In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Florida last week, there has been much hand-wringing, blaming of parents, and teens taking charge. Everyone is asking why all this is happening and coming up with solutions ranging from the rational (tighten up gun regulations, get rid of assault weapons) to the irrational (arm all the teachers, ban all video games, blame all the parents). I've done my own fair share of guesswork, to no avail.
I can't for the life of me come up with a good answer to "why." Parents only have so much control over a child's nature and behavior, especially as they age. I've seen fantastic kids come out of homes with atrocious parents, and vice versa. Kids are sneaky. When I taught high school, it wasn't unusual for kids to have 2-3 phones on them at any given time - one sanctioned by the parents and full of goodness and light, and one or two more cheap, untraceable Tracfones they used for their real dirtywork. They had multiple social media accounts under different aliases and e-mails - one shared with parents, the others for more...teen-agery use. These were GOOD KIDS who, like all kids, resist adult intervention into their lives, and do some really, really dumb stuff. Unfortunately, that dumb stuff is forever documented and posted online, but that's a whole other issue.
I was thinking about the kids in school right now. My oldest child is almost 17. She was born just a few months before September 11, 2001. She has never known a world in which terrorism isn't at the forefront of everything. She has never known a world without technology and social media. She has never known a world without a 24-hour news cycle. She has never known a world without copious school shootings reported every year. Multiply that by millions and millions of kids just like her, and you have a whole mess of kids about to graduate from high school who are angry, scared, and ready to fight. I think there's a reason why the whole strong-teen-rises-up-from-the-dystopian-hopelessness-and-subverts-the-dominant-paradigm-with-peace genre is so popular, and why we'll see some real change once these kids come of age.
I think what these kids experience is incomprehensible to us old folks, who still remember with nostalgia the days of our unfettered "Lord of the Flies"-style childhoods in which we rode our bikes everywhere, played in the woods unsupervised, and were able to leave our worries at the door of the schoolhouse. Today, kids can't escape. There are threats to their well-being circulating constantly on Snapchat - real or otherwise. There is constant news of death, destruction, and dire economic circumstances. Expectations in school and life are unrealistic. No wonder a record number of children under the age of 18 are on medication for anxiety, depression, and insomnia. They live in a constant state of what I call earthquakiness - an unsteady, shaky existence that can be shattered in an instant. This way of life is unprecedented and unsustainable.
Thankfully, I think we'll see a real shift when these people become men and women capable of affecting change. There are rumblings of uprising; a rising realization that, while the adults are clutching their pearls and crying WHY, their peers are dying at the hands of other kids in senseless attacks brought on by fear and helplessness. I read an unfortunate attack on a well-spoken young man who had the audacity to question a senator at the CNN town hall meeting. Some adults were calling him disrespectful; I say GOOD. FOR. YOU. I teach rhetoric to my students, and was so impressed with the ethos, pathos, and logos he employed to make his points. Since when is it disrespectful to question the status quo? Oh yeah - Nazis. Of course, that's hyperbolic, but you get the point. Hearing my daughter and her friends, who are such articulate people about to leave high school and venture forth into their lives, I have hope that they will do what the adults who are SUPPOSED TO PROTECT THEM will NOT do (for fear of what, I do not know - losing political clout?) and start insisting that guns are more difficult to purchase, start insisting that people stop treating each other like subhumans, and start insisting that we stop attacking each other simply because we are different.
So I say to these kids, go forth! Lead the way! Show the old fogies how it's done. And I'm sorry we've failed you.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. We did have an irrational fear of Russians nuking us, but other than that, I led a fairly fear-free childhood (well, in terms of going to school). I never worried that I'd be shot or hurt in a school building. I never had to huddle, silent, in the corner of a classroom as an armed shooter simulation played out in the hallways. Kids were mean sometimes, but none ever took that meanness so far as to shoot up schools. Many kids at my high school openly had guns and hunted. It honestly didn't occur to any of us that anyone would bring the guns to school for the purpose of shooting people.
What has happened in the last 20 years that school shooting news is commonplace and almost an accepted part of life in America? As I watched news of the latest horror in Florida, tears streamed down my face. All I could picture was my own precious children shot down in cold blood. All I could feel was the fear those students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must have had pressing in their brains and on their hearts as they ran screaming from their school, watching classmates and teachers senselessly gunned down. I have a moment of worry every day as my kids drive off to school. Will a kid who's really hurting bring a gun today and shoot them? Would a potential shooter think about what amazing people he planned to murder?
People like to blame guns/social media/video games for these shootings, but the real answer has to lie much deeper. From what I've seen in my years of teaching in several states across the country, kids are isolated in general and pressures are so high to achieve more and more from a very young age. School standards are not developmentally appropriate. Kids have fewer and less forceful consequences for their behavior, and more poor behavior is tolerated much longer than it should be. Parents aren't as present, despite the reputation of helicoptering over their offspring. These, plus the relative ease of availability of firearms and other weapons, add up to disaster.
The question is what can we do about it? People are tired of platitudes, if my Facebook feed is any indication (one friend threatened to unfriend anyone who offered up "thoughts and prayers" to Florida families, and I have no doubt he was serious). I feel so helpless and bereft of ideas. The reality is that gun laws are unlikely to change much, despite the clear need for stricter regulations, and if my criminal brother is any reflection of the overall criminal element, changes in laws are unlikely to keep people determined to get their hands on a weapon from procuring one - legally or not. And then there's the whole political issue of NRA contributions.
I do think we need better, government-subsidized mental health interventions and threats made by people to be taken seriously and investigated - a news update tells me that several tips were sent to the FBI about the Florida shooter (I refuse to write his name) that were simply filed away. Yes, it takes time to follow up. Yes, many of the tips will turn out to be nothing to worry about. But are we willing to take that chance? I look at the faces of my children. They trust me to keep them from unsafe places - and I send them to school every day. I hate the nagging worry that I may be willfully sending them into the firestorm of a hurting person who sees no other way to work through the pain. As a teacher, I worry about the safety of the 25 young people in my care every day. I'm trained on what to do in case of such a situation. I don't ever want to use it. I WILL go out of my way to get help for any kid I see who I think needs it. I WILL talk to my kids EVERY DAY and make sure they're connected to other people and find out what's happening in their schools. Some of the things they share are shocking; some are not. I WILL report anything weird I hear that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I WILL e-mail and call local, state, and national representatives to express my concerns as a mother and a teacher, and I encourage you to do the same. Please put down devices and really TALK to your kids. Get them (or their friends) help. Make sure they're connected and invested in their school and community through activities and sports. Take action if you hear anything untoward. Call for mental health services and stricter gun regulations - what does a teenager need with a gun anyway outside of parental supervision?
Personally, I don't trust our current administration to do much more than cry crocodile tears as part of a media show. Any change needs to start with local action and grow from there. Any change needs to begin in the hearts of today's kids.
During a typical drive with my daughter, age 16, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with her about quantum physics, alternate realities, and Schrodinger's cat. She has long been obsessed with all these ideas (as well as One Direction and nature documentaries), and loves to engage in esoteric, philosophical conversation with me as we cruise through our small, bucolic town in my Ford Flex.
I found myself thinking quite a lot about Schrodinger and his cat - how the cat can be both alive and dead, but the reality isn't revealed until one opens the box. I'm particularly interested in the Uncertainly Principle, and often I ponder is what my reality would be like if I had opened different boxes along the way. What would life be like if I hadn't had the kids? If I hadn't moved back to Indiana a few years ago? If I'd followed a different career path? Do I even understand the Uncertainty Principle enough to be discussing it, or am I getting it all wrong? Can we be both particles and waves at the same time? Arrrgh.
One possible reality is pretty grim. I do spend time fantasizing about the ease of life with no husband or kids, how I'd wantonly stay up late on school nights and buy white silk furniture and blow all my money on books. But I also know that I have a tendency toward disorder, overconsumption of snack foods, and an irresistible draw to cats and kittens. When I really think about it, I realize that I'd be a top contender for (likely multiple) guest appearances on Hoarders, My 600 Pound Life, and My Strange Addiction. Having a husband and kids limits my cat ownership to ONE, allows me to delegate cleaning to multiple sources, and my teens eat all the snacks before I can get to them. So I'm grateful I have this reality in my personal life. I shudder to think of who would take care of my 600-pound body and all the cats in the alternate realm, especially if there is only one narrow path to my bedroom among all the detritus of my life.
The staying in New England reality is a little more difficult to find fault with. Except as a single mom (at that time), economic circumstances would've dictated that I live with three growing kids in a tiny apartment in a questionable area of town, not the beach house existence of my dreams. So I guess I'm grateful for midwestern home prices and lower cost of living.
Career-wise, I've always imagined myself as a brilliant, tortured artist selling millions of books that make little sense and are therefore regarded as masterpieces (ie: Finnegan's Wake) and afford the reality of white silk furniture and all the books I want, but that the kids (whom I've decided to keep - see above) would destroy. I also really like to sleep, and my research on brilliant, tortured artists reveals that they work for days on end without sleeping or eating (and we've already established my affinity for snacks). Also, they have to work in the summer, so in the end I'm grateful for my teaching job and relative non-brilliance (though PLEASE FEEL FREE TO BUY AND READ THE BOOKS I'VE WRITTEN. See: Cate in Flux page on this site, and look for my second book to be published in March - they sort of make sense and are full of dark humor, some mild gore, and romance).
At the end of the day, I'm glad for my reality, as chaotic and exhausting and unpredictable as it can be. For now, I'll just leave the cat in the box and choose to believe it's alive. And I'll watch a little reality TV to distract myself from smart stuff that I don't know if I understand or not.
It's winter in Indiana, so there's nothing to do except go to the mall and try mightily to avoid chain restaurants. I loathe winter, with its cold, gray expanse of desolation. Every winter is the winter of my discontent, but there's an awful lot going on at the mall if one just pays attention.
In my last couple of visits to the Fancy Mall (aka Keystone at the Crossing, a mecca of stores that people loiter in, but cannot actually afford any of the merchandise brazenly priced above middle-class affordability), I've noticed that there are men who just sit in ergonomically correct chairs, looking lost and forlorn, holding purses and shopping bags as their wives/significant others shop. These men have eyes fixed in the million mile stare, their mouths slackjawed, shoulders rounded from years of mall-sitting and staring at devices as they while away countless hours waiting. They make sidelong eye contact with their fellow sufferers, ostensibly wishing they lived somewhere with something remotely exciting to do, lamenting their Hoosierness as I do.
I want to reach out to them, to tell them they're not alone. That I, too, trudge through the shiny stores avoiding the chirpy cheeriness of avaricious salespeople, wishing for something more out of life as I crumple onto a chair from sheer ennui. I imagine such groupings at all the malls across the world, and my heart goes out to these soldiers of love, enduring artificial light for hours for adoration of their counterparts.
Last weekend, while strolling the mall with my dear darling husband (who is of perpetually good cheer to counterbalance my perpetual crankiness), I noticed that some of the men had trainees with them. Boys ranging in age from about 8-16 joined their future selves on said ergonomic chairs, tapping away at their phones and affecting the "mall face" so prevalent on a frigid Saturday in the heartland. Where, I wondered, are all these men and their trainees from, and for whom are they waiting? Is this something passed from father to son? There don't seem to be enough people in the stores to pair with all the chair-sitters. Do these men come to the mall alone just to sit with their cronies and wait for no one? Do they have nothing better to do? I make up stories about them as I try to figure out which lady goes with which man (In my mind, the sitters are straight; I don't know why). Are they here of their own volition? Is it their own personal purgatory? Do they make friends? These questions plague me.
I wanted to toss my purse and a shopping bag at my husband, and task him with infiltrating one of the klatches to find out the stories. I floated the plan to him, and he replied, "But I want to spend time with you - and our movie starts in just a few minutes." Another question - why does this gem of a man like me so much? Perhaps that is an even bigger mystery... but I digress.
According to Punxsutawney Phil, there is still way more winter than anyone deserves going forth. This will mean many trips to malls "just to get out of the house" and continue my sociological study of the chair- sitters. Perhaps I'll ply them with some fro-yo from Pinkberry so they'll accept me as one of their own and allow me to study their psyches. I'll get back to you with my findings.
Trembling, as though Pennywise the Clown had suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision with his terrifying grin, I lifted first my right and then my left foot and stepped on the scale for the first time in six months. After I peeked for the briefest moment out of a half-closed eye, I sank to the floor, wishing for Pennywise to take me away, though I doubtful I would "float" given the appalling number that flashed before me in blue digital horror, burning the number into my brain. WHY WON'T IT STOP FLASHING? I shouted in my head. As the scale went dark, I wept and the anger at how out of control my life had become all flooded out my eyes. I can't even bring myself to type the number here, so you'll have to use your imagination.
The number showed that I've gained 20 pounds since summer. Twenty pounds. Two-zero pounds. I've had a lifelong struggle with my weight, from about age 15 when my whole life turned upside-down after my dad left for work one day and never came back, and I began eating my feelings (I KNOW! That was 30 years ago - get over it). I remember, vividly, shopping with my mother two years later as a high school senior to purchase a dress for a winter dance. I had to get a size 8 - which isn't even that big - and she looked at me sadly, remarking, "Don't you wish you were thin and pretty like your friends?" I pretty much stopped eating after that, then ate again, then stopped, then ate all the fat and calories. Through the next three decades, I've gained and lost the same 75 pounds over and over again, through various means. The most effective diet was the "divorce diet," during which the stress of starting my life over with three kids and no job caused my weight to plummet in a matter of months. I looked great for about twenty minutes, then it all started creeping back on. I'm still waiting to reach my lifelong goal of being so thin people worry I have an eating disorder.
I'm not stupid. I know what causes fatness. But I fool myself every time I lose weight into thinking that, this time, I won't gain it back - much the same way I fool myself every few years into growing my hair out, thinking that this time it'll look like Jennifer Aniston's. And every time, it creeps back on, and I find myself weighing more than some male professional athletes, decidedly without the muscle tone, athletic talent, and salary. The self-loathing and feeling like I don't want to leave my house and subject others to the horror of looking at my body sets in. I feel like I should apologize and offer eye-bleach when I leave the room.
This time, I'm trying the Beachbody program, after a convincing coworker talked me into it. I did a 3-day reset thing, and currently suffer the humiliation of working out at home where my family can watch. In the last 10 days, I have lost a few pounds. I've eaten no carbs, processed food or sugar, and I haven't bought a Party Size bag of Wavy Lay's (my weakness) and consumed 2/3 of the bag on the way home from the store. I've made shakes and eaten a lot of salad. I feel much better - even my back, which has plagued me with degenerative discs of late - and more awake than I have in a long time.
Will this time be the time that changes my ridiculous emotional relationship with food? I hope so. At age forty-seven, there's not a lot of time left for me to fool around with it. I'm putting this out there to beg anyone reading this for some support, and if you see me with a cupcake in hand, PLEASE slap it away and say, "NO, Fat Girl!" You'll be doing me, and the unfortunates who have to look at me, a favor.
Since most of the world has turned into a frozen bomb cyclone (which may be my newest favorite weather term, replacing Polar Vortex), take some time to read (or re-read) Cate in Flux in anticipation of the next installment! Thanks again to Pen It! Publications for believing in my little story! It's darkly funny (and a little gory). Click the links below for purchase information, and please leave a review! Thanks for your support of writers and books in general.
E-Book (in case you HAVE TO READ IT RIGHT THIS MOMENT)
Pen It! Publications
For all who haven't had the life-transforming experience of reading Cate in Flux, which will be re-released tomorrow in great anticipation of the book 2 in the Cate series, here's an excerpt to get you all excited! I'll post links and other information as I get it. Meanwhile, enjoy a taste of Cate.
If I had known the mannequins were inflatable, I would never have bought them in the first place, and my life today would be wonderfully dull.
The day I went to pick them up was a typical fall day; breezy, sunny, and cool. The peacocks that blocked the driveway when I drove up to receive the mannequins should have tipped me off. They darted manically, plumage wafting, back and forth, heads bobbing. Alarmed, I almost turned around. But Amelia needed her dress, and I needed the mannequins to make it, so I beeped the horn. The peacocks scattered, leaving me room to wind my way through the driveway to the cottage at the end.
I was surprised when an Asian woman opened the door. I assumed from the transaction e-mails through Craigslist that Simon would be a man, possibly a British one. But dressed in a short, red kimono with stiletto-heeled boots Simon threw me for a moment. Nails done, hair high on the head like a Jersey girl from the 80s, I wasn‘t quite sure what to make of this person holding a door open wide for me, gesturing that I should come forth. One diamond earring glinted in his right ear.
“Come in.” The voice was all cross-dresser.
“I’m Cate Jakubiak,” I said, shaking his hand. “Simon?”
“Yes. Simon Pham. The mannequins are this way.”
I followed Simon through the house, marveling at his balance as his hips sashayed in front of me. Each room had a theme. Dungeon, Care Bears, Disco. The voice in my head said to run away fast, but I needed the mannequins. Finally, we reached the sewing room.
“Here they are, Dolly and Sally,” Simon offered, gesturing to two torsos with heads, on which he’d drawn clownish faces. “I hope they’re to your liking.”
“Um, sure,” I said. Even though I was disappointed they were inflatable instead of solid, they would have to do.
“What are you making?” he asked.
“A dress for a friend, and maybe some Halloween costumes,” I answered. “Is that acceptable?”
Simon picked up a length of gold lame fabric from the table where Dolly and Sally were sitting. “Do you want this fabric? I was going to make some pants out of them, but I won’t have time,” he said, winking.
“Sure,” I told him. You never know when some gold lame will come in handy.
“All right then. I’ll help you carry these girls to your car.”
We stuffed Dolly and Sally into the back of my Scion.
“It looks like a clown car full of clowns,” Simon laughed, waving his hands around. “Oh my.”
“Right,” I said. “Here’s your check.” I handed the paper over quickly. I wanted to get out of there.
Simon leaned in and kissed me on the lips. Not just a peck, but a lingering kiss. His lips were remarkably soft, and I felt it in my gut, which was shocking. “I’ll be seeing you soon, Cate,” he whispered softly before going back into the house. “Don’t let the peacocks bother you on your way out.”
The kiss had rooted me to ground and it was a few minutes before I recovered sufficiently to move. Crap. Even though he was clearly creepy, I felt immediately attracted. I looked at the ground and was simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by a dead giant slug, its entrails blooming out of its bloated body.
I am a boring person. I like the status quo. I enjoy working, cooking, exercising every day precisely at five o’clock. I prefer men, strong men who want to take care of me. Okay, so some of them have been on the edge of crazy, but that’s not their fault. Well, maybe more than on the edge, really, if my friends are to be believed. Okay, the crazies follow me around like zombies on The Walking Dead. I have no idea why. Anyway, I also read bestsellers, love sewing and have a nice apartment in a quiet suburb. Simon the Asian Cross-Dresser was not a person I was prepared to find thrust into my life, and if I could change just one moment, I would’ve driven away at the first sight of the peacocks.
I received a message a couple of months ago that my publisher, Rebel Ink Press, was closing its doors. After I cried a little - I figured I'd never find anyone else who'd want to publish my little stories - I sent my Cate in Flux manuscript around, as well as the long-anticipated sequel, Cate in the Middle, and the pitch for the third and final Cate book, not really expecting that the Cate empire could continue unless I delved into self- publishing. Lo and behold, I've signed contracts to re-print Cate in Flux, and to publish Cate in the Middle, the manuscript of which is now in the editing stages with the publisher. I'd like to send out a HUGE thank you to Pen-It Publications for promoting independent authors and for giving my dreams a shot!
Cate in Flux reboot should happen on FRIDAY, with a new cover and some slight improvements. For those of you who weren't treated to this darkly funny story - which received many 5-Star Reviews on Amazon - the first time around, look for updated purchase links. Cate in the Middle should be out with not too long of a wait - I'm sure everyone is waiting with bated breath to find out what she'll get up to next! I'll post a juicy excerpt this week to get you in the mood for some Cate.
Here's a sneak peek of the new cover - and please support small-time authors as well as the big names we all love!
I generally adore Christmas. The music, the gentle scent of gingerbread wafting wherever I go, the bustle of shoppers, the movies. This year, however, I cannot get into the Christmas spirit and I don't know why. In order to force myself to be non-Scroogey, I have tried the following:
But it has all been for naught. As I sit here on this Christmas Eve, a fire blazing and snow drifting from an unforgiving steel sky - the frozen tears of despair, I have a heavy heart and a blasé attitude (I don't even care enough to make sure the accent on blasé is facing the right direction). Is this a function of getting old? I am on the downward slope to 50 and then toward inevitable death. Perhaps I've reached the "is this all there is" phase of life and it's not pretty. Maybe I just irrationally feel sorry for myself. Or, could it be that I find Blake Shelton being named People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive issue anathema (were the Russians involved in that vote as well?).
I did an informal poll of those around me to see if my gloom was just contained to myself or if it were a global emotion. My results showed a mixed bag. Some blamed Trump, the loss of net-neutrality, an overall ennui with life, and the death of loved ones as reasons for their bah-humbugness. Others cited the stress of the season. The giddy ones included those of perpetual good cheer, moms of new babies, and travelers to far-flung, exotic locales.
I will move forward, cook the Christmas Eve feast, spend the holiday with dear family members (though my mom's absence is felt more each year rather than less) and try to understand what's off. Teacher Perks means I have two weeks off to do just that.
I wish you all a superb Christmas holiday (and to those who don't celebrate - I wish you a tremendous National Holiday Off Work)! Be well and merry, and take another gulp of "adult" egg nog for me.
Because I don't have enough to do as a teacher, mother, and novelist (LOOK FOR MY WORK COMING SOON THROUGH A NEW PUBLISHER! MORE ON THAT LATER), I decided to audition for a role in a Christmas production, the It's a Wonderful Life Radio Show, a delightful presentation of the classic as a 1940s radio program in which I would portray a voice actress doing several characters. When people asked the real reason why I wanted to be in the play, the answer came to me - I love being somewhere in which I am simply Courtney, not so-and-so's mom or so-and-so's wife or so-and-so's teacher. Also, theater is the one place I don't have to pretend to be anyone but myself. Except on stage, of course. I also feel I'm on the cusp of being a minor local celebrity, and want to ride that wave as long as possible.
And, as president-elect of an Indianapolis social theater club, The Players (which is decidedly NOT a swingers club, despite the name), I figured I should get on the stage from time to time myself, if only to remind myself of the sheer vulnerability and risk of major embarrassment and shunning, should one not perform up to standard in front of a live, paying audience.
At the auditions, I earnestly presented my very best accents and projected my effervescence, winning myself several different voices in the show, including a dense but sweet secretary with a Boston accent; snobby east-coast wife; shrill and angry mother; and loud Italian pub owner. But I did not garner the coveted main female part. Though I long ago realized that I am "quirky, supporting actress" in both the theater and in real life, just once I'd love the spotlight...but I digress. I effusively accepted the role, and gamely threw myself into rehearsals and my role.
First, I had to develop my radio actress character. I decided she should be Violet McBride, an Irish immigrant who was once quite the looker, but is aging and now has the body/face for radio (again, a nod to real life). Being one of 16 children, Violet decided to remain single and throw herself into her career, not thinking about how aging is the death knell for women. After a few weeks of rehearsals, work, and juggling the kids/spouse, I wished I had tossed "narcoleptic" into my character's description, so I could take cat naps on the stage between my characters. This led me to the idea for my next novel, The Narcoleptic Actress, since it's hilarious to imagine a worse career choice for someone with this condition. Perhaps she'll be provided with an electric collar to jolt her awake? Or maybe my fatigue is causing me to once again find things funny that aren't.
Community theater (theatre? I'm never sure) people are the absolute best. They, like fellow writers, are my tribe. Creative, fun, weird, intense people who crave something more than, well, I can't really quantify it. But they all understand. It's a strange symbiotic relationship. We all need each other to make the play work, and it's like losing a friend when the run of the show ends.
The play opened a couple of nights ago to rave reviews. I felt electric as the work we put in buzzed through my sad, middle-aged body. The audience reactions brought me out of my stupor and made me want to entertain them even more. Is it sheer narcissism to love it? Or to thing people want to read what I write? I shall ponder these things, but not stop because they bring me joy.
SHAMELESS PLUG: If you live in the Indy area, you can some and see this terrific show, whose cast members include some of the most talented people I've ever performed with. We are at the CAT Theater in Carmel, IN, for the next few weekends! It's great for the whole family, and supports the local arts. Click HERE for ticket information.
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and teacher of gifted middle school students. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.