R.L. SAUNDERS

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

33040: The Poem

Who needs a book deal when your poem makes the top 20 in the O, Miami WLRN-Miami Herald Ode to Your Zip Code Poetry Contest? Me. I do. But I’m still so excited! Especially considering there were more than 3,500 entries. Holy shit.

The culminating event will be at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens next Wednesday. All twenty finalists–except me because I can’t go, but maybe I’ll send my husband–will read. There’ll be a lovely reception on the water and then five winners, selected by presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco, will be announced.

I’m sad I can’t go and I hope a Florida Keys poem is among the winners, although I can’t imagine they’d include a non-attendee. But this whole thing has been fun. I already feel good about the experience. I already won. Which was the point, I think—to make regular people think and feel like poets this month.

Not only did I get to read my poem on WLRN, but it was also the lede in a Washington Post piece on the Miami Poetry Festival.

For the article, I was asked a bunch of questions about what’s behind my poem and what the appeal of the contest was, so I’ll share that here since, for some silly reason, the entire article was not all about me.

Key West, the poem

Owning little applies to everybody in Key West. From our minimalists and environmentalists to our loaded friends who spend millions on 600-square foot cigar cottages in Old Town, everybody lives little here. But more than that, it’s an attitude. You just don’t need lots of stuff to feel content in Key West. That’s simply the way it is.

Regretting less—that has to do with what my dad gave me. He was a Vietnam vet who brought demons home with him. When I was three, he ran away to Key West. And when I came to visit him over the years, he seemed unreasonably happy, especially considering he had no money and no plan. Ever. Then when I turned 30, I pulled my own version of the same thing, I guess. I spent a lot of time resenting him over the years, but now I’m grateful because, ultimately, he gave me Key West. I get it now. He’s dead but I wish I could tell him I get it now. I wish I could hug him and thank him–two things I never really did, at least not sincerely.

As for the appeal of the contest, I submitted something this year because last year I chickened out, then read a bunch of awesome stuff from seemingly regular people like me. I’m no poet–I write fiction, mostly. But this O, Miami thing kind of makes us all feel like we’re good enough. At least good enough to toy around and have a little fun with poetry during National Poetry Month. And like who hasn’t fancied herself a poet, however secretly? Plus I love WLRN and all the ways people like Nancy Klingener keep Key West–Real Key West–part of the South Florida conversation.

Before this, I hadn’t thought quite so specifically about my zip code, but I love the idea. I’ll never write my zip code again without getting the warm fuzzies about that time I entered a poetry contest, and also about my dad. How weird and lovely.

UPDATE: MY HUSBAND AND SOME FRIENDS WENT IN MY PLACE (TEAM KEY WEST, I CALLED THEM) AND MY POEM WON! WHEEE!

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Turning 40: Obligatory Heartening Internet Edition

Thirty was weird. Fine but weird. That was the year I quit my then-dream job, dropped out of my PhD program, sold my house, and moved to an island. But 40? Everybody seems to think 40 feels really, really good. And I’ll let you know tomorrow, but I’m confident I’ll concur.

I’m pretty sure I’ll tell you tomorrow that 40 is motherfucking wonderful, actually, because approaching 40 has been this fantastic process that leaves me feeling smarter and more confident in ways my 20-something self would say are completely baseless. Yeah, I’m definitely feeling all those unreasonably positive things I believed people were lying about feeling as they reached the point of halfwayish.

I bought bigger jeans on my approach to 40, which I do every decade or so. But for the first time, in the most genuinely honest and self-aware corner of my brain, I just don’t feel any kind of self-loathing whatsoever. I’m not compelled to rationalize moving up a size–not even to myself. After getting four decades under my belt–winning some, losing plenty, saying hello and good-bye to the most important people in my life–something like the size of my jeans feels so trivial that it’s fallen clear off the spectrum of things to give any shits at all about. Which sounds like a rationalization, I realize, because I’m so aware of myself now, see?

In addition to spending far less time trying to look maximally appealing to others, I spend less time silently and harshly judging people who spend lots of time and energy trying hard to look maximally appealing to others. I was her in my twenties. In my thirties, I transitioned away from her and felt anybody like her was sad and vain and mildly to morbidly stupid. But now, in general, I feel myself making fewer swift judgments, especially about people I don’t know.

I have fewer and better friends.

I say what I mean and I do it far less apologetically than ever.

I’m doing what I love with and for people I love.

The drive that moves me toward my professional goals is healthy, but I’ve done enough in my lifetime to leave me satisfied in that area. Anything else is gravy–gravy I’m hoping and planning to pour on thick, of course. What matters most to me, though, is seeing each of my kids find their way in this world. I’d give up everything for them, which I hope goes without saying.

This has probably read like a series of cliches about aging. But that’s another thing that’s happened–I realize and find comfort in the notion that, while I’m lucky to be around, I’m just not that special. We’re all so similar in what motivates us and matters to us–love, I guess, in various incarnations–than I ever cared to realize before. And it’s good. I’m good. Forty’s good.

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Vax mob

Can we just talk about this campaign to demonize slash crucify the anti-vaxxers? It doesn’t seem all that effective, at least not on my various social media feeds. Hysterical, crazy-eyed, foamy-mouthed people (I mean, probably–I can’t see them) are all but calling for the heads of those idiot, unfit to breed, spawn-of-the-devil anti-vaxxers who disregard science. Good science!

Speaking of the devil, most of the angry new die hard scientific experts on my feeds subscribe to religious mythology as truth. But that’s different. This isn’t about how many actual, real, measurable deaths organized religion is responsible for. We’re only talking about anti-vax evil right now.

I mean, there are some thoughtful anti-vax opinions. Those make me happy. But increasingly, it’s just nasty and pathetic. It’s mob mentality. These people, some of whom I happen to know are skeptical of climate science, are calling people who question vaccines fucking morons who need to have their kids taken away and should probably be sterilized for good measure.

My kids? They’ve all been fully vaccinated on the schedule recommended by their pediatrician. I’d do it again, too. I think my anti-vax friends are wrong about this. But not one of them is stupid or irresponsible. They are among the most careful, conscientious parents I know. They take parenting decisions very seriously.

At the risk of generalizing, which I’m totally doing, most of my anti-vax friends are advocates for things like safe food and water and care very much about making sure all of our kids have access to safe play areas and green spaces. They pay more attention to things like car seat and booster seat recommendations than I ever have. They are devoted to their families and they take better care of the planet (the one all of our kids will inherit) than I’ll ever have the patience for. I’m selfish that way. Most of the angry new die hard scientific experts on my feeds probably contributed more to landfills last week than my nutty anti-vax friends have contributed in the last decade.

But when it comes to a rigorous vaccination schedule, my antii-vax friends believe there’s more to know–more to be learned. They’re distrustful of government recommendations, in part because they believe that big business (you know, like big pharmaceutical companies) have too big an influence on studies and on government policy. And I think they’re probably right about that.

They also know, like most people who have been on Earth for more than a few decades, that what is recommended as factually, irrevocably the best course of action in parenting, changes. There were recommendations made when my first child was born about which experts are now ammending, and sometimes outright reversing, their opinions. Co-sleeping, just off the top of my head. At one time it was only something to do if you were looking to kill your baby. But new studies, more studies, more attention, brought better information to inform a bigger picture.

That’s what my anti-vax friends want. Better information. We’ll all benefit from better information. This isn’t to say that I don’t wish my anti-vax friends would change their minds. I do. So much. But I also wish my angry new die hard scientific expert friends would go pray on their approach. Because I’m pretty sure the gods will recommend they check themselves (like, in the mirror) and calm the fuck down. It’s not helpful.

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Game on

Moral panic. “That is, people who are the leaders of a society often blame things which they do not value for societal ills.”

I’m revisiting things like this: Your Moral Panic Is Not My Gamer’s Responsibility  because one of my sons is extra super interested in gaming at this point in his life. And if I’m being honest, I sometimes feel he (and we) are unfairly scrutinized based on the unfounded fears of others. While we’re not comfortable giving our six-year-old access to something like Grand Theft Auto, we are open to the conversation as he matures. It’s really hard not to let our own fears and biases (and fear of baseless judgement) equal evidence of harm.

I mean, I’m never going to play GTA, myself. It’s too gross for me. Too much gore–I wouldn’t enjoy it. I don’t like horror movies, either. And I also have zero interest in hunting. But where I’m from, it’s nothing short of a milestone worth grand commemoration and celebration when a child (the younger, the more impressive) goes into the woods with a parent, stalks and blows the brain or heart out of an actual, unsuspecting living creature with an actual deadly weapon, tears its guts out with a knife, posts and frames happy, bloody family pictures with the disemboweled carcass, then cuts its head off for display on a shiny plaque in the family room next to the babtism photos.

Hell, even peewee football involves far more real-world, very intentional violence than virtual gaming, now that I think about it. “Here, killer, let momma put a fresh pull-up on under your gear. Now get out there and grind ’em into the dirt, big boy.”

This isn’t to say I’m uniformly anti hunting or anti toddler tackle football (although I personally care for both less as I age). This is to say that I’m pro keeping perspective and pro not letting things I don’t personally value or understand turn into baseless fears that illogically dictate my parenting decisions and my judgement of other families and their kids’ fitness as playdate material.

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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 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?”

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

GOT IT, LADY. SHUT YOUR FACE AND START THE THING ALREADY.

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 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!

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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.

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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 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 went to 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?

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