R.L. SAUNDERS

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

My tech fear is not my kid’s problem

This morning my unschooled 7-year-old said, beaming with confidence, “I’m almost just like dad when I solve my own computer problems!” This is why I try not to let my own fears, biases, and ignorance about technology hinder his experiences and desires. He’s very naturally preparing himself for the world he’ll live in as an adult. He’s creating his own future. He spends hours and hours (and hours) online, creating alliances, working, playing, and problem-solving with kids from around the world. And yes, he loves collecting sticks and rocks, too. So far, he also loves going to art classes. But gaming and technology, right now, are his biggest passions.

And when the jobs below are the first five that come up with a quick search of telecommute careers (so, complete comfort and competence with technology is required) I feel even better about it. Technology does not negate nature, or art, or morality, or whatever else we’re afraid of losing. It’s not an either-or proposition and it’s probably unhealthy to give our kids the message that it is. The jobs many of our kids will have don’t even exist yet—we hear that all the time but we seem afraid to make significant changes in our approach to education (and childhood, on the whole). Why?

DIGITAL CAMPAIGNS MANANGER: Will create and implement digital campaigns and work to identify strategic online opportunities. Must have at least five years of experience in online campaigning and knowledge of U.S. energy politics. HTML and CSS skills.

SENIOR USER RESEARCHER: Platform Media company seeking full-time senior user researcher to devise usability tests and studies that will provide information for effective product planning. Must be highly experienced in research studies and testing. Telecommute.

SENIOR ACTUARIAL CONSULTANT: Will build reporting tools and SAS models that support pharmacy analytics and data on a full-time basis. Must have skills in SQL and SAS. Requires and least two years of experience with database queries.

ANALYTICS ENGINEER: Prior work experience with analysis of process data and time-history required. Strong creative and communication skills required.

FINANCIAL AND BUSINESS SYSTEMS ANALYST: Assist with developing chargeback models, perform analysis of program costs and interacts with senior management about matters with functional areas. Ten years related job experience required.

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My eyes could be better, but my mom couldn’t

I first got glasses in fifth or sixth grade, but immediately stopped wearing them after somebody called me cyclops because they made my eyes appear to blend together. Fast forward several decades and my vision is extra crappy, with some newer weird and annoying issues that make seeing stuff difficult. Even with my glasses on, for example, I can only read paper-paged books for about 45 minutes, and only if I’m in bright, natural light. This makes me sad because reading paper-paged books makes me happy.

I’ve wanted eye surgery for a long time, but just found out I waited too long and now it’s too late. Now I’ll have to forget about that visually barrier-free cliff diving adventure in Greece. And base jumping off The Eiffel Tower is also now out of the realm of possibility because I just don’t trust those safe-for-base-jumping-while-visually-impaired goggle thingies. Really though, I’d have settled for reading a paper-paged book in bed by lamplight (I dreamed of that. Literally, I did.) Or maybe seeing what goes on during a shower.

The moral of the story is two-fold. First–and this is really important–you should feel very sorry for me, like I do. Second, don’t put off shit that’s important to you, even if it isn’t life-threatening. Parents who say they’ll pay better attention to themselves once the kids are older, I’m looking at you.

On the bright side, my mom just gave me the big corner bookcase from my childhood bedroom. It’s old and a little grody (aren’t we all?) and I love it a lot. I’m going to put it right next to a window and fill it up with paper-paged books, which I will continue to enjoy reading in 45-minute stints, sunlight permitting. And someday, some way, I’ll put my own books on it.

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My mom has impeccable timing, right? I think she did this on purpose. She’s one of those types.

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If we must outsource childhood, let’s do it better.

Homeschooling (under which unschooling falls) is a luxury. I used to talk a lot about the sacrifices we make to be able to homeschool. And while that’s true, the bottom line is that we’re privileged to be able to do this. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know with perfect certainty that homeschooling is best. But at least I have the enormous luxury of choice, which is due in large part to factors that have nothing to do with anything I’m personally responsible for. Period.

Most kids go to school–even the ones whose parents would love to homeschool them. Got it. Really do.

Then why can’t we figure out how to give public school kids–all of them, in every neighborhood in the country–at least the same student-teacher ratios that exist in many expensive private schools? We’re always hearing how kids at expensive private schools do so well because of their excellent levels of parental involvement and yada, yada, barf. But, hi, they’re not with their parents for most of their waking hours. We sub out our kids’ days starting at age 4 or 5, or more realistically at age 6 weeks in the U.S. where not-as-well-resourced working parents are economically discouraged from spending a healthy amount of time with their infants. Your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s private Caribbean island isn’t going to buy itself, people. I said get back to work and make his money. Then work some overtime and maybe get yourself a less painful breast pump and a car payment on a nice used Kia Sedona for safe, comfortable transportation to your infant’s fifty-hour weeks at daycare.

Sorry, god. I told myself I’d stay focused.

Anyway, what’s so crazy about believing no publicly funded daycare, preschool, kindergarten, first, or second grade teacher should have more than eight kids to get to know and love? Third grade on up? No more than ten. And I don’t mean add administrators and specialized support staff to deal with after-the-fact issues. In expensive private schools with healthy, intimate class sizes, kids don’t have to be singled out with a label before they receive the individual attention they deserve.

It’s not nuts. It’s doable. We can afford it if we put our money where it matters. Consider this: It varies by state, but in the U.S. we spend between three and four times as much per year to incarcerate an adult than we do to educate a child. The incarceration rate is up something like 250 percent from 1980. We lead the world, by a long shot, in incarceration for non-violent offenses.

K now take a stab at where the majority of the adults incarcerated in The Land of the Free were educated? Not in Mexico, Donald Trump. You dick.

God, sorry again.

And sure, we could say, “Well yeah, but lots of those gross criminal types were school dropouts, though.” To which we could respond to ourselves, “Why so many dropouts if the system is working well?”

So hey, educrats and other smarter-than-us politicians in charge of the future of the country and whatnot, help a simple lady understand why we can’t spend less money later and more money up front. Can we do that soonish? This is not a new concept and seems increasingly popular with folk of all stripes, at least theoretically. The problem is that, for those in charge, the system as it stands works in their kids’ favor. Their kids don’t have to compete with as many smart poor kids later in life.

And I don’t mean we should spend more money on getting kids into a broken school system faster—that’s an ill-conceived Band-Aid. All the emphasis on Head Start and getting kids academically rigorous training earlier and earlier is maddening to me, especially given what we know now about the importance of vast amounts of free play in the brain development of children. But I’m trying to stay focused here. Trying hard. Trying so hard.

A school administrator once told me that there’s just not much evidence that class size affects academic performance. In the same position, with the same dinky budget, I’d probably be inclined to convince myself that was true, too. But I’m not. So even if there’s some truth to what that administrator said, I believe we’re using the wrong measurement tools and measuring the wrong things.

We love measuring. So let’s measure something that ought to matter more. Like, I don’t know, measure how happy and loved and safe kids feel while they’re away from their families all day, every day, starting as infants in many cases. Measure how satisfied they feel, later in life, with U.S. public education. But don’t forget to ask the one in 31 Americans who are under U.S. corrections custody through parole, probation, or incarceration, because they matter. They matter now and they mattered when they were children being raised in a system that failed them too often.

If you’re not a teacher, do this: Imagine spending all day with 25 (or more) kids who are all completely different–different needs, personalities, learning styles. Forget their wants and preferences–there’s no time for that with 25 (or 20, or 10, let’s be real), so those expectations in children get killed early on. Now imagine all your bosses are promising the parents (and children, which is saddest but least spoken of) that you will gleefully, lovingly meet all those needs in plenty of time to get your own baby from daycare before Jimmy Fallon starts. In your spare time, you will meticulously record the evidence of each individual’s growth in individual files, to be accessed by many layers of administrators. And don’t forget to make the 25 individual plans for the next day. We’re not even going to talk about testing here because that, at least, is finally getting some attention. So even if you want desperately to know and love each of them the way Every Single Child deserves to be known and loved, you can’t. Does. Not. Happen.

Theoretically admitting that children are individuals that deserve to be treated as such is a big step in public education. But pretending that we can even remotely begin to accomplish that by simply shifting the burden to teachers without drastically decreasing the number of students in their classes is abusive to teachers and to the children they’re set up to fail.

We know love is the answer. Let’s set up every child in the country to learn that for real.

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Publishing is hard.

Could you use a little inspiration to keep at it today? Check out my guest post on the blog of Linda Epstein, literary agent to the stars and me: NORMAL THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO WRITERS

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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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