Quick note about the boss picture above. It was taken for us for FREE at the Unpolished Conference by our awesomely talented friend Jon Willis. He has this thing called the Simple Portrait Project where you can get some sweet photos like that for yourself.
Sometimes I Am 13 Years Old
When Jon and I were dating, I remember us saying that we wish we had met earlier. It would have been fun to play with each other as kids or to have done all of those absurd high school pranks together.
Now we understand that marriage actually gives us the opportunity, for better or for worse, to become very well acquainted with those younger versions of each other.
I have had conversations with five-year-old Jon. The little boy who made a paper crown for Lisa Dobbs and brought it to kindergarten only to be humiliated when she and Shelly Tsuji laughed at him. I have assured him that I am not Lisa Dobbs and I really like the stuff he makes for me.
Last Thursday, Jon got to spend a morning with 13-year-old Carrie.
On How I Hate Business Conferences
We were supposed to be at the Unpolished Conference at 9 am. Unpolished is a two-day conference on faith and entrepreneurship. I began the morning by pressing the snooze button 47 times. Then I was mad that I woke up late. Mad that I didn’t have time to run. Mad about wearing “nice” clothes and madder still that Jon was all cheerful and helpful with the kids. When he suggested that I bring my business cards to the conference, I lost it.
“An APP is NOT a BUSINESS, Jon! I don’t even know why we’re going to this STUPID conference anyway!”
I was 13. Stupid conference? My kids don’t even talk this way.
And here’s a really great thing that happened. He didn’t join me in my regression. He stayed 42. He invited me to sit down on the couch and pray. And then he told my 13-year-old-self that he thought she was valuable and talented, and that she has something inside her that the world needs. I was still kind of mad and I secretly decided that he was just making it up. I had read the explanation for this conference and it just wasn’t for me. I’m not ambitious. I’m not remarkably talented at ANYTHING. The thought that Jon wanted me to be something I’m not, terrified me.
I wanted to stay home and stay comfortable. I wanted to stay where I’m not going to fail or look like a fool. But I listened to what Jon said and then we left for the conference.
We got there two hours late, just in time to hear the end of Kirk Perry’s talk. And, dang it, he had to end with something great.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Part of why this quote struck me so powerfully was that our whole family had recently gone through what you might call a “Theodore Roosevelt Obsession”. It had started last year when our daughter was ill for several months. We learned that TR was a chronically sick child and we loved and admired his bravery in the face of it. “Teddy” became regular household conversation and we even started collecting mice that had been living in our attic. We let the girls keep them as pets just because Teddy did. I probably lost some of you right there.
So when Kirk Perry quoted a man who had become so dear to our hearts, I caved. I put up my white flag and allowed myself to be inspired, despite my lingering insecurities. I dared myself to believe that I don’t have to be the ‘cold and timid soul’. I began to think there was a place for me in the arena.
On How Maybe I Don’t Hate Business Conferences
During the afternoon, a new concept of “entrepreneur” began to emerge in my mind. I began to think of God as The Most Creative Person EVER, The First And Best Entrepreneur, The Ultimate Problem Solver. I began to see that Jon, in wanting us to make something together, was actually just joining God in what He is ALWAYS doing. I began to love (again) the thought of doing that as a family.
Then there was this motivational teacher guy, John Maxwell who talked about the qualities of an entrepreneur. As John Maxwell spoke, I began to understand some things about my husband that had never made sense to me before. Over the years, Jon has been consistently dissatisfied with what most Americans would consider a pretty great life. I’ve often resented this dissatisfaction. I’ve taken it personally or even considered it to be sin. This may sound silly because it’s so simple, but when Mr. Maxwell said “Average people want you to be average,” I was BLOWN AWAY. I began to see Jon’s ‘aversion to normalcy’ as a gift – to our family and to the world.
I started the day reluctant to even acknowledge that our company existed and 12 hours later I was our company’s evangelist for a conference pitch contest, proclaiming that RocketWagon exists to tell TRUTH to kids through stories. It was more than our attempt to win a $3000 prize. I like to think it was my step into the arena that my friend Teddy was talking about.
I think whenever I am faced with a situation that makes me feel inadequate, I shrink back down and become the girl that first felt that way. Thirteen.
I am lucky to have a man in my life who loves all of my ages. I’m grateful that he took the time to talk some sense into his adolescent wife, and I’m really glad she had just enough wisdom to listen. And to go to Unpolished. More on that later. I can’t wait to tell you about how Todd Henry WRECKED ME on Friday.
We spent a month in Canada this summer. On a remote-ish lake, in a cottage that was like a big RV. We read the Little House books while we were there, because we were all sleeping in one big room like they did. The idea for this time was to set up some new patterns for our family, to figure out what we could do all day if we had some extra emptiness.
Every morning I ran through the woods for an hour. The mosquitoes were my tiny coaches, gently encouraging me with their bloodthirsty mandibles. I found this to be a delightful warm-up for the true challenge of the day: my writing assignment. Every day, Jon gave me a new topic to write about. His goal was that I would write a story about that idea and then he and the girls would illustrate one scene or character.
Each time, he gave me a simple challenge. And on every single occasion, I took that straightforward concept and made it as perplexing and arduous as was humanly possible. It was like he gave me a bright, shiny new bike day after day and said “Carrie, I want you to ride this from here down to the corner of this straight street” and I said “yes, definitely I can do that, fantastic”. Then I happily got on that bike and slammed it into the only existing telephone pole. Crash. Crash. Crash. For like 2 weeks. It was exhausting.
If Jon asked for a story about a squirrel finding a new nest, I spent an average of 12 hours trying to describe what she loved about her old one. One day I was supposed to be telling a short tale about two animal neighbors, and I enthusiastically delved into the when’s and why’s of how their backwoods village came to be founded. Crash.
About two and a half weeks in,instead of settling down into my usual chair on the dock to write, I climbed into the paddle boat and took myself out to the beaver lodge across the bay. One of my characters was a beaver and I was sure this would help. From the cottage, Jon saw where I was going and thought I was attempting an escape. Maybe I was.
Sometimes all it takes to get a new perspective is to sit in a different spot. Sitting out there on the water, it suddenly occurred to me: I needed to use Speedo. It was the imaginary button on that paddleboat that Kalley and I pushed if Jon and Corbett were ever too far ahead of us. It made us go really fast. That day I figured out that it totally works on stories too. I pushed that button, introduced my characters, gave them a problem, a solution and a happy ending. It wasn’t very good, and you will never read it, but sitting out on the lake, I constructed a story in an hour, and that was a huge thrilling deal to me. I was finished by the mid-day ski session, which had NEVER happened before.
The next day, I did it again. No paddleboat this time, just a speedo story. This one was about some bunnies and someday, probably tomorrow, I will let you read it.
Jon agreed to go to a parenting class with me for 14 weeks during the second hour of church. He did it mainly to get out of listening to the sermon. Not that he doesn’t like them. It’s just that he doesn’t like to talk, or listen to anyone else talk, until about 1PM every single day. Mornings just aren’t his jam.
Despite the fact that it began 2 hours before he officially wakes up, we loved that class. One week, the guy in the video told us that when our kids become teenagers, it is very likely that they will be incredibly insecure. Which means that as they begin to venture out into the world more and more on their own, they will wonder who they really are. They will feel vulnerable and anxious about every single thing and possibly run away to join a hippie commune in Oregon. He also said we probably all remembered feeling the same way when were their age. When the video was over, we split into groups.
One of the guys at our table clearly had something to say. You could tell by his face that he couldn’t wait to talk. I was relieved. We weren’t going to have any of this “well, should we start with the first question?” followed by awkward silence nonsense. We were jumping into the deep end without even feeling the water. I looked around at the other groups and knew they wished they were us. They wished they had that guy. In my head I said, “Sorry, Suckers,” and turned to hear what he had to say.
He said, “Could you all relate to feeling that way as teenagers? Insecure? Cause I can’t.”
Then he described his teen years for us. He had grown up on a farm, and he spent every day working with his dad. He was the oldest and the other 2 sons were more “bookish,” but he loved to work with his hands. So his dad entrusted him with the operation of the farm. He learned to use the equipment and was driving the tractor on errands when he was 14. His face lit up as he described what it was like to be his dad’s right-hand man.
He knew who he was. In the family, the town, the world. He was a Layne. There was an identity that went with the name. I am a Layne and this is what we do. He was dependable and capable, so his dad conferred on him some of the responsibilities that provided for his family. They had worked the same land for generations. He could look at the ground and know that his grandfather and great-grandfather had lived and worked in the same soil. That does something good to a person.
I kept glancing over at Jon, knowing that he was glad I made him get up early. This was exactly what we’ve been thinking lately with our own family. I shouldn’t say exactly. Not the farm part. We would totally starve. But we had started thinking we should try to work together. And not just work together pulling weeds in the yard or doing the household chores. ‘Work together’ as in create a family business. With our kids.
Here’s the thing. We aren’t those people that can handle having a lot going on. Jon and I both are easily overwhelmed. Maybe it all comes down to a desire to simplify our lives. To pay the bills by doing something that we already do anyway. All four of us love stories and love to draw. Jon has the ability to take our words and drawings and make them into an interactive story. And he is teaching us how to do it, too.
It is our hope that our kids will grow up knowing what it means to be an Alexander. We hope that along with knowing that they are beloved, talented, “fearfully and wonderfully made”, they will think of themselves as capable creatives. We are trying to instill that identity in them by involving them in the process by which their ideas (the good ones anyway), through hard work and discipline, are turned into something awesome. Something that people may even want to pay for. That’s what we have tried to do with Kalley’s Machine, (our first interactive story). We still don’t know if anyone will buy it. This whole thing is still in the “experiment” phase.
We are operating under the theory that children who grow up knowing that they play a vital role in their family will go out into the world knowing that they will also be immensely significant there – kind of like what the guy in our class said. He wasn’t insecure out in the world, because he had learned at home that he was important.
That guy’s dad taught him to drive a combine when he was 9 years-old. We don’t have a combine, but Jon scooted over in his computer chair so our 6 and 7 year-olds could climb up and learn how to draw in Adobe Ideas. Recently, I asked Corbett to do some concept sketches of a character for our next app, and she gave it to me all separated – the body of the person separated from the limbs. Exactly what you do if you’ve learned to animate with different layers. Jon was thrilled.
One time, the girls sat us down in the kitchen and told us to watch a play that they had made up. We did, and it was terrible. We told them how awful it was and why it was so boring. We didn’t even care one bit about their main character, and they had introduced way too many side plots. We assured them that no one would ever, in a million zillion years want to see that play, and then we got out our giant whiteboard. Together we drew out a storyboard for a really good play, with a main character that we all cared about. And we had a blast.
This is our family’s version of plowing a field together. Feeding chickens. Whatever the heck else you do on a farm.
I just want to do whatever I can to avoid that hippie commune in Oregon. Actually, I don’t think the video guy ever said exactly that. I think I made that part up in my head. The one other thing that wasn’t exactly true about what I just wrote now was the part about how I looked around at all the other people in the class, the ones that weren’t in our group, and called them ‘Suckers’. Nobody does that, who would do that? In a class?! At church?! No way. I absolutely did not do that. I just kind of wish I had.
Jon often reminds me that one of the goals of our company is that we tell stories that we need to hear. He wrote a series of short stories about “Kamikaze Cat” and “Careful Kitten” a few years ago, just to help me realize the futility of my overprotective instincts when our girls were babies and I was constantly sure that they would die any minute. In the stories, Careful Kitten (who was always afraid, and so did everything cautiously) usually ended up homeless or in the hospital. I got the point.
Several years ago, I made up a story (or rather a character) that I and my adorable patient (I was a nurse) needed to hear. I will call my fourth grade patient James.
James needed a nurse to go with him to school, and part of my job was to go to his house in the morning and help him get ready for the bus. Every SINGLE day, this is what I said:
“James, it’s time to do your exercises”. “James, please put on your clothes.” “James, why don’t you have your shoes on?” “James, it’s time to brush your teeth” “James, the care plan says that you’re supposed to put some vaseline on your lips at 8am and 3pm, so we really need to do that now. ” “James, it’s time for your albuterol” “Now it’s time for CPT” “James, can you please give me a finger to put the pulse ox on?” ” James I need to listen to your lungs.”
I mean, really. James and I were worn out. He was tired of hearing me tell him what to do, and I was tired of telling him. And then we met Professor Tingleteeth.
I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but one day I realized that James’ toothbrush was actually a very small person who just happened to stand with his arms very stiffly down to his sides, and whose hair, which was white, persisted in standing straight out the back of his head, no matter what he did to try to flatten it down. He was about 7 inches tall, and he lived in the medicine cabinet. He was often mistaken for a toothbrush, which made him very angry. He was actually a professor of Philosophy at the community college, and he was just renting the space in the cabinet until he could afford a place of his own. I quickly learned that the Professor, despite his size, absolutely loved being in charge. He relished the opportunity to tell James what to do. And so I let him. It was wonderful for all of us. I was no longer responsible for making James’ life miserable, and James thought it was amusing and interesting to be taking orders from a tiny person who looked like his toothbrush.
The Professor eventually introduced me and James to 5 of his business associates (I would call them his friends, but I am not sure that he would agree. He was usually too disgruntled about being mistaken for a toothbrush to be very friendly with anyone.) The five “business associates” were Harold, Elaine, Jerome, Nancy and Martha. They were invisible, and they lived on my shoulder, which meant that they could go with us to school. The Professor had to be at the college all day, so was of course only there to help in the morning. The five associates were reluctant to be in charge of James, so they really served as friendly advisors, (we called them ‘The Committee’) whom I would consult if a question arose throughout the day. Harold, who almost always fell asleep right after breakfast, was rarely much help, but was still nice to have around. When he was awake, he was full of hilarious stories from his Navy days.
I had forgotten about Professor Tingleteeth. One day, a few weeks ago, I was reading an article about this couple in California who is making interactive Ipad stories, and it mentioned that one of their characters is a “quirky” little person called “Mr. Cupcake”. It was as if the word “quirky” was the alarm on a bedside clock in my mind. When that alarm went off, Professor Tingleteeth sat up (very stiffly, of course) in bed.
Now that he’s back, I’ve spent some time imagining how the Professor would react to some of my current daily perplexities. James is all grown up now. But what would the Professor think about Kalley’s system of vigilante justice, or Corbett’s inexplicable fear of animatronic dinosaurs?
Last week was the end of school, and both of my girls were SO sad to leave their teachers for the summer. This inspires a story in my mind where a mom has to be somewhere in the morning, so Professor Tingleteeth is the one at home, getting the kids ready for the last day of school. It cracks me up to think about what words of wisdom a tiny disgruntled Philosophy Professor might expound to two tearful little girls as he pats their heads and sends them off to the bus.
I was desperately trying to get my kids out the door of a friend’s house the other day. We were all having so much fun, but I had to get home to attempt some “social marketing.” Just as we were about to leave, I took out my phone and my friend asked if she and her kids could see Kalley’s Machine, our family’s first interactive story. Well, Ok, I guess.
Watching people react to Kalley’s Machine, for me, is very similar to watching them look at our family photo in the church directory a few years ago. When the church decided to do a photo directory, Jon happened to be in his “wads of cash” phase, where he held up money in every SINGLE picture that anyone took of him. Normally, he just posed with whatever cash he had in his pockets. Picture a white guy trying to look gangsta by holding up two dollars, while posing with a bride and groom. It was like that. All the time. But given the opportunity of an Olan Mills church photo shoot, he stopped at the bank to get ninety singles and a ten to wrap around them (because it was ‘all about the Hamiltons’). The bewildered lady taking our picture had to ask him several times to move the cash out of the baby’s face.
Later, when the church directory was published, there was quite a range of reactions to the “A” section: awkward silence, concern (“Um, Carrie, why is Jon is holding up money in your church picture?”), mild amusement, and occasionally, delight. We really just did it to make something mundane a little more colorful. But it also had the interesting side effect of tuning us in to kindred spirits who shared our opinion that church directory photos are a wonderfully unexplored medium for self-expression.
We’ve been trying to rethink our priorities as a family the last few years. And in light of those priorities, we’re experimenting with our lifestyle to see if we can shape it more instead of letting it shape us. RocketWagon is part of that experiment. We want to make meaningful stuff and spend more time together. We want our kids to learn some real-world artistic and business skills by being involved, even at their young ages.
However, experiments fail. We may find out sometime in the near future that we have spent an exorbitant amount of time, not on a financially viable business, but on a hobby. We love the idea of paying the bills by selling something that we have made together, but we may end up rudely awakened from that dream. Sometimes we wonder if the reason we don’t see many other people doing this is that it simply doesn’t work. Sometimes we wonder what on earth we are doing. And it’s a little scary.
That’s why it was so refreshing the other day when I pulled out my phone, showed it to my friend, and didn’t even have to explain. She got it. Her face lit up. I didn’t have to tell her why this little interactive story is part of a bigger dream. She understood because she has a similar dreams. We may be crazy. But it’s good to know that we are not alone.
It makes me wonder what her church directory picture looks like.
One of my jobs in our new little family story company is social marketing. I am totally owning this.
I had lunch at Kalley’s school today. I sat next to Abby, and Kalley sat next to her, then Hadley. On the other side of me was Emma, and next to her was Lauren. Everyone who wasn’t sitting there totally wished they were.
I was like, “Hey Kalley, I just showed your machine to your teacher she thought it was SOOO cool.”
And Abby was like “WHAT!!!!!!”
And I was like, “Kalley tell her what.”
And Kalley was like, “Well I was listening to a song and this idea popped to my head and it was bashers and stuff and then other stuff so I drew it down and showed it to my dad.”
And Abby was like, “Mrs. Alexander I don’t know what she’s SAYING!!!!!!”
And I was like, “Let me explain. Kalley drew a picture of a machine that makes food and showed it to her dad and we all made it into a story for the iPad that you can play with and it is really awesome and fun.”
And all four of these girls were like, “CAN WE SEE IT NOW!!!!!”
And I was like, “NO. It’s not done.”
And then some other girls at ANOTHER table were like, “What are you talking about!!”
And I said, “Kalley made a machine and we made it into an app!”
And they were like, “WE WANT TO SEE IT CAN WE SEE IT NOW!”
And I said, “NO! Its not done!”
And I said, “We are working on sound effects. Kalley show them some of the sound effects for your machine.” And Kalley whistled and said, “POP POP” and they all cracked up.
And Abby had to jump out of her seat to say this: “But what does it LOOK LIKE when it is on the PHONE!!!”
And I said, “It looks like Kalley and a cat.”
And Lauren said, “My dad is ALLERGIC to CATS!!!”
And Emma said, “My dad is allergic to CATS AND DOGS!!!!”
And Lauren said, “My dad runs 10 miles in ONE DAY!!!”
And Emma said, “My dad ran the PIG race!!”
And Lauren said, “My dad did TOO!!!!”
And I said, “I DID TOO! That pig race is pretty hard! Because of the hills! So your dads must be really AWESOME runners!!”
And then we all just sat there, finishing our peanut butter and jelly and feeling happy about how their dads are awesome runners and how Abby’s mom is about to have a baby and about how Kalley’s machine is so awesome. And then we played Duck Duck Goose on the playground.
And as I walked away, sweaty, to my car, I thought, “I am totally rocking this social marketing thing.” And I came home and told Jon, and he said it was only really social marketing if I posted about it here.
Lately I have heard myself saying to my daughter, ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters.” There are lots of opportunities for me to say this. Her bed. Her homework. Her dinner plate. When I notice that the bed is still not made, the conversation goes something like this:
Me: “Corbett, your bed is not made.”
Corbett: “I’m sorry Mommy.”
Me: “You said you were going to do it”
Corbett: “I forgot.”
Me: “It doesn’t mean anything if you just say that you are going to do it, it’s what you DO that matters”
And as I am saying the words, they are coming right back to my own heart. Parenthood is awesome for that. I realize again that I am in many ways, like Corbett, all talk. I say all kinds of stuff, then I don’t do it. There are countless examples. Here is one.
In my twenties, I worked as a nurse, and once I figured out how much I hated it, I would say things like “After I get married and have kids, I am going to stay home with them and write and illustrate children’s stories.” I pictured myself in the second or third floor of a big old home surrounded by trees, my desk next to a window where I would work and occasionally gaze outside for inspiration while my children happily played on the floor behind me. Fifteen years later, this has not occurred.
I did get married and I did have kids, and not once did I sit at a desk and write while my kids played. It was seriously all I could do to keep them alive for the WHOLE DAY and make dinner. Thankfully, I was able to do that successfully enough for several years. My girls are still alive and spend the day in 1st and 2nd grade.
And now my husband has come up with this crazy idea: Let’s use this time to write and illustrate children’s stories together. Wait, what?
Before I met Jon, the first thing I heard about him was that he had built his own Olympic Torch and had gone downtown to run with it 5 minutes ahead of the guy who was carrying the real torch to the Olympics. I loved him immediately. My friends and I agreed that it sounded like something I would do. We were all desperately wrong.
I would never have done it. I may have had the idea, and if I did, I would have talked about it, would have imagined the crowd’s reaction, would have told all of my friends and anyone I met in the grocery store about it. I would have said “that would be so awesome, ha!” But that would have been the end. I would not have:
Taken newspaper with picture of Torch to Home Depot to buy parts to build my own.
Constructed Torch in Parents’ garage.
Chosen appropriate outfit for Torch Run (T-shirt that says ‘Mexico’ ).
Prepared get-away vehicle for in case things go badly.
Gone to downtown Cincinnati on the day of the run, and, finally,
Run, while shouting “Happy Olympics” to the crowd.
This of course, is exactly what Jon did.
So here’s the thing. Maybe I should be more careful about what I profess to want to do. If I had never said I wanted to do this, I would feel fine about being reluctant to write stories now. But I think that the issue is not whether or not I want to do it. The truth is that I am just plain terrified of failing. Maybe it all comes down to what we fear.
But the stakes are much higher than they were in my nursing days. I have two little girls watching me. Girls who I want to be brave. And all of a sudden, bowing to my fears has a new cost that it never had before.
So now, our whole family has a new Torch. It’s called RocketWagon. It’s a little company where we make stories and games together (hopefully for profit). And we are going to run down the street with it together. (Warmest thanks to those of you who have already started cheering).
I am being offered an opportunity to become a person who does what she said she would do. And since these girls are following my lead, Corbett may end up being the kind of person who makes her bed. Even better.