Friday, May 31, 2013

Don't Bite You: A Lesson in Personal Pronouns and Tough Kids

*all names have been changed to protect the innocent*

Jane walked through the door yesterday and held out her arm.

"Joey bite you," she stated.

I looked at her arm and the big red puffed up mark where Joey's teeth obviously clamped down on my baby girl  like a plump piece of ham.

"Joey bit you?" I asked.

She nodded, "Joey bite you."

This has been happening often. Too often for my comfort.

I will say that her daycare is very vigilant, and they always send notes home explaining the situation, what they did, whether or not she cried. They always make us aware, and they always hold her and put ice on it and kiss the boo boo's. They take every step possible to prevent biting. But hey, biting happens. It's still an excellent daycare. That's not what worries me.

I looked at Matt and said, "She gets bit too much. She's not one of the tough kids."

He shook his head, "No. I don't think so."

A few weeks ago her teacher told us that Jane is the sweet one. She said when Jane gets her toys taken away or she gets hit, she never hits back. This didn't sit well with me.

"We have to teach her to stick up for herself," I said.

Matt pondered for a moment before he responded.

"We don't want to make her aggressive though."

At this particular juncture we noticed her laying on the floor, splayed out beside the dog, pursing her lips and whispering, "Mabel kiss? Mabel kiss?"

"I don't think that's going to happen," I said as Mabel leaned in and licked Jane's lips.

We sat her down between the two of us and began our talk.

"Jane, when someone bites you, you push them away and say 'NO! Don't bite me!"

I demonstrated on Matt.

She looked back and forth between the two of us with interest.

Matt joined in, "See, if mommy bites me I'll push her away and say, 'NO! Don't bite me!"

Jane pondered this for a moment.

"Joey bite you."

"That's right, and if someone bites you, you push them away and say, "NO! Don't bite me!" I demonstrated again.

"NO! Joey don't bite you!" Jane yelled gleefully.

"That's right! But say, "Don't bite me!" I said.

"Don't bite YOU!" she yelled back.

"No, Jane..."

Matt put a hand on my leg, "Personal pronouns aren't her thing right now. Let's worry about that later."

Jane eyed the bright red teeth marks on her arm and sighed, "Joey bite you. Joey fwend."

Tears sprung into my eyes and I took a deep breath. They weren't sad tears. They were Hulk smash tears.

 "He's your friend but he cannot bite you. You push him away and tell him no."

She crawled into my lap, "Joey fwend."

At this point I had a vision. I walked into the daycare, pointed my finger at all the children and said, "The next person who bites my kid is gonna get it. I don't know what it is. But I'll think of something. And it will be awful. So DON'T BITE MY KID." Then the teachers looked nervous, and security came in, and then came a restraining order. The vision began better than it ended and helped me realize that this is not a viable option.

Our society really embraces the boy culture. "Aw, he's such a boy," we say to each other as the little fellas run around breaking things, pushing each other, and drawing pictures on the walls with crayons. But somehow, we don't give that freedom to little girls. Little girls are supposed to be sweet and say please and thank you and never fight. Little girls are supposed to play with dolls and speak softly. Little girls are supposed to sit still and behave.

To this I say BOLOGNA.

I'm so thankful for Jane's sweet, gentle heart. But I also know that in this life a girl has to be tough sometimes. And in order to be tough, girls need parents who give them permission to be tough.

My sisters, on the other hand, were rare ducks. They were born into this world with an invisible "don't tread on me" tattoo stamped on their arms. Once, when I was around 8 and Rebecca was Jane's age, a little neighborhood boy punched me. He hit me right in the stomach and it took the wind completely out of my lungs. In those moments of shock I slumped to the ground and in the corner of my eye I saw Rebecca spring to her feet.

We'd been playing in the sprinkler, and she was wearing nothing but a water logged diaper. She grabbed a big stick off the ground and charged the boy like a deranged kamikaze pilot, stick flailing, stocky feet running at full force.

"DON'T HIT WIZ!" she screamed.

I remember distinctly that the boy ran from her. I mean, he should have, because she fully intended to beat him to the best of her abilities.

But what I realized yesterday while talking with Jane is that she doesn't have that. She doesn't have the innate, "pick on me or mine and I'll filet you with this stick" reaction to violence or mistreatment. She just makes peace because someone is her "fwend."

So we'll work on it. Slowly but surely. She'll always be sweet and gentle. I just want her to feel fully justified in saying no. And pushing back. And maybe, on occasion, waving a big stick around in the air.

I may not be able to teach her about personal pronouns for a while, but I want her to know it's ok to be tough.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Around the Corner

Sometimes I go out onto the patio at night by myself. I listen to the frogs by the creek and I eat mint leaves. No, seriously. Like a cow, I'm out there gnawing on mint leaves. In the dark. This is my current idea of having a good time.

If you had told me, way back when I was tanning my skin into a leather bag and taping pictures into my senior year notebook, that one day I would be a project manager who sat in the dark eating mint leaves and listening to frogs FOR FUN I would have laughed. Or cried. Or ran. Probably a combination of all three. My life was in a holding pattern for the awesomeness that lurked just around the corner. My entire high school existence was spent in a state of boredom, completely sure that a more fabulous existence was waiting for me out there in the universe.

Then I went to college. And while I loved college, I was certain then too that something better was coming. And so it went with every new phase of my life. I wasted so much time waiting for the wonderfulness waiting just around the corner. I did not see the wonderfulness already around me.

I can't pinpoint when this changed. And I'm certainly not speaking about optimism. Looking into the future and being excited and uplifted is the stuff of life. But at some point I realized that the wonderful is NOW. It may not be glamorous. It might be nothing more than a humid night under patio lights listening to frogs. But what a shame it would be to focus on what's around the corner. What a shame it would be to miss it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Desk in the Corner, Query Letters

I get emails from time to time asking me a myriad of questions about writing. I try my best to answer each email, but lately I've been swamped and haven't been able to respond. This makes me feel immensely guilty. So, I thought I'd do a series of posts over the next few weeks dedicated to what I know about writing and getting published. This way no one has to wait around on me to return their emails. They can simply read these posts and say to themselves, "Huh. She really doesn't know very much at all." And that's cool. I completely agree.

This is my desk. It's a 1960's vanity built in between two closets. It looks out over the garage roof. It has an old formica top and creaky drawers. It feels a little bit tucked away and forgotten, like Jo March's attic. It is not grand. This is good.
First, let me say that if you are going to write, or do anything creative, you need a space. But hear me out.

In our last house I had an entire room dedicate to my "library." I decorated it, and rearranged it, and decorated it again, over and over. I had a big desk that jutted out in the middle of the room. I would sit there and instead of writing I would observe the room.

"I should move that bookcase over there."

"I really should paint that."

"Maybe I should hang new curtains."

This was a problem.

If you haven't read Stephen King's On Writing, get it. Now. Today. Read it. In this book he speaks to this problem when he says, “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” -Stephen King

I think sometimes the idea of being a writer, or an artist, or whatever creative thing drives us, takes over the act of actually doing it. That lovely little office didn't help me at all. This little unimpressive vanity tucked into a dressing room does the trick much better. I don't look around at a room that says, "I'm a writer! This room should reflect that!" I just sit there and write. Period. That's it.

So get yourself a space. But don't get yourself so much space that it distracts you. Don't feel grander than you should. It's writing. It's work. Just get down to business.

Moving on.

The first wall most writers smack into is the query letter. You realize that if you are to nab a good literary agent, you must have a good query letter. This. Is. Daunting.

After I finished my book and set out to write a query letter that would land a great literary agent (hello truly wonderful Laurie Abkemeier), I could scarcely find a real example of a good query letter online. Most authors were hush hush about their agent finding process, unless they couldn't find an agent and then they were really loud and vocal. There are entire blogs and websites devoted to those complaints, none of which were helpful.

For those of you who are trying to compress your book into one agent-eye-catching letter, I feel your pain. So in case it helps someone out there in the wild blue writing yonder, I'm posting my original query letter for My (Not So) Storybook Life here. 

As you can see, the agent/editor process will change A LOT about the story you originally start with. I went through three major rewrites between Laurie and my publisher, but this is where I started. I had to change my original title, which still makes me sniffle a little bit... but that's one of those hard truths about publication. Your story becomes every one's story, and sometimes things get axed. But don't be discouraged. Put on your thick skin. It's completely worth it.

For those of you who could care less about this kind of thing and just showed up for pretty pictures or a funny story, sorry. I'll get to you tomorrow.

Dear *insert exciting literary agent of your dreams name here*

When my dream of domestic perfection and my real home life collided like an exploding letter to Inspector Gadget, I needed to vent. And by vent I mean punish.  So who better to suffer than the ones who duped me?
Growing up, I loved the country loveliness of Green Gables and the ladylike poise of Elizabeth Bennett.  I planned for my future to mimic the ideals in these books. It didn’t happen. So who better to pay the price for my dashed delusions than my literary friends? I snatched them from their pedestals of perfection and reassigned them to real life.  Anne Shirley deals with a penny-pinching husband. Elizabeth Bennett shepherds a Duggar-size brood of kids. Jo March has to cope with a soul-sucking job.
My beloved, sweepingly romantic literary characters get hoodwinked by a roofing company, stressed as their pipes clank and sweat in the winter, and overwhelmed when the wall where their crystal sconces were installed gets hot due to suspect wiring. It makes me feel better. But then again, I’m a little tacky.
So what did I learn from putting my literary friends through the grist mill of life? There, amid the charred, nuclear dust of leaky roofs, burned dinners and home invasion paranoia, was humor. I found humor in the fact that my homemade chocolate chip cookies could be sold on the black market as weapons of intestinal destruction. It’s funny (now) when my schnauzer poops on the floor whenever she hears tornado sirens. I can even find humor in sewage disasters, paint color mishaps and a 6 ft tall husband who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder every time he has a run in with a spider. 
Who Stole My Green Gables is a 50,000 word nonfiction book, a humorous recounting of literary domesticity and the process by which I learned to love my own home-life reality. I'm a freelance writer and an office drone. My blog, Mabel's House, currently averages # visits per month and has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens and online at Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge. I look forward to hearing from you.
Elizabeth Owen

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

You know when you're so sick you don't feel like watching tv? And then you realize you're so sick you don't feel like reading? That's always been my "go to the doc" flag. Yucky bacterial infections. Hopefully I'll be reading again soon. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Plague

So here it is. The most exciting thing that's happened to me in the last week. I crawled out of bed, coughing and hacking, and rewired a set of lamps. Seriously. I did that based on sheer boredom and will. After that I crawled back into bed and fell asleep for three hours.

Sorry for the radio silence. I'll return soon.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Over a decade ago, in what seems like another life now, Matt and I were married and in college. Between the two of us we held down four jobs, and one of mine was at Bottles to Buses Daycare. 

One hot spring afternoon we were on the playground and I noticed the sky turning green, and the trees were starting to whip back and forth beyond what was a normal windy day. A few seconds later the tornado sirens went off.

I cannot explain the terror that filled my heart as the other teachers and I tried to hustle dozens of toddlers inside the building. I have not known terror like that since, except in those flash moments when Jane is very sick or hurt.

For so long I declared that I probably wouldn't have children, but on that day over ten years ago, I was mama to a dozen little babies who wobbled when they ran and couldn't quite get the knack of potty training. A least I felt like a mama as we all huddled in an interior hallway. We teachers put on our best fake smiley faces and sang Jesus Loves Me, and then Itsy Bitsy Spider. Truly, I was terrified.

We heard the roar as a tornado passed over, flinging limbs and debris against the roof of the old church the daycare was housed in.

The children, for the most part were oblivious to the dangers. They sat cross legged, climbing on me like their own personal jungle gym. They picked their noses and sang If You're Happy and You Know It with the most adorable lisps.

It's hard to wrap my mind around the tragedy a tornado can bring. But the children in Moore. I have had to turn off the news. It makes my heart ache in the worst way. It makes me remember that day, many years ago, and all those toddlers that called me Miss Wiz. They are teenagers now.

I'm sitting here in bed, at 4:47 a.m. unable to sleep. I can hear the birds chorusing in the trees outside. Matt is snoring next to me, and Jane is asleep across the hall. Mabel alone is awake, staring at me with a questioning face.

"What gives woman? Go to sleep."

I suppose I feel it's my obligation, a little bit, to be sleepless right now. To sit here in the darkness, in solidarity with all the Moore mamas who are wide awake and worried. 

Arkansas has a stormy forecast today. Possible severe weather, those are the words the weatherman uses. None of us here in the south get a pass from these scares.

May God bless you, Oklahoma. May God protect us and heal us from these things we will never, ever be able to understand.

Friday, May 17, 2013

No One Tells You These Things

Recently, Jane took the liberty of adding items to my bedside table. It was really only a matter of time until she took some ownership of the space, as she's always finding reasons to be in it. First thing in the morning she wants to snuggle and watch cartoons. After dinner she stacks a tower of books on the floor and wants me to read to her in bed.

I always have a stash of books, a glass of water, my glasses, TUMS and hand cream on the bedside table. She's fascinated by these things. One night after a reading session, she deposited her Dr. Seuss book on top of the table, next to my books, and smiled shyly.

"I put there," she said.

A few days later she left me a t-shirt she'd used to blow her nose. This week I noticed her Tinkerbell cell phone, a purple sock, and a comic book that came with her Chick-fil-A dinner called Cowborg (this entire piece of literature confuses her and she just calls it "angry cow").

A few nights later I turned out the lights and settled in. I fell asleep and rolled over. Jane, like the thoughtful two year old terrorist that she is, had carefully deposited her Tinkerbell phone under the covers. Verily I say unto thee ladies... you have never known terror until you roll onto a toy in your sleep and it switches on, and through the dark you hear these words:

"Iridescent! You're looking sparkly tonight!" 

I'd previously finished watching an episode of Hannibal before bed, and Matt was working late. My sleep deprived brain mixed all these components into a scary stew cocktail before I was even conscious enough to analyze what was happening to me. I sat straight up in the dark, lunging away from the pale yellow light of that little demonic piece of plastic.

The Tinkerbell cell phone might be this generations's Chucky doll.

Here's the part of the story where I'm a very bad mother. After she left for daycare the next day, I submerged the phone in water. I did not ever want to hear that thing bleat another chipper, horrifying fairy phrase.

"You are glowing with sunshine today!"

"My, I'm impressed by your fairy wisdom!"

I watched the bubbles gurgle to the surface and smiled smugly, knowing the little electric workings of its guts were smoldering into oblivion. Then I took it out, dried it off, and deposited it back onto my side table. There would be no more midnight Tinkerbell horror in my house.

The plan was very clear in my mind.

Jane would come home, pushing the previously chatty buttons on her Tinkerbell cell phone : "It's bwoken!"

Me, hugging her, seeking to assuage my guilt: "Aw. That's ok. Let's go buy you a new cell phone."

*insert super fun mommy-daughter Target date here*

I went into my closet to put on shoes. I hummed a little tune. I felt no guilt. That's when a horrible, garbled voice from the bedroom started talking to me.

"The moon above gives us good cheer!"

It sounded as if Tinkerbell was a life long smoker, and had had a baby with Pee-wee Herman. Then they recorded it's voice, and then slowed it down to the slowest speed possible.

"Theeee fairyyyyy duuuuust is readddddy for harrrrrvest..."

 I know when I've been beaten, and that hellish piece of Chinese plastic beat me. I ran down the stairs, out the door, into the garage, and off to the safety of work.

They should really tell you about things like this when you take your childbirth classes. No one tells you that one day you'll try to snuff out Tinkerbell. And then plan to lie to your kid about it. And then Tinkerbell will resurrect herself from the dead and taunt you with her zombie vocal chords.

No one tells you these things.