Bring Back the Joy

If you stopped by out of curiosity about who won the tea, I’ll get to the winner in a minute. (Click here if you’re not sure what that statement means.) But first, I have to mention something I read today. You might have heard about the Florida teacher whose resignation letter went viral. Click here for that story. Now that I’m in the middle of a curriculum assignment, I pay more attention to articles about teachers.

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On Facebook, the teacher expressed an increasing frustration over a joyless education system, which led to her resignation. Well, the fact that she recently had a baby who will one day be educated in that same environment also played a factor in her resignation.

This isn’t the first post I’ve seen where someone expressed frustration or disgust over the current education expectations. But the fact that an excellent teacher was left disheartened made me sad. Since the letter went viral, others must share her frustration.

I don’t plan to argue for or against Common Core. In fact I can’t help thinking about another article I read, which explained why the answer to a math problem was marked wrong despite the fact that the answer was indeed right. (You can read that article here.) While I understand the author’s explanation, I can see a child’s or a parent’s confusion with it, especially if the goal for learning this way seemed convoluted or wasn’t explained at all.

I’ve heard experts say that “we have to be competitive” due to advances in technology. But if kids, parents, and great teachers are frustrated enough to want to quit, I have to wonder if we’re going in a good direction.

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When I was a kid, I loved school. I had joy in learning new skills. Because of that, I try to instill the joy of learning in the activities I write for kids. But as this frustrated Florida teacher mentioned, for some the joy seems to be gone.

I’ve seen this kind of disillusionment in other fields where assessment rubrics have increased exponentially and employees are bogged down in paper work.

Is it any wonder that the video game industry has proliferated? A video game provides a means of escape—a way to wind down. Books can provide that too. Yet lately, I’ve read but did not finish several books geared toward kids that seemed as joyless as the education system seems to that teacher. Where has the joy gone?

In the past few months I’ve heard more kids say, “I want to be a video game designer” than I’ve heard say, “I want to be a teacher.”

Food for thought.

Speaking of food, let’s get to the winner of Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend Tea and the crocheted leaves.

Without further ado, that person is . . .

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Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Penny of Lifeonthecutoff Blog

Penny, please comment below to confirm. Then please email your address.

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Education clip art from vector-clip-art.com and real-i-d.net.

Am I Desensitized?

Recently, I watched a bunch of movies where many people were shot or killed in some other way or beaten severely. I also finished reading an urban fantasy novel in which a reluctant werewolf was tasked with hunting and dispatching several vampires who slaughtered multiple people. Very gritty. But when I sat down to watch an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma (1996), the other night, I couldn’t get into at first. Now, I love this movie. But switching gears mentally to watch it took time. After a few tries, I was able to watch the whole movie without twitching.

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Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse with Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley

doctor_who___2005_teaser_by_mrtardis-d34dd4oWondering why? I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me preface by explaining that I once went five years without watching much television at all—only special news broadcasts (like the 9/11 coverage) and Doctor Who, a BBC show geared toward families. So its violence quotient was low. And I watched Doctor Who on DVD after the whole season was released, rather than each week. This was prior to the start of the first season of Heroes on NBC in 2006. Actually, Heroes was the first network show I watched when I decided to return to network TV watching. I binged on the first season online, having missed the shows when they first aired.

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Though I really enjoyed the show, I was shocked at the violence and gore. If you’ve seen the first season of Heroes, maybe it seems a bit tame compared to shows on HBO or Netflix. But having given up TV for years, I hadn’t realized how programming had evolved.

The fact that I was shocked may seem ironic to you when I clue you in on my history. I grew up in an area of Chicago that many deem unsafe due to gang violence. I heard gunshots many times, sometimes on holidays when people would fire guns as part of their celebration. My family wound up moving due to drive-by shootings that happened on our block.

During a visit to an aunt’s house one evening in a south suburb when I was a kid, the sound of gunfire shattered the night. My father ordered us to stay inside while he and my uncle went to investigate. Turns out a man down the street had made a serious attempt to kill his entire family. One child miraculously escaped. The police arrived along with ambulances. My family went to the hospital with the surviving child who had been grazed by a bullet.

The horror of that experience stayed with me for a long time. I couldn’t help thinking about it two months ago. While visiting my family in the Houston area, the breaking news story was the extradition of a young man accused of murdering his entire family, one of which was a five-year-old. You can find that story here. Interestingly enough, several years ago, I had heard this young man’s father, an Episcopal priest, preach at a church. Now he’d been murdered.

Psychology-Today-logoI was horrified, but the horror faded quicker than it did when I was a kid. And with my recent diet of violent movies, I have to wonder if I’ve become desensitized. The answer, according to psychological studies quoted here, here, and in an article at the Psychology Today website, is yes. You can find that 2013 article here. The study discusses the effects of violent media on the brain. The article describes this finding:

There was a significant decrease in the activation of prefrontal portions of the brain and a greater activation of the amygdala.

The amygdala is where emotions come from while the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps us concentrate. This is why I had trouble adjusting to the slower pace of Emma at first. Want to see another study on the subject? Click here for one at the Mount Sinai Hospital website.

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Please keep in mind that I am pointing the finger at myself and no one else. I know when my attitude shifts after a steady diet of one form of media. Maybe you can handle it, but I can’t after awhile. And yes, I know the difference between real-life violence and the Hollywood version of it.

Giving up TV in the early part of the century helped me get a lot of writing done. You know what? I didn’t really miss watching TV during those years. It’s funny what you get used to when you break a habit.

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Though I’m looking forward to seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I think I’ll cut back on the violent media until then. I need a dip in calmer waters.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley from Pinterest.com. Heroes cast from insidetv.ew.com. Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor from mrtardis.deviantart.com. Television clip art from clker.com. Psychology Today logo from eileenkennedymoore.com. Brain image from ladyatheist.blogspot.com.

Preexisting or Made Up?

Have you read a book or seen a movie recently where the technology seemed almost laughably dated, though it was probably cutting edge when the book or movie debuted? I can’t help giggling when Cher (Alicia Silverstone), Dionne (Stacey Dash), and others in Clueless (1995) whip out huge mobile phones with pull-out antennas. Or check out The Matrix (1999), where Nokia phones with sliding covers looked sleek next to landline phones but seem dated to our twenty-first century mindsets. At least the phones changed as Matrix sequels debuted.

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Dionne and Cher in Clueless

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Trinity in The Matrix

I also giggle every time I watch an episode of an animated show like Justice League from the early part of this century and see someone hold up a videotape or a floppy disk. I used to use both back in the day.

Technology and other aspects of life change so quickly. Kids today might not even recognize some of the items some of us used when we were kids. If you have a spare seven minutes, you might watch this video made by The Fine Brothers last year, which features kids reacting to a Nintendo Game Boy from 1989. Their reactions are priceless.

Nothing dates a book or movie faster than the inclusion of game systems and other products, trendy stores, TV shows, or celebrities. What’s hot today may be cold tomorrow. (MySpace anyone?) But if you’re writing a contemporary book, in order to be realistic and appeal to your audience, you have to mention at least some products, stores, TV shows, or celebrities, right? After all, readers need a frame of reference. It’s easier to mention PS4, because we have a mental picture of what that is. (If you don’t, click on PS4 above.) But consider how dated even that console may seem in five years. Probably as dated as some of the phones below.

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As I work on my WIP, I find myself making up most of the products and celebrities named, the exception being well-known people from the past or sports celebrities who set a record or won a coveted award. Making up people and products is easier than trying to guess which celebrities or videogames will still be popular in four or five years. Maybe some games like Pokémon might still be around. Consider how long it’s been around in our time—since 1996. But I don’t want to take a chance that a currently well-known game system will still be popular or a beloved celebrity still in everyone’s good graces and not incarcerated.

There are some existing products I might keep——like Coca-Cola or Rice Krispies®. Those have been around for decades. But I’m having fun inventing my own games, song lyrics, celebrities, TV shows, etc. Making up products gives me much needed world-building practice.

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What about you? Do you use preexisting items in your stories or do you make up products, trendy stores, or celebrities? Is it safe to assume that certain products will have a longer shelf life, and therefore are safe to mention?

Alicia Silverstone as Cher and Stacey Dash as Dionne photo from tulsa20something.com. Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity photo from photocritiques.blogspot.com. Mobile phone evolution from storify.com. Rice Krispies from Walmart.ca.

Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

250px-PlantsVsZombiesCover400ppxIf you’ve never played Plants vs. Zombies on the computer, your phone or iPad, or PlayStation 3 (and soon on Xbox One or Xbox 360), maybe it’s best that you don’t start. It’s sooooo addictive. (If you’re not into videogames and are rolling your eyes right about now, don’t worry. There’s a point to this beyond videogames.) The concept seems insane—using plants and fungi to repel brain-eating zombies. But the game, first released by PopCap in 2009, has won “over 30 Game of the Year awards,” according to the PopCap website. The game also has sequels (Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time; Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare).

I downloaded Plants vs. Zombies and Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time on my phone, because I played Plants vs. Zombies years ago on my computer (loved it). I’m fascinated by the combination of zombies and plants/fungi in a game. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, hydrogen and oxygen, eggs and bacon, chocolate and peanut butter—they work well together. And yet they’re not a natural fit. I mean, when you think of zombies, maybe you think of a blow torch, machete, sword, or an axe before you think of a sunflower or a mushroom. Or maybe you don’t think of them at all, and your life is all the richer for it. Yet the combination has triggered one of the best videogames ever.

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Know what else goes together? You and that blank page before you. (How’s that for a segue?) You know the one I mean. The one you sometimes give up on. Oh, I get it, believe me. Two such disparate creatures were bound to misunderstand one another from time to time. Sometimes you think you weren’t made for it or it for you, don’t you? But you were. The blank page challenges you to use your imagination, to go beyond your comfort zone, to give till it hurts. And you give the blank page a piece of your soul: words full of verve or illustrations worth a thousand words a piece. It’s where you work your magic on an idea that seems too unbelievable to exist, and turn it into a masterpiece.

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All because you and the blank page dared to meet.

The blank page—it’s where you want to be. You know you do. So, don’t act like a stranger. Kiss and make up. Accept that blank piece of paper. You were meant to be together. And when you’re done, it won’t be blank anymore. It’ll be history—the history of how the two of you made magic together.

Plants vs. Zombies images from Wikipedia and gamezone.com. Blank page from freeimages.co.uk.

Harvest Moon: A Writer’s Life

Got my coffee ready. Maybe the blog needs a theme song too. Anyway, today I return to a subject near and dear to my lazy heart: comparing videogames to the life of a writer.

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From LOL Cats

Oh, yes I did. Hey, some people dissect Proust; I talk about Pokémon and Harvest Moon. But don’t worry. This is the last post of this ilk. Had to get it out of my system. If you clean your room and eat all your vegetables, there may be time for a little Proust quote at the end. Not promising anything, y’understand.

First, a little housekeeping. The previous post began a great discussion on process with the fabulous Laura Sibson. Some of you (Will in particular) have asked whether or not there will be more posts where a writer discusses his or her process. The answer is yes, so please stay tuned! I have a nice lineup of writers eager to talk about writing and their path to publication. Perhaps you’ll share your process as well.

On with the show. Let me start by saying this: I don’t have children. Probably more than you wanted to know about me. But there are children in my life—nieces, nephews, children of friends who are like family, kids in Sunday school who demand Goldfish crackers, because they caaaaaaaaaan’t maaaaaaaaaake it until lunch. So when kids offer book or game suggestions to me, I take them seriously, because they’re . . . well . . . kids, and I write for kids. Knowing what they like is a good thing. Sure, their frontal lobes are still developing, and some think SHRIEKING IS THE ONLY WAY TO BE HEARD. But I listen to them.

Several told me about the Harvest Moon series of games by Natsume for the Nintendo DS. I started with Harvest Moon Cute, where your avatar is a girl, but you can play the original game as a boy.

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If you’ve never played one of these games, the basic premise involves planting crops, raising animals (cows, chickens, sheep) and then finding that significant someone to raise a family. Trust me, the conversations I’ve had with kids (“I’m going to have a baby in a week, but I’ve still got crops to harvest. How ’bout you?”) only sound weird if you’re not playing the game.

There are variations, depending on the game. Some include finding harvest sprites, raising sunken islands, and mining for gold and other precious metals in order to raise money to buy more animals or seeds for crops. You also need money, because to win over that certain someone, you have to keep giving him things to make him like you. And the crop of eligible bachelors (or bachelorettes) include a thief (the silver-haired Skye below), somewhat hostile loners (looking at you, Marlin), and others who are Just. Not. That. Into. You. Sounds like a page out of my life.

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2215536Hey, Skye! You’ve already robbed a house. What’re you gonna do next??

So comparing a writer’s world to the world of Harvest Moon seems a given. Planting crops—draft phase. You take the seed of your idea, water it with words, and continue to cultivate. (For a great post on gardening and the writer, go here.) Mining for gold—revision phase, where you search for what’s precious and toss out the dross. Thankfully, in real life, you aren’t subject to attack by dark creatures (wild-eyed chickens and aggressive sheep and cows) like those lurking in the mines. Wait. You are. The dark creatures are discouragement and fear. (And for great posts on fear, check here and here.)

But what about the other aspects that crowd your day in the game? That’s easy. They represent all of the balls a writer has to juggle daily—deadlines, relationships, housework, day jobs, world domination. The game’s ticking clock is a constant reminder of the “gotta get this done” drumbeat in our heads.

The ones you want to woo? Well, they’re your inner editor, beta readers, agents, publishers, and, ultimately, readers of your published work—those whose hearts you must win. So what do you give them? Everything you’ve got.

Well, you’ve been good, so here’s a bit of Proust to end this:

Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another’s view of the universe. Marcel Proust

Happy now?

Harvest Moon images from Polyvore.com and Nintendoblast.com

Pokémon and Writing: What I Learned

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I played my first game of Pokémon—the popular RPG—in 1998 or 1999, on a berry Game Boy Color. This version (see box below) was not my last. If you don’t know the game (or any of its versions) and/or wish to get through life without knowing anything about it, feel free to skip ahead to the part of this post where I talk about writing (the bold text below). But I still refer to Pokémon. (Ya win some, ya lose some, huh?) Meanwhile, I’ll continue providing an extremely quick overview of the world of Pokémon.

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Many evolutions of the game (as well as the handheld game console) have come and gone since I first discovered it. If you’ve played any version of it, you know the object: travel to various cities catching, training, and sometimes trading Pokémon—little creatures classified by type (water, fire, poison, electric, rock, normal, fighting, ground, psychic, ice, bug, grass, ghost, dark, steel).

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Pikachu, an electric Pokémon

You train your Pokémon by having them fight other Pokémon. In this way, they advance in level (1 [though many start at level 3—6] to 100). At certain levels, Pokémon evolve and gain new abilities (like kids in our world; alas, you the proud trainer have nothing to mount on your refrigerator).

In your goal of becoming the best trainer in the game, you learn that certain Pokémon types are more effective against others. Also, you’re often challenged by trainers who trash talk you until you school them by having your Pokémon beat theirs. (Take that! My kid’s better than yours!) You also earn money for these battles. Sweet!

In some versions of Pokémon, you have a rival—a friend from your town—who challenges you to several battles to test your ability as a trainer. Isn’t that what friends are for?

Various villains (Team Rocket; Team Plasma; scientists and grunts working for these organizations) serve as the external threat with their nefarious plots to rule over Pokémon. They say things like, “Mwwhaha! No one can stop me!” or “I’ll take you down and take your Pokémon!” Priceless.

You can’t run when challenged by any of these individuals. Your only option is to fight. Your Pokémon aren’t invincible, however. Sooner of later, they’ll lose a battle. If that happens, you have to get them the help they need.

As you travel, you learn to replace weaker Pokémon with stronger ones in your party or from the wild. (You carry six Pokémon at a time.) For example, let’s say you have Pokémon at level 18 or so and you arrive at an area of the game inhabited by level 31—35 Pokémon. A good strategy would be to replace your lower level Pokémon with those at a higher level—if you can catch them.

At certain points in the game, you will face the challenge of eight gyms and their gym leaders in order to receive badges. These badges are benchmarks in the game to test your strength as a trainer. The ultimate test comes toward the climax of the game when you face the Pokémon League challenge and take on the Elite Four—the best trainers in the land. You can’t get to the Pokémon League without the eight gym badges. Once you take down the Elite Four, the game sometimes provides still another trainer you have to beat—a trainer who also beat them in order to become the champion.

Anyway, I won’t go into all of the aspects of the game, like the challenge to catch every kind of Pokémon, the Pokédex, the moves you can teach your Pokémon, and so on. After all, some versions of the game come with a 400+-page walkthrough guide. Besides, if you made it this far in the post, you’re probably wondering, What on earth does all of this have to do with what she learned about writing? Ah, young padawan, it’s simple:

Catching and training Pokémon—this is the drafting phase of writing. At the beginning of the game, a vision is cast: what you need to do to win this thing. You are the only one who can do it. Anytime you tackle a piece of writing, you catch the vision for what needs to be done, and you continue on the journey until it is done. Whether you’re a plotter who works by outline, or a pantser who develops the story as you go, your draft goes through an evolution—sometimes several.

Of course, the Pokémon represent the characters—the ones you develop until they’re at their highest level. You go along with them on this journey, sharing their victories and defeats. But Pokémon also represent the words you choose to give your story life. The “catch them all” goal of the game is the goal of a discovery draft. In this phase, you’re just trying to get the story written, without worrying so much about how it sounds. You’re discovering the story as you go.

Switching and trading Pokémon—this is the revision process. You switch the order of or delete scenes, evaluate chapters, trade weaker verbs for stronger, or delete dead-weight characters to make your manuscript ready for the big league—submission to an agent or publisher.

Team Plasma and other villains not only represent the conflict necessary in a good story, they also represent your inner editor—always ready to trash talk you and get you to doubt. You can’t avoid this battle. Sooner or later, you have to fight in order to move forward. But the gym leaders represent your beta readers. Their purpose is to help you hone your manuscript. Listening to wise advice, discerning which comments to implement or discard—that’s all part of becoming a stronger wordsmith.

The most important thing I learned while playing Pokémon is to have fun. Same with writing. If it’s not fun, why do it?