Dodge Ball: A Modest Proposal

Sometimes, when something makes me mad, I write a strongly worded letter. It's so bracing. Like splashing cold water against my cheeks. Or like drinking a Diet Coke in one greedy sip. Today I needed to do just that. Write the letter that is. I'm not quite desperate enough for soda.

And remember! If you ever want to receive a strongly worded letter of your very own from me, try throwing a ball in the face of a child. My child or anyone else's ... I'm not picky. Also? A ball is sometimes just a ball. Sometimes, though, it's a metaphor for other things.

Dear Principal H.: 

In the olden days, physicians used to treat certain diseases with mercury, which made the patients insane. Or physicians would slice open veins because everyone knows you feel better after a good bleed. Unless it's killed you.

In the less-distant olden days, people used to think it was OK to let kids throw balls at each other’s faces until there were no more faces left to hit and a victor was declared. And yet, because this sick and strange ritual was happening during gym class, it was healthy. They call this game dodge ball. I call it nuts.

Yesterday, my 45-pound fourth grader came home early from school, dizzy and in pain after being hit in the head during a school-sanctioned game of crazy. The hit was especially unfortunate, as she had already been knocked to the ground, and while this made her an easy target, she was, according to the rules of the game, off-limits. Oops!

My daughter is very concerned that I am going to get her beloved PE teacher in trouble. That’s not my intention. I don’t even want to get the person who threw the ball into trouble, although I would like him to know that I have excellent aim, and if he’d like to go mano-a-mom-o, I can make time in my schedule. 

In all seriousness, though, the school needs to stop playing dodge ball, at least during gym class. 

First, there are a lot better ways of getting exercise and developing hand-eye coordination. Anything that involves running and throwing balls at places other than heads and other body parts is better. 

There is also prancercise. Have you seen it? Here's a link.
I’d love to see the kind of boys who throw balls at the faces of 45-pound fourth graders be required to prancercise instead. It would make for excellent yearbook photos.

Second, an overwhelming amount of evidence now exists that shows getting hit in the head is bad for the head--and not just in the short term. It can cause permanent damage. If anyone claiming to be reasonable wants to argue that dodge ball is worth brain damage, I will ask if he’s ever played dodge ball. The answer will be yes. And then I will rest my case.

Third, dodge ball is mean, especially for kids who are socially vulnerable. In this category, I do not include my daughter, who is a ninja, a wizard, and a unicorn all in one package. But I do think about kids who feel unloved at school, and who dread having their bodies used as targets for the kids who are already targeting them in other ways. On their behalf, I would like to lob a metaphorical red ball at the game’s face.

So, to summarize: Dodge ball is archaic. There are better alternatives. It’s dangerous physically and damaging socially. Let’s give it some mercury, open its veins, and kill the bastard.

I thank you for reading and hope I’ve been persuasive. 

But, just in case, please be warned that if I ever hear of dodge ball being played in class again, I will show up with a ukulele and an anti-dodge ball anthem, and I will not leave until the game is officially dead at school. It should be noted that I am a very bad singer.



Thanks, Lin Oliver

We are making a Lin Oliver sandwich.

When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote an article for the school paper about massage. Always the schemer, I'd worked out a plan by which I would receive five free massages and write about them for the entertainment section, which I edited.

My lede in this utterly shameless enterprise referred to Dante's DIVINE COMEDY, speficially, the opening lines of the INFERNO. In the poem, the character finds himself at the halfway point of his life, wandering in a gloomy wood. And there I was! Halfway through my college journey! On a wooden massage table! In a gloomy room!


As with many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It's funny the way good writing never leaves us, which is a very good reason to write children's books. If it's true that the books we read and love become part of us, it's even more that way with the things we read when we are young.

Probably not coincidentally, my novel DEVINE INTERVENTION has more than a few references to Dante, from the title to the structure of hell itself. And then there's that bit about lost souls being redeemed by love. Dante had his Beatrice, but because she'd already been well used by Lemony Snicket, I created Jerome.

All of this, of course, is a very long way of saying thanks to the one and only Lin Oliver, who co-founded the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, without which I would not be a published children's author.

I saw Lin last night at University Bookstore in Seattle. She and Henry Winkler, the co-author of the HANK ZIPZER series, were in town to launch a prequel for younger readers.

From where I sit, midway in my own life's journey, I can't overstate the importance of Lin or these books in my life. When my beloved daughter Lucy was in second grade, struggling in all sorts of ways in school, we'd planned a road trip. Getting away on weekends was hugely important then, because there was no getting away from a mountain of sadness during the week.

I stopped by the library for an audio book and found a couple of the Hank Zipzer ones. The kids laughed themselves silly listening to Henry Winkler read about an iguana that had wandered into a pair of boxer shorts. And they listened to the story again and again. It was only afterward that Lucy mentioned how much she identified with the narrator, a boy who struggled to read.

At first, I thought she was just monologuing from the book. Lucy can memorize almost anything she's heard instantly, and she's a really good actress. Also, I was in denial that the thing that gave me the greatest security in the world--reading and writing--was something my daughter struggled to do. After all, she was reading in kindergarten, and even though it took us a huge effort over many years to make that happen, she'd done it. (Or so I thought. She was faking much of it, making great contextual guesses.)

Still, by the end of the school year, I was ready to have her tested. Given how much time she spent with books, reading them was far more difficult than it should have been. Writing was nearly impossible for her even though she was a really bright kid.

The whole prospect terrified me. My entire sense of security in the world came from my ability to read and write. To know my daughter couldn't rely on that felt like sending her out in the world not only without armor, but without skin. For someone like me, already prone to anxiety, every day felt like a potential disaster.

Two years passed this way. School still wasn't working for her, so we had her tested again, because we figured the more we knew about how her brain worked, the more we could help her learn.

I'm not going into all of the details here, but let's just say things were hard enough for us that I took both kids out of school. I also pulled up stakes on my freelancing career. We even left Seattle for months at a time.

Anything was better than keeping my daughter in a place that wasn't right for her academically or socially, to say the least. (I learned later that it's common for kids with dyslexia to be mocked and excluded by their peers. I have no words for the rage this gives me on behalf of Lucy and other kids like her, but on the positive side, I feel a special kinship for parents of kids with any sort of disability. For many of these kids, school is the heart of darkness they enter every day. They're as brave as f*ck for hanging in there, and their families deserve love and support.)

This whole painful and necessary process started because of a book that made my daughter laugh herself silly--and then made her think. That is the magic and power of books. We see ourselves in them and we know we are not alone. We also learn we have choices. We can change directions and create a better life.

Even so, it's scary when you do something like this, entirely reinvent your life when there is no clear path going forward and no guarantees things will turn out OK. It's also incredibly tough to be both a teacher and a mom, especially when you have no experience working with a handful of complex learning challenges.

But in the many nights I lay awake during this time, I kept thinking about Hank Zipzer and Henry Winkler, who also is dyslexic and despite this, managed to go to Yale, become Fonzie, be a producer and director, and co-author with Lin of two dozen novels. So even if my own daughter wasn't going to be able to walk the same path I did, there would be a way for her to have a happy, productive, and successful life.

Henry and Lin and their books helped guide us toward a new destination.

And, after a rough year in the trenches with me and her sister, we found a new school for Lucy, one that specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia and language-related learning disabilities.

As with all good stories, the ending of this one touched back on the beginning. Lucy interviewed for this school over Skype when we were in Los Angeles for an SCBWI conference run by none other than Lin Oliver. The school offered Lucy admission on the spot and I felt a two-ton weight I hadn't even remembered I was carrying fly off my heart.

Even though middle school traditionally stinks, my girl is incredibly happy there. She dashes out the door in the morning on the way to school, and she's learned so much about how to learn that she feels ready to go to our neighborhood high school, even without a guarantee of support. At least for now, things are OK. Better than OK.

And they're that way for me, too. Giving up the freelancing that had sustained me from the time Lucy was an infant made room for me to do other writing. Thanks to Lin and Steve and Sara and Kim and all the other good people at the SCBWI, I've sold five books for young readers.


And I have more in the works.

And so, at what is probably the midpoint of my own life, I find myself in a wood that isn't gloomy at all. It's as sunny as these places can be, full of meandering and wonder and beauty and fellow travelers. Thank you, Lin, for lighting the way.

The value of putting notes in pockets

Alice has half-blue hair.For years, I cut my girls' hair. This had to stop when school pictures started. There's this one year Alice's bangs ... well, I just can't talk about it. So we found a stylist at a salon a few blocks away and for a couple of years, everything was just great.

So great, in fact, that some of my friends started to ask who was cutting Alice's hair. One, a woman I've known since we were younger than my kids are now, even started driving in from another city so she could get a similar cut (which looks just as good on her as it does on Alice).

A few months ago, and not long after I'd taken the girls in for a trim, I was cleaning out Alice's pockets when I found a note. It was from Jessica, their stylist, who was writing to let me know she was switching salons and would love to keep cutting the girls' hair--either at the new place or at our house. 

I loved it. Every parent wants their kids to go out into the world and be pleasant enough that people who do not share their DNA like being with them. And so we went to the new salon, a super-edgy spot in one of Seattle's trendiest neighborhoods. Needless to say, there were no other little girls around.

When Alice's hair started looking like it was melting into her forehead, I called the edgy new shop to schedule an appointment. That's when I learned Jessica was no longer there. They offered to send my contact information on ahead, a promise I put into the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes zone of likeliness.

Not long after that, my friends who'd also started seeing Jessica asked me if I knew where she'd gone. Alas, I did not. Nor did I have the note. But then I recalled that I'd emailed Jessica at one point. So I searched my sent mail folder and voila! There she was.

There was just one problem. She wasn't working at a salon anymore, but she could come to the house. All of the sudden, this sounded like the best thing in the world to me. Getting a parent chore done without having to leave home? I asked if I could invite her other former clients along and turn the thing into a party. Jessica said yes. Meg and Holly were in, and last night, everyone climbed into the attic and took turns sitting in my swiveling desk chair as Jessica snipped and dyed and blow-dried everyone, including the girl who lives across the street (her parents had a babysitting emergency).

I baked some brie and served it with fruit and wine, and took turns catching up with Meg, whom I haven't seen in years except on Facebook, and with Holly, whom I get to see every week. Maybe it was the wine or the pink-tinged sunset air, but before it ended, we started feeling festive enough to put on an impromptu concert. Lucy sang, Alice jammed on her fiddle, I played the mandolin and Adam played the guitar and the girl from across the street was our backup dancer.

I know we can say that things like hair don't matter, and that we live in a world that puts too much stock in appearance. And of course in the grand scheme, hair doesn't matter a bit. Nothing does. We're born, we live, we die ... if we're lucky, with somewhat more hair than we came into the world with.

But I am less and less about grand schemes and more the unexpected ones. We cross paths with people and all too often, just keep moving and the strands that bind us fall away. Jessica took the time to write a kind note about my girls. And so I returned the effort to make sure I could stay in touch with her, and that my friends could, as well, and something that began as a chore turned into an evening of food and friendship and beauty and love.

This morning, as I swept up the snipped hair that escaped last night's cleaning attempts, I looked at those shorn ends as time. The growth of a month or two. Out of the total span of our lives, not much at all. But the moment it was cut was one where paths from my life as a child and my life as a mom braided themselves together, where they will sit in my memory for the duration. And so a haircut, as unimportant as anything, is at the same time everything that matters most.

Rage haiku 2: the dishwasher saga continues

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a series of rage haiku to the CEO of GE, who made my crummy dishwasher. Someone from GE called me to give less-than-awesome customer service. Here's my reply.

Jeff Immelt
CEO, General Electric

Dear Mr. Immelt:

Earlier this week, Gary from your office called me to let me know that you’d received my letter. I enjoyed talking with Gary, although neither of managed to express ourselves in any sort of verse, let alone in haiku.

Gary told me you’d never seen this problem with food getting stuck in the spray arms. He also let me know that GE had looked up my service records and didn’t find any. (I used a local repair guy; I also shopped online to get the best possible price on replacement spray arms.) Finally, Gary wondered whether my water was hot enough. He invited me to call him back with the results of my temperature-taking test, and offered to cover the initial cost of a service visit. 

I thought about calling Gary back. I did enjoy our chat and I could tell he was a kind and hard-working employee. But then I started thinking about the customer service you were actually offering. And … what do you know … the rage haiku started coming again:

Denying that things
Are messed up with the spray arms
Does not make this so 

The spray arms are junk
Someone could come replace them
They’d get clogged again

It’s a waste of time
And money even to try
The design is flawed

It cannot be fixed
And so I am stuck with junk
And a bad feeling

Customer service
Does not blame the customer
My water is hot

It’s reminiscent
Of dating that high school jerk
It’s not me, it’s you

GE, in this case,
Your customer service has
The teeny penis

I truly do appreciate that you tried to make things right with a service call. But it defies belief to say GE hasn’t seen this problem. Just this morning, I took the arms out again to try to clean them. As I’ve said before, without being able to open the arms—which are made in two parts sealed with a seam—the food debris goes into the hole and blocks the spray. The fix is simple. Make the spray arms in two pieces that can be separated.

The bigger issue, though, is one of respect for your customers. When you deny your company has seen a problem, it’s the same as suggesting the customer is somehow at fault. Even if you haven’t seen the problem, there’s no need to doubt the word of your customer. Nor is there reason to suggest it could be because her water isn’t hot enough.

GE isn’t the only company that makes badly designed products for the kitchen. I also have some words for the company that makes my oven, which you can’t clean without pressing all the buttons. Sometimes, a combination is pressed and the oven can’t be run again until I’ve run a three-hour self-cleaning cycle, something that’s a lot of fun when you have cupcakes to bake for a school fundraiser.

What I wish, and it doesn’t seem all that crazy, is that companies like yours would spend time using your products as a normal person would, every day. This would give you an intimate knowledge of their flaws, and an understanding of what’s an expected breakdown vs. an intractable design flaw.

Ultimately, all customers want well-designed, reliable products that are easy to use and operate, easy to clean, and easy fix when the parts break. This dishwasher falls short. My only real recourse is to replace it, and my customer service experience here—which felt like it was shifting the blame to me—that I’d be nuts to install another GE.

Sincerely yours,


Martha Brockenbrough

P.S. It was a little tricky photographing this, so I had to enlist my 9-year-old daughter to hold the thermometer. As you can see, my kitchen sink tap produces 130-degree water, which should be plenty hot. Likewise, my dishes should come out clean when I use the “added heat” cycle. They don’t.


P.P.S. Yes, I’m sure my thermometer works.


Alice: She's a dry wit

I was at the grocery store with nine-year-old Alice today, using one of those self-serve checkout machines, and growing increasingly frustrated by the minute. I had just a couple of minutes to go before it was time to get Lucy at school, and the thing kept malfunctioning as I tried to swipe my final item.

UNEXPECTED ITEM ON BAGGING TABLE, it told me. Again and again. I finally gave up and turned toward one of the regular lines, but they were too long--I didn't want to be late for Lucy. So we moved to the station to the right of the one that failed us.

Before I rang up the first item, it gave me the same error message. The table was empty. But Alice was standing right by it and I realized it was detecting her presence.

"They must have thought I was trying to steal forty-five pounds of meat," I told her.

Without missing a beat, she replied: "In some places, child meat is considered a delicacy. People eat it fried."

Well played, my little sicko daughter. Well played.