4/27/15

Imitation Is Not Flattery. It's Stealing.

Image: stephanyfolsum.com Used with permission.


The infinite monkey theorem doesn't have anything to do with what I'm going to blather on about here, but it makes me giggle and, if twisted a bit, I can make it fit.

I can't be bothered to look up the exact quote, but it is something along these lines:

"A monkey hitting keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare."

In this instance, I'd change it to read:

"A million bloggers hitting keys on a laptop for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type something similar." 

I'm not naive. Nor am I full of myself. In the blogging world, there are many people who write about the exact same topics. You have your parenting bloggers, homeschooling bloggers, fashion bloggers, DIY bloggers. And each of those niches has smaller, more defined categories: single parenting bloggers, parents of multiples bloggers, special-need parent bloggers, plus-size fashion bloggers, budget-conscious fashion bloggers.You get the gist, right?

My little niche is divorce blogging. Divorce isn't the only topic I write about, but it is one I revisit frequently. Because I'm divorced and it has affected not only my life, but the lives of my kids. Five years ago, when I first started writing here, there weren't a ton of us. My favorite divorce/single parent blogger was Single Mom Survives. I loved reading her stuff because our stories were ickily (it's a word now, spellcheck) similar: husbands who left us for, and married, coworkers. Hers even got remarried on their old wedding anniversary date, which I was pretty sure had only happened to me. She's no longer writing (or Tweeting, I just discovered) which is a shame. I miss her.

Over the years, more blogs about divorce and what happens after divorce started popping up. When the editors at HuffPost Divorce reached out and asked me to write for them, I squealed with joy. Once immersed in that world, I was officially a Divorce Blogger. And I wasn't the only one. To quote Chandler Bing: "Doy".

We all write about the same things. Divorce, dating after divorce, parenting during and after a divorce, the financial aspect of it, etc. Being divorced can touch just about every facet of one's life, and boy do we like to write about it.

The thing is, while we may all write about the same topics, we all do so in our own voices. We have our own opinions, our own quirks. Our own style of writing. Our words are like fingerprints: uniquely ours. We are indeed special snowflakes. Special divorced snowflakes.

I recently stumbled upon an essay written by a fellow divorce blogger. It was divorce-related, and as it so happens, it was subject I've written about. One of the essays I wrote about this particular subject went on to become one of my more popular posts, both here and on HuffPost. Coincidence? Maybe. Then, as I read her post, I couldn't help but see the striking resemblance to the piece I'd written over a year ago. The cadence was almost identical. The flow was the same. There was even an exact turn of phrase used. It was like reading something I'd written, only not about my life. About somebody else and their life.

That brings us back to the monkey/bloggers. Sure, the other writer's post was very similar to mine. Including the title, yo. But, let's put ego and feels aside and remember: there are millions of people writing billions of words every single day. It was bound to happen. I wept upon the shoulders of a couple friends, friends who write and one who doesn't. They comforted me, they assured me I wasn't too off-base to think my words had been borrowed. I retreated into the bushes to lick my writery wounds and all the ragey water flowed under the blogging bridge.

Until I saw another article a few weeks later. Written by the same person. Covering the exact same topic I'd recently written about. She'd reworked it quite a bit, added a lot more flowery words and a few "mamas" here and there. But the bones of it were too close for comfort. Not only was the skeleton identical to the one I'd typed out a few weeks ago, but the message was a twin, too. Again, it was as if she'd read my words and then set out to rewrite them, rearrange them to her liking.

What was it George W. once misquoted? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...we won't get fooled again? Now I have to dig up that soundbite. God I miss that man's way with words. Anyway. What I was trying to say is this: one strikingly similar piece...yeah. Okay, it happens. And even if it was deliberate, what are you going to do about it? Go on the Blogger's Small Claims Court show and plead your case?

But twice? Two pieces, so very similar, by the same person? I call foul. And I also call plagiarism.

Look. I get it. You read something, it hits you, you're inspired to write about your own experiences. I do that ALL THE TIME. But the good thing, the right thing, the ETHICAL thing to do, is give the other person credit. Mention what you read and how it made you feel. Provide a link back to the person's site. Send a note or email to the author of the original piece, telling them how much you liked it and OMG you moved me to write about my life!

What you shouldn't do is read it, rework it just enough so it's not blatant stealing, and not only post it on your blog but submit it to a bigger site. Putting your name on it, presenting it to the world as something you created? I don't know how people can do that and look at themselves in the mirror. It's like cheating when you play Words With Friends. Yeah, you might win, but did you really?

It's a gray area, this blogging biz. We can make sure we put a blurb on our blogs, telling the world that these are OUR words and YOU can't steal them. But there is no way an idea can be copyrighted, is there? Imagine the red tape we'd have to swim through if one single person owned all the rights to the concept of blogging about any particular subject. It's like a jungle sometimes: it makes me wonder how...oops, sorry. Off on a Grandmaster Flash tangent. We're insane if we think anything we write about is truly original. But...how we write it is original.

When my kids were little and still in diapers, I confessed to a friend that in a crowd I was able to tell, by smell alone, if the source of a stinky odor was one of my little darlings. That's how intimate the relationship between a mother and child can be. The same goes for a writer, and their words. Gross analogy, I know. But it works.

Don't try to pass my shit off as yours. It's not cool, and I can smell it a mile away. A mama knows.

And now, for some comic relief, I will close with George and his quote.




4/26/15

The Girlfriend's Guide To (A Realistic) Divorce


Yes. Yes, I was one of those women who had my babies at the very height of Vicki Iovine's Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy and all of the spawn books which followed it. Like, her first book came out when I was swollen with my second child, in 1995. Since I'd already read my one-book-per-year at that point, I didn't read her pregnancy book. The one I chose to read was the insipid What To Expect When You're Expecting, which, by the way, made me feel like a fine failure after I read that "excessive crying rarely lasts beyond the first month. Consult with your pediatrician." Oh, and this one: "Some women find that having an orgasm during sex is difficult during the later months of pregnancy." Because, mother-effing colic, and I was (and still am, if you're into TMI) one of those women who had never, ever had one during sex without major assistance. Add pregnancy hormones, 50 pounds and a fetus to the mix and guess what? A miner's helmet, a sex toy made by Dyson and a randy octopus armed with a barrel of lube wouldn't have helped.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then the baby arrives and nobody comes. Oh wait, that's wrong. What happens next, for some of us, is after the babies show up, so does a younger co-worker or a naughty neighbor lady or an addiction to drugs, booze or online gaming, or some other distraction and then comes...DIVORCE. Mine was due to the co-worker. I was a SAHM to four kids who were 6, 9, 11 and 12 when all the shit hit the fan. No, I didn't see it coming and no, I don't want to hear all the ways I could have prevented it. That ship has sailed, and hopefully nobody noticed that I tampered with their lifeboats.

So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that Vicki Iovine was also divorcing! Alas, she didn't write a book about it, which was okay since I'd already devoured my two-books-per-year at the point (you get an extra book after the kids learn how to wipe their own butts). And then, Bravo announced their new scripted series based on Iovine's split. I was in heaven! Finally, a show that would pull the pants down on the divorce beast and show everyone the real nuts and bolts.

One fine weekend, when there were no practices or games or concerts or teenage drama to referee, I shook up a martini, sat down on my dog-hair covered couch and had a Girlfriend's Guide To Divorce marathon.

I laughed, of course, because I was buzzed from the martini, but also because some of it was funny. I crinkled my brow and made a sad face because some of it was sad. But mostly, I shook my head because it was so completely, totally, UNREALISTIC. Yes, I know, the basic premise of divorce is pretty much universal: a marriage ends. And yes, I know, this is Bravo, home of the Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules and Million Dollar Listing. And yes, I know, this is television.

But come on. Maybe this is how the One Percent divorces. For those of us in the real world? Things go a bit differently. Here are some of the biggest discrepancies:

Girlfriend's Guide Divorce: Her husband is cheating on her. With a hot twenty-something CW actress.
Realistic Girlfriend: Her husband is cheating on her. With a skanky administrative assistant. Or a person he met while playing an RPG in the basement. Or with porn. Or maybe a bottle. Might even be one of her friends.

Girlfriend's Guide Divorce: All of her friends are divorced. They guide her through it.
Realistic Girlfriend: She's one of the few divorced women in her circle of friends. Some of her friends are afraid they'll catch her icky Divorce Disease and pull away. Some of them are awesome, though, and stick around. They help her through it.

Girlfriend's Guide Divorce: One of her first post-divorce lovers is a father at her children's posh private school. He's a famous screenwriter.
Realistic Girlfriend: One of her first post-divorce lovers is a guy she found on eHarmony. He drinks four Manhattans on their first date and brings along his CPAP machine "just in case this goes well".

Girlfriend's Guide Divorce: She writes an article for Huffington Post Divorce and is made Senior Editor.
Realistic Girlfriend: She writes an article for Huffington Post Divorce and three angry men in the comment section remind her that "75% of all divorces are initiated by women!". But she gets a bunch of new followers on Twitter, which is cool.

Girlfriend's Guide Divorce: The uniform of choice for this pack of divorced women consists of crop tops, skinny jeans and Birkin bags. They drive luxury SUVs and live in mulit-million dollar mansions.
Realistic Girlfriend: The uniform of choice for this pack consists of Old Navy tops, sweater ponchos with leggings and well-loved Coach bags they bought ten years ago. They drive minivans or economy cars and live in either their marital homes with a mortgage they worry about paying or a rental. And they still worry about paying the rent sometimes.

Girlfriend's Guide Divorce: She loses her shit at one of her book readings and says out loud how much easier it would be if her ex had just died. Someone records it, the video goes viral and she comes very close to ruining her career.
Realistic Girlfriend: Doesn't ever say this out loud.

Bottom line: this show is wonderful escapism. Nothing more, nothing less. And really, how many of us would want to watch a show depicting the soft, white underbelly of a realistic divorce? Would I have made a martini and hunkered down to watch a woman who looks like me wander around a food shelf or cry in her pro-bono attorney's office? I might have. I did watch Boyhood, after all.

Here's what I think: let's wait until Amy Schumer gets married, has kids and then gets divorced. She'll kill it.

Until then, I'll be here on my dog hair covered Ikea couch, dispensing realistic divorce advice and watching how the other half divorces on Bravo. Carry on, girlfriends.






4/20/15

My Brother In The Mirror

How in the world did we know anything before Facebook? I had no idea there was a National Drink Wine Day. Or a National Bird Day. Did you know April is National Pecan Month? I have a severe tree-nut allergy so I won't be celebrating that one.

A few weeks ago, I noticed everyone posting pictures of their siblings. Apparently, April 10th is National Siblings Day.

Who knew?

So I started thinking about my one and only sibling. I don't write about him very often, but that night I hunted down one of the few pictures I have of him and posted it on Facebook. Yes, I'd had a martini...hey, it was Friday. But I posted it, and I wrote a little bit about my brother. Quite a few of my friends liked it. I liked it. And I hope you like it too. With a teeny bit of editing, here is what I wrote on National Siblings Day:


Sibling Day.

This is my brother Jon getting his first American haircut. The local newspaper did a story on this, because back in the 70's adoption wasn't as common, or as accepted, as it is now.

This picture breaks my heart. Jon's birth mother made the incredibly difficult decision to send him to the U.S. because she loved him. And she desperately wanted him, her youngest of three children, to have a better life than the one she could have provided for him.

Almost exactly a year after Jon joined our family, my parents divorced. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't fun. My new brother and I turned inward, towards each other, to try and deal and cope. You've heard of survival mode? We were in it.

Jon lives in Las Vegas now. We don't talk very often. He called me about a month ago, and we had the best conversation we've ever had.

We cried, because that's what happens when you talk to me for more than five minutes. But...we also laughed. It was one of the best things ever, laughing on the phone with my brother on a Saturday as I emptied the dishwasher with tears streaming down my cheeks.

We were little again. My new Korean brother and I, huddled under a haphazard blanket fort in our tiny bedroom in our tiny apartment, listening to our mom and her boyfriend scream at each other. I missed our house and my bedroom with the blue rose wallpaper. Jon must have missed so much more. What did it sound like to him, to this little boy still struggling to understand and speak our language? These foul words and hateful phrases being slung through the air. I bet he missed his mom. I bet he missed his brother and sister. I bet he missed his house.

We held hands, and even though this kid with the shiny black hair and the almond-shaped eyes had totally rocked my Only Child world, I loved him. And I wanted to protect him.

I wish more than anything that I could go back in time and give that little boy in the mirror the kind of life he deserved. I wish, for both of us, that things had been better. Easier. Less dark and less painful.

I wish we were the kind of siblings who talked more frequently. Who spent more time together. Who had good memories together.

We aren't those kind of siblings. But- we are siblings. When we do talk, it's good. It's "laugh and cry" good. That works for us.

Jon isn't on Facebook, so he probably won't see what I wrote. But I wanted to put it out into the universe...that I love my little brother. And I just might give him a call tomorrow, while I empty the dishwasher.


4/12/15

Ashes to Ashes, Mom to Mom




Many moons ago, I was a bright and squeaky new kindergarten mom. I stood in the hallway with the rest of my youthful tribe: fresh faced (mostly) moms, clutching carefully filled out paperwork in our smooth young hands. Several of us were pregnant, a few were wearing Gap overalls in a totally non-ironic way. My hair was dark back then, with no thanks necessary to the fine colorists at L'Oreal. Completely natural. The innocent I was sending off into the wilds of public education that day was my firstborn, Charlie. He was clean and fed and most definitely wearing matching socks. I had taken approximately 250 pictures of him that morning, and was dying to drop off the film at Walgreens so I could get his "First Day Of School" pictures sent out to all the grandparents. Charlie's two younger siblings were there with us as well: Molly was almost 4, Henry was 2. Oh, and I was one of those pregnant ones. Just barely, though. It was September, the year was 1999. (yeah, go figure, the one New Year's Eve we really could party like it was 1999, I was knocked up.)

The school looked huge, our 5 and 6 year olds seemingly dwarfed by the gigantic kids swarming in the hallway. We watched as our babies filed into their respective classrooms, shiny virgin backpacks with nary a rip nor stain strapped onto their little shoulders.

A few of us cried. Some of us smiled, so excited at the prospect of TWO AND A HALF FREE HOURS. A few of us picked up a puddle from the floor, a puddle which resembled a cranky and petulant younger sibling. Those were the ones with TWO AND A HALF FREE HOURS in a thought bubble as well, only in a sarcastic font. Because they knew damn well that exactly six minutes before it was time to retrieve the kindergartner the puddle-sibling would have settled into deep REM stage sleep.

And then there were the other moms. There weren't as many of them, and they kept their distance from our enthusiastic pack.

They were the Older Moms.

I'm not saying these moms were chronologically older, although to be fair most of them were. They were the Older Moms because they had Older Kids. Some of them had one or two or more children in the elementary school we stood in. Others had actual teenagers who went to the terrifying junior high. And there were a couple who had high school kids. When we, the newbie moms, said high school we whispered, because to us they might as well have been on the moon. Or in an old timey jailhouse, like the one Elvis sang about. Thinking of our kindergartners, our babies, being old enough to attend high school was scary.

These women were (mostly) kind, but were not rushing up to console us or invite us out to Mom's Night Out. They regarded us with wise eyes. Knowing eyes. Tired eyes.

Later on I ended up becoming friends with one of the Older Moms. She took a liking to my crazy self and we spent many afternoon pickup minutes gabbing about our kids, our husbands and our lives. I learned so much from her: time-budgeting tips, the Gap Kids store with the best clearance rack, the best (read: easiest) volunteer gigs to sign up for.

But the best thing she ever said to me was this: "Jenny, you'll understand this one day. Probably not now. In fact, when I say this, you'll quite possibly think I'm either a terrible mom or clinically depressed." Dear God. What was she going to tell me? Should I alert the school counselor?

She smiled her sweet smile and said to me: "There will come a time when you get burned out. Believe it or not, it will come. You'll tire of all the 'firsts', you'll dread volunteering and you'll actually look forward to your kids getting older." I looked at her, thinking to myself, whatever. I was born to be a mommy. I am going to volunteer so hard at this school. Teachers will love seeing my kid's names on their class lists. The principal is going to respect me and call me by my first name. My kids will be so grateful to have such a loving, involved mother. This Older Mom is nucking futs. 

And then she said what has stuck with me. Sixteen years have passed since I first heard these words and I can still hear her saying it:

"Then you pass burnout and become a pile of ashes. That's what I am now...a pile of ashes that used to be just like you are now." I looked at my friend, and imagined her as a tall pile of gray ashes. Then, I tried to see myself the same way. Nope. No! Never.

~~~~

Last week I bought Charlie his very first legal cocktail as we celebrated his 21st birthday at the Japanese restaurant down the street. Yes, I wrote "legal" and not "first". Because I not only used to watch The Real World, I live in it (hausfrau trivia: I almost applied to be on Season 2 of that show. Seriously.) Molly wasn't able to join us because she's half a state away, finishing up her first year of college. Henry, who is now 17 and a junior in high school, was there. And so was William, who was just a bean-sized embryo when Charlie started kindergarten. He's now almost 15. They are all taller than me. One of them by a whole foot.

I was there, too. In all my ashy glory.

Yep. Yes! It happened to me, just like my wise friend had said it would. I too became a pile of ashes. Somehow, when I wasn't looking, someone pressed fast-forward on my life and the children grew up. My raven hair turned about fifty shades of gray and those once smooth, young hands that held all that paperwork are now kind of crinkly and adorned with what I call big freckles but what realistic people call age spots. Don't misunderstand: I still volunteer, to this day, when I can. But it's not with the fiery eagerness I once had. Now I do it because I know in a few years, there won't be any more opportunities. There won't be any more picture days or lost and found to be sorted. My red-hot enthusiasm has been replaced with an ashy sense of obligation, and the sober realization that this time in the lives of my children...this time in my life...is finite. And unlike that pregnant, dewy-complected youthful mama who stood in the hallway outside of the kindergarten rooms 16 years ago, this plump, legging-and-long, flowy cardigan wearing mama can see the edge.

~~~~

The smell hit me before I saw it. My dog was pulling me down a path at one of our local parks. It was the acrid remnants of a recent fire, thick in the air. We traversed a long bend in the path and came upon a little pond, the home to wood ducks in the summer and fall. Instead of the tall grasses and weeds which normally encircle the pond, there was a ring of scorched earth. Nothing was left save for a few singed stumps and several small clusters of rocks. Because I am Gladys Kravitz, nosy neighborhood nature photographer, I snapped a pic with my phone.


When I got home, I posted the picture on Facebook and asked if any of my landscaping-savvy friends could clue me in as to why someone would incinerate this little peaceful area. God forbid I do anything rational, like call the city and ask, right? That would entail speaking to another human. As I figured, I got my answer almost immediately. A friend who works in the forestry field told me:

It's most likely a controlled burn. They do that to clear out all of the old, weedy plants from the past season. It makes it easier for the new season's plants to grow. Don't worry, Gladys, it's all good!

Okay, so I added the Gladys part. But I thought about what my forester friend had written.

It makes it easier for the new season's good plants to grow.

Motherhood is a controlled burn, isn't it? That's what my Older Mom friend was telling me, all those years ago. We start out as green as a new blade of grass, flexible and full of vim and vigor and collagen. Burnout isn't a fair word, if you ask me. That implies someone tiring of something, smoldering unattended until there's nothing left.

No. I like controlled burn so much better. Because that's what happens. It's a natural progression, one you can't understand...hell, you don't want to understand until the day comes when you look down and realize that time has been preparing you for the next season.

That pile of ashes you see, the one with the grayish hair and the dog-fur sprinkled Old Navy leggings? That's me. I'm one of those Older Moms now. I am trying so hard to avoid being the creepy one who sidles up to you and glazes your eyeballs with my stories that begin with "Back when I was your age". Sometimes I slip up though, and catch myself tipping my head back like I'm a giant Pez dispenser, only instead of candy you get nuggets of Older Mom wisdom.

Please be patient with me. You see, it's scary just like that first day of kindergarten. Scary, and exciting. I don't know what to expect anymore. Time has taught me to never become complacent, to never stop anticipating the big thunderclap of change. I look back at the picture of my three kids and me, four if you count William the fetus. Knowing what the future holds for that woman and her kids almost knocks me on my ashy ass. Not knowing what the future holds for that woman now?

It's keeping me on my ashen toes. 

Love to all of those piles of ashes who went before me, and to those who will follow in our sooty-footsteps. Here's to our new seasons.


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