensitive to your blog post attention span disorder.

Yep, I can tell the home state honeymoon is ending because some of the things that bugged me before I left here a decade ago are flaring up again. (l left out a hilarious hemorrhoid reference. You’re welcome.) For example, I wrote and deleted the Facebook post below approximately 1,200 times over the past few weeks. And then Robin Williams died. After something like that, you’re a jerk if you post petty things, so that killed it for the 1,201st time. But I’m going to go ahead and put it here, because I think it’s what Robin Williams would want. (Too soon? Oh, come on. He’d want us to keep laughing.)

Hi, conservatively half of Michigan.

I made this short guide for you because I love you and I want you to be taken seriously when that’s what you’re going for. Print this out and keep it in your wallet for quick reference:

NO: I seen
YES: I saw
NO: It don’t
YES: It doesn’t

I can forgive almost anything else you say, and sometimes telling me who you just seen is sort of endearing if I’m in a certain mood, drinking a certain beer. But for the love of Robin Williams, consider practicing these. Especially those of you with graduate degrees. Jesus Christ.

Second gripe: Northwest Michigan is so white it’s burning my eyes. And it’s August, so the first snow is at least three weeks away up here. What I mean is that there’s almost no racial diversity to speak of. My daughter and I saw a Hispanic dude at T.J. Maxx the other day and excitedly pointed him out to each other as though we’d spotted, I don’t know, Robin Williams shopping for high quality discontinued bed sheets in Traverse City.

Coming from an island where there were times my kids were a racial minority in class, this is maddening. [This is where, if I could, I’d insert a clip of Robin Williams doing an interview or stand-up bit in Cuban and Haitian English.]

Maybe it shouldn’t matter because places are what they are, and maybe it sounds dumb, but I’m genuinely worried that my youngest kid will somehow catch racism if we don’t spend enough time at home in Key West. This isn’t an indictment of everybody in Michigan, either. I mean, obviously. But racism, especially the dangerous latent kind, is alive and well here. It’s elsewhere, too–I’m fully aware of that. But as I said, I’m here to bash my own. Bashing somebody else’s is like watching a big brother kick a little brother’s ass, then getting punched by the big brother for laughing at the little brother’s bloody nose.

It’s just, sometimes I miss the rainbowy things about Key West. And there are lots of happy, rainbowy things to miss.

Anyway, stay tuned for periodic updates on this little living-in-two-places experiment we’re doing. You could also stay tuned for book updates if you believe in me the way my mom and my agent do.

Nanu nanu, kids. Depression is no joke. Also, talk right and don’t be no racist.


Dye shaming. Like slut shaming but warranted

I’ve got some silver growing out my scalp, concentrated in two areas. It’s just a little, but there’s no more mistaking it for the “white blond” that the remnants of my vanity tried convincing me it was. Because you know, suddenly at 39 I’m going white blond. No.

My mom has like two gray hairs and my dad died at age 57 with about three gray hairs. So it’s not something I’d previously put much thought into. Not because I’ve always been oh-so-enlightened and comfortable with going gray, but because I thought I had twenty more years before I’d be making decisions about it.

I think I’m going to keep it, though. It’s part fuck you to tired, pathetic women’s beauty norms. And the other part is simply that so many of the women working the silver and gray are the kinds of people I admire. I’m seeing more smart, beautiful women in their thirties and forties giving the finger to the Clairol box or the monthly appointments and biweekly root touch-ups, and I kind of love it. I want to have some small part in the evolution of how we define beauty. I want my daughter to see me making these kinds of choices.

Already, I’ve spent too much of my lifetime working hard at pretty. I did a good job of it, too, and was recognized for it by people to whom that’s really important. But I don’t know, I guess those just aren’t my people anymore. I see the struggle some women undertake (in ways our male counterparts generally don’t) and, to me, it increasingly seems like such a waste of energy, fighting nature instead of loving that we’ve been through some serious bullshit and we’re still here, only stronger and smarter and more confident. I feel like being beautiful. I feel like being healthier. But I don’t feel like I owe pretty to the world anymore.

I’m just not interested in defying my age, whatever that means. And do people really accomplish that anyway? If it didn’t sound so judgy, I’d say many end up looking slightly to morbidly ridiculous. You know who I’m talking about–those people who can’t think of a bigger thrill in life than being called a MILtF by their teenaged kids’ friends. (See what I did there? I said it anyway.)

So that’s that, then, at least for me. I’m getting myself back, not letting myself go. Look, I already won at pretty and I’m here to tell you that it didn’t take any special talent whatsoever. Just a special level of commitment to the superficial. Meh. Game over. Next.


My Writing Process, the tour

Joe McGee, brilliant and hilarious author of Peanut Butter and Brains (Abrams Children’s, fall 2015), invited me to participate in this blog tour. I would’ve said no, except we became friends in monosodium glutamate rehab and I was afraid the rejection would push him off the wagon. Srsly though, I’m doing this despite feeling leery of seeming advice-y. I mean yeah, the ‘My” in “My Writing Process” should sufficiently qualify what we’re doing here. It’s just, I think writing is a very personal process. So thanks, Joe, for the opportunity to stretch myself, Doritos-free.

I want you to know that I read things like this with great voracity when I first began researching writing for publication. And I wasted a lot of time believing all writers with agents know what they’re talking about. We don’t. Except Joe. Joe knows. And Micheal G-G, who’s doing this next week. He knows, too. But otherwise, don’t waste too much time worrying about what works for other people. You’re not other people. You’re special. Your mother said you were special and you’re special. Read these things, but read them with a grain of salt. Maybe many grains, licked off your wrist right before a shot of tequila.


K, here we go.

What are you working on?

Well, my agent is like this close to selling an upper middle grade manuscript of mine. Do you hear me, Universe? So I’m waiting to be able to work with the best editor in the world on that, which will be fun for all involved because I’M SO EASY TO WORK WITH OH MY GOD SHAPE ME MOLD ME PICK ME LOVE ME LET’S BE FABULOUS TOGETHER. Reveal yourself, best editor in the world. Together, we will win.

Until then, I’m writing (revising, actually) the next one–YA contemporary fiction. That works for me–writing while waiting. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I’ve never heard any accomplished writer suggest not starting the next big thing until the first big thing sells. And for most writers, that’s just not possible anyway. We’re writers, not waiters. Well, not that kind.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This is kind of hard for some writers (this one, for example) to answer because if we’ve been at it a while, we’ve learned to accept that we’re actually not all that special. I lied about that earlier. So did your mother. There are lots of talented people with the same goal, working just as hard. In case you haven’t noticed, everybody’s writing a fucking book. And some of them are really good.

Still, my confidence in my voice has grown significantly in the last few years. It’s a tricky endeavor, defining a writer’s voice (which is not the same thing as voices of characters within a writer’s work). It’s basically that thing about the writing that makes you want to read more by the same author. Of course, we’re all hoping we have a unique-enough voice.

Sometimes when we’re just starting out, we inadvertently mimic the voices of our favorite writers, which can read like bad fan fiction. Or even good fan fiction. Although mimicking voice alone isn’t really fan fiction, so this analogy is falling apart. But whatever. What I mean is, it’s not ours at first, sometimes. Not really.

So I think I’ve grown to a place where I’m owning my own voice, trusting that it works, and continuing to develop it. My voice helps define my work. That’s my story.

Why do you write what you do?

For me, too much dissection can ruin a thing and I don’t like forcing articulation of The Why (god that sounds pretentious). I’ll say, though, that middle grade and young adult fiction feels exactly right for me, right now. I haven’t been able to say that very often in my life. That’s reason enough, isn’t it?

That said, I always bear in mind something my friend Judy Blume told me (and reaffirmed for this post). She writes the story as it needs to be told and worries about all the rest–like where in the market it falls–later. She’s not a fan of categories. Remember, there was no such thing as MG or YA when she wrote some of the best MG and YA ever published. Nope. There were just good books that found the right audiences.

And yes, I know very well that things are so, so different now for lots of reasons, but I still like to keep story first, market second. It feels more like art that way. Because it is. I write because it’s my art. If writers lose sight of that, what’s the point? What’s left?

How does your writing process work?

Here’s a little confession: I don’t work on my current Big Thing on any kind of schedule, or even every single day. Quit yer gasping. It works fine for me.

I go in spurts. Frequent, productive spurts. That’s not to say I can’t work on deadline. I’ve done that plenty, too. It’s just that BIC (Butt In Chair) at all costs doesn’t work for me the way it seems to work so well for others. I do feel like I’m always working, though. I’m always watching, listening, remembering, experiencing life in ways that inform my writing.

I also read on days when I’m not working on the Big Thing. Reading inside and outside my genre and comfort zone is increasingly important to me. Like, right now I’m finishing The End of the Book by Porter Shreve. I’m in love with these characters and with this seamless transition between centuries. And I’m especially awed by the perfect pacing that challenges and defies my former almost-baseless perception of literary fiction. You could call me a reformed reverse literary snob and I wouldn’t take issue.

In short, the more widely I read, the smaller the world feels. In a good way. And the better my own writing gets. I hope.

So that’s how I do: I write when I need to and read when I need to.

* * *

NEXT MONDAY, stoopid amazing middle grade writer, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, will be joining the writing process tour. A writer for as long as he can remember, Michael has taken to blogging with a vengeance. Currently he is Don Vito’s right hand man (some might say ‘dogsbody’) at Middle Grade Mafioso, as well as the blog manager at Project Mayhem. Originally from England, Michael now lives with his wife and three sons in Portland. He’s represented by Stephen Fraser at The Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. The Best Literary Agency, if I do say so, myself.

Take it away, Michael G-G!


Life Tips from a failed poet

The piece below started out as a short poem I intended to submit to WLRN for this: http://wlrn.org/topic/wlrn-o-miami-poetry-contest.

Turns out I’m still not a poet, though. Not even during National Poetry Month. But you should submit one if it’s your thing and if you genuinely love something about Somewhere, Sometime, South Florida.

Read the link for all the details, but the basic deal is that you’re supposed to think of a place in South Florida that means something to you for whatever reason, then write a short poem about it that’s somehow served by the phrase, “This is where.”

My not-poem is set in 1980s Key West (a time and place I love). When a Vietnam vet runs away to find a safe place to finish dying, this is where he goes. And some summers, his kid visits.


Life Tips

“Meet me at the boat. Full day charter, so 4:30,” he says. “I’ll give you some money for tomorrow. Gobs. Unless the motherfuckers don’t tip.”

“Cool,” I say, because he’s the coolest person I know. Whichever guys aren’t dead from Lynyrd Skynyrd come to Key West a lot and my dad told me they’ll only fish with him. That’s how cool he is. I bet the living Lynyrd Skynyrds are good tippers.

He lets me do whatever I want, practically no questions asked, because I’m twelve this summer. I have the run of the island all day until the boat backs into the slip. Today I’m taking yesterday’s money and riding his bike to the Kino factory to get a new pair of sandals. Navy blue. I already have black and two different kinds of brown.

I go to Fausto’s to get some lunch–a bag of Munchos, three Hershey bars (just regular, not king size), and a Mountain Dew. Then I ride to the Yellow Strawberry for a spiral perm. I tip five dollars. I hope that’s good.

I’m right on time. At 4:30 he’s slamming fish–all kinds and all sizes–onto a row of spikes. That way tourists can see they’ll get their money’s worth by booking this boat. Let me tell you, my dad and the captain have killer skills. Last year they caught a sailfish on a flip-flop.

Dad’s slamming fish extra hard today. The Motherfuckers didn’t tip and he couldn’t sell them a mount, either. But he notices my spiral perm and tells me he’s grateful I’m pretty like my mother instead of ugly like him. He says that all the time. He reminds me again that my mom was the most beautiful woman in our home town and that’s why he had to marry her even though she already had four boys. Lucky. Being pretty is important. Essential, maybe. I need to start trying harder.

Just because I was coming down–just for me–my dad got a car. A conch cruiser, he’s calling it. It smells like Kool Filter Kings, fish rot, and old beer that’s pooled in almost-empties all over the floor.

How don’t cans fall through that rusted out hole? How don’t we die from the fumes? There was a similar hole in my mom’s old brown Pinto. But then she married my stepdad and he bought her a barely-used Mercury Monarch. Baby blue. So pretty. My stepdad is an average tipper. He’s the kind of guy who believes in saving money for the future. But that’s easier to do when you’re a well-to-do high school teacher.

There’s no fishing trip booked the next day. It’s not Season so that happens. And we’re broke, just temporarily, so we hang out with his cats and he microwaves me some dolphin that The Motherfuckers didn’t take with them. It’s perfect.

I’m glad the conch cruiser’s out of gas because later we walk together to the docks so he can shout “Let’s go fishing tomorrow!” at tourists who pass by. Other mates and captains are doing the same thing. Eventually they stop yelling and just drink beer and whiskey. It’s fun because they tell jokes and swear a lot. Fucking everything. My mom’s head would explode into pieces and then the exploded pieces would explode. That’s how much they swear.

It’s dark. We walk to Burger King on the boulevard to use the pay phone. I’m wearing my new Kinos and I can’t stop looking at them while we walk. Nobody else in my class back home has them because they’re exotic island sandals you can only get on this exotic island. Nobody else’s dad lives here. Only mine.

I promise my mom that I’m safe and happy, because I am, then I hand my dad the Burger King payphone receiver. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Yeah I take her to church. St. Che Che’s!” he slurs to my mom. “Uh-huh, yeah, it’s a Spanish saint. Heh!” He’s cracking himself up because he thinks my mom can’t figure out that Che Che’s is his favorite creepy-old-man bar.

They love him at Che Che’s because he’s not actually a creepy old man and because he’s hilarious and because he’s a good tipper. It’s important.

I’m thinking about moving here except my dad says I’m not allowed to for a lot of reasons–mostly because he’s no good. He said I can ask my mom all about that. But I don’t think my mom knows he’s no good, because she’s never said a bad word about him in my whole life.


Beating the rush

I grew up with a lot of structure. We didn’t miss a day of Catholic school unless we were hospitalized, and I mean that literally. Puking? Bring a bucket. My mom and stepdad were dedicated teachers who couldn’t bail on their classes at the last minute to stay home every time a kid sneezed. My perfect attendance for first through twelfth grades was soiled solely by that week I spent in the hospital in junior high. But I went on to have perfect attendance for all four years of high school. I was the poster child for compulsory education. (Nonetheless, to this day, I count on my fingers. So much for quantity.)

My school days were followed by afternoons and evenings rushing from activity to activity. There were both group and private lessons for dance, music, and voice. There was Girl Scouting, karate, theater, 4-H, and some other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. Point is, I learned all about keeping a schedule. And I’m grateful, by the way, for all the sacrifices my parents made to give us every advantage they could afford, and many they couldn’t, but did it anyway. My biggest takeaway was how important it is to do your very best for your family–whatever that means to you.

But guess what. I’m no better structured as an adult than anybody else in the world. In fact, by the time I turned 30, I resented structure so much that I quit life as I knew it, packed up my family and ran away to a subtropical island. Most of you know that story. Real life followed me, of course, but during the process, I went off-script and slowed down enough to think about what I really wanted my life to look like, from the inside out, instead of the other way around.

So when people wonder about the potential detriment I’m causing my youngest son by unschooling him, I feel bad about the energy they’re wasting worrying about his unstructured, unrushed life. To answer the questions I see in your eyes (along with the ones you ask me outright), our slow, mostly unplanned days look something like this:

We send Dad off to work and sister off to a school she loves and at which she thrives. He knows that’s an option for him, too, if he wants to go back someday. He also knows there are all kinds of families, including those with two parents who go away to work every day. He comprehends (at his own level) that we have less than some families because only one parent gets paid a living wage for working right now. It’s a choice we make.

In the morning, I try to write (my Job job) while my son plays Minecraft and Terraria, and sometimes a little Scribblenauts. He loves to stop and YouTube new techniques, then go back and implement what he’s learned. He asks me to type or read the words he struggles with. I see him making progress with typing and reading at his own pace, when it means something to him.

He’d also like to play Dumb Ways to Die, which is a HUGE NO for now because it’s too far outside my own comfort zone. But those kinds of requests spark good conversation. He forms arguments that start like, “Mom, seriously, it’s not real. It’s actually a bit hilarious and that’s it.”

As a kindergarten dropout, he has lots of time and freedom to form and articulate whatever case he wants to make on any subject. And he’s getting better at integrating feedback into his arguments. That’s a real-life skill. One that’s nearly impossible to develop in a classroom of 20+ kids his own age who are largely shushed all day so that “real” learning can occur. What he’d learn there (at too high a cost for this child, from my perspective) is how to survive in a classroom setting.

There’s lots of affection and affirmation during our day. I’m not afraid of spoiling him that way. Natural consequences of his actions throughout his life will teach him enough about losing and about when being tough matters more than being kind.

My son sees me reading during the day and knows it’s something I value. Sometimes we read together. I encourage him to read but I back off immediately when he’s not into it.

Some days we go to the grocery store. He helps with price comparison and with the cash or credit card machine. He takes the receipt and thanks the cashier. He says things like, “Welp, it was sure nice to see ya today.” It’s slow but people are generally patient. And I like that he’s comfortable interacting with people of all ages.

He also helps tend the lime tree out back. We need to figure out why it won’t grow even though it produces limes like mad. We think it might be a sunlight issue so we moved it. Now we wait and see.

Some days we paint or draw or write to a pen pal or walk down to the ocean or go to the park. Some days we don’t. Sometimes he plays with Legos for what seems like hours on end. Some days he Skypes grandparents who listen with superhuman patience as he describes his creations in painstaking detail. When they can get a word in, they ask good thinking questions.

Speaking of questions, my son asks them all day long. So we stop what we’re doing to talk about (and often Google or YouTube answers to) things like: Is the whole Earth really just about staying alive? When will the Earth die? Is Mother Nature a ghost? How do you make plastic? How are marrying hugs different from regular love hugs? If you throw lava into outer space, will it just turn into shards of obsidian right away? We’re learning that some sources of information on the Internet are better than others.

Yesterday we finished painting a Hotwheels ramp then we tried again to glue together the pathetic Hotwheels garage we’re trying to make. He says we’re going to need nails. I think he’s right. Before we started, we brainstormed then took a trip to Home Depot for supplies. When we got there, we compared sizes and prices of items. He watched me struggle to cut wood with a hand saw, begging all the while to help. That was a NO, too, for which he had many good arguments, all of which I considered. None of which outweighed safety concerns.

On the way home, he helped me pump gas. We talked about the gallons and the price. He knows it takes about 60 bucks to fill the tank. As it happens, we encounter a lot of math word problems, only they’re in real life, presented at a time it’s relevant to him, because that’s the only time we really retain new information. (That’s why it takes about five minutes to sum up everything you actually retained from 13 years in a classroom. Go ahead, try it.)

I have no idea if he’s “behind” or “ahead of” the average kindergartner. And I don’t care about measuring him at this point. Americans love to measure, don’t we? We love to see where we rank. But our measurement tools are so broken that the results don’t mean very much to me anymore.

There are no set meal times at our house. Same goes for bed time. My kids have learned through trial and error to listen to their bodies. This makes a lot of people twitchy, I know. Right now, the unschooler is falling asleep around 9:30 and waking up around 7:30. Ten hours of unprovoked rest seems adequate. But on days when something exciting keeps him up late, he pays the next day by feeling icky and crabby, and we talk about why that happened.

If this child grows up to be an unhappy, unsuccessful adult, will we blame his early unschooling experience? I don’t know. What do we blame for the overflowing prison system full of people who got their starts in traditional schools?

Our days don’t have much structure, but they’re calm, good days. I can’t imagine we’ll ever regret this peaceful living experiment, even if he chooses a traditional classroom environment in the future. And if there’s only one thing my son takes with him to adulthood from these early unschooled years, I hope it’s that THERE IS NO RUSH. Humans invented The Rush, and no matter how poorly it serves us during our single shot at life, it’s hard to leave it behind. I mean, what will people think?


Out with the old, in with the old

After attending a meeting about implementation of the new Common Core standards into the math curriculum, I’m reminded that, while I really like my daughter’s school (especially because she loves it), I’m increasingly disenchanted by public education on the whole.

There was a math expert at the meeting to tell us how it’s all going to be different this time. She also reminded parents what a VERY BIG DEAL the 11th grade testing will be for our children. The very big deal is that a score of 4 or 5 will mean our children are “college ready” for math, while a 3 or lower means, well, DOOM. Like, they might have to take a preparatory math class their freshman year in college.

The parents’ eyes got bigger and more full of concern with every emphasis on the impending Very Big Deal assessment (12 years away for some at the meeting). “It’s a big deal,” the expert repeated. “A very big deal.”

But is it a very big deal if your kid takes a preparatory math class to start college? Is it really? I can think of some much bigger deals. And get ready, wide-eyed, terrified parents, because college might not even be the best option for our kids right out of high school, or ever. Let’s work at being genuinely okay with that. Let’s be proud, even, and open to all of the cool ways our kids might find to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society.

And pardon my skepticism about Common Core standards (or whatever Florida decides to call ours), but we’ve been burned a few times before. We just keep changing the test in hopes that it will change the system.

It goes something like this: Politically motivated fake change. Panic. Fake changes to the fake change. More panic. Repeat. The only thing that really changes is the frustration level of students, teachers, and parents.

Until educrats push for something that feels like the beginning of significant and actual change (like, say, reduction of public school class sizes by at least half), I’m kind of done hearing about it. I’m kind of done getting invited to meetings to help sell me on the Next Big Thing in standardized testing so I can spread the good news to other terrified, big-eyed parents who would give their non-essential organs, and possibly a non-dominant limb, to ensure their kids don’t ruin their futures at 16 years old by getting a 3 on a standardized test that was created for all the wrong reasons.

Parents, it’s not a big deal. None of it. It’s just not. And frankly, the system, as it stands, does more harm than good for many children. So relax and get to know your kids a little better before you feel pressured into deciding that American public education is the key to success.

Get creative. You probably have more options than you think. You don’t have to feel scared into relying on politicians (and the experts they hire to help shape policy) to decide what makes sense for your kids. Like most of us, you were probably raised not to trust yourself about that. But be brave and trust yourself anyway.


Fangirl Files: Michele Jaffe

I was talking to The Real Michele Jaffe at a party last week (I just really wanted to say that. I could end this whole thing right now and will have accomplished what I set out to do here).

So anyway, I was talking to the genuinely kind and hilarious and smart Michele Jaffe at a party–the kind of party where you get introduced to James Gleick as “Jim”–and Michele said, directly to me, “Your glasses are so cute!” (Meg Cabot said the same thing that night. I know you don’t believe me but it’s true. I swear to all the gods it’s true.)

Naturally, I deflected the compliment and said, “Oh, these glasses? [No, the ones in your drawer at home, genius.] The, the, the wood is faux.” Which was so stupid, but that’s what nerves do to me when I’m dressed in Janet Reno’s evening wear at a Key West Literary Seminar party to which a bunch of very talented and famous writers from all over the literary-commercial spectrum are invited, along with a couple of townie writers like me (for the explicit purpose of adding some endearing awkwardness to the mix).

Let me put it to you this way: If you’re a country music fan, and I’m not saying I am, it would be like learning a few guitar chords then getting invited to a party at Jason Aldean’s house and chatting up Luke Bryan while eavesdropping on Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt reminiscing about the old days.

Believe me when I tell you I’m showing incredible restraint by only dropping one (okay, three, if you count Jim. Four if you count Elizabeth George–TBDropped in the next paragraph) names from this party, which occurred at a place you wouldn’t believe I was NO MATTER WHAT SO DON’T EVEN ASK ME BECAUSE I WON’T TELL YOU.

But back to MICHELE AND ME. It wasn’t going so well at first, and then something magical happened. The Real Michele Jaffe spilled her drink (water) on my shoe. Just a little bit. A few drops at best. But it was a great equalizer, because after that we were almost practically BFFs if you think about it from a certain angle, until she had to break away to go talk to The Real Elizabeth George, mystery novelist to the stars.


I’m never going to wash my shoe again. Or for the first time. Ever.

And I’m also going to buy Michele’s new YA book, MINDERS, very soon. Check it out with me. If YA isn’t your thing (it is, you just might not know it yet), she’s got plenty else to choose from: MICHELE JAFFE, AUTHOR.

You can also check out the Key West Literary Seminar here: COME TO THE KEY WEST LITERARY SEMINAR

Oh fine. Enough with the begging already. Enough! Here are a couple of pictures from that night. Sadly, none with my new homegurl:

Billy Collins, The Real Rhonda, Michael Mewshaw

Billy Collins, The Real Rhonda, Michael Mewshaw

If you don't know who this is, we probably shouldn't be friends any longer.

If you don’t know who this is, we probably shouldn’t be friends any longer.



I’m still new to it all, but I’m exploring unschooling with my youngest child. I’m doing this mostly because I’ve grown to believe that, with few exceptions, school and learning have nothing to do with each other. At best, they’re fourth cousins, twice removed. It breaks their grandparents’ hearts, but they don’t even stop by the family reunion anymore (not even just for the potato salad) because they have so little in common.

If you’re reading this, we were probably born within fifty years of each other. Which means we were probably brought up with similar ideas about compulsory education. For one thing, YOU GO TO SCHOOL. You just do. It’s good for you. School is where you get inspired and learn from qualified people who know all the important learning stuff. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not learning. Never mind the fact that we retain almost nothing long-term that we encountered in school at a time when it wasn’t relevant to us, no matter how late into the night we stayed up studying for the test.

If you’re having a bad time at school, just adjust or tough it out or something. Better yet, internalize it, feel like a shitty person, and figure out how to seem like a classroom success because ultimately, you won’t learn anything or go anywhere in life without school. FACT: School is where all the happy, successful people start. The sooner you start and the longer you stay in school, the happier, more successful, and better adjusted you’ll be as an adult. Everybody knows.

So get your ass up and don’t miss the bus because kids in third-world countries wish they could be you, learning all the amazing learny things in your common core classroom instead of sitting around in mud huts all day, smelling like goats, wearing some nasty T-shirt you donated to charity five years ago, swatting flies away from their gaping mouths and crusty eyes, not learning a damn thing about real life.

But what if almost none of this is true? What if, say, humans growing up in a literate world (like most of us here in the land of the free), naturally and enthusiastically pick up important things at the time it’s relevant for us to do so? What if, between the ages of 3ish and 9ish, people begin reading and counting and generally being creative, useful, happy human problem solvers, with very little outside intervention?

What if any meaningful learning we experience happens despite our formal schooling and not because of it? What happens if a human child learns to read for pleasure in a lifelong kind of way at age 8 instead of under duress and with great resentment at age 5? Will the world explode? Or worse, will Tufts catch wind of it? WHY ARE WE SO BROKEN THIS WAY? WHY DO WE SACRIFICE LONG-TERM GOOD TO PASS SHORT-TERM, SHORT-SIGHTED MEASUREMENTS IMPOSED BY ALL THE WRONG PEOPLE FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS?

Ahem. Sorry for yelling. It’s just, the future of the planet and everything.

Some part of me (likely the part that spent 12 years in Catholic school) wants to resist my gut feelings and trust that other people, politicians and doctors of education and such, know what’s best. I read my own words here and fight the urge to call myself some kind of hippie zealot. I mean, next thing you know I’ll be wearing a burlap sundress and selling flowers with my kids on Duval Street.

But what I know in my heart of hearts and in my simple burlap brain, is that school as we know it is actually a very recent (and mostly failing) invention. It’s a completely unnatural way to learn anything for real, especially while we’re very young. And it’s only getting worse as we sink deeper into failure and watch educrats, in their well-intentioned panic, bury our children deeper and deeper into a system that is moving from just not-very-helpful to harmful.

I’m not saying I’m sure unschooling is the cure for public education or that our current system doesn’t work for anybody at all. I’m saying unschooling is the answer for one of my children at this point in his life and that I think it’s worth exploring, even if it only strengthens your resolve to make our current system meet your child’s needs better (I don’t know, maybe push for a system in which teachers are valued and allowed to teach, for starters).

Anyway, I’m preaching and I hate that. But if you’re curious about unschooling, here are a few books I found some value in (each in different ways):

LEARNING ALL THE TIME (John Holt). A good foundational overview of unschooling. Dry at times, but valuable for help with understanding how children quite naturally investigate the world without being formally taught to do so.

FREE TO LEARN and FREE TO LIVE (Pam Laricchia). Both quick reads with insights from a corporate mom who quit her paying job to unschool her kids. Real-life examples.

UNSCHOOLING RULES (Clark Aldrich). Fifty-five ways to unlearn what we know about schools and rediscover education. The writing is a little hokey, but overall it’s the most helpful of the books I’ve read so far on the topic.

Do you unschool (or homeschool)? Were you raised as an unschooler? I have lots to learn and I’d love to hear about your experiences and opinions. My email address is rlsaundersbooks@gmail.com.



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