Friday, November 30, 2007

How Old is That Kid?

This is what happens when kids are big for their age:

My two year old J.J. had a sore on his sole of his foot this week. It looked bad, so I took him to the doctor. Well, J.J. is the size of a short, stocky 4-year-old. In fact, the doctor had trouble lifting him onto the examining chair.

Halfway through the launch, he said, "You didn't tell me he was this heavy."

It's because he's all muscle. Give or take the "fun size" candybars he ate at a gathering the day before while my grandma looked on in horror.

"I can't tell you how many of those he ate," she said when I came into the room.

Judging by the wrappers on the floor, it was about 13.

Anyway, I took off J.J.'s shoe--which is a big problem to begin with. He does not like to be shoeless in any circumstances.

"Shoe on! Shoe on!" he started yelling, while writhing as if in great pain. Which I don't think he was--other than the emotional anguish of being barefoot.

The doctor took hold of his ankle and I was trying to hold J.J. still so that the doctor could see the sore.

"Shoe on! Shoe on!"

The doctor looked at me, as if to ask, "What is this kid's deal? And what is his first language?"

"What is he saying?" he asked.

"He's saying, 'Shoe on,'" I said.

The doctor popped what turned out to be a blood blister, and a splinter came out, which I'm guessing had to have been from wood inside J.J.'s shoe, since he is never barefoot.

Finally, as J.J. went totally ballistic and the doctor struggled to put Neosporin on a moving target, he said, "Santa is watching you."

And I was thinking, if only J.J. gave a tinker's damn about that or any other consequence, well, our lives would be very different in the Heos household. We would no longer have a short, stocky dictator ruling the roost, for instance.

After I put J.J.'s shoe back on and he instantly stopped crying, the doctor asked, "How old is he again?"

"He's two," I said.

"Ah," the doctor said in that smile only 60-somethings can give you.

It says, "I've been there. But my kids are grown now, so now it's your turn. Na na na boo boo, stick your head in dog doo."

"Now it makes sense," the doctor said. "I remember those days."

As for J.J.'s foot, it's fine now. But even while limping, he managed to overfeed the fish (for the second time this week.) Then, while I scooped out the extra food with my bare hands, so that I wouldn't have to empty the tank--again, he ran/hobbled out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

It goes without saying that the rickety old doorknob fell off, so I was stuck in there with my hands covered in wet fish food.

And while my hands were in the tank, by the way, our two aquasnails decided to make love. Meanwhile, as my hand scooped the middle of the tank, a tentacle came out of the blue one's shell--out of nowhere, I didn't even know it had a tentacle--and groped my palm. Look for that in the pages of my upcoming romance novel.

After wiping my hands off on a tiny Kleenex that I had in my pocket, I started banging on the door.

"Open the door!"

I could hear the Oreos package rustling in the kitchen. I estimated it would take J.J. five minutes to lick the centers out of every last one of them and throw the cookies on the floor. So I waited impatiently.

Then I knocked again.

"Open the door!"

J.J. walked over, and I could just tell what he was thinking: "Oh, I love this game. This is where mommy knocks and yells, 'Open the door!' and then I knock and yell, 'O-eh na noor.'" And so on and so forth forever and ever.

Finally he opened the door. And opened his arms. And said, "Hug."

I gave him a hug and he took me by the hand to show me the work he'd done in the kitchen, which was as I thought. In baby's minds, do people deserve medals for eating too many Oreos and feeding the fish too much? Do they have a to-destroy list in their heads, and they feel a sense of accomplishment when they check something off?

All I can say is J.J. is really lucky he's two. Or Santa would be stocking up on bags of Kingsford charcoal even as we speak.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I went to a writer's workshop a couple weeks ago. The teacher led us in an activity to make our fiction better. I don't normally write fiction. Or, when I do, it is a gloopy mess. I like coming up with the characters but can never think of a plot.

So the characters end up complaining, "I'm bored. I don't have a conflict. I don't have a compelling story. I don't have a theme. Blah, blah, blah."

But she had us think of a character. Mine was a young superhero out of his element among big kid superheroes as they prepared for a race across the kingdom. Did I mention this was a children's story workshop? Then she said about five groups of four words that we had to choose from and use in the story. As she said each group, I watched as my character's whole landscape changed from ominous to cold to a marching band rehearsal.

It was like a door opened up in my mind. That night, I dreamed that I was climbing a huge tree--so huge that a branch actually ripped through another universe: make believe land. I could tell because the people looked like they were drawn. I was so excited to see what was happening in make believe land. But it was just a line of garbage trucks that were bumping into each other like dominoes. If this was a book, I would tell the character that that was a bad sign.

But in the meantime, I was getting frustrated with my non-fiction projects almost panning out, and then not. And I thought, "I don't even like real life, with its messy houses and meetings and bills. Why do I write about it?"

With fiction, you get to take all the things that are good about real life--the people and the funny things that happen and the defining moments in everybody's lives and forget the rest.

So I decided to write a novel. This is what I would compare that to: You're knitting a sweater. But instead of buying yarn from the store, you have to spin it on a spinning wheel, which you first have to build with wood you carve from a tree you chopped down from the forest you planted. And you must shear the wool from a sheep you herded. But before you can do any of this, you must pull that sheep and those trees...out of your ass.

And I don't even know how to knit.

Perhaps this lovely analogy illustrates why I'm struggling with writing a beautiful novel. See, with nonfiction, it's never a question of: Can I do this? Given enough time, and assuming that people will allow me to interview them--which they usually do--I can. But fiction is an endeavor that I know might never pan out. But it's something I have to try.

A lawyer who had been working for a big law firm and struck out on her own to do trial work told me, "If you're never in a courtroom, you're not practicing law."

I don't agree with that across the board. But for her, it was true. Now I feel like, for me, if I'm never writing fiction, I'm not writing.

From writers I've talked to, a good market is romance. I enjoy romance novels and I think I understand the story structure behind them, so I've been reading up on the genre. Some writers describe the beginning chapters as a blind date. You're getting to know your characters.

But it's a very bizarre first date.

Your character tells you, "My daddy was a coal miner and I left home as a teenager to become a country music singer."

And you're like, "Um, that's a little too Loretta Lynn for me. Would you mind trying again?"

"I'm from Texas and attended college on scholarship, after which I became a country singer."

"Better. But let's drop three years of college and give you a business degree from the school of hard knocks."


"And let's say you're the suspect in a murder."

"Whoa. Back up. I'm here for the romance novel."

Anyway, to divert my attention from this disastrous novel, I've been following the writers' strike in California. I show Richie and J.J. the You Tube clips in a home school lesson I call Sticking it to the Man. It's available via the blog They are striking to get residuals from Web based programming, which runs ads.

It is heartening for me to see writers who believe their material is good and that they should be compensated fairly. I've always been jealous of T.V. writers because they get to write as a team. I know a strike is nothing to be jealous of, but I am just a tad envious of the way they believe in their work and their right to be paid fairly for it.

I'm biased, but I think writing is what makes or breaks a T.V. show or movie. It always amazes me when I see a good story--even if it's short or simple--because bad writing is so easy to do, a fact I'm reminded of now each and every day.

On a more basic writing note: Richie learned his ABC's. My mom sat down with him one morning and said, "This is not going to be easy. And it's not going to be fun. But by this afternoon, you're going to know your ABC's and it's going to be worth it."

And he learned them. And it was worth it because now he carries around a little notebook and writes letters on the pages. I also showed him how to make words by alternating vowels and consonants...if only it were that easy.

Maybe sometimes the only way to do something is to sit down and say: This isn't going to be easy or fun but it's going to be worth it. Or maybe not. But it's worth a try.

Ironically, after I abandoned hope for my nonfiction children's writing career, I got an e-mail from an editor asking me to write a biography for fifth grade readers. It's a work-for-hire, which, for some children's writers, becomes their bread and butter while they pitch stories that may or may not pan out. In other words, it's a start. I don't want to give too many details because I haven't gotten my contract yet, and I think that would jinx it. But basically, it's a rags to riches story of a famous writer. 6,000 words. Maybe real life isn't so bad after all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Racing the Cheetah

This was Johnny's first year to be in the Boy Scout pinewood derby at school.

Two nights before the race, he and Justin worked outside, carving the car with a skillsaw.

Then Justin told Johnny, "Sand it down real good so that it will go fast."

Johnny sanded it for two hours.

Next they painted it the color of our upstairs. Because that is orange, Johnny decided to make it a Cheetah car, and he carefully painted on irregular spots. They let it dry over night, and the next night put on the wheels and weighed it down with washers.

"Mine is going to be the fastest one there," Johnny said, running around the house with the car in the air.

"Don't get your hopes up too high," Justin said. "The important thing is: We worked on it together, right?"

"Right," Johnny said. "Is there a prize for first place?"

Kids don't understand the concept of not getting their hopes up. I think it's because their hopes are never down.

So the next night we went to the pinewood derby and they were testing a the track with a second grade boy's car. It got halfway down the track...and stopped.

The kid was watching, in a daze. Then he turned to me.

"My car's broken," he said. "It's the wheels."

Utter despair.

"Maybe something's wrong with the track," I said.

"No, it's the car," he said. "It's broken."

"Oh, so some cars just don't make it?" I said. It never occured to me, because the track is sloped steeply downhill, and then the cars just have to go a short ways on the flat track.

"Mine didn't," he said.

"I'm sure it will make it during the actual race," I said.

And as he stared at his failing car, I saw that kids do get their hopes down.

The races started with the first graders, who huddled at the finish line, jumping up and down and wrestling each other and bragging. My car's the silver surfer! My car's a tiger! My car's a cheetah! My car's gonna win!

Justin, a volunteer, stood up at the top of the race car hill. His job was to carry the cars that raced from the finish line back over to the starting line.

A couple races went by and the boys were shouting out the winners of each race. When it came time for Johnny's race, he and the other kids in the race sat down just outside the flags encircling the track. I watched him and the others bouncing up and down with excitement. Then they were off.

I could see from the start that the cheetah and the track were not working together. It was as if a cheetah literally had wheels for feet--it just didn't fit. Just make it across the finish line, I thought. But as soon as it got down the hill, it slowed and stopped.

Johnny's face fell as a grownup--dressed as a racecar driver--softly pushed the car across the finish line.

On the other hand, the car's time was off the charts--there was some mistake. So as they put the car in a different lane, I thought, "Oh no, they're going to retest it."

I watched Johnny watch, with an unblinking mix of hope and worry.

The same thing happened.

Now they put it in a different lane. How many times were they going to test this car? Until it finished the race?

That same second grader whose car stalled in the test round was sitting next to J.J. and me.

He turned to his friend. "I feel so sorry for that guy!"

"Who?" the friend said.

"That one," the second grader said, pointing to the cheetah. "It hasn't finished one race."

As the car wobbled and stopped short again, I watched Johnny blink a few times to keep from crying. Meanwhile, his chin sank lower into the palms of his hands. Then...they put the car on the track again. I mean, I think we can all agree this car isn't going to win any speed records, let alone cross the finish line, I thought. How many times are they going to put my son through this. 10 more? 15. And to think, his father is standing right there.

I motioned Justin over with an urgent look on my face that probably led people around me to believe that one of my children was having a seizure. To Justin, it just meant, My wife has something crazy to say to me.

"How many times are you going to put him through this?" I asked.

"Four," he said. "They all race four times."

"Oh," I said. "I thought you were going to race his car until it crossed the finish line."

"I knew you would think that," he said.

"He is devastated," I whispered fiercely.

I never thought I would be a lot of things that I have turned out to be. But number one on the list is a crazy pinewood derby mother. And yet, there we were.

After the fourth nonfinish, Justin approached Johnny and put his hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, buddy," he said.

Johnny walked over to the wall, and wiped his eyes, with his back turned to everybody.

He could have faced the whole crowd. Nobody even noticed that his car didn't finish or that he was fighting back tears. After all, our nonfinishes in life are really only visible to us. To others, they're just a blip on the radar screen--if that.

Johnny sat beside J.J. and me and I put my arm around him. Then his friend sat down beside him and started poking him in the stomach. And Johnny grabbed his friend's hand and used it to make the friend hit himself. And then they wrestled. And that was that. The rest of the night, he ran around with his friends--literally in circles.

Toward the end of the night, J.J. was starting to fall asleep while walking. Justin was still volunteering so I gathered Johnny and Richie and said it was time to go.

In the meantime, I talked to Justin and he said Johnny should go home with him.

Johnny came back from saying goodbye to his friends and was sobbing.

"They're going to give prizes," he said. "I'm going to miss it."

"Daddy said you could stay with him," I said.

Back home, Richie and J.J. fell asleep on the couch while I watched Las Vegas and waited up for Justin and Johnny. They came in and Johnny had a small award. "Most original design" it said. He also had a NASCAR towel, which he won in a drawing.

"I won two prizes!" he said.

And that, kids, is why you should never get your hopes down.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Teacher Conferences Provide an Opportunity to Ask Where Did I Go Wrong?

In the beginning, the Lord created teachers and made them deal with children for nine months. Parents, meanwhile, only kept them home for three months.

"Lord," a teacher pleaded one night. "Why must teachers have them for the better part of the year?"

God said, "Well, I can't shorten the school year, but I'll give parents an equal burden."

And with a great clap of thunder he created...the parent-teacher conference.

That magical day when you learn that your child not only doesn't know his letters or numbers but also does not grasp the concept of circle time.

Come to find out, Richie, who is in Pre-K, has been talking so much during carpet time, he's been making the other children uncomfortable.

"I think he thinks school is a giant playdate," his teacher said.

Richie has since confirmed that, by the way.

She also showed me a sheet of paper where Richie was to write all the letters he knew. It was completely blank. On the plus side, he knew how to write 1-8 except for 5 and 6.

So that's good, I thought.

"He should know his numbers to 31," his teacher said. Oh.

Acknowledging that I failed Richie in the letters and numbers department, I was determined to make amends. Naturally, by overreacting. First, I went into my room and sobbed. Next, I made a big announcement:

"Okay, no T.V. until everybody in this house knows their letters."

Unfortunately, my boys may not all know their letters, but they do know their mommy. Johnny and Richie exchanged knowing looks. I could just see Johnny calculating how long this was going to last.

One day.

That's how long it lasted. But ever since, my mom and I have been diligently teaching Richie his letters. He knows 10 now: A, B, C, E, F, I, J, R, X and sometimes P. Other times, none at all. I honestly think he might have short term memory loss. Which is my fault. Why wouldn't it be? He's a bright kid. Why couldn't I teach him the ABCs like all the other moms?

Now I'm hustling to teach J.J. his letters so that he won't be behind. As you can imagine, it's extremely difficult, seeing's how he can't talk.

Circle time, on the other hand...I think it's reasonable for a mother to expect her son to master this concept on his own.

Back home, I told him, "You need to sit quietly during circle time. You need to listen to your teacher."

"Are they going to kick me out of school?" he asked very seriously, as though he was contemplating other career avenues. Pick pocketing. Chimney sweeping. Street urchin.

"Of course not," I said. "Because you're going to start paying attention."

"But it's our choice," he said. "We don't have to sit quietly. We can choose to play with friends instead."

I wanted to ask him, "Did it ever seem strange to you that everybody else 'chose' to sit quietly except you?"

But he fell apart. "I'm doing a good job," he said. "I'm being good."

Those were my thoughts exactly when I found out Richie didn't know letters or numbers. I read to the kids every day. I let them have friends over. I take them to the zoo.

And I tried to teach Richie his letters last year, but it wasn't clicking and he wasn't interested and, to be honest, I dropped it. I figured he'd learn them when he was ready.

After all, if any of my kids are going to be good at language arts, it's Richie. He picks up on catchphrases the first time he hears them and incorporates them correctly into his vocabulary. He tells elaborate stories and goes back and changes them to make them funnier.

Unlike Johnny, he dishes about his school day..."So and so said a bad word. She said 'stupid.' I said a bad word, too: farting. But I only said it one time."

He makes astute--and sometimes catty--observations about other people. If this kid isn't going to be a writer then I don't know who is.

Of course, he has to learn his letters first. And so I have to swallow my pride and admit I dropped the ball on this one. Ready or not, he's going to learn his letters this year.

The funny thing is...he appears to be ready. Right now, he is writing his name.

"R-I-C-H-I-E," he says.

"How come you know 'h' now but not when I show you the flashcard?" I ask.

"Because I don't remember it," he says, shrugging.

Well, I guess the letter "h" isn't that important. I 'ardly use it at all in my writing. But we're going to master the other letters ASAP, starting with a, s and p.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Halloween...a Pretty, Scary Holiday

Halloween...It's when girls dress up like pretty princesses and boys, like ugly monsters. My sons were a vampire and a skeleton.

J.J. was Robin. Not exactly a monster. But we had the costume in our attic--barely worn because soon after we gave it to Richie, he learned that Robin has no real powers but is really just a sounding board for Batman.

There are other exceptions of course. I saw one girl who looked to be dressed as a dead bride.

For the most part, though, girls are all about the beauty and boys are all about the scare. While trick or treating, we must have seen 100 princesses...but not a single Prince Charming. For every girl that dressed as Princess Padme, there was a boy Darth Vader, for every Mermaid, an evil sea creature.

Even in the When I Grow Up, I Want to Be...category, girls were pop star divas, and boys, dimented doctors or wolfmen in business suits.

Why do girls want to be beautiful and boys want to be scary? I asked my two research assistants, Johnny and Richie.

"Why did you decide to be a vampire?" I asked Johnny.

"I just like the sharp teeth," he said.

Richie said he was a skeleton because he'd never been one before.

So much for that.

Some would say it's marketing. Today, girls are sold Island Princess Barbie outfits, and boys, evil alien attire. Even "scary" costumes for girls, these days, are meant to be cute more than anything else--there's the devilish diva and the fashion show witch, for instance.

But going back to when the only options were plastic costumes from Osco Drug Store or something homemade, girls, for the most part, went for pretty, and boys, goulish.

Looking back, I was a ballerina, an angel and Pippi Longstocking for Halloween.

My brothers were football players, the devil and an escaped mental patient.

They say Halloween is a time to laugh at what scares you. That way, you have the upper hand. There's nothing that makes monsters madder than to be mocked, you know.

And maybe that's what's behind boys' costumes. Johnny, for a while, was terrified of bats because of their vampire potential. And this year, he was a vampire.

Maybe he was saying to his worst fear: You're a big scary guy with fangs. Well, guess who else is? Me. And my friend Jackson. So deal with it.

Girls, on the other hand, are saying to their worst fears: Yeah, you're evil. You're also ugly. I'm pretty. My dress is twirly and frilly. My hair is shiny. So I win.

Or maybe, for them, Halloween is about something different all together. For boys, it's about nightmares. For girls, it's about dreams.

Of course, these are only grownup explanations for what Halloween is about. As it becomes a bigger holiday (some call it Falloween,) everybody is attaching a meaning to it.

Books talk about its ancient origins as a way to confront fearfulness about the coming winter while celebrating the harvest. An odd blend, if you ask me. "I'm so scared of freezing to death this December. But...yea! Fresh corn."

I heard a guy on the radio call Halloween a mini-Spring break for college students. Hence, the popularity of costumes like sexy Snow White, sexy evil old lady selling apples, sexy seven dwarves, etc.

An easy listening station here in Kansas City thought it was about beginning to play nonstop Christmas music. (Wrong.)

But for kids, October 31 is about something much more meaningful.

Candy. The universal language of Disney and Barbie princesses, as well as bloodthirsty vampires and evil trolls. That's what it's always been about.

Well, it used to be about begging for food after the harvest. But basically the same thing. Only this time: M&Ms, please. Hold the freshly harvested wheat. And the dum dums, while you're at it. Thanks.

Hope you had a sweet Halloween and successfully confronted your fear of winter. Hmm...Maybe next year the boys will go as winter.