Books that Inspired my Writing – 2017

I am coming up on six years of being a writer.  On February 20, 2012 I put words to paper for my first – still incomplete – novel.  Since then I have not yet published anything (except this lovely blog) but I have finished writing two short stories; finished a second novel;  started three other short stories; and have four rejections to my name.  While my publishing may have been limited, 2017 was a big learning year for me, and from that learning, I am hoping to get two pieces polished in 2018 and start circulating them through the journals I’ve identified as good fits for my work.

One evolutionary writing step happened this year, when mid-book I would switch into reading-as-a-writer mode. As I read, I’d start thinking about what the author was doing, and learn from that new perspective.  Below are 3 works that helped me grow as a writer in 2017.

Slade House, by David Mitchell

I didn’t know reading-as-a-writer was a real thing, until I saw a talk by Jennifer Haigh.  Part of her process is to find keystone works.  Not books she wants to copy, but books that do something well that is relevant to her work, and new to her, such as using the first person point-of-view or being set in the same time period.  Her recommendation was to find this keystone book, dissect it, take notes, and learn how a published author accomplished the task you are attempting.

As an avid reader, this process makes sense to me.  While most writing books stress that you have to read to be a writer – a writing skill I’ve always been good at, the not-writing one – they don’t tell you what to do with all that reading.  But now I know there is a catalog of works in my head that I can refer to as a writer when I’m trying to do something new.  That said, sometimes fate and the muses smile and the right book falls in your lap at the right time.

That’s what happened with Slade House.  I’d just finished reading it when I saw Haigh’s talk.  Instantly I realized that I’d just read a keystone book for my in-progress novel.  Slade House is set in five vignettes spaced exactly nine years apart.  Each section is told in the same setting and has common characters, which is exactly what my book does, but in annual increments.  I was struggling with how to size each mini-story, and keep the pace moving, which Slade House does incredibly well.  There were mini-climax moments in each time period, but the overall plot of the book escalated up to the final climax in the last year.  Again, this is exactly how I want my book paced.  Based on Haigh’s suggestion I got out my note-cards and spreadsheets and analyzed how Mitchell created his story.   I now have a guide for how to move my story along, avoid repetition in my world building, and write something that might work for publication.  Oh, and that elusive comparable title I’ll need for querying agents?  Done.

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book could have gone on my list of most hated books for 2017.  Bacigalupi wrote a novel about climate change, a topic about which I am both passionate and have close to expert knowledge, and I hated it.  Best of all, I read this for my beloved Apocalyptic Fiction class, so I got to publicly explain my loathing, which is why magic happened.

It’s easy to hate a book.  It’s easy to dismiss the author, say they suck, and quit reading.  It’s hard to sit in a class for three weeks and tease out the exact moments that turned you off, then dissect those moments, then hear other’s contrasting opinions, then have an epiphany, then explain to the other writers in class  your epiphany: real characters and believable interaction are more important to me than plot or world building or theme or language or anything.

The moment when Bacigalupi’s tortured heroine springs from the chair she’s been strapped to and starts cleaning out her rescuer’s bullet wound made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.  People do not act that way.  People do not jump up when they have been physically tortured to care for some person they might have a crush on.  Women do not dismiss off their oozing wounds, throw a shirt on over their naked torso and become ad hoc medical professionals.  I do not want to write unbelievable scenes like that.  I want humanity.  I want you to feel the desperation of torture, experience the burgeoning attraction between the heroine and her rescuer, understand the agony of pulling a shirt on over shredded skin, and realize, with the heroine, that her survival requires that her rescuer doesn’t die.  That is how I wanted the story told, and I am so grateful for Bacigalupi doing it in the completely wrong way, so I can understand my values as a writer and how I want my story told.

I will never read that book again.  If I had a paper copy I would  have composted it to save others from having to read it, but I am a much better writer for having struggled through the reading and understanding.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?  Do you ever want to quit and do something sensible?  When this happens, go find Madeline L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech.  Unfortunately, it’s been removed from her website, but it is published in the back of the 50th anniversary paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time.  It’s worth a trip to your local library to find it, but don’t read it in the stacks or you might find yourself crying next to children looking for the dinosaur book section.

The section that matters to me begins with a quote that is now hung up next to my writing desk, “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.”  L’Engle goes on to talk about her writing of A Wrinkle in Time and says, “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it.  It was simply a book I had to write.  I had no choice.”  I read these words – the words of an author I have loved since I was a child, the words of the first author I ever met in person – when I was ready to give up on my stories.  I found the process of editing too hard.  I was never going to be any good at grammar.  I had totally screwed up and published the first draft of my best short story on my blog and no one was ever going to publish it.  I was just wasting my time.  Again, the muses smiled on me when I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books and then thumb past the reader’s guide to find inspiration when I needed it most.

I write like Madeline L’Engle writes.  I write because I have a story I have to tell.  Maybe no one but me and my mom will ever read my stories – and she won’t even read the dentist one – but a Newbery Medal winner feels about writing the same way I do.  Reading her speech kept 2017 from being the year I quit writing.

In 2017 I found a book to show me how to architect my novel.  I found I book where I learned how not to write.  And I found a book that inspired me to keep writing.  What did you read this year that changed you?

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeline L’Engle, 1963 Newbury Medal Award Speech

Afthead’s Best and Worst Books of 2017

2017 was a great reading year for me, but every year since I have been able to read was a great reading year for me.  I love reading.  I love books.   However, certain ones rise to the top, so here are my favorite (and least favorite) books of last year.

Best books:

Morning Star, by Pierce Brown

I am a firm believer that the third book of all trilogies are terrible.  So much so, that I have considered that if I ever become I real author I will not write trilogies, because I don’t want to doom every third book I write.  Pierce Brown proved me wrong with this book, until I found out that his FOURTH book in the series is due out in 2018.  Therefore, my anti-trilogy stand holds.

This book begins with the most compelling imagery I have ever experienced in a book.  He made me uncomfortable, surprised me, and horrified me all in the first chapter.  In fact, that chapter was the reason I knew I couldn’t handle the audiobook: it was too much in the best way.  This book was only for my eyes, not my ears.

Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

Clifford Simak wrote this wonder in 1963.  A story about space travel and aliens and the end of human civilization so topical that I didn’t realize how old the story was until after I finished the book and looked at the publication date.  Perhaps it was the setting in a ramshackle cabin in the forest, but I think more likely it’s the timelessness of his writing and his story.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

According to social media, it’s cool to trash this book right now.  Well I’m going to stand up and display my unquestionable uncoolness and say I loved this book.  As a child of the late 70s and early 80s this was a trip down memory lane set in a future dystopia: an impossible juxtaposition that worked wonderfully.  The good guys were good.  The bad guys were bad.  The story was just fun, and 2017 was the perfect year to appreciate a fun read.

Best Audiobook:

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

I adored reading this book and appreciated that the audiobook taught me I had been mispronouncing every proper noun in this book while reading in my head.  This simple story of a simple man’s life was more poignant, more real and more heartbreaking in audio than when I read it.

Worst books:

The Power, Naomi Alderman

Oh, I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to dive into the hype and the perfectly timed topical plot contrasting the #metoo movement and relish the idea of women evolving a deadly electrical superpower.  I wanted to meander down this alternate universe and marvel at what would happen if women were in power.  But I couldn’t.  I enjoyed the idea, but I didn’t enjoy the people, the relationships, or the story that just fizzled out.  That said, I have nothing but admiration for Ms. Alderman to write the perfect unique story to be published at the perfect time.

Super Flat Times, by Matthew Derby

I found this book on a list of the best speculative fiction of all time, or the best dystopian fiction of all time, or some other internet list that struck my interest.  Since I’d read and enjoyed several other books on the list I figured this one – raved about by the article’s author – would have to be a worthy read.  It was not.  There were some interesting ideas, and some not interesting ideas all held together with bits of gum and shoestring and then shoved into a book in a disorganized heap.  My theory is that Matthew Darby wrote the list, or someone who loved Matthew Darby wrote the list and stuck his book on.  Either that or I am just too dumb to understand the point of Super Flat Times.

How to be a Good Wife, Emma Chapman

The only thing I remember about this book is that I bought it at an airport when I forgot the real book I was reading.  Thus, I’m assuming between my one star rating (a rarity for me) and my lack of memory that this is a book I wouldn’t recommend.  I don’t care enough to do more research.

Worst Audiobook:

Red Rising andGolden Son, by Pierce Brown

Funny that one of my favorite series to read this year was my least favorite to listen too.  I have to say that has never happened before.  Normally I can handle violent audiobooks.  I enjoyed the first three Game of Thrones books while on maternity leave and nursing my baby girl.  But then, I’d listen to a stock ticker if Roy Dotrice read it.  In the end, I think that was my problem with this audiobook.  It’s intense and I did not like the reader.  His accent didn’t match the voices the characters had in my head, and he didn’t differentiate between the different characters enough, so I got lost, after already reading the book.  The combination didn’t work for me at all.

Best Children’s Books:

Unicorn Crossing, by Dana Simpson

If you have a daughter, know a girl, were once a girl, or ever had an imaginary friend go read this book.  In fact, if you are a living breathing human being with a smidgen of a sense of humor, you should read this book.  Read the whole series.  It’s about Sophie and her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, and their adventures together.  It is amazing.  I love reading it out loud.  I dream that someday I can do the audiobooks for Dana Simpson.  I love doing all the voices, but I must say, my Marigold voice is perfect.  This is the fifth book in the series, so please read all five.  You’ll be a happier human if you do.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser

This was such a sweet story.  It’s set at Christmastime, so I checked it out at the library thinking my daughter and I would read it together forgetting that we were in the middle of Harry Potter world.   So I read it myself.  It was a great story about the ingenuity of kids and how they can solve big problems in ways parents would never manage.  I can’t wait to read this with my kiddo next year.

Worst Children’s Book:

The Boxcar Children Series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I didn’t really have a worst children’s book this year.  I love children’s books, but this series just has a hard time being relevant.  Similar to The Vanderbeekers the Boxcar children have to overcome adversity using their own wits in the first book.  Then their rich grandfather finds them and things get a little weird.  Not to say that rich kids can’t solve problems, but the problems the author comes up for them in later books get a bit odd.  The last book we read the family spent the summer on a deserted island that wasn’t really deserted.  It was a stretch.  Read the first one, maybe the second one, then stop.

What were your favorite books of last year? I’m always looking for a new great read!

Afthead Reading Totals for 2017

On a whim last year I started keeping track of the books I read.  Fast forward to this year, and all my friends are telling me about their Goodreads goals for 2018.  Pshaw, I muse, that was so 2017.  Except I didn’t set a goal, I just counted books.  Also, I didn’t do it on Goodreads, which I feel bad about since Goodreads helps authors.  Oh, and Goodreads has been doing this for awhile, so I’m not actually starting any trends.  Therefore, in 2018 I realized I’m a backwards, behind the times book reading list keeper.  Huzzah.

However, before I dive into this new-fangled Reading Challenge, I still want to review what I read in 2017.  The list is easily discovered by clicking the “Reading” link above.

I read 83 books in 2017, and for a working mother going to graduate school, I think that is pretty darn impressive.  Now, you may disagree with my accounting, so let me break it down for you:

  • 38 books were read in my head just by me
  • 22 books were audiobooks
  • 23 books were read out loud to Afthead Junior  (my rule was they had to be chapter books which took more than a day to read)

However, if you look at the numbers above and think I read 38 grown-up books, or read/listened to 60 grown-up books, you would be wrong.  This Afthead loves children and young-adult chapter books herself.  Here’s my breakdown by age category:

  • 31 children’s books
  • 9 young-adult books
  • 43 adult books (16 listen/27 read)

Now, another funny tendency I have is to listen to books right after I read them.  I’m a fast reader and often miss out on details when I read in my head, so I turn around and listen.  Many times it becomes a different book to me.  For example, as much as I loved Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, I could only listen to the first two.  The combination of a reader I didn’t love and violence I glossed over in my head made it a hard audiobook for me.  But I still counted both the reading and the listening as different “read” books.  The duplicates are:

Finally, not all of my reads were first time reads.  Not only do I listen to books I have read, but I also reread books – always have and always will.  I can’t tell you how many books became different stories when I read them at different times in my life.  The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, stands out as the most changed story between readings for me.  As a mom, the message was much different to me than pre-kiddo, but I loved both versions of the story.   So books that were read in 2017 and also before 2017 are:

So, depending on how you count I read somewhere between 83 and 27 books this year.  However, this exercise was as much about reflecting on my annual reading as it was about counting.  Looking back, the year broke into a few themes:

I’ll cover those over the next few days.  Now, off to go finish my second book of 2018: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan.  Have you read it?  So far it’s great!


If you want to follow along with me this year on Goodreads, I’m at http://goodreads.com/afthead, but I’m also keeping my good old blog list up to date too.

RIP Zombie Hamster

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It wouldn’t be the holidays around the Afthead house without a pet dying. Yesterday, when my husband was looking for things to do I suggested he check on Lula, the zombie hamster.  He disappeared into the basement and shortly returned shaking his head.

“She’s really dead this time?” I asked.

“Had been for awhile from the looks of her.”

And like the dope I am I burst out crying. She wasn’t my favorite pet, but death is sad.  We had a quick burial beside the dead-bunny-bush where Lula joined the baby bunny who died in our window well several years ago.  No words were said, because it was 20 degrees out, but her tiny body curled neatly into the hole I managed to spade out of the frozen ground.  She looked very Lula-esque as I sprinkled dirt on top of her.

The last time I knew she was alive was December 14th, because she tried to run around on her wheel while I was working at home:  the tumor on her hindquarters made movement difficult.  I gave her a slice of apple which she nuzzled on for a bit before drinking and heading back to her purple cave.  It was a nice final hamster human interaction.  (Yes, she could have been dead for two weeks in there, but I was dealing with a cancer scare at Christmas and couldn’t bring myself to check on her.)  The last time my daughter saw her was at our Christmas craft party where one of Afthead Junior’s friends suggested feeding Lula to her pet snake.  I can’t say that would have been a worse ending for Lula, but my daughter balked at a Lula death by snake swallowing.

This morning, I did a little research.  Lula’s life expectancy was 1.5 – 2 years.  By my calculations we had her almost 3.5 years.  So she lived an entire lifetime as a hamster, then another as a zombie hamster before the zombie-hamster-tumor took her agility, then her sight, and finally her life.

My last hope for Lula is that she and the bunny don’t start some mini Pet Sematary in my back yard.  I really hope she rests in peace back there.

My favorite Christmas Present? A Benign Biopsy

My new favorite word is benign.  Say it with me: benign.  It’s a little choppy and doesn’t really flow off the tongue;  there may be too many syllables for the length.  It wasn’t a word I’d given much thought before last week.  In fact, if you’d asked me before that, I would have said I liked the word malignant better.  It has a force to it, a weight, and a power that is scary as heck when it might be related to your own body.

Last Friday I was presented with that glorious word, benign.  All day I sat by the phone waiting for my biopsy results.  Before the biopsy, the mammography center had warned  that I might not hear the results until after Christmas, but the surgical center seemed certain that I’d hear on Friday.  My husband and I had discussed the uncertainty and decided that if the sample was cancerous we didn’t want to hear until after Christmas.  I rationalized that I could fake my way through the holiday not knowing, but would likely ruin everyone’s Christmas if I did know.  However, when I discussed my plan with the biopsy nurse practitioner and doctor they looked at me like I was crazy.  “I mean, I’ll have questions and I’ll need to know what the plan is if it isn’t benign.”  I told them.  They assured me that there would be a plan – nay a whole team ready – if the sample was not benign so I capitulated and agreed that they could call, which seemed to satisfy their need for procedure and protocol. (“Not benign” is such a stupid euphemism.)

My arms were deep in the sink, soaking my brother’s Christmas scarf for blocking when my daughter ran in, “Mom, your phone is ringing.”  I dripped while sprinting into the study and grabbed my phone.  Better to ruin my phone with soggy hands then miss this call.  They were going to tell me if the turtle ripped from my body was a good turtle or an evil turtle.

There is no situation that is beyond the absurd in my life.  While I was laying face down on a surgical table, my clamped and bleeding boob protruding through a hole, the doctor put up the image of the sample taken from my flesh.  It looked exactly like a turtle with a bulbous middle, a head, and four smaller blob appendages.  Of course, I shared my interpretation of this image with my medical team.  Appeasing me, they pointed out the lighter squiggles on one turtle foot.  That was the sample they wanted.  The worrying parts of the turtle were now outside of me ready to be analyzed and tested.

The call had no preamble before the nurse practitioner – the one who convinced me that I wanted to talk to her no matter what she was going to tell me – said, “I have good news for you.  Your sample is benign.”

That moment is clear in my head.  As unclear as the medical guidance given to me by my doctor during the biopsy procedure.  He was very kind, but the nurse assigned to me seemed hellbent to ensure any medical information provided was covered up by cheery banter.  She entered with the doctor and was “there for me” in some role perfectly clear to her.  At the moment the biopsy was about to happen the doctor said, “I’m going to take the sample now.  You might feel…” but whatever I might have felt was drowned out by the nurse screaming in my face, “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?” I still don’t know what I was supposed to feel, but Nurse Rose knows I like sugar cookies the best.  Her question wasn’t a total non sequitur.  She’d drowned out the anesthetic information by asking me my plans for the day, which involved making Christmas cookies.

Sure, maybe making Christmas cookies they day you get a biopsy might seem a little strange, but that’s what happens when you get an irregular mammogram less than two weeks before Christmas.  My brother’s scarf was carried with me from waiting room to procedure room to waiting room the day of the biopsy, because I had knitting to finish before the holiday.  My potential cancer worries were all wrapped up with holiday concerns – pun intended.

The decision to have the mammogram right before Christmas was an odd one for me.  In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism I took the appointment offered because, after my first irregular mammogram in June, my doctor and I looked at the films together.  She’d assured me that the worrying spots had been on my mammogram in 2015, disappeared in 2016 and were back in 2017.  She said it was probably nothing, but cautioned me that I needed to go every 6 months, just in case.

At the time, the mammogram didn’t seem like it was “just in case,” but in hindsight the lady doing my mammogram got less and less chatty as she took more and more pictures.  Since this was my first followup appointment, I just figured she didn’t find my demeanor charming.  Or maybe she was also unsure how she was going to get everything done before Christmas.  When she asked me to sit in the waiting room I didn’t wonder, but when she asked me to come back into the bowels of the mammography center I got concerned.  She led me into a dimly lit room with faux leather chairs around a small conference table and I panicked.  The room looked exactly like the special room my vet has for euthanasia appointments.  When the radiologist arrived and didn’t bring me a warm blanket and a cocktail of life-ending drugs it was a relief, until he suggested a biopsy.

The warm blanket came right before they strapped my legs to the biopsy table and raised me into the air on the worst amusement park ride ever.  Nurse Rose did not find my amusement park ride jokes funny as the table made herkey jerks and my boob was smashed and smushed and poked.  I feel like being “there for me” should have involved laughing at my jokes.

The benign call ended awkwardly.  When asked if I had any questions I mentioned that I thought the incision was bleeding more than it should.  The nurse practitioner seemed taken aback, like the invitation for questions was rhetorical.  I was supposed to just hang up in a blaze of relief and joy.  When I told her that the bloody spot under my bandage was much bigger than a dime or nickel she said, “Well, if it’s still a problem on Tuesday give us a call” then said goodbye.  My Christmas cancer worry was replaced by a smaller bleeding-out worry.  Nothing I couldn’t fake my way through, but enough to make me drift off to sleep with images of bloody wounds dancing in my head.  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t bled out yet.)

When people ask me what I got for Christmas this year I go blank.  I got benign, but almost everyone doesn’t know I had a biopsy.  A few friends and family members along with an astute coworker who caught me at a bad time know, but I didn’t tell anyone else.   When was the right time?  During the band concert?  The school holiday party?  During our work calendar exchange?  At my friend’s dad’s funeral?  Had the ending been different I would have had to tell, but now I’m just awkwardly hugging on one side and randomly asking people to carry heavy things for me.

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Along with my constant appreciation of the absurd are my rose colored glasses.  Even after my Magic 8 Ball told me I didn’t have cancer (this was before the actual diagnosis) I couldn’t help planning for the worst.  The silver lining of the cancer scare was my evaluation of the things I was afraid of losing:  my family, my friends, my book, my stories and – surprising to me – my Master’s degree.  In the week between mammogram and biopsy I planned how to transition my work role to others, write my book at chemo so my mom could read it, and make countless videos and knit objects for my kid to remember me by.  (Because a box of hand-knits is almost the same as having a mom, right?)  I also hoped I would feel well enough during treatment to go to school.  It’s interesting the things that rise to important when you are considering th….

“WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?!?!?!”

Now when things start to get serious around here, you’ll understand why I’m screaming cookie gibberish.  My surgical pamphlet tells me that one in eight women develop breast cancer and four in five biopsies like mine end up benign.  That means many women are having these procedures and it’s all okay, but for each four of me, one other woman is dealing with all the fears I had the past two weeks.  If you find yourself in this same uncomfortable situation, my hope is that your turtles turn out benign and your warm blankets just make your uncomfortable amusement park ride a little bit more pleasant.

The Wet-Willy Guide to Platonic Touching

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I was born from a non-hugger, so all this current rigmarole about “can I even hug my coworker anymore” has me baffled.  From childhood I learned the discomfort that hugs can cause, and was progressively raised to ask permission before initiating physical contact with another human being.  If you come into my office at work crying I will stand up put my arms out and ask, “Are you a hugger?”  If you are, then you are welcome to step into my hug.  If you are not, then you can shake your head, continue weeping, and I will offer you a tissue.  However, I will not force a tissue upon you and wipe your face, because what if you don’t like tissues?

One of my best friends is also a non-hugger.  For ten years we have worked alongside each other, raised our girls together, and I have never hugged her.  I’ve watched others hug her and seen her tolerate the contact.  She’s never pushed back or rejected the hug, because she’s a polite person, but I always wonder why others’ need to hug is more important than her desire to not be hugged.  Especially when she is in crisis, I marvel at how people unknowingly make the situation worse by hugging her.

As I troll the social network scene I notice person after person commenting on how uncomfortable this “no hugging” mandate makes them, and I think about all the people who have been made uncomfortable by their hugs.  So I have come up with a rubric for hugging which I call “The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching.”  Here is how it works.

The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching

Put yourself in a hugging scenario.  Maybe a colleague has just returned from medical leave and you want to welcome him back.   Perhaps you haven’t seen a client in a year and you find yourselves in a meeting together.  After twenty years you see your old lab partner from college at the grocery store.  Before you hug translate the action of hugging into a wet-willy.

For those of you unaware, the wet-willy is the process of sticking your finger into your mouth and thoroughly coating it with saliva.  You then remove the dripping finger from your mouth and place it into another person’s ear and wiggle your finger around a bit.  It’s a common practice among elementary aged boys.  

So now, consider each of the scenarios above.  Would you give that person a wet-willy?  Of course it will depend on the relationship.  If you and the colleague are good friends outside of work maybe an impromptu spitty finger in the ear will be fine.  The client situation?  Probably never a good idea.  The relationship plus the public venue makes for an unlikely successful ear rooting.  The old lab partner?  Maybe the two of you enjoyed a carefree relationship in the past, but do you know where her ear has been or where she has been?  Maybe she’s just been released from an anger management program and you could cause her to relapse into her old unwelcome bludgeoning ways.  Maybe she’s joined a religion which does not allow for physical contact outside of marriage.  Either way, probably not worth the risk to you or her.

Personally, I would not wet-willy in any of these situations.  It just seems too perilous.  If I’d had a prior wet-willy relationship with these folks, I might ask “Hey you wanna wet-willy?!?” or even stick my finger in my mouth and offer it, allowing them to run forward with their ear proffered.

Assuming you are in normal healthy relationships, there are probably situations where you don’t have to ask, and those will differ by person.  I’d totally wet-willy my kiddo.  I’d also do it to my husband, who would hate it, but it’s within the norms of our physical relationship.  There are a few friends, and that’s about it.  Now, consider who you would unabashedly wet-willy your life.  Maybe you have a more physical family than I do, in which case your your brother, your sisters, your parents, your spouse or your child might love wet-willy contact.  (And your brother will probably do it regardless just because it makes you uncomfortable, because that’s what brother’s do.  Sibling relationships are based on forgiving cruelty.)  If the person isn’t on your wet-willy list then don’t enter their ear without asking.  Sure, you might get rejected, but a “no thank you” response and the shot to your ego is better than the alternative.

Now, let’s say you assumed incorrectly and the person you thought was accepting of wet-willies is not.  You stick your finger in their ear and they shriek, “Oh gross!  What the hell is wrong with you?” There is an immediate and appropriate response.

You say, “I am so sorry I made you uncomfortable.  I won’t wet-willy you again.  Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Do not explain to them how you like wet-willies or how you thought you had a wet-willy relationship or how most people really like your wet-willies.  No.  Do not get mad at them because you are embarrassed they rejected you.  Don’t shame them because they do not share your affection for spitty ears.  They don’t need to know about how in your family wet-willies are the epitome of caring.  Finally, in no circumstances is it okay to wet-willy them again, to show how really inoffensive your wet-willies are.

Now, go back and read the wet-willy instructions as hugs.  Hugs aren’t that different.  It involves even more body contact and on sweaty days or in crying situations there’s an exchange of bodily fluids.  A hug can be just as invasive to an individual.  So before you hug, just ask yourself, would I give this person a wet-willy without asking?  If the answer is no, than it’s really simple to say, “Do you want a hug?”  Wait for a response before acting, and respect the wishes of the person you care enough to hug.


Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Embarrassingly Excessive Advent

I have a confession to make.  I have an obsession that has gone into the realm of embarrassing.  Do you have one of those?  Maybe a penchant for shoes or purses or coats beyond what is reasonable for your budget or your closet size?  Maybe this desire even contradicts your core beliefs?

My addiction is advent calendars.  Not those paper ones where you open for a new picture every day.  Not the felt ones where you stick a new ornament twenty-four times.  Not one where you get a festively shaped piece of chocolate every day.  Not even the cute ones with little drawers that can hold a Hershey Kiss.  Folks, all those enabling Advent calendars have been part of my life, but I’ve moved beyond those.  My problem is much worse.

Behold!  My daughter’s advent calendar!  Purchased from The Land of Nod several years ago it has been the instrument of my decline.  Note that every day in December, up to and including Christmas – totally Advent inappropriate, having a pocket for the 25th – my daughter gets a gift.   I’d like to say that they are just little trinkets, and there are some.  However, there are Lego sets in there, my friends.  Small Lego sets, but Legos nonetheless.  There are objects too big for the calendar, thus the “box” cards, which direct my little girl to an extra box of wrapped gifts.  For example, today she got a book, which is too big for day 1 pocket.  I confess that there are even articles of clothing in some of those numbered pockets.

If I step away from this monstrosity and look at it objectively I’d tell you that I live in a tiny house that doesn’t need more stuff.  We are a family that values experience over things.  My daughter will get tons of Christmas from our extended family, if I didn’t get her anything she’d have more gifts than the average kid.  I’m sure, in confidence, my mom would tell you that I’ve made her feel bad about buying things for her granddaughter because I’m so anti-stuff.  In fact, the commercialism of Christmas is just obscene and my favorite part of the season is our celebration of Hanukkah, where we light the candles together as a family and quietly say a prayer as the lights burn down.   I love that moment of togetherness and quiet.

(But I also REALLY love the Advent calendar.)  I love that there is a day where the cookie cutters I bought her in Minnesota will remind her of our family vacation.  I love that there are Nutcracker leggings for the day she’s going to the Nutcracker, and brass instrument leggings for the day we are going to go see a brass holiday concert.  I adore how she springs out of bed every day in December to see what I got her.  Her joy and gratitude are an amazing way to start the day.  I love the planning involved:  making sure her crafting gifts are delivered just before our annual crafting party.  It is excessive and ridiculous and I can’t stop.

I CAN’T STOP!  Last year the Advent Calendar issue took a terrible turn, because my favorite online knitting shop, Jimmy Beans Wool, started offering a knitting Craftvent calendar.  I couldn’t resist and I loved getting a knitting surprise every day last year.  So I bought it again.  Gak!  There’s not even any thoughtfulness in this one.  It’s pure unadulterated Christmas commercialism and I love it so much that the guilt just slips away.

I refuse to calculate it, but I may spend more on my daughter’s Advent calendar than on her Christmas presents.  My husband is a stabilizing force with the actual holiday gifts.  I know I spend more on my Craftvent calendar than he spends on my gift.  It’s this weird annual sickness I have: excessive advent celebration.

I cannot wait to see what we get tomorrow!  And the next day!  And….

Hamsters – not the pet for me

I’m calling it.  Hamsters are not the pet for me.  Here’s why:

  1. Hamsters are nocturnal, so really not awake and fun when humans are awake and wanting to play with hamsters.
  2. Hamsters have little personality due to their little brains.
  3. Hamsters are bitey, with no ability to learn not to bite.
  4. Hamsters are small and can easily escape to become short lived cat toys.

In particular, I’m starting to think our hamster Lula is not the pet for me because:

  1. She is a zombie, and I’ve never really trusted her since the hamster zombie apocalypse.
  2. She is now growing a hamster tumor growth thing out her butt, which is probably not related to the zombie thing, but who knows.

Really, that last one is throwing me over the edge right now.  I’m a pet owner who goes way above and beyond to care for animals.  Some might say I go too far, and they might be right.  However, this hamster pet cannot really be cared for.  The vet will see her, but the normal $120 vet charge will apply and while they could do hamster tumor removal or hamster chemo on Lula she was only a $60 pet to start with (including her cage) and she’s well toward the end of her expected lifespan.  And when I consider taking her to the vet even I can’t justify it.  I’m sure they’d perform hamster euthanasia if I really wanted them too, but she doesn’t really seem to be unhappy.  She just looks gross and can’t run on her wheel anymore because there’s this thing growing between her legs.  So I just watch her waddle around drinking water from her drippy straw thing and digging for peanuts in her hamster chow while her tumor and my guilt grow.

I hate hamsters.  They are not the pet for me.

The Perfect 1-Year-Old Gift

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Afthead Junior, many years ago.

Do you have a wee one in your life?  A child between 9 and 18 months who needs a gift soon?  While a variety of retailers will tell you which book, toy, or puzzle to buy while outlining all the brain development you’ll be stimulating, I have a gift that is guaranteed to delight.  The pre-toddler will abandon all other gifts for yours, if you follow my plan.  Best of all, it’s inexpensive.

Are you ready?

Every one year old is scolded for partaking in an activity that really, we’d all love to do.  When they find an opportunity the object is removed from them and set up high on a bookshelf to taunt them.  But you, the favorite gift giver, will end this cycle.

Go to any grocery store, drug store, gas station, or convenience store and buy a box of tissues.  Not just any kind, but the kind magically gives you a new tissue each time you remove one.  Do not wrap up the box, but just remove the perforated cardboard protector of the tissues.  If you must, pull the first one up, then hand it to the child.  Watch as they pull out one, then another waiting for the yelling.  When it doesn’t come, pure joy will emanate from the child as they methodically empty the box of magic.

I’m looking forward to tissue shopping this week.  I think my niece is ready.

Meet Nyx

There has been a tiny new addition in our life.  In September our annual renewal to be foster cat parents came up, and I admitted to myself (and to the shelter) that we just couldn’t try again.  After losing four kittens in the first disastrous litter (including one we’d thought had made it) then nursing a cat to heath only to discover his heart was failing, well, the Afthead family’s collective heart wasn’t up for anymore death.

I settled happily into our two cat household.  I started looking for another forever cat for our home.  We’d always been a two cat household, and Adventure and Katie loved each other, but neither one of them was really a people cat.  I wanted a lap sitting purring cat, but my husband laid out a strict rule: we could not get another cat unless it loved our daughter.

Our new cat claimed me on a trip to buy cat food.  PetSmart was having an adoption event and when I walked up to her kennel she stretched up, put one paw on each of my cheeks and started purring.  She didn’t stop purring the whole time I was there.  The clerk said she’d been adopted, but the family decided they couldn’t handle a kitten, so she was never picked up.  I went to pick up my daughter from school and while I waited for her I texted my husband, “Going to go see if our new cat meets your requirement.”  Back at the pet store, the kitten claimed my daughter too.  By 8:00 that night our adoption was approved and our new cat came home.

Her name is Nyx, after the Greek goddess of night.  She’s adventurous,

sleepy,

snuggly,

bathroom loving,

cross-legged sleeping,

water loving,

and adorably two-toned.

She rides our big cats like they are cat horses, waiting until they are sleeping before jumping on their back and biting their scruff until they buck her off.  The big cats do not love her and I’m afraid Adventure is scarred for life.  Her preferred sleeping location is under the covers biting our knees and ankles.  She climbs the screen door and completely wrecked one of my favorite plants, poisoning herself in the process.  She’s recovered and become a fixture in our family.  We love her, and my cat heart is full.  Besides, if we adopt anymore we’ll become crazy cat people.  The rule is that as long as you don’t have more cats than people you aren’t crazy cat people.  It’s true.  I read it on the internet somewhere.