When Being a Writer Gets in the Way of Being a Reader

Henri Matisse, La liseuse en blanc et jaune

Henri Matisse, La liseuse en blanc et jaune

My last blog post was a contribution to a “writing process blog hop,” but the truth is I haven’t been writing much lately.  In part, that is because of my disenchantment with the experience of being a writer.  There is a big difference between writing and “being a writer.”  Working with words and crafting stories is a wonderful, solitary pleasure, yet ultimately most writers crave an audience.  And as I learned after publishing my novel Au Pair Report, audiences do not materialize like rabbits out of hats.

Knowing how important it is to “reach out” to strangers who may be willing to take a chance on an unknown book, I have immersed myself (albeit sporadically) in the world of social media over the past two years.  Connecting with readers and other writers has at times been a rewarding experience.  Through Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, and SheWrites, I have gotten to know many talented and supportive writers.  We comment on each other’s blogs and share each other’s shares.  Some of these online acquaintances have gone on to read my book, and I have read some of theirs.  Building and maintaining such relationships is time-consuming, and social media crowds out time for writing fiction or anything other than the occasional blog post.  Yet what has bothered me more is the way it encroaches upon my reading time.

By reading time, I do not mean time spent perusing other authors’ blog posts or reading articles online with an eye toward tweeting a link along with a clever comment.  By reading time, I mean the time I spend away from my computer turning the pages of actual books—books chosen simply because they interest me and not out of self-interest or reciprocity (as in, I’ll read and review your book if you read and review mine).

It feels wrong that so much of my reading these days is mediated by screens.  I am always happier when I can focus on a book without getting distracted by the temptations of the Internet.  Although the Internet gives writers opportunities to market themselves, writers have to work harder than ever to capture the attention of readers because of the abundance of available content.  Unfortunately, for those of us who don’t have the luxury of being full-time writers, this often means staying up late and staring at a screen rather than winding down at night with a book.

Perhaps because I am a former medievalist, the word “worldliness” comes to mind because “being a writer” is a form of social engagement that alienates me from what one could consider the more “spiritual” mode of reading.  Although I am a committed secularist, reading is probably the closest I come to a spiritual practice.  Communing with a book is a solitary and meditative act, and often the stories we read invite self-reflection and a yearning for self-improvement.  Writing fiction has that potential for me also, but “being a writer” does not.

When I am playing the role of a writer reaching out to a potential audience, there is always some element of vanity in my actions—in spite of my desire for a genuine engagement with readers and other writers.  It is too easy to worry about what other people think and to focus on book reviews, blog stats, and other such indicators of a nascent reputation.  Author Kathleen Hale recently wrote a confessional piece about how a reviewer’s harsh comments led to her obsession with exposing the reviewer’s fabricated online identity. This is an extreme example of how unhealthy being a writer can become.  The backlash against Hale’s essay suggests that she may lose more readers than she will gain by sharing this story.

One could object that just as there is a difference between writing and “being a writer,” there is a difference between reading and “being a reader.”  The latter is especially true for book bloggers such as the one who wounded Hale’s vanity, for these bloggers construct online identities as readers.  Although I also blog about books sometimes, I do not feel the same disconnect between whatever online identity I have as a reader and the act of reading.

Having taken long breaks from writing in the past, I may not be one of those writers who absolutely must write, but I am a reader who absolutely must read.  Spending time with fiction is fundamental to my happiness, and while I sometimes think writing novels is not worth it if I have to exert so much energy to market them, the value of reading novels is something I never question.  My love for reading is what first brought me to writing, and it is what will bring me back.  For now, however, I’m focusing more on being a reader and less on being a writer.

Writing Process Blog Hop: What, Why, and How I Write

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Image by Karin Dalziel on Flickr

Image by Karin Dalziel on Flickr

My friend and fellow writing group member, Kristin Battista-Frazee, invited me to participate in a “blog hop.” If this conjures up visions of dancing around at a “sock hop,” then you’ve got the right attitude about reading and writing!

This is a fun way to learn about writers who are out there connecting with readers through blogs. I have had the pleasure of meeting many other authors—sometimes in person and sometimes online—and learning from their experiences with writing, publishing, and marketing their books. Below are my responses to several questions about my writing process, and if you follow the links back from my post to others, you will get a pretty good snapshot of what it means to be a writer today.

Two writers whose productivity and creativity have inspired me will be blogging about their writing processes in the coming weeks:

Deborah Brasket: Be sure to check Deborah Brasket’s website the week of June 16.  Deborah writes about nature and the creative arts, and the borders they share. Her adventures sailing around the world with her family years ago give her a unique perspective on the natural world. She is working on novels for adults and for middle grade readers.

Scott D. Southard: The week of June 23, you should visit the website of Scott Southard, a prolific novelist and blogger who also reviews books for a Michigan NPR radio affiliate, WKAR. His most recent novel is A Jane Austen Daydream, and his next novel, Permanent Spring Showers, will appear in October.

What are you working on?

My work-in-progress is a novel called The Wallpaper Lady. Using wallpaper as a metaphor for peeling away the layers of a crazy family history, I combine the story of a bipolar wallpaper hanger with images of the wild and wonderful wallpaper so popular during my 1970s childhood. You can read more about The Wallpaper Lady HERE.

I am also working on getting the word out about my first novel, Au Pair Report, which first came out as an ebook at the end of 2012 and came out in paperback this May. Like many writers, I am struggling to strike a balance between expanding the audience for an already published book and making progress with a current project.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This is a tough question to answer because my work does not fit neatly into any of the typical genres such as romance, mystery, etc. The label that seems most accurate is “contemporary women’s fiction,” yet I know there are men who enjoyed my first novel, Au Pair Report. I think that will be even truer of The Wallpaper Lady. Just as women read books with male protagonists, men should read books with female protagonists, so I’m deeply ambivalent about claiming the label of “women’s fiction,” yet also realize it is a category that may help me to attract the most likely readers of my novels: women.

Similar to many other books that would also fall in the category of women’s fiction, my novels explore how mothers influence daughters, but they focus in particular on the legacy of maternal mental illness. There is an increasing amount of fiction about bipolar disorder, so what’s unique about mine? It just so happens that so far my novels have also provided a glimpse into two unusual jobs, as their protagonists are a counselor for au pairs and host families and a wallpaper hanger. I think my fiction will always be somewhat preoccupied with how people make a living because the need to work is something most people share.

Why do you write what you do?

One reason I write what I do is that fiction is a way for me to process and make sense of what happens in the world around me. To some extent, incorporating fragments of my personal history into a fictional framework helps me to value the less than perfect childhood I had.  Having a mother with mental illness was a sad thing, yet because she was in many ways a fun, creative, and fascinating person, I also feel fortunate to have had her in my life.

Creative work also has its own rewards, and just as reading a lot of fiction has made me a better writer, writing novels has made me a better reader. I earned a PhD in English literature because it seemed like a good way to spend my life reading and writing, but after choosing not to pursue an academic career, I realized that reading and writing “on the side” provide me with more creative freedom.

How does your writing process work?

One constraint with writing “on the side” is that I have to give priority to my “real job.” I also have children to raise, and many other practical demands of life interfere with my desire to write. However, I have been working from home on a less than full time basis for almost a decade now and have benefited from having a flexible schedule.  Still, as every writer knows, you may not “find time” to write but you can “make time” to write if you have a story you want to tell.

My most productive writing time is late at night when everyone in my house is asleep, but when I was writing Au Pair Report, I took advantage of spare moments whenever I found them.  These days I feel less of a sense of urgency, partly because I am still figuring out my new plot-line. I prefer to write polished prose rather than the sort of “sh**ty first drafts” Anne Lamott advocated in Bird by Bird, but my meticulous approach often slows me down. It took me a whole “practice novel” ( completed and revised over the course of many years, but never published) to learn that no matter how polished my prose may be, revision is always essential—not just at the level of individual sentences, but also at the structural level.

Over the past several years, I have met regularly with a writing group, and sharing my work with those fellow writers, who have become good friends, has taught me a lot about the needs and interests of readers. I welcome honest feedback from all my readers, whether via social media, book reviews, blog comments, or a real live conversation.  Reach out for books–and to their authors!

The Problem with “Awesome” (and Other Expressions of Enthusiasm)

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Photo by LInda Rae Duchaine on Flickr.

Photo by Linda Rae Duchaine on Flickr.

If you know a few tweens or teens, then you must be aware that “awesome” is the adjective of choice for expressing approval among young people. Almost anything can be awesome, including food, weather, music, teachers, pets, and even parents.  I just got a Mother’s Day card from my nine-year-old proclaiming “You are awesome MOMMY!” and I’m sure many other moms received similar accolades to their “awesomeness.”

Of course, it’s not just tweens and teens who use and overuse this adjective and its noun variant. For many of the perky, young teachers at my daughter’s charter school, “awesome” is the verbal equivalent of a gold star: an all-purpose word for praising students’ work and behavior.

When an anthropologist friend of mine described a group of her former undergraduate students as awesome on Facebook, I had to come to terms with how popular the word has become with my own generation. My friend admitted to me that this was her way of appealing to her audience, using language meaningful to them, but for many people my age (over 40, that is), the use of this word is less self-conscious.

The Evolution of “Awesome”

As was the case with “cool” decades ago, words often travel up through the generations until older and older people begin to use them.  At the same time, as young people age, they hold onto familiar vocabulary. Someday, we may have a bunch of centenarians wishing each other “an awesome 10oth birthday.”

A recent headline in the “Style” section of The Washington Post, “Haim’s Unapologetic Awesomeness,” made it clear the word has achieved some journalistic legitimacy (the alternative headline for the online version of the article is “Haim is Both Goofy and Awesome at 9:30 Club“).  In this glowing review of the band Haim’s performance at DC’s 9:30 club, Ashley Fetters described how the three Haim sisters who make up the core of the band threw their “long hair around so violently and awesomely that Robert Plant could have taken some pointers.”

In her review, Ashley Fetters lends to the word “awesome” a strong association with feminine power that made me wonder how soon we would see this sort of vocabulary in front page or “section A” articles of the Post. We may just be a year or two away from reading about “Hillary Clinton’s Unapologetic Awesomeness.”

Let’s just stop and focus on the traditional meaning of the word “awesome.”  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.”  Examples include “the awesome power of the atomic bomb” and “The awesome majesty and power of these mountains is breathtaking.”

Photo by Emergency Brake on Flickr.

Photo by Emergency Brake on Flickr.

Ashley Fetters may be in awe of the Haim sisters’ hair and stage presence, but clearly her use of the word “awesome” strips out apprehension and fear.  OED offers up “Extremely good; excellent” as a secondary definition, labeling it as “informal.”  American culture is indeed becoming more and more informal, but we are also experiencing some adjective inflation when it comes to expressing our enthusiasm.

Blogger Brian D. Buckley has declared that “awesome is dead” and proposes “28 Words to Use Instead of Awesome,” starting with “outstanding” and “astounding” and ending with “kickass” and “legendary.” There are many more we could add to the list, including many that I use regularly with a degree of self-consciousness. Sometimes I tell someone it was wonderful meeting her or him, and realize that word has lost its power, too. The same is true of many of the words on Buckley’s list.

My Issues with Enthusiasm

Since I am writing this on Mother’s Day, I want to tell you about my mom and adjectives.  When eating, she always declared food “luscious” or “scrumptious.” One time, we bought some chicken wrapped in foil, and before she opened it, she said “This looks delicious.”  It’s not that she thought the foil would be tasty; instead, this was her way of bonding through an exuberant appreciation of the moment.

My mom also used such adjectives as “fabulous” and “fantastic” on a regular basis to describe almost anything. Her gushing was funny and endearing, and I miss it now that she’s gone. Still, remembering her immoderate use of adjectives makes it harder for me to wield such expressions of enthusiasm.

Years ago when I was teaching an introductory composition and literature course for college freshmen, a couple of students complained in end-of-semester evaluations that I was not enthusiastic enough. These comments were from students who obviously had no interest in the readings. Apparently, it was my job to convey infectious enthusiasm that would win them over. We live in a culture of entertainers and cheerleaders, and my students might have wanted me to persuade them of the awesomeness of the course readings, but perhaps they also wanted me to reward them with gold stars for their own awesomeness.

Is Everything Awesome?

Photo by Miguel Vaca on Flickr.

Photo by Miguel Vaca on Flickr.

I see the American obsession with enthusiasm as a sign of collective insecurity. Maybe this is why we try so hard to document all the positive aspects of our lives–through photos, social media, etc.–and so few of the negative aspects.

I saw The Lego Movie about a month ago with my daughter, and its catchy theme song, “Everything is Awesome” often pops into my head when I see or hear the word “awesome.”

 

Everything is awesome.

Everything is cool

when you’re part of a team.

Everything is awesome

when you’re living out a dream.

As this YouTube clip demonstrates, the song first appears in a scene when the film’s insecure hero, Emmet, is trying too hard to fit in. Although it sounds like a bubble gum pop song, it is in fact a critique of the conformist desire to feel good about a consumer culture that discourages independent thought and action.

We know everything is not awesome, but we are part of a team as fellow English speakers. I hope to do my part to rein in adjective inflation—living out my dream of making words matter. And I hope you will do your part by using the word “awesome” only when you really mean it–when you are truly in awe of someone or something!

Student Parent Book Club Brings Authors to Teen Moms

Author Danielle Evans visits the Student Parent Book Club at Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington, DC.

Author Danielle Evans visits the Student Parent Book Club at Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington, DC. Photo by Ariel Martino.

About a year ago, in my blog post, “Five Things My Book Club Taught Me About How Real Readers Read,” I shared memories of a book club experience from many years ago. What I learned from reading novels with a group of female friends is that readers crave a connection with the stories they read–and with the writers who craft those stories. Readers are naturally curious about the lives of authors and about how they incorporate truth into fiction.

Now, as a volunteer for PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the promotion of literature, I am in another book club–this time with a group of teen moms who are students at a high school in my neighborhood. These young women, ranging in age from 15 to 18, are participants in the New Heights program, which provides services and workshops to expectant and parenting students in seventeen DC schools.  They attend classes while their children, infants to two-year-olds, spend the school day in an on-site child care facility. One of the many great things about our book club, which is part of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program, is that we get to meet the authors whose books we read.

We have met Danielle Evans, author of the short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and Lulu Delacre, author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, How Far Do You Love Me?  Now we are reading The Color of My Soul and we are already beginning to think of questions we want to ask its author, Melanie S. Hatter.  Above all, we want to ask that universal question: How much of this story is your story?

A few weeks ago, I wrote for the DC education policy blog, Greater Greater Education, about how  our Student Parent Book Club benefits children by nurturing a love of reading in their parents. Kids who grow up surrounded by good books and with parents who read on their own–and not just to their children–are more likely to become strong readers themselves.

Since the advent of the No Child Left Behind act, educators have been fixated on literacy.  Bringing writers into schools helps to remind us that we need literature–that is, stories–as much as we need literacy.

READ: How do you get parents to read to their kids? Get them to love reading.

Daydreaming My Way to the Real Jane Austen

Watercolor Portrait of Jane Austen commissioned after the author's death by her nephew Rev. James Edward Austen-Leigh and based on an earlier portrait by her sister Cassandra.

Watercolor Portrait of Jane Austen commissioned after the author’s death by her nephew Rev. James Edward Austen-Leigh and based on an earlier portrait by her sister Cassandra.

Jane Austen is exactly the sort of author I had in mind when I wrote my blog post, “Five Things My Book Club Taught Me about How Real Readers Read.”  In outlining how real readers break the rules of literary criticism, I first highlighted the compelling desire to read literature through a biographical lens.  Armed with a little information about an author’s life, it is inevitable that we begin to make connections between the author’s experiences and his or her fiction.  Even if we know few details about the author’s life, we may make assumptions about biographical influence.  For example, in the case of Jane Austen, it is easy to imagine her living her life in the genteel world of country estates and carefully calculated marriage prospects because so much of her fiction focuses on that world.

In his novel, A Jane Austen Daydream, Scott D. Southard explores the question of whether Austen, known to have remained single until her death, ever found true love.  I read this out of curiosity, piqued in part by my familiarity with Southard’s blog.  What I appreciate about Southard is his ability to reveal his anxieties and self-doubt about writing, parenthood, and a variety of other topics in a way that few male writers do.  He is a quintessential “nice guy” with a genuine passion for his craft.  However, the literary snob and recovering academic in me questioned his “credentials” for writing such a book, perhaps in part because his blog is more likely to focus on contemporary or twentieth century fiction than on early nineteenth century classics, but also because it often focuses (prolifically and intelligently) on pop cultural phenomena: television shows, video games, and music—almost always unfamiliar to me.A Jane Austen Daydream by Scott D. Southard

At first, I felt myself resisting Southard’s approximation of early nineteenth century dialogue between Jane Austen and her contemporaries, but then I relaxed and began to enjoy the story.  He brought Jane to life as a prankster who enjoys shocking many of her straighter-laced family members.  As his fictional representation of Austen’s life and sprightly personality engaged me more, I became increasingly curious about the factual details of her life—in spite of Southard’s insistence that his novel is a work of imagination rather than historical fiction.

At my local library, I found Paula Byrne’s unconventional biography, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.  This hardcover volume became my “at home” book while A Jane Austen Daydream was the ebook I carried around on my Kindle.  Reading the books simultaneously gave me plenty of opportunities to notice that Byrne’s biographical narrative was as much a work of the imagination as Southard’s novel.  Byrne draws upon references to various objects owned by Jane Austen—such as a  card of lace and a portable writing desk—as well as items that evoke her world—for example, a painting of a “bathing machine” used to roll ladies into the ocean so they could enter without displaying themselves immodestly.  She uses clues from Austen’s letters or from other historical evidence to give life to these objects and to tell a story about the author and her family members, who surprise us by coming off as less straight-laced than Scott Southard (or I) imagined them.  But is this truly the “real Jane Austen”?  Of course not, for Byrne takes liberties in building her elaborate arguments just as Southard does in constructing his narrative.

The Real Jane Austen by Paula ByrneBoth books remind us of the many ways Jane Austen prioritized her writing over the economic security that a loveless marriage might have offered her.  Byrne argues that remaining single was Austen’s most effective strategy for realizing her full potential as a writer—which marriage and especially motherhood could jeopardize—while Southard imagines Austen as a principled romantic holding out for a soul-mate.  One lovely surprise about A Jane Austen Daydream is that Southard manages to imagine his way into the story in the form of a character who shares his name, and we can surmise that he identifies with Austen’s struggles to establish herself as an author.  Byrne also documents how precarious the path to publication was for Austen, who had to pay (with the help of her brother Henry) for the printing of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility.  Having encountered her fair share of rejection in previous years, she was as determined to get her book out there to readers as today’s self-published authors are.  It was an investment that paid off, especially for all of us who have had the pleasure of reading her novels.

I concluded that both Southard’s and Byrne’s books were literary daydreams—daydreams of two distinct varieties, appealing for different reasons.  Best of all, they inspired me to dream my way back to what I consider the Real Jane Austen: that is, her novels.  I am now reading Northanger Abbey, enjoying it far more than I had the first time I read it because both Southard and Byrne highlighted Austen’s mischievous sense of humor.  The rich variety of historical sources Byrne incorporates in her characterization of Austen will undoubtedly enhance all my future re-readings, but I give credit to Southard for inspiring me to learn more about Jane Austen—and to return with new curiosity and enthusiasm to her novels, which keep surprising me with their cleverness and emotional substance.

A Halloween Rant: I Hate Candy!

Halloween candy haul photo courtesy of Kristin Battista-Frazee

Halloween candy haul photo courtesy of Kristin Battista-Frazee

Well, I do have a love/hate relationship with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but otherwise that pile of candy loot my kids gathered last night is pretty detestable.  Why do I hate candy—or, more specifically, Halloween candy?  Let me count the ways (and if you get bored, jump ahead to the poll at the bottom) . . .

  1. Candy is sugar at its worst.  You should know that I’m not an anti-sugar zealot.  In spite of mounting evidence that sugar is in effect a poison, I do have a certain fondness for sweets.  In fact, I am somewhat addicted to dark chocolate, which exists in its own special category, distinct from that of “candy.”  With its lower sugar content, anti-oxidant properties, and fewer artificial additives (at least in the kind I prefer, the Icelandic  brand Sirius’s 70% cocoa bars), it seems more like “real food” and less like a conspiracy to rot our teeth and turn us into diabetics.   Maybe I’m being unfair to the humble varieties of candy kids scoop up at Halloween, but most of the packages list sugar as the first ingredient instead of chocolate or anything else.  Let’s just be thankful the poison comes in small doses, but the waste of paper is a problem.

    If you're serious about chocolate, try Icelandic Sirius brand 70% cocoa chocolate.

    If you’re serious about chocolate, try Icelandic Sirius brand 70% cocoa chocolate. (They’re not paying me to promote their brand, but they should.)

  2. Candy just isn’t as much of a treat as it’s supposed to be.  My kids agree with me on this.  My older daughter just commented the other day that she doesn’t care so much about Halloween candy and prefers baked goods; she and her friend came home early with a small haul.  The younger one only stayed out as long as she did because her friend was determined to get as much candy as possible, and she was in it for the social experience.  We have all heard about how many decades ago, trick or treating involved gathering up baked goods from one’s neighbors.  By the time I started trick or treating in the 70s, people had become paranoid about razor blades in cookies and other unpackaged items.  This is unfortunate because most kids do absorb baked goods, especially homemade ones, more easily. Even if butter, eggs, and flour get a bad rap for various reasons, they help to gird our systems for the onslaught of sugar that can make all-sugar treats or cheap milk chocolate a recipe for crankiness.
  3. I hate negotiations about candy.  In spite of my kids’ ranking of candy fairly low on the scale of treats, they still want to eat it.  Having it around the house introduces conflict that would otherwise be absent.  The kids know the candy is there, so they constantly ask if they can have a piece.  We usually allow them to eat several pieces the first night and then a piece a day until they forget about the stash—until they suddenly remember again.  This approach may sound manageable except that I don’t really want my kids eating a piece of junky candy each day.  But what else are we supposed to do with it? Eventually, we end up throwing some of the candy away.  Although my kids do not gather as much in the first place as many other kids, they still have far more than any kid needs.
  4. Halloween is too focused on the candy.  I saw a lot of kids out there tonight who were not wearing anything that could pass for a costume.  They seemed to be pounding the pavement with a determination that suggested candy collecting was a job rather than a fun activity. That doesn’t surprise me because part of the fun is dressing up.  I realize it takes time, money, and/or creativity to come up with costumes, but going trick or treating without a costume sends the message that Halloween really is about the candy.  In my walkable urban neighborhood, a few streets attract large numbers of children from all over the city.  Many residents take pride in their spooky décor and hang out on porches with friends to pass out candy while imbibing their own favorite poisons.   It’s just too bad that candy is the organizing principle for what is otherwise a wonderful manifestation of community.
  5. My favorite Halloweens have not revolved around candy.  When our kids were too young to know what trick or treating is, we attended some fabulous Halloween parties hosted by the most creative family we know.  The routine was to gather at their house in costume, socialize, eat, and set out for a parade in the direction of Dupont Circle.  The hosts wore homemade papier-mâché masks and sometimes stilts, and there were enough real musicians to establish a beat for the rest of us to accompany with various instruments and noisemakers.  The kids loved it, and the people we encountered along the way enjoyed the spectacle.  After this amazing family moved to the West Coast, some of us tried to do something similar, but didn’t manage to pull it off without their creative spirit as the driving force.  More recently, we also enjoyed the creativity of some hilarious drag musicals staged by residents of a neighboring street.  The best one lampooned the 2008 presidential election, but their version of The Sound of Music and a show with a “British Invasion” theme (featuring the Beatles, the Royal Family, and the Spice Girls, among others) were also standouts.  Too bad Hobart Street didn’t come through this year.  Maybe I don’t have a right to complain if I am not doing my part to make Halloween better, but maybe I just don’t hate candy enough to direct my creativity away from writing and toward Halloween revelry. 
Day of the Dead altar by Michael William Parker Stainback in honor of his mother Suzanne

Day of the Dead altar by Michael William Parker Stainback in honor of his mother Suzanne

As you can see, my attitude toward Halloween candy reveals some ambivalence about Halloween itself.  After returning from trick or treating, I took a look at Facebook.  There were lots of adorable photos with kids in creative costumes and some images of impressive candy hauls (including the one featured here courtesy of Kristin Battista-Frazee), but the most exciting thing I encountered was a Day of the Dead photo gallery.  My friend Michael Parker Stainback has lived in Mexico City for several years and has embraced the culture wholeheartedly.  He lost his mother this past year and created a beautiful Day of the Dead altar that captures her spirit perfectly.  Although the Day of the Dead and Halloween share a preoccupation with the mysteries of the afterlife, the Mexican holiday’s emphasis on connecting with one’s lost loved ones is more meaningful and symbolically rich than our flirtations with the macabre.  There were plenty of zombies and skeletons walking around my neighborhood last night, and some of their costumes were imaginative, but the decorative candy skulls on my friend’s altar to his mother made me think our culture needs a more positive means of engaging with the concept of death.  Maybe I will suggest to my kids that we offer up their candy to our ancestors. After all, the dead don’t need to worry about sugar lows or cavities, and we can hardly blame them for getting a little cranky now and then.

Au Pair Suites and Sweet Au Pairs: What Real Estate Agents Can Teach You about Your Child Care Needs

sweet au pairWould you rather buy a house with an in-law suite or an au pair suite?  Whether or not you have a mother-in-law or an au pair living with you, I’m guessing the au pair suite somehow sounds more appealing to you.  Real estate agents owe a debt of gratitude to au pairs for providing them with a better way to market the basement living spaces common in the eastern half of the United States.

Even if you have wonderful in-laws who defy all the stereotypes, and even if you can’t wait for them to move in with you, you may imagine an au pair suite as a more luxurious space.  That’s because if you don’t think about it too carefully, having an au pair sounds like a luxury.  For some, the term may invoke some kind of lurid French maid fantasy, but for others the fantasy it invokes is one of on call in-home child care.  An au pair is not supposed to be a maid, but she can take care of and clean up after your child, and she can double as a chauffeur and laundress for the children.  Doesn’t that sound luxurious?  Au pairs are an affordable child care option, especially for families with multiple children, and the flexibility truly comes in handy for school-aged children whose schedules are peppered with vacations and “teacher professional days.”  But if this luxury is a stretch for your budget or your living space, proceed with caution. Read the rest of this entry

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