My Outrage Detox

I’ve been a lazy blogger. But this one, I think, is worth revisiting right now.

Narrowback Slacker

I joined Facebook in the midst of the 2008 presidential election. It was super fun, especially for a work-at-home parent of young children who was craving a little water cooler conversation. I could chat with my carefully curated group of 25 or so friends, mocking this or that candidate mercilessly, and catch up with my old college buddies and former colleagues at the same time.

Over the past decade, Facebook has grown and changed, chipping away at the privacy rules (remember when you could hide yourself from “friends of friends”?) and connecting us to everyone and anyone we could possibly be connected too. That has value—it’s like an interactive white pages, really—but it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a wall of separation between different groups of people. Yes, you can (and should) create private groups for specific interests and conversations. But I found that my main feed had started to resemble a bar at four a.m., full of drunks…

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Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #6: Everybody’s Got a $3 Million Lifeguard Shack (or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Procrastination).

Today is a good day. It is the last day of the lease on our hurricane car.

For three years, this car has mocked me. It is the first new car I’ve ever “owned.” I signed on the dotted line without ever test driving it. It was the product of poor decision making brought on by stress, geographic dislocation, and exhaustion.

We lost three cars during Sandy. It is one of those super boring TL;DR stories but the gist of it is that on the morning of October 29, 2012 we had three perfectly good cars of varying vintage, and inadequate insurance. And when we woke up on the morning of October 30, we had zero cars. Well, we had three dead cars, and no hope of any kind of insurance check. So, you know, roughly $17,000, gone in a couple of hours.

Anyway, we didn’t have a car, nobody we knew had a car, and we had a shit ton of work to do and no way to get anywhere. Having depleted our savings to buy the “new”-est of the cars a few weeks before the hurricane (but having neglected to upgrade the liability-only insurance policy), we had very little cash. We needed to figure out how to get a car, where to get a car, how to get to where to get a car, and how to pay for said car. Do you know how hard that is without the Internet? Without even a newspaper? And without a car?

We were desperate, we were exhausted, and we were not thinking straight (oh, and we were also pretty filthy) when we headed out in search of a car a week or so after the storm. We had great credit but not a lot for the down payment. We had no idea what car to get. We didn’t even know what kind of car we wanted. We were afraid to buy a used car in a place that had so recently flooded. We had no idea what a good price was. And there we were, heading into northern Queens in my sister’s car, with nothing more than an iPhone that only got service once we got a few miles from home. We wandered about from one dealership to the next, and unable to make a decision.

We are not the sort of people to lease a car. I have always bought used cars, and driven them until they die. I just don’t CARE enough about having “a  nice car” to spend a lot of money on “a nice car.” But you know, we need a car.  I was so worried about spending what cash we had that all I could think of was NOT putting money down. And how many other bills were mounting as we dealt with the heat and the basement and the electric and all the tools that needed to be replaced and…. please just give me a car so I can go home and sleep in my cold filthy house? We wound up signing a lease on a Honda Civic just so we could go home and get some sleep. We figured it was less of a commitment.

Today–three years and thirty-six monthly payments later—I turned in that car.  I could have bought a good used car for way less than what we spent, and yeah, I’d have done some repairs, but I would have a car now with no payments. What was I thinking?

Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking. None of us were.

I have been beating myself up over this almost since the first day, but I’m trying to let it go. There were a lot of decisions to be made and none of us had the time, energy, mental stamina, or research capabilities to make well informed and well thought out choices in those weeks and months after Sandy. We were not ourselves, and these worn out people, fearful people that we’d become behaved much less rationally than we would have under different circumstances. So, now we were stuck with what I like to call my own personal $3 million lifeguard shack. Everyone has one.

Indulge me in this metaphor.

Here in Rockaway, there’s a running conversation/argument/complaint about the city’s, well let’s just say ‘hasty’ decision to impulse buy thirty-five prefab trailers, to serve as public restrooms and lifeguard shacks, at a price of about $3 million a pop. They are, some argue, ugly. They are definitely over priced. And they are not holding up to the elements. They were the result of a rushed and rash decision on the part of City Parks, in order to get something, anything, in place before the summer beach season began. There was, undoubtedly, some palm greasing and price gouging involved.

I think that most would agree that, whether you like them or not, the purchase of these trailers was a hasty decision. We’d all have been better off if we had kicked the can down the road a bit, put in some temporary trailers, and weighed out all the options before we committed to these oddly post-modern but clearly poorly constructed (with leaks and rust the first  year) AT-ATs. And now we are stuck with them.

Meh.

They’re like trailers, except PERMANENT!

On the other hand, there’s another running conversation/argument/complaint about how long it is taking to replace our boardwalk, when other towns on Long Island and along the Jersey shore quickly replaced their damaged promenades. It took almost three years (and will have taken almost four when it’s done, if not longer), but our inaugural, mile-long snippet of new boardwalk is beautiful, functional, and already much beloved by most people I know.  It is the product of what seemed like endless community meetings and surveys. The locals chimed in, the Army Corp of Engineers did its thing, and NYC Parks listened as ideas were floated and shot down. The plan was adjusted along the way (and yes, delayed), but everyone had an opportunity to be heard.

Yes, we could have had the same traditional board back in place quickly, and then prayed that another superstorm (or a fire) would not come along to destroy it.  What we wound up with is not the same as what we had, but it lovely, it is resilient, and it is ours.

The boardless-walk. I had

The boardless-walk: Long wait. Lovely results.

My point, I guess, is just that rash decisions are rarely good decisions. When making decisions—from purchasing a car to building a boardwalk—taking the time to do your research, weigh your options, identify potential problems, and adjust the plan accordingly should always be part of the process. My big lesson from Sandy is that if you can kick a decision down the road a bit, then you probably should. Procrastination has perks:  it’s never a waste of time to mull things over. Ultimately, you may decide NOT to do something, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done nothing. I wish the city had procrastinated on those stupid trailers–because what they built when given more time (and scrutiny from the community) was much better. And I wish I’d procrastinated on that car purchase, because I know that for my purposes, a used car would have been a better deal.

Now when I feel pressured to make a decision and it’s keeping me awake or making my stomach churn, my first line of defense is to just not decide yet. I’ve accepted that I have limited decision making skills, and when they are overtaxed, I don’t perform well. So I prioritize my decision-making facilities, focusing my energy on things that must be dealt with and procrastinating on anything that can wait, even if it means living with some inconveniences or uncertainty or complaints from the masses in the meantime. I don’t ever want to have the equivalent of a $3 million lifeguard shack in my driveway again.

Sometimes progress means just standing still for a while. I don’t think I really ever appreciated that until I was in a situation where procrastination was not just an option.

Birthday Gifts to Myself

My people don’t really bother with birthdays all that much. My siblings and I are just un-birthdayers, and my husband totally jumped on the bandwagon when he joined our tribe. I live in awe of those families who pull together elaborate themed parties for the kids, with craft tables and homemade cakes and invitations and, oh God, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

This is the birthday dynamic I grew up with: When you’re little, you get a cake and a couple of games in the yard with just the neighbors on the street, and once you turn, say, 11 or 12, birthdays just aren’t a big deal anymore. As an adult, I get a little eye-rolly over full grown people who annually celebrate their own birthdays, and kind of defensive when full grown people remember mine (oh-my-god am I supposed to remember YOURS now?). I’m not a monster: The kids get a birthday gift and a cake at home; I call my siblings and try to remember to text my grown up nephews on theirs; I buy presents for my young niece on hers. Spouse and I might eat out (or not) on ours. But there is little planning or fanfare involved in any of it. I did manage to pull off one birthday party in the backyard for each of them when they were little. I’m still recovering from it. Most years, we just told the kids, “I picked up a cake, and I’ll take you and a couple of friends to the movies.” They were invited to lots of fun parties that we never reciprocated. They can work this out in therapy when they get older.

Anywho, when I turned 40, I didn’t make much of it, other than to notice how easy it had suddenly become to gain weight (Seriously! It’s like you don’t even have to eat!) and that I gave even less of a shit what people thought than I did the year before. But as that year rolled on, I realized something else: after four decades on God’s green earth, you are kind of an adult whether you like it or not. You can actually decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do, within reason. I mean, I can’t decide that I am a wizard or that I no longer wish to pay my taxes. But I digress. The point is, a few weeks after I turned 40 I decided–without realizing it–that I no longer had to go to parties.

In case my birthday party lameness was not hint enough: I do not enjoy parties. I hate mingling, I don’t like going out at night in general, and I really dislike large crowds, especially non-anonymous crowds. I can enjoy a rock show, for example, but I detest being in rooms full of people I sort of know chitting and chatting and celebrating. Of course, one’s twenties and thirties are filled with obligatory parties—weddings and christenings and wakes and all sorts of rights of passage that I’ve never shied away from, and most of which I really enjoyed (even the wakes). But “parties,” like, regular parties thrown for no apparent reason (or for an adult’s birthday–come on, you’re an ADULT!) where you have mingle with strangers and meet your friends’ other friends and be out after dark or even (ugh) wear a costume or whatever? Just no. So, when a good and kind friend said to me one warm summer night in my 41st year, with all goodness and kindess, “we are having a party tonight; you should stop by,” it finally struck me that I could say “Thank you for inviting me, but I don’t like parties. See you on the beach tomorrow!” And I did.

What an immensely freeing moment it was. The friend wasn’t insulted, and I wasn’t lying, and I wasn’t dragging my even more introverted husband out to chat with people he doesn’t know, and the next day, I had had a nice rest and plenty of social energy to expend mingling and chatting with people I ran into on the beach. All was right with the world. Quite accidentally, I had given myself a gift, and that gift was simply permission to decline invitations. I sometimes go to parties, but not just because I feel like I should.

I have determined that the best perk of getting older is that you can give yourself gifts like this. You don’t need to keep up with twentysomethings anymore, you don’t need to impress the neighbors. You can let go of the hang ups that plagued your younger self, and you can start to accept your own limitations (that’s my motto!) and just live your life. I don’t really have/want/need a “bucket list,” so much as a “reality check” framework. If I stay within it, I find myself to be more productive and happy.

So now, each year, usually in the months leading up to or after my my birthday, I try to figure out what it was I have unconsciously decided to do or not to do over the course of the past year. Here’s a rundown.

I was almost 41 by the time I fully recognized the value of the “you can decline party invitations” gift. It’s still one of my favorite presents ever. Five years in, my closest buddies always couch their invitations with, “I know you don’t like parties, but…” And most know that I am more up for a party if it it is within walking distance of home, and over by 6pm.

The year I turned 42, I gave myself permission to suck at stuff. It sounds like a not so big deal, but by admitting that I was never going to be very good at certain things, I was able to let myself try them. That was the year I started dieting and exercising and eventually running.  I started with couch to 5k, and never really got much further than that. I sucked. I still suck. In fact, I still mostly walk. But it beats standing still, and even if I did finish a 5k race behind a 90-year-old man (that actually happened), at least I finished it. I fell off the exercise/diet wagon over the last cold NY winter, and gained back a bunch of the weight I lost. So, now I am once again allowing myself to suck at it in order to “Just Do It.” Memo to Nike: You’d get a lot more traction with that slogan if you acknowledged that you can still do it if you suck. Just ask Jake the Dog:

Adventure Time wisdom.

The year I turned 43, I gave myself permission to be 43. That is, I stopped dying my hair. It was hard, the whole growing-out of it, but not that hard for a lazy and not-so-primpy sort like myself.  It took a lot of explaining to my lady friends of a similar age, but I had full support of the spouse (who’d been telling me to stop for years) and the kids, who were quite sure I would come out looking like an X-man. I was assisted by a new stylist who, being in her 20s, had no dog in the “but you’re too young to be gray!” fight. Also helpful were the fact that I work from home, and the arrival of a national disaster that lowered everyone’s expectations for me looking halfway decent for about a year. I also wore a lot of hats. I went from a dyed chocolate brown to a funky salt mixed in with my natural pepper, with a wicked white streak up front. I have no regrets at all–especially as it allows me to continue to dress like a teenager (alas, more of a teenaged boy than a teenaged girl) without making myself look like a middle-aged lady who wants to look like a teenager. (Memo to youngsters dying their hair that trendy granny-chic gray: Step off. That territory is spoken for. You have to earn gray hair).

I stopped dying my hair just as Herself started dying hers.

Flying our freak flags:   I stopped dying my hair just as Herself started dying hers.

The year I turned 44, I decided that I am allowed to call anyone younger than me “Sweetheart” or “Hon.” I’m old enough for it not to be creepy (another benefit of gray hair) and it saves me the trouble of remembering all my kids’ classmates’ names. And there’s no sense in trying to pretend I’m part of the barista’s cohort anyway, right?

At 45,  I came  to terms with the fact that I am utterly unable to multitask, and that what little ability I had to pay attention to something when there is noise or other distraction is rapidly diminishing as I get older. So, I’ve stopped trying. I focus on only one thing at a time now, and when someone interrupts or talks or calls on the phone while I’m trying to concentrate, I simply tell them about my, ahem, disability, and that I can’t drive/write/type/cook/clean when anyone is talking (and that includes myself and all the friendly voices  at NPR). I’m not an asshole about it; it’s my problem, not theirs, after all. But dude, if I want The Thing Done I need to do nothing else at all for a little while. It has unfortunately cut into the time I can spend chatting on the phone with my extended family, but I think it’s likely I did that too much before, anyway.

Please stop talking while I….wait, what did you say? FROM someecards.com

I turned 46 this week. I’m not sure what this year’s gift will be. It’s not something I plan or decide on (I told you, I’m a bad birthday person and a poor birthday planner). It’s something that happens, and that I’ve learned to embrace. I’ll let you know what it turns out to be next July.

Perhaps I will become a wizard.

By Popular Demand: A Momentum Optimization Project Update

In April 2014, at the behest of some friends, I wrote a little post called How I Limited Screen Time by Offering My Kids Unlimited Screen Time. As of today, that post is at over 700,000 views, and I achieved a minor life goal: I got reblogged on one of my favorite sites, Lifehacker. It’s a strange feeling knowing that so many strangers have looked at photos of one’s kitchen bulletin board, but there you have it. Thanks to everyone who liked, forwarded, tweeted, reported, and commented. Since so many people asked, I figured it was time for an update.

The List. © A. Kirby-Payne

It’s been almost two years since I first implemented The List. At this point, most of the chores on it—making the bed, read for however many minutes, etc—are habits for both my kids. But doing them all on their own, in a row, before they wander toward the computer? Not so much. They will not complete The List on their own, and if I’m tied up with work or just get distracted and forget to say “DO THE LIST,” they will just wander off to go online. So every so often, we all lose momentum, and you know, an object at rest falls off the Momemtum Optimization Project wagon. That’s certainly been the case over the past month or two.

The good thing is that this low-tech system makes it pretty easy to get back on. The kids—and especially the older one—are kind of thinking about these things the same way I do. They’ve begun to notice the correlation between how much time they spend messing around on the computer and their grades (not to mention the state of the house and the grumpiness level of the parental units). My son in particular is becoming much better at prioritizing his time, and self-correcting when he realizes he’s not allocating it well. He’s been known to say to us “I need to get back on that list,” when he gets a bad grade or forgets an assignment. And we do.

As it turns out, the individual habits of The List are stronger than The List itself. My teenaged son makes his bed just about every day, and keeps his room pretty tidy. He declutters his stuff regularly, does his own laundry, changes his own sheets. All this is becoming automatic. My daughter will do these things, but she still needs to be told. Other household chores, like cleaning the bathroom or unloading the dishwasher? I have to remind them to do those—but I only have to remind them once. They’ll both immediately pause whatever game their playing (it’s not like I’ll interrupt homework) and just do it, because they’ve learned that it really will only take a few minutes to do, and then they can get back to their preferred task (that would be… screens). They’re still getting “unlimited” game time, but not at the expense of other things I want them to get done.

Essentially, The List has made them into helpful laborers, but they still require a foreman. And sometimes, this foreman slacks off.

I’ve been reading a lot about habits this year (check out Charles Duhigg’s excellent The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin’s fun and friendly Better than Before if you’re interested) and as the lingo goes, to create a habit loop—that is, make a habit automatic–you need to link it to a cue. For the kids, me telling them to do something  is the cue. The problem is that I’ve never figured out a way to make being that cue that a more consistent habit for myself. That’s my goal for this summer. (For the record, I’m in the house all day, and the spouse is not, so I can’t really pawn this one off on him. Which is a shame, as he is an absolute creature of habit and would never have to read a book to figure any of this out.)

So, the question behind all those clicks on the blog: Has screen time decreased? I’m not sure—mine is not an empirical study. Right from the get-go, my data was flawed, because I was using the term “screen time” to refer to only a specific type of screen time—what I like to refer to as “idiot time.” My son’s homework requires a computer; I don’t call that screen time. He uses the computer to practice guitar; so I don’t count that, either. He’s still a hard core gamer, but he’s a teenager and I’m becoming quite comfortable with the idea that he’d rather be playing with a small group of carefully curated friends online than out doing things other teenagers like to do. (Also: Himself  likes to point out that there’s a future in videogaming). And finally, he got himself a job, so he doesn’t quite have as much time to kill as he otherwise would.

The List wound up taking my daughter in an entirely different direction. She still games from time to time, but the focus on “productive/creative” activities prompted her to start spending more time on creative pursuits like drawing, writing, and reading. Now, that’s pretty much all she wants to do. She does much of this on the computer, but I don’t feel as inclined to limit it the way I would say, playing games (or watching youtube videos of other people playing games). For the record, it turns out drawing and reading can make your kid slack off on homework just as much as playing Minecraft can.

So, there’s my update. I guess I should post more regularly, seeing as people seem to like this stuff. Maybe I’ll try to make that a habit, too.

The Unexpected Dividends of PC Gaming

I do not enjoy video games. Like, at all. So, when my gamer husband bought a gaming console when our son was just around seven or eight, I was a little eye-rolly. But they really enjoyed playing games together, and if Lego Star Wars was going to be their version of playing catch out in the yard, I really couldn’t find any fault with that.  Himself got older, his sister started playing, too. It was a family affair, and if I didn’t want to join in, that was my loss, really. It was all sunshine and daisies until Himself was about 10, when Xbox live came along.

Don’t get me wrong—online gaming has its perks, not the least of which is the fact that I’m very happy to not have other people’s kids in my house, especially when I’m working. But the advent of online gaming on the Xbox meant that inviting friends over to share or swap games was a thing of the past. Now, you needed not only to own a console, you had to own the same console as your friends. You had to buy a copy of the game, and every friend that you wanted to play with had to buy it too—at $50 to $60 a pop. Oh, and you had to pay for an X-Box Live membership, too. Suddenly, there was intense peer pressure to buy THE new game the moment it came out, and play it online with your friends. When Call of Duty: Black Ops launched to an insane amount of fanfare in November 2010, I officially lost my shit. It was weeks spent arguing with a 10 year old about why I was not buying this game. He didn’t even really want the game. The problem was, apparently every other child in America got this incredibly violent first person shooter on the day it came out. I mean, even if I were willing to let the kid play it, WTF was with all these parents giving their kid a $60 game SIX WEEKS BEFORE CHRISTMAS? He kept getting online to find that all his friends were deeply involved in Black Ops. He felt left out. Sorry dude. Sucks to be you.

But then, they discovered PC games. Starting with Minecraft and gradually moving on to other indie games, all three of my gamers slowly started drifting away from the gaming console and toward the two Macs we had in the house. When the Xbox Live membership expired in 2012, I gave them the ultimatum: You must choose between PC games and the Xbox. They chose the PC.

The only complaint was that, per my son, the Mac wasn’t really the best option for gaming (I have no idea why. He probably told me, but, as noted, I am incredibly disinterested in video games). But my husband, having read countless “how to” posts on Lifehacker and Gizmodo, had been itching to build a PC for a while. He soon followed up on all the posts he’d bookmarked about it, and set to work. With about $700 in parts and software plus some repurposed components—along with a lot of cursing and sweat–he (with “help” from my son) put together a superfast, superslick gaming computer that he’s able to upgrade as needed.

It was worth every single penny. Here’s why.

  1. Better value.  First off, access to Xbox Live was, at the time, about $100 a year, in addition for what we were already paying for Internet service. And while building the machine cost more than what an Xbox would have, it is more powerful, and it’s upgradable, so it will last a long time. Plus, it’s also, you know, a computer.  The kids and the spouse use it to everything one might do on a computer, from reading the news to doing homework, and I got to kick them all off my Mac forever. In addition, individual games are usually cheaper on PC, and there are some really good sales and giveaways on gaming sites like Steam. Which leads us to…
  2. It’s taught my son to handle money. When he turned 13, we set Himself up with his own student PayPal account, so he doesn’t have to use my credit cards or PayPal to buy games. Between his little allowance, which is deposited to his PayPal every payday (a surprise reward for keeping his room neat and making his chores a regular habit), the occasional cast gift, and the ability to easily sell back games had finished for credit on Steam, he manages his spending pretty much on his own.
  3. It made him more generous. Even better: it’s so easy and cheap to buy games  for the PC  that now,  when he sees a game he likes on sale, he’ll buy it for himself and gift it to someone else—his sister, his cousin (who does the same for him), or a friend–so they can play together. For a kid who hates to shop, and is from a family that is not a big gift-giving family, this is a pretty pleasant surprise.
  4. Reading. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lots of video games provide text-rich experiences. Both of my kids’ decoding skills grew more advanced as they got involved with gaming, and especially text chatting online during games. As this article from Wired explains, games like Minecraft don’t include instructions, but are “surrounded by a culture of literacy” that sends kids digging through websites and wikis for tips and walkthroughs. Many of these resources are text based, written at high levels…. but young readers dive in because they are highly motivated.
  5. Typing. My son’s terrible handwriting slows him down on tests, makes him lazy about writing. But man, can he type. He’s as fast as me now, and almost as accurate. My daughter, who is now finishing up sixth grade, is even faster. I wouldn’t think this was such a big deal, but teachers at my kids’ school are telling me it is—that they are starting to move toward more work being submitted online, but many, many of the kids are being held back by poor typing skills. They don’t learn to type by clicking a game controller, swiping an iPad, or playing games on the phone with their thumbs.
  6. It’s demented and sad, but social.  Most kids game on consoles, which limits the number of real-world friends my PC gamers can interact with online. But this tinier niche has yielded strong bonds for kids who don’t like to socialize in large groups. They’ve both stayed connected with friends who have moved away; they’ve developed friendships with with friends-of-friends who go to different schools, and with friends they’ve made online. Gaming provides a social circle for teenagers who are not particularly interested in “hanging out,” a term that tends to translate into “getting into trouble,” at least in my neck of the woods.
  7. They like being different. My son talks about indie games the way I talked about indie rock in the 1990s: like he’s part of a special tribe of rebels who have eschewed the mainstream for something that is more specialized and innovative.  He’s got a bit of that hipster “I liked it before it was cool” thing going on (his version is, “I played it when it was still in Beta”), and that’s just fine with this GenX parent.
  8. It’s a family thing.  Gaming also offers a shared interest for my two kids, who are three years and one X/Y chromosome apart. They don’t play together all the time, but they play together often enough. When they’re not playing, they talk to each other in gamespeak and chat about gaming celebrities they follow on YouTube (apparently, that’s a thing). Himself also plays almost daily with his cousin, who lives a hour and about $20 in bridge tolls away. My sister and I listen to their constant chatting, and it’s like she and her family live right next door.
  9. Big brother looks out for little sister online. He makes sure she’s not doing anything inappropriate, that she’s not being treated badly—or treating others badly. Some of this could have happened on the Xbox, of course, but the fact that they are on separate machines in the same room means that he’s keeping an eye on her even when she’s not playing the same game as him.
  10. Less clutter. Oh, it always comes down to this with me. No plastic boxes! No game discs (you know, part of me still wants to call them “cartridges”) to put back in those plastic boxes!. No controllers on the coffee table, no wires, no batteries for controllers–nothing to put away, organize, or tidy. It’s bliss.

While I don’t like games myself and I’m always struggling to find the sweet spot for the “right” amount of time to spend glued to the computer, I can’t say I’d ever ban games altogether. I have my little list that forces both kids to do their homework, explore other things, and get out of doors occasionally, and be productive around the house. Are they spending too much time on the computer? Probably. But they’re still good kids and thus far are developing into good young adults. I can’t complain about that.

Please Don’t Drown: A Public Service Announcement for Beachgoers.

Since the productivity/parenting stuff on NarrowbackSlacker has sort of taken on a life of its own, I’ve decided to parse out my local interest stuff to a different site. Please visit Oceanus11693 for musings on all things Rockaway–including today’s post, wherein I waste valuable work time editing a NYC Parks Department handout.

Oceanus 11693

I was at the Peninsula branch of the Queens Library yesterday, and I saw this lovely and informative card sitting at the checkout.

A valiant attempt, but I find it wanting. A valiant attempt, but I find it wanting.

I was, at least initially, delighted. Because: People drown here. Like, every summer. A few times a week, it seems, in July in August, you’ll be sitting on the stoop or making dinner on the grill, and you’ll hear the tell-tale sign of helicopters over the beach. You’ll look at our watch. Yup, it’s after 6/before 10. No lifeguards. Someone is in trouble, possibly dead. You might laugh a cynical laugh or roll your eyes, until you find out the details. There is not a single parent on this peninsula who is not haunted by stories like this one:

“Four cousins wading in knee-deep water at a beach in Far Rockaway, Queens, were swept away yesterday by the fierce…

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How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

My son is a reader.  He likes books. He reads plenty.

But: He is not a voracious reader. He’s not one of those kids who gobble books up like Pac-Man chasing down dots. He doesn’t romanticize, Hermione-style, over the smell of ink on paper, nor does he have any desire to browse aisles at bookstores, read through reviews, or sit in on a book discussion. He prefers real paper books, but has no attachment to them as objects once he’s read them (I suspect  I’ve had some influence here, with my constant reminders to purge stuff, and my own “books are not bricks” mantra). He wasn’t an early reader by any stretch: He learned to read in school, not at home. And while he was read to plenty as a baby (he was the first child, after all), he never had any particular inclination to gravitate toward books on his own. He was behind the curve in reading in the early grades, and getting him to finish a book was a chore. And yet, now, at fifteen, he is a reader.

I often detail this evolution with book-loving friends who worry that their young children don’t read as well, as independently, or as much as they want them to. What I found with my guy is that while he never felt any intimate connection with books, he LOVED stories. Big stories. Sweeping stories. Huge, epic stories where you really get invested in characters and there’s a solid chance things might not end well. The thing is, books for very young readers are usually pretty benign. Once Himself got into the third in the Magic Treehouse series and realized that Jack and Annie were probably going to escape any real danger (how else would they get to book 4, 5… 25?) he completely lost interest.

Twenty-eight volumes to go!
I don’t think the protagonists have anything to worry about.

The thing is, at seven or eight years old, he just didn’t have the decoding skills to read more complicated stories yet. So, for most of second, third, and even into fourth grade, his independent reading pretty much consisted of me leaning over his shoulder to make sure he read X number of pages, or more often, me just lying on his class reading log and saying that yeah, he’d read for 15 minutes (I’m not ashamed).

But while he was faking reading, he was really, really into stories. Mostly movies at that age—Toy Story and all things Pixar were in a constant cycle of watch/rewind/watch again.

At my husband’s insistence, we had strategically hidden everything Star Wars related from him until he was seven years old—the age my husband had been when the first film came out—and then launched it with great fanfare. (It goes without saying that Episode IV comes first.) It was well worth the wait, because at seven, he was mature enough to really understand the humor, the humanity, and the eternal struggle with good and evil—along with the awesome light saber duels, droid banter, and space battles. Rather than getting caught up in hitting people with light sabers disguised as sticks (as I’d seen so many toddlers who got initiated too young do), Himself latched onto the Hero’s Journey theme of the tale. He was enamored of Darth Vader, blasters, and light sabers, of course… but still more concerned with Luke and the good guys ultimately defeating evil. We invested in some great Star Wars like books this one (which he paged through endlessly, looking at pictures over and over, until the spine finally split), but his dad’s 1970s original Han Solo paperbacks didn’t tempt him at all.

The #1 Christmas gift of 2007 at my house. 

We talked about Star Wars endlessly (something my husband and I liked to do long before we’d ever had kids). We did the same thing with the Lord of the Rings films, and Harry Potter, the latter of which we listened to on audio in addition to watching the films. Doctor Who became a ritual, as did parsing each episode and theorizing about what might come next.

We found stories elsewhere that grabbed his attention, and unexpectedly challenged him to not merely enjoy a narrative, but to read.  We binge watched Lost, and found that one key storyline was told entirely in subtitles. which we had to read aloud for him… until we didn’t anymore. As someone who does not enjoy video games at all, it took me a while to realize the long-form RPGs he was playing with his dad were yet another form of storytelling—and that they were actually really text-rich experiences that challenged him to read constantly, as bubbles popped up on screen and demanded he decode, understand, and respond quickly (ETA: Added bonus: he also learned to type as fast as Mad Men–era secretary).  By fifth grade, with the help of all those video games and subtitles (and you know, I’m sure school helped) his reading skills were catching up to those of his peers.

Once he was hooked on stories, we needed to step in our role as his supplier. I had a conversation with our local librarian about how I was having difficulty getting him to commit longer novels. When I told her really gravitated life-or-death epics, she excitedly handed me Gregor the Overlander, the first in Suzanne Collins’ fabulous and somewhat overlooked Underland Chonicles. My ‘reluctant reader’ banged through the entire five-book series in a couple of weeks. When he finished the last one, he cried for a day or two, just because he was so sad it was over.

It’s still his favorite book.

He had become a reader. He still is one.

But I don’t know if he’d be a reader we hadn’t actively worked to make him one. The key had not just been encouraging him to read, or reading to him, but finding books he would want to read, and then reading them with him (my husband and I both read Gregor as well). He wasn’t born a reader, but proper care and feeding, he grew into one.

So, if you’re worried that  your young one is not a reader, don’t. Just be patient, and enjoy some stories with him while his skills catch up to his interests. I sincerely believe that the best way to get a kid reading is just to unleash your own inner geek and nerd out with your kids. Indulge in stories—across all sorts of media—together:

  • Watch an epic film together.
  • Find an appointment-viewing style show to watch together each week, and then discuss it, water cooler-style, over dinner or while driving in the car.
  • Treat yourself to great graphic novels, and share them with your child.
  • Have him or her explain the plot of a favorite video game to you.
  • Download an excellent audiobook and listen together.
(Image: Library of Congress)

(Image: Library of Congress)

Audiobooks; Not just for the car. 

Once a kid becomes a story addict, he’ll start jonesing for the harder stuff. He’ll take on longer, more difficult narratives, and gradually his reading skills will catch up with his appetite. Keep on putting really good books in front of  him, show him that you think they’re worth reading yourself, and limit competition from other, shinier interest for just a little bit of time each day.

With a little legwork, you can make books just as accessible, convenient, addicting, and social as the Internet. And books can become as much of a habit as video games are. Also, free from your local library, and totally portable.