1,000 Books

It goes everywhere with me. It carries over 1,000 of my books. It hands me the one I want at a moment’s notice. It keeps track of what page I’m on without a sticky note. It defines words I don’t know and tells me how to pronounce unfamiliar words. It allows me to sort my books onto different shelves for convenience’s sake and easily find books that I own or that are available in the bookstore. It’s my most faithful companion (aside from my husband) and the best tool that I own.

It’s my ereader, in my case a Nook from Barnes & Noble, though I’m sure Amazon’s Kindle and other devices do much the same things. I’ve gone through several iterations of the Nook device over the years and downloaded the Nook reading app to my iPad. When one gets low on juice, I simply switch to another while it’s recharging.

(Of course, I will need a way to convert all those ebooks to Kindle when the time comes and Barnes & Noble either collapses or stops supporting their own devices. I have a Kindle reading app on one of the readers because there was a book I dearly loved, Rift by Liza Cody, which B&N didn’t offer. But I digress.)

I usually keep two books going at once – one fiction and one nonfiction – and switch back and forth when a chapter or essay ends, or really, whenever the mood strikes me. I have a TBR stack as long as my arm, literally, but it will never collapse on me and kill me. I take my reading addiction wherever I go, never having to resort to reading the labels on ketchup bottles to satisfy my jones.

The iPad with the Nook reading app may be my favorite of all my ereaders, because it allows me to switch to other apps, check my email, messages, and Facebook timeline easily. And it has a snazzy purple case. My second favorite is my Nook tablet, which allows me to do many of the same things and also has a nifty keyboard should I ever want to answer messages, though to tell the truth, I seldom use it. I got that feature so I could blog on the go, but the WordPress app seems unable to accommodate me. The tablet has a spiffy black cover with a magnet to hold it open or closed, and a hinge so I can set it upright should I ever decide to use the keyboard. My third ereader is a basic Nook that fits in my purse.

My husband insisted I get him an ereader too, though he hardly ever uses it. He got one that fits in his back pocket and is linked to my account so he can read any of my thousand books as well. I make sure to buy ones that he enjoys, like Slaughterhouse-Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Fanny Hill, and I introduce him to new ones, like Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

My one complaint about my ereader is that it does not do pictures well. Once I had a subscription to Barnes & Noble’s version of  National Geographic. The photographs that appeared there were less than impressive. You expect impressive photos from National Geographic. Even the pictures in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did not reproduce well. And the hand-written letters – I basically had to skip them, even though they contributed a lot to the plot.

Still, I am willing to overlook those flaws. As I get older and my eyes get worse (doc says I’m in line to develop cataracts), I’m going to need my ereader, where I can bump up the point sizes, more than ever. And purses large enough to contain them. Maybe I should carry a needlepoint tote like all the craft ladies I know – containing no yarn. Just 1000 books.

 

Your Writing Brain

Re-writing – also known as content editing – is a necessity at some stage of preparing your manuscript. However, there are pitfalls.

Suppose you are writing a novel, and one day it comes to you – the exquisite bit of detail that will make a scene pop or reveal something important about your protagonist’s inner life. You go to your manuscript and insert it just where you think it will do the most good. Then you read a little further and find that your perfect addition was already added one or two drafts ago. Yes, you had a brilliant thought, but you had it before, and yes, you knew where to put it, but with a few paragraph’s difference. Then you have the option of deciding which is the better place for that exquisite piece of prose to go, but it’s still kind of demoralizing.

Or – as just happened to me – you get a great idea for a blog post. You even start drafting it. But something niggles at the back of your brain. It all sounds very familiar. So, you go back to your file of posts and discover that you wrote almost exactly the same post, using almost exactly the same language, two years before. It was good enough that it doesn’t need rewriting, and you’re not so desperate that you re-post previous writing when ideas are thin on the ground. What do you do then?

Obviously, as I have done, you take the situation as a jumping-off point for a new post about re-writing that covers different territory than the old post. And you check your files again to make sure that this one is not a rewrite as well. It may even be a good idea to read over at least the titles on your old blog posts before you begin a new one.

Or you set out in a different direction entirely, one you’ve never explored before. Never write about politics? This may be the time to start. Start a short story instead of a blog post. Begin plotting the sequel to the novel that you’ve been sending around to agents, on the theory that agents and editors love series rather than stand-alone novels. Or try poetry, which you haven’t written since college. Think of it as a way to flex your writing muscles and blow the cobwebs off your brain.

You can also engage in prewriting (which, unfortunately, resembles lying on the couch and staring off into space). Toss ideas around in your head. Brainstorm, without analyzing whether your ideas are spectacular or not. You can even jot down a few of the ones that strike you as most fruitful, but really the exercise is just to get your brain moving. Re-read favorite books and pay attention to why you love them and how the authors made you love them.

Writing prompts and contests are also ways to get your creative juices flowing. Many writing websites feature assorted prompts. Or a question asked or situation described on Facebook may cause you to think, “What would I do in that situation?” or “Gee, that answer stank. Here’s what I would say.” A short story contest might give a list of possible topics. For example, I saw a story contest that proposed a topic of “Write about a new technology that changes a person’s life for good or ill.” I got a story out of it and an honorable mention.

And don’t be afraid if your new idea isn’t something earthshaking or written for the ages. Remember that William Carlos Williams wrote about plums in the icebox and Pablo Neruda wrote “Ode to My Socks.” Both of these are considered classic poems today.

You can also get ideas from the best. What if you had written “Ode to My Socks”? How would it go? What would it reveal? What if you took the premise of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” and ran with it? What alternate ending could you invent? At this point, it doesn’t matter if what you write isn’t better than Neruda or Asimov. It’s enough that you’re stretching your brain and your creativity.

Whether you write about something familiar that you may have overlooked, try a new style or genre, or just play with words until some of them magically come together, you are performing exercises in writing. And that’s a good thing.

New Year’s Sweaters I Have Known

Christmas sweaters, both ugly and pretty, have come and gone for this year. But for me, sweaters are inevitably evocative of New Year’s. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, I worked in an office that didn’t go in for Christmas sweaters. The telemarketing department wore Christmas sweatshirts, mostly handcrafted. My department, fortunately, left the exercise to them. I’m not at my best with hot glue, sequins, and ribbon. Not to say I end up wearing the appliques, but let’s just say they adhere to something other than the sweatshirt.

Later, I did work in an office where Christmas sweaters were a Thing. (Ugly sweaters were not a Thing. Yet.) Everyone, it seemed had a closet- or drawer-full of festive holiday wear.

I had exactly one handed-down-from-a-friend Christmas vest. That was fine, as far as it went, but it didn’t go very far. Everyone else had complete wardrobes of Christmas sweaters, perhaps not one for each of the 12 Days of Christmas, but enough for the entire week before. I had a hard enough time fitting in with the work crowd, so I decided I would play the sweater game too.

Being frugal (that is to say cheap), I saw no point in paying good money for a sweater or multiple sweaters that I could wear only once a year. I had a dilemma. The answer soon came to me. I would shop on New Year’s Day, when the Christmas sweaters had all been put on the clearance sale table. I scooped up about five, including one I particularly liked. Instead of being red or green, it was dark blue, a night scene with Santa and his sleigh flying over rooftops and across the moon. I tucked them away in a drawer, anticipating how I would wow the office the next year.

Inevitably, and given my luck, I was let go before the next Christmas season. I went freelance, which meant that my usual work clothes were pajamas. My beautiful sweaters languished in a drawer and so did my snowflake and wrapped presents earrings (I picked up some of those too at the sales). One year I tried to be festive and dressed up for Christmas, but no one at the Chinese restaurant was impressed.

I did have one other adventure involving New Year’s sweaters. One year, some of my friends and I were determined to crash a fancy party in a local hotel. I did have a black sweater with gold and silver beading around the yoke. (I forget why. Maybe my friend, she of the Christmas vest, gave it to me.) At any rate, it was simple enough to buy some shiny gold fabric and ask my mother to sew it into a simple skirt. My friend had a similar outfit, and the guy accompanying us rented a tux, which I thought was overkill. But it was fun to stand next to him in my white faux fur coat and shed all over him.

We had it planned just right. We wandered into the hotel ballroom precisely at 11:30 p.m., when no one else was expected to arrive, and mingled. (We knew one of the band members and decided to claim we were with him if challenged.) Then we indulged in the open bar (this was many years ago, when I sometimes indulged in dodgy behavior) and I spent part of the evening necking with one of the waiters. (He was trying to convince me to take a hotel room. I declined.)

Afterward, we went to a nearby diner in our finery and sobered up on coffee and waffles. We tried to hold down our obnoxious glee, but I suspect we failed. 

This year for Christmas, my husband presented me with an assortment of sweaters – the kind meant to keep one warm. Not a sequin or reindeer in sight. He did also give me a pair of Christmas earrings (cats in stockings), which I made sure to wear when we went to the store to pick up a bottle of champagne for our New Year’s celebration. Maybe next year I can get him to dress up as a waiter.

Getting Into the Movies

While I admit it would be terrific if my mystery novel finds an agent, and then a publisher, and then becomes a wildly popular best-seller, and then gets made into a big Hollywood movie, that’s not what I’m here to write about today.

In one of the Facebook groups I belong to, someone posed the question, what thing in a movie is a deal-breaker for you? There were all kinds of answers. One of the most interesting was someone who said the “10% of your brainpower” film, in which one person suddenly gains the use of all 100% and acquires superpowers. (That whole thing about using only 10% of your brainpower is a crock anyway. Have you ever heard anyone say, “He was shot in the head, but fortunately the bullet only hit the 90% he wasn’t using”? But I digress.)

I had two and a half dealbreakers. The first one was any movie with Sylvester Stallone. At least Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have a sense of humor about himself. 

Another thing that keeps me from being able to enter into a movie is when the POV (point of view) character is a pre-teen or teenage boy. This puts “A Christmas Story” out of the running, as well as “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.” I understand that both of those movies are wildly popular, but I just can’t get into them the way I can “All That Jazz,” “Contact,” or anything with Kris Kristofferson in it.

The half a deal-breaker was superhero movies or anything based on a comic book. It’s only half a deal-breaker because I have to admit that I like the Deadpool movies. But they’re sort of outside the typical superhero movie. Breaking the fourth wall much?

The other thing that keeps me “outside” a movie, I hate to admit, is my husband. He has a habit of leaning over to me and whispering softly in my ear, “I think I know how those space ships work,” or “Do you know a guy named Elliot?” or “I think I have a pimple on my back. Can you look?” There’s no coming back from a mood-killer like one of those.

I’ve been working on him, though, and I’ve almost convinced him that when I’m staring in rapture at the screen, eyes glazed over, barely breathing, is not the right time to tell or ask me anything other than “The theater (or livingroom) is on fire,” and then only if it really is.

Then he slips. I’m watching an engrossing DVD that I haven’t seen in years, and he sits down beside me and asks, “Did you hear what Trump just did?” And then looks offended when I shush him.

One time when he did get the hint was when we were watching the third “Lord of the Rings” movie in the theater, and when the ending came, I was curled up a ball in my seat, with tears cascading my face. Even if he did have a comment to make about what kinds of swords everyone had used or how much he liked the actress who played Galadriel (who, since he can’t remember the character’s name, he always refers to as “the elf witch,” which is not even close, but by now I know who he means), he restrained himself. 

And he does know not to talk to me when I’m watching a film I sing along with, like “The Mikado” or “Pirates of Penzance” or “The Wizard of Oz” or “Cabaret.”

So what are films I enter into? In addition to the aforementioned, “An American in Paris,” “The Three (and Four) Musketeers,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “The Big Chill,” and “The Commitments,” among others.

I’m sometimes tempted to wait until he’s watching  “My Favorite Year” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” and ask him “Who’s that guy playing Potter? What else have I seen him in?” But I don’t. Because I’m a good wife.

 

How the Pandemic Changed My Life

The pandemic has changed lots of peoples’ lives. They’ve taken up new hobbies, learned new skills, and bonded more closely with family and friends. They’ve learned what things mean the most to them and what they miss the most. Some have lived in fear and others have found new strength.

Post-Pandemic

As for me, since the pandemic struck last spring, I have been working from home, on my Macintosh. Because of that I can – and do – spend most days as well as nights in my pajamas. I have not had my hair or nails done since March.

I no longer go out, except for vital appointments like visits to doctors. I have a mask (actually I have two – one leopard print and one camo) and I wear one or the other religiously whenever I do go out. In general, when I do go out or want to look even semi-respectable, I pull my hair back into the fortunate ‘do known as a messy bun – my favorite of all the recent fashion styles.

My husband takes care of most of the errands, such as grocery shopping. He’s not able to work from home, so most days are very quiet, allowing me to do my work and my writing.

Speaking of writing, I have had time to work on my mystery novel. It’s now in shape to where I can send queries to agents and start collecting rejection slips. (I’ve done this before and am used to them.) I haven’t taken up any other hobbies. I have resisted the allure of homemade bread and jam and homemade Christmas decorations as well.

I don’t really have pandemic panic. First of all, I have a third-degree black belt in social distancing. I have no aesthetic, medical, or political objection to masks. And I’ve mastered the art of creative procrastination.

My philosophy has for a long time been not to worry about things I can’t do anything about, and to postpone worrying until the looming whatever-it-is actually hits. So far the pandemic has not invaded our house (not to put a kinnehara on it). Since I have been taking all necessary precautions, I won’t worry about it until it does.

That said, I can’t really say that I miss my life before the pandemic. You see, it has changed almost not at all.

Pre-Pandemic

I’ve worked from home for a number of years, so that’s no challenge for me. And I can just sit down at my computer and work on my novel as I always have. My typical uniform has always been pajamas, or a nightshirt when the weather is pleasant. I never had much of a social life anyway, mostly conducted by phone and computer. For “formal” Zoom meetings, I could half-dress, which is still true.

I not only haven’t had my hair and nails done since March, I haven’t had them done in years. (Unless you count clipping my nails, which I do regularly, or biting them, which I do occasionally.) 

Also, pre-pandemic, it was rare for me to leave the house, except for doctor’s appointments. And when I did this before the pandemic, I didn’t wear a mask, of course, not even for Halloween or when robbing banks. (I wonder how bank personnel feel about having masked people coming into the branches that are open. It must be at least a little unnerving. But I digress.)

My husband has always done the grocery and most other shopping, as he works in a big box store that has a grocery section. He has worked third shift for years, so it’s always been quiet, both during the morning when he sleeps and at night when he works.

I still have all the things that are important to me – my husband, my home, my work, my novel, my cats, enough food, and my medications (which can be picked up at a drive-through). The pandemic so far has taken none of them away. There is almost nothing I miss.

Except going out for lunch. We’ve done take-out, but it’s just not the same. At home, the cats bug us shamelessly for little nibbles of whatever we’re having. Even if they don’t like the food, they can’t resist sticking their little noses in. At least in proper restaurants, there are no intrusive noses.

 

Binge Christmas

What to get my husband for Christmas (and birthdays) is always a problem. Specifically, he always tells me what he wants, leaving me in a trap. If I get him what he says he wants, I’m disappointed because I didn’t surprise him. If I get him something else, he’s disappointed because he didn’t get what he wanted. You see my dilemma.

This year I went a little crazy, hoping that one of the things I got him would be something he liked, or at least was surprised by. It helps that one of the symptoms of my bipolar disorder is hypomania, which often leads to binge shopping. This time, I thought, I would use my symptom for good.

The first thing I got Dan was one of those home DNA test kits. He had once expressed interest in them, and a friend suggested it, so I went for it. (It was on sale for half price.) I gave it to him early, because it arrived in a box that was clearly and colorfully labeled as such and there was no hiding it, as he brings in the mail. I hoped that the results would be back by Christmas and we could surprise and appall his mom by telling her that Dan had some unsuitable ancestors, such as Neanderthals, in his family background.

So far, though, he hasn’t spit in the little tube and mailed it back. I do not think this is because he does not like to spit, although really he doesn’t do it all that much, except at the dentist. I suspect that he secretly doesn’t care where his ancestors came from, and appalling his mother isn’t enough of an enticement to make him go through the strenuous exercise of spitting. If he doesn’t get with the program, I may have to collect his drool while he’s sleeping.

I also ordered him a print he wanted to replace because the original was destroyed in our tornado. (I call it “our” tornado because, while it affected many other families (fortunately, no one was killed), it was the only one we had ever had (and we thought it was more than sufficient)). But I digress.

The print was a semi-famous one of Morris the Cat, of cat-food commercial fame. If that seems an odd thing to have in one’s collection, I think so too, but there you have it. He loved that thing as only someone who loves large orange cats can. I went on eBay, found someone who had a copy in good condition, made a bid, and got it. The sturdily wrapped package arrived promptly and is stored beside my desk, where it waits enticingly for later in the month.

But I didn’t stop there. I saw one of those online come-ons for a service that would convert a photo of your pet into a piece of artwork. I sent them a picture of his gray tiger, Toby, and was very pleased with the results. Another package beside my desk. Then I ordered one of our calico, Dushenka, too, so she wouldn’t feel left out. Yet another package. At this point, Dan was getting anxious. “How much stuff did you buy for me?” he asked.

I wasn’t done yet. I found another online service that would take any photo and encase it in lucite. I sent them a photo of Jasper, a cat of ours who had passed away and Dan mourned extravagantly. I actually gave him this early, too, because it was just a small trinket and would fit nicely in his curio cabinet.

I’m pretty sure he’ll be surprised, if only by the volume of presents and the theme of “Cats We Have Known” (or sort-of knew, in the case of Morris).

Now I have to think about his birthday in April and see if I have another fit of binge-shopping. Or maybe just get him the Dremel tool he really wants.

Happy Pandemic Birthday to Me

Today is my birthday, and we are in the middle of a pandemic. How does this affect my celebration? Hardly at all. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with birthdays and am perfectly happy celebrating them with as little fuss as possible. In fact, my idea of a really good present is for my husband to tell the waitstaff not to sing when they bring my birthday cupcake or sundae. I rather imagine that they enjoy the singing as little as I do.

This year, it’s even more minimalist than that. Since we no longer go out to eat, I am expecting to get a surprise bag of Taco Bell takeout, with maybe a candle in the quesadilla, or, if I’m really lucky, Long John Silver’s chicken planks with a candle in the cole slaw.

Of course, my husband still gets me presents. He buys them in July or so and hides them till December, then gives them to me – if he can remember where he hid them. For this Pandemic Birthday, he hasn’t had the advantage of following me around stores to see what I like, then sneaking back later to buy it. He does work in a department store, so I’m pretty sure he’s gotten me something and hidden it in the back of his car.

Since the store he works at also has a day-old baked goods table, I can reliably expect some form of leftover cake or pie, sometimes with whipped cream, but hardly ever with a candle. And when there is a candle, just one is fine, thank you very much. I may also, of course, receive the proverbial bowling ball named Homer.

In my teens, I tried to disown my birthday altogether. In my dysfunctional way, I told people that it was on March 1, rather than in December. This was a stupid coping mechanism, not unlike the time prescription Ibuprofen caused me stomach trouble in college and I sat by the door in my classes, hoping that the burping would be less noticeable there. Don’t ask me why. My birthday didn’t go away (the burping didn’t either), my family still baked me cakes, and I still got presents or cards.

Eventually, I reclaimed my actual birthday. As the years went by, I barely celebrated at all. Then Facebook came along and now I have the opportunity to count the number of people who wish me happy birthday. As excitement goes, it’s not much.

There’s likely to be even less excitement this year. A surprise party would be out of the question, even if I liked them, which I don’t. First of all, I almost never leave the house, so it would be difficult to sneak people in without my noticing. Also, having masked people jump out from behind furniture and yell at me would resemble a home invasion more than a party. Besides, a good many of my friends live out of state and even the ones here in town are social distancing, which is part of why they’re my friends.

I’m content these days just to let my birthday slide by with an emotion that ranges from meh to Bah, Humbug, depending on the year. I have a feeling this is going to be a meh year.

 

 

Thanksgiving Memories

It all started with my sister. Once she and my mother and I were driving around and talking about Thanksgiving. She was waxing rhapsodic about how it would be wonderful to give our cats little bites of turkey.

“Actually,” I said, “we’re having lasagna.”

The gasp from the back seat was audible.

“It’s going to have ground turkey in it. Does that count?”

Apparently, it didn’t.

Since that time, we have avoided turkey every year (except the one time Dan’s work was handing them out), just to piss off my sister, the uber-traditionalist.

Fortunately, we now have our own traditions.

Entertainment

This is really the heart and soul of our Thanksgiving. Every year we watch the “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati  (thank goodness for the internet!) and listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” singing – or rather reciting – along. One year we also had a DVD of a cozy fire in a fireplace. It was so realistic that, in the middle of it, someone from offstage came in and put another log on the fire.

Skype

One year Dan and his mother were particularly lonely, as they lived in different states. We taught her how to Skype – no easy task from hundreds of miles away – then set up our feast on a utility table in my study. At least we were able to have conversation and watch each other eat. (I think that was the turkey year, or at least the turkey breast year.) For an approximation of the Skype problem, go here to listen to my friend Tom Smith’s song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5XfjUPqj9M).

Food

The lasagna we had has not been our only departure from traditional holiday fare. One year we had spaghetti; another, salmon poached in orange juice. Our most memorable non-turkey meal, though, was the year we had ratatouille. It has been immortalized on my blog in an older post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z), but here’s the gist of it.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so Thanksgiving luncheon would be only me, my mother, and Dan’s best friend John. Doing a whole turkey for three people seemed excessive, and I wanted to make another nontraditional dish, so I settled on ratatouille, with the addition of some sausage for John, a carnivore.

Imagine our surprise when, after taking just one bite, John choked and couldn’t breathe. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of Heimlichs, emergency equipment, the emergency room, several doctors, and an x-ray. Turns out John had swallowed the bay leaf, which I had neglected to remove, and it had lodged on top of his vocal cords. The highly technical medical procedure required to remove it was a very hard cough. We then went back to my mother’s house for ice cream.

Read the whole thing, if you have time.

Pandemic Thanksgiving

This year, the year of the pandemic, we didn’t have anyone over for Thanksgiving. Not only did we think it was safer, but both my mother and John have passed on. And not from any encounters with rogue bay leaves. I learned my lesson and now use a bouquet garni.

What we did this year combined the traditional and the nontraditional. We didn’t try to teach Mom Reily to Zoom this year. It would take longer to do that than to roast a full-sized turkey.

No, Dan and I continued our nontraditional tradition and at the same time supported a local small business by patronizing them. This year, we had a jolly feast of take-out sushi and Kirin beer. Arlo and Les Nessman were invited, of course. We have to keep up some traditions.

 

 

When “Friend” Became a Verb: Young People and Social Media

I recently interviewed Harvard professor Dr. Michael Rich (M.D.), founder and leader of the Center of Media and Child Health. Here’s what he told me about young people and social media.

What are some of the problems children have with social media?

One of the big problems kids have is they lose track of time. Of course, the games and social media have that built-in – want to disconnect you from time, because time with your eyeballs is their currency. We also have to add that kids’ brains are still maturing and their pre-frontal cortex, where impulse control, future thinking, and all that executive function lie, is not going to be online until their mid to late 20s.

Also, I think we lost a lot when “friend” became a verb. We friend people willy-nilly and rack up the score, but they’re not the kind of friends that you can cry to in the middle of the night or who you could reach out for a shoulder to lay your head on.

Why do you say “problematic interactive media use” instead of “gaming addiction”?

Gaming is just one of four manifestations we’re seeing of what we’re calling “problematic interactive media use.” That includes games, which is predominately boys, or most prevalent in boys, although we have a fair number of girls; followed by social media, more prevalent in girls; pornography, evenly balanced between the boys and girls; and “information binging” – following the endless rabbit holes of Wikipedia, etc. There are many ways you can get lost in the web essentially eternally. 

Part of the reason we call it problematic interactive media use is it’s not an addiction. It’s overuse of a necessary resource. In the 21st-century the online space, the active media space, is necessary to function at school, function at work, etc. What continues with many of the advocacy groups out there is a call to cut down on screen time, get rid of these devices, block this, do that, rather than taking a step back and saying this is the world we must live in.

How should we approach interactive media use with children?

Instead of looking at these devices as vectors of harm or help, let’s look at these devices as creating an environment we’re living in. Instead of trying to avoid it, how can we use good, unbiased science to understand how to live with it and help our children be healthier, happier, more productive, and kinder to each other?

I think that what we really need to do is approach this much the way we approach nutrition or injury prevention, which is: What are the facts? What are the risk-benefit ratios, and how does it fit into my life? How can I optimize the benefit and minimize the risk?

Are the problems increasing?

I don’t think that the problem is greater than it was before. I think people are noticing it more, in part because the parents are at home with the kids all day. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and amplified that process immensely, particularly for children, but for all of us who stay at home for long periods of time, and in some cases fighting over bandwidth.

Kids on average are getting 11 hours and 45 minutes of screen content every day and those were data generated before the pandemic. People are desperate to ask what the ideal screen time limits should be for kids. I’ve been saying for years screen time limits are obsolete.

Why do you say that?

What the research shows and clinical experience shows is the best way to approach this is to sit down with your child, really of any age, even as young as five, and think of their 24-hour day as an empty glass that you fill up with this many hours of sleep, a family meal at least once a day (probably the most protective thing you can do for a child’s mental health, as well as their nutrition), put aside time for homework, put aside time for some physical activity, and then see what time is left.

What you’re doing in that case is engaging the young person in making the schedule, giving them some ownership of that schedule. Second, you are being mindful about the finite amount of things that they want to do and allowing them to prioritize and then to manage their time – and God knows we could all do better with time management. This is a way of building those habits early.

What about social media and relationships online?

I think social media can be a great practice area for relationships, a place where you can start to tentatively let people know that you’re interested in them either as a friend or as a romantic partner, try things out, stumble and fall a little bit. But it also is a place where people on either side of that communication can misinterpret something that may have been sent as a flirty tease, but they could take it in a hurtful way.

These principles apply to all of us, though I think kids are in some ways the “canary in the coal mine,” in that they are early adopters of technology. They are facile with technology and are much more adept with it than their parents. Often, are they are going to run into these issues more quickly.

Any final thoughts?

Young people go online in hopes that it will build community, they’ll make connections with people. Because they feel anxious in an in-person social situation, they go to social media to take baby steps, to try to connect with people. 

I think that in our quest for and achievement of near-infinite connectivity, we’ve lost our connectedness in a deep and meaningful way, the way we are connected with family and with close friends. That kind of connectedness is sustaining and meaningful. I think the most important thing is to use social media so that we can be real with each other.

 

Adults Saying No

I read a story a long time ago. A woman received a call from her child’s school’s PTA, telling her that they needed two dozen cupcakes (or something similar) from her for their upcoming fundraiser.

The mother thought for a moment. “How much do you expect to earn through this event?” she asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“And how many people do you expect will contribute baked goods?”

“About 15.”

The mother promptly sent the PTA a check for $20 and did no baking.

The PTA members seemed quite upset by this. But here was a mother who had learned to say “no,” while still supporting the PTA’s goal in a tangible way – just without adding a baking chore to her job, or indeed whatever else she had to do.

Saying “no” is important. Lately, we’ve been hearing that permitting children to say “no” to an unwelcome hug or kiss, even from a close relative, is an early lesson in bodily autonomy and setting limits. Similarly, children should be able to say “stop” when being tickled and have their boundaries respected. 

Perhaps because many grown women didn’t have a chance to learn how to say “no” – and have it heard and accepted – they still don’t know how to set those boundaries.

It’s especially hard to do when children are involved.

I read another story about a woman eating a bowl of strawberries. Her child had already eaten his bowl of strawberries, but wanted his mother to give him her last berry. She ate it herself instead.

I remember this caused a furor among those who read the article. Most of the people who wrote in to the magazine where it was published were of the opinion that the mother should have surrendered the last strawberry to her child. Mothers were supposed to sacrifice for their children, they said. The mother who ate the last berry in her bowl was being selfish.

A few replied, however, that the mother was right – and within her rights to eat the strawberry herself. Her child had already eaten his share of the berries. By insisting on being given the last berry, he was, they said, learning greed and that all his wants should be gratified, to say nothing about disrespecting his mother, who, in eating the last berry, was saying “no” to him.

Nothing was resolved, of course, but everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.

Parents have to say “no” to their children sometimes, especially in cases involving danger. They also have to teach their children to say “no” – again especially in cases involving danger. And they would do well to teach their children to accept a “no” from someone else.

But when an adult says “no” to another adult, as in the first example, the response is often incredulity. How dare a mother refuse to participate in a school bake sale! The fact that she contributed in her own, deliberately fair, way seemed an affront.

But saying “no” to requests for time, money, energy, and effort is natural and understandable. It’s very difficult, though, especially for women, and especially without adding some excuse – doctor’s appointment, visiting relative, or whatever. Some feel guilty even when the excuse is valid and true.

Because that’s what’s really happening here. Parents feel guilty when they decide to deny their children – or their children’s schools – anything.

And feeling guilty is a hard habit to break.