Twas the night before publication…

Twas the night before publication, and all through the house not a creature was stirring except me because gosh darn it, holy moly, gee whiz my first short story is getting published tomorrow!  Monday, June 3rd is publication day.  After a rough few years of submitting and being rejected, then completely quitting for a bit, I’ve had a run of acceptances.  (Is two a run?  I feel like it is.)  My first creative essay was published online April 20th and now my first fiction story will come out tomorrow.  Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow….

Grork Dentist will be published by Luna Station Quarterly, a magazine in their tenth year of publication.  I’ve loved Luna Station Quarterly since I first came across Holly Lyn Walrath’s story The Joy of Baking.  It’s a magazine with a cool mission: publishing speculative fiction by women-identified writers.  I love that they do a print and online publication (I’ve got four print copies arriving Tuesday from Amazon, thank you very much.)  It’s easy to share online publications with friends and family, but likewise really special to have a print copy of your very own story to hold, and smell, and sleep with, and carry in your purse everywhere, and give to your mom, and accidentally leave at your dentist office and… and…. I might need to order more copies.

The other cool thing?  I got to write my very own real live author bio.  I mean, does it get any more official than that?  My full bio is online and a shortened version will appear with my story.  Nothing makes you feel more like a real honest to goodness writer than a bio.  That is, not until tomorrow when I see my story.  I bet that will feel even better.

It’s funny, because I spend a lot of time with the Twitter writing community.  (Too much time, but hey, it got me my first publication.)  I’ve read how getting your story published doesn’t change anything.  My expectations will just get adjusted and I’ll want bigger and better things.  I must disagree.  For me, getting my first story published means the world.  As great as this story’s rejections were from high quality magazines — “We loved this story’s delightfully ridiculous concept” and “there’s some good writing here” — nothing equaled the joy of “We would like to publish your story, “Grork Dentist”, in the next issue of Luna Station Quarterly. Thank you for submitting!”  Getting a story you are proud of accepted into a journal you love is a very special feeling.  I’m now no longer afraid of calling myself a writer, and the publication has made me believe that my stories are worth writing and worth being read.  That feeds my writing soul.

Tomorrow I’m going to be refreshing my browser like an idiot waiting for the cover image to change and my story to show up.  Until then, I’ll be like a kid waiting for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny to all show up overnight and bring me the best present imaginable.  Happy publication eve to all, and to all a good night.

Acceptance

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I’ve been sending little stories of mine off to journals to be read, judged, and rejected.  From 2015 to 2017 I had one story rejected four times.  Then last year I got brave.  I threw three stories to the winds and let the rejections flow: ten of them.  I worked hard to perfect those little tales.  My writing group read them and gave feedback.  My mom read them and gave feedback.  My husband read them, corrected my grammar, and disliked them.  I even donated enough money to a new journal so a real live editor could critique my story.  I worked and tweaked, and while the rejections kept coming they started to give me hope.

My favorite rejection?  One that ended, “We loved this story’s delightfully ridiculous concept, but we felt the story didn’t have enough conflict to support it through the middle and ending.”  Um, the words love and this story appear together in this delightful rejection.  It almost feels like an acceptance….almost.  Another was rejected the day before they sent out the list of anthology finalists.  They said, “…there’s some nice writing in the story, but unfortunately we felt it just wasn’t quite right for the collection.”  Nice writing?  That’s enough to make me brave enough to submit somewhere else, and to watch this journal’s calendar carefully so I can submit to them again.

I know that ten rejections in a year is nothing.  One of my favorite blogs, Rejectomancy,  has a whole formula for calculating your power as a rejectomancer.  Aeryn, the blog’s author, revels in his rejections, having just tallied his 300th rejection.  Three hundred.  I love Aeryn’s blog because it’s really hard for me to get all freaked out about 10 rejections when he’s statistically analyzing three hundred.  Also, I’m not just a writer but also a geeky spreadsheet loving engineer, so recording and analyzing rejections is a form of comfort for me.  Another comfort?  Watching your Rejectomancy score increase as you get different types of rejections.  By the end of 2018 I was at 20 points: a glass level rejectomancer aiming for ceramic.  (Really, this system is so amazingly nerdy!)

2019 hit and I was ready to submit like mad.  Armed with my positive feedback and desire to rise through the Rejectomancy ranks, on a whim, I submit to a journal I had not researched that promised personalized feedback.  The story I sent had already received one lovely personalized rejection – the nice writing one – and one form rejection.  It was a piece I loved and felt confident about.  The day after submission I was rejected with a full page of detailed information about how horrible my story was, what a terrible writer I am, how the concept was interesting but horribly executed, and the ending sucked.  It would have been kinder and more succinct to reply, “You are a terrible writer with no concept of story.  Your words caused my eyes to bleed.  Cut your hands off so your tales never torture again.”

So I quit writing.  I quit submitting.  I quit my writers group.  I quit.  The end.  Eleven rejections was all I’d ever see.  It was one thing to get rejected with kind words and another to have strangers rip me to shreds.  Writing wasn’t worth it.

Except, I didn’t really.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont talks about writing presents, “Twice now I have written books that began as presents to people I loved who were going to die.”  The concept of writing presents speaks to me, drives my desire to finish my novels, and made me write a love letter to myself.  I wasn’t dying, but my hope and dreams of being published were dying, so when I saw a tweet for the 1000 Love, You Letter’s project I started to write.

The concept is not really me.  I am not a self-love essay writing kind of gal.  I’m an alien dentist, fisherman of children’s souls, bumblecat type of writer.  I’ve got stories about convicts puking, the end of the world, and heaven being destroyed by bureaucracy, but my dying craft cried for a story, a goodbye, a last hurrah, so I wrote myself a love letter.  No one read it but me.  No one edited it.  No one even knew it existed.  I wasn’t going to send it, but my tribute required a submission, so I sent off my letter.

The submission’s initial response is what you would expect from a project collecting letters from women writing love letters to themselves.  “This is a beautiful letter and we’re thankful for you trusting us to share it with the world.”  Sweet, and what you’d want every vulnerable woman essayist to hear.  Writing a love letter to yourself is an embarrassing emotional effort, and even more embarrassing knowing that others are going to read what you wrote.  Urban Ivy, the publisher, does a wonderful job of making the brave women who submit to them feel valued and that kindness was a salve to my broken writer’s heart.

Before I quit writing, I dreamed of seeing my story in print on a piece of paper.  Not on a website, but on a tangible page where I could run my finger over the text.  Something that I could put on a bookshelf and read until it was tattered.  Something that, when I was old, would smell like old paper and ink.  My submissions were brave and bold, targeting the journals that still print and accept less than 0.5% of the stories they receive.  I had a plan to move onto online journals once I’d exhausted the list of print publications.

The submission response from the 1,000 Love, You Letter project also said, “We will be in touch by March 15 to share which letters will be published in the Love, You book and on our social media!”  Even though I had quit writing, this little glow of hope that I find hard to extinguish grew as I watched the social media announcements about the project.

On International Woman’s Day, Friday March 8th, a message in my inbox was titled, “Your Love, You letter has been selected!”  I was stuck in a traffic jam on the highway so checked my email. (Totally unsafe. Never do this.)  I didn’t want to read the email on the road, but my glow of hope spread during the 20 minutes it took me to get to work.  My dream of publication might be coming true.  I wondered if there was going to be a request to send my bank account information to a prince in Nigeria before they published.   Then I yelled at myself to just be happy for once and not think how this could go wrong.  I thought about who I wanted to tell and how.  Once I parked, I reopened my email and read, “We’re excited to share that your letter has been selected to be featured in the Love You Book which is set to publish this Fall and will also appear on the 1000 Love You Letter website within the next few weeks.”

I burst into tears.  Happy tears.  Accomplishment tears.  Dream tears.  Tears I never thought I’d be able to shed but always wanted to shed.  My present to myself was going to be published, and not just published, but published in a book.  I unquit writing right there and then.

A week later I’m stalking the publisher, Urban Ivy, the letters that are already being published online, and the Instagram and Twitter feeds about the project.  I’m liking and retweeting and anxiously awaiting the next steps.  10 points were added to my rejectomancer score jolting me right past the ceramic level and on my way to denim.  My confidence restored, I resubmit my one-day-rejection story to a journal I love in hopes that it will find a home there, or at least some kind words.  I returned to my writing group, tail between my legs, and told them of my acceptance and thanked them for their kind words that I had ignored while I was feeling sorry for myself.  Because they are awesome people, and writers too, they welcomed me back.  Slowly I’ve been telling family and friends, while savoring my happiness.

I wish this fairy tale ending on everyone.  I hope that every low point is offset with a high, but I know that this is a wonderful, beautiful anomaly.  Unquit writer me is going to  continue to have mean things said about her writing.  If I’m really successful, people will rant about me the way I rant about Neal Stephenson and Paolo Bacigalupi; I cannot stand the famous, successful, prizewinning works they produce.  I have to get thicker skin and grow from these experiences: both the bad one and the good one.

The primary wisdom I gained from this came from my good friend Lew Gibb, part of my amazing writing group, who said about my mean rejection, “My wife and I have a great saying that works in these types of situations: ‘If someone honks at you for more than a second, it’s not about you.’ Everyone’s dealing with their own shit. It’s obvious, since they did the literary equivalent of a three second honk, that your reviewer allowed their shit to overflow into your story.”  He’s right.  I need to be strong enough to tune out the long honks.  I need to value the cheers of myself and my friends more than nasty words generated in a single thoughtless day.  I can’t just write love letters when I’m down.  I want to remember that everything I write a present, even knowing that there will always be critics who despise my gift.

But guess what?  I’m going to be published!  Acceptance at last!  I cannot wait to hold this book.  I’ll need at least two copies: one to cherish and one to get spotty with I’m-holding-my-story tears.

My favorite flower

I’d like to introduce you to my favorite flower.  Don’t misunderstand.  Tulips are not my favorite type of flower: that’s an iris.  This specific tulip is my favorite flower.   My husband and I have owned our house for almost 18 years.  I believe this flower came with the house, or at least I don’t remember planting it, and I don’t remember a spring when it didn’t bloom.  It’s a big tulip, the flower probably four inches tall, and it can’t decide if it wants to be pink, orange, salmon or all of them at once.  In a garden filled with blossoms it commands attention.

The spring before my daughter was born I remember checking on my favorite flower each morning wondering if my baby or flower would arrive first.  The flower bloomed a month before my due date, and my visions of enjoying it’s beauty with my baby evaporated when it’s petals fell and I was still pregnant.  Seasons, flowers and babies have their own timelines.

Now every spring I remember the anticipation, anxiety, and excitement of those last weeks of pregnancy.  With my favorite flower’s arrival comes reflection on my decade of motherhood.  I tell the story of the flower to my daughter, and we remember our springs together.  My favorite flower makes me pause to remember and appreciate the wonder filled life I’ve been given.

When I am an old woman

Tuesday, I was a chaperone for a group of third graders at the zoo, and as we were leaving I met the woman I want to be when I am very old.  Racing to the rendezvous point by our deadline I encouraged the kids, “We’ve made it this far and no one has lost a leg.  Keep going…”  Well the hurrying stopped and the kids proceeded to pretend body parts were falling off.  They limped, dragged and moaned themselves to the exit of the zoo.  Thankfully we had three minutes and I could see the teachers, so I just laughed and kept encouraging them to move forward while the zombie leprosy overtook them.

Of course, while my kids were emulating disastrous disabilities we lurched past a group of really old people in wheelchairs.  Some had oxygen.  All had a helper pushing them.  One was staring at me and my kids.  Her red lipstick both matched the smart red jacket she was wearing and framed the beautiful smile on her face.  She clapped her hands in delight and then held her clasped hands to her chest watching the loud silly kids parade past her.  I don’t think one of them noticed her, but she noticed them, and we noticed each other.  As I walked past she smiled at me and gave me a little wave while she kept laughing.

The kids weren’t being insensitive to people who couldn’t walk, or who were missing body parts.  They were just playing and having fun.  The old lady could have been grouchy.  She could have wished that those loud kids would quiet down so she could enjoy the zoo sounds.  Other old ladies might have shook their heads at me for not making my group of six urchins behave.  But she didn’t.   She recognized the joy of the moment.  The fun that comes after six kids and one grown up have spent the day watching peacocks dance their mating dance, learning about assassin bugs, and picking which fish resembles their daddy.  The excitement of getting to ride back on the bus.  The pride of finishing their whole packet of zoo worksheets before lunch.  It was a great day for us and it was like that old lady had a crystal ball and could see the entire joy of the trip in that last single moment our group had together.

While we were doing our last count of the kids before boarding the bus, the old woman was wheeled past our giant group of 82 kids and chaperones, and still she was smiling.  Even as the kids did obnoxious kid things like play with toys they weren’t going to buy from the gift shop and try to trip each other.  Then she saw me and reached out, so I stepped forward and held her hand, just for a moment, and smiled at her.  As her dry paper skinned hand pulled out of mine I thought, I want to be like her when I grow up.

Afthead at the White House

Dear readers.  The weeks before Christmas are chaotic and filled with high expectations, high demands, and fun…fun…fun.  So when a work trip pops up the answer is inevitably no, unless the request comes from the White House.  Yes, my friends, you read that right.  I was invited to the White House.  Now let me get a couple of questions out of the way:

  • Yes, I went on the work trip two weeks before Christmas.
  • No, I did not get to meet the President or the First Lady.
  • No, I did not get to hug Joe Biden, even though that was Afthead Junior’s number one request.
  • No, I did not sit in the Oval Office.  In fact, I didn’t even make it to the White House building.  My meeting was in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building or EEOB seen on the right, behind the many fences, in the image below.  It is very close to the White House, and still pretty darn impressive, as you will see.

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After checking in with security, being sniffed by a dog, x-rayed, and being checked by security again I was presented with my official credentials, that I had to return, and the badge I still wear everywhere except to sleep because it is pokey.

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Do you see that?  It says “The White House.”  Then it says “Johanna Levene.”  That’s me!  The weird part about being in the EEOB – I am so official using the acronym – is that once you get through all of the security you just get to wander around this insanely cool old building.  All the important rooms are locked with a badge reader – like the Vice President’s office, so one couldn’t just wander in for a hug – but you can just walk into many of the historic rooms if there isn’t a meeting going on.

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The ceilings are impressive.

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The stairwells are impressive.

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The library is impressive.

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The conference rooms are impressive.  This is part of the Secretary of War Suite.

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The wallpaper is impressive.

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I am impressive (and very smiley, because my badge says White House.)  I cannot believe my Christmas cards were made before I got this picture.  Maybe next year….

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But the computers are archaic.  Just kidding.  Oddly there were flat screen TVs in all the conference rooms, and they looked completely out of place.  However, in the Secretary of War Suite there was also this little set up in case you brought your typing skills, or some ink and parchment and wanted to pen a founding document real quick.

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After my meeting – yes I actually participated in a four hour meeting in addition to taking all these pictures – I ate lunch in the coffee shop (lunch at the White House); tried to get into the Truman bowling alley (locked); and bought a bunch of Christmas presents at the White House gift shop.  As I left I came the closest to the actual White House itself, so of course I took a picture.  Yeah, that’s the West Wing there on the other side of the parking lot.  Wave to President Obama.  Then I turned around and snapped a picture of the EEOB one last time, because you can’t get this angle unless you are a White House visitor.

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This was my first White House invitation in my thirteen year career, and the best part about the meeting is that it was actually important I was there.  This was no gratuitous White House invite.  I briefed my boss’s, boss’s, boss’s….on and on… boss before the meeting, and he used my talking points in his presentation.  I got to speak. I made a call to action.  It was pretty darn cool.  I think I deserve a congratulatory pat on the afthead.


In case you are interested in learning more of the history of the EEOB or White House check out these great sites:

West Wing Tour: https://www.whitehouse.gov/about/inside-white-house/west-wing-tour

Eisenhower Executive Office Building Tour: https://www.whitehouse.gov/about/inside-white-house/eeob-tour

 

 

 

Solstice Gift

My husband raced downstairs tonight with happy crinkles decorating his eyes.  “I have a present!” he announced.

My daughter waited in anticipation, but I didn’t even need to ask.  Only one thing could make him so happy:  our chickens laid their first egg a month before we expected it, and on the shortest day of the year no less.  A week after temperatures didn’t reach 0 Rosie decided it was time to make an egg. (Well, we think it was Rosie.  Even though she is the youngest in our flock her comb and waddle are the most developed, which is supposed to indicate egg laying readiness.)

The upside?  Well, the beginning of eggs of course.  The downside?  My chickens have trumped any hope of me being responsible for delivering the true joy of Christmas this year for my family.  I’ve been trumped by a bird.  My daughter is running around singing, “All I want for Christmas is another egg…another egg… Oh!  Another eeegggg.”  My husband semi-jokes that he’s going to sleep with the egg tonight.  There is nothing wrapped or planned that can match the miracle of the first egg this season. 

I think I have a tiny bow downstairs.  Maybe I’ll stick that on the tiny precious gift and call it good.  (Or is that what they call gilding the lily?)
Happy solstice everyone!  May your own families be as lucky as the Aftheads and have their hearts filled with whatever gives them joy this week.  

Afthead Holiday Party

I’ve just finished cleaning up from my third annual holiday party.  Yep, me, the introverted Afthead throws a holiday party every year, but it’s my kind of party.  I pick up five of my daughters friends after school and we craft for four hours.  I am their hostess, their coach and their mentor as they learn new skills making gift for themselves, their friends, and their families.

Every year I have a plan.  I buy supplies: yarn, pipe cleaners, beads, and Popsicle sticks.  In the days before the party my daughter and I make sample projects and test out what is too hard, what doesn’t really come together, and what we can reuse from last year.  The event begins with an after school snack while I casually lay out the demo items we’ve created, showing what they could make for their mom, sister, dad, or grandpa.  Some things grab their attention, and some things don’t, but ten minutes into the party it isn’t about me anymore: it becomes all about them.  I hand them each a gift bag to store their loot and they start crafting.

It is a marvel to behold, an experiment in personalities.  We hand select friends who can sit and craft for four hours with breaks only for food and to find the scissors.  Learning from our past mistakes girls who want to be the center of attention or who can’t sit still aren’t invited back, because there are lots of parties where you can dance on the table, chase friends or wear pretty dresses.  This party is different; I and the girls love it.

This year we hit the perfect mix of guests.  There were two new girls on the invite list.  I taught one to finger knit and she was a prodigy.  Four hours she stood in her snow boots looping yarn over her tiny fingers.  She went home with three scarves.  The second new girl sat on the floor cross-legged making pom-pom after pom-pom: methodically winding the yarn around one arm of the puffball maker, closing it; winding the other arm, closing it; finding the good scissors, cutting the loops; and tying the yarn around the middle.  She’d wiggle the contraption apart and out would pop another pom pom.  Then she’d find another yarn and do the whole process again.

The evening’s transition is magical.  They start the day calling for my help.  Every one of them needs me, my hands, and my expertise.  Impatiently they wait calling out Coach Johanna, Jo Jo, Mom, Mrs. Johanna, but by the end they are helping each other and I am forgotten.  Today, with an hour left in the party, I was unexpectedly called.  They explained that a timer needed so the girls could prepare for a rendezvous.  Having no idea what they were talking about they explained, with the condescension of children, what they are learning about Colorado history right now.  In case you are also ignorant:

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous (in trapper jargon) was an annual gathering (1825–1840) at various locations held by a fur trading company at which trappers and mountain men sold their furs and hides and replenished their supplies.

The timer rang, and the girls set up shop to trade their precious crafts with each other.  There were no fights, no arguments, lots of compliments, and it was all their idea.  I contributed cookies to the event, which they appreciated, while letting me know my presence was not needed.

I learn so much from them.  Beyond expanding my knowledge of western history, I learn perspective about  my daughter’s own strengths and weaknesses in the light of her friends.  I learn more about the challenges and struggles they each have and they have together.  I learn how each of them has grown and changed since I last had concentrated time with them.  But I get to teach too.  I teach them that it is important to be kind to each other.  I teach them that we don’t have and Elf on the Shelf, because our family thinks the elves are creepy, but we don’t judge their family for having one.   I teach about our joint Christmas and Hanukkah celebration.  I teach them the wonder of making something with your own two hands and using your brain to take an idea and make it your own.  I hope I teach them that even as a grown up there are lots of different ways of having fun with your friends.

This is the one party every year when I don’t worry about what to wear, I don’t need a drink to loosen me up, and I don’t want to hide in my basement to recover.  Cleaning up from the event I love the dustpan full of yarn bits and googly eyes.  My daughter, having helped and chatted with her friends, starts her projects in earnest when everyone leaves.  She’s watched her friends and picked her favorite ideas to make over and over.  My extroverted daughter and her introverted momma are both energized when the evening comes to a close.

You can have your cocktail dresses, your high heeled shoes, your signature drinks, and your white elephant gifts.  Me?  I’ll take a group of kids and some glue for as long as they will have me.

Dragon Float at night

Afthead Mardi Gras – Best Day Ever

I missed posting for a week.  Well, I can’t say I missed posting, because I was at Mardi Gras with my husband and my daughter.  Yes, we took our daughter to Mardi Gras, for the second time.  Now before you call child protective services and have her taken away from me, let me tell you, Mardi Gras isn’t how you are imagining it in your head.  We saw no boobs.  Yeah, we saw some drinking, some public affection, some R-rated costumes, but we didn’t see the stereotypical Mardi Gras.

If you have never been you should find a friend who grew up in New Orleans, or went to college in New Orleans, or lives in New Orleans and schedule a trip.  It is the closest thing to pure fun I have ever experienced.  It’s marching bands, and dance troops, and old guy dance troops, and floats.  The floats are like nothing you have ever experienced.  They are huge and satirical and filled with men and women throwing presents at you.  Yes they throw beads, but also stuffed animals, footballs, Frisbees, toys, hats, costumes and instruments.  There are little kids sitting safely in these awesome ladder seats.  There are bigger kids on their parents shoulders reaching right up to the float, and there are slightly bigger kids running after the float cheering, yelling and screaming, “Throw me something mister!” and normally the mister (or misses) throws something.

Mardi Gras ladder for little kids.
Mardi Gras ladder for little kids.

Yeah, the crap is made in China.  Yeah, the guys on the floats look a little like KKK members.  Yeah, there is a very obvious class separation.  While I can recognize those unsavory details today, when I am at the parade I just don’t care, because it is so much fun.  Do I really want that white feather boa my daughter begged for?  No, and neither does she.  It is itchy and sheds feathers.  But at that moment it was the best catch of the day.  It was glamorous and envied.  Right now I look at the giant beads hanging in my studio, and I marvel that a 40 year old woman (and her 42 year old friend) could have received such attention.  (I did not bear my breasts for them, thanks for wondering.)

At Mardi Gras we stood side by side with strangers and we had fun together.  A lady I’d never met and never saw again picked up a special bracelet thrown to me, because I had a 45 pound kid on my shoulders.  A family who had been holding their spot at Bacchus for ten hours welcomed us to their tent.  We caught beads for their kids and they gave us frosty cold beers.  We shook our heads together when the twenty year old threw up in their tent.  I laughed with the woman next to me when someone threw beads onto her outstretched arms.  She was dancing not asking for beads, but it was a great shot.  We had a spaghetti dinner at our friend’s church for $10 (which also gave us the use of their bathroom all night) and then they sold us $3 wine and beer to enjoy while watching the parade.  Having fun with strangers is even better than having fun with people you know.

There is magic at Mardi Gras.  We had a dragon breathe fire at us, causing a white out in our vision, but not burning us.  Our kids ran up to huge floats blind to their tiny frames and they didn’t get run over.  Doubloons are thrown, and those gold, red, purple and silver coins are more valuable to my 6-year-old than the real dollars the tooth fairy brings.  If I hold them now their clinking and glinting brings back the magic and the fun.