mom blog

Rock the Vote

In 1993, I studied abroad in Russia.

In 1993, it had just become Russia. I had known the country all my life as the USSR. A real fear of The Cold War being the end of the world shaped my childhood — and still lingered even though the wall had come down. The Gorbachev era had just ended. The country was being redefined. They were embracing capitalism and democracy. It was the first time in over 50 years that citizens were able to vote.

What a better time to live there as an American, right?

Ha.

I understand some people in the US don’t vote. With the election imminent, this is strikingly clear seeing how many public figures are reaching out, urging people to get out there on Tuesday. Those ads have always left me a little miffed. But this basic, American privilege doesn’t resonate with everyone. I know this firsthand. Let me tell you about my stint in Russia.*

Living in a Russian home with a non-English-speaking host who had never lived out of her country, I fully embraced Russian culture. So much of it was wonderful. So much of it was about music and stories and sitting around a table overflowing with savory, homemade salads and casseroles and soups. There was laughter. Lots of full-out belly laughs. Do you know what they laughed about?

The government.

They laughed about how awful their lives were. How awful *the government* had made their lives. All their lives, they had lived in a communist system that had rationed food and jobs and apartments and, basically, every personal item they could point to except their children. And you know what? They *enjoyed* laughing about it. This was part of the culture. Families of five were crammed in two-bedroom apartments and by a stroke of luck the bread truck visited your neighborhood when your pantry became empty. But there was music and stories and friends and family and laughter. That’s what they knew.

Then. Suddenly, they were asked to vote.

Say whaaaaaat???

Yes. Out of the blue, they were asked to be accountable for their shit lives. They were asked to take some responsibility for the crappy hand they were dealt.

Surprise, surprise. They didn’t see this as an opportunity. They weren’t thinking “Oooo–this is time for change! We can make our lives better!” The idea of having a say was not in their repertoire. And, frankly, they didn’t want it.

They’d rather laugh and deal with the crappy hand.

But we don’t have to do that. We don’t have a crappy hand. We have it all. We live in the best country. We don’t want for anything. We have fresh food in our supermarkets. We have coffee whenever we want to drink it. We can travel without fear and speak freely. We have opportunities in education and careers and a measure of safety and freedom that is *unthinkable* in more than half the world. Our children have that safety and freedom. It’s such a normalcy we take it for granted.

But, think about it…

WHY WOULD WE WANT TO PUT THAT AT RISK?

That’s what would happen if we give up our right to vote. If we assume it doesn’t count or it doesn’t matter or lose faith in the system. This is a time when we need faith. Find it. Find a reason to care enough. Make it a priority to exercise that privilege and please don’t take it for granted.

Please, vote.

* This is my personal memory and does not necessarily reflect the attitude of my Russian host or host-sister, whom I hold in the warmest regard and will for the rest of my days.

In 1990, MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign registered 5 million young voters.

The Sex Talk

My 5th grader came home the other day asking what “sexual assault” was. He’d heard about the Kavanaugh thing on a kid-friendly news station at school. It was sadly reminiscent of when his older brother came home asking a similar question back when he was in fifth grade. But then it was Trump’s “grab her pussy” comment that prompted the question.

What did we do? We sat them down and had the sex talk. It wasn’t the talk we’d imagined having. We had to address their questions, front and center. We had to address the ugliness in the world. We had to talk about why they’re hearing phrases like “sexual assault” and “grab her pussy” in the news. We had to back in to the topic from the most uncomfortable angle.

There’s something heartbreaking about telling your innocent, prepubescent boys that sex could be anything but a beautiful thing between two people who love each other. I know how that sounds. I’m not naive. I know these are things we need to talk about. But we’d barely broached the topic of puberty, no less sex, before we had to apologize for the reality of sexual assault.

And then Trump made that ironic comment: “It’s a scary time for young men.” And Lynzy Lab‘s catchy and clever response keeps replaying in my mind.

And it hit me. Maybe it’s a sign of our times. Maybe the sex talk is supposed to come from that uncomfortable angle.

In my latest book I’m working on in the Forte series, there is sexual assault.

The book is clean — geared for pre-teens. It’s not graphic. There’s no gratuitous violence. The scene doesn’t get to the point where the young girl is raped or beaten or even undressed. But she is clearly violated. There are harsh words. She is pushed and pinned down. The aggressor is someone she knows well — her boyfriend.

A girl doesn’t have to be naked to be assaulted. It doesn’t have to escalate to rape, either. There can be no trace of evidence on her body and it can still be a terrifying, transformative experience. It is still assault.

The scene is sadly realistic, and all too common. And it leads to another harsh truth: the ugly aftermath, with no clear path for girls to make things right.

I try to make it right for my young female character. In a fictional world where magic exists, she is empowered to miraculously reclaim her life. But it’s impossible to erase all the scars, even in a magical world.

It hurts to write about this stuff. I cry when I read scenes of my own creation. Because it’s so hard to write about a young girl battling against sexual assault, I know it’s meaningful. I was so riled up after my writing session recently, I had to write THIS!

My husband and I have a responsibility to raise our three boys well. These three boys will become young men. They will be physically stronger than their female peers. They will have subtle (and not so subtle) advantages over them, too.

Our boys’ understanding of sex has to be more than what’s covered in a science class. Beyond love or reproduction. Forget the birds and the bees. They need to hear from the female perspective. Not only hear it, they need to have the female perspective ingrained so it is top of mind when they become intimate with a girl. It should be the first thing they think about.

As they change and grow into young men, we need to keep talking. The #metoo conversation is far from over in the news and in the world. Who knows what they’ll hear next? And this is a good thing. It’s opening a doorway for communication, which is so important — even if it’s at an uncomfortable angle.

My beautiful mother.

My whole life, I’ve felt I was special. But I wasn’t special. Not really.

I was a typical kid with quirks and faults that morphed into pitfalls of destructive social mores . . . even still, through it all, I felt I was special. Worth something. Smart. Beautiful. Extraordinary.

This has everything to do with how I was raised. My parents saw me as extraordinary. They set the bar super high, and by holy hell water I was not going to let them down. Not because there would be hell to pay but because there would be a level of unspoken disappointment that would prove unbearable. Somehow, I knew this instinctively early on. There was no option but for me to be something special. Simply because I was something special.

Not only that. I was pretty.

Yes. I was told I was pretty from an early age. And, honestly, beyond all the smart and special and other kinds of praise that was showered on me, this was the most important. To me. A young girl. Shamefully true, but true nonetheless.

And try as I might to become a success in life . . . no matter how many honors I achieve, how many awards I win, how much praise I receive for my performance, I yearn for that reinforcement–from my parents, my friends, my husband . . . that I’m pretty. And I’ve been lucky. I’ve always felt confident and strong and happy with how I look–on a somewhat sliding scale (I mean, hey, I did live through the 80s by gosh . . .)

Fate has me living in my hometown after over twenty years of living away while believing I was that special, that kind of over-the-top talent, that kind of head-turning beauty. Since being home, I’ve been to several fundraisers and honorariums for different community groups that have been in existence long before my existence . . . and I’ve seen pictures of my mother in her prime. Gosh, that breath-taking beauty. I’ve proudly posted her photo on social media, praised her, raised her up, bragging to anyone who would listen–look, that’s my mother. Look how beautiful. And talented. And special. And extraordinary.

My beautiful mother.

I don’t know when it’s supposed to happen that you see yourself for who you really are. Maybe it’s supposed to happen this way. Tonight, I looked across the room at my 70+ y/o momma and was simply breath taken by her light and energy and beauty. Yes, not only her appearance, but her spirit. It was inspiringly captivating.

On her and my father’s anniversary, several pictures were taken–some of which captured me in my truth. And it woke me up a little.

My parents so empowered me throughout my childhood, I sometimes felt I knew better than they did. Maybe all grown children do this with their parents . . . and it’s an ugly truth . . . but I have often wanted to correct them, or rolled my eyes at their habits, or outright scolded them–silently or aloud–for something insignificant but somehow intrusive to my life. And, gosh, my mother has always shown such overt deference to me, I’ve often mistaken it for authority. She so often showers me with praise and love and affection, I too often take it for granted. I believe it too easily.

The truth is, I’m no better than my parents. It seems so obvious to write the words, but I have to admit I haven’t always felt that way. And that thing that I always felt so confident about–my looks? Well, guess what. I’m no extraordinary beauty. I’m not complaining. I’m fine with my appearance. But compared to my mother? There’s simply no contest! It’s so ridiculously clear. She was the true beauty. She was the standout, head-turning, throat-catching, student-crush-worthy stunner that you only see on the movie screen. She was that kind of beauty.

And still is.

Why am I only seeing this now?

As a mom, I try to balance praise with tough love. Encouragement with constructive criticism. Sternness with unconditional–not only love, but acceptance. As a daughter, I need to do the same with my parents. As we grow older–God willing–together, I want to lift them up the same way they lifted me. They gave me the best gift. They gave me a storybook childhood and a life most people could only dream of. They trusted me before I earned their trust. They respected me before I did anything worthwhile. Maybe it’s time to put them first for a change. Don’t they deserve it?

My mom certainly does.

Me and my beautiful mother.

Apple falls up

A talented writer in his own right, my oldest son AJ has been named Student of the Quarter twice in a row for WRITING. Last year in fifth grade, he wrote a short fantasy story for school that blew me away. The title is “Eugallado” and, after begging him to allow me to share it, I’m thrilled to post a sneak peek at the opening:

Eugallado. Chapter 1. The Cave.

It was a day like any other when the secret world was discovered by two ordinary boys.
The trees and the ground were covered in prestigious, sparkling white snow, and the sun made everything shine so bright it was almost hard to look at it. We gazed at the beautiful trees, sprinkled with glistening sugar-white powder, longing to explore the woods. My mom said we could never go in, but she wouldn’t tell us why. Of course we wanted to find out.
“Let’s go,” my best friend Ryan said excitedly . . .

People like to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and all that jazz, but I think it’s the opposite. In our case, the apple falls up! And writing is just one of his many talents. I’m so proud of this kid. He inspires me. He’s an inspiration to our whole family.

QMS Student of the Quarter

Excellence Award in Writing

On my school visits, I always tell students that the best way to improve your writing is to READ. Read everything. Always be reading. AJ is proof of that. He’s participated in the Battle of the Books program at school since third grade. He’s usually got at least 2 or 3 books going at one time. He reads books he likes, and books he dislikes. And maybe it’s his youth, but he seems to remember EVERYTHING!

I’m honored AJ is such a fan of my books! He read Forte twice — and after reading the first draft of its sequel, he gave me feedback that will be cherished forever: “I loved your book so much! I loved the description, and I felt like I could really feel the characters. I loved the combonation of music, magic, and mythology. Definetly one of the best books I’ve ever read! – AJ <3”

YA magical realism Concerto

AJ almost done with Concerto

When Concerto was published several months after he read the first draft, he was eager to read it again (gotta love this kid). Now 12 and dealing with middle school antics and LOTS of sixth grade homework, he found the time to read my book. It was my gift to see him peek out with a smile from behind my book as I tucked him into bed. As soon as he finished, he wrote a review on Google docs and shared it with me.

*Warning: contains spoilers!* (But too precious not to share!)

Concerto Review By AJ Spero

Mom, I thought your book Concerto was absolutely amazing! And I’m not saying that just because you’re my mom. If I went to Barnes & Noble and bought your book and read it, I’d say, “WOW! This book is so cool!!” First thing: I thought the characters were awesome! They were so real, I felt like I could really feel and connect with the characters. I also really liked how there was some suspense that made you ask questions that really kept you turning the pages! I always wanted to see what happened next. And the drama between the characters was really good! I felt like it was emotional but not over-the-top, you know? For instance, When Sami started to date Miles, I was like, “No! What about Jason?” Then when she went to visit Jason, I could really feel the awkwardness. I was cringing myself! Then when Jason gave Sami a pat on the back, oh man. Total cringe fest. Then at the end, I loved how they finally started to get back together again. I didn’t really like how they broke up in the first draft, though, it was even painful for me! I know I have a big, long, rambling list of all the things I loved about your book, so I’ll wrap it up with one more thing. I loved the sneak peak chapter of “Cadence”! I want to read it so bad now! I love how you see the other side of that conversation Lauren and Sami had. Sami seemed so oblivious! I also like Lauren’s fun personality, and I can’t wait to find out more about Lauren. I felt like, in “Forte,” I couldn’t really connect with Lauren as a person, but I like how I’ll find out her side of things. Overall, I thought your book was SO GOOD and I can’t wait ‘till “Cadence” comes out! 

 

Rave review(s)

As an indie author, it’s important to get online reviews. Actually, it’s CRUCIAL to get online reviews. Why? Amazon uses an algorithm to determine which products to push–and books with lots of 5-star reviews (over 50) have a better chance of appearing in search results, etc. Needless to say, I’m super eager to get reviews. (hint, hint!)

The review that came in yesterday, though, wasn’t on Amazon or Goodreads. It wasn’t on Facebook or any social media. It was written (& drawn) with markers on a blank sheet of paper. And it will be cherished forever.

CONCERTO REVIEW

I love your book, the combination of magic and mythology was astounding. The battle at the end had lots o’ action and I love love love action. I’m just gonna sum it up with just a few words … , … YOUR BOOK WAS AWESOME!!!

Love, Adam Spero (age 10)

Adam loved Concerto!

Adam finishing Mom’s book yesterday, snuggling with Mom on the couch.

Looking back at my posts, I see that my oldest AJ finished Forte when he was 10 and gave me the most valuable review. 

Adam finished Forte last summer and was like “Oh no, she drank the blue stuff! This is baaaaaaad!”

Adam loved Forte

Adam finished Forte last summer. Loved it!

I sat with Adam as he finished the final pages of Concerto. It was a special moment. I loved seeing his reading habits. Unlike me, he wasn’t racing to finish. He took his time. Stopped to admire the cover, read the back copy blurb. He even took a break to read the teaser chapter for book #3, for the second time.

Oh, those little hands holding my book, *my heart*.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Polar Bear Prints

My youngest son just finished a unit on polar bears in art class. His teacher just posted this beauty to Artsonia.

Polar Bear Prints

Polar Bear Prints by 7 y/o Chaz

I love this artwork for so many reasons.

Some of you may be surprised to learn polar bears inspired the concept of Concerto.

For those of you who are familiar with Forte, you’re probably wondering how the sequel could have anything to do with these beautiful arctic creatures. Forte is about music and magic . . . an ancient rivalry and a mysterious prophecy to fulfill. No lions or tigers or bears of any kind.

Its follow up, Concerto, is also about music and magic — but also about extreme weather personified by power-hungry gods of the sea and skies.

Sure, my latest may not involve animals, but it does involve their habitat.

Years ago I watched a documentary about polar bears that made me cry. With their habitat melting away, the problem seems insurmountable. And that’s just one example. Climate change. Global warming. Beyond these buzz words in the political arena, when I think about the kind of environmental problems we are passing on to the next generation, my mama-tiger claws come out. But then, despair hits. What can I, a writer, possibly do?

Write this book.

But this book is not a political statement. As the book evolved, the magic created an otherworldly twist that doesn’t translate to what’s happening in our environment. Sami, my main character, is charged with fighting extreme “natural” disasters and the evil force behind it. However, considering all the crazy extreme weather happening in the world lately, it seems timely. Wouldn’t it be cool if music could magically affect the weather?

I’m not hoping my book will trigger an environmental miracle. I do hope that it helps raise awareness, though. I also hope my son’s precious artwork is not someday seen as a study of a glorious animal that had become tragically extinct.

 

Best Launch Party

Concerto is now available!
Order your copy today to take advantage of special introductory pricing!

Hooray! It’s finally here! I think Xchyler Publishing and I set a world record with our aggressive editing schedule for this one. It was just August 21 when Xchyler gave me the first round of feedback on the manuscript as a whole. I managed to turn those edits around in less than three weeks. Then, there was a back and forth with the editing team: more content edits, then line edits, then grammar and proofing — for each chapter individually. I’d say we went through a minimum of 4 rounds of edits per chapter. (I think the most was 8? Maybe 9?) I’d often wake up in the middle of the night to see more edits in my queue and a whir of excitement would keep me up to work on them into the wee hours of morning. What’s that you ask? Sleep? Who needs sleep when you have a book to launch! At Thanksgiving, I had to beg out of conversation with my in-laws, “Sorry, I don’t know how to talk about anything but my imaginary characters and the made-up world they live in.”

It was such a whirlwind, I didn’t have time to set up a launch party. And being so close to the holidays, I didn’t really want to. But, look what my family did for me? My boys made me homemade cards, my husband brought home flowers and champagne. What more does a girl need? My heart is bursting.

Forte magic returns with Concerto launch

From my ten-year-old. “Straight up AWESOME!”

 

Concerto YA fantasy is now available

So much love in these “Congrats!” cards from my boys.

Sometimes the best launch parties are right at home surrounded by your loved ones.

Concerto YA fantasy now available

Best fan club ever.

 

YA fantasy new release ebook sale

Order your copy on Amazon today & take advantage of special introductory pricing!

Insomnia

It hits me off and on. At least once a week. This morning, I awoke at 3 AM, thought about going back to sleep for about one minute, then bounded out of bed with a surge of adrenaline. Why? Because I’m approaching the finish line to launch my upcoming release CRESCENDO, the sequel to Forte. Up and at ’em to work on content edits to send to Xchyler Publishing by 6 AM. I rock.

But not every 3 AM bout of insomnia is that happy or productive. Most times, my mind plays cruel tricks on me and I’m sick with worry about anything and everything. Sometimes, I go completely Macbeth and feel like I’m losing my mind altogether. It happened this past summer and I wrote the following passage in my journal — bleary and exhausted, messy and scribbling in all directions. It’s raw and unedited and, hopefully, strikes a chord.


Can’t sleep
Worrying about cars and dogs
Regret tugs — losing my patience
I want to be happy
It should be easy
Why am I so anxious?
Lots to do, wasted Sunday
Summer’s too short. Why was I so eager to fill it?
Hopes smack against fears
Spider crawling down the wall
Haven’t written in awhile
Does this count?
Is it enough to be a mom?
and wife
Hope for yes tempered by guilt
Worry fears losing what we have
Do I love too much?
Why can’t I be kinder? Why do I get so irritated? Why is smiling hard?
Are we missing something?
Is it slipping away?
Am I trying hard enough?
Am I succeeding?
Where did my babies go?
Are the memories safe? Are the moments captured?
Big, fat black ants
too much stuff — for what?
Time slipping too fast
Too busy, not busy enough
my loves keep them safe please
vacuum broke again.
My hair gets everywhere.
My stomach sticks out.
I get angry easily.
I don’t know why he loves me so much.
I’m alive.
Every moment is precious. Why waste it with worry?
Can’t sleep.
Stopped trying.
Tomorrow is here.
I’m not ready.

Small things

“Just remember this . . . We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It means, don’t worry.”

From Elephant Run by Roland Smith


Easier said than done for a mom. Ever since my first child was born over eleven years ago, I’m constantly navigating a world full of dangers I hadn’t noticed before. Not only dangers to my children but to myself as well. I look back at the stupid risks I took in my youth and wonder how I survived. My next breath is stuck thinking about my children doing a version of those same stupid risks, their own variation of “coming of age.” I lose sleep over it. “It” being “everything.”

Since the election, I’ve avoided the news and social media, unable to stomach the information that comes through. It’s, like, worry on a totally different level. I don’t believe I’m being dramatic when my fears of an apocalypse are being realized. I tell myself it’s out of my control. My husband reminds me that as long as our children are healthy and safe and our immediate world isn’t affected, we can’t worry about it.

But, “it” means “everything.” What happens in the world also happens to my children, and I nearly wilt from worry.

Until I get a reality check.

Last night, I got news (through social media, ironically) that one of my high school classmates passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer.

At first, I didn’t believe it. But other posts followed, how her close friends will miss her, her college roommate will always hold her in her heart, prayers going out to her family. A husband and three children. I didn’t realize how sick she was. The last post I remember seeing from Lorien was about her daughter’s success at a horse show. She’d been so proud of her, and I had foolishly thought from the tone of her post that everything in her world was okay.

Lorien and I grew up in tandem at Lake George elementary. She always towered over me. I specifically remember feeling dwarfish next to her in gym class. At some point in high school, we were in the same Home-Economics class. (Home-Ec. Do they even teach that anymore?) We learned how to sew. We made stuffed animals. She made a brown puppy and named it “Roadkill” — which she announced in her signature low voice, followed by her signature deep, chuckling laughter. I’d looked on, bemused at her dry, semi-morbid sense of humor. It was a glimpse of who Lorien was. Just a glimpse. But it’s stayed with me.

Lorien and I weren’t close. In our small school, we were friendly but we didn’t hang out on weekends or anything. I didn’t really know her all that well. Still, her tragic death has shocked me awake.

As I snuggled my children into bed last night, I thought about Lorien. How she was no longer able to put her kids to bed, to kiss them goodnight. She wouldn’t see her daughter in another horse show. She wouldn’t be able to post how proud she was of her. She wouldn’t see her children graduate from high school, college. She wouldn’t see them get married. She would never meet her grandchildren.

What the fuck am I worrying about?

The passage above is was taken the book Elephant Run by Roland Smith. It’s one of my son’s Battle of the Books books this year. I’m reading along with him so we can talk about it and study together.

A small thing. But a huge thing.

Our jobs as moms are made up of these small, beautiful things. Things that Lorien also won’t ever be able to do again. Pouring cereal, packing lunches, signing permission slips, meeting the school bus, driving to piano lessons, monitoring homework, trimming nails, reading stories, doing unending laundry . . .

Guess what, Moms? These small things are *just as important* as the big things. We know this, but we need the reminder. These small things shape our lives and our children’s lives. They make up our world.

We have to cherish every little thing. Celebrate them, even. Every day. Because, my god, they matter. They are everything.


“Just remember this . . . We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It means, don’t worry.”

6 things you can do to ease election pain

The election result is a shock for us Hillary supporters. There are a lot of us out there. There’s a lot of pain. It takes everything in me to believe in our country right now, and to give Trump a chance. But I refuse to go negative about something I can’t control.

What can I control? Here are six things I plan to do to feel better, starting today.

  1. Raise my boys well. The next four years will be crucial for my children, who will be entering pre- and teen years. In our wonderful family of five, we’ll be dealing with all that comes with that: puberty and confusing hormones, competitive sports, and driving a car — to name a few. Throughout all, they will respect women as equals, without question. I vow to raise our boys with goodness and love and acceptance and hope.
  2. Take care of myself. I exercise regularly, but as I sweated it out this morning, I thought about my body in a different way. As many women probably feel, I’m saddened and hurt by Trump’s comments and shameless objectification of women. I’m also guilty of falling into the trap, objectifying myself. There have always been things I’ve wanted to change about my appearance. “If I could only lose that pesky five pounds, if only my nose were more petite, if my teeth were whiter, if my hair wasn’t so wild…” You know what? It’s all bullshit. I’m healthy. I’m strong. And, goldarnit, my husband thinks I’m gorgeous. My kids think my extra five pounds adds to the snuggle factor. I vow to be kind to myself. To love myself as I am no matter what I see in the media.
  3. Take care of our planet. The continuing devastation to our environment is real. Our efforts in recycling and renewable energy are (excuse the pun) only the tip of the iceberg. There’s got to be more we can do to reverse the damage so our children have a worry-free future, without relying on the government to do so. Coincidentally, I’m working on a sequel to Forte which addresses this very question — where magic is the answer. If only magic were an option. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I vow to take a more active role to help heal our earth.
  4. Be kind to each other. It’s tempting to make the generalization that everyone who voted for Trump agrees with everything he’s ever said and condones the things he’s admitted doing. That’s not necessarily the case, as my husband reminded me. There are many people out there who have lost jobs and are struggling to raise their children — to survive, even. They are angry and fed up with the government they believe let them down. I vow to keep an open mind, to withhold judgment, and to treat others with kindness no matter what their political views may be.
  5. Have faith. Even if you are not religious, the idea of having faith helps during times like these. Have faith in the peaceful transition of power that George Washington bravely set up for us when our country was founded. Have faith in the US Constitution. Have faith in its “checks and balances.” Have faith in due process. Have faith in science. Have faith in God. Have faith in our country.
  6. Smile. Give yourself the gift of a good, healthy cry. And then, find humor in something. In everything! Here’s something: Just think how good SNL will be for the next four years.

I’m not saying all this will be easy. To be honest, part of why I wrote this post is to pull myself out of hopelessness and convince myself to be positive.

Let yourself grieve, and then think about what you can do to feel better. Maybe these six things offer a good place to start.