family

Third Quarter Wrap-Up: How Does Time Keep Moving Forward

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Good morning! Considering that I apparently abandoned monthly reviews at some point in the distant past, but there is still plenty to announce or cover in the wrap-up department, and how we’re on to a new season, I figured this was a good track to take today.

This calendar year has been a very tumultuous one for us, unfortunately. These days, however, the changes have been good (and filling a desperate need for the positive). What the new stuff has meant in other ways than impacting our schedules and frame of mind, is how it’s rearranged our energy and ambitions for our spare time.

In my case specifically, I’m finding that — despite now working in a library — I read less, and am even watching movies less (my go-to form of entertainment after reading). And, because of having less free time and less expendable energy, I am writing less.

And you know what? For the first time in a looong time, I don’t mind.

Yes, there are ideas left to explore, plot threads to cultivate, character arcs to, er, arc. But at the moment, I am just taking it bit by bit, and not feeling the pressure to complete editing and produce more finished, polished content. I will get there when I get there.

It’s interesting, because I worked so hard to establish myself as an author, and while I absolutely am, suddenly it doesn’t feel like the end of the world if I can’t release more than one new book a year. This mental attitude actually results in ensuring that when I do complete a project, I will feel better about it, and less likely to beat myself up over imagined flaws. Yes, constructive criticism can be valuable to a creative career. But slamming yourself over a mediocre second draft — especially one written during an extremely stressful period — will never turn you into a more successful author, or person.

Anyway, so while my progress on Fire and Wind is still limping along, I’m done making “excuses” for it. I’m still going with it, which is what counts the most.

And here’s some new entertainment I have made time for, and either enjoyed or felt I learned something.

WATCHED:

Uglydolls:

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Okay, this is the most amazing animated film I’ve seen in a while, and considering how much I enjoy Dreamworks movies, this is saying something. Uglydolls is very much a story of our times, a reflection of the “beauty culture,” but not an endorsement of it. The cast comes from this culture, but, again, doesn’t necessarily support it. And when we live in a society that frequently tells us our looks matter so much more than anything else, the message of Uglydolls needs to be heard.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters:

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Basically, we spent all of last weekend watching this. First, White Fang couldn’t wait to watch the rental disc; then Muffin found out we had it; then the whole household got into the action. So in about 72 hours, I saw it 3 times. But I didn’t mind. There are many little aspects that give this movie so much heart, and make it more than just another monster flick. The special effects are downright awesome, but it’s the more subtle touches that really inspired my reactions.

Secret Life of Pets 2:

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Heartwarming in a more obvious way, this is the charming and poignant sequel to (clearly) The Secret Life of Pets. Muffin fell in love with these characters the first time around, so there was no question we’d be watching the follow-up. This plot has (luckily) less pushing-believability elements than the original, and still plenty of magic, and humor that works both for kids and adults. And personally, I appreciated the more down-to-earth approach, and what this story reflects about the many forms family comes in.

READ:

Nevermoor:

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I had read some conflicting reviews for Nevermoor, and now I understand why. On the surface, Nevermoor is quite enchanting — it’s a frolicking sort of fun, packed with magic and mischief and mythical creatures. BUT. Unfortunately, it is a big BUT. The characters are mostly archetypes, with little going for them beyond their expected role. The deeper mysteries of the plot are hinted at, and not really dug into. The book is a slightly intimidating length for an MG novel, and while it trips along pretty quickly, it seems to just keep pushing forward, conveniently ignoring particular issues.

The tricky part for me, though, was that I had the “big twist” guessed easily 150 pages before any “secret” was revealed. Maybe it’s because I was reading it as an adult, and this book is aimed at ages 10-14. Or maybe it was just the style — one I’ve encountered in many other MG/YA novels, that doesn’t pull the reader in the way it used to.

Willa of the Wood:

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Willa of the Wood showed me that I am definitely beyond social justice authors. Don’t get me wrong; I am a big proponent of social justice, and feel it absolutely has a place in literature. However: When you’re reading a novel, and it’s just crammed with soapbox agenda writing, as opposed to subtle undercurrents or meaningful dialogue that actually makes you think… Well, that’s when I bottom out, and lose any enjoyment in the story itself. Unfortunately, this author has definitely taken the soapbox route in his newer publications, and that means I will make other choices.

OTHER THINGS:

I have two new jobs! One is as a dance teacher at an arts center that I’ve known about for a long time, and they finally had an opening for a ballet instructor! This came to be over the summer, so I’d been looking forward to starting fall classes.

The other is a position I had applied for twice before…and now my turn has come! I’m sure being a library clerk isn’t most people’s dream job, but I feel competent and confident in the duties, and the environment is generally not overstimulating. As much as I genuinely enjoy working with children, having too many regulations for simple daycare, as well as no limits on noise in most preschool settings, get to me way too easily these days.

Muffin has started kindergarten (!!!), and White Fang is content at his new school (!!!). It’s a much longer commute for White Fang (at least half an hour, depending on traffic or construction) than he had, but the academic and social atmosphere certainly makes up for it. Muffin now only spends about 20 minutes on the bus (he had a long ride to preschool), but he’s being challenged by the new learning standards, so he’s still tired at the end of the day.

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And fall does seem to be on its way! With all the other new stuff going on lately, I don’t know how many “typical” autumn activities we’ll participate in. Every year, though, the changing leaves and the crisp scent to the air makes me feel cozy and crave fuzzy socks and pumpkins on the front step, and I can’t see that changing now.

Have a great day, everyone!

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family, Parenting

Way Outside My Comfort Zone

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Warning: For those of you that are not a fan of reptiles or anything with more than four legs, you might want to skip the pictures this time.

What, me, have something other than adorable and awww-inducing pictures of animals in a post? Yup. Sorry. Hey, didn’t the title tip you off a little?

Last night, I took my sons to the annual visitation of a local snake and reptile handler at the library. White Fang has gone every year since he was in middle school, but this was Muffin’s first time. And mine. Usually I drop White Fang off and hurry away to wait for the event to finish. I do. Not. Like. Snakes.

But last night, I stayed, partly to help supervise Muffin, partly to witness his reaction to this new experience.

I have to admit, I am really glad that I hid my reaction from him.

At first, it wasn’t so bad. They started off with a huge (not kidding on the huge bit) bullfrog, and a tortoise. That I could handle. But then we moved on to the baby alligator (which Muffin thought was awesome — me, not so much), and then, eventually (finally??) the snakes.

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These are serious snakes, too. This guy owns one of everything, from little ball pythons to the big Burmese pythons, to rattlesnakes and cornsnakes that were rescued from getting stuck on a tractor trailer (making deliveries from southern states, including — to the surprise of the driver — a lost venomous snake), or from being illegally held as pets and wrongly released into the wild without proper supervision from authorities. So, while I appreciate that this guy is keeping our children and our pets safe, I’m not quite sure I have sympathy for the reptiles themselves.

The fear factor carries a lot of prejudice with it. Although I managed to do pretty well with the smaller snakes and even the tarantula (her name is Rosie), I was still rather uncertain about letting Muffin touch any of the animals at the end of the show.

This is the part everybody comes for — after the structured informational session, everyone has a chance to get up close and personal with some of the safer reptiles. I already knew this since White Fang has been attending the event for years — and he’s been more than happy to tell me what animals he’s gotten pally with.

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Before the after-show commenced, I’d decided Muffin was allowed to make friends with the baby tortoises, and that was that. At first, he was cool with it — he actually followed directions really well, and didn’t need much help holding the little shelled beasts gently and respectfully. Lovely.

Then White Fang announced he was going to hold Rosie. And continue his yearly tradition of having his picture taken with Boo. Boo is a six-foot-long albino Burmese python.

Yes, that’s what I just said.

And, of course, Muffin wanted in on the action.

Luckily for my heart, I was already aware that Boo is a rockstar of docile snakes, and has traveled to many local events and never had an incident involving children (or adults, for that matter). But still I, personally, have never gotten very close to her.

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That all changed.

White Fang held Boo. Muffin stood next to him and pet Boo’s tail. I took the pictures. And I was within 4 feet of Boo, to be able to get a decent focus.

I didn’t freak out when Boo turned her head towards Muffin’s face and actually made eye contact. (Neither did Muffin, by the way).

And when Muffin held Rosie the tarantula (yes, I’m still telling it like it was), I didn’t experience a coronary episode. (And that was an achievement, let me tell you. This is the nosiest spider I’ve ever seen. It was all crawling up people’s arms and, “Hey, how’re you doin’, let me see what’s over here!…”)

So, while I survived the night, I wouldn’t consider myself over my fear of snakes, spiders, or anything that legit could kill me in the desert or the swamp. And I don’t anticipate traveling to Florida or Mexico anytime in the near future (or, realistically, ever).

But, I looked a Burmese python in the eye, and, interestingly enough, felt pretty good about it.

Still, I’ll take the traditional cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, fish and farm animals any day.

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community, entertainment, family

The YouTube Discussion

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So, many of you are probably aware that there’s this website called YouTube, where you can find EVERYTHING — clips from movies and TV shows, often whole episodes of cancelled or long out-of-production series, extended trailers for upcoming films, music videos, and plenty of original content by contributors who might be your neighbor down the street, or world famous in their own right.

It’s an interesting cultural shift, one that most likely never would have happened without the internet. Remember just 20 to 30 years ago, when your relatives invited everybody over to watch their vacation slides, and we all groaned and grit our teeth and wracked our brains for something polite to say? People came up with excuses ranging from, “I can’t, I’m having my wisdom teeth out,” to, “I’d love to, but I just sat down in this comfy chair.” Now suddenly, random strangers from around the globe put their home videos of their family getaway to Cancun on YouTube, and it hits 15,678 views in less than 24 hours.

The major difference between YouTube and the sharing-of-home-videos-of-olden-days is the fact that YouTube can make overnight celebrities. I think pretty much everyone and his dog knows by now that YouTube will pay people whose channels reach a significant number of subscribers and/or views. It’s not a foolproof instant way to hit a high salary and quit your day job; there are only a lucky few who make it to more than 10,000 subscribers, and fewer still who actually have a million or more people regularly tuning in.

But this is now an established, accepted part of American entertainment, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

And we’re certainly feeding the beast — YouTube is among the top pick for media platforms regarding movie trailers, music videos, original videos, and lots of artists (in traditional corporate contracts as well as indie) release production news via their YouTube channel. The public finds the free features extremely appealing (myself included), and so do indie artists who can’t afford thousands of dollars for a marketing campaign that could reach potentially millions of people.

However, for all that’s good, just like with anything else, the scope and scale of this phenomenon have created some dark sides.

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For example, there’s no rating system, G, PG, etc., so it’s criminally easy for your 4-year-old to stumble on recorded game play of Doom or Five Nights at Freddy’s. (And for those of you who claim, “Well, parents should be watching their children,” let’s see you stick by that argument when it’s either race to the bathroom or wet the floor, and your misbehaving, headstrong preschooler will climb the furniture to grab the stashed remote while you’re literally indisposed.) While plenty of contributors do keep their uploads clean and family friendly, there are just as many who don’t consider that necessary, nor do they leave a note on their channel that what they post may not be appropriate for all audiences.

Yes, there are parental controls available on a variety of devices, and we don’t have to let our children watch certain things; but as the “parent network,” YouTube should bear some of the responsibility. After all, the major broadcasters — NBC, PBS, FOX, HBO, etc. — either relegate more mature viewing to hours when small ones are in bed, or they advertise all over the place that particular shows aren’t meant for those of us under age 18. We genuinely can’t say we weren’t warned about The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones.

YouTube doesn’t appear to have the same concerns about their viewers that traditional TV networks do. The trad folks are very aware of lawsuits and fines and even threats of jail time. And, yes, they’re doing “the right thing” primarily to keep their business earning money; but at least they’re following a code of values that most of us feel pretty good about — and if we don’t, we always have the option not to watch.

Do we have the option to block or turn off YouTube as well? Of course. Though with this platform becoming ever more prevalent, that’s growing slightly difficult.

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Because YouTube is now featuring many “regular people” contributors who have hit it big on their platform, children especially are very attracted to the “kids just like me” they see in a lot of these videos. One of Muffin’s favorites is Ryan’s Toy/Family Review, which is run by an Asian-American family in California, that has gone from posting 10-minute videos of their son playing with new toys to a multi-million-dollar empire of several channels on YouTube, a line of toys and clothing being sold at major retailers, and enough income for the parents to quit their jobs and build a new house. Yes, you read all of that right. As a parent myself, I have some serious moral qualms about what this level of fame at such a young age (the “star,” Ryan, is only 7 years old!) might do later in life, but I’m evidently in the minority. Lots of families are coming up with concepts for their children to film and upload, and actively help them do so. The hope, I’m sure, is that one day they all end up with a similar situation to Ryan.

All Muffin knows about Ryan is that the kids are playing with lots of fun toys and seem to be having a blast, and there’s no swearing or violence or anything that Mummy finds objectionable, so he is allowed to watch it as often as he wants.

And when faced with the alternative of something horribly inappropriate, I know I will keep letting him choose Ryan.

I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t add that I pray this family knows what they’re doing.

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What happens if, one day, YouTube executives wake up and decide they don’t need certain channels anymore? What happens to the celebrity families who have now made this platform their career and sole form of wages? How hard would the transition be back to an “average” lifestyle? For the kids as well as the adults?

And, as a child of the 1980s, I remember all too well hearing about former “child stars,” young actors and actresses and musicians that my generation grew up with and admired, getting arrested or checking into rehab, again, or dying from some tragic, preventable occurrence. In another decade or so, will that be the fate of the current YouTube-famous tweens with 1.1 million subscribers?

Unfortunately, only time will tell. But if we hit the year 2025 and all of today’s YouTube kid stars are happily married with a rescue dog and tons of security guards around their inground pool and giant Lego playhouse, then I’ll thank God.

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I let White Fang start his own YouTube channel a couple of years back, and it was mostly to post videos of himself playing Minecraft to share with his friends. He has around 200 subscribers, last I knew, and while he hasn’t updated it in a long time, it still exists, and he may go back to it one day. He’s proud of what he did accomplish, in terms of learning how to use his camera to film the videos, upload them, and be brave enough to share his passion with others.

He’s also found some of the most inspiring and talented individuals by getting involved with the Minecraft and Warriors fan communities on YouTube. Captain Sparklez, anybody? TryHardNinja? And Rainimator has taken the Minecraft community by storm (his work even inspired a character White Fang helped me design for The Order of the Twelve Tribes world.)

And many famous YouTubers are kind and generous; ToyLabTV (they make Jurassic Park styled less-scary dinosaur videos for younger kids) recently hosted a family whose sick child’s “wish” (through the Make A Wish Foundation) was to film a video with them. (Just thinking about that gets me choked up.)

So, YouTube itself is far from evil. But in a world that didn’t even imagine it would be in all our homes until, suddenly, it is, I think we’re still in the infancy of learning just how all this may go.

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community, family, reading

New Discussion: Who is YA For?

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Note: I’ve chosen to feature the original art of Maggie Stiefvater in this post. Please remember to give all the credit for these gorgeous pieces to her.

Extra note: Why Maggie Stiefvater? Other than she’s one of my favorite authors? Well, the fact that she was part of the catalyst of this discussion that started on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about what she and others said, and about the post that really got the ball rolling on this topic.

So, here’s an interesting question: Who is Young Adult fiction actually for? It may seem like a “duh, Captain Obvious” answer — Young Adult fiction is for those under 21 — but the data behind sales, library checkouts, and online reviews proves, no, it isn’t.

The majority of readers of the labeled (and marketed) YA genre in the 21st century are women ages 18 to 45. That’s right. Women with children of their own. And yet…most of us wouldn’t necessarily recommend most YA titles to our adolescents.

Once upon a time, there was something called “New Adult,” a genre that targeted women readers approximately 19 to 30, people who were just starting out on being financially independent, having to manage an apartment or house, an exclusive relationship, and just being a grown-up. “What a great idea!” so many of us currently in that stage of life exclaimed (myself included, as then a new wife and mother). I enjoyed some of those books, sometimes a lot. When you’re about 25, most of us are past the point of relating to your biggest problem being whether to cut math class or not. That was what most YA was like back then.

However, two distinct things happened. One: There was a shift in what NA was, from real plots and discussing relationships and life to little more than pornography (which many readers were not happy with, myself included). Two: YA changed from being about the actual issues teens face to focusing on world-weary 16-year-olds living in dystopian settings that forced them to become the breadwinner or the chosen one or the next queen of the realm.

And this altering of dynamics resulted in some tricky situations. Real high school students ate up The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Maze Runner — but so did parents, for very different reasons. Actual teens were drawn to the escapism of dystopia: it was so far removed from anything they know that it was all about action and adventure and good guys versus bad guys. Parents, on the other hand, considered these series, and others like them, important cautionary tales, for what can happen to our civil liberties and democracies if we get complacent.

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So, in the wake of the demise of NA, a new type of “YA” emerged: the kind where any novel featuring a protagonist who was 15, 16, or 17 — regardless of the content, subject matter, or genre — was automatically marketed to real life adolescents.

Many parents do not want their kids reading it. There’s too much profanity, casual alcohol use, cutting school, fornication, and little to no consequences for unwise behavior.

And actual teenagers don’t want to read it, because the wild parties, skipping class on a whim, having sex without worrying, and paying all the bills on time so your irresponsible parent doesn’t forget to sounds like no one they know.

Recently I read a blog post written by a current adolescent, who stated many of these (and other issues) as reasons why she doesn’t read much “YA” anymore. And I agree with her — not as a teen, obviously, but as the mother of a teen who’s having a hard time finding reading material that he can relate to.

And as a mother who’s trying to raise a gentleman, I’m having a hard time finding reading material for him that encourages not swearing, not picking up random girls, and not getting blasted on a Friday night.

(That is a whole post unto itself. Anyway.)

A lot of the issue is this: Publishers saw a goldmine by getting the parents — the people with salaries — to purchase overpriced “YA” novels. Again, who’s mostly reading “YA” these days? Adults. Are kids reading the new releases by “YA” authors their parents are bringing home? Maybe, maybe not.

But here’s the other thing happening while all this is going on: Teens are much more likely to stick with MG fiction, or switch to not reading for fun at all. In English class, they’ll suffer through Shakespeare and the classics, and in their everyday lives, avoid them like the plague. They’ll just check out graphic novels or manga from the library, or skip reading anything and go straight to the movie version.

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Is this all teens? No. But is it becoming more and more prevalent and should we be worried about it? Yes.

When I was White Fang’s age (he’s 15 now), YA was just coming into its own. Too many teachers and librarians had complained that kids were expected to leap from Charlotte’s Web to A Separate Peace, and adolescent minds weren’t receiving proper nourishment. So some really smart people decided to create a market specifically for the 14-year-olds who weren’t “into kids’ stuff” anymore, but not ready for highbrow literary analysis.

And there is no denying that series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson did what seemed the impossible at the cusp of the millenium — they turned kids away from computers and back to books, boys and girls, ages 8 to 18.

Now, though, we’re facing the reverse. And it’s because, once more, publishers are shutting teens out of the market. Kids who have a $10 a week allowance can’t afford $35 new hardcovers. They aren’t going to spend that money on stories that don’t make them feel connected or impacted, anyway.

Authors who write “YA” branded books but are aware their audience is mostly adults can be torn as well. (Enter Ms. Stiefvater’s Twitter thread on the subject.) They want to write about these characters, who happen to be adolescents. They want to write deeper, grittier stories than what you’d find in MG. Do some of them feel they’d be compromising their creative vision by “scaling down” certain things to gear it more towards “real” teens? Yeah, they do. Is that wrong? Hmm. No?

So, what’s the solution?

Well, here are my ideas: We need to go back to writing and publishing a market that teens can relate to and learn from. We also need to be aware there are plenty of adults who want to read fun, adventure-filled novels with a minimum of graphic violence and sex and language, and produce more fiction like that — just with 32-year-old protagonists.

And we need to try to drive down the cost of books to begin with — reading will become an elite past-time if we don’t consider the budget of 90% of working Americans.

Maybe we should also stop looking at the almighty dollar as our number one goal, and think more about the expression on someone’s face when they’ve found their next favorite read.

After all, that’s what literature is meant for.

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family

Thicker Than Water

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Late this summer, we had relatives come to visit, people that have known me my entire life, who have always been an unwavering source of support and encouragement. Watching them be the exact same people to my own kids is an experience that never fails to fill me with awe.

To many, family is family, and of course you’re there to lean on each other and build one another up. To others, family is who you choose to keep close and know you can rely on.

In a world where sharing genes doesn’t automatically mean you’re kin, I am incredibly thankful for having biological connections to some of the most compassionate and accepting people I’ve ever met.

And I am just as grateful to be able to count as family people an ocean away who owe me no obligation, genetic or otherwise.

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In my life, the fact of being consistently acquainted with someone for 40 years is a real unicorn — rare, precious, and to be savored.

Blessings that I sometimes feel I don’t deserve have been showered upon me and my children. It is something I try hard not to question too much, and to forever hold dear.

“Family don’t end with blood.” – Bobby Singer, Supernatural

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entertainment, family

Multimedia Thoughts: How We Watch What We Watch

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This may seem like a very 21st century, first-world-problem type of thing. While it’s true that television and film are considered a luxury, something we can live without, the fact is that most of us don’t. Radio changed the civilized world by spreading news and culture to all areas of the globe; next, television pushed the boundaries even farther. Now we’re into an era of the internet playing a major role in transmitting TV shows.

I have to admit something: While I regularly use the internet for a lot of things — obviously, since you’re reading this blog via email or a search engine — I am not sold on the idea of trying to watch TV through a laptop or cell phone. My tepid feelings towards the matter arise from a combination of factors. Partly, it’s because I don’t have enough devices to just dedicate one to Hulu or Netflix — I have to be able to use the computers for a variety of tasks, at any given time. Also, there are wifi “cold spots” in our house — rooms where the wifi just refuses to work — so that complicates things as well.

And there’s the old quandary of what one person likes to watch, another can’t stand. It’s why a second television set became so popular in many American households. Stuff that’s now common in our world, that was supposed to make our lives easier.

Does it really, though?

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When you go to the cinema, it’s so straightforward: You buy a ticket, walk into the building, sit down in the theater, the lights go down, and you employ good manners for the benefit of the rest of the audience, and just watch the film as it appears on the screen. Someone else is taking care of the technology applied to making this event happen. You willingly paid to enjoy it. It’s a win-win.

With cable or even just basic TV, you simply press a few buttons, and, boom, you know who’s about to lose the playoffs or what’s on Nature that night. Since networks tend to keep to a schedule, I can force my family into permitting me a chance to veg by reminding them that Jeopardy! is only on at 7:30 Monday through Friday.

If you find yourself saying, “But there’s nothing on” (trust me, that’s me as well), streaming can seem very appealing. Sign on to your device, click open your account, scroll down for a show you know you like and haven’t been able to view lately. Your internet bill paid up? Then just sit down and catch up. Or, if your device is portable, you can be finishing the laundry or starting dinner while you discover if those characters finally got together or broke up.

Of course, with cable often comes the option of recording a broadcast to your box, or calling up previously aired shows On Demand. I LOVE the On Demand feature. It means fewer commercials, and the same exact episode I missed the night, the week, the month before. With streaming services, time limits for viewing might be more strict. All this summer, I watched reruns of The X-Files from every single season ever made at the touch of a button, no additional fees. It was a beautiful thing.

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And tons of TV shows (new and old) are on DVD now, and usually can easily be ordered through the public library system, either for free or a small rental price. And if you’re squeamish about cinema ticket costs, Redbox is awesome. It’s similar to the old Blockbuster stores, but cheaper, and you don’t even have to have internet. You just go to the literal box near the supermarket checkout, use cash or a credit card, get a physical DVD, and then bring that home to your player or computer. No worrying about if the streaming konks out during viewing.

We order DVDs from Netflix for this specific reason; streaming can be unreliable, and more expensive. Netflix’s monthly charges break down to pennies a day, for the privilege of no due dates, short waiting lists for new releases, and the ability to lie on the floor in your pajamas while being entertained. And if a disc is damaged, you get a replacement for free. I’ve heard horror stories about people being out of pocket and out of luck for Amazon Prime screwups.

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So, while I may be considered “old-fashioned” when it comes to how I watch what I watch, I’m not sure I care. Yes, cable packages have become expensive…but so has the other way. I simply don’t have the money to purchase cell phones and tablets — and pay a monthly data plan bill –for every person in my household. It doesn’t feel convenient; it doesn’t feel “easier.”

It is just plain a good thing for my children to learn to wait patiently for the TV to be open. For them to skip the cinema and anticipate the cheaper DVD release. For them not to have a laptop or cell phone or tablet until they’re in high school. And for them to be aware they will not shrivel up and die without immediate access to all of the trending things every waking moment.

Yes, advancements in machinery and electronics have definitely made our lives better in a lot of ways. But let’s not forget that people are ultimately running the machines. And that connecting with each other is still important.

We still need to take the whole family to the store, have everyone pick out their snacks, and stand in front of a selection of DVDs, debating which one to choose. Then arrange enough room on the couch and recliner and beanbags for everybody, and make sure the dog isn’t blocking the TV screen. Then put the disc in the DVD player, turn the lights off, and the sound up, and tell the kids to stop poking one another. And let the old-fashioned magic wash over us as the previews begin.

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family

Knowing Your Roots

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A couple of months ago, I was filling out some school forms for White Fang, and as I wrote down his last name, something that I should’ve known all along hit me like a ton of bricks: He’s part Jewish.

The realization should have come before he was even born (considering he has his father’s surname, and I always knew what that is). And I’ve been studying the origin of names since I was in college; as it’s a subject that, as a writer, I’ve always been interested in. Why do people choose the names they do for their children? How does their heritage and ethnic background affect this decision? When you’re trying to name characters, these factors are very important to consider if you want your fictional people to feel real. Selecting and assigning a name to someone is a big deal in pretty much every culture on the planet. So your fictional folks should recognize that and apply it, and your readers will very much relate to it.

Anyway, so here I am, it turns out, with a part-Jewish son. And I, the well-researched writer, was totally clueless. (Oops.)

When I told him my revelation, he looked at me and said, “You realize this changes nothing.” Because he wouldn’t call himself religious, definitely more spiritual, and doubting at that.

But I looked right back at him, and thought, My dear, it changes everything.

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Being born Jewish does not simply determine your religion; it means you are part of a whole culture, a world history. It’s just the same as being born into any nation, any culture, anywhere. While religion is often an important part of this, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the end of the story.

Knowing your roots is necessary, to help you understand not just where you came from, in literal geographic terms, but also to help you learn more about yourself. While your personality and hobbies won’t be predestined, based solely on your DNA and ethnic lineage, we still need to know these things about ourselves.

Everything from food and clothing, industry and trade, art and architecture, varies depending on your culture. So much of all of that comes from your nation’s history. Knowing your roots should not be seen purely as a road map of where we’ve gone wrong; it needs to be the path towards grasping where your family started, and doing what, understanding how times were different and how across the ages we’ve changed, and how to craft a future that benefits us all without forcing us to forget, the bad or the good.

I tend not to do things by halves — so, I’ll admit that, yes, within minutes I was planning to cook only kosher for White Fang, buy him a Torah, enroll him in an online Hebrew class, measure his head for a yamaka, and arrange his pilgrimage to the Western Wall. Ahem. What? I got excited. But, he’s right — just knowing where his last name comes from doesn’t alter everything overnight.

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And he is part Jewish. I need to remember that. The rest of his heritage is just as important.

In England, many Hebrew families intermarried with Christians from about the Middle Ages onwards. Considering that White Fang’s father told me his family was Church of England, my guess is this practice was so common, a lot of Brits alive today may not even be aware of their non-WASP genes. So, my son is as much British as he is Jewish — and that’s still, just as, cool.

From day one, I’ve made sure White Fang knows about his dual nationality, his combination heritage, and encouraged him to find the best of both. I want him to see the landscape for as broad as it is, to grow along with his increasing knowledge of the rich variety of lives that have been, that are, that may one day be in this world.

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So, while he won’t be landing in Israel or attending a synagogue anytime soon, White Fang does have information he didn’t have before, that does make him more himself.

And while I have slight misgivings towards my validity as a researcher about just how long it took me to catch on, I am happy — for his sake, but honestly, for mine as well — that I finally did.

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Children's Health, family

The Scandalous Post

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How good am I at marketing? See, by this title alone, I have sucked you in. (Honestly, I spent more time thinking about what to call this post, than what was going in it, or which cat pics to use this time.)

So, now that I have you sitting down, here we go: Let’s talk about s-e-x. No, no, not like that! Not explicitly, graphically, or even inneundo-y. *Totally a word.* I’d like to discuss how much of it there is in modern media, and how it is damaging to our children.

See? No need to run away from me in droves. But, I will be rather frank about some things — hence the title. Sex is indeed a private, yes, intimate matter — however, there’s a vital difference between keeping the details of the “bedroom scenes” of your life under wraps, and not talking about the stuff we need to be talking about.

That stuff includes making sure our kids are well-informed about where babies come from, and all the down sides to what is meant to be a good thing.

As the mother of a teenage boy, I am aware that certain thoughts and feelings at his age are natural, and it is my job to inform, all the good and the bad, and encourage him to participate in this massively cool thing of waiting to become sexually intimate with another human being. Until he’s at least 30. Or married. Or I’m dead. Whichever comes first.

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There are bunches of reasons for me to encourage my kids to wait. And while spiritual convictions are among them, that’s actually not near the top of my list. Right up there is all the terrible diseases they might catch — something which TV shows of the 21st century don’t seem concerned with mentioning, while they have all the characters sleeping with each other in every other episode.

Also, what happened to making the point of how hard it is to become a parent before you’re ready? And the fact that being promiscious does not make you feel better about yourself — it makes you feel worseAnd that such behavior opens you up to the chances of something really awful taking place — yes, I mean non-consenting incidents, which are actually crimes, and it’s tragic that our society is only starting to really crack down on that.

I really want to see more episodes of TV shows (particularly programs aimed at the age 13-17 audience) include discussion on rape, peer pressure to have sex, choosing to abstain, the role alcohol and drugs can play in making a bad sexual decision, abortion, STDs, and birth control. And, yes, we can talk about all of this in frank terms, showing both sides of the coin, and without filming scenes that make many viewers cringe over how much skin they’re being unnecessarily exposed to.

We have to. Too many teenagers (since was a teenager, so this has already gone on too long) are being sent the message that sex with whoever, whenever, and wherever is awesome. When I was young, the precautionary tales about unplanned pregnancy, STDs, and rape were everywhere. But somehow, that didn’t get through — because the rate of abortions and sexually transmitted infections among adolescents skyrocketed.

Everybody agrees this is horrible. But for some reason, that doesn’t stop TV producers (many of whom have children themselves!) from filming 21-year-olds-pretending-to-be-17 getting their kit off to fool around with their boyfriend/girlfriend of 3 weeks.

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We need much more of married couples kissing and then waking up, in pajamas, in the same bed on TV. We need more movies that are about keeping your long-term relationship strong, and not just with sex. We need to bring back the days of on-screen parents being worried when they catch their kids making out with a peer.

I want my sons to be terrified of having sex before they’re mature, committed to someone they love, and ready to deal with the stick turning blue (hopefully by then, excited and wanting the stick to turn blue). But I also don’t want them to think they have to become monks. Sex, when it’s between two consenting adults who are in a loving, respectful, trusting partnership, is beautiful. It’s what God made it for. In that context, it’s a wonderful expression of those emotions, and there’s nothing wrong with it at all.

So here’s the tricky bit — how do you convince 12-year-olds sex is bad and frightening and something to stay away from…while also convincing 18-year-olds that sex with your spouse is nothing to be ashamed of, and should, in fact, be the goal?

What kids watch on TV and in movies should not form the basis of their values and principles. We parents and guardians and caretakers should teach them about laws and rules and morals, and it really rankles me that too many of us who are doing that get flack for it. What in the world is wrong with telling your kids you really want them — for their sake! — to wait to have sex? Yes, please, folks, teach your children about birth control — because that’s something important for even consenting, mature, married adults to be aware of. (As someone who loves and deeply respects children, I consider unwanted children to be one of the saddest things in the history of creation.) But DON’T let 15-year-olds think they can just run all over town, debasing their bodies and self-esteem, simply because they’re using birth control. How is this going to produce emotionally secure gentlemen and ladies of the future?

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This may not go over well with some people, but I honestly don’t approve of this trend among some religious families of only “dating to marry”, especially not when it comes to adolescents. Not letting teenagers date — (*let them! just have rules! restrictions! boundaries! duh!*) — is keeping them too sheltered and won’t aid them in finding the “till death do us part” relationship they’ll aim for the second they leave home. Young people need to be in certain situations that help them cultivate respect for the other gender, learn the social rules of occasions like going on a date, and how to behave properly in front of someone you’re very attracted to.

And, guess what — you WON’T marry the first person you ever go out with. You just WON’T. A tiny, tiny portion of us will. Teeny tiny. So microscopic you can’t even spot it with the Hubble telescope. AND, there is NOTHING WRONG with dating someone (even 2 or 3 someones) and then it doesn’t work out and you don’t get married. I’ve been (gasp!) divorced and remarried myself, and life experience and perspective forms the strong basis for this statement : It is much, much better to have doubts about your impending marriage and call it off, rather than go through with it and then get divorced a year later.

Okay, back to my original point. In this day and age, pornography is a literal mouse click away, and it’s our job as parents to make sure our kids don’t get access. It’s our job to teach them how such a thing objectifys women, destroys souls, spreads disease. Our obligation to tell them we don’t approve of them engaging in anything more than first base. And then to explain what “first base” means. It’s our duty, as part of protecting our offspring and looking out for them, to make sure they want a happy, healthy intimate life with their future spouses, and kids of their own — and that they also recognize that, in high school, they’re mentally and physically not ready, and that all of this is okay.

We’re the first line of their defense. Let’s be proud of that responsibility.

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children's television, entertainment, family, television

I Give Up (Or, Why I’m Basically Done with Television for the Forseeable Future)

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(Yes, this is the face Toby gives most cable shows. He has good taste.)

So, a while back I was griping about how far downhill (try the bottom of the cliff, in many respects) the medium of TV shows as a whole has gone. At least, in my opinion. I don’t like “reality” programs (since most of them are faked by wannabe actors, anyway), or stuff like “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race”; I don’t care for police procedurals or most medical dramas (anything that can fall into the formulaic tropes way too easily); the only sitcom I’ve watched in the past 10 years is “The Big Bang Theory.”

Within the last couple years, there have been lots of shows I was watching that ended (and some of these none too soon, I felt), that evidently the whole world except for me is watching and I “need” to (but I’m not), and others that have been on the air for years but I only recently started watching.

Here’s a breakdown of my feelings about the whole situation:

I do not like television in 2018.

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After being thrown for a loop with the series finales of “Castle” (what was that?!) and “Chuck” (still sobbing), the intense downward spiral in quality for “Supernatural” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and the incredibly unfair cancellation of “Houdini and Doyle,” I feel let down by the industry as a whole.

I could live with the end of “Grimm,” because the writers and directors did a great job of sticking to one, meaningful storyline in the last episodes, and making the most of character development and creating a satisfying conclusion. “Nashville,” on the other hand, which had reached a perfect ending prior to its cancellation and then immediate reboot by another network — which has ruined the whole thing — is crossed right off my list.

I actually got into “Grey’s Anatomy” about a year ago — yes, in the middle of season 13. I’m aware this is more than arriving late to the party — it’s the equivalent of running in the door when most of the guests are moving towards the parking lot. But I did something I rarely do — I fell for the hype. I’d seen ads for this show for years, and never thought about it twice. Okay, slight lie — twice, since Patrick Dempsey used to be in it, and he is just unapologetically handsome. However, he’d already left the program by the time I tuned in (oh, well), and I’m beginning to see why he wanted out of his contract.

So, very shortly here, my modern experiment with a medical drama will be over as well.

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Although betrayal seems like too harsh a word to use when it comes to television, I have to admit, regarding “Supernatural,” I feel betrayed. For the last few years, it’s been my go-to example of excellent writing, directing, character development, and how to keep a weekly-episode show going for 10-plus years without losing your fan base. Now it’s become my primary example of how to screw all that up. Last week I caught a rerun of an episode from season 5, and there was absolutely no comparison to the season 13 episode I saw the week before. I just can’t anymore with this train wreck (crying).

Then there are the superhero shows — “The Flash,” “Arrow,” etc — that apparently have to include some sort of political statement in every single episode. Some are bigger offenders than others (I’m looking right at you, “Supergirl” and “Black Lightning”), but this entire group has become way too liberally-charged for my liking. Whatever happened to telling a story for the sake of telling a good story — and if there was a message to it, it was one that could resonate with lots of people, not just those who subscribe to a particular, inflexible ideology?

Even my pleasant surprises of last year, “Riverdale” and “The Good Doctor,” are failing me. “Riverdale” has quickly progressed from kind of unrealistic to wholly impossible and overdramatized, and “The Good Doctor” is focusing far too much on the other characters and using Dr. Murphy’s autism as baiting for not understanding social graces or being intolerant. That last bit flat out destroys me.

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And if we could, for just a minute, discuss children’s television? What in the world has happened to the Disney channel? I’m not going to encourage Muffin to turn on Disney Jr now that they’re broadcasting a show about a preschool vampire. Excuse me?! 

And White Fang gave up on Nickelodeon — which was the standard of acceptable teen programming for years — ages back. Their resurgence of live-action, scripted shows, such as “The Thundermans” and “Henry Danger,” that were slightly goofy but still fine in terms of clean humor and covering appropriate topics. But even those have become too far-fetched and just plain silly. Yes, White Fang is now 15, and his viewing tastes will be different than they were in middle school. But, still. Even something that’s aimed at 6-10-year-olds needs to make sense.

 

So, we will happily binge library DVDs of shows that were cancelled before 2005.

And I have no regrets about what we may, or may not, have missed in primetime.

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family, Fantasy fiction, spiritual growth

Guest Post: Kyle Robert Shultz on The Magic Elephant in the Room

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Good morning, all. Today we will be joined by Kyle Robert Shultz, the #ShultzWithoutaC author of the Beaumont and Beasley fantasy series. Given that Mr. Shultz is spiritually and morally a churchgoing Christian, some may be surprised that he writes fantasy fiction, chock full of storybook magic, witches and wizards, and mythological creatures. All of this was part of what drew me to this author’s writing in the first place. As someone who believes in Jesus of Nazareth as a divine Savior, and tries to follow his teachings in everyday life, I got very fed up with being told that one cannot attend church on Sunday and read fantasy Monday through Saturday. With popular authors such as Ted Dekker and Carrie Anne Noble breaking this mold (and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien never being off the bestseller lists in the past decade), I was very interested in connecting with like-minded writers in the indie publishing camp. So I asked Kyle to write about this subject for today’s post, and I’m actually going to use it to lead into a 2-part discussion on the topic later in March. So enjoy, and have a great day, everyone!

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The Magical Elephant in the Room by Kyle R. Shultz

In my experience, Christian writers of fantasy don’t like to discuss the thorny subject of magic. We either use it in our stories or steer clear of it, but we’re not inclined to get into a big debate about the ethics of *Anthony Head voice* SOSSERY. The conflict over the subject has been going on ever since Harry Potter first become popular in the 1990s. Much of the furor and book-burning has died down since then, but even today, if you write a novel that heavily features magic, you’re likely to get a review from a Christian reader which at least mentions it as a potential problem.

So, since this is still a relevant issue in 2018, I say we stop tiptoeing around it and and tackle it head on. Ready? Here we go. The basic argument from Christians against fictional magic is as follows:

  1. Real-world magic is wrong, according to the Bible (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Galatians 5:20, Revelation 21:8).
  2. The Bible also tells us to do nothing that would cause another to stumble and commit sin, even if what we are doing seems innocent (Romans 14:21).
  3. Therefore, reading and writing stories involving magic is wrong because it might encourage someone to engage in real-life sorcery.

If we don’t accept the idea that real-world witchcraft is real or dangerous, than this argument is invalid. However, I don’t ascribe to the doctrine of cessationism. I believe that the supernatural forces described in the Bible–both good and evil–are just as real today as they were in ancient times. The Bible passages regarding witchcraft specifically refer to the practice of communing with pagan gods, similar to both the medieval notion of consorting with demons and the modern concept of neo-paganism (i.e. Wicca). These practices are not only idolatrous; they’re potentially harmful to the soul.

That being said, however, we need to get some definitions straight. Magic as defined by the Bible refers to both witchcraft (invoking pagan/demonic entities) and divination (foretelling the future through means other than consulting God, such as astrology). The definition of fictional magic is a lot broader. It’s a force that the characters harness to achieve their goals and to do things impossible in the natural world. Fictional magic may or may not bear similarities to the sorcerous practices that the Bible describes. The magic systems in the works of J.K. Rowling or Brandon Sanderson, for example, are generally no more demonic in nature than the metric system. They’re mechanical rather than spiritual. On the other hand, there are fictional works which veer too close to promoting actual paganism–Buffy the Vampire Slayer being one of the strongest examples.

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Where, then, does this leave the Christian author? Presumably, due to our beliefs, we won’t be writing something that reads like a recruitment pamphlet for Wicca. But all the same, is it wrong for us to be writing about characters who cast spells, especially if we present such characters in a positive light?

The core of the problem lies in the reader’s awareness of the divide between fiction and reality. If an adult reader attempts to summon a demon into his or her living room after reading Harry Potter, Mistborn, or even the Bartimaeus Trilogy, the fault lies more with the reader than the author. It shouldn’t be the writer’s job to repeatedly remind adult readers that fiction is fiction. Child readers are another issue altogether, since young children don’t necessarily have the same grasp on what should and should not be mimicked. I have, in the past, been surprised by the level of occult content in books directed at younger readers, such as the Gatekeepers series by Anthony Horowitz or the Demonata books by Darren Shan. (That’s not an actual critique of the books, as I haven’t read more than a few pages of them–I’m just naming them as examples.) But while there are sometimes murky philosophical waters to be navigated in the Harry Potter novels, as well as occasional content that might be too frightening for some children, I still maintain that it’s highly unlikely the series will lure children into actual occult practices–especially if their parents have clearly explained the differences between real and fictional sorcery.

Assuming that actual paganism is not being endorsed, I don’t believe there’s a conflict between Christian faith and writing magic-heavy fantasy. Integral to the fantasy genre is the concept of other worlds, very different from our own. In this world, magic is dangerous and should be avoided. But in fiction, we journey through a vast multiverse of worlds where magic is not inherently evil. The stars in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are sentient beings whose patterns inform centaurs of future events; our stars are not. The Potterverse contains people biologically capable of casting spells using wands and faux-Latin incantations, our universe does not. There is no reason for such distinctions to become muddled.

Furthermore, I don’t think Christians should act on a blinkered understanding of Biblical teachings about paganism to single out those who read or write books involving magic. Getting on that soapbox can damage the cause of Christianity by turning away non-believers who have an innocent love for the fantasy genre. What magic represents for many people is a power beyond the physical world; beauty and glory bursting in upon dull and colorless reality. To condemn this is to deny the very thing that we, as Christians, are meant to be offering those outside the faith. Let us not, in the effort to save people from some nebulous occult threat, steer them away from all the wonder of fantasy–a signpost on the way to embracing a very non-fictional God.

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