A toddler does a puzzle.

“I made it to the county level at Science Fair. Look at the medal I got.” You and I embraced, beamed, laughed with delight. We glowed. Grandpa was proud, too. We’d all helped you clarify your questions, keep a notebook and collect data. You and Grandpa hiked the creek, took photos, assessed the substrate. We were all invested in your success, not our own, because on your own you had to shine in the interview with the biologist, know the research, tell what you learned and speak with understanding and knowledge. You did it and won. I felt we all did. We live vicariously through our children’s successes and struggles- as it should be. We resonate with what’s the same about us: interests, personality traits, likes, dislikes and temperaments. We also know our child. In this case, I know you and knew that you would benefit from a public success. You needed to be seen at school for what we know you to be, a naturalist, curious and intelligent. Capable. To be awarded along with a few peers for your work. We built scaffolds for your success, but you alone rose to meet the goals. You feel pride of accomplishment after hard work. Perfect ending. You win, go to the county level science fair.

You, among other wonderful characteristics are autistic with ADHD, struggle to remember why the pencil is pinched between your fingers, during a test. You stand staring blankly at me after I have asked you to wash up for school, then twenty minutes later pull on your jacket and run for the car, having forgotten to wash up. We adapt: keep a brush, wipes and a toothbrush in the car. Have a reward system for tasks completed, timers, calculators for math, and incentives at each completed phase of a writing assignment. With your good thinking, we have come up with cues to support, do not chastise you for delays, forgetting and your curt responses. We work hard at it.

So that during the science fair process, which lasted a couple of months, if you had bad days, but something was due, you had to keep up. That wasn’t often true in your other schoolwork. You wrote, calculated and hiked the creek when you were able, on the good days and put completed work in queues to turn them in as they were due. It all seemed good- You were going to finish a big project, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then you put on the brakes. Something was going on inside. That happened a lot. You couldn’t do another thing. Wouldn’t.

It makes sense to let you feel the natural consequence of not finishing. Right? Parents can take a hard line. But you do not feel remorse in the same way I would have. You seem to not feel the consequence of your refusal. Maybe you removed your self from the task and it disappeared. But in this case it would come back to bite you, this was to be displayed, judged by local scientists, seen by the school and broader community. It was not a math page, a private moment between you and your teacher. You’d have to face the fact that you didn’t finish the project out in the open with your peers. Would you have felt embarrassed, remorseful? I thought so.

So, how much to help? A recurring question when we work with kids on schoolwork: Scaffolding, reframe, individualize the assignment and tell of our own journeys. I told you that your daddy had a science fair project go to the county fair. He studied dog tick remedies, made potions and was so proud to have his picture in the paper. I love science, am a naturalist, too, an observer, a wonderer and wanderer. I wanted you to finish your research paper, the layout and the full project. I wanted you to feel success. When a toddler does a puzzle and we twist one piece into position for her, we know we shouldn’t have done it. That’s what I did. I helped. I over-helped. You had read journals, online, reports of endangered fish, projects to save them, stream health and listed the references in your journal. I read them, too, clipped relevant information from them, citing the references and sent it to your computer. When you did nothing with them, I asked you to use the quotes in the passages to build your report. You didn’t do it, but turned in the report quoted, cited and compiled of the citations stacked in order, one after the other, the way I had clipped them out. That was your report. Cited, but not connected with words of your own. Damn. I let it go. At least you didn’t pretend the writing was yours. Could you possibly succeed?

Can you tell a Healthy Stream from an Unhealthy one? Come See the Santa Cruz County Science Fair this Saturday and talk to the scientists.

This week, as you prepared his project for a bigger venue, competing with kids from the entire county, some in high school, I stepped back. On your own you made a diorama of a healthy and unhealthy stream model.  You love making dioramas. You picked mosses on a hike to add to the healthy side, built a small man made barrier, a damn for the unhealthy side. This is an area of mastery, this is what you are good at, and this an important moment in your world. And you did it yourself, with our support.

The Photo Shoot

A writer makes choices along the journey toward publishing with its fame, fans and riches (or whatever one’s goals may be). Those were the ones on my list when I was sixteen, again at twenty-six, but by fifty-six I’d wised up, and began to focus on one: publishing. But in order to get to that step I had to give up the idea of making a living as a writer, have had achieved a certain amount of fame and already an acquired fan-base. Not the kind of fame that has twenty year olds exclaiming, “Hi. Remember me? I was in your first grade class?” No, broader recognition than that. One must have a platform, which, like a soap box, serves as a place from which the writer speaks and is listened to, followed by thousands and following many more.

            Today, a writer, who by nature is often a loner, must get around, say things to thousands of people, and have more up her sleeve, no end of things to exclaim, post, tweet or toot. And that’s before the book release. A writer is a politician, pokes placards into lawns, prints up her own bumper stickers, free when you sign up online for her monthly newsletter, delivered right into your hands through your email: “Have you read Nancy’s book? Or you could request a custom license plate frame with her most recent working title and web address flashing in lights along the narrow strips, bottom and top.

            Recognition is a must before the writer can seek a publishing deal, before she seeks an agent: the earlier you begin gaining recognition, the better. Before she starts to write. Before she can read? Should parents get their child a website at birth? A Facebook account? A blog? Instagram and Twitter handles? Is that what you call it, a handle?  A baby you tube channel? People get their infants a wine locker, add a bottle each year or plant an apple tree fertilized by the placenta, many start a college fund, which, by the way, when the child is three is used up to get the child on the waiting list at the best preschool in town.

            Well, not me. As a child of the fifties we got none of that, and I started a college fund for my children that turned out to be good thing because after the divorce I needed it for rent. Facial recognition? Now there’s a topic. Maybe it was my family (or just me), but looking at myself was private. If I had a poppy seed in my tooth, I stepped into the bathroom, a pimple? Same thing. Was my hair okay? I avoided, at all costs getting caught looking in the rear view mirror to check my lip gloss. At sixteen I was gifted a tiny mirror in a velvet case for my purse, but gave it away after it sat unused. The last time I posed for a head shot was at graduation; my shoulders draped in black silk.

            Facial recognition requires a photo, posting it, maybe several versions in different outfits with different expressions. Not a “Selfie”, although some people have gotten very good at that. But for me, who never dared to put on mascara or lipstick in my car mirror. Groom in public?    I need at least one professional head-shot, dressing the torso for a sought-after image. Black jacket, silk blouse: real estate agent. Light linen jacket, rose shell, a large pendant necklace and a scarf for creativity. Hands at chin: psychologist. A yoga teacher in warrior pose, full body tights, a plaid shirt and felt hat for the western mystery thriller writer, a head tilt, lips licked, chin down, neck back, smile, not too big; smiling makes wrinkles. Do I dare ask her to airbrush wrinkles or match both eyebrows?

            The cost for a photo shoot comes due before I’ve sold the book, even the idea of my book. I decided to pay someone to help me set up my website, to keep it current, newsy and get back to followers. Oh, my, followers. I have been working on that list. I will offer a free gift when you sign up for my free newsletter, but need someone to tweet for me on topic, post relevant articles and the reviews I write and watch for topical news stories. I follow publishing trends, post blogs because once I have all that in place, my identity established, I am somewhat recognizable. I will publish a few stand-alones, pack my bio with lists of successes and then ready to seek an agent.

All of this assumes my story is a great one, literary, crafted skillfully and regularly revised and edited with the support of a brilliant critique group. No typos. Oh, I nearly forgot: hire an editor, struggle through revisions, pay her in full to cut 25% to meet a recommendation for a manuscript under 300 pages? Once confident, I can now to submit a set of queries, and include my spiffy web address. But wait, I need one more blast of confidence, lest I have missed something crucial: An online webinar that begins this month on preparing the manuscript, finding an agent, and how to get published.

            Look for my book, Fallen From the Nest, in the next few years at your local book-seller. Sign up to get my newsletter at gmabrown.com and read my blog at WordPress Letters to Montana Out on the street, say “Hey” if you recognize me. NancyKayBrown.com, gmabrown

Photo by Portia Shao, Positive Vista Photography & Art, Santa Cruz

We Were All a Wreck

Two-year old Ryan hid behind my legs as “the snort” came up the driveway. The ground vibrated and rumbled. It belched smoke and steam, growled and groaned, engines grinding, treads clacking up the driveway. A suspended grapple with teeth appeared first, looming above the trees like a dinosaur, its hinged face bowed atop a tall neck called an arm, its body read, CAT. It clanked and roared to a stop, quieted before emitting one last cough. Our snort, the name inspired by a children’s book we’d read about a backhoe, had come to knock down our old house. After a final battle with rats in the floors and nesting in walls, we’d about had it with that old place; were ready to start fresh. Our snort was an excavator with a grapple that looked like jaws with teeth; very big ones. 

In the silence, Ryan eased out toward the machine, his hands cupped over his ears, tilted his head all the way back and looked up. The driver was up there perched in the seat, hardhat, red suspenders. Ryan called, “Are you here to fix our house?”

Just days earlier we had moved to into the rental unit near the house to manage the remodel. Ryan and his sister lived in a tent in back of the shop with my underemployed son (their father) and unemployed mother, Jan. Ryan was three and his baby sister nearly one. Jan and Liza stayed in the tent most days, rarely venturing out. So, Ryan spent a lot of time with me as I tended the place: trimming trees, planting a garden, climbing up in the seat of my own tractor to turn the compost, feeding the horses and looking after chickens. 

“Nope,” the driver stretched out of the cab to hook a hand around the grab bar and jumped down. Taking off her helmet, she shook out her hair. Dwarfed by the immense machine our neighbor Sharon was sleek and taught as an animal. “Sorry. I’m here to wreck it.”  Ryan burst into tears.

We were all a wreck at that time, our lives unsettled by disruption: getting ourselves and our household items packed up for the construction project, moving into the cabin, fighting with Jan and Tony, erecting a tent our back for Tony’s family to live in, Jan’s illnesses, medications and depression, social services complaints and we were bleeding money, twice as much as we’d planned for. But most importantly we knew by then that we had to do something about Tony and Jan, because they were driving over the line, heading in the wrong direction.

(This memory and the way the deconstruction aligned with our family’s situation, one deconstruction after another, like the house, was eventually followed by reconstruction. It seemed a relevant thought. Not quite an epiphany. Simply a moment when I paused while editing a nearby scene in my memoir, Fallen From the Nest.) (names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty)

Operating Manual

When it was time to transition you two children from my house back to Daddy’s, we only had to move you next door. He had a new baby and a  girlfriend, for awhile, his wife. It was traumatic for all of us. Traumatic means that it was an emotionally charged time and we all were uncomfortable. We had to change a lot of things about our daily life. That’s hard to do.

I kept my tongue in my cheek as I wrote this operating manual, hoping it would be seen as funny, looked at, read by your dad and temporary step-mom. I couldn’t begin to write everything I had to say. I had already begun to feel the loss of you and your sister, my little buddies.

I just discovered this again this morning… I try not to give advice, people do not appreciate it. This is not very well-disguised is it? Enjoy a very serious message wrapped like a refurbished vehicle manual! gma

Operating Instructions copy


I watched you with you pencil in hand, scratch number after number in the blanks, color in the boxes and flip the page to complete a number sentence. Five pages, two of them with 25 problems lined up like chairs in the DMV. Your mom said you had so much homework, please give him some time. You did it fast. You did it dutifully. You did not do it with interest, engagement and used very little skill. You were a chicken pecking out your twosies. Times tables still get memorized, still get learned, get to become part of your collection of math ideas even when not drilled. That homework was drill. I am glad you are still alive. Drill and kill is not effective. But something in. your classroom was right. You learned these already. You knew just what to write beneath the line where two multiplicands, none over 12 teased and taunted you above those lines. I got this, you told me. Steeling yourself for a dull half hour session with the twos times tables you slogged through the pages, kicking them aside like a dragon trainer only can. You got the twos down. Pencil smoking. Done. I hope next week you get to do the threesies. Or maybe just for fun the text book might mix them up, toss in a few fours or an eight, I mean wouldn’t it be cool if you discovered a relationship between the twosies and foursies? Then watched the numbers in your head dance when an eight times two was something you already knew. Oh, well, its all transitory, isn’t it? Reinforcing, strengthening those neurons, constructing a pathway through that wild math forest in your brain. That’s what homework always was, Maybe always will be. You are a good sport, buddy.IMG_0732

Take it slow, enjoy the ride

I used to tell Grandpa, go on ahead, I’ll meet you there. We liked to ride bikes with our kids– four boys, one was your dad. The oldest and the two middles would ride off while the youngest at first, then later one of the middles would stay with me. “I’ll hang with Mom,” they’d call out as if protecting the female of the species. When actually he wanted to see the cool things I always found on our rides. I liked to go slow. Liked to see where I was, watch the trail for scat, evidence of animals about. You can’t hear them unless you slow the wind in your ears. That goes for riding horses, too. Listen, watch, not out of fear, but out of interest, desire to fully know the place I trod, wheeled or clopped along.

So it is with play with our new HighRise building sets. It behooves us to watch, listen and discover what you children are interested in, exploring, wanting to understand and inclined to create. We can be sure that the your explorations will change overtime. So what should you do with that set, that full Team Builder set? I’d suggest, based upon the ages and building interests of the children, teachers make a selection from the set, basic panels first, nothing else, see what they do. Then maybe bring in some airplanes, vehicles or people. I noticed that your sister engaged when I added a basket of dogs to the set.

Dogs and Ellie
Dogs and Liza

Yet my three year old grandson was delighted to learn how to connect the pieces. Slotting was a new skill, stacking delighted him. Then he connected his two stacks and stood back to have a look at it.


Connecting the stacked towers
Connecting the stacked towers

I noticed little ones liked laying a flat panel on top of their buildings to add his special touch then peeked through the windows. The spaces interested them. I wondered what might this little guy would like to do next? Then he showed me. He shined a flashlight through the holes and windows watching the square pattern change shape and as it projected on the wall. What else could I do with his idea, this schema exploration?

Peeking into the windows of the big kid's buildings
Peeking into the windows of the big kid’s buildings

I see you. A three year old likes the windows.
I see you. A three year old likes the windows.

Then you big kids, 6 and 8 yrs tried to hang flashlights and used the one light tube we’d provided and some old fashioned clothes pins with rubber bands. You asked if I had more flashlights. So the next day, I brought in a string of rope lights, LEDs with a battery pack. I added some standard wooden spring clothes pins for attaching the strand of lights. And Voila, you were clipping and unclipping– “wiring” the buildings with light strands into the night. I’ll put some on ETSY for your friends if you’d like. I found a good price. They are pretty sturdy. Way better than little tree lights or the LEDs without the rubber tubing that protect the tiny bulbs. What do you think? Gma

Light tube with clothespins
Light tube with clothespins

Happy Holloween 2015

You kids just left for school, the day before Halloween, dressed in your homemade costumes. We put them together yesterday, my little Astrid and Hiccup, dragon tamers, friends on the movie screen and off. Cutting up my old sweats, you and your sister cut and drew and trimmed, too. We climbed the steps of the studio and dug through bins, you wanted real leather, real belts, to really be Hiccup. Your sister was happy with an assemblage of items suggesting her favorite character, Astrid. Whew. Done.

Your step-mom had no time, except for your little brothers costume. He turned three yesterday. His is done. So what happened? We will have to chat later. I listened to your worry, whine and frantic pleas, watched you pace. Of course I will help. Of course. I have to look really cool, Grandma. I want to wear it to school. I can’t wear regular clothes, then everyone will call me a loser.

What? A loser? Where does that idea come from? You could never be a loser, clever, smart, kind, funny, artistic and creative boy full of love. Loser?

Then you cried. “I was in the bathroom and saw “Ryan is a loser” on the door. Somebody wrote it in dark pen. I couldn’t get it off and I didn’t go back to my class because I was mad.” Oh dear, so mean and scary. “So the principal saw me and I showed her. We washed it off.” I was glad about that. you added one last thing, “But you aren’t supposed to write on the school.” Or be allowed to be mean to another child, harass and target him like that. I hope he was counseled, caught and his parents told.

I agreed about that. “You are right and you are never supposed to say unkind things, but people sometimes do. I am sorry someone was having their own bad day and wrote that about you. I wonder if he was feeling like a loser himself? That is sad.

That is mean, you told me. Yes it is. So we got back to putting your costumes together. Grandpa took you to the barn to look at leather tack, buckles and belts and Ellie and I glued little skulls and bottle caps on my old sweats, then all night I tossed and turned.

I hope you feel proud today. Good in your costume, strong, capable, able to stand up and be Ryan in that Hiccup costume. You are a dragon slayer, oops, I mean tamer. You are.


Liza’s Turn

Liza and I worked together on her homework this week. She was so much fun and was willing to try anything to make it happen. She was excited about it not working because when it didn’t funny things happened. She wanted to invent a bike trailer for her stuffed animals to ride in. The cord around her neck and back to the box  where she had developed a wheel and axle from garage parts. No not safe, grandpa called from the shop. Its okay because it cant turn. It gets caught in my wheels every time then flips over. So maybe tie the ropes to the handle bars? How about the bike frame? OMG it keeps getting tangled in the wheels.

Then she got the idea to hold the rope out from the wheels with a stick at the handle bars. Still no luck. It flipped. How about the seat gets a pipe all taped on so it has big wings to hold out the rope. Okay. Seems good enough. Whew. Fun project, amazing tenacity and inventiveness.

This is rather like a commercial, only one minute long. I know I know, now I have to do one for you too. Right? That will be fun. gma

Our First Event….Yet we still look like we are having fun.

the ceo and cfo
the ceo and cfo

cabin kit
cabin kit

Grandpa and I have been working to get ready for a sales opportunity in Seattle at the Reggio Conference. We are sending sets off to Seattle with flyers, price sheets and receipts, which means we had to hurry and develop them. This is the real deal. Very exciting to have this opportunity to get more feedback about the product and start recovering a little investment. We have been discussing how to create a light for the interior, make the structures glow. Lighting that is self contained, maybe controlled simply like a flashlight, or should it be a science learning experience for the children? What do you think, buddy?

Clear window panels are very cool, so far they break router bits every time we make a few. The buildings look great with clothes pins, clear tubes with stoppers. Playing with ideas for inspiring teachers and builders. What accessories do you use with your sets?



Hay, buddy want to listen in?

The moment the first part of her emerged, I was there anticipating her arrival, a foot. Was that alright a foot coming first? Then her nose, I could see it, slick shiny dark, black or brown? Nostrils flared, I smelled the earth, the sea the universe in her first breath. With a gush, she lay in the straw at my knees, I was wet with her. Mocha, my Arabian mare, her mother, sniffed her, me, her again. We called her Mosaic and later Mozie. I was ready for her, held myself around my middle in wonder, the beauty of it, not a miracle, no,  it was so absolutely basic, expected, perfect.

Mocha pulled off the sack and licked her offspring’s head, her face, sides and bottom, becoming her mother tongue, from whom the bay filly would learn everything in those first few months, years and become a horse, a member of the barnyard, an individual being, with her own spirit, but responsibility to her herd.

A quarter hour later she stood, legs like a rickety folding table, a tripod, but four, bamboo in the wind, a kid on skis, a sapling. She nuzzled, nursed and they both laid down. What a morning . Mozie closed her eyes, so Mocha could too.

An hour later I cleaned the stall around them, brought Mocha some hay and started in on the filly’s foot, still a bundle of hair, the pointy ends flattened by her first steps, flattened to get to her mother, her smell, the hay, the barn, the trees shifting in the breeze.  Flattened into a tiny strong hoof, ready for the soil outside, the trails, rocks, gravel and the world she’d inhabit, the people she’d depend upon, all of it-interdependence. I took her foot in my hands and ran my hand up her leg, her thigh and down again. I stroked and hummed as I rubbed each of four kegs, her back, rump, chest and belly. As she dried, her dark brown coat caught the sunlight, a scruff of a mane, fluff of a tail black as night with a rhombus of white, on her face, a window into her soul, there it was.

I pressed my cheek against the white, her barely cheeked head an upholstered light bulb that would “dry out” overtime to become a sculpted Arabian, hooded eyes, boned face, a bay beauty. What happened that day changed my life and began hers. When I brought in a flake of hay, she’d rise, assemble her legs and move to me like a dog seeking pets toss my hand with her nose, follow me through the paddock as I cleaned, pushing the blue wheelbarrow full of collected manure, raked up straw. I’d toss acorns over the fence, limbs of trees, stones and pine cones tossed out of her way. She watched me as I groomed her home, cared for her, two moms, Mocha and  her human. Like a toddler, she nuzzled the tip of the rake, tried to climb in the wheel barrow, tipped it over and dashed back into the stall then peeked out from behind her mother to review what she’d done.

There were days she’d bite me, my clothes and shoes and pull my laces, tasting her world, testing me. Kicking, charging, nipping, colt behaviors required limits, socializing, and that I find her someone to play with…

I could go on and on today about me and Mozie until I reach her final breath outside on the grass, with me at her feet, stroking her legs, saying goodbye. But, this morning I am thinking about Liza instead. That’s what got me thinking about bonding, how I made a physiological, neurological, deeply emotional  connections with a young filly. Connections that kept her following me around the paddock, watching me like a child using social referencing, wanting to know if we are okay, how we feel about the scuffling sounds in the brush, about ourselves. Are we safe?

To Liza I was a barrier, one that kept her from her mommy, a nagging presence, defined me as “not her mommy” yet she had no other. Everyone needs a mommy.  I tried a few nannies, then took the reins myself. There was just me, so, like starting at the foot, not yet flattened for walking the earth, I stroked her, bathed, read, sang, fed her, played, became an unrelenting presence, though unwelcome. As she probably could tell, I was not sure I liked it being the one rejected over and over again. I thought I might have to strap her down, ride her through bucking, twisting, hazardous falls and uncontrolled rage. But like with Mozie, I waited for her to teach me how, like waiting my turn at jump rope, in tune, knees bent, flexing ready for anything, arms ready to catch her.

I tried for awhile, then didn’t anymore, I decided I couldn’t. I was mad at her daddy, a world that left her mother untended, on the streets, a system that failed then dropped Ellie at my door. Was I mad at my mother, or the mother I once was, inaccessible when I reached  for her? Or maybe, just maybe I felt the burden of untended hurts of my own so I couldn’t bear to witness hers, confused and thinking it was my own.

Oh, that blue wheelbarrow how is glows in the foggy dew, the rake and shovel now tossed back into the empty barn where an old cat lives today, stalking mice, raiding nests in the eaves, cobwebs in her fur. I close my eyes and remember the smell of damp soil after a rain, the tartness of fresh manure, the flat edge of the shovel worn thin, from scraping at the dry packed soil. Fingers of  the rake scratched  dust plumes rose, the tang of urine in a mat of hay.

I used to take time sorting the good hay from soiled, remove what was soiled, preserving what could be salvaged. As it is with Liza.  I created space for us to sit and take the stones from our shoes, pried open my knees offering her shelter, my hands soft on my thighs, waiting for her to crawl in, she’d stopped seeking my comfort, wouldn’t enter the triangle safety of my lap or drop her head to my lap. We danced around one another like chickens in the barnyard. Her step mom stepped in and she got  a mommy again. So I waited to become her grandma. Just that, her grandma. She didn’t seem to know what to do with me, how I could have gone from mommy to grandma. She had quit me.

But then today, this morning, when she stopped in to borrow a pan, I saw she had been following me, using my words, my tone, putting her lips just so. She’d watched my face those first three years to see how we feel, cried when I left her, peeled her off my legs. I hadn’t I noticed. As she heads down the drive, back to her home where her mommy makes apple oat bars for lunch box treats, and you are helping, I have to let go. I did the best that I could, maybe better. It’s time to sell the blue wheelbarrow, clean out the barn. Do grandma’s get children ponies? I have so many things to figure out.  gma