Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What's Childhood For, Anyway?


“We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson

Are kids supposed to work for us, and the problem is that today's parents work for their children? Are children supposed to spend all their time in free play, and the problem is that today's parents schedule them too much? Are kids supposed to be happy and enjoy themselves for as long as parents can protect them, because adult life will be hard enough as it is? Are kids supposed to go outside and explore, and the problem is that they spend too much time sitting down and listening to teachers talk at them?

I've heard and read various things around the internet lately about what kids need more of these days. This, plus the fact that I'm thinking more and more about my own future children, has made me think about what I have learned about childhood during my studies of human evolution and biology. 

What's childhood for, anyway? Why wait so long to become adults and get along with the real business of living things, reproduction? Well, obviously there are some things you've got to take care of before you start the business of reproduction. You're going to need some tools that you don't have when you're only moments out of the womb. You need a physically adult body, of course, and that takes some time to grow and develop. But other animals put on the pounds much faster than human children do, reaching a body that's just as heavy if not much heavier and more massive than ours in just a few short years. Why are we taking so long?

Two similarly aged mammals?
We take so long because our physical bodies are not the only tools we need. Humans need time to learn. We have knowledge we have to gather, skills we've got to develop and hone, before we can be fully functioning adults. Learning takes time. Learning requires that you go out into the world and have experiences, that you have lots of experiences that your brain can remember and collate and gather patterns from. That takes time, and that's what childhood is really for. 

Does this mean children are supposed to work for their parents? I would say yes, but not in the way of employees, but in the way of apprentices. Older children in traditional cultures are definitely expected to help care for their younger siblings, to start helping the adults with the business of getting and preparing food, etc. But these are also the things those kids need to learn, how to take care of young children and how to support a family, and they're learning on the job. And even today, we all agree that learning on the job is one of the best ways to learn.

Does this mean children are not in fact supposed to play and explore? No, I don't think so. Children in traditional cultures do also spend a lot of time running about in little gangs of their peers, poking things and chasing each other around. But by doing this they are gaining real experience with their world, with their peers and what it's like to get along (or not!) with those peers. These are also things they need to know and learn. And once again, this is learning on the job. Having real in-your-face experiences is the best way to learn. 

Does this mean I think we should do away with modern schools? No, I don't think that. I do think that human children aren't built to learn best by sitting in a chair and having an adult talk at them for hours every day, but there are realities of our modern world require at least some of this kind of learning. Our species has gathered so much knowledge and technology that kids need to learn a lot of stuff in order to achieve even a minimal level of awareness of all the knowledge being applied in their everyday world. They need to learn stuff that they simply can't learn by running around in the woods with their friends. You won't find trigonometry under a rock. 

Hadza children - photo courtesy of Alyssa Crittenden
But I do think schools could use a little re-focusing. What are some skills that are key to being functioning adults in the modern world, what are the skills that are particular to the times we live in that schools are best equipped to teach kids? I think one of those skills is how to learn. How to teach yourself. How to go out and find the knowledge that you need even and especially when you don't have a convenient teacher around to answer your questions. We live in a sea of information and kids need swimming lessons. 

So it seems I think kids need a little bit of everything! If it helps them learn, and especially if it helps them learn through direct experience, then yes, as a parent I know I'll try to give it to them. But there is one thing that I think parents need to be careful not to give too much of - happiness. 

I know, that sounds like a horrible thing to say. I'm not saying children shouldn't be happy. What I'm saying is that children shouldn't be 100% happy 100% of the time. I'm saying parents shouldn't bend over backwards giving their children every ounce of happiness they possibly can. Because that's not what real life is like. Children need to learn what life is like - a safer, toned down, easier version of life - but they need to learn. You can't keep them in a little bubble of happiness and then expect they'll be just fine when you suddenly toss them out into the real world. Life is filled with work, with difficulty, with hardship, but what humans learn above all else is how to find happiness and joy in that life anyway. Don't let your kids lag behind in figuring out how to do that. Let them experience hardship so they can also start learning how to find their own happiness inside of it all.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Hello Pitcharama readers! My name is Jenny Cabotage and my novel IRONBIRD: THE FORGING is a new adult fantasy novel complete at 116,000 words. I believe this novel would also appeal to many a young adult reader.

Ironbird has devoted her life to protecting the people who took her in as an orphan. They love Ironbird like one of their own, but she has a secret that they can never learn.

Ironbird is a Summoner, able to magically create steel objects in any shape she desires--shapes like daggers and swords--and wield them with superhuman skill. Summoners once ruled the world, but their tyranny and cruelty lead humans to rebel against them in a bloody, devastating war. The people's fear and the laws of the land ensure that any identified Summoners, even children, are executed. 

Ironbird thought she was the only one of her kind to learn to hide, to survive. Until the day she goes hunting for a rogue bandit, and finds the Summoner Nightglass instead. 

Ironbird fights to save Nightglass from the elite Summoner hunters that are close on his trail, while still trying to keep her secret. But when her people are suddenly threatened by a vast and ancient enemy, Ironbird has to make a choice. She can save Nightglass, and leave behind her adopted family to certain death. Or she can abandon one of her own kind, in order to save the people she loves--people who would destroy her if they knew the truth.  

Thank you so much for reading!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

101 Supplications

So, since I finished my novel, I haven't said much about the process of querying. The internets are just rife with advice on how to query, so I don't think I'll add to that. Instead I'd like to sketch a picture of my emotional roller coaster.

I started with just building a list. I created a spreadsheet, which became more and more complicated as time went on, with a column for every pertinent detail I could think of. After agonizing over my query letter and writing a synopsis of a reasonable length through a process that was about as fun and easy as shoving my own arm through a meat grinder, I sent my first query letter to an agent who was holding a special event. She promised she would actually give one to two lines of feedback to every query she received that week! My non-author friends are often shocked to learn that most agents only give form rejections, if they give you an actual rejection beyond not responding at all. But don't think badly of them for this, they get hundreds upon hundreds of queries every week. (There's a lot of us wannabe authors out there.)

I stared at this first query letter for a good hour before I hit the send button. From that point until I got a response, my heart crawled up my throat every time I went to check my email. It was horrible and amazing at the same time. It was horramazing. She said no, in the end, but she said it with a compliment and I was happy as a clam.

ZOMG this is gonna be AWESOME!
I typed up nine more query letters, to bring my total starting set to ten, saving the unsent drafts in my gmail over the course of a week. I agonized over each one, as many agents say very scary things about what they think when they get a letter that's not personalized. For each and every agent on my list I tried to find every word they ever wrote on the internet, so that I could build the perfect sentence or two that would demonstrate my dedication.

That friday, I planned to send them. I was so excited I woke up before my fiance (when I normally have the perfect timing to wake up just as he is leaving for work) and took a shower, and went over all the letters one last time. Ok, two last times. Then, I sent them! Hooray!

I remember saying to my fiance, I hope I'll get at least one partial request in these ten. That will tell me my query is good enough! I think that's a good response rate!

Oh, poor little past me.

As my letter numbers worked through the twenties and thirties, I still drafted the letters in batches, and saved them for a few days before sending them all at once. Some of the agents' submission requirements nearly made me lose my mind. A five hundred word synopsis?!? A THREE SENTENCE query?!?!? I muscled my way through. I was frequently stalled by agents extolling on the extreme total definite perfection and focus and breadth they expected in their authors, my self esteem quailing before their pronouncements. I had more than a few instances of "gawd my query letter sucks! I need to re-write it again!!", and I did.

Summarize my whole book in HOW MANY sentences??
As I moved slowly into the forties with nothing but rejections and long silences, the drafts waited for shorter and shorter periods of time before being sent out into the world. The days when I opened my email with bated breath were long past.

At around fifty, I stalled out. I felt I was running out of agents to submit to who were looking for stories like mine. The expected goal of at least 100 queries seemed impossibly, painfully far away. Based on two semi-personalized rejections I half heartedly attempted to begin a second re-write of my novel. It was a disaster. I had one of my many crisis moments on what the hell I'm doing with my life and spent more time than I'd care to admit being unable to decide what to do with myself. (For those of you who were paying attention, my totally and utterly failed NaNoWriMo replacement plan was born, publicized, and quietly smothered during this period.)

Sad Monkey is sad.
The holidays came and went. The New Year came and went. My fiance and I were laid out sick for two weeks. Halfway through January I woke up and tore into the agent-o-sphere.

I built up my list. I became more efficient at finding the most common sources of personalization-information. I re-wrote my query several more times. With multiple drafts of queries and synopses at my disposal, I assessed which combinations were best for which agents. Now the letters flew out of my email as fast as I could write them, only standing long enough for me to once-over them for typos.

I received one request for a partial manuscript. Then another one. And query number 100 loomed into view.

I bit the bullet on the agents who wanted snail mail and walked in the cold to the office store, where I wrestled mightily with the internet enabled high output printer. I bought a crapload of stamps and envelopes and spent too much time at the post office.

Let's Do This Shit.
I came back home and went at the querying with the grim determination of a Task to Be Completed. Even when my brain was screaming, "Please, no more! No more!!" I distracted it with episodes of Law and Order on Netflix and plodded forward.

Two hours ago, I sent query number 102.

And I'm not sure I can properly assess how I feel for at least another week. Especially since my industry insider has told me that, if I don't land an agent, I can try submitting directly to the publishers next.


I'm going to need a new spreadsheet.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Suddenly Ghandi

You know those quizzes that circulate through social sites like facebook or deviantart, the ones that ask you a list of questions like "Name your top five favorite foods!" and "Which historical figure would you most like to meet?" and "What are the last three books you read?" etc? The historical figure questions always stump me. That and role model questions. Because honestly, I can't think of any one single person from all of history who I think is that much more special and interesting than all the rest. And as for role models, well. There are lots of good and admirable people in the world, but I don't want to be like someone else. I want to be like me.

Unfortunately, "me" is a person who can be so anxious and fearful that it takes her two days to send a letter to a researcher who is looking for volunteers with a background just like hers. It did take me some time to draft a good letter, but I spent a large part of those two days feeling sick and just psyching myself up to hit the send button. This is the story of my life. I was just this nervous the first time I ever volunteered to work in a research lab, nine whole years ago. My fiance practically had to push me out the door. Despite all my experiences since then, I appear to have made zero progress in dealing with my anxiety. Only recently have I sat down and really, truly absorbed how many times my fear and anxiety stopped me from accomplishing goals I've set throughout my life. It's a lot.

Admitting the problem is the first step, right? Yea, that's a nice soundbite, but being stuck between step one and step two kind of sucks. Now I'm horribly aware every time my brain seizes up with fear, but the terrible bad feels just don't just go away when I tell them to. I can talk myself through every rational, reasonable argument for why there's nothing to fear, but it doesn't matter. (Note: yes, I know, a certain amount of anxiety and nervousness in life is totally normal. Everyone feels anxious and nervous from time to time, or even a lot of the time. I just want to bring my anxiety down to a level where it stops disrupting my life; where it won't paralyze me for days on end.)

So I'm trying to find ways to deal. One method I've used with mixed success is free writing in a journal, letting it all pour out and trying to understand what's going on in my head. Some days it works better than others. But a few days ago, something happened while I was writing. I was really agitated and upset when I started, violently scratching words out on the paper, and as I vomited a stream of consciousness rambling, I began to describe images and feelings and sounds, and I found myself describing a warm green glen in a quiet forest, sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees, a soft breeze moving across my skin. And I began to write, over and over again, I will always be here. People can say what they will and do what they will but I will always be here in this place. Things can move and change and zoom all around me but I will always be here, I will always be me. And the bad feels slipped away and I felt at ease.

I've been guided through various meditation exercises before, and I've experienced the whole "finding your happy place" thing, though I've had trouble doing it on my own. But I've never before thought those words, that mantra, "I will always be here. I will always be me."

And the next day, I stumbled across an essay by Ghandi. I was listening to music and a song popped up that used some soundbites from a recording he made in England. Google helped me find the source text.

"I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. That informing power or spirit is God. And since nothing else that I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is."

It's a strange feeling, hearing the words of a person gone from this world, and having them resonate with an experience you yourself had. It is strange, but ultimately, good. It's a feeling of connection with another human being, even through the barriers of time and space and death. Ghandi found peace and strength in feeling connected to something eternal, and so did I. Sure, he called it God, and I called it me, my personal identity. But I think the feeling, and the peace and strength, is the same. Or so similar that it hardly makes a difference.

Some of you may think this is treading on strange territory. After all, I'm a scientist, and an atheist. And none of that has changed, but I don't see why I can't still be, for lack of a better term, spiritual. And my background in science only convinces me that what I have stumbled across is a good thing. Number one, it helps me function better in life. OK, it's only been a few days, but already I've managed to slip back into that place, into that feeling, and ease my fear several times. Number two, I feel I have a good understanding of some of the most basic of human needs, some of the most basic desires our natures endow us with. The desire for certainty, for something solid and continuous and knowable, something to hold on to in a difficult and changeable world. What could better suit that desire than a connection to the eternal? The desire for connection with others, which arises from the desire to create cooperative relationships and build a supportive community. We are each alone in our minds, but when we can talk together and realize we have shared a common experience, a common feeling of connection to something eternal, we feel a deep connection to each other, a deep understanding of each other. And to a fundamentally social creature, that connection brings comfort.

But of course, humans are also highly complex, and highly variable. We each find our own ways of understanding these desires, of translating them and fulfilling them. For many people, religion provides a method of understanding and an avenue for achieving these feelings of connection, continuity, and comfort. I have a lot of respect for that. But I have found my own method and my own avenue, and it happens to be one that doesn't require God. Whether or not I am actually connected to something eternal, to something like God, doesn't really matter. What matters to me is accessing that feeling, opening up that part of my brain that knows certainty and comfort and ease. And when I read Ghandi's words, I feel that connection opening up.

"And is this power benevolent or malevolent? I see it as purely benevolent. For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is Love. He is the Supreme Good."

I may not believe in God but I believe in life, truth, light, and love. I believe in the existence of all these things in myself and in my fellow humans, and that is enough for me.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How To Be Safe and Strong

On Friday afternoon, I wrote this in my journal.

This is not a time to lay blame or to point fingers. This is a time to say to each other, we need to take care of each other. We need to talk to each other, ask how we're doing and listen genuinely and with all our hearts, so our brothers and sisters can speak honestly to us about their troubles, without fear of condemnation. If we can all do this for each other, if we stop fighting each other and start taking care of each other, then we can be strong and safe again. But we can only do this together. 

I know that some people would say this lovey dovey kind of talk is naive and impractical and doesn't actually solve anything. But the greatest things humans have done they have not done alone; they have done them together, as groups, as communities, as cultures. I'm not sure people understand how deeply sociality and cooperation are embedded in our natures, how fundamental they were to our evolution as a species, how fundamental they are to our wellbeing as individuals. Our brains and our bodies, even clinical sounding things like the rate at which we give birth, were all changed by our dependence on cooperative relationships with other members of our species. In reading and thinking about how to improve my own shortcomings and my own quality of life, I constantly come back to the importance of the group, of finding and growing community, of reaching outside of the self and connecting with the other humans around us, and supporting each other. That's how lives change. That's how amazing things get done.

I know I'm not the only who is so, so, so tired of the blame game. Dems, republicans, gun control, religion in schools. The answer is not blaming any one of these things. The answer is in the other people we share this world with, and caring about them. Taking care of them. Because then they will care about you and take care of you. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

It's a Boy's Mafia

With most of our favorite shows in between seasons or on mid-season hiatus, John and I found ourselves with nothing to watch this Sunday evening. So we decided to watch the pilot for Sons of Anarchy and decide if it was worth watching.

Taken by itself, I'm neither disappointed nor super impressed by the pilot. I'll probably give it a few more episodes. But while I was watching it, I found myself thinking....sheesh. Between this, The Sopranos, and Boardwalk Empire, and the Wire, I'm kind of tired of all these boy shows.

I like the Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. I've seen every episode of both those shows. I watched the first two seasons of the Wire. But when I was watching the Sons of Anarchy pilot, part of me was wondering if I was ready to watch another four seasons worth of men talking to other men about that group of men over there, and deciding which men to do business with and which men to kill. And yes, there are some strong female characters in these shows, but they are far fewer in number and are much less likely to be directly involved in the power plays and plot points that move the shows along. They're not the ones who make the decisions that result in the gang war. I also really love Game of Thrones, but in both reading the books and watching the show, sometimes I feel like I'm just holding my breath until I finally get to the sections about Danaerys, a woman with the potential to be a truly equal player in the fight for Westeros.

I'm not saying Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire and the Wire and Sons of Anarchy are bad. Taken by themselves, they're well made shows and I've been entertained by them. And if, as an artist / show creator, realism is one of your goals, then yes, most mafias/gangs that we've known about through history are run primarily by men. That these shows exist is not a problem.

What's a problem is that I, a self professed rabid action-female fangirl, would like the option of watching a show or two with the equivalent of largely female-run mafia-like scenario. But I don't really have it. There are lots of good shows out there with strong female leads and characters, that mix up the ratios nicely with the boys. But, realism be damned, I'd personally love to watch a show on the other end of the spectrum. Shows that could be the balancing act with Sopranos et al.

And yea, that kinda makes me want to write a story that would fit the bill. A lot of my story ideas these days come from taking a common story theme and gender flipping it. Just because that's my personal preference, and I'd have a damn good time creating and reading a story like that. What about it, girls? I am the only one pining for that council table ringed with powerful women?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Dozen Deaths by Vampire is Better Than One

Yesterday I finished reading the Passage by Justin Cronin, a best selling novel about vampires (the more-animal-than-man kind, not the sleek and pretty kind) taking over the world. And oh, Ridley Scott bought the movie rights to that sucker before it was even finished. Damn. Where do I sign up for that deal?

But the book has gotten mixed reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and I think there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, this novel is kind of like two different sub-genres smashed into one. Early-middle through the book, the time line skips ahead by a century. The first half is a disaster story, the build up and the death of the world as we know it. The second half is a post-apocalyptic story, following the pioneer-like society that the remains of humanity has long since settled into. If you're more into one of these kinds of tales than the other, then half the book won't do much for you. But there's also lots of us that will eat up both.

Secondly, the lack of a solid main character. It's one of those book that hop-skips between the viewpoints of multiple central characters. And with the timeline jump, the vast majority of the characters you first meet effectively disappear for the second half of the book, and you have to get to know a whole new cast. But obviously lots of people are okay with the ensemble cast these days, especially with the success of books/shows like Game of Thrones.

I think it's kind of like the reality TV version of story telling. We get intimate peeks into the lives of multiple people within a given social group, gleaning insider information on why they interact with each other the way that they do. And it's not hard to understand why this appeals to us - we are social animals, after all. Your prototypical mammal spends most of its life on its own, only deigning to deal with others when it's time to mate and, if you're a female, dealing with the little ones until they're ready to set out on their lonesome. But we primates are not like that. We spend every day of our lives in a diverse group of individuals, and we need to understand these other individuals well enough to work with them and not piss anyone off too much. Our survival depends on it. So all these social details of the inner workings of the people around us are deeply interesting.

On a side note, though, it also makes books like these more painful. At least to me. The more people you get to know and love, the more sadness you get when they bite the dust, as many of them must inevitably do in an end-of-the-whole-damn-world story.

In any case, though the book suffers from a bit of a split personality, I think the author makes it work by threading a web of connections throughout both halves of the book, as well as subtly keeping up the pressure of a Big Question: how are the monsters defeated? Through hints of an advanced civilization a thousand years hence and the existence of a Little Psychic Power Girl throughout the story, you know there is a defeat somehow, somewhen. So you keep reading to find out.

Oh yes, I'll talk more about Little Psychic Power Girls. Next time!