Monday, March 26, 2012

Stranger than Fiction (Parts Three and Four)

This is a continuation from the previous blog entry about a week I couldn't have made up if I'd tried. It will make more sense if you read that one first.

Part Three: Situation Comedy

After Tuesday's crisis, you would think I'd had enough drama for a good long while. Apparently, there is never enough drama in my life.

This storyline actually started at the very beginning of the week, when we turned our 2 1/2 year-old Little Monkey's doorknob around to lock from the outside. This was a last resort effort to help him learn to get to sleep on his own, without .5 mg of melatonin every night and a parental song-and-dance that ranges in length from 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours.

He used to be a great sleeper until we transitioned him to a big-boy bed, about a month before Fozzie was born. Once he learned he could get out of bed and stake a claim on some of that attention his little brother was getting, we were done for. Nearly seven months later, we have become desperate enough to reclaim our evening peace that we have begun locking him in the room (after books and kisses and water and goodnight) and letting him work it out by himself. It actually did seem to help after a first night of chaos and destruction.

Monkey's doorknob is very old, one of many we've been meaning to replace upstairs. It's the kind that locks inside and has a key lock on the outside, for which we have never had the key. We put gobs of masking tape on the lock as a temporary solution the first day we moved in, planning to replace the doorknob ASAP. And here we are over a year later... Of course when we turned the knob around we removed the masking tape so we could lock it from the outside.

We were planning to meet some friends at the park Wednesday morning. I had just put Fozzie in his crib, and Monkey and I were discussing our differing opinions about whether I would be allowed to change his diaper and get him dressed before heading off to the shower myself. As a show of personal power, he attempted to lock me in his room, but I caught the door before it closed (whew!), unlocked it (I thought) and closed it behind us so our diaper-clothes battle wouldn't wake Fozzie up in the next room. When he was dressed and ready, I headed out of the room to get a quick shower.

I headed out of the room. Out of the -- oh, no. Are you kidding me?

It was nine o'clock in the morning. Hubs had gone to work for the day and was not expecting to hear from us until at least noon for lunch, and probably wouldn't get worried until one or later since he knew we were going to the park. Fozzie would be asleep in his crib in the next room for an hour and a half, tops. My phone was downstairs, along with anything else remotely useful. We'd done a great job childproofing the room - no tools, keys, wire hangers, or blunt objects in sight. Hell, I wasn't even wearing a bra.

Locked in a second-story bedroom with nothing but an energetic toddler and a few toys and books. Ho-ly crap.

It was easier not to freak out since the previous day's adventures had really put things in perspective, and I told myself that even in the worst case we'd all be hungry and miserable but safe. (Deep down, though, I didn't know how long I could listen to Fozzie cry when he woke up without tearing through the wall to get to him).

Monkey was calm and brave through the whole thing. He stood on his bed next to me and we shouted out the window, hoping to attract the attention of neighbors, walkers and/or passing cars. Every time a car would pass, we'd call out fruitlessly for help, and then he'd look at me and say, "Oh, well!"  Can you tell we've been practicing handling disappointment?

We were lucky that it was cool outside and not raining, or we might seriously have been stuck there until Hubs came home after work. But a passing jogger - our Good Samaritan - heard us and came up the driveway to help. He didn't have a cell phone, but he was very nice and tried to break into our house. No luck. He went across the street to my neighbor who works from home, but she was understandably hesitant to open the door to a strange man in jogging clothes. So, he took off jogging back to his house a few neighborhoods away and promised to return with a phone as soon as he could.

For the next little while, Monkey and I played with his trains and waited. After a little bit had passed, the slight possibility occurred to me that maybe this guy would get home, realize he was late for work or something, and think I'm sure they've already flagged down someone else by now. So I went back to the window, just in time to see another neighbor pull up in their driveway caddy-cornered to ours.

We don't know these neighbors well at all, but we did attempt to introduce ourselves when we first moved into the neighborhood and were greeted somewhat brusquely. Still, in an emergency they'd respond, right? We shouted to them for help and, when they turned in our direction, I tried to yell out the explanation of what we needed. They turned and headed toward the door. "No! Wait!" I yelled, "I need to borrow a phone - we're trapped in my child's bedroom!" They looked at me for another long minute, went inside and closed the door.

Fortunately for us, not everyone is so jaded, and the Good Samaritan returned with his car and a phone. He called Hubs for me, explained what was going on, and chatted with us for a minute to make sure everything was okay before heading off. It turns out we have a mutual acquaintance who lives in his neighborhood, so we are going to try to track him down to thank him properly. He also reported that on his way home, he tried to flag down several people in cars to get help to us faster, but no one would stop for him.

In any case, Hubs was home in a few minutes to release us and appropriately, to laugh at me. Crisis #2 of the week brought safely to an end.

Part Four: Friends and Neighbors

When I was a little girl my mom and the other women in the neighborhood spent more time in one another's kitchens than they did in their own. We kids flowed freely back and forth between the houses and up and down the streets. We knew which neighbors would let you cut through their yards and which didn't. We knew who would buy candy bars for the school fundraiser and who wouldn't. We knew their pets' names, their kids' names, their cars. We had friends in other places, too, but that little community was the center of our world. It wasn't pleasant all the time, we had our issues, but we knew each other.

Nowadays I feel more connected to people on Facebook than I do those who live within a mile radius of my house. I can tell you what someone in another state who I haven't seen in person for more than two decades had for dinner last night, but I couldn't tell you the name of the guy who turned his back on me when I was locked upstairs. We've lived here for a year and a half, fifty yards away from his front door.

Maybe this is a function of the age of our neighborhood and the fact that it's a relatively busy residential street. But I can't help but notice that more of us are paring down our relationships to the known quantities and easy connections. The friends we know through other friends, the people we've found on pinterest. Texting, status updates, blogging (ahem). We can gather and send information and feel 'connected' without having to actually connect at all. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm no Luddite. I love technology and social media (insofar as I can keep up with it) and I'll continue to use it. But it seems to me that we are taking fewer and fewer social risks as a culture, choosing the perceived safety of our computer screens rather than braving the challenge of getting to know new people. We lock away 'Others' and the world outside.

I don't pretend to know all the facts of the Trayvon Martin shooting, nor do I even remotely compare my scary experience last week with the hell that his parents are going through. What I do know is that while I got relief after forty minutes, Trayvon Martin's parents have no relief or justice in sight. Their unarmed child was murdered by someone who was supposed to be the neighborhood watch captain. He was supposed to be looking out for the safety of all the children in their neighborhood, and instead he let baseless fear turn him into a perpetrator himself. I can't help but wonder how that situation might've ended differently if the 'neighborhood watch' had focused more on bringing neighbors together and less on rooting out potential villains.

This probably sounds weird, coming from someone who had a scary experience with the stranger I hired to care for my child. Part of me wants to quit my job and stay home so that I never have to trust anyone else with his safety again. But I believe we do not make ourselves safer by disconnecting from 'Others' or 'Unknowns.' Ours is a global village, and it's time we all took responsibility for getting to know our neighbors. In the flesh, warts and all.

Losing our real, live, imperfect connection with others means losing our village, along with the fundamental thing that makes us human. And that is dangerous.

Friday, March 23, 2012

SERIOUSLY Stranger Than Fiction (Parts One and Two)

Part One: Prayer

I'll be honest: prayer has never been a big thing for me. I spent most of my formative years as a staunch agnostic (yes, that probably is an oxymoron -- decidedly undecided). For many more years I was a kind of spiritual wanderer, searching for a home. Now that I'm happily settled into my identity as a Jew, I like to concentrate on prayers of gratitude and the ritual prayers that surround my heart during Shabbat and holiday services like comfortable old sweaters.

I have never been one to consult the Almighty on big decisions -- at least not consciously -- nor do I tend to pray for help when I'm in trouble. It's just not my style. Sometimes I like to think that G-d knows this about me and maybe even finds it amusing, the way I do when my two and a half year old is trying to jump high enough to reach the ceiling by himself.

This week, however, has been a different story.

Even though I work very hard to keep good emotional boundaries, sometimes my professional life affects me personally. I'm human after all. In the past couple of weeks, I have taken on one of the most challenging and heart-wrenching cases I've ever worked with, a child (and family) suffering so cruelly from OCD that it hurts my heart.

I can't say more about that for fear of compromising confidentiality, but suffice it to say I caught myself saying a prayer this week, that I would be able to help this family in some small way and would not add to their frustrations by being useless.

Part Two: Horror Film

Those thoughts, however, were eclipsed by my own crisis on Tuesday. We had a new part-time nanny, who had been with us for about three weeks (2 days/week). Though we adored her at first and my almost seven-month-old seemed to love her, too, things just didn't seem right after the first few days. There was nothing glaringly wrong, just little things that didn't quite add up. Things that made hubs and me just a touch concerned about her personal life and overall stability. I had tried addressing our concerns with her, and she responded appropriately, but I still wasn't 100% satisfied.

That day I was on my way to lunch and had a sudden impulse to drive by the house, just to make sure everything was okay. As our house came into view, time slowed to a crawl and my brain struggled to process the fact that the sitter's car was not in the driveway (she did not have permission to take little Fozzie Bear anywhere except on walks, and I knew she didn't have a car seat base installed in her vehicle).

I slammed the car into park and ran inside, frantically looking for a note or some other indication of where she might be. My son, the diaper bag, and the carrier part of the car seat were all missing. Everything else was in place. Panic rising, I called the nanny from both my cell phone and the house phone. She didn't answer.

I called 911. The operator took my name, address, the nanny's name, a description of the car, etc. I forced myself to be calm while giving her the information. Only when she asked me to describe my son and what he was wearing when I saw him last did my voice break, threatening to bubble over in suppressed fear. Visions of an Amber Alert with my child's name and information raced through my mind.

I paced wildly and willed myself not to vomit, trying to keep the horrifying possibilities at bay. The operator asked if I had any reason to be suspicious of the nanny, and I gave her what information I had, including some things that weren't necessarily incriminating, but had given me pause. Some of those I won't mention here.

But I knew she was having financial difficulties. I knew she had a boyfriend (and what sounded like a rather tumultuous relationship). I didn't know his name or the kind of car he drove, or what he did for a living. I knew she was from out of state, but I didn't know the names or locations of friends and family of hers who lived in the area. Why hadn't I asked more questions? The operator said she would send a patrol car.

I called my husband to come home using the other phone while the operator dispatched the unit to our house. She said that I could hang up and wait for the officer, but I couldn't bear the thought of being alone with my thoughts, so she stayed on the line with me until he arrived.

The next half hour was far and away the worst of my life. Talking to the officers, leading them around the house, continuing to call and text the nanny. Watching my husband pull into the driveway on two wheels and immediately begin reciting everything he knew about the nanny and her car. And, praying as I never have before that my child would be okay.

It was 31 minutes between the time I called my husband and the time the nanny finally returned his frantic calls to say she was on her way back with the baby. Hubs made her stay on the phone with him the entire time and continually report her location to make sure it made sense to him and that she was headed directly back. [Have I mentioned that I married the most amazing, brilliant man?] Not until she was in view of our house did he inform her that the police were there. All told, I would guess about 40 minutes elapsed between the time I discovered Fozzie missing and the time he was back safely in my arms.

The police officers, who were very kind to me, seemed mildly concerned that some kind of violence might erupt when the nanny got back (and trust me, gouging her eyes out did cross my mind); but once she was back all I wanted to do was hold my baby boy and never let him go. I also had to fight the urge to go pick up Monkey from school three hours early and never let him go, either.

Sanity prevailed on all fronts, however, and I was able to calmly listen to the nanny's pathetic-even-if-true explanation for her ridiculous and irresponsible behavior, and then just as calmly tell her to please take a few minutes to gather her things because she would not be back. There were so many bad decisions, from leaving the house in the first place to not calling me or leaving a note, to putting the carrier in the car without its base, to not keeping her phone on her while she was gone. And that's all if I believed her story about the supposed emergency that took her away.

The cops took her information/driver's license and filed a report, but did not ask us if we wanted to press charges and -- a little surprisingly -- did not give her a ticket for the car seat violation. I think they were just glad the incident was resolved, and I was too relieved to care either. After checking him over carefully and kissing him like crazy, I canceled the rest of my day and put an exhausted and disoriented Fozzie down for a nap.

My mother-in-law was kind enough to drive up from Macon to be with me -- and to get her hands on the little guy -- for the rest of the afternoon. The five of us went out for dinner after school/work, and the day ended far better than I could've imagined at noon.

It's funny, if I hadn't been through that experience, I think what happened the next morning might've thrown me for a serious loop....

Stay tuned!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Be a Force for Good: Review a Book Today!

I've written before about my experience with self-publishing and the changes in the publishing industry. The subject continues to fascinate me as a reader and a writer. The world of books is in flux, to say the least, and readers are presented with an overwhelming array of choices. Hardback and paperback, sure. Familiar authors, yes. But now, thanks to the low cost of entry, there are ebooks available from literally thousands of independent, self-published authors in every genre imaginable.

Readers with Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and even smartphones can choose from just about any book in the universe and get it the instant they want it. Many tried and true authors have ebooks available through traditional publishers, and often those range from $10-$14. Because of the costs built into the "legacy" publishing system, as author Joe Konrath calls it, these prices are not that different from paperback versions of the same books.

We indie authors, however, are free to be more flexible with our pricing because we don't have all the overhead of the Big Guys. We also don't have the polished editing or the marketing machine of the Big Guys, so the low price is an incentive for readers to sample what we're offering. We know you're taking a chance when you buy a book from an indie author, and believe me we're grateful. I think most of us put a tremendous effort into making sure you don't regret the decision to choose our books.

But with so many options in the marketplace, how are readers supposed to choose their next book? Here's the part where you come in. Never before have book reviews by average people been so powerful or so important. It used to be that a staff member at the New York Times (or Oprah) told us all what to read, and their opinions could make or break an author. These days, such high publicity can still make a book, but thanks to online review systems, it can't always break it.

Readers don't have to wait for a book to gain widespread distribution or critical acclaim to decide whether they want to read it. They can find books on specialty sites, genre-specific chat rooms, review blogs, etc. And they can turn to their fellow readers for all the information they need to decide whether to purchase a book. That's you!

Star ratings are great because they give an at-a-glance view of the public's overall opinion. The numbers next to the rating are an indication of how accurate the star ratings are -- the more people have rated a book, the more a reader can trust that the book really does deserve 4.5 stars. If you're short on time, doing a stars-only rating is great. But if you have a few seconds to add your reasoning for the rating with a review, it really helps potential readers trying to make a decision. It also helps authors connect with the right audiences, and even improve their work for next time.

You don't have to be a book junkie or seasoned critic to write a great book review. And you certainly don't have to go on for paragraphs about symbolism and allegory. Just say in a few sentences what you liked (and didn't) about the book. Positive or negative, the best reviews are specific and honest. If you loved it, what did you love about it? If not, why not? Was it badly written, or just not your cup of tea? This information will help other readers decide whether they want to give it a shot or keep browsing.

As an author, I really appreciate honest reviews because they let me to see what worked and what didn't in my inaugural effort as a novelist. I like that they help readers who would appreciate what I've written to find it. Readers who might not enjoy my style, on the other hand, will not waste their money and end up resenting me for it. It's a win-win-win!

So exercise your reader power today! If you've read a book lately and have an opinion, please take a minute to visit the site where you bought it and rate it for others. You'll be playing a valuable role in the publishing process and helping authors you enjoy get noticed.

And if said book just happens to be The Marriage Pact, well that's even better. :)

PS - For those who have read TMP, or are considering it, you might enjoy this independent review I stumbled across this week. It's a great website, too!