Every Single Night (A Broken Bedtime Routine)

Kids are smart, yeah?

My son is so smart, he’s running the house right now. He hates bedtime. Going up to his own little room while there is still life happening downstairs absolutely crushes him. He has crippling fear of missing out. And he has learned how to twist his fear to take advantage of ours.

See, his little sister goes to bed about an hour ahead of him, which he’s fine with. Her room is across the hall from his, and… well, let’s just say the walls are pretty thin. You can easily hear another person talking on the other side of any wall in the house, let alone screaming. So when we put him to bed, he screams.

We’ll come to what he’s screaming about in a moment, but the takeaway is, we feel incredibly hamstrung. Intellectually we know that giving him any sort of attention for the screaming only reinforces the behavior. On the other hand, every second we let him go on screaming is another second that might wake his 1-year-old sister, and coaxing the baby back to bed is a taller order than convincing the boy to do the same. (Also, if she doesn’t get enough sleep, she can seriously put the screws to us the next day.)

So, my wife is losing sleep, and I’m losing sleep, and bedtime is now one of the most stressful times of day. It takes upwards of an hour to get both of the bundles of joy down to sleep, and putting big brother down is a recursive process that seriously drives us to distraction every single night.

Which brings us to what he screams about. This is really best described as a series of steps:

  1. I announce bedtime. He screams because he doesn’t want to go to bed.
  2. I threaten to carry him upstairs to bed. (This works because he is at the age where he wants to do everything himself). He relents.
  3. I tell him to brush his teeth. He screams because he doesn’t want to brush his teeth.
  4. I say, fine, come get dressed for bed. (This works because he really does want to brush his teeth and he doesn’t want to miss out on an excuse to noodle around in the bathroom for five minutes.) He relents.
  5. We read a book. These days it’s a seek-n-find the differences between pictures book of all his favorites: Cars, Toy Story, that kind of thing, but whatever it is, he only wants to read this one book for weeks at a time. This makes him happy.
  6. We sing some bedtime songs in the rocking chair. This works, because he loves to sing.
  7. It’s bedtime. I crawl into bed with him, because this is what he demands, and tell him he can have the usual five minutes. For five minutes, there is peace.
  8. Time to go. I get up. He screams because he knows he’s about to be on his own, which he can’t stand. I tell him I’m not listening to this nonsense: it’s time for bed. I leave the room and listen to him scream for about five minutes or so, hoping to god he won’t wake the baby. He’s screaming about one of these things:
    1. He wants his door cracked.
    2. He wants a stuffed animal.
      1. But not the stuffed animal he has with him, a different one that’s across the room.
    3. He wants to read another book.
    4. He wants to rock some more.
    5. He wants his door closed.
    6. He wants me to lay down with him again (if mommy was the last one in the room).
    7. He wants mommy to rock him (if it was me putting him to bed).
  9. He might reuse and rotate these excuses, but he’ll use them liberally just to get my wife or myself back into the room. He’ll work his way down the list, strongarming us into coming back to his room three or four times over before he spots the inadvertent eye twitch or pulsing blood vessel in my forehead that tells him the gig is up.
  10. He asks for a kiss in the most pitiful way possible, gets it, and rolls over to go to sleep.

Again, I know that indulging him is the wrong thing to do, but I really think he’s figured out that we have to see to him to keep from waking up the baby.

The three-year-old has outsmarted the college-educated adults.

Dead Inside

Chuck’s challenge this week: Random Song Title.

My song was off of Muse’s latest album, titled “Dead Inside”. The story is not particularly based on the song, just the title.


Picture by zarrion101 @ flickr.com
Picture by zarrion101 @ flickr.com

Dead Inside

The sound of a million shuffling feet and untold thousands of voices clanged back and forth between the skyscrapers like the streets themselves were coming to life. Hundreds of strangers jockeying for position, shoulders nudging her this way and that, shoes coming down on her cold feet, soundless shouting in her ear.

It was enough to make Lara wish she were dead for real. Soon enough, she thought, and immediately pushed the thought out of her head. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. She could survive today. She wasn’t even sure she was actually dead. The disease was still young in Lara: she had none of the usual symptoms, she even still had a heartbeat. The disease affected everybody differently, and — and this was the important part — it mutated quickly. There were over four hundred categorized variations of ZuF2 already, and another hundred projected already for the next week. It had sprung up so quickly, they didn’t even have a proper name for it. Who’s to say one of those variations might not be non-lethal? Who’s to say you couldn’t learn to live with it?

Spurred by the crowd, Lara inched forward, trying not to imagine the taste of the big, beefy shoulder in front of her. Shoving her appetite down into her feet was not easy; the man wore a tank-top, and in the ninety-degree sun a thin sheen of sweat glistened just there, so inviting she could practically feel her teeth sinking into it… but no, take a bite out of a human and she’d be dead within seconds, and probably kick off a riot besides. She could master the hunger. She might pass by the scanners undetected. She might be all right, as long as she could keep from eating anybody. And if they didn’t look too closely at her skin. The long-sleeved, high-necked shirt she’d put on was a gamble: it hid the shapes but it  would draw attention. Only the dead could walk around fully covered up in this heat and not sweat like sweltering hogs.


The beefy-shouldered man stepped to the side for his scan and the man in full tactical gear beckoned to Lara, reaching his hand out for hers with all the care and concern of a bus driver holding the door open for you at the end of a thirteen hour shift.

“Next. Come on, sister. Let’s go.” The crowd at Lara’s back began jeering too; ordinary, living and breathing folks, who wanted to get their negative scans and go back to their televisions and air conditioning. She felt hands shoving her forward, into the grasp of the guard. She did her best to stand up straight. As he was inspecting her left hand for signs of rot, she noticed a dark shape flit across the back of her right, a bubble dancing up through ice cubes in a cool glass of tea. She shook her hand briefly and then clapped it to the back of her neck.

“Hot, isn’t it?” Lara smiled at the man, who just glared at her through his visor filmed with sweat and condensation.

“Hands are clean. Eyes wide.” He held up the scanner, a forked device attached to a tiny touchscreen which he thrust toward her face.

Lara bit back a mouthful of vomit. A subconscious part of her had, just for an instant, meant to douse the man and everybody around her in bile, and had nearly succeeded. She told herself she had just felt repulsed by the scanner, and forced herself to keep her face neutral. It wasn’t difficult, actually. The bile hadn’t tasted of bile, but rather like a mouthful of sand: tasteless and irritating, but harmless. She wondered if that was a good sign or not.

Beep beep. The iridescent green flash from the console lit up the man’s visor, and he was already motioning for the next person in the throng. “Next.”

Lara was clean. She laughed out loud and threw her hands in the air, suddenly thankful for the sun on her skin, even if she couldn’t feel its warmth.

“What the hell is that?” A panicked, female voice cried from behind her.

Lara whirled to see the man who’d just scanned her advancing toward her, shouldering his rifle.

“What did you see?” He barked.

The girl was just a kid, fifteen or so, sweating through a loose purple-striped halter top, but she was pointing at Lara with unmitigated revulsion and terror in her eyes. “I don’t know, it was her arm… something moved!”

Lara’s heart stopped. She actually felt it beat its last beat. So she was dead, after all. The sleeves of her shirt had fallen to her elbows when she raised her arms toward the sun, and there, squirming like a mass of leeches, was a bundle of shadowy shapes beneath her skin.

“Infected.” The man whispered it to himself, then he shouted it. “Infected!”

Like the tide going out before a tsunami, the crowd withdrew from her: she was standing all alone as eyes of all shapes and colors and guns of all sizes trained themselves on her. “Wait. He just scanned me, I’m not –” But the first bullet came quickly, tearing through her upheld hand and entering her head just below the eye. Others, which she did not feel, riddled her body in the space of a heartbeat.

But she didn’t die. Rather, it was like her consciousness passed through a prism. She suddenly felt like she had split into thousands, and each facet of herself rushed toward an onlooker with all the haste of a hawk in a prey-dive.

The body of Lara exploded like a bag of beef stew, and out of the gristle and gore leapt thousands of tiny dark blobs, wingless, legless roaches on the wind. They splattered into the crowd, squirming into noses and eyes and mouths as gunfire erupted throughout the throng and previously civil people began trampling each other in a panic.

Lara was the last mutation of ZuF2. Or at least, the last one that mattered.

Weekly Re-Motivator: Summary Stew

I can’t stand the summary.

You know, you crack the book open, and on the inside fold or the back cover or wherever, you get the blurb that tells you in a nutshell what the story is all about.

Karl Wisenberg is a mild-mannered office worker hiding a secret: his radioactive toenails. But there’s something more sinister than glowing fungus afoot…

Alice Klepper sells jewelry by day and state secrets by night. But will an unexpected purchase by an eight foot tall stranger provide her with the biggest secret of all?

The summary is supposed to give you a taste for the story without spoiling it for you; it’s supposed to whet your appetite and get you to crack the book and keep on cracking it until the end.

And I hate it. Because it gives the impression that the story is all about plot, that the narrative is a simple math equation with all these different elements — character, setting, tension, conflict — that add up to something. But a story is more than the sum of its parts. Because holding it all together is a fumy glue all the stuff you can’t fit in the summary: the creeping sense of dread you get every time a character opens a door in the story, where you don’t really know whether behind the door will be a harmless delivery man or a hatchet-wielding trans-dimensional wasp-man. Or the biting irony that infuses every word, wherein you can feel the author’s arched eyebrow and hear the sardonic twist behind every turn of phrase.

You can’t get that in a summary, and that’s the most important part of the story, I think. Because really: whatever you’re writing, the story has been told before. No matter how unique, how original, how unexpected your twists and turns are, somebody, somewhere has twisted and turned down that road. The only difference, the only thing that makes your story unique, is the way you tell it, the specific blend of spices you drop into the mix, the character that you build the story into.

Because a story is a living thing. It’s not just a chain of events, one thing leading into another like a dull-witted chain-gang of tromping inevitability. The story itself, just like the characters, has a flavor; the narrative itself has a feel about it that is much more than just the things which happen in it. And that flavor is what makes the story unique, that flavor is the thing that sticks with you after you’ve finished the book and brings you back, like the unbelievable egg rolls at your favorite restaurant.

Which is what I’m struggling with in my current project. I’ve got a decent chain of events, I’ve got decent characters and reasonable tension and a good smattering of conflict. But I haven’t found the right flavor for the brew. And the story, and my motivation for working on the story, is suffering as a result. I haven’t found the right feel for the story, and the story feels wrong as a result. Feels bland, uninteresting. Luckily, writing isn’t like cooking. You want a good solid stew, you have to get all the spices in at just the right moment to release their flavor and bring out the best in the dish. In writing, though, you get as many chances as you need. Screw up the flavor and you can add more salt at the last minute, or strain out the bad spices and replace them with new ones, or even toss the whole dish and rebuild it from the ground up.

But the flavor will come. The thing with writing is to keep plugging away at it, keep working, keep creating. The more these characters simmer in the narrative stew I’ve created for them, the more the subtle notes will come out, the more I’ll be able to tell what flavor is right for this tale.

So, as you’re writing, don’t stress about the summary. Focus on the flavors, focus on the interplay between elements, focus on the parts between the “important” story elements, because those are what keep readers coming back for more.

Am I wrong? Is the summary more important than I give it credit for? What flavor do you most appreciate in a story?

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Love and Marriage

I’m not going to go on at length, but a few thoughts:

If you are gay, today is a big day for you. That’s awesome.

If you’re not gay but you have gay friends who are happy today, today is a big day for you. That’s awesome.

If you were against the decision today… I’m not going to say you’re living in the past or anything, but really? Your life doesn’t change in ANY way because of today’s decision. The only difference is that more people around you are happy today. That’s awesome, even if you don’t think it is.

Never mind that this ruling on gay marriage is coming about a decade too late.

Never mind that we’re only the 21st country to make it officially legal. (Seriously. The 21st.)

Never mind that holdouts across the country are crying in their beer and trying to figure out how to keep fighting against the ruling, even though there’s really nothing to fight.

Today, some basic civil rights were upheld for a lot of people. Probably for somebody you know.

That’s awesome.

Today is a historic day. Today is a day for rainbows.

Symbols and Smoke Signals

Things stand for things, right? That’s the whole precept of language, of art, of stories, of life. The banding on that snake means that if it gets its fangs in you, you’re dead. Stay away. The presence of all these closed doors in this character’s life show you how trapped she feels. Let it go. That painting of a monkey doing a handstand on top of the tin man is symbolic of, you know, the struggle of the primitive against the technological. Or something. Or maybe it’s just some jacked-up Wizard of Oz fan art.

It’d be hard to identify a symbol as intrinsically symbolic as a flag, though. A closed door can be a symbol of entrapment or inaccessibility, but sometimes it’s just, y’know, a door. A flag, on the other hand, by its very nature stands for something. When you fly a flag, it’s a big announcement to the world that this is who I am, this is who we are, this is what we stand for.

Which is why I think this psychopathic racist kid with his shooting spree, in trying to set off a race war, has actually done something productive. Not with his murders, but by associating his particular brand of poison with a symbol.

This symbol.

The confederate flag has long been a troublesome symbol. On the one hand, it is, legitimately, a symbol of the Confederate States back at the time of the Civil War. And lots of people, especially in the South, have family that lived in the same area at that time. That probably died for that cause. And the flag is, for them, a symbol of their heritage, their family, their land. Flying the flag demonstrates their pride in that heritage. And the fact that they see it that way is fine.

Problem is, the Confederates were fighting, among other things, to retain the ability to keep slaves. So of course, the critics are quick to point out that to them, the flag is therefore a symbol of slavery. Flying a flag, then, becomes a statement in favor of slavery, in favor of segregation, in favor of any sort of racist thing you can think of. And the fact that they see it that way is fine.

Symbols are tricky things. They mean only what our society agrees they mean. We can all agree that the green light in The Great Gatsby represents the love Gatsby feels for Daisy, a love he will never actually reach, a light whose heat he will never feel. Or maybe it represents Daisy herself, again, perpetually out of his grasp, separated from him by a bay of misunderstandings and screwed-up ideals. There’s no controversy because either a) we all agree on its meaning or b) we can understand why others view it in a different way. With the Confederate flag, there’s no such agreement, because the people who hate it are morally and righteously offended by the people who fly it and the ideals they embrace, while the people who honor it don’t understand why the critics get so uptight about it. (Except for the racists who fly it because they’re racists. Screw the racists.)

And that’s where the conversation about the Confederate flag has been locked for, oh, I dunno, decades? No headway is made because these people have their view and everybody else can go to hell, and those people have their view and everybody else can go to hell, and everybody who decides to get involved in the discussion just ends up sore and pissed off over it.

Until this guy went and shot up a church after taking a ton of pictures of himself with the Confederate flag. You or me flying a Confederate flag outside our houses is a tiny splash in an enormous pond. A cold-blooded mass execution carried out while waving a Confederate flag around and posing, grumpy-faced, in front of a flag is a hundred-gigawatt, laser-guided broadcast via every major news network into every living room in the country.

It’s going to be a very, very long time indeed before anybody is able to see the Confederate flag without thinking of Dylann Roof. For better or worse, that means that for the time being, the Confederate flag is unequivocally and inarguably a symbol of racism, murder, and evil. The governors of South Carolina and Alabama have already moved to stop flying the flag over their state capitols, tradition and heritage be damned. This is a pretty remarkable thing. It might even be a historic thing. The flag won’t go away, but maybe it will move from front lawns into museums and history books, where it belongs. We can only hope the movement spreads.

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you might have heard that several major retailers are no longer going to be selling merchandise that features the confederate flag. They’ll cite any number of reasons, like inclusiveness or discouraging hurtful public statements or not wanting to be associated with controversy, but at the end of the day they’re pulling the merchandise from their shelves. Which is fascinating. Merchants are taking a stand, making a statement about this symbol. Saying that they don’t want to profit from it, that they don’t want to be associated with it.

Some will argue that those retailers are doing themselves a major disservice by losing out on sales of these items themselves, but more so by people who refuse to shop there because of the statement these companies are making. I’m no economist, but I feel like they’ll pull in as much business with their statement against this symbol as they cost themselves. But I don’t care about their bottom lines, I care that they care enough to put their dollars where their mouths are.

I read a brilliant short story earlier this year: The Appropriation of Cultures, by Percival Everett. In his story, a black man begins flying a rebel flag and urges others in his community to do the same, and within a few months, the Confederate flag becomes a symbol not of the South, but rather of civil rights activists. If only the real-world treatment of the symbol had been as nonviolent. Still, it shows a model, fictional or not, of how the meaning of a symbol can change.

Maybe we’re on the brink of making this symbol as a divisive force in our country a thing of the past. Maybe it can just be evil and we can lock it in a coffin and bury it far from daylight.