Happy Birthday, Kat!

My favorite little girl on the planet turns three today.

She can drive me up a wall at times, and I’ve had my share of losing my cool, but she knows that she’s daddy’s most prized possession.

We drove two hours north to IKEA yesterday to pick up a kitchen set for her birthday. (In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting on the living room couch, listening to her and her brother waking up in their room. In just a couple of moments, she’s going to totter out here and stumbled upon the kitchen set I have set up for her by our living room windows.)

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She has no idea what’s in the big box I purchased for her, because at IKEA, you never know what you’re really getting.

We’ll be having donuts for breakfast from our favorite bakery down the street. It’s going to be  good morning. But really, it’s been a good three years. A lot of bad things happened last year, and the waters have been rough for quite a while, but my daughter has always been a constant. It’s guaranteed that she’ll laugh if I tickle her in just the right spot, and that she’ll always want me to kiss her goodnight even if we’ve had a bad day.

She loves the things I obsess over (chips and salsa, ice cream, Toy Story), and her dancing always makes me laugh, even if life seems too much at times.

I never really knew what it was like to be proud until we brought her home from the hospital, and now I get to experience that feeling every day as I watch her grow, learn, speak, and sing, and discover who she is a little more each day.

I can hear her brother trying to coax her out of their room. I better get the light on…

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Why We Don’t Tell Our Kids They Can be Anything They Want

It’s preached everywhere: “Believe, and it will happen.”

“Trust and you will find.”

“Try and you will succeed.”

“You can be anything you want to be and more.”

Once you get to a certain age you realize that’s all crap. Because, you know, when I was little, I believed I’d be an astronaut and go to the moon (there have only been twelve manned moon landings since 1969). I also wanted to be a cartoonist for a newspaper strip, but that was before I learned that Jim Davis already had the market cornered in that department.

The problem with me, then? Well, I believe there were two issues.

  1. My expectations were unrealistic. I hate science and always have, so any chance of me becoming an astronaut were doomed to begin with. And, even after some art classes, my cartoons were mediocre at best.
  2. I wasn’t consistent. I bounced around from one cool potential career to the next, whichever sounded most appealing at the time. Usually I was inspired by pop culture, and never really tapped into what I – little Andy – really wanted to do with my life.

Now that I’m a dad, I’m careful not to tell my kids they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, because let’s be honest: My daughter is too tall to be an Olympic gymnast. My son is too sensitive to be a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, and so far his hand-eye coordination is as great as his dad’s – never mind hitting the broadside of a barn, we’re lucky just to make the ball past the fence.

I love the movie Wreck-It Ralph. Ralph didn’t want to be a bad guy anymore, and no matter 982468_032how many medals he won or good deeds he performed, he was always going to be a bad guy. But he learned to make peace with it.

An even better one is the bold Monsters University, where young Mike wants to be a scarer, but he really just sucks at it. He’s small, puny, and pretty funny looking.

No, as much as I would like to change things, our kids cannot be anything they want to be. It’s just not realistic, and beyond that, it’s a lie.

That’s not to say that if they worked and studied hard enough that they can’t become doctors and lawyers, business owners and CEO’s, or any other profession that requires a large degree of panache and brains. And as their parents, we’ll support them in every way.

But if my son dreams of making it on Juggling with the Stars in sixteen years but he can’t juggle any more than his daily chores, then I’m going to be flat-out honest with him and suggest that maybe he could coach someone to juggle or something.

But whatever they set their mind to, it is my hope that not only is it achievable within their skill set, but that they stick with it and don’t give up.

Why Our Playground-Parenting Would Likely Tick You Off

90-degree-spiral-tube-slideOur oldest kids are about to turn two and three. With the weather being on its last stitch of niceness here in Louisville, Sarabeth and I decided to take them for one last hurrah at one of our neighborhood playgrounds.

Our oldest, Kat, is extremely agile and surprisingly skilled. Like, more coordinated than I was at seven. She’s also courageous and is a risk-taker.

Sometimes it’s hard to watch her climb to the top of the big kids’ skyscraper playground and keeping up with the toughest of them, but I’m not going to stop her. It’s my job as a parent to encourage growth and challenge – not hold her back.

At this particular playground we were at this last weekend, Kat got the whacky idea to climb on top – not inside of it, but up on top of the tube. So we let her, much to the chagrin of a couple of other parents whose older kids quickly followed suit.

I stood next to Kat as she attempted it the first time. She got a quarter of the way up, paused, said “no,” and I helped her down. The next time she tried it, she got a little further. I rooted her on the whole time while Sarabeth watched approvingly.

Why do we allow our kids to be such dangerous, risk-taking, rebel-rousing rule-breakers?

A couple of reasons: First off, there’s no rule that says she can’t climb on top of the tube slide. We were proud of her for thinking outside the box and discovering not only a new way to have fun, but to push herself.

Another reason: She was not hurting anybody. Sure, she inspired other kids to throw off their shoes and scurry up the top side of the tube slide, but you should have seen their exultant faces when they reached the top (even while their parents were yelling at them to climb down – I wanted to ask them why).

Also, what’s up with our obsession of obeying rules? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. I’m coming closer and closer to the opinion that our obsession to conform is actually what’s killing us inside. More on this in a later post. Much more.

But back to my daughter climbing up the top of the tube slide. I was teaching my youngest to hang on to the zip slide all by himself (successfully), when I heard Sarabeth call me. She pointed to the highest point of the playground, and there, on just her third attempt, my daughter sat high and proud.

My little girl on top of her own personal Everest. All because she found a better and slightly more challenging way to play. She refused to conform. And I encourage that in almost every way.

This Post Breaks All the Rules

Socially speaking, I’m not allowed to write this post.

Even the business world would frown on me.

Because we’re supposed to only present our best selves, right? And as a business owner, I’m supposed to give the impression that I’ve got it all under control.

To a degree, these are good rules. Personally, I don’t like it when people show up to work and start crying about their broken marriage. But I don’t hold it against them. I don’t tell them to stop. I just ignore them if I don’t want to hear it.

So if you don’t want to hear it, I suggest you stop reading now. Because I’m about to unleash as a father, a husband, a middle-class citizen, an aspiring bestselling author, and a brand-new business owner.

This post breaks all the rules. I trust you’ll forgive me.

I’m mad. No, I’m perpetually pissed off. My wife sees it, my kids see it, and I wake up and go to sleep each day feeling it.

Today I had to take our foster son to the doctor to get staples removed from his head. A quick two-minute procedure. But since Kentucky passed a new law mandating that foster parents have to get consent from the kids’ social workers before a doctor can do anything, they have to get permission from the already-hard-to-reach social workers. We were at the doctor this morning for almost an hour. No response. We called and called. I ended up having to reschedule and leave with the staples still in his head so I wouldn’t be late for work.

Because, you know, being a law-abiding, working middle-class citizen is no different than grade school. Can’t be tardy! (My particular day job is actually good in this regard compared to others’, but you get my point.)

Which is half the reason I’ve started my own business. I’m tired of being told when to show up to work and when I’m allowed to go on vacation. That is, if my insurance hasn’t robbed me as blind as the previous month.  I’m tired of getting permission to be sick.

I hate that the foster care system is crap deteriorating to shit that even makes the bacteria sick, never getting better, always getting worse.

I hate the state giving drug-addicts every chance under the sun (and then years-worth-of-chances after that) to get their kids back only for them to likely be abused and neglected even more, just so the faceless assholes running our government can come out looking like the good guys. All the while we foster parents are trying to do a good thing for these kids and we’re treated worse than the felons!

I can’t do a single thing about it and that really pisses me off!!!

I hate that running a business and writing a book takes nearly all the risk and energy in the world. And it’s driven by pure fear. I hate that no hours in a day is not just a cliche saying. It’s really, really, really, really true. And that sucks so bad.

I’m terrified that I’m going to fail. I’m terrified that you’re all going to read my book and hate it. (I’m not so terrified that you’re going to hate the other authors’ books because they’ve got more talent than I have in one of my graying hairs.) But the bigger fear is that you’re not going to buy our books. You’ll like the pages and posts and share the excerpts, but come book release, you’ll shrug it off.

I’m terrified that my kids won’t discover their passions until late in life, like me. And they’ll be stuck clocking in at a job they don’t care for making money for someone they don’t even know.

I’m terrified that my wife and I will just be done with each other. I’m terrified that I really can’t change. I hate that I love my kids so much and that one day they’re not going to care. I hate that I can’t take care of babies. I make them cry. My rapid heart-rate and boiling blood freaks them out.

I hate that I don’t know how to raise my kids.

Just on my way to work this morning (I made it on time, no thanks to the foster care system), blasted the music and just screamed. I’m sick of working my ass off and being robbed nearly half of my paycheck by our insurance. If you don’t know that money is only going to fatten corporate wallets, then you need to do your homework. (Where do you think your premiums are going if you still have to pay extreme medical bills?) And that doesn’t account for taxes.

I’m sick of the hardest working people getting paid nickels and dimes and the comfortable corner-office inhabitants getting perks and hiring maids to dust out their Ferraris.

I can go on. And believe me, each day I do. But I’m not going to be another one of those bloggers who pretends everything is great and that my life is all peaches and flowers. I’m a human being with real issues and real problems and real effed up emotions.

I’m a terrible husband at best.

I’m a paranoid and angry father.

I’m a terrible writer.

I’m a terrified business owner.

I’m completely unraveled.

You’re all going to comment and say things like, “It’s okay, we feel your pain,” or “You’re a great writer! I’ve been following you for years!”

Don’t.

In fact, you’re as messed up and in as bad of a situation as I am. Gripe. Just let it out. Writing this didn’t fix anything, and honestly, it didn’t make me feel better. But at least I’m not lying or presenting a false image. Because this is who I am. This is how I feel.

And I’m really sorry, but I’m going to keep trying my hardest. Because I’m just. That. Stupid.

Why It’s Good to Be Disturbed

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Netflix is stepping up its game! They’re actually making movies available that I care to watch or revisit (Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Lethal Weapon…) But scrolling through the other night, there was one that caught my attention that I had forgotten was on my to-watch list.

It’s a Peter Jackson movie, so that was my biggest reason for watching it. In my opinion, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong are enough to set him up as one of the greatest directors of all time. But then, this one in particular seems to go unnoticed.

It’s called The Lovely Bones. Usually when I turn on a movie, I’m asleep within fifteen minutes. This one kept me up for the full two-hour-plus runtime. I was intrigued, disturbed, riveted, emotional, and all those other feelings a good film should evoke. But mostly I was terrified.

It’s the story about a girl who is kidnapped and murdered but doesn’t cross into heaven until she can help her family cope and find her killer.

I’d say it’s probably one of the most haunting movies I’ve seen in years. But these stories are so important! They’re important to us as parents because they remind us that our kids are never ever safe. Let me tell you, it’s going to be a long while before my daughter is out of my sight for a split-second in public.

Yes, we need the Finding Nemo reminders that we should be brave enough to let go of our kids every once in a while, but we also need the hard, cold slap in the face that there are psychopaths out there that will take our kids at a moment’s notice.

And we must be vigilant.

The movie also inspired me to begin drafting a new novel about kidnapping. Let’s just say it will be an exercise to visit my deepest fears and blow the siren for the rest of us.

These types of stories might be upsetting and disturb us, but they’re necessary. I hate hearing about people who don’t watch the news simply because it’s so depressing. I mean, that’s just the way the world is, and it’s better to know what’s going on in it than to be ignorant (these are strong words coming from a guy who wants to live at Disneyland).

My kids are going to be taught at a very young age not only to never talk to strangers, but why they shouldn’t. “Because you can be killed,” I’ll tell them. “There are people you can trust after your mom and dad are friends with them and as long as they never ask you to be alone with them. There are people you can smile and nod to at Target and the grocery store, and you move on. And then there are people that want to hurt and kill you. They’re the ones who go the extra mile to be friendly to you. They’re the ones you want to run away from and scream at the top of your lungs. No one will ever fault you for that.”

My children are going to be as prepared as I can make them.

I’ll never forget the story a friend of mine told me about how he was at the park with his two daughters and he saw a guy just looking at them. “I’ve seen that look before. I’m a man, I’ve had that look before. But when he starts looking at my girls that way… I walked up to him and told him, ‘You need to get out of here.’ I made sure he got in his car and left.”

My friend is a hero. It might sound like he let the guy off scot free, but at least for a while, that pervert is going to wonder who else is noticing him. Hopefully he’s going to think twice before acting …or looking.

I recommend The Lovely Bones to every parent. Forget the whole heaven vs. hell and afterlife stuff. Watch it for what it’s meant to be: A wake up call to us parents, and an attempt to fuse just a little bit of beauty into a tragedy we cannot fix or prevent.

Ticking Clocks and Talking Writing: A Guest Post

I addressed the topic of not having enough time to write a couple of weeks ago, which you can read here. But when I learned my publishing guru had some more advice to share, I couldn’t help but ask her to write a guest post. Meet Ekta Garg, founder and owner of Prairie Sky Publishing

289801_10150378860413131_1075513496_oMy girls take dance lessons at the cultural center connected to our local park district. Families of all students participating in the big recital this spring must volunteer for 10 hours to help prepare for the performance. This includes sewing costumes, building and painting sets, and volunteering to help corral kids on the day of the recital.

Recently I went to the first volunteer meeting. The head of the group, an easy-going woman clearly an expert at this entire venture, suggested that instead of taking time out of the week to work on the set, we come to the basement of the cultural center during dance classes. It’s a good way, she said, to use the time we would normally spend waiting for our children to finish their lessons.

I can’t come down here during dance class, I thought. That’s my writing time.

Welcome to one of the keys to my time management strategy for writing.

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A writer who lives alone has the luxury of time and space. He or she answers to no one and only has to worry about one person’s needs and wants. Most of us writers, however, don’t live alone. We have children, spouses/partners, often other jobs. We need to make meals, do laundry, clean homes, and, occasionally, have a social life.

The minute you connect your life with someone else’s, you’re scrambling for time. When those someone elses come in the form of little people who can’t drive yet, you’re really scrambling for time, it becomes the biggest issue, the most precious commodity.

Writing good stories takes time. But how do you find time to write when so many other demands line up for your attention at any given point?

By getting creative and keeping a proactive attitude toward your day. Stay in attack mode. Pounce on any free minutes you have. How do you do that? I’d like to share a few tips that have worked for me.

  1. Take advantage of the mornings. After I drop the kids off at school, I come right back home, make myself a cup of tea, and sit down with my computer. I don’t get up for at least an hour. This first hour of the morning offers me a great deal of clarity because I haven’t cluttered my brain with everything else for the day just yet. I’m coming to my story fresh and with energy. On the days when I don’t get a chance to write at any other time, at least I know I’ve tucked in an hour of time first thing.
  1. Have kids in activities? Write. My daughters take art, dance, and music lessons after school. Because my husband is involved in a demanding career, I get to play chauffeur during the day. My computer goes with me everywhere. Dance moms can be incredibly chatty, but I don’t indulge in social time during class. I even leave the immediate vicinity of the lesson area by going to a coffee shop nearby (and, yes, I’ve taken the time to find coffee shops where I can escape.) These are times when I’m guaranteed freedom; the kids have something to keep them occupied and I am required to sit still. I make time for friends on other occasions. When I’m waiting for kids in lessons, I’m writing.
  1. Don’t underestimate the power of the half-hour. Okay, so I’ll admit that sounds a bit cheesy, but the point is this: Don’t think you need long stretches of time to write well or productively. If you find yourself with an extra half-hour of time, use it. Have leftovers in the fridge you can use for dinner? Use that time you’d normally devote to prepping your evening meal for writing. Did a friend make plans for lunch and then bail at the last minute? Use that bailout for writing. Is it a snow day and the kids are parked in front of a movie? Watch half of it with them and then spend the rest of the time writing. Look for those opportunities for that half-hour or even 10 minutes, and then use them.
  1. Writing doesn’t always mean with a pen or the computer. Agatha Christie said that one of the best times to write was when one was doing the dishes. You can substitute any mundane activity in that spot, and the idea still applies. Often when I’m driving from place to place, I let my mind work on my current work-in-progress. I think about the story, where it is, where I’d like to take it. I consider a variety of scenarios for my characters and use that time to work out story problems. When I sit down at my computer later, I’ve already got the bare bones framework in my mind.

It may take a little practice, but once you go after your day with a proactive “Writing first” mindset, you’ll find yourself with little pockets of time to write every day. Make it a priority, be flexible, and learn to adapt to what your day brings. You’ll finish that manuscript in no time.

Bio:

With an MSJ in magazine publishing from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern under her belt, Ekta has enjoyed a great deal of diversity in her publishing career. Since 2005 she has written and edited about everything from healthcare to home improvement to Hindi films for a variety of publications. In 2014 Ekta launched Prairie Sky Publishing as the home of her dynamic short story concept, Stories in Pairs. She also manages her professional writing platform, The Write Edge, as well as its three extension blogs on weekly fiction, parenting, and book reviews, and she completes her passion for storytelling by editing the manuscripts of writers who want to prepare their work for publication. When not fulfilling her writing and editing dreams on a regular basis, Ekta maintains her position as a domestic engineer (housewife) and enjoys being a mother to two beautiful daughters.

Check out Ekta’s sites, and connect with her via social media:

Prairie Sky PublishingThe Write EdgeFacebook, GoodreadsTwitter

Email, [for editing questions] egarg0201@gmail.com [for publishing questions] prairieskypublishing@gmail.com

Don’t forget to submit your short story for a chance to win $150! Submissions are due by February 25th. Click here for details.

On Writing: Dealing with a Busy Schedule

The next question from my Ask Away post is from Roxanne Oduro. She asked:

“I’m a university student, and with the amount of readings and assignments I have [to] do, I barely have any time to write. Do you have any tips/advice on how to keep up with writing even with a busy schedule?”

I’m going to have to be really honest here and state that I don’t have the answer. I’m still trying to figure it out.

I have a tendency to put my writing above my family (the equivalent, I guess, to being a university student, maybe?). The last couple of months, in fact, has been really rough.

Not to get too personal, but it got to the point where Sarabeth told me to not do any writing at the house because she didn’t want the kids or herself to be flat-out ignored while they clambered for my attention.

I hate to admit it, but that worked. I finished the first draft of my YA novel, which I’m extremely proud of and excited to release to you all when it’s fully edited and revised.

But I know you can’t just take off from college any time you want. But if you’re observant, you’ll notice you have more time than you think (it’s just hidden in the clutter of your full itinerary).

Aside from my family I also work a full-time job and I sit at my desk with a pen and pad and jot down notes and ideas I have during the day. I did the same thing when I was in school. I’ve learned to “split my brain,” so to speak. Even though I’m paying attention to what’s before me, I’ve tried the other side of my brain to run a constant reel of whatever book I’m working on.

Ideas don’t take breaks. We do.

The point to all of this is, you’ve got to find a way that works best for you. Perhaps recording your thoughts as you walk from class to class. Instead of taking a TV break from studying, you write.

Delete the games on your phone.

Maybe you’re in a relationship where he/she isn’t encouraging you in your work/dreams. If you’re married, work it out. If you’re not, dump ’em.

Prioritize. And then cut out the clutter that doesn’t need to be there.

You’ve got to be willing to lose sleep. I’m up at 4 AM or earlier most mornings to get a head start. Someone told me recently that the mornings are when your best ideas come out, because you’re fresh off the battery pack, so to speak.

You have to make the hard decisions to get done what you really want to get done. Ask yourself every day: “Do you really want to be a writer, or is that just what you tell people because it sounds cool?” (This can apply to any dream job.)

I wish I had an easier answer to this, but I just don’t. And I can fill up about four more posts sharing ideas and failed attempts. I’m still learning. I hope this helps, anyway.

Follow me on Twitter: @atoy1208 and Facebook. Why? Because you’re going to get a front-row seat watching this average guy start a publishing company from scratch. And I’m going to need you to root me on.