Coping with noisy children as an introvert parent

If I were to give this article a clickbait headline, it would be, “An introvert parent controlled his six children’s noise levels with one simple rule.”

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Credit: Skeeze via Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

The family meal is as American as apple pie, which incidentally is exactly what we hope to receive at the end of one. It’s a time to be together and to eat together, but not in silence. The true beauty of the family meal is the opportunity it gives us to communicate with one another. Father Leo Patalinghug’s Grace Before Meals movement is built on the idea that “the simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships.”

But when you’re the father of six children, all of them nine-years-old or younger, you don’t get a lot of communication during dinner. You get a lot of crosstalk and noise. The volume of the voices sometimes is the problem, but usually not. The problem is usually quantity. Dearest Sons 1 and 2 are talking about Pokemon, complete with sound effects. Dearest Daughter 2 is singing at the top of her lungs (and not eating). Dearest Son 3 is bellowing loudly about how his food is yucky, which makes Dearest Wife, who worked very hard to make the meal, more and more frustrated. Dearest Daughter 3 is climbing down from her seat to sit in her mother’s lap. And Dearest Daughter 1, like me, just wants to run away from the table and escape to somewhere quiet, like solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary. With young children, a regular family meal can be a raucous dinner party every night.

Some families thrive on this. If you need an example, go watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But what about a highly introverted person, like me? In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses the research of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan into “high-reactive” types, people whose brains easily overload on dopamine and thus find themselves easily overstimulated. Dr. Elaine Aron has conducted extensive research into what she calls “highly-sensitive persons” (which I also am), people who are easily overwhelmed by bright lights or loud sounds. In her book The Introvert Advantage, Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., describes a similar situation and reaction: “Peter, an introvert, is going to a museum, looking forward to seeing his favorite Monet. As he enters the museum, which is not crowded, he feels overwhelmed; he reduces his focus immediately, perhaps without even realizing it.”

It isn’t just that we’d prefer a quiet meal in which the only sounds are the clinking of silverware and some soft Vivaldi music. It’s that when we encounter a situation in which numerous voices are talking over one another, our brains overload on all the stimulation, and we shut down, like a circuit breaker disrupting an overpowered electrical line. Self-imposed isolation from your own family isn’t something any of us wants, no matter what the internet cliche of the “Just leave me alone, everyone!” introvert might make some people think. So what’s an introvert parent to do?

Rule #3
My wife Rose and I have many rules for our children, but they’re all pretty standard stuff, like don’t hit your siblings, be excellent to one another, and don’t stick forks up your nose. We also have three special rules, each one important enough to be numbered. Rule #1 is “obey us the first time.” We’re not tyrants, we just want to teach our kids a proper sense of obedience and trust towards their parents. Rule #2 is “let Mommy get her sleep,” and you can read more about that one when my wife starts writing articles about being an “I Really Need My Sleep” Parent.

Rule #3 is “one person speaks at a time.” It’s pretty self-explanatory. It means when we’re all gathered together, everyone takes turns speaking. We don’t talk over one another. We don’t hold multiple conversations simultaneously. We listen, and we don’t just wait to talk.

And it works. It works so well. The two main benefits are:

  • Quiet at the dinner table. Not silence, but quiet. Although we are eight, only one of us is speaking at any one time. The noise level goes from “wild, crowded party” to “pleasant conversation with the closest of friends.” Bliss!
  • Perhaps a less obvious benefit: it slows the pace of the conversation. This is essential to my introvert-wired brain with its “long, slow acetylcholine pathway” as Laney puts it. I can keep track of one conversation. I get tired, frustrated, and eventually angry when I have to track three at the same time.

Knowing the rule and living it are two separate things
Rule #3 works so well and so wonderfully, you’d think there was nothing wrong with it. But there is. It has a single drawback, and it’s a huge one: the children don’t obey it. At least not all the time. But honestly, I’d be a little worried if they did constantly follow it. They’re all under ten-years-old, after all. They’re supposed to be wild little gremlins.

Since it’s against the nature of young children and toddlers to carry out a civil one-person-speaks-at-a-time conversation, there are a few techniques I’ve learned for helping them to follow Rule #3. First, it’s a big help if you or your spouse can “hold court” at the table. It will go against every fiber of your introvert self, but you have to make yourself the focus of attention. You’re going to have to be the moderator.

If you work a day job, apply some of your corporate experience here. We’ve all attended meetings that aren’t truly exchanges of ideas, but are instead ceremonies, right? Usually, the ceremony involves the meeting organizer going around the table, calling on participants one at a time to give their reports. This is one of the worst uses of your time in corporate America, it is an abuse of a meeting, it is an email or instant message or 1-on-1 conversation forced into the context of a team meeting merely for the convenience of a supervisor. But in the context of a parent controlling the conversation to keep it from erupting into noisy chaos, it’s perfect! Give each child a chance to say something about his or her day, or to tell a story or a joke, whatever works best. In our family, I often ask, “Who has a kindness to report?” and we swap stories of kind acts we did for others that day or kind acts others did for us.

While Rule #3 was born as a way to make me want to not run and hide every time the dinner bell rang, it doesn’t have to apply solely to meal times. It works any other time you and your family are together and the conversation is at risk of becoming a free-for-all. This might be in the car, or even just while sitting around the living room together on a lazy Sunday.

It also bears mentioning that there are ways to apply Rule #3 in a way that can steer the family activity away from conversation completely. What if the one person speaking is reading a book to the family? What if the one “person” speaking is the television, while everyone enjoys a show or a film together? Suddenly, your family is sharing in an activity you likely love, and in a way that combines a low level of stimulation with a high level of family togetherness.

A balancing of needs
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that your children won’t stick to Rule #3 forever not just because it’s in their nature as children not to, but that it may be in their nature as themselves not to. Their needs may very well be different than yours. They might be extroverts or ambiverts who need some extroverted time. They, or your spouse, may thrive on a boisterous conversation: the louder and the more people talking at once, the better. Five separate conversations going back-and-forth across the dinner table, mixed together with compliments to the chef and requests to pass the mashed potatoes, may absolutely energize someone else, even while it sucks you dry. And that’s OK!

A few paragraphs ago I disparaged the internet cliche of the “Just leave me alone, everyone!” introvert, but cliches often exist for a reason. We don’t like to talk about it much, but I believe introverts’ tendency to focus on our inner world can tip the wrong direction and slide towards selfishness. I know it can in me.

Find the right balance. Give your kids the time they need to be loud. Let them shout and giggle and make funny voices and tell silly jokes. Let all six of them do it at the same time, to the point that you honestly don’t know who is listening to who. I try to do this as much as I can, but when it just gets to be too much, I raise three fingers and wait for everyone to notice the silent reminder I’m giving them: remember Rule #3. Let’s talk, let’s communicate, let’s share our news and our hopes and our dreams and our fears.

Let’s just take turns doing it one at a time.

Princess cereal face-off

CerealizabowlSome people are all about wine — they know how to sniff it, taste it, savor it. Others are foodies. They know the taste of every obscure spice you never even knew existed. Me? I’m all about morning grains. Welcome to the latest installment of Cerealizabowl, my occasional series documenting my lifelong love of breakfast cereal.

Today I seek to answer a question first posed by the Evil Queen in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Magic mirror on the wall, which is the fairest princess cereal of them all?” I recently spotted two new cereals in the Best Aisle of the Grocery Store, each featuring a different Disney princess. Me being me, I had to try them both. Would they sing “Be Our Guest” in my breakfast nook? Or would they make me proverbially prick my finger on a spindle and fall asleep until lunch?

Disney Princess Cereal
prod_img-6465515_belleMy three daughters love the princesses — any princess, be it Belle, Leia, or Peach, so I knew they’d love this cereal. As for myself, I wasn’t so sure. At first glance, this is a YALCC — Yet Another Lucky Charms Clone. Oats, marshmallows of different shapes and colors… does Lucky the Leprechaun have a lawyer? Maybe he filled his pot of gold with the spoils of many a successful copyright lawsuit?

But Disney Princess cereal has a new twist. It’s strawberry flavored! This, too, has been done before (Strawberry Cheerios, anyone?), but it’s so tasty, I don’t mind a bit.

The real joy of Disney Princess cereal comes in its marketing. First, Kellogg’s took a play from the 1990s comic book market and released this cereal with four different covers, I mean boxes. Each one features a different princess: Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, or Rapunzel. Do you think my daughters were satisfied with just one? Oh no, they needed all four.

However, the part that thrilled me most was each box featured a “prize.” This was a great throwback to the days of a toy in every cereal box. When I was growing up, the first thing I did upon opening a box of cereal was root through it in search of the included toy. Most cereals don’t offer toys inside the box anymore, which is a shame because passing on traditions to our children is important, you know? Though the prizes were simply items to cut out of the back of the box (a bookmark, a picture frame, a tiara, and a doorknob decoration), I appreciated the effort.

IMAG0443Disney Moana cereal
I know Moana isn’t technically a princess, but as Maui himself says, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” And for the purpose of this cereal face-off, she needs to be a princess, because while strawberry Lucky Charms Disney Princess cereal is good, Moana cereal is awesome.

Moana cereal is made of corn puffs rather than oats, and its pieces are larger, puffier, and much airier than Disney Princess cereal. But what really sets it apart is the taste.

I don’t have the most discriminating palate in the world. (Case in point: my favorite food is breakfast cereal.) I can’t put a bite of food into my mouth and instantly recite all of its ingredients the way my wife can. So it wasn’t so strange that I couldn’t place what Moana cereal tasted like when I first took a bite. But neither could I with the second bite, the third, or even the first bowl. The only words that came to mind were: wow, oh man, and nom nom nom.

Eventually, I decided it tasted like raspberries, but now I think it’s more of a vanilla taste. Either way: delicious. And after you add milk to it? Well, remember the old commercials where milk is poured into Lucky Charms and a rainbow instantly sprouted right out of the bowl? That actually happens when you add milk to Moana cereal. Whoever made this cereal can rightfully smile upon us and say, “You’re Welcome.”

I should also mention I did not even get a bite out of the first box of this cereal that entered my house. My kids loved it so much, they devoured it all in one breakfast. Good kids, all of them — darn good kids. They’ve come to appreciate the finer things in life.

Small groups help overwhelmed introverted parents

My previous article on being an introverted parent has become one of my most-read articles ever, and I couldn’t be happier about that — thank you all so much for your interest. Being the father of six children plus the world’s most introverted introvert can make for an… interesting life from time-to-time, especially if you define “interesting” as “omigosh I feel so overwhelmed I swear the walls are closing in.” But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It just takes some coping mechanisms, and today’s article is about one of my favorites — and one of my children’s favorites, too.

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“Audrey Hepburn: Many-Sided Charmer,” LIFE Magazine, December 7, 1953 (Link)

Audrey Hepburn, by all accounts, was an introvert. When she described her ideal weekend (see picture at right), she might as well have been describing mine. I’m a classic introvert in that time spent alone leaves me refreshed, energized, and blissful, while too much time with other people — any other people — leaves me tired, worn out, and dazed. When my weekend comes close to what Audrey describes, I feel like her dancing in Funny Face:

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Image via Giphy

But when I spend a weekend socializing, I feel more like her in My Fair Lady, planning my revenge and muttering, “Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins.”

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Image via Giphy

This is all pretty standard for introverts, but what if you’re an introverted parent? Our kids need our love, but almost just as much, they need our time. What happens when they need to be with you when all you want is to be alone? What happens when there are six of them who need you? That’s a sure-fire recipe for overwhelm, so what’s a loving parent to do?

Small Group Sessions
Any introvert who has survived formal schooling has an instinctual, negative reaction to the phrase “small groups,” because it is a reminder of times we were forced to socialize with others, even if it made us uncomfortable. But take the phrase out of the context of school, and it’s exactly what we often want. A quiet cup of coffee with a couple of friends is usually (read: always) preferable to a wild time at a loud and large party.

Why not apply this same small group mentality to time spent with your kids? When I look back over just the last few months, some of the kid activities I have enjoyed the most were small group activities, including:

  • The time just my two oldest boys and I went to see Star Wars: Rogue One
  • The time just my three girls and I went out for shopping and froyo
  • A couple of times when my eldest daughter stayed home with me while everyone else went to a party

Small group time is still time spent with your kids, which they absolutely crave, but as a bonus, there are fewer of their siblings demanding your attention, which leaves more available for the ones present. From the introverted parent’s perspective, since it’s not all the kids at once, it’s less overwhelming, less noisy, and more intimate. And I don’t think you have to be the father of six, like me, to find positives in small groups. This is something any introverted parent with two or more children can benefit from.

One-on-one time
Perhaps even better is a slight variation on the small group session: one-on-one time. My wife and I have long been big believers in the importance of each of our children getting a bit of alone time now and then with each of us. All of the benefits of small group time, both for the children and for us, apply, but even more so because here the group is a duo.

The only negative to this technique is the more children you have, the more one-on-one sessions you need to have if you wish to give all your children equal attention. (And who wouldn’t?) Too many of these in succession can get you right back into an overwhelmed state, just via a thousand small paper cuts instead of one big stab. So spread them out, a little at a time.

Don’t forget your spouse
There’s one vital consideration you have to make before scheduling small group sessions with your children every weekend from now until October. What are your spouse’s needs?

I mentioned one of my favorite recent small group activities (a one-on-one, actually) was a time when my eldest daughter and I stayed home together while the rest of the family attended a birthday party. This same day is one of my wife’s least favorite days in recent memory, because it happened on a Sunday, a day on which she has a strong preference for the entire family to stay together.

The time you and some of the children are away is the time your spouse is left with fewer family members; if your spouse is an extrovert, that may not be an ideal situation for him or her. Alternatively, if your spouse is also an introvert, think about how he or she will feel flying solo with the larger portion of your children while you’re off having a small group or one-on-one adventure. You’ll probably have to return the favor by switching roles at some point and letting him or her have some small group time.

Also remember: children keep ledgers. Your daughter will remember the time four months ago you went on a solo trip with her brothers, and she’ll want to know when she gets to have her turn. Keep it fair. When you plan a small group experience, consider at least scheduling when the children who won’t be participating get their turn.

Small group time allows for more large group time
None of this is to say that the only way an introverted parent of a large number of children can be happy is to spend time with subsections of the family. While kids will love their one-on-one and small group times with Mommy or Daddy, they absolutely crave and need lots of time in which the whole family is together.

But when every family activity is a whole family activity, this introverted parent feels like he’s falling apart. Small group time is time to recharge and time to take a fresh perspective, all while continuing to spend time with your children. It helps me to stay laser-focused, but not inward, on myself. Instead, it keeps my attention on something far more important: my children. “Introverted” is an adjective that describes us, but “parent” is the noun that describes who we are.

Happy Bookaversary, Yesterday’s Demons

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My Yesterday’s Demons page contains a sample chapter, character introductions, and purchasing links.

This month marks the one-year bookaversary of Yesterday’s Demons! My debut novel was published in eBook on April 12, 2016, and the paperback edition followed on April 22, 2016.

I’ve mentioned many times before how the publication of my novel was a dream come true. Even one year later, it’s just as thrilling as the first day I saw my book — my book, you guys, omigosh I wrote this — listed on Amazon.com.

If you haven’t read it yet, visit my Yesterday’s Demons page for a sample chapter, character introductions, and purchasing links. If you like YA-friendly fantasy or JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star, you’re going to love it.

And since a bookaversary is grounds for a celebration, I think it’s time to hand out a little treat. It’s been a long time since I dropped any hints about the next book in The Verdant Revival trilogy, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, and according to my Project Tracker, the second draft of that book is now 21% complete!

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Besides the book’s title, I’ve previously mentioned that the book would focus not on Siv (the protagonist of Yesterday’s Demons), but on Siv’s friend Fritz. The Verdant Revival features three main characters — Siv, Fritz, and Cassie — and the three of them take turns being the main character.

It’s time I dropped some new information about it, so here goes. On Twitter, when I reached the 100,000-word milestone during the writing of the book’s first draft, I mentioned the 100,000th word was “gravity.” What I didn’t mention was… that’s sort of a spoiler, albeit one you can file under “When I read the book I’ll look back on this and say, ‘Ahh OK I get it now!'”

But to be more specific and less annoyingly coy, I’ll also say that “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked is a big, key number in my personal soundtrack for Tomorrow’s Shepherd. So many of the lyrics apply to the story of Fritz and his efforts to learn how to wield his power of hyper-intuition, especially:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!

(Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz)

That’s all the hinting I can give you for now. I’m only 21% done with the second draft, after all. But I can’t wait to get this one into your hands.

Deus vobiscum.

A culture of iteration

For any new readers who aren’t aware, I’m a software engineer and team lead in my day job. Recently, I was given the opportunity and the privilege of contributing some articles about my company’s engineering culture to the company’s blog. The first was posted last week. Check it out!

defi Engineering: A Culture of Iteration

I wanted to love Batman vs. Superman

You guys… I need to talk about Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I know it came out a year ago, but I’m hopelessly behind the times. I don’t see most movies until they come to Netflix or DVD.com, even movies I really want to see. And I really wanted to see Batman vs. Superman. The first time in movie history Batman and Superman shared the screen? Sold! Wonder Woman joined them, too? I’m there opening night (in spirit anyway)! It has cameos from The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman? Shut up and take my money!

I knew it didn’t get positive reviews, to put things generously. But I figured, I’m a fan! It was made for me! I’ll love it! And the trailers looked amazing. That shot of the DC Trinity on screen together for the first time…?

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Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Glorious! I don’t think I stopped smiling for days after seeing that first trailer.

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, I finally saw the movie, and… and..

rzev1And I felt like Barry Allen visiting his dad in prison.

Much like the Transformers live action films, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is what I call a YouTube movie. I’ll watch individual scenes from it over and over and over. But the movie as a whole? Never again.

So how did this one fail so badly? Let me count the ways:

Too Dark
Hey, I know how it is with comic book hero meet-ups: first, they fight, then they band together. But the fight between Batman and Superman was more than just fisticuffs. Batman was going to kill Superman. That’s not just too dark for me, that’s too dark for Batman! Didn’t anyone remember his “no kill” rule?

Batman was also way too liberal with the use of machine guns on the Batmobile and the Batplane. A few times, explosions caused by vehicular gunfire pretty clearly killed bad guys. Maybe it’s just not cool in modern day America, but Superman is not the only hero with a no kill rule. Batman is, too.

It was a filmed comic book script.
I once looked forward to another Zack Snyder directed comic book adaptation: Watchmen. And once was enough for me on that one, too, because I felt like it was too literal an adaptation of the comic book. Specifically, it was in the pacing. It was paced like a comic book, not a movie. Batman vs. Superman had the same problem.

For example, there’s a scene in Batman vs. Superman where we hard cut to the front yard of a Kansas farmhouse. Clark Kent is looking at the stars. His mother walks up to him and gives him some advice. Then, cut. Next scene.

In comics, this works fine. It’s a one-page scene, and a narration box at the top left of the page says, “Smallville, Kansas… The Kent family farm…” But in a film, I’d barely even processed that we were back at Clark’s boyhood home in Smallville, Kansas before the scene was over. It felt extremely fast-paced — Flash-paced, you might say — and not in a pleasant way.

“Save Martha!”
So this one is well-documented, and I don’t need to beat a dead horse here. But let me just emphasize, again, that Batman was ready to murder Superman the same way a common criminal once murdered his parents, and if that weren’t wrong enough, he was stopped only when he learned his mother and Clark’s mother had the same first name.

Now that’s just dumb. But what makes it worse is: Batman should have already known Martha Kent’s first name at that point. We know Superman has figured out Batman’s identity because, during their fight, he calls Batman “Bruce.” But at Lex Luthor’s party, it is strongly implied that Bruce also knows Clark is Superman, what with his pointed criticism of the Daily Planet’s coverage of Superman. And the film’s climax reveals Lex Luthor has figured out Superman’s identity also.

Now I’m OK with Lex Luthor determining Superman’s identity, so long as the greatest detective in the world also knows, especially since Batman has been obsessed for two years at this point with preparing himself to face this “alien threat.” But the man who is always prepared for anything would also have run a full dossier on Mr. Clark Kent. He’d know where he lives, what car he drives, his annual income, his favorite breakfast cereal, who he spends his time with, and who his family members are.

But I’m supposed to believe that Batman only realized Clark’s mother and his mother shared a first name moments before driving a Kryptonite spear through Superman’s chest?

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The standard Picard facepalm is not enough for this one. Only the Picard double facepalm suffices.

On the bright side, Wonder Woman was awesome
I called Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice a YouTube movie because I will watch scenes from it over and over again. So I don’t want to be a complete negative nelly. There was a lot I really liked in this film.

  • Batman’s costume looked great — like right off the pages of Frank Miller’s Year One or Dark Knight Returns great.
  • The secret entrance to the Batcave opened underwater, and the Batmobile had to jump off a ramp to reach it. I was giddy.
  • You could feel the love between Clark and Lois. I’m a fan of stories in which those two are married, so I dug that.
  • “Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me. We just have a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns.”
  • The modern takes on Alfred and Lex Luthor were bold and worked really well for me. Today’s rich folks may not have butlers, but they do have directors of security. And Lex felt like an evil Mark Zuckerberg. I loved it.
  • The picture of Wonder Woman from World War I. The surveillance footage of The Flash in action. The underwater camera that caught a glimpse of Aquaman. The glimpse into the origin of Cyborg! Justice League, baby, Justice League!
  • And this. Every… single… moment. Of this:

As soon as Superman and Batman stopped fighting, and as soon as Wonder Woman joined the boys, the whole movie took an 180-degree turn for the better. Those final ten or fifteen minutes are my favorite scenes from any superhero movie that doesn’t star Heath Ledger as The Joker.

And I guess that’s why despite the fact that Zack Snyder disappointed me with Watchmen, despite the fact that he disappointed me with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m still going to be there on opening night (which is to say, one month to the day after it becomes available from DVD.com) for Justice League. It stuck the landing.

There’s a very meta moment in the first trailer for Justice League where Commissioner Gordon tells Batman, “It’s good to see you playing well with others again.” On the surface, this is a hint at the Bat-family, and past Batman partners like Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing. But it’s also a clear statement from Warner Bros. that its next DC Comics film isn’t going to be like the first 95% of Batman vs. Superman. It’s going to be more like that last 5%: fun and hopeful.

I’m sure hopeful that one doesn’t turn out to be a YouTube movie, too.

I’ve written for Batman and X-Men (sort of)

Yesterday’s Demons was not my first published work. That honor goes to Batman #455, cover dated October 1990. Did I write the main story in this issue? No. Did I write the backup story? No… it didn’t even have one. What I wrote and what was published in this issue was… a letter!

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Image: DC Comics

batmanletterDear KC and Denny,

I have just finished BATMAN #450 and I can only describe it in one word. WOW! The art was superb, as we have all come to expect from Jim Aparo, but the storyline was most excellent and intriguing. I could never imagine a Joker who couldn’t laugh at things, or refused to tell jokes. It will be very fascinating to see a three-way duel between the Joker, Batman, and Mr. Base. My only complaint is that Bruce shipped Tim off to Japan. Oh, well. I guess I would do the same after what the Clown Prince of Crime did to the old Boy Wonder.

Keep up the tremendous work — this is the best comic on sale today.

Mike Ripplinger

That right there is thirteen-year-old me trying to sound studious, professional, and about double my age at the time. If you want to know what I was really like at that age, check out the contribution I made to Uncanny X-Men #282 about one year later. Uncanny X-Men #282 features the first appearance of Bishop and the first appearance of my name in a Marvel comic. Here I am not making any effort at all to appear calm and rational. This is just me being the fourteen-year-old fanboy I was.

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Image: Marvel Comics

xmenletterDear X-Crew:

Concerning UNCANNY X-MEN #277, I can’t do a single thing until I write you on this issue. Incredible! First-rate! Phenomenal! Superlative! Gambit!

I know you’re sayng “Huh?” to this last remark, so let me explain. Gambit is my favorite X-Man and this issue featured him the most since #273, where the Wolvie fight was great. To see him say to the fake Wolverine, “Bang, you dead” nearly brought tears to my eyes. That’s how much I like Gambit. Keep him around for a long time, but keep him mysterious.

More reasons UNCANNY #277 was great. The script (“Bang, you dead”), the art (namely page 6, frame 7; page 19, frame 3, and, of course, page 24, frame 1), the return of Colossus in metal form (even if he is controlled by Shadow King. But could Piotr rejoin the X-Men? Please!), Gambit, Professor X’s return to Earth (do I see the leader the mutant teams need so badly?), Gambit, and Gambit.

You don’t know this, but I like Gambit.

So, make Colossus and Rogue X-Men again, and keep Gambit in the team. Or I’ll meet you in a dark alley and say, “Bang, you dead.”

Mike Ripplinger

Hoo boy, I should have won the Pulitzer for that one, shouldn’t I?

What I remember most about these letters is that I just knew both of them would be accepted for publication. I remember arriving at the comic book store’s parking lot the day Batman #455 was available and thinking to myself, “The letters on this issue’s editorial page will be about #450, and mine will be there.” And after I bought it, I remember returning to the car and just casually mentioning to my dad, “Yeah, so they published my letter in Batman.” And I just knew they were going to publish my Ode to Gambit in Uncanny X-Men, too. It was an early example of the intuition I would learn to listen to more often later in life.

Another memory of having these letters published was that they got me a pen pal! A man from Nigeria wrote me a letter after seeing my name and address published in Batman #455. I exchanged a couple of letters with him until the letters started to request that I ask “Mommy and Daddy” to send him money and American clothes. To make this easy for me, he even included his clothing sizes. It was like an early 90s, pre-Internet version of a Nigerian prince email scam.

I’m not sure whether or not they’re even still publishing letters to the editor in comic books these days. Maybe such discussion now takes place entirely on message boards and on Twitter. But having these letters printed in two of my favorite comic books sure was a thrill to me back when I was a teenager. And you know what? It still is.

Excelsior!

Being an introvert parent with a large family

When published five years ago, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking opened the floodgates of articles, blogs, and more books on the topics of introversion and extraversion. For me, this discussion has been eye-opening and life-changing. I understand things about myself I never did before. It turns out I am profoundly introverted, so much so that I’ve earned perfect scores on “How introverted are you tests?” and ranked 90% introverted or higher on personality type surveys.

I read a lot about my fellow introverts and our challenges and victories, and I’ve found one common theme in particular that bears mentioning. This is purely unscientific, but in my experience, I’ve found that when it comes to parenting, introverts tend to favor small families. I feel like the ideal number of children for many introverts is zero to two. And I’ve definitely gotten the impression that anything considered a “large” family is nerve-wracking or downright horrifying for a lot of introverts.

DSC_0039
Me and all six of my kiddos with a family friend.

So all that being said — hi, I’m the world’s most introverted introvert, and I am the father of six children. Being the highly introverted father of a large family carries with it lots of challenges, but even more rewards.

Noisy people everywhere, everywhen
The number one challenge: you’re always with a large group.

One of the primary differences between extroverts and introverts is the effect of social interaction upon us. It’s energizing to extroverts and draining to introverts. Some introverts unwind after a day of work in a chaotic, loud, open concept office by going home and spending a quiet evening with their partner and children, or with a small group of friends, or — the introvert cliche — alone. This downtime is necessary. It’s how we recharge, so we’re able to return to our busy, busy, busy job the next day. But for me, there is no such thing as retreating home to myself or to a small group. I live with seven other people. Some days, I’m with smaller groups during the work day than in the evening.

My situation is perhaps compounded by the fact that all six of my children are nine years old or younger, and they’re perfectly normal for those ages — which is to say, they demand a lot of attention. They need interactions with me, guidance from me, fun time with me, discipline from me. They each need this every day, and not just for a few minutes per day. And did I mention there are six of them?

The lack of solitude or even small group time can be overwhelming. The demands put on my attention can be overstimulating. And then there’s the noise. My three-year-old and one-year-old are loud. They can’t help it. They don’t understand “inside voice” and “outside voice.” When they are angered or wronged, their reaction is always an 11; they don’t know how to respond at a lower, more subdued level. And as for the older children, sometimes they fight and yell loudly, as kids do, but most of the time they get along and play together with so much excitement they… still yell loudly. They shout when they’re excited, they all talk at the same time, and their raucous belly-splitting laughter is the best sound in the world… but it’s still loud. Regular, normal familial contact — conversation, a family meal — can be tiring at best and overwhelming at worst due to volume level and the number of overlapping voices.

Most meaningful relationships
If my unscientific guess is right, and most introverts prefer zero-to-two children, I’ve just outlined a scenario that is highly unappealing to most introverts. If so, let me tell you, my fellow innies: you’re missing out.

Despite the challenges, I wouldn’t trade my situation for any other, and the primary reason why has to do with another defining trait of introverts: we crave meaningful relationships. We hate phoniness, we hate superficiality. Instead of idle chit-chat about the weather, we’d rather have a deep conversation about our innermost thoughts or dreams or those of others. By our choice, we may have far fewer friends than many others, but after we’ve decided on a friend, we go all-in.

Our spousal relationship is probably the deepest, most meaningful one we’ll ever have, but we all have at most just one spouse. (Well, except for polygamists, I guess.) Having a large family means having more of the most meaningful non-spousal relationships you’ll ever have: parental ones. Your relationship with your child is one in which the child is entirely dependent on you for physical care, affection, spiritual guidance, and education. Your children are young and innocent, and they want to hear and grok everything you have to say. It’s an introvert’s ideal relationship!

It is an honor and a privilege — and a great responsibility — that I get to provide an example to six little ones. Many introverts feel we’re misunderstood by society, possibly even marginalized. The thesis of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that the world has an extrovert ideal and doesn’t place enough value on introverts. As a parent, you get to change that… at least for your children. I try to show my children that a leader doesn’t have to be a tyrant and that words spoken softly can still have a loud impact. If we want the world to look at introversion and extraversion as two separate but equal ideals, we have to start teaching it somewhere.

How to focus outward when we want to focus inward?
There’s so much more I could say on this topic, and I will. This is the first in a planned series of articles about being an introverted parent. This series is not intended to lecture anyone, or to tell anyone how many children they should have. I hope that it speaks to introverted parents with any number of children. This also isn’t meant to brag about how great introverts are, or about how great I am. Quite the opposite, it’s part of my self-discovery journey, because — confession time — I often don’t know what the heck I’m doing.

My favorite dictionary defines introversion as “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” I know the definition of introversion can be a controversial topic, and the first time I read this, I thought, That’s a terrible definition! It makes me sound so self-centered and selfish.

But here’s a hard truth that no amount of self-deception can change. While I might not like to admit it, left unchecked, selfish and self-centered is precisely what I can become thanks to my introversion. And being selfish doesn’t jive very well with parenthood, a rather permanent state of life that demands near-constant sacrifice for the well-being of your children, especially in their first couple of decades. So how can I balance the sacrifices I must make (and want to make) for my family, while at the same time reminding myself that self-care isn’t selfish and is necessary to keep me in a state of being a responsible, loving, unselfish parent?

If you’re an introverted parent, I’d love for us to figure out the answer to that question together. What are your biggest challenges? What brings you the most joy? Leave a comment here, send me a message on Twitter, or use the Contact page to send me a direct message.

March 2017 Status Update

I did my taxes last month. This was the first year I got to report royalty income on a 1099-MISC form, thanks to sales of Yesterday’s Demons. That was a nice problem to have.

Let’s take a look at the current status of my Project Tracker:

projecttracker-2017-03

I’m 7% done with the second draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, but honestly, that number is a little high. I bumped the bar to that percentage last month after I thought the first two chapters were done, but then I spent the rest of the month going back through chapters two and three, fixing up a few more things. I’m still not done with those two.

I mentioned in my 2016 Year-End Status Update that for a while during the drafting of the book’s first draft, I experienced some writer’s doubt. I wasn’t sure what I was writing was Not Crap. Specifically, that time was while I was writing the book’s first few chapters. I’ve finally zeroed in on what the problem was. It’s a writing problem I’ve never had to deal with before.

Tomorrow’s Shepherd is the sequel to Yesterday’s Demons, so characters and plot points from Yesterday’s Demons will inevitably be mentioned. But I also want the book to stand on its own for readers who — for some odd reason — haven’t yet read Yesterday’s Demons. And since I like that book so much, I want to tell these new readers all about it. Or more accurately, I want my characters and narration to talk all about it.

But I don’t have to go into the incredible level of detail I want to. And it’s bad if I do. The problem I finally realized was this: the early chapters of Tomorrow’s Shepherd were just telling too much about Yesterday’s Demons, and it was slowing down the pace of the story. And that’s an especially big problem because Tomorow’s Shepherd starts with a fun three-chapter action scene.

To sort through the mess, I wrote on my whiteboard “TS Chapters 2 and 3 — justify your existence.” Underneath that, I wrote down every reference to Yesterday’s Demons in those two chapters. And once I did that, I performed a brutal analysis. Every reference on that board was only allowed to stay in the story if (1) it was absolutely necessary and (2) it was communicated at exactly the right time — no earlier, no later. If it failed the first test, I said to it, “See ya.” If it passed the first test but failed the second, I found a new, more appropriate place for that particular item.

This might sound like a dull exercise, but this is actually my favorite part of writing. It’s like refactoring in software engineering — all the code you need is already there, you’re just making it better via improved syntax and more accurate placement. So that’s what I’ll be doing for a while on this new book. I can’t wait for you to read it, but only once I make sure all of its elements are in the proper order.

Girl Scout cookies for breakfast

Halloween is all about candy and Thanksgiving is all about pie, but Christmas is all about cookies. By the time January comes around, most people are all cookied out. On top of that, the New Year is when resolutions of healthier lifestyles are most common. January is probably the least cookie-friendly time of the year.

So it’s always particularly impressed me that the Girl Scouts choose January as their cookie season. It’s like they want to give themselves the biggest challenge possible. “Sure, ladies, we can sell a million boxes of these cookies. But can we do it right after Christmas? Can we sell them outside of Wal-Mart to folks going inside to buy new workout clothes?” They can, and they do!

imag0437And now Girl Scout cookie cereal is a thing!

Thin Mints
The moment I opened my box of Thin Mints cereal I noticed it smelled exactly like Thin Mint cookies. Blindfolded, I wouldn’t have been able to differentiate the cookies from the cereal.

Regarding taste, the cereal tastes basically the same as the cookies. The only difference is in texture. The cereal is a bit drier than the cookies, probably because of the lack of frosting. Eating it with milk helps with this. And the cereal has a puffier, more airy texture than the cookies. In other words: just as minty, but not as thin. And I am quite OK with this.

It’s a good thing the taste is so similar to the classic cookies because as a cereal, there isn’t much variety in your bowl. There’s no mix of cookie pieces and marshmallows, for example. It’s just Thin Mints, for better or for worse. I’m not sure what you could add to this to provide additional variety. I can’t imagine the mintiness of the cereal would make it work well with berries or bananas. But this cereal is good enough that I’m willing to have more to try out a few possibilities.

Caramel Crunch
I can’t give the same praise to Caramel Crunch. This cereal is supposedly inspired by Samoas cookies, at least based on the fact that a Samoa is right there on the box. But if it came in a generic yellow box with nothing but the word “CEREAL” pasted across the front of it, darned if I’d be able to link it to Girl Scout cookies in any way.

Caramel Crunch doesn’t look or smell like Samoas. It’s all caramel, with just a tiny hint of chocolate. Is caramel or chocolate the first thing you think of when you think Samoas? I wager you first think, “Coconut!” But there’s no coconut to be found here.

This was just bland. I found myself wishing I had some Cocoa Puffs to mix together with it. I ended up just adding some Thin Mints to my bowl, which made it better, but only because now it tasted like Thin Mints. The caramel flavor disappeared.

So General Mills is .500 on Girl Scout cookies cereals, which is still well above the Mendoza line. Don’t miss Thin Mints, but take the money you’d spend on Caramel Crunch and give it to the girl on the sidewalk in front of the grocery store for a box of Samoas.

#MyFavoriteCharacter: Optimus Prime

“What’s your favorite book?” “What’s your favorite movie?” “Who’s your favorite music artist?” These are tough questions, and I can never give a single answer to any of them. But how about this one: “Who is your most favorite character in any story medium — book, movie, folk story, whatever?” Although that sounds like it should be a far more difficult question, I can answer it definitively and without hesitation.

optimusprimeMy favorite character ever is Optimus Prime.

Transformers wasn’t my first fandom. That distinction goes to Bozo the Clown or even Mr. Fred Rogers. But when I saw Transformers for the first time, I was immediately enthralled. Eight-year-old me was very much into giant robots from outer space waging their war of good vs. evil on our world. (Spoiler: so is forty-year-old me.)

I adored Wheeljack, the Autobot scientist. I loved imitating the distinct voices of Jazz and Ironhide. Who doesn’t love scrappy little Bumblebee? And even the bad guys were cool, like Megatron, Soundwave, and Shockwave — especially Shockwave. But they were all overshadowed by the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and there are three qualities about Prime that sharply define him. And what makes him so special to me isn’t any one of these qualities, it’s the whole that emerges when all three come together.

Determination
There’s a line in “The Touch” by Stan Bush, the theme song of the 1986 animated Transformers film, that epitomizes Prime: “And you never give in when your back’s to the wall.” Prime never, ever gives up. If at first he fails miserably, he gets right back up and tries again. The best example of this is in the final minutes of “More Than Meets the Eye,” the original three-part pilot story of the Transformers cartoon. The Decepticons are leaving Earth victorious. They’ve secured a shipload of Earth’s resources, and they’re heading back home to Cybertron. But is Prime ready to give up? No, he is not!

Strength
Lots of characters are determined and don’t give up easily. But Prime pairs that determination with strength, both physical and mental. Take a look at his specifications card from the box of his original action figure:

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Source: TF Archive

Strength: 10! Endurance: 10! Courage: 10! Skill: 10! Intelligence: 10!

To be fair, I think his skill and intelligence scores are a bit high. He’s extraordinarily skilled at what he does best — leadership, destroying Decepticons — but he’s not a medic like Ratchet or a scientist like Wheeljack or Perceptor. But his strength, endurance, and courage numbers are right on. Very few Transformers are stronger than Optimus Prime, and most of those that are — Devastator, Unicron — are stronger purely because physically they’re much larger.

Protector
If determination were enough, Batman or Luke Skywalker would be my favorite character. If strength were enough, it would be the Hulk or Voltron. But what truly makes Prime superior is his never-ending determination, backed by his ultimate strength, all at the service of protecting the weakest among us.

“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” is Prime’s motto, and he lives it. As a child who wasn’t very physically tough, I looked at Prime as if he were the biggest, strongest kid in my class, but one who used his power to protect the weak, not to torment them.

Watch this scene from Transformers: Dark of the Moon in which Prime, in just one minute, single-handedly fights through 11 Decepticons — including Shockwave — to defend the people of Chicago. There is simply no better moment that summarizes how Prime’s determination, strength, and protection of the weak all come together to make him into my all-time favorite fictional character.


I can’t say I’m the world’s greatest Optimus Prime fan. That honor would probably have to go to the guy who had his name legally changed to “Optimus Prime.” But nevertheless, Autobot leader Optimus Prime gets my vote for the greatest character ever created.

What if you had to pick your all-time favorite character? Guess what — you do have to!* Write about it on your blog or on Facebook or Twitter or here in the comments or wherever. Hashtag it #MyFavoriteCharacter and let me know who you like best.

* Actually, you don’t have to. But it would be pretty great if you did.

February 2017 Status Update

carsland
Ka-chow!

I spent two weeks of last month in the best possible way: at Disneyland! My beautiful bride, our children, and I had a great trip to my favorite place in the world. It had been two years since we’d been there, and SoCal was calling to me. I love the drive across I-10 from Texas to California, through the beauty of New Mexico and Arizona, and right past the splendor of Joshua Tree National Park. While there, we stayed at our favorite vacation rental home, and besides Disneyland, we managed to get in a day at Huntington Beach. Overall, it was fantastic. I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere but Texas, but no matter how many times I go, California remains near the very top of my list of places I want to visit.

Oh, and this trip was the first time I’ve ever been able to experience that tiny slice of paradise called It’s a Small World Holiday. I have always loved It’s a Small World. I didn’t think it could get any better. But every December and early January, when the attraction is decorated for Christmas, and the dolls sing “Jingle Bells,” it does.

And then we got home, and I got back to work.

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I’ve begun work on the second draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd. I mentioned in my previous update how excited I am about that book and that excitement hasn’t ebbed.

You know what else I’m excited about? I recently hit a milestone with this blog. This is the 101st article I’ve published.Considering that at times I’ve struggled with what to do with this blog, that’s a big deal to me. I’m not a very social person, so it’s just not in my nature to step up to a microphone and start speaking to the world, which is basically what you do every time you publish a blog article. There’s also the simple facts that I’m a writer with a day job, and writing is a zero sum game — any time I spend writing blog articles is time I’m not spending writing my next book.

But one of my goals for 2017 is to get better at this. I’ve said it before, but it’s still very early in my career, so if you’re reading this shortly after it’s published, you’re one of My First Fans. And that means I want to stay in touch with you. I’m committed to checking in via this blog at least once a week, even if it is just to give the blog equivalent of a wave hello. Only after I do that will I allow myself to crawl back into my writing hole and get to work on my next story. Deal?

Deus vobiscum.

Three favorites: superheroes

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “But when men are growing up and are reading about Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, these aren’t fantasies. These are options.” This was definitely true of me. One of my earliest favorite TV shows was Batman (1966). I have a picture of myself at four or five years old proudly wearing a Spider-Man mask. And my grandmother had hundreds of books at her farm, but I usually only read one: a paperback containing reprints of several Batman comic book stories.

Choosing my three favorite superheroes out of all the great ones out there just might be a job for Superman, but watch me try. Up, up, and away!

theflash
Credit: DC Comics

The Flash
Growing up, I knew of The Flash, I enjoyed the 1990 TV series starring John Wesley Shipp, and I owned a handful of Flash comic books, but he was never one of my favorite superheroes. About ten years ago, that changed. Barry Allen has a single superpower — he’s really fast — but over the years, his writers have been enormously creative with the possible applications of that power. He can run up buildings or on water. He can vibrate so quickly the molecules of his body move faster than those that make up bricks and concrete, allowing him to walk through walls. And just like the starship Enterprise, he’s so fast he can travel backward and forward in time. The ultimate irony is Barry Allen is so scatterbrained, even his super-speed can’t prevent him from always being late. Brilliant!

It doesn’t hurt that The Flash has a rogues’ gallery second only to Batman’s, one loaded with colorful, fun villains like Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and the Trickster. And sometime in the 1990s, a mystical element was added to the Flash mythos: the Speed Force.

I didn’t own my first Flash t-shirt until I was 35 or 36, so I’m as late to the party as Barry Allen is to everything. But arrived, I have — The Flash is my number one superhero.

batman-jimaparo2
Credit: DC Comics

Batman
When The Flash became my favorite superhero, he dethroned Batman, but I still have a deep love for the Caped Crusader. As a little boy, I wanted to be Batman. My local comic book store sold the novelization of the 1989 Batman movie about two weeks before the film arrived in theaters, and I read that sucker faster than any novel I’ve read before or since.

I don’t need to justify Batman’s inclusion in this list. If he’s not the most popular superhero in the world, he’s in the top three. For me, his appeal comes down to his intelligence and his preparedness. Batman isn’t the strongest superhero, but he’s definitely one of the smartest, and he is constantly prepared for anything. There’s always something in his utility belt to help him out of a jam — or even better, he can always come up with a plan to outwit or outsmart his adversaries.

So many of his stories rank among the classics of sequential art: The Dark Knight ReturnsYear OneThe Killing JokeThe Long HalloweenHush. Television has given us Batman: The Animated Series and film has given us Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films. We can’t get enough Batman. To the Batcave!

greatandpowerfulturtle
Credit: Wild Cards Wikia

The Great and Powerful Turtle
George R. R. Martin is best known for A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, but I know him best as the editor of the shared-world anthology book series Wild Cards. In Wild Cards, an alien virus was released on Earth in the 1930s. Those whom the virus left physically deformed are called Jokers. But some of the virus’s victims drew an Ace and received super powers.

Lots of great writers have contributed to Wild Cards throughout the years, and the series contains some great characters, but my favorite of them is one created by Martin himself. Thomas Tudbury is a gentle, quiet, comic book-loving man who is also the world’s most powerful telekinetic. However, he’s so timid and so scared, his powers become nearly useless unless he feels completely secure. He makes a “shell” out of an old VW beetle and flies around New York City inside it, fighting crime. When asked who he is, Tom turns on the shell’s external speakers and says, “I am the Turtle.” Then, thinking better, he cranks the speakers to maximum and declares, “I AM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TURTLE!”

Though it has been many years since I’ve kept up-to-date with the Wild Cards series, I’ve never forgotten The Great and Powerful Turtle. He is such a cleverly designed and fun character. Don’t kill him off, George!


Observant readers will note I didn’t include any Marvel Comics heroes in this list. I have nothing but love for Marvel’s heroes, especially the X-Men. I’ve just always loved the DC heroes a bit more. Put me in Team Justice League.

So those are my three favorite superheroes. Who are yours? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Yesterday’s Demons Giveaway

Yesterdays Demons Cover Final (Small) Want to win a free paperback copy of Yesterday’s Demons? I’m giving away five copies via a Goodreads.com giveaway.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Yesterday's Demons by Michael Ripplinger

Yesterday’s Demons

by Michael Ripplinger

Giveaway ends February 15, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

It is proving to be a more popular giveaway than I’d expected. If you already own the book, but you know someone who’d be interested in receiving a free copy, please let them know about the giveaway and ask them to enter. I can’t wait to send out these free books.

The giveaway ends on February 15.

Toasters of Tomorrow

In chapter two of Yesterday’s Demons, Fritz describes the ludicrous amount of technology planet Verde once had before the cataclysmic Blackout tossed the world into the Dark Ages:

Well having chips inside everything was great for when you just had to turn on the toaster with your mobile, which I guess people must have needed to do back then. … [But the] excessiveness of it all is really a bit embarrassing.

toast-1077984_1280
Photo by Frank Oschatz

Pre-Blackout Verde is not too far from where we are today. We have smartphones, smart homes, and smart appliances. When I wrote the lines above, I tried to think of the most absurd “smart device” I could imagine. To succinctly describe a complete technological overdose, what’s something that, at least in our world, would almost certainly never be “smart”?

I thought toasters were a pretty safe bet, because how is your phone ever going to put a piece of bread into one? But it turns out I was oh so wrong.

A “smart” toaster, complete with an app for your phone that communicates with the toaster over Bluetooth, is on its way. It is a nifty solution to the problem of burning your bread to a crisp because you toasted it without realizing the previous hungry person to use the device had set it to 11. But… it’s a toaster! Are we really so lazy we now have a toasting app?

The point: I clearly stink at trying to dream up the ridiculous.