About Those Teacher-Parent Conferences . . .

I enjoyed this cartoon from The New Yorker and so should you!

As a parent of three children and an attendee of these conferences, I ultimately wanted to know one thing: when the teacher talked about my kid, described various qualities and characteristics, I wanted to recognize that as, yep, that’s my kid. We were both talking about the same individual. And once we had that basic agreement — this teacher had an understanding of my child — I felt relieved and at ease. The rest was just stuff. 

In a nutshell: show me that you “get” my kid. 

REVISION: Jigsaw Jones & Those Pesky Phones!


I was recently given the opportunity to revise four more previously published Jigsaw Jones books. Now there are 12 updated titles available from Macmillan — books that had gone out of print over the past five years or so — in addition to two all-new titles (14 in all). The books I revised weren’t ancient, generally around 15 years old, and I knew the stories were solid. Of course, there are things I’d want to change about every book, even on the first day of publication. What’s the old adage? “Books are never completed, only abandoned.” They can always be better. So it was a welcome pleasure to go back, improve what I could, try again.

One striking aspect reflected in these books is the profound change in our phones — and how deeply those new gadgets have transformed our lives. I was born in 1961. But until the advent of the personal cell phone, my childhood experience with phones was fairly standard for decades. In most homes, there was one phone number, one phone, maybe an extension or two. A line in the kitchen and another in the family room. Later on, a few fancy parents even had phones in their bedrooms. Usually all the same number. All calls came in and out through that central brain. In my house, the phone would ring, somebody would rush to it expectantly, listen a moment, then shout out in a teasing voice, “Barbara! It’s for you . . . and it’s a boy!”

It was a form of home security. Everybody in the house knew what was up. Strange callers had to get through a least one checkpoint. Many of us remember those teenage calls when a difficult parent answered the phone. It went something like this . . .

Mr. Flynn: Hello, Flynn residence.

JP: Is Rosie home?

Mr. Flynn: To whom am I speaking? 

JP: Oh, yeah, er, hi, Mr. Flynn. It’s Jimmy. Is Rosie home?

Mr. Flynn: She is.

JP: [pause] Um, can I talk to her?

Mr. Flynn: You can.

JP: [longer pause] I mean, may I talk to her? Speak with her? Can she come, may she come, is there any way I can —

Mr. Flynn: We’re about to sit down for dinner. Rosie will call you later, after she’s finished her homework. Click.

 

Consider for a moment all the information that was conveyed in that brief, awkward exchange. Mr. Flynn was not only aware that a boy was calling for his daughter, he actually spoke with that boy, got a sense of his manners and intelligence. He also managed to maintain a degree of control, “Rosie will call you later.” The gatekeeper. Today we talk about the loss of privacy, but the reverse is also true: sometimes there’s far too much privacy. Today a 10-year-old with her own phone has all sorts of communications and access to the internet without any family involvement whatsoever. No idea! Anyway, that’s a huge topic and not the purview of this post.

Mostly I want to say: Look at those phones, what a transformational shift in our family lives. Note: for the revisions, we deleted those dated images and I reworked the text accordingly.

 

Sidenote: I just read yet another article about the latest phone horror in a local high school. Young men making secret videos in school without consent, posting them on the internet, accomplished in the blink of an eye — a felony offense with devastating impacts on multiple students. There are articles like this everyday. These new phones are small miracles — but powerful and addictive. We hand them to 9-year-olds on their birthdays, and they only wonder what the heck took so long. 

Sidenote 2: I fear all this makes me look like an old coot, “Back in my day!” But that’s my reality. I remember how it was, and naturally compare it to how we live today. I found it interesting to see those changes reflected so clearly — and so quickly — in the relatively short time covered by this book series.

Sidenote 3: I love my phone, don’t get me wrong. But I’m also afraid of it.



               


REPOST, UPDATE: “Watch Me, Dad!”

Here we are, that odd little stunted week before Thanksgiving. Of course we want to work hard and be good citizens, but the holiday approaches. Thoughts of family, mostly. And in my case, the Prellers are a bit scattered these days. Nick down in NYC, drawing the short straw at his new job, asked to work on Wednesday and Friday; we won’t be seeing him this Thanksgiving. Gavin is in France, working on an organic farm, opening his heart and mind to the world. Figuring it out, we hope. And Maggie, our youngest, is back home from her first semester at college. 

Gavin and Maggie and one of our black cats. Long ago.

 

It can be a lot, college. My wise friend referred to it as “adjustment fatigue.” It’s all new: a roommate, a new town, dorm life, classes, eating in a cafeteria, away from home, all of it. So now for a few days she’s back with us. You think we’re happy, you should see the dog. 

Anyway, found this Maggie-centered post from 10 years ago and thought I’d share it again . . . time, it flies.

Lisa went out with Maggie last night to buy a new pair of basketball shoes, as they call ’em these days. Used to be sneakers, but whatever. Maggie was thrilled; she’s very excited about playing hoops on the grades 3/4 travel team. She practiced dribbling all night — in the kitchen, in the living room, wherever it might give me a headache. Lisa and I watched and said, “Good, good, keep at it.”

At bedtime, Maggie asked if she could bring her basketball to bed with her. She wanted to sleep with it. Yeah, sure, knock yourself out, just don’t forget to brush your teeth.

This morning I drove Maggie to school. We were running late. Maggie, of course, wore her spotless new kicks. Just before climbing into the car, she said: “I can run faster now.”

“You can?”

She nodded, smiled. Oh yes.

“Put down your backpack,” I said. “Let me see.”

“Where do you want me to run?”

“I don’t know, across the front lawn to Don’s driveway.”

She walked to the far end of the lawn, methodically got herself into running position, and said, “Tell me when to go.”

“Go,” I said.

She raced across the yard.

“Good,” I said. “Now run back on the street. Let’s see how they do on cement.”

So she did, just as hard and determined as she could.

“Wow, Maggie, that was a lot faster — and I mean a lot. Those are pretty fast shoes.”

She smiled, proud and happy, pleased with her new powers.

Don’t you just love being a parent?

College drop-off day. Not all grown up . . . but I’m getting there!

 

Fun with Punctuation

Have a nice weekend!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #293: from Genesis to Revelation!

This letter was mysteriously left on a table, near my things, on the day of a school visit to Somewhere, CT. 

I replied . . . 

Dear Genesis,

My apologies for not responding sooner. In my haste, I stuffed your letter into my bag and, well, basically spaced it out. Hopefully my reply will arrive as a nice surprise, sometime after you’ve given up hope.

I must say that you wrote kind of a brilliant letter, Genesis. You are obviously a reader, but more than that, you are a deep reader, someone who seems to have natural insight into the fact that there’s an actual person who wrote the book. Doing research, getting inspired, making choices. You recognize the creative process that informs the book.

When asked to give advice to young writers, that’s often what I tell them: read like a writer, try to think like a writer as you read. So you are correct. Most people just want to happily enjoy the entertainment. Like you said, “they just like the book, but they miss the effort it takes to write a book, the long hours, days, or months to just write a chapter.”

You asked about my thinking process and inspiration. I don’t have an easy answer. When I’m at my best, I think of my brain as particularly “spongy.” I absorb things, receive the signals (like an antenna), maybe with a heightened sense of insight into others: how they feel, how they think. There’s no shortage of inspiration out in the world. The key is to be open. Eyes, ears, heart, brain. Seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking. Then giving yourself time –- and a blank page — to sort it out.

Today I had an idea about the character that I’m writing about, Mary from Bystander. I decided she could have a tarot card reading. I’m not sure why that popped into my brain today. I met a woman over the summer, at the dog park, who gives tarot readings. We’ve talked about it a little. I’m not sure I believe in any of that, but I do find it interesting. For me to write the scene, I’d need to talk again to her, maybe go out for coffee, ask questions, take notes. Or perhaps I should go for my own tarot card reading? Experience it for myself.

The important thing is that the idea appeals to me. It sounds like fun, learning that stuff, writing it. What does Mary discover in the reading? Does she believe it? Does she become upset? Who gives the reading? So many questions to answer. I think, maybe, it could be a friend’s older sister. Somebody just learning about the cards, fooling around with them a little bit. Maybe during a sleepover.

I don’t know, Genesis! The thing is, I’ll work it around in my brain, chew it over, talk to my expert, see if I can fit it into my story. I may ditch it -– or it might become a crucial scene, a pivot point in the story.

As for my desire to write, ha, it comes and goes. This is a tough business, filled with disappointments and great satisfactions. Up and down and up and down and up and down. Endlessly. Like most writers, I’m a reader. And I am perfectly okay with being alone. That’s important. I have the right disposition for the job. I know writers who are very disciplined. They sit in a chair and refuse to rise until they churn out 500 words. That kind of thing. For me, I need to have a certain feeling of fullness. Like, I don’t know, I’m ready. I can’t force it or fake it. Some days, I wish I could.

Thanks for your terrific letter. And thank you for expressing interest in my new book, Blood Mountain. If you do read it, please write back. I’d love to hear what a smart, thoughtful reader like you makes of it.

My best,

James Preller