Tag Archives: unattached

My friends Luke, Leia, and Han

(I think it’s important to start by saying that I have never claimed to be cool.)

I am so geeked out about the upcoming Star Wars movie I can hardly stand it.     As I write this post, I am only 95 hours from watching Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.   Yes, I already have my tickets for first show this Thursday night. at 7:00pm.

I realize that I am not the target audience for this movie, since I’m neither an 11 year old boy, nor a Generation X guy who grew up making his own light saber with a cardboard wrapping paper tube and markers.

Yet, I can’t believe I’m the only middle aged mom I know who is curious about how Han and Leia are living their lives.   Are they married?   Did Leia hyphenate–Leia Organa-Solo, or even Leia Skywalker-Organa-Solo?    Do they have kids?   Do they spend every weekend in the bleachers at Pod Races, griping that the coaches only play Jedis’ kids?    What about Uncle Luke?  Does he come over for Sunday dinners of blue milk and those crunchy little nuggets?      Is Luke a fun uncle who melts stuff with his light saber to entertain the kids?  Or is he boring, talking politics of the federation until his brother-in-law Han tells him to lighten up.     I am way more interested in keeping up with the Skywalkers than the Kardashians.

My friends look at me in bewilderment.    “So…you’re into Star Wars?     Seriously?”   I have learned not to answer the question of how many times I have seen the original trilogy, because my peers gasp in shock when I say “at least 50.”      All they ever say at this point is, “I don’t get it.”

It’s not that I’m into science fiction.   OK… I guess I did see the original Star Trek series, and all the Star Trek movies, and I watched the Star Trek-Next Generation for a few years.   But that’s it.

Again, I never claimed to be cool.

To me, Star Wars is about friendship.    The kind of friendship that makes a guy risk the wrath of a reptilian gangster to shoot a couple of tie fighters so his buddy can blow up a space station.      Isn’t that what we all want in a friend?

Star Wars friends

My books are built on that kind of friendship.   While no one gets frozen in carbonite, I’d like to think that Amanda, Leah, and Zoe would challenge Darth Vader for each other.    “Unprotected” and “Unattached” are available at amazon, barnesandnoble.com and at some local bookstores, and they can still be ordered in time for Christmas.

And yeah, of course, I’m going to have to say it:

May the Force Be With You.

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“I want an Easy Bake Oven!” (and other proof that holiday marketing works)

As a child of the 70s, there was no greater marketing tool than the thick, shiny JC Penney catalog.

JC Penney catalog

This book of joy was the source of most of my back to school shopping, but the real excitement came at Christmas time.   Starting in October, I circled, dog-earned, and initialed dozens of traditional and more unexpected gifts.   This catalog convinced me that I needed maracas, a snow cone maker, a tea set, a drum set, and a microscope.   Despite circling them violently in the catalog, I didn’t receive any of them.  Santa did read our lists, so I did get these three gems that were beautiful in the catalog, but a little less exciting in real life:

Baby Alive–I didn’t have a lot of dolls as a child, but after seeing a beautiful catalog girl lovingly feeding her Baby Alive, I wanted one.   When Christmas arrived, I was thrilled to have my own.   She came with powdered baby food packets that I mixed with water (just like a real mom!) to feed to my baby.  What followed was attempting to change her diaper.  The slimy food was supposed to pass through Baby Alive to the tiny diaper that came in the box.Baby Alive

Anatomically, Baby Alive had a tube that ran through her hard plastic body, and the expectation that gravity would be enough to take care of business.   Alas, the prepackaged sludge did not pass through easily.   Instead, my Baby Alive had a constant case of constipation that could only be remedied by turning her upside down and running water through her…uh…digestive system and shaking her  violently.     Not the tender moment I had envisioned.

Easy Bake Oven–I wanted this in the worst way.     I could bake and decorate tiny, perfect cakes by myself, just like the girls on the commercial!     I imagined serving my treats at tea parties with my friends wearing fancy dresses. What I learned the hard way was that a light bulb doesn’t cook like an oven, to say the least.

1977 Easy Bake Oven

In my cakes, batter bubbled over one side of the pan searing onto the  bulb, while the other side of the cake remained cold, gooey, and gross.  I used the three mini-mixes the first day, but all three landed in the garbage.   I tried a few Jiffy cake mixes, but these made an even bigger mess deep inside the blazing hot orange plastic that didn’t come apart and was impossible to clean.   Everyone I knew had an Easy Bake Oven, and no one I knew could make it work.    Yet the this useless hunk of plastic has endured, modernized, and is now sold for $44.95(!!).

I can’t explain this next gift by anything other than marketing, and the fact that I was a strange child.    Somehow JC Penney convinced me I wanted the creepiest gift I would ever beg for and eventually receive: a ventriloquist doll.

Emmet Kelly JuniorIf there was ever proof that marketing works, it is this horrifying gift.   Emmet Kelly Junior was at the top of my list, and I was thrilled to open him on Christmas morning.   I sat him on my lap and made a feeble attempt to throw my voice.    I soon realized that neither Emmet nor I had anything to say to each other.    I’m sure he was in the back of my closet, giving me nightmares, by January that year.

Without the luxury of the magical JC Penney catalog, we adults fall back on gift cards and detailed lists to finish our Christmas shopping.  This year, please consider giving my books, Unprotected and Unattached, as gifts!     Support small business by purchasing at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, or take advantage of Cyber Monday and find them on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Unattached-Kristen-Lee-Johnson-ebook/dp/B015JTYVUG/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

Writing the leading man…from Tom Hanks to T.J. Hooker to Han Solo

As I started writing my second novel, Unattached, I was already well acquainted with the three main female characters–Amanda, Leah, and Zoe.    They are so alive in my head that I have sat in my real life social work staff meetings and wondered which new case should go Amanda.   I knew that my second book would continue with the same characters, but I needed new leads.    Leah, Amanda’s experienced, jaded, fellow social worker felt like an obvious choice for the main character, but the search for the male lead was harder.

My new leading man was going to be a cop, and I wanted him to be different from Jake, who was so Tom Hanks-esque in his sensitivity and support for Amanda that one reader told me, “I loved him, but he’s almost too nice.  Is any guy like that?”

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks

While I think sensitive Jake was the right choice Amanda,  I decided that Leah’s love interest needed to be edgier, more of a mess.   I struggled with how attractive to let him be.   In early drafts, I strayed too far from the typical handsome leading man, instead describing a balding, pudgy jerk that my sister (and best editor) said reminded her of T.J. Hooker.   Um no.  Not what I was going for.

T.J. Hooker
T.J. Hooker

With a sense of urgency to save this Pete Kemper that smarmy fate, I took inspiration from my first movie star boyfriend: Han Solo.

Han Solo
Han Solo

I was first introduced to Captain Solo when I was six, sitting on the sticky floor of the Cinema Unique movie theater in my hometown where they sold way too many tickets to one of the first showings of Star Wars.    One of my earliest memories is looking up at his crooked smile with a happy sigh.

A little more Han Solo, and lot less T.J. Hooker, and Pete Kemper was starting to come to life as he is introduced here in Unattached:

Pete Kemper was blonde and slightly balding (“That’s my natural hairline!” he swore to anyone who would listen), wearing his uniform of a polo and worn-out khakis.   Kemp, already tan from many weekends spent on his boat, had permanent, deep laugh lines around his eyes casting doubt on whether he took anything too seriously.

But readers will find that not only does he take his job seriously, Kemp also has a serious interest in pursuing Leah, who would prefer to remain…unattached.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at local book stores.

The challenge of full disclosure in the Land of Nice

“I need to talk to you about your drinking.”

I am often asked what it takes to be a child protection social worker.      While there are so many necessary skills, none is more important than the ability to be unflinchingly honest and direct, while at the same time being kind and respectful.   As a lifelong Midwesterner, where so many would rather eat hairy soup than find the words to send it back, the challenge in this is great.

“I know you said that you haven’t been drinking today, but you are slurring your words and I can smell liquor.”

What usually follows at this point is shock that these words have been spoken aloud.    These straightforward conversations become part of the trauma of working with child protective services because being direct is so uncommon, and therefore painful.

Midwesterners are often afraid of words.  We struggle with accepting compliments, expressing an opinion, asking for what we need.   Instead we have perfected the art of heavy sighs, eye rolling and stony silence.   But non-verbals, which can be quite effective in communicating messages to those who recognize them, aren’t enough when a child’s safety is at risk.

Don't Speak

“I’m concerned about the impact your drinking has had on your family.   Your kids keep missing school because you are not awake in the morning to help them get on the bus, and they are frequently going to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house.    Let’s ask your sister to stay with you for a few weeks while we get you an assessment.”

When a family becomes involved with Child Protective Services, fears abound.     Families assume that CPS will put their kids in foster care forever.    In actuality, foster care placement is rare, but the possibility of losing their kids looms.

The remedy is supposed to be full disclosure.      We are expected to tell families in clear, upfront language what needs to change, and be just as clear and upfront when we tell them what will happen if they don’t make those changes.

I understand that you don’t like this idea.   But if we can’t agree on a plan to get you help, I may have to ask the court to have your kids formally placed with your sister. 

As difficult as they are, these conversations pave the way for change.     Families understand what is expected, and even though they may not agree at first, most family members do what they need to do.

The conversations don’t have to be limited to child protection workers.    Anyone who is worried about a child’s safety needs to find the words to talk about the concerns and get help.

My novels, Unprotected and Unattached tell the stories of Minnesota social workers who struggle through these uncomfortable conversations.     My books can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and in local book stores.

Unattached: A preview

He loved to bounce that baby boy on his knee. Never much interested in girls, he ignored their first child, a daughter with a cap of blonde fuzz and a dimple in her left cheek. His friends, annoyingly married for the past year, had finally had their boy. His boy. He caressed the baby’s head and wondered how old the little man would be before he would start spending the night with his favorite uncle.

 

           Leah Danco didn’t sleep anymore.  Not the full, doctor-recommended eight hours, anyway. Leah’s nights involved hours of fitful rolling on her aged queen-sized bed with a deep divot in the middle from years of sleeping alone.   This spring morning her insomnia had been interrupted with an ominous phone call from sheriff’s dispatch at 3:00 a.m.

          When the sun finally emerged that first Friday morning in May, Leah had already showered and was wrestling with her home-highlighted blonde frizz. If left alone, her hair would add at least two inches of fuzzy height to her barely five foot frame, so her mornings always began with the aggravation of coaxing her hair into compliance. Annoyed with the stringy, crunchy results, she switched around a few of the studs in the upper cartilage of her left ear. The studs always cooperated, so at least she could control that much of her appearance. Leah had just turned thirty-five and worried that years of hard living had taken their toll, so she took the bright spots in her appearance where she could find them.

          The best part of the day was that it was Friday. She could wear jeans. As a social worker who investigated allegations of child abuse, sometimes perks of the job were hard to find. The 3:00 a.m. phone call was from a dispatcher asking if a social worker wanted to ride along with a uniformed officer to Children’s Hospital, where a toddler was being airlifted with life-threatening abuse injuries. The interviews could wait until morning, Leah told her. It was going to be an ugly day.

          Twenty minutes later, breakfast bar and Diet Coke tucked in her giant purse, Leah stood on the steps outside of Terrance County Human Services like the soles of her hiking sandals were glued to the sidewalk.

          Going inside meant facing the day—kids who were angry, anxious or traumatized. Defensive, sobbing, or absent parents. Today, it meant finding answers and justice for a broken baby who just a few hours ago was safe and healthy and whole.

IMG_1374-0

Unattached will be available for purchase from local bookstores and kindle download September 12, 2015.

Calling all Book Clubs!

As I prepare to market my soon-to-be released second novel, I’m stretching back out of my comfort zone to that vulnerable place where I try to convince people to buy my creation.   Book store signings, a necessity to get the book out there, require me to stand behind a table, plastic smile plastered hard on my face, and talk up my book to people who mostly shuffle by and pretend I’m not there.

On the other end of the marketing spectrum is the Book Club Appearance.

The first Book Club?
The first Book Club?

Attending book clubs is a joy. When I was promoting my first novel, Unprotected, I was invited to over a dozen different book clubs where all I had to do was drink a glass of wine and chat.

After seeing so many clubs in action, I also discovered a few truths about our monthly pastime:

  1. Many Book Clubs are small–often 5 or 6 regular members. They would apologize for their size, like their group didn’t count because they comfortably fit in a living room.   My own book club (approaching our 10 year anniversary!) currently sits at seven members, though many months only 3 or 4 may attend.
  2. Knowing how my own book club struggles to figure out what to read, I would ask the clubs I attended what they had read over the years.     The lists were remarkably similar:   Water for Elephants, Unforgiven, The Secret Life of Bees, Gone Girl.   A fair number sheepishly acknowledged 50 Shades of Gray.   A few mix it up with non-fiction or politics, but most stick to the genre broadly known as “Women’s Lit” that can usually be found on the shelves at Target.
  3. While there is a book of the month (that about half of the members actually read), Book Club is rarely about the books.   Sure we all like to read, and most clubs usually spend a few minutes discussing the book, or as much of that dang thing as anyone can remember.   Someone always remarks about how the details fade so fast, but the feelings about the book remain.   And then the book falls into the background and as club moves on to discussions about kids’ sports, ailing parents, workplace drama, health scares, and everything else that most of us are dealing with every day.
  4. Book Club is about the beautiful desserts.   So many decadent pinterest recipes served on the good dishes.   Always apple crisp in the fall, strawberries in the spring, and chocolate most other months.
  5. And then there’s the wine.   Obviously.
  6. A few of the clubs had historians who could pull out a notebook and list every book they had read.   Impressive, and more organized than my group, who can barely remember what we’re reading from one month to the next!
  7. More than the books, the desserts, and the wine, it’s really about the commitment–every month– take a break and be with friends.

So, book clubs, if you choose Unattached for a monthly selection, thank you!   And if you’re local, I would love to be invited back to your book club to chat about my book, for the allotted 8 minutes or so.   Then I will happily settle into my chair with a glass of wine and delicious dessert on my lap, and listen to you chat about kids and parents, work and life.