Who My Son Saw at a CrossFit Competition

All photos courtesy of A. Osinoff

Little boy behind the barricade, who do you see?

A Competitor
Pressing alongside a Goliath. The playing field level. Shared load. Shared bench. Shared barbell. Same standards. Same reps. Same rest.

A Teammate
One who spots weight, tracks time and counts lifts. A partner who values the other’s emotional risk, ethic to prepare and commitment to try. A mate who listens to ideas, strategizes beforehand, encourages during and dances after.

A Woman
Looking up, legs spread with bare arms, chiseled back, flexed quads and seeping curves. A female who trained her body as a machine, teaching it to breath, move and perform with power.

A Lady
Who is feminine, not despite but because she sweats, stinks, struggles and shakes. One who tapes her thumbs, wraps her wrists and grips the barbell with glitter, chartreuse nails. A person who considers sneakers, tanks, a weight belt and tights as fashion and is consumed by the task over her tousled hair, silver roots and exposed lines.

Your Mom
Who feels proud, accomplished, happy and hopeful that by watching me, her children are learning anything by anyone is possible.

Little boy, when you grow tall enough to see over the barricade, what will you do?

Be mesmerized no more.
Accept a person’s capacity, albeit female or male to be strong.
Expect equal partnership between genders as essential.
And assume that the only “it” any human ever asks for is respect.

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A Moment of Weakness

In a moment of weakness, I stopped.
Stopped counting the cracks in the sidewalk
and tracking the tempo of my breath.

My ankle pulled at the shin,
shoulder blades burned from what came before.
Humidity stuck in my throat.

My feet slowed to a walk on the corner
near the jagged riser where the smell of diner grease sits in the air.
Our loop’s highest point.

Tension drained from my quads.
My breath found balance.
For a moment, relief.

Then a friend came up on the right.
“Let’s go.”

I readied my arms and returned to a trot.
Up the sidewalk
Past the Starbucks
Around the post office
And down the alley toward my starting point-

the orange bucket.

Questions.
Round the pail and greet the next lap?
Or skirt behind and slip inside?

Just two more loops to the finish.
Excuses creeped.
Heat. Age.
Doubt clouded.
Not a runner. Too tired.

The music in my buds drowned the voice in my head
that would have otherwise urged me to go.

And so
I quit.
For the first time,
the workout won.

I apologized to Coach, lowered my head
and mounted a stationary bike
until time was up.

When the crew trickled in
after the clock shut off
and fist pumps exchanged
they tried to help.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s not worth it.”
“You’re recovering.”
“I understand.”
“We’ve all been there.”

But I hadn’t.

Yes I was achy, but also able-bodied.
I wasn’t dialed in.
I need to be.
Every. Single. Time.
Especially at the end.
I’ve learned my body’s stronger than my mind.

Frustration festered during the accessory work.
As others emptied cubbies, I paced amid the cemented walls.
Pissed.

Through the doorway, baking in the sun stood the cylinder sentinel
who observes our effort and guards our egos.
I took note of her steady posture
and promised not to be beat again.

“Coach, are you locking up?” I asked.
“Not yet. Do what you have to do.”

Two laps.

I headed outside.
No music. No mates. Just me.
Gazed beyond my orange marker.
And ran.

5 Tips for Conference Attendees

Creating art is often a self-indulgent, solitary craft.

So each spring, I make a point to attend a 300 person conference hosted by SCBWI, a trade organization serving the KidLit community. For two days, writers, illustrators, literary agents and editors who are committed to making books for children and young adults hole up in a hotel to teach and take workshops, socialize and share.

Making the emotional transition from a solo gig to an environment packed with peers and prospective partners requires a hefty dose of vulnerability, grit and guts.

I’d rather tackle burpees over a barbell than participate in an event where it behooves me to talk to strangers, explain projects or pitch ideas. But year after year, I close my eyes, swallow the medicine and go.

When it’s over, some leave the conference motivated and alive. I always left, after my writing had been criticized and critiqued, feeling demoralized, dejected and done. Tired of clammy skin, frayed nerves and a cracked ego, in 2016 I took a break.

But without a conference lined up, I let life – parenting, work, presidential elections and Russian investigations get in the way. I wrote less KidLit. The more the dust bunnies nested, the more I missed the craft and writing community.

When the 2017 conference registration appeared in my email, I decided to try again knowing the only way to recharge my batteries was to change my approach.

These 5 things helped me to keep this spring’s experience in perspective.

Lowered expectations

In the past, I wheeled my bags into the hotel lobby filled with a binder of manuscripts, a personal agenda packed with scheduled critiques, printed copies of my story’s first page for a public reading, an elevator pitch for any peer or professional willing to listen and the expectation that my work would catch the eye of an agent or editor before the closing speaker’s remarks.

My preoccupation with an end goal only created stress which in turn, made it tough to stay engaged with attendees, pay attention during workshops and feel happy for others’ successes.

This time around, I opted out of critiques, avoided forums where my stories were read aloud and didn’t pitch ideas unless someone asked me. I also left manuscripts home and replaced the binder with a paper clip and a notebook. To get my money’s worth, I interacted with faculty during meals, workshops and in my capacity as a formal volunteer.

Lower expectations improved my mood and preserved my ego.

Took a risk

I signed up for a workshop billed for visual thinkers. The class seemed like the right fit for the way my brain works.

Upon arrival, I took a corner seat in the back row and noticed I was the only non-illustrator in the room. The teacher explained we were going to draw in an effort to generate ideas. He demonstrated and then told us to get ready to doodle. The artists pulled out their tools. I stared down at my pen.

“Draw a line,” he said.

I can handle that, I thought.

“Now switch with someone and turn the line into a living creature.”

My fingers froze. I was about to sneak out when a lady handed me a paper. I transformed her line into the best living creature I could.

“Switch again,” the instructor announced. “Add accessories.”

Oh for the love. A new sheet with someone else’s beautiful living creature came my way. I took a deep breath and sketched.

This activity went on until we had a developed character. The class concluded with each person speed drawing the character we started out with in different scenarios.

After it was over, I smiled. I remembered how much I loved to draw and felt proud to have gone out of my comfort zone.

At dinner that evening, I happened to sit next to the teacher. “Thank you,” I told him. “Your workshop was the most fun I’ve had at a conference.”

Stayed positive about the little things

At an event where there’s lots of new people, it can be easier to bond with them over the negative: room temperature, food quality, elevator speed, noise in the common area.

During the weekend, I did my best to heed the advice of my CrossFit coach. “Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere.”

In an arena where there’s a solid chance my creative endeavors will be sliced to smithereens, it made sense to harness as much positive energy as possible.

Took mental breaks

Conference days are 12 hour marathons. Whenever burn out set in, I skipped a workshop, took a walk outside or passed on the post dinner festivities.

And when I wanted to move the conversation away from KidLit without jeopardizing a chance to network, I chose a lighter topic like the 2 senior proms and the wedding party who shared the hotel with us.

Listened More

In the past, my mission during community meals was to secure facetime with the person who had the power either to sign me as a client or buy my story. This year, I vowed instead to listen more and lobby less.

At lunch, there were two women of color at our table; one was an industry professional, the other a writer new to the conference. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but somewhere between soup and the entree, an organic, honest conversation blossomed about white privilege in publishing and in life.

Each woman described the heaviness they felt any time they left the safe space of their home and entered an environment, like a conference knowing their skin color, accent and culture would be judged and on display.

They shared their experiences as children, women and parents. Neither sought sympathy; only the acknowledgement that white people, particularly white men are not burdened with daily inquiries as to why they pronounce their words “funny”, won’t be called “an angry black woman” after voicing a strong opinion and never have to fear their son might be hurt or harassed during his travels because of the way he looks.

The industry professional emphasized our need to do a better job of making room at the table while keeping everyone else there. As writers, illustrators, agents and editors, at the very least we owe this to the children for whom we write and for the ones we raise.

I’ve returned home to the quiet of my desk. As I type, the hum of talking heads in the background keeps me company. My outlook is fresh, creative process inspired and commitment to young people renewed.

Time to do a better job.

I Said What?…What’s Cute Got To Do With It?

“To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” – HRC

During one of Bubbe’s sports clinics, I pulled out my writing notebook while Skootch was distracted by a fidget spinner. Two mothers, with their young daughters playing underfoot chatted nearby.

Mom 1 took out her phone.

Mom 2 leaned in. “Is that a picture of your babysitter? Wow. She’s cute. You don’t want to hire cute girls. They won’t be available to babysit on a Saturday night.”

I stopped mid-doodle and glared. Oh no she didn’t.

But she did. This woman, my peer, implied with conviction in front of her young daughter that the “cute” girl’s time, however she defined the adjective, was more valuable. A “cute” girl has more friends and a full social calendar. It is she who is considered successful and worthy. The less “cute” ones are not as good.

Skootch flicked at his spinner. “You okay, Mom?”

I lied. “Yes, sweetie. I’m fine.”

Growing up, I saw myself as the less cute and therefore less worthy girl in the photograph. Like many females, I was the recipient of direct and indirect messages equating physical appearance with societal and individual value.

The matriarchs in my family dipped their toes in feminist ideology. My mother was first in her family to pursue a college degree and worked throughout my childhood. My grandmother managed the household finances. But what overshadowed their progress, and what I remember more were the comments from adults about boys liking girls with long hair, quips highlighting my big bones and feet and being called belligerent whenever I voiced a passionate opinion.

A worthy woman was thin, pretty and pleasing; her role was to find a husband, care for him and raise his family. Anything beyond such convention made for trouble.

I was a trouble maker.

A women’s value being tied to and limited by her appearance as defined by tradition or opinion made zero sense from the outset. Still, it took me decades to apply the theory to myself. Even now, during the “this is who I am” phase of life, I will default to a negative personal narrative especially at first glance in a mirror or of a photograph.

The self-deprecation reflex feels unsettling because I know it’s wrong. It also reminds that the unhealthy messages and experiences we absorb as children leave a perpetual stain on one’s spirit. No matter how hard we scrub, they never fully disappear.

Today, countless organizations, authors, artists, public figures, communities and families are taking deliberate steps to reframe the conversation and encourage a generation of girls to equate worth and beauty with strength, curiosity, passion and personality.

The young ladies with whom I interact in my community are proof the shift is taking hold. There’s the middle schooler who competes as an Olympic weightlifter, the high school junior who uses food as fuel to build strength and endurance and the 18 year-old who responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I feel” after I told her she looked great.

Their sense of self is rooted in power, emotion and idea. Such wisdom at an early age will only nourish their confidence and embolden them to demand future employers, colleagues, friends and lovers to judge females based on human, not physical qualities.

Kudos to the mothers and fathers who are raising these women. And shame on those who didn’t get or care to read the Smart Girl  Like a Girl  Strong is the New Pretty memo.

While I can’t control what garbage spews from a random mom on a sideline, I can learn from inspirational young ladies and curtail personal comments rooted in insecurity. And I can use language around boys and girls that emphasize character over cute.

We adults have many things to be mindful of these days. Being careful not to perpetuate the “cute girl” cycle is no less significant.

Update: TODAY Parent’s Choice Award

As some of you know, Red said what? was a finalist for the TODAY Parent’s Choice Award. Thank you so much to those who took the time to vote. While I didn’t win, I feel lucky and humbled to be included on the ballot. If you like parenting reads, the winner was Mom Babble Blog. My favorite finalist was Tara Wood. Enjoy!

To The Domestic Violence Survivors I Work With: About Your Children

I volunteer for the domestic violence organization you are brave enough to seek safety and assistance from.

We are acquaintances at best. Perhaps we’ve exchanged pleasantries in the common area after a session, but I don’t like to chat or linger too long out of respect for your privacy. When I visit the shelter, you often leave before I arrive.

My job is to care for your young sons and daughters so you may have a few uninterrupted hours to do what you need to do to move forward.

Since little ones aren’t armed with the emotional maturity and language to understand, let alone navigate trauma, I brace myself before each appointment. As an unknown adult in a position of authority, I show up expected to be tested with tantrums, outbursts and physical displays of anger.

Like you, I’m a parent. A mom who wonders how my boys conduct themselves and interact with others anytime I release them into the world. With this in mind, here are 5 observations I’ve made about your children.

Each one is remarkably capable. A preschool aged boy insists on opening his own snack wrapper. Another wants to search for parts to build a Lego tower without guidance from a grown up. A third takes the initiative to find and put on his own jacket, zip and bundle up. The phrase, “I can do it by myself” is prevalent.

They take care of one another, especially the siblings. A toddler with few words makes sure his older sister has a hat before going out to play. A big brother unties a knot in his younger brother’s necklace string. Their instinct is to help and protect.

The children are kind. A brother encourages his sister to ride the tunnel slide for the first time and waits so they can go together. A school-aged girl teaches a cranky toddler how to fold a paper airplane to distract him from his tired mood. A little brother lets his older sibling try out his new rubber snake. They lean toward what is positive and good.

They are loving. A young girl reaches out to hold my hand as we walk to the lunch table and asks me to rest beside her on a bench to watch the clouds. They talk about you with adoration and beam the moment they know you’re close enough to accept a knee high squeeze.

And filled with joy with every pump “to the moon” on the swings, every giggle as they cook up an invisible order of hamburger and fries, bounce and roll of a deflated basketball and stomp in a dwindling mound of crunchy snow. Amid the pain, your children’s default emotion is happiness.

Motherhood is challenging enough under less strenuous and terrifying circumstances. I respect your strength, determination and resilience. You are a survivor. Your children are survivors.

As you all continue to regain power and heal, please know I am here. Consider me part the village.

PLAYFUL LEARNING SAID WHAT?…5 Great Reasons To Read Graphic Novels

I like to keep my tween reading, but helping him find a welcomed book or series has its challenges. Because my son is a visual learner who also struggles with focusing, the traditional novel format can intimidate and confuse him.

Fortunately, he’s found graphic and illustrated novels.

The proprietor of our local bookstore often finds me perusing his inventory for options. During my most recent visit to his check-out counter, the owner shared an observation; some parents discourage children from buying such novels.

He wished they felt otherwise. The storytelling in graphic novels is often superb, he explained. The ability to marry words and art takes talent and might inspire readers to try it themselves. The format also builds a reluctant reader’s confidence. Enjoying a graphic novel version of a classic tale today might encourage a child to pick up the original in the future.

Unfortunately, the owner has been hesitant to speak up; he doesn’t want to tell customers how to parent.

Playful learning outlines 5 great reasons to read graphic novels for anyone who might like to learn more about the benefit of illustrated books for older children or is just shopping for new suggestions.

And here’s a link to the Red said what? Pinterest page, which highlights Bubbe’s recent, favorite graphic and illustrated novels: Children’s Books: Thumbs up from a Tween Boy.

Happy Reading!

America the Beautiful – The Women’s March on Washington

Bleary eyed passengers boarded a 3am bus
Smiling, as some passed out buttons and treats.

bus-picture_womens-march

By half-past six, the carrier greeted dozens more at a highway rest stop.
Together we drove south, through the morning fog.
Bus drivers helped navigate the parking lot labyrinth.
Multi-generational volunteers pointed the way.

parking-lot_womens-march

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words lined front yards, rainbows draped from poles and Stevie Wonder blared from a window
As seniors, families and pets came outside to wave “hello.”

mlk_womens-march

One neighbor gave out water bottles.
A guest thanked national guardsmen with a handshake and a candy bar.
When a commuter stopped at a light and called, “I’m with you in spirit!”
Strangers shouted back, “We’re here for you!”
Schools and places of worship opened doors offering coffee, bathrooms and a place to rest.
Faded chalk drawings left by little ones brightened the park’s cement:
Hearts, “kindness” and “love.”

congress_womens-march
Congressional aides bore witness from the balcony.
Cutters and cranks steered clear of snaking bathroom lines.
Waves of cheers cued the masses when the stage was nowhere in sight.
“Excuse me.”
“Please.”
“Thank you.”
“No problem.”

washington-monument_womens-march
A lady shared her box of Krispy Kremes.
A lanky fellow stood at a traffic light’s base to lift those in need of a boost.
A boy climbed the street lamp with his sign held high.

boy-on-a-pole_womens-march
The teen with the spiral curls led droves in “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Savoring each note, we sang to a flying flag.

american-flag_womens-march
Ladies held their liberty torches high.
My voice rose above, “Run for office!”

girl-with-the-curls_womens-march

A grandma patted my friend’s back when she leaned over to stretch.
Hoards cleared a path for a man in a wheelchair
And moved aside for an ambulance too.
A napping infant snuggled against his father’s chest.
A pooch nuzzled close to her human.
Husbands showed off pink knitted hats.
Toddlers in strollers never seemed to fuss.

14th-street_womens-march
The police officer who answered endless questions suggested a shortcut so we could catch our ride.
The crossing guard who directed crowds that morning, accepted hugs come evening.
The minister who took notice. “You’ve been sitting on our steps a while. Can I help you inside?”
And the millennials who collected metro cards for the local homeless shelter.

Sore feet, hungry bellies and uplifted spirits hustled, shuffled and climbed aboard their bus home.
New friends exchanged photos until the cabin lights dimmed.
This rider, filled with hope and touched by humanity closed her eyes.

E pluribus unum
We the people
America the beautiful

“There is no sound more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.