Monday, August 28, 2017

Violence, Media, and Kids

Sometimes, I love phones and iPods and tablets and laptops. Those glorious little devices often make me wonder how on earth my family managed to get ahold of me or get anything done before they existed.

And sometimes I hate them. Like today.

Today, a tragedy struck our town, and worse it seems, our school community. The details aren't known, but unfortunately, some that may or may not be true have become known to our kids.

My 11-year-old received a text message that provided a pretty detailed story about what happened and it hit him pretty hard (and mama bear is very unhappy about how this happened). He had a lot of questions about how something like that occurs, and then opened up a bit about what he was feeling. He is like his mama: he wears his heart on his sleeve. He worries about things. He's been worried the past week about Texas and everyone in it, asking for updates on if they're rescuing people, are they getting to the nursing homes, and so on. He's wondering if another country drops a nuclear bomb near Chicago, would it's devastation reach us? His heart is just about the biggest I have ever seen in a kid. (Don't get me wrong, he can be a pain in the butt sometimes. But his heart is still huge.) Then something so very pertinent and honest and telling came out of his mouth:

"Mom, I just don't understand it. Every time you turn on the news, there is another shooting in the Chicago area. Why are so many people dying? There's one story after another with bad news. It seems like it's all bad news." Then later came his next question: "How do we help to stop the violence?"

He's 11 and he sees it. He hears about the violence going on in the city and state he loves, and unfortunately, sometimes a little closer to home. He sees the news and the shock value the media go for, filling every half hour newscast with as much tragedy as their teleprompters can handle. He's carrying a weight that I don't think at 11 I even knew existed. He wants the world to be a better place, and he wants to make it a better place. 

I wish we could shelter him from all of it. We could take away all electronics, we could sell the television, but as today has taught me, he will still hear about it somewhere. And it probably will only be a shred of the truth, regardless of whether he hears it from little mouths at school or big mouths on the television. What is most difficult is that we have to have these conversations far earlier than I ever imagined. When I was 11, I didn't really know about storms unless they were hitting our neighborhood. I didn't know about how many people were hurt or injured daily in Chicago. It boggles my mind that kids today know about these things and have to grow up far sooner than they should.

I wish I could give him a step-by-step plan on how to fix everything, but I can't. We talked about the importance of being the best person you can, of helping others, of listening, of being there for people. We talked about how he can go into a career where he can build opportunities for kids to get on a better path in life. We talked about how from now on, we're going to start our day and end our day with good news, and that at least one of those should be something we did to make the world a better place that day.

Tonight, I had one of the hardest, most honest conversations I've ever had to have with one of my children. I couldn't hold back the tears as the tragedy of the situation behind the need for our talk really sank in. There has always been violence and always been tragedy, and I couldn't tell you if it's gotten worse over time or if it's just more reported thanks to mass media. And, I don't have answers for how to fix it, other than we need to start loving each other a little more and stop spreading gossip and hating a little bit less. I plan to hug my children just a little bit tighter from now on, that's for certain. 

Remember how they edited the Wyle E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons so that our children wouldn't be scarred? 

I WISH the worst thing my kids heard about was that crazy coyote getting blown up by ACME.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What is the answer?

I have two beautiful, smart, and for the most part kind children (let's face it, they're kids, and they bicker with each other NON STOP). We've tried to instill in them pride in their family and heritage. From Mom's side (me), they are English, Irish, French, Scottish, Slovak, Czech, and much more. From Dad's side, they are Hispanic. They are a wonderful mix of so many cultures and backgrounds and have family members of all different races, and we love talking about it because I never want them to feel like they are better or less than anyone else. Their friends aren't defined by color - they're defined by their personalities or some skill they accel at. Everyone is just a person.

Growing up, I've been teased and bullied, and I've been the teaser and bully. But never, ever, have any of those instances been about race. About being a girl, or hitting like a girl, or not wearing the right clothes, or something like that perhaps, but NEVER have I been discriminated against because of race - because I'm white. And there is, unfortunately, an insane amount of privilege that comes with that one piece of who I am. And no matter how much I believe that all people are created equal and how much I try and teach our kids that we don't judge others, especially on looks or skin color, I know that how I expwriwnce the world is far different than how my husband does. Even though I try to have a better understanding and he educates me constantly, I find that as knowledgeable as I think I am, I am never knowledgeable enough - but I want to understand more. 

Take for instance the time the radio DJ was talking about interracial couples - it didn't occur to me that was us. Because I see him just as hubs, and don't view us as different. He'd caught the looks from others or snide remarks that I'd never even noticed. Or the time we went on vacation in Virginia, and went to a nice little pub where I hippity-hopped through the front door without a second thought, only pausing inside when hubs seemed a little out of sorts. When I asked what's wrong, he said, "Did you see the 'decor' out front?" (There had been some things that could have indicated it may not be welcoming for him.) I hadn't. Because I've never had to feel worried that I'm going to be discriminated against because of my skin color whether it was a restaurant or a business or anything else. It hadn't even crossed my mind. 

What really hit home for me was this past year, when our son had an incident with another child who made a disparaging comment about two races of people (Hispanics included). He had come and asked me if he could talk to me privately, and I was a little worried about what was going on. Maybe he'd flunked a test, I thought, or maybe he had a question about the puberty classes they'd just started at school. When he told me, through dry-heaving sobs, what this child had said, I did what a mama bear does: pulled him into a bear hug, told him it was wrong of others to say that, that it wasn't true, that being Hispanic was a wonderful thing, and then I called for his dad to come up. Because in that moment, I did not know what else to say. I knew I couldn't understand that experience and I couldn't say "I know how you feel" because I didn't. I'd never had someone say something like that to me. 

I don't fully think the kid thought through what they were saying, and the situation was handled appropriately, but regardless, it was the first time in our son's life that he experienced someone saying something to hurt him simply because his nationality and skin were different. "Are there people who think I'm bad just because I have tan skin? Because I'm Mexican?" he asked. And that was a turning point for me. I couldn't tell him no, because that's not true. There are people who will think that, and he will have to deal with this again. And again. And again. No matter how much I want to protect him, I will only ever be able to do so much. I could comfort him as any mother would, but sweeping the issue under the rug wasn't going to make the situation disappear. And what would doing that teach him? There are times where you tell your kids to turn the other cheek, and there are times where you take a stand. Mom and Dad had to stand up for him and show him that it is not acceptable for others to make those comments (and we did). He had to stand up for himself and say it is not acceptable for others to treat him as less than. And we also needed to remind him that we will always be there in good and bad times, and we will face the bad times together - and remind him again that no one is less than anyone else because of skin color. 

I could sit here and tell you a million great things about my kid but I shouldn't have to, because he doesn't need to defend who he is. He knows who he is, he's proud of who he is, and he works very hard to maintain a good reputation. And none of his accomplishments or pitfalls have anything to do with his skin color.

It's not the first time or the last time that it's going to happen to him, as is evident in the many news stories dominating our timelines, especially today. 

So I stood in the doorway that night and listened as my husband talked to my son about racism, but this time, it took on a new meaning. My hubs spoke about times that he's been picked on for his heritage and background; times that he's been attacked for it whether physically or emotionally. And he talked about how to deal with it, how to protect himself in those situations, how to talk to a trusted adult, and so on.

And then I went to my room and cried because I knew that was the first day of the rest of his life: a life where he'd notice people's skin color because now, someone had pointed out to him that he was different because of it. In today's world it was only a matter of time until it happened, and it would be naive to think any differently. 

He's learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., in school. They are learning about the history of our country and both the good and the bad that came with it. He's learning how African Americans have not been treated well or fairly, and that other nationalities have faced discrimination throughout history. But this was a real-life lesson for him on current events because bias still exists for so many and no matter how far we've come, we haven't come far enough.

I don't have the answers for what's going on or what can change the world. Every day, the news shows us another example of the hate that fills our world. It will take education and understanding and trust and camaraderie to change the narrative. Saying it shouldn't exist or pretending it never happened or telling people to get over it is not the answer; it starts with acknowledgment, understanding, kindness and knowing our past to help reshape the future. And I don't have the answers, but I am more than willing to listen and try to garner a better understanding.

So when my son asked this morning why there are the riots in Charlottesville, I found myself remembering a sad little boy whose world changed last year.

"There are people out there who believe they are better than others because of the color of their skin and they are out there shouting it to the world. And there are others who are standing up against it, fighting for equality."

"Is it going to happen here?" I wonder if what he's really asking me, with that concerned look on his face, is if he and his friends are safe. How do we change this narrative? How do we find common ground and rebuild a better future for every generation today and in the future? How do we become more aware of the inequalities and come together to change that?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

How Many New Normals in Life

Two weeks ago at kid2's annual checkup, we gingerly bounced into the exam room and waited for the doctor. This was going to be a GREAT checkup - no shots for the peanut, no sniffles or fevers - just a plain old, well-kid checkup before she starts the 3rd grade.

So when the doctor said, "Do you notice this swelling?" I found myself caught a little off-guard. I hadn't noticed the slight swelling on the side of her neck but sure enough, it was there.

Without saying a lot more (since little, worried ears were in the room), she just said that she was a little concerned it could be an enlarged thyroid, and she'd like to have it checked via ultrasound.

To avoid rousing any doubt or fear within my little one, I just smiled and talked about how the only ultrasound I ever got to have was when I had a baby in my belly, and that got her talking and thinking about something else. She giggled when I jokingly asked the doctor if maybe she had a baby in her neck. Meanwhile, I was trying my very best to cover up any worries I have. I know, a thyroid problem is small in the grand scheme of medical issues, but let me assure you that for a mama, any type of issue that is going to cause her children distress suddenly launches you ten thousand feet further down the worry scale. From a splinter to the scariest medical condition, seeing your child in any amount of worry or pain or fear or discomfort is just about one of the hardest part of motherhood.

And while it seems ridiculous to worry right now, I cannot help but think of the times where I wasn't supposed to worry. How many times in life do we get used to a normal, just to have a new normal come in and replace it? Did I appreciate that last night with hubs before we became a family of three, and again when we went from three to four? Did I appreciate the normal-ness of life the night before mom was diagnosed with brain cancer and we began a very new 13-month normal? Did I appreciate the normal we'd become accustomed to before Dad's stroke, and we had to start navigating a new normal?

I can't help but wonder if tonight is that last night of this being what our normal life is before kid2 has to make some major life changes (and the rest of the fam, too). I wonder if this is her last night of being a bippity-boppity worry-free eight-year-old without the concern of any medicines or nutrition plans or all of the things even adults can have difficulty handling. I wonder if tonight is the last night I can promise her that shots or blood draws aren't happening tomorrow because she is terrified of all of that and has been for years.

In an instant - literally, in one single second, in the middle of the doctor's office - I felt as though everything she's ever done to drive me nuts disappeared and all I could think about was how much I loved every single inch and trait of the beautiful girl in front of me.

I'm praying pretty hard that the ultrasound tomorrow reveals nothing and that this is all just a week's worth of worry that I'll tuck away in my distant memory and forget in a year. Really, really hard. Everyone has to learn at some point in life that we are constantly thrown obstacles that teach us whether we're going to be the people that learn to adapt and triumph or crawl and hide; I just pray that she doesn't have to learn such a lesson at this age.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Characters in a book

I get asked quite often how I form a character in a book and if the character strongly resembles anyone in particular from my life. There are, of course, a lot of answers for that, but the general answer is that yes, most characters are based off of attributes of people I know.

Now, I have never written a character that is a single representation of a single person. Let's take for example AJ McCallister, the Healer from my first novel. He's a mix of a few different people. AJ is kind and courageous, strong and loyal. He also is anxious and brooding and angry. He feels both saddled and blessed by his gift, and he wants to both protect others and hide away from the world. AJ is innocent and yet still jaded by what he's seen and experienced, and he's extremely thoughtful and careful, almost to a fault. And each of the pieces of his personality that make him great or make him weak are the very things that make him unique. He's got pieces of my strong and courageous husband, a couple of close friends who are loyal and fearless, and even the innocence of past teenage love. 

There's Helen, who's modeled and named after my mom's best girlfriends and their wonderfully beautiful motherly instincts; and Matthew, who is always willing to help and is shaped after one of the best neighbors I've ever known. 

And Addie, who is a little bit me and a little bit my girlfriends. She's fiesty and smart and strong and weak and just wants to be loved.

Each character has aspects of various people I've cared for and loved, which makes them special to me - and makes them come to life in the stories. 

There are also characters who have nothing to do with anything other than my imagination. Luckily, I've never known anyone as dark and deceptive as Devin. And Benjamin is just a fun representation of a kindly old man. 

Writing is an outlet for daydreams and imagination. It's also a way for me to cement in history the things I've adored about certain people in a way that keeps them going in perpetuity. And that's the real magic of a story - being able to read it again and know that the best parts of the people I've loved are captured forever in words.

Speaking of which, I'm off to finish another chapter in my newest manuscript. I've written about AJ more in depth before on my blog, if you care to read on - otherwise,  if you haven't yet, you can read his book by downloading it free tomorrow at And then try and guess who that trait is based on! 


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