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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

When a Change in Routine Proves Deadly: Children Left in Hot Cars

I'm not writing this post to gratuitously share my horror that children are sometimes accidentally left to die in closed cars on warm or hot days. I write, rather, in the hope that by sharing what I've read about how these tragedies occur, I just might reduce the chance of another.

Parents who leave children in cars for prolonged periods aren't necessarily thoughtless, irresponsible, neglectful, or uncaring parents. But like the rest of us, they are creatures of habit. Few of us drive to work consciously keeping track of the distance to the first right turn, or reminding ourselves to drive 3 and a half miles past the bridge before crossing the railroad tracks. We do these things automatically, as part of our daily routine. Working parents with children in day care include dropping off the child as part of such a routine. A common thread in many heartrending accounts is the departure from the usual way of delivering a child to the day care center, or Grandma's house, or wherever the child is supposed to spend the day. A parent who routinely drives straight to work is instead assigned the task of taking the child somewhere first.

The problem, the terrible stumbling block, is that making the single decision to do something differently may not be enough to overcome the force of routine. A few minutes after the child has been tucked into a car seat, the parent can fall back into the automatic sequence of usual events. If the child falls asleep or is otherwise quiet, and especially if the parent has work-related matters on his or her mind, s/he may drive to work, lock the car, and head on in without remembering the child was ever in the car. It may take a frantic phone call to flood the parent's mind with recollection. And that call may come too late.

What can a parent do to prevent such an irrevocable mistake? There are a few approaches that might help. Don't reassign the job of taking the child to day care from one parent to the other unless absolutely necessary. See if someone reliable with no morning routine is available to step in instead. If not, tape a prominent note to the dashboard near the steering wheel, a potentially lifesaving variant on "Baby on Board." If feasible, arrange for someone to call the parent who's taking the child as soon as that parent gets to work, confirming that all went as planned -- and then the parent should go back to the car and make sure.

It may be too much to hope that we've heard the last such story. But we can hope not to hear as many, or as soon.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Another excerpt from early in The Link

        One more excerpt, which I'll cruelly (or kindly, if you hate spoilers) cut off just before revealing crucial information.

        ---------

Dad left it up to Kayla whether to stay home sick. He knew she had no great objection to going to school, given how little else there was to do hereabouts during school hours. So when she woke up with a scratchy throat, or rather, failed to wake up very thoroughly, her head foggy and her arms and legs heavy, she fumbled to her father’s desk and scrawled a note on the edge of the paper with the strange haiku. Making her way back to bed, she noted Saffi’s absence. Her guess must be correct: Saffi must make her way, or be summoned, to Dad’s side while Saffi slept. It would be easy, either way: Kayla slept with her door closed and the dog outside it. Before crawling back into bed, she connected with Saffi, expecting to confirm her guess; but Saffi was noticing only the high-pitched squeal of mice in the walls, communicating beyond the range of human hearing. She would have to remember to tell Dad about the mice.
When Kayla woke up again, a good deal better and very hungry, she saw by the light outside her window that she had slept through half the afternoon. She checked in with Saffi and found her restless and unhappy. Had Dad ignored her while Kayla slept?
Now that Kayla was awake, Saffi wanted her to do something. Saffi wanted Dad, even more than usual, and Kayla was supposed to make him appear, apparently. Kayla disconnected. “Sorry, mutt. Not until I eat something.”
Dad had gone shopping before he headed off wherever. The pantry and refrigerator were as full as she had ever seen them, and a loaf of bread — the good stuff with seeds in it — and a bag of apples sat on the kitchen counter. She rooted around in the fridge and freezer, putting together something of a feast, and dug in.
When she had made her way through all the food and done some minimal cleanup, she connected to Kayla and headed out back. “All right, let’s see if he’s out in the workshop.” Though the dog would have looked for him there — but she may as well rule it out.
As she expected, the workshop was empty. Saffi nosed around, whining. She stopped and sniffed closer at the low bench by the door, identifying traces of metal and cloth and dirt. What did that add up to?
Saffi did not want to leave the workshop — at least, not to go back to the house. She pointed toward the woods, whining again. The urge filling her was so specific it was almost verbal. She wanted to Find.
“No, Saffi. I’m not feeling that much better. This is not the time for a trek through the woods, chasing Dad. Come!”
Back at the house, she went back to bed with a pile of books, the childhood favorites with which she indulged herself when under the weather, and called Jean. “Yeah, I felt like crud and took the day off. . . . I might be contagious, but if I am, you’re already doomed. . . . Of course we have homework. No, I don’t want to see it, but I’d better. Thanks. See you soon.” She’d left the door unlocked; Jean could let herself in. Kayla picked up Where the Wild Things Are, then hesitated. Dad had read that book to her, often. So had Mom, sometimes. She looked at the next book in the pile, then shook her head a little, opened the book in her hand, and settled back in bed to read.
She awoke from a doze to Jean’s cheerful greeting and Saffi’s surge of recognition. Apparently Kayla’s sleeping hadn’t kept Saffi from staying somewhat alert. Kayla hauled herself back out of bed and waved Jean toward the kitchen. “We’ve got tons of food for a change. Grab something.”
Jean picked up an apple, dug in her backpack for the homework sheet, and tossed it to Kayla. (They used paper for homework assignments here. Her classmates back home would have died laughing.)
What was Saffi going on about? She was nosing Jean’s backpack, looking back toward the back door and the workshop and back at the backpack. Kayla could sense nothing clearer than a contradictory sense of “same/not same.”
Jean’s backpack, more of a knapsack, was made of a sturdy canvas, not too different from the fabric of Dad’s backpack. But Dad’s had a frame, with a place to fasten a sleeping bag.
Saffi barked, almost a yelp, just as Kayla pictured the backpack. Jean looked baffled; Kayla looked into Saffi’s eyes. “That’s what you were smelling? Dad’s backpack?”
What had Dad been doing with it? And where was it now?
And where was he?

Saffi’s nervousness, her insistence that something was wrong, would have infected Kayla even without the link. Connected, it was close to unbearable. Kayla disconnected, but now Jean was in league with the dog. “What’s wrong, sweetie? Can you show us?”
“Now you’ve done it,” Kayla muttered. As if seizing Jean’s suggestion, Saffi headed to the back door and butted it with her nose. “All right, all right, we’ll go out there! Maybe you’ll find something.”
Saffi shot out the door and headed for a patch of dirt, rough as if recently disturbed. At once she started digging, the dark dirt flying to both sides behind her. Kayla looked into the rapidly growing hole and saw something off-white about half a meter down.
Fetch! But Saffi had already seized the edge of the object in her teeth and was tugging it gently, pulling it loose. As soon as she had freed it, she hustled over to Kayla and held it up near Kayla’s hand. It was a piece of paper, the paper Dad used to print his woodcut proofs, folded over and over, folded small.
Kayla took the paper and hid it in her hand, feeling foolish and frightened at the same time. “Let’s go back in the house.”
As soon as the three of them, girls and dog, had crossed the threshold, Kayla locked the door and threw the bolt. She made her way shakily to the kitchen and sank into a chair, silently waving Jean to another. Then she opened the paper. It was crammed with writing, writing smaller than her father liked to write, squeezed in and hard to read.

Don’t tell anyone what I tell you here, unless you must.

-----------

For the rest of the message, you'll have to wait until the book comes out in October. :-)

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of my upcoming YA near-future novel, The Link

Appropriately enough, I'm posting an excerpt from The Link in order to have a link to share with prospective reviewers. . . .

But first, the cover!



Here's the beginning of Chapter 1.

        -----

Saffi snored, her side rising and falling with the rhythm of the soft snorts, her tail draped over the end of the couch. Kayla, perched on the other end, dug away at the chunk of wood in her hand, trying to copy the way the dog flowed into the furniture.
Kayla’s friend Jean sat back in the armchair, feet up on the handmade table. She waved a hand at Saffi and asked, “Can you link to her when she’s sleeping?”
“I’ve done that.” Kayla’s mouth twitched. “It’s hard to stay awake.”
“What’s it like when she dreams?”
Kayla shrugged. “It’s not as cool as you might think. Her dreams are pretty — ordinary. She’s smelling stuff, or she’s running in the woods, or whatever.” Though all those smells, so many all around, and so strong — that was still a long way from ordinary.
“There she goes!” Jean pointed. Kayla craned over to look. Sure enough, Saffi’s eyelids were twitching with the motions of REM sleep. Jean looked up at Kayla with big, pretty-please eyes. Kayla shrugged again, but gave the subvocal command that opened her neural connection to the dog.
There were, of course, no words; not even what she would call thoughts. Instead, Kayla sensed curiosity, then growing interest and concentration on a familiar scent. Slow-moving prey.
Kayla laughed. “A possum! She’s dreaming she found a possum out back.” She broke the connection and went back to her carving.
Jean leaned forward and studied the carving, the dog, and the carving again. “That’s pretty good. How did you learn to whittle, anyway?”
“Dad taught me. I guess he learned from someone around here — a neighbor, I think.”
“He taught you other stuff, didn’t he? I mean —” Jean grinned. “You’re not half as clueless as most city kids.”
Kayla suppressed a sigh. How could she sum up all those hours in the woods with Dad, learning survival skills and woodcraft because that was what he had to teach and it gave them more time together? “Yeah. He showed me how to do a few things. Make a fire, tie knots, shoot, set traps, come in out of the rain.”
Jean mock-gasped. “Shoot, set traps? You mean you eat meat? And you from the city!”
Kayla smirked back. “Yup, even before we got this ferocious carnivore here.”
Jean got out of the chair and wandered over to the mantle over the fireplace, picking up the wooden bust in its center and running a finger along the short carved beard. “Did you do this one too? That’s your dad, right? It really looks like him.”
“Thanks.” Kayla could hear that she sounded sulky. That was hardly fair to Jean, who hadn’t meant to poke a sore spot. But Kayla remembered working long and hard on that carving, starting over twice, doing her best to capture her dad’s expression and the tilt of his head. And Dad had acted so happy and grateful. . . . The girl who had cared that much, who had put so much work into pleasing her father, seemed a stranger now.
She didn’t want to remember that girl. And she really didn’t want to miss her.
Jean might have picked up on Kayla’s mood; at least, she changed the subject, turning back toward Saffi and pointing back and forth between the dog and Kayla. “It’s a pretty sweet setup you have. At least, it seems that way to me. Your mom helped come up with the human-dog connection tech, didn’t she?”
“Yeah. My dad did too. He’s just as good at that tech stuff as Mom is, even if he ditched it to move back here.” Ditched his job at Edenar Corporation; and ditched Mom while he was at it.
“Was Saffi one of the first dogs to get hooked up? Did you get her as a puppy?”
Kayla shook her head to both questions. “She was already a year old or so. She had months of special training before we got her. Besides, they don’t want the customers having to deal with puppy craziness.” She found herself grinning. “What if they chewed their own shoes?”
Jean guffawed; Kayla went on. “We didn’t get her until Dad — decided to move. Mom thought having her would make the move easier on me. Not that it’s exactly worked out that way.”
Jean wrinkled her forehead as if to ask the obvious question. As if answering it, Saffi stirred, lifted her head, jumped to her feet on the couch, then started barking frantically. Jean stared at the dog. “What’s she on about?”
Kayla reconnected, then winced at the flood of excitement, the total joy, so much stronger and simpler than how she felt. “My dad’s home.”
Saffi leaped down from the couch and ran toward the door, then back a few steps toward Kayla, then toward the door again, over and over as if trying to pull Kayla along with her. But Kayla’s own feelings must be passing through the link: Saffi’s delight faded away, and she paused, her tail falling low.
Why spoil things for Saffi? Kayla disconnected; the dog looked at her for a moment, then ran off toward the door.
Soon Saffi was wriggling and whining in eagerness, her tail whirling in circles like a propeller, as Kayla’s father opened the door carrying a large wooden crate easily under one arm, a sack of groceries in the other.

------

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A process peek from a writing workshop

I attended a workshop in world-building yesterday, and thought folks might be interested in my second-guessing as to how I came up with the contents of a writing exercise.

The author leading the workshop posited a world where the threat of frequent, serious flooding had been solved in some novel technological way, and what societal problems our chosen solution might pose. She gave us around fifteen minutes to write.

Here's what I wrote (very slightly tweaked for consistency and flow). After, I'll share my thoughts on where it came from.

-----

Jan slammed her Tiny Terry doll into the floor, then kicked it across the floor. The doll bounced off the wall, narrowly missing the baby's playpen. "I'm TIRED of staying inside! I want to go OUT!"

The baby started to wail. Robin scooped him up and carried him over to the wall. "Let's see what's going by! There's an eel -- that long wavy thing. See how it wiggles? And there, that's a scooter! Someone got careless, didn't they, honey?"

Jan, ignored, upped her volume. "I want to ride MY scooter! I want to go OUT!"

Robin clamped down on her urge to out-shriek her child, waiting for a gap between syllables to say at a reasonable volume, "You know it's going to be at least a week before we can go outside, even in our wetsuits. Too many big, pointy objects will be bobbing around. We just have to be patient--"

"I HATE being patient! I hate everything in this house! I hate how it smells! I hate Jake!!" She glared at the baby, who fortunately didn't notice, absorbed in watching the debris being carried past the house. Jan stomped on the floor, managing to produce only a dull thud, and opened her mouth for the coup de grace.

Robin sighed, answering what she knew came next. "But I love you, sweetie." And you can't possibly miss the smell of plants and earth more than I do.

Thwarted, Jan plopped down on the floor in a sullen huddle. The flotsam and jetsam continued to flow past, gliding smoothly over and around the ceiling and walls.

------

Someone else at the workshop had mentioned the idea of submerged dwellings, so I built on that, not being good at technological invention in less than a minute. I made my house out of resilient, waterproof, transparent material. Then I moved on to the societal problem -- cabin fever -- and ways to describe the setting and show the problem without too much of an infodump.

For the characters, I drew on my own experience as a mother of two, and in particular on the way parents have to put their own desires and emotions to one side in order to cope with those of their children. (Any parent who's afraid of spiders and has children similarly afflicted is likely to know just what I mean.) I also, though I only realized it later, borrowed the overwhelmed feelings of a mother with three young children (and two equally difficult cats) in a Lois McMaster Bujold short story, "Barter."

So there it is, for what it's worth: a glimpse at how one writer produced a short and insignificant bit of writing.