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

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.

A Knit Dilemma of Presidential Proportions – One Year Later

Last year, in Afthead world, tiny knit Hillary Clinton won a hard fought battle for the presidency against tiny knit Zombie Trump.  On this election day, I like to think that their camaraderie, their willingness to work together, and their ability to bring together toys and knit folks of differing opinions is a model worthy of emulation by us non-knit folks.

If you live in the United States, I hope you exercised your rights and voted today.  However, regardless of where you live, if you need a little more whimisical fuzziness in your politics, you might enjoy the Knit Presidential Dilemma series:  https://wordpress.com/page/afthead.com/17068.  It’s one of my favorite pieces.

Post in a series of tiny knit presidential dilemmas.  See the sixth post here, fifth post here, fourth post here, third post here, second post here, and the first post here.

Thank you to Anna Hrachovec for the amazing patterns!  Please visit her site at http://mochimochiland.com/.

Hot Beverage Rant

Dear hot beverage drinkers,

What in the hell?  Are your tongues made of stainless steel?  Is the reason you must dump sriracha on everything because your morning coffee has burned your taste-buds into oblivion?


Okay, sorry, I didn’t mean to come on so strong.  But really, on Monday I met a recent graduate for a mentoring session at a coffee house, because that’s where you do such things.  My typical morning beverage of ice cold Diet Dr. Pepper was not available (Oh God, yes I know drinking artificially sweetened soda is going to give me Alzheimer’s) and it was snowing out, so I decided to get myself a nice warm Earl Grey tea.

I let the tea steep, added a smidge of sugar, put the adult sippy cup lid back on and took a tentative sip.  I could feel the individual taste-buds searing off as the boiling tea traveled from my lips to my esophagus.  This happens every…single…time I drink hot beverages.  Seriously though, it had been 15 minutes since my tea was served, and I was starting to feel awkward not drinking while the student guzzled his coffee with apparent delight.  I did not start screaming or rush to the barista to demand an ice cube – I am a grown up after all – but I wanted to.

Adult sippy cup lid, with boiling tea seeping over the edge

I’ve got to be some kind of weird mutant.  My tongue must be made of some delicate recessive tissue which cannot withstand boiling liquids like the normal tongues of the 21st century.  (I think it must have come from my dad’s side of the family, because he doesn’t drink hot beverages either.) Every morning I witness hordes of coworkers drinking their cardboard sweater wearing beverage – because otherwise the cup is too hot to hold SO WHY WOULD YOU IMBIBE THE CONTENTS – and I wonder if I drink differently than others or is my physiology fundamentally flawed?

It’s been three days since my hot beverage encounter.  I can almost feel the center of my tongue again and am hoping my taste will fully return by Thanksgiving.  Until then, I may have to become one of those weirdos who eats dressing on their salad.  Maybe the sliminess won’t bother me so much without nerve endings in my tongue.

Anyway, congratulations on your ability to drink hot beverages.

Sincerely yours,


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,



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.

Rejection Therapy via Twitter

I’ve been dipping my toe into the very scary world of publishing, because writing is a funny thing.  The more I meet other writers, both online and in person, the more I realize we are all different and all motivated by different things.  (Not shocking, since we are all people, who are inherently different and motivated by different things.)  In my heart of hearts, I put words on paper so other people can experience the stories and worlds I create.  It turns out that other writers are happy to write just for the process of writing.  This I find fascinating, even while I’m a little jealous, and a baffled by their opinion.

For the longest time — going on 3 years folks — this blog has served as a way to get my stuff read, but I’ve always known there were other works I wanted to get out there:  the novel and a half I have moldering in my desk drawer; the four short stories in different phases of editing.  I also know that I have a leaning toward traditional publishing.  Even having heard all the horror stories I am a firm believer in the power of collaboration.  In my dreams, I want an experienced team of publishing people behind me and my books.  (Again, guess what?  Not all writers feel this way.  Some are passionate about publishing independently, and I watch their process eagerly, because as I learn I might change my mind.)

Therefore, to achieve my current goals, I need to build a portfolio of published works.  I need to prove to myself and to editors, agents and publishing houses that what I write is worth reading.  Many of these path-forward insights have come though:

  • Reading books (Stephen King’s On Writing is still my favorite);
  • Agent blogs and twitter feeds (I have learned so much from Mary C. Moore’s blog );
  • Author’s sites and twitter feeds (Represented by Mary and Kimberley Cameron & AssociatesRati Mehrotra has a great WordPress blog and her first novel will be out January of 2018.  I’m loving watching her go through the publishing process  I’ve also learned from her, and have mined her past posts for potential places to target my short stories.)

To build my portfolio, I’ve started submitting my short stories to journals, and I’m starting to amass rejections.  (Four so far.)  I found out about my most recent submission site, PodCastle, through Rati’s blog.  In September they were accepting submissions for their Artemis Rising event which celebrates women identified fantasy writers, so I took a deep breath, did some wordsmithing (my story was 1700 words and they wanted at least 2000) and I submit right before the deadline.

Then Twitter provided me with some really amazing facts, because you see, I follow PodCastle and their parent organization Escape Artists Inc.  Here’s what I learned about the Artemis Rising submission process:

Whoa, I’ve got to say, I love this type of information, and appreciate that Escape Artists provided it.  It’s way easier to look at stats like this and accept that your story might be good, but still be rejected.  Then layer on that for PodCastle, which I submit to, there were over 200 submissions for 4 fantasy slots: data also reported on Twitter. My odds abruptly went down to a less than 2% chance of acceptance. Then four days after I submit, my odds went down to 0% with a rejection.

“It’s an interesting story, but it didn’t quite come together for us and we’ve decided to pass on it.”

But that’s a fair rejection.  I dumped 300 new words into what was a lean and mean story to try and make it meet the word-count requirements of Artemis Rising.  In hindsight —  now that it has been rejected — I wish I hadn’t submitted.  I wish I would have waited until PodCastle opened back up for normal submissions, so I could have submitted the shorter version of the story I worked really hard to tune and tone.  But the twitter thread from Artemis Rising continued.

Isn’t that sweet of them.  They made me proud of me, and inspired me.  And you know what? The rejection note continued too:

“We appreciate your interest in our podcast; thanks again for giving us the chance to look at your story.”

That’s when my epiphany happened. Someone read my story. Sure, they read my story and decided that it wasn’t in the top 2%, but they read it. And if you remember way back at the top, I said, “I put words on paper so other people can experience the stories and worlds I create.” Well, someone experienced my story and said it was interesting. Sure, it wasn’t the most interesting, but that’s okay. My first goal is to get a rejection that has some specific direction to how I can improve my work. My next goal is to get an acceptance. But the only way either of those will happen is if I keep letting people read my stories.  Which is great.  Because I want people to read my stories.  So I’ll keep submitting and editing and hoping my work finds a good fit.

(Of course, I’m not a total Pollyanna.  The rejections hurt, and it would be so much better if I got published, because then even MORE people will get to read my stories, but one step at a time.  This writing stuff is a process, and while I #amwriting, I also #amlearning, and that’s fun too.)

Bloggers are Real People

Ten years ago, I found the SouleMama blog.  I was searching for a knit hat pattern, and stumbled across Amanda Soule’s website.  She talked about crafting and raising three kids; something about her voice and demeanor spoke to me.  I’d return frequently and watch her family and life unfold from afar.  Occasionally I’d comment, and once I submit a piece to her.  But mostly I’d just lurk and read and imagine how if I’d made different choices along the way – like a different husband, because my beloved guy is not a farmer – I could have lived a life like hers.  My baby girl was born right before her fourth kiddo, and my bond with her grew watching our kids grow up together.  Funny how that “kid the same age” bond works with virtual friends too.



Well, Amanda Soule is visiting Colorado this week!  She’s got a new book out and her publisher is up in Boulder, Colorado.  There are a host of events planed and I targeted the Horseshoe Market book signing and an open craft night as possibilities for me to attend.  Luck would have it that Saturday between taking the kitten to the vet, a soccer tournament, and readying our yard for winter I had a sliver of time and was on the right end of town to meet this lady who had no idea who I am, but who I’d known for years.  During the drive I vacillated between feeling like a weirdo for visiting this stranger and being excited about meeting the real live human being Amanda Soule.

After meandering around the market, I found Amanda’s tent and awkwardly waited while another lady chatted.  When my turn came, the introduction went like this, “Hi Amanda, my name is Johanna and I’ve been following your blog for years and I totally feel like a creepy stalker but I wanted to come by and introduce myself and tell you how much I enjoy your work and watching your kids grow up, I mean Harper – isn’t it weird that I know his name – is the same age as my daughter and I’m so glad to meet you.”  That was me.  Spilling out every detail of my life without breathing in hopes that my oversharing would somehow made up for my creepy overly developed one sided relationship with her.

Amanda replied, “You aren’t a stalker.  I put it all out there.”

True enough.  The short conversation proceeded a bit more normally after that, especially as it evolved to commerce.  She told me about the delicious lunch she’d had, and I renewed my Taproot subscription – Amanda is the editor – and bought a copy of her new book which wasn’t officially released until yesterday.   With the magazine renewal I got a free totebag, which doubles as a cat toy.  (Note below cat is not the new kitten who got an emergency visit to the vet this weekend.)

I wasn’t there for more than five minutes, but I did mention that I might bring my mama and kiddo to her last Denver event.  It’s at Fancy Tiger, a nearby craft and yarn store I love.  I confided in her, “Make a budget, because they have beautiful stuff and you’ll spend more money than you want if you aren’t careful.”  United by the call of expensive yarns and notions she thanked me, and then moved onto her next stalker/customer.  That last exchange felt completely real and friendly, and I was glad I had stopped to meet this woman whose writing I have so enjoyed the past decade.  Hopefully, if I make it to the next event, my interactions will be a little more natural.  After all, Amanda and I are real life acquaintances now.

Gold Star – 100%

I am a grown up.  My life is measured in vague shades of grey.  At work, the exceptional ratings are saved for the top 5-10% and I’m lucky to see one every 5 years.  (And due to recent changes, I’m certain to not see an exceptional anytime soon.)

As a parent, it turns out there is no “mom of the year” award.  Even if there was, I wouldn’t win it.  While I’d score high marks on basic measures like my daughter being alive and her not getting called into the principal’s office, I would get zero points on unexpected top-mom qualities like “make myself a priority”.  I need to lose 10 pounds and am too frequently unshowered in public.  (True story:  I picked up my daughter braless the other day.  I mean I had a shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat on, but no way do free breasts get you mom-award points.)

Then there is my writing persona.  My short story came back last week with a kind but brief rejection: “We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. ”  I ignored the tiny voice in my head that said, they seem nice, so reply back and see if they know who it IS for.  That would be helpful.  Instead I did what I’m supposed to do:  submit again to a new journal and not be disgruntled.  I’m trying, but so far my publishing career score would be a 0%.

Then there’s graduate school.  Given the vague I’m doing okay, or at least better than nothing scores in the rest of my life, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when my first homework assignment grade gave me a thrill.  I mean, it was just 1 out of 1 – I just had to turn the dumb thing in – but I got 100%.  Now three assignments in my grade is 21/21, still 100%.  My homework grade is perfect.  I have an app on my phone for school, and I can pull up my class for anyone to see and show them that I am perfect at something.  (No, I do not show anyone my perfect grade.  Okay, except my husband, and kid, and a couple of friends at work.  Well, and now all of you readers, but that’s it so far.)

A friend told me I should print my homework assignments out and put them on the fridge, just like I would do with my daughter’s good grades.  I haven’t gone that far yet, but I am wearing my little virtual gold star around proudly.  Only six assignments left.  Gotta go finish my reading, so I don’t break my perfect streak.  100%, just in case you missed it.

Midlife Experimentation


I was almost 15 years old when Dead Poet’s Society came out.  It was a movie that spoke to me.  I was deep into my persona as a thespian: on my way to playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.  Simultaneously I was moments away from diving into AP Chemistry and Biology.  There was nothing I couldn’t do.  The world was pure possibility.  I would make my life extraordinary just like Robin Williams character demanded of his students.

A month ago I turned 43. For the past few years I’ve found myself desiring change.  Not little change, like a new shampoo, but big fundamental change:  a new house, a writing career, or at the very least a new office at work.  Being a responsible adult married to a super-duper-risk-adverse responsible adult meant the change has been slow coming, but incrementally it’s come.  First, I decreased my work schedule to 32 hours a week, so I had a day to focus on my writing.  That has been going well.  I submit my first completed short story to a journal this past Thursday, and have another short story in the works.  Meanwhile, the first draft of my novel is slowly becoming a second draft.

Tomorrow the next phase begins.  I’m starting graduate school at a local university with a college that’s dedicated to working adults.  My degree program is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  For the lay person that’s a degree in making maps using computer software.  The college I’m going to has a master’s in creative writing, and while that’s intriguing, it doesn’t help me with my day job, and my day job is the one that allows me the ability to both pay for my degree through tuition reimbursement and write one day a week.  (Also, don’t tell anyone this part, but I have a non-fiction work I want to write that’s very dependent on me honing my GIS skills.)  So I’m starting with a practical degree to see if that quiets my need for change.

My mom went back to school later in life.  Interestingly, as she and I were chatting I realized that she started her undergraduate degree program at 42.  Isn’t that weird?  That we’d start such a big change at the same time in our lives a generation apart?

No.  It’s not weird.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the truth of the matter is, our American middle-class lives are built around 20ish year cycles.  Your first 20 years you are educated.  If you only graduate high school you are done in 18.  If you do post-graduate work, it might take you 28 years.  But in general, you complete the education phase of your life around 22-24 years old.  Then you start the work phase.  

I graduated college at 23.  Now, 20 years later I’ve done the working thing and understand how to succeed in the workforce.  I also know what would be required of me to become a high level manager or director.  With that knowledge comes a complete lack of interest.  For me, the rewards do not balance the required sacrifices of time and family.  My next phase of life will not be a slog toward executive.  On the other hand, while I like my current job, I can’t imagine doing what I do now until retirement without new opportunities to grow and change.  I’m wondering what the next 20 years holds.

Of course, I’m not the only one to get antsy when my early 40s show up.  The words mid-life crisis exist for a reason.  My need for change makes me empathize with the stereotypical 40-year-old male of my parent’s generation.  If I was the sole breadwinner with a house full of kids I might have purchased a sports car or had an affair with my secretary to force a change from the inevitability of 20 more years of sameness.  My own desire for something different felt like a crisis a year ago.  But then a wise woman (our family therapist) told me that now was the time to make a change.  While my daughter wasn’t a teenager.  While my husband’s depression was stable.  Because, she said, you never know when life is going to throw you a curveball and you won’t have the opportunity to make your life better.  I know now that she told me that while facing her own cancer diagnosis.  She died earlier this week.

Her legacy to me was allowing myself to enter an experimentation phase of my life.  Will I make it as a writer?  Will I get a break and be a novelist for my next 20 years?  Probably not, since few people make it as a writer, but I don’t want to close that door before I try to open it.  Will I be a geospatial data expert and solve the world’s future transportation problems using maps and visualizations?  That’s a direction I can see pivoting my current career.  Maybe I’ll make amazing connections at my university and become an adjunct professor in addition to my current job.  When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree 20 years ago I was voted “most likely to become a professor” so maybe my classmates knew something I didn’t.

I’m so thankful I live in an enlightened time  and work for an enlightened company so I can take the heartfelt advice of a trusted advisor.  What will I be when I grow up?  A writer?  A professor?  A map maker?  All of the above?  In some ways I feel like my decision will be a tribute to a woman who guided me through the hardest times of my life.  I want to do right by her last words to me.  I do not want the second half of my life to be a story of quiet desperation.  I want to accomplish another iota of what I am capable.  I want another opportunity to strive for extraordinary.


Quotes from Dead Poets Society (1989) and screenshots taken from IMDB – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes.