I Know What I Know

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Monday Morning at the ALAN Workshop — Adolescent Literature

This morning, I’m lucky enough to be in a vast, impersonal conference center stuffed from corner to corner with English teachers, librarians, publishers, and authors. We are here to talk all day today and tomorrow about YA literature. It’s the ALAN 2017 workshop, which probably doesn’t mean much to any of you.

But what does mean something to you, a lot to you, the world to you, is reading. And maybe writing, too. It’s probably a safe bet that, if you’re reading this, books have had an immeasurable impact on your life in one way or another, in several ways, in every way. To be a reader is to be someone whose consciousness has been shaped by books, mostly fictional books about fake people where nothing between the covers physically exists.

When I was a kid, I used scary books like Fear Street, Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and various ghost stories like Wait Till Helen Comes  and Stonewords to taste the things I was afraid of and process them in a realm of safety. These books, and their inheritors (namely Stephen King) are so special to me for their formative affect on my development. I’m sure all of you can think of a book, a series, a genre that has had a similar impact on you. I find some of my truest passion for writing comes from my supernatural work because of my interest in the dark as far back as second grade, perhaps earlier.

I’ll share a memory with you now — being 10, 11, 12, and laying in bed, reading, reading, reading until my fingers hurt from holding the heavy book up — Sundays devouring Redwall books while simultaneously devouring Halloween candy. I feel like I’m too old to read like that anymore in the same way that I’m too old to trick-or-treat. It’s one of those joys that bleeds away as time drags us into adulthood. But what an experience.

I wound never trade those away, those beautiful hours. I wish I could recapture it again.

I think about all the characters, their pain and their victories — pages, pages, faces, names, worlds…

As an educator, this is what I want for my students. As a mother, this is what I want for my daughter. The revelry of reading. Journeying with the characters, seeking connections with other readers — we worry, int his digital age, if our young people will be readers of our same caliber and passion.

Sitting here at ALAN, I think it’s possible that our students and children will be even better for reading young adult literature than we were. Yes, we lined up for the next Harry Potter books and lived and consumed the lives of our most beloved characters. But never before in YA lit has there been such a drive, an imperative, to put books in the hands of kids that don’t just entertain, to give some kind of morality lesson, but to truly and sincerely depict characters from innumerable facets of our world.

The truth now is that we can go so much further. Not only do we want our children to “get lost in a book,” we want them to get found in a book. Finding either a character just like them (non-binary, Black, etc.) cast in the hero’s role, or, even more importantly perhaps, reading outside themselves and finding empathy for people with vastly different identities and experiences, things the reader could have never imagined within the realm of true experience.

Yes, we can hand our Black students The Hate U Give or All American Boys, but we need to hand it to our white students. We can give girls stories with strong female characters, but why not hand those books to boys as well so they get used to seeing women the way we wish they would see them? Yes, hand a Sherman Alexie or a Joseph Bucharac book to a student with Native American heritage, but why not give it to literally anyone else, too?

If I was a kid now, who preferred fantasy/horror but would read really anything (especially if it had a medal stamped on the cover) I would have had so many more diverse, authentic, multicultural reading experiences. Rabid readers now are free to taste from a buffet that is infused with so many different flavors/voices. Yes, we have growth yet to be made, but the shift from the ’90s to now is so encouraging, and so important.

I worry that we aren’t doing enough to produce ravenous readers to continue to dine on this phenomenal smorgasbord of text. There are so many things to compete with reading these days. But in the ’90s, we had Super Nintendo and cable TV, which was plenty distracting. In fact, I think kids have a better chance now in becoming robust readers than they did when I was a kid, because there is such a rich tapestry of representation appearing in YA lit.

GO. Read. Try and find that thing, that Halloween-candy-indulgent type of reading that I’m afraid I’ve lost forever. And if you work with young people, fill their hands with diverse books by diverse authors. Oh, and Superfudge. My first story I ever wrote was a Superfudge fan fiction. I love reading because of Superfudge. Just… if you have time :).


The Education Biz — Year 12

I’ve been in the education game for twelve years. Hard to imagine. A hypothetical baby born the year I started teaching has grown into a smart-aleck 7th grader, smeared with lip-gloss and attitude. Metaphorically, if my teaching career were a child, this is a time of changes. I’m hitting my professional puberty and it’s kind of great, you guys.

This fall marked my first back-to-school season in which I had no classroom to decorate and no lesson plans to write. I have no papers to grade, no Google Classroom to manage — yet I’m still working in the middle/high school environment. So what am I doing, exactly?

A lot, it turns out! I’m splitting my time between two new positions, and a new student activity.

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Instructional Coaching

Technically speaking, my title is Instructional Design Strategist, or IDS, but I prefer the term Instructional Coach. My school follows a lot of the instructional coaching philosophies of coaching guru Jim Knight. The purpose of the position is to collaborate with teachers to help them improve their effectiveness in student learning using high-impact teaching strategies.

If you’re not in the education biz, I’ll give you some examples — this year I’ve helped teachers brainstorm beginning-of-class procedures to help with classroom management, put together reading lists, researched online resources for an upcoming unit, strategized a seating chart and interventions for a class with a lot of “personality,” and many more things I’m just forgetting to put here.

My fellow coaches and I refer to a framework we’ve come up with to describe three “levels” of coaching — resources, collaboration, and a coaching cycle. The resource level of coaching is just that — providing a teacher with resources to help them in any way (finding online reading comprehension texts, relevant magazine articles, etc). Collaboration is where the teacher and coach work closely together on co-planning lessons, brainstorming solutions to classroom management problems, basically pooling their resources with two brains being better than one. The third level, the coaching cycle, is truly unique and transformative. The teacher sets a goal that can be measured — like, say, 85% of kids demonstrate proficiency in noun identification and usage on a test, or students will be engaged in class for 85% of the time— and the coach and teacher collaborate to find a way to achieve that goal. This can involve co-planning, co-teaching, modeling, etc.

The goal is data-driven, so the coach comes to the classroom to collect that data throughout the process until the goal is reached. Changes are made to the plan for reaching the goal as necessary. When the goal is achieved, the coaching cycle is complete.

I adore all levels of coaching. I love the challenge of trying to help a teacher and make his or her life easier. The coaching cycle is particularly exciting because you get to pick one specific area of student achievement and really zero in on it, develop a tool to collect the data, and figure out how to pinpoint what you want the students to be able to do.

And the “street level” stuff like finding a frazzled teacher some pasteboard or running over to Dollar General to pick up skittles for an activity — I love that just as much. Covering classes once in awhile is great, too. It’s like being a grandparent — I get the kids for a little bit of time, but I get to send them back “home” at the end of the period!

IDS coaches also help plan professional development and act as a liaison between the teachers and the administration. I serve on the Building Leadership Team and the District Leadership Team. When I have time, I read professional articles and books and minimize/distill the information for an easy read for teachers. Anything I can do to make their jobs/lives easier!

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MTSS Interventionist

When the second part of my position was described to me last year, there wasn’t really a name for it besides “at-risk” (meaning students who are at risk of not graduating on time). I’m not overly fond of that term, so I sort of re-named myself.

MTSS stands for the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, and describes a framework through which schools attempt to systematically intervene to ensure student success. There are three tiers of support in the Pyramid of Interventions, and each level has multiple tools in the toolbox that teachers/the school can try to get the student on track to graduate and be successful.

So, my job is to be one of those interventions. Thus I am an MTSS Interventionist.

Here are some of the things I’ve been doing with this role:

  • Helping build and refine our list of who falls into the “at-risk” category based on several factors including school performance, absences, etc.
  • Organizing a Homework Lab of students during our early out days. This includes communicating with teachers, parents, and students about attending this extra help time.
  • I have students I meet with regularly to check in on homework and life in general. I help them with planning out how to attack missing work and strategies for improving performance.
  • Working with students with prolonged absences and help them organize and prioritize missing work.
  • Redesigning WIN (What I Need) intervention time during the school day to optimize its use (visiting teachers and getting caught up on homework).
  • Observing students who might be struggling. I can tell a lot from social interactions and body language. Also talking to their teachers about what works/doesn’t work for that particular kid.
  • Meeting with individual students to explicitly teach executive functioning skills.
  • Gathering data from surveys about students feeling safe at school or a connection to an adult. Getting everyone in an entire school to take a google form survey takes a LOT of legwork!
  • And probably a lot of other things I’m forgetting!


National Honor Society

I am now the faculty adviser for our chapter of the National Honor Society. Right now, my job is getting applications distributed and answering questions. I’ll be collecting reference letters and helping students who need some guidance with the application process.

The fun part is that I get to plan the induction ceremony! This means ordering flowers, finding some musicians, getting the speeches ready, ordering cupcakes, etc. The current NHS group (juniors last year, seniors this year) will help me decorate the library and throw a lovely ceremony for our new members.

Once we have our new chapter members, we begin our service projects to help in the community. I’m very excited to be part of that, and I think my school has a really exceptional group of kids in this organization.

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Yep, I Love It

I thought I’d have a real problem leaving the classroom. I really did. Ask anyone in my life. I was apprehensive, I was negative, I was nervous. But that was all BS, because this job is amazing. It’s a perfect fit for me.

Every day is different, but each day allows me to flex all of my skills — my trained ethnographic observation techniques, my “Super Study” talents, and collaborating with adults while helping kids. The introvert in me loves that there is time in the day when I am silently working in my office, typing up documentation or reading and annotating books/articles about the latest in education and coaching. And then my extroverted side gets to collaborate with teachers, go to meetings, and help out students one-on-one.

I finally get to see the big picture of how a school works instead of being confined to one classroom. It’s fascinating to see the building as a living organism, or a hydra with many heads.

At first, I was incredulous. How could I like this so much? What’s the catch? What am I missing? Well, the first month of school is gone, and everything is still vital and electrifying and fascinating and absorbing with this new gig.

When the universe closes a door, she opens a window. She’s been doing a lot of shutting and opening with me lately. But now I’m outside, and, for now, I’m in the sun.


A Trapper-Keeper Full of Memories Vol. 2

Here are some more gems for you, my friends — quotes and inexplicable events from the trenches of teaching (mostly middle school). Happy Back to School!

During a Mystery Writing Unit

Kid: My pencil is sharp! Now I can stab Zach

Me: We don’t stab people in class, please.

Kid: But then someone could write a mystery about it!

Geography Goodies

Kid: China is my favorite state!


Kid: Hey Jared, close your chromebook.


Nerd Alert

I’m in the hallway having come out of the bathroom. A group of nerdy kids ambushes me.

Kid 1: You should learn Klingon! We’re already learning it! We know the Klingon word for success!

Kid 2: (jumps out of his hiding place around the corner ) Ha-na!

Again, something you can’t make up because the truth is stranger than fiction.

I had a kid collect a year’s worth of used chewing gum in a ziplock baggie in his locker. I also had a kid forget he had a bottle of chocolate milk in his locker for several weeks.

More later as I discover my notes hidden away in teacher notebooks from long ago!


Kid: Santa is bae.

Kid: These chips are full of hate and blood!

Kid 1: Don’t call people a butthead.

Kid 2: Yeah, call them a Beavis!

Kid: Someone tapped me on the shoulder in the hallway and now I’m questioning life.

I did have a student who thought Hanukkah was pronounced Hakuna like Hakuna Matata.

Kid: Hey Mia, where did you get those markers

Mia: your butt

*kid farts*

Kid behind him: Stop it! I will stab you in the butt! I’m a butt-stabber!

During a study hall I had kids who were bored making paper airplanes and trying to design the best one. I had them name their airlines and one kid named his “Constipated Airlines”

Kid: Everyone has to puke at least once in their life, so…

A Trapper-Keeper Full of Memories Volume I

This fall, I embark on a new chapter of my career in education. I am now the Secondary Instructional Coach and Secondary Interventionist at my school. Armed with a summer’s worth of research, I am on a quest to collaborate with teachers to improve student outcomes, and assist students who face struggles with success in school.

Though initially I was concerned about having some kind of identity crisis, I’m actually super pumped about this position and trying something new. It’s just weird not having class lists to worry about, assignments to photocopy, or a syllabus to revise.

I don’t have a classroom anymore, just an office. I haven’t 100% processed my feelings about that, but right now it’s not hitting me in any particular way. I think my biggest “regret” of not having typical classes this year is that I won’t have the opportunity to collect hilarious quotes and stories said by and about my students.

So, for my next few posts, I think I’m going to share some of my all-time favorite classroom moments and quotes. Please unzip the trapper-keeper full of memories and join me.

Goals are Important…

Student looks at an achievement board on my wall and says, “Go Al. Who’s Al?”

Me: “… honey, that says ‘goal’.”

Attention-Seeking Behavior

I had a student in my first year at West Middle School in Muscatine who we’ll call “Luigi.” Luigi was a puffy, puppy-faced 7th grader who seemed uninterested and unmotivated at first, but then suddenly started doing 100% hilarious things to get attention from me. He would get up during work time and come over to the Kleenex box near my desk and pretend to sneeze like 20 times. They weren’t loud or obnoxious, just these gentle little pretend sneezes. This would continue until I somehow acknowledged his presence. When this failed to have a lasting affect, Luigi switched tactics. He would get up, again during work time, and sit down with his butt on the trash can like it was a toilet. “Oh, excuse me, I just need to poop.” He would then make fart noises with his mouth and pretend to take a dump in this trash can in a room full of people until he got my attention.

This is real. This actually happened in 2011. YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP.


At Mid-Prairie, I had a student who was always trying to do “cool things” during study hall, again to get attention. He was extremely flexible, but not quite flexible enough to get himself into lotus position, which was his goal (or, as I should say, his Go Al). One day he was practicing and I heard a pained cry. In an attempt to pull his leg up over his thigh, he accidentally kicked himself in a “sensitive area”.

I Don’t Get Paid Enough To Answer this Question

Kid (in the middle of class, raises hand): What does phallic instrument mean?

Panty Raid

One day, again at Muscatine, I was walking down to the bathrooms by the gym where the locker rooms were. There, hanging from the spigot, was a pair of orange and purple girls’ underwear. Nobody around, no explanation. I let the custodians know.

“Hump” Day?

One morning a few years ago, I opened my email to read a message from the assistant principal. “Good morning, staff. There is an issue we’d like to bring your attention to. Apparently a good number of the 7th grade boys have a game they call ‘ball-buster Wednesday’ where on Wednesdays, it is a free for all in which boys take every opportunity to slap each other in the genital region. If you see this behavior please end the situation, document, and let the office know.”

The Fugitive

I was in the office, and saw a kid go running past and out the front doors. I went out to the foyer and saw his teacher was chasing him. “He escaped!” she cried. So, being much younger and in shape, I started running after him in a skirt and flip flops. I chased him down to the main road. It looked like he was about to get away when suddenly a maroon car pulled over and an old man leaned out the window. “GET IN!” he shouted. I dived into the back seat and they chased the kid down with the car. I hopped out and kind of grabbed his arm, which stopped him. He was getting tired at this point. I told him I would buy him a pop if he came back to the school, and he actually let me bring him back. Whoever the older couple was who was in that car, you were AMAZING that day!

Final Quotes for this Chapter

Kid 1: I can’t draw. Look at this dog. It looks like a medieval cow.

Kid 2: Kinda like your face.


“Well, it’s time to go to gym and kick some balls.”

Can you see why I’m sad that I won’t be around kids as much to overhear this stuff, and witness the perfect comedy of school life? I have about 20 more examples to share with you, so I’ll keep posting every couple of days with more of the precious moments with our nation’s youth.


Haunted Houses

Haunted Houses Haunted Houses by Larry Kettelkamp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I definitely read this in elementary school at some point! I stumbled on a copy at a garage sale in my home town that was withdrawn from the local library and presumably bought at a book sale. My copy is from 1965!

The illustrations are completely adorable, and the stories refreshingly new — yes, I’d seen pictures of the Brown Lady, but hadn’t heard the music teacher’s ghostly tale. The theories and stories about poltergeists were boringly familiar (I mean, I have read this before, I’m pretty sure) but there was an entirely refreshing theoretical section about the nature of time and space, and their dimensions, etc. The author was obviously well-researched and credits some paranormal researchers affiliated with institutions of learning in the forward. A lot of his information seems to come from the famed parapsychology lab at Duke University.

I’ll be keeping this copy for my daughter to read someday. It was so cool to imagine ghost hunts and research taking place in the ’50s-’60s with their limited technological equipment (like in The Conjuring) and none of the flashy ghost hunting TV show bull**** that invites people to try and fake results or wear too much Ed Hardy (yes Ghost Adventures I am calling you out).

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EvidenceEvidence by Luc Sante
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Note: do not read before bed.

This astounding collection of NYC crime scene photos were discovered by Sante in a forgotten archive where they were spared the fate of others who were thrown away or dumped into the river when buildings and departments moved.

Collected here for you are postmortem photos meticulously curated by Sante, chosen by someone with a strong sense of poetry and reverence for and identification with the anonymous dead.

Sante pairs the images with whatever information he could find about the victims depicted, which is scanty at best. Also after the collection he allows himself to speculate about the dead and the America they lived and died in. He draws the reader in by challenging them and acknowledging the exploitation of their gaze, as well as musing on the nature of photography itself.

“Through the act of looking, we own these pictures, or, rather, they thrust themselves upon us… to look at these pictures is to glimpse the work of the recording angel on the day of judgement… these pictures are documentary evidence of an end we are afraid to recognize.”

This is a remarkable thing.

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Nostalgia and Memory are Two Different Things.

Note — I had a really great post here about the difference between nostalgia and actual memory, prompted by my recent 15 year high school reunion.

Then WordPress didn’t save it and the page weirdly reloaded and now it is gone.

I am very sad because I don’t think I can really recreate what I wrote.


This old post on nostalgia will have to suffice.

Points I guess I was trying to make… growing up is it’s own special brand of trauma, even though it is lauded as a natural experience. The truth of our middle/high school experience is not our nostalgia. Nostalgia only uses memories of events when it fits correctly with the narrative of sweet wistfulness. Nostalgia is watching The Craft, listening to Sublime, and looking at pictures that showed up in old Delia’s catalogues. Nostalgia is what sells because it generally feels good, though it is dangerous to long for something that never existed.

I have access to a lot of my school-age memories because I’ve kept them alive to reconnect with my students. I purposely separate my nostalgia from my memories and I’m aware that one is “fact” or “true” and the other is not, a narrative and series of feelings woven into a blindfold that we can choose to put on.

In other news, the reunion was VERY FUN because I saw some of my good friends and got to rock in the hammock I made out of my nostalgia-tapestry I’ve woven over the years. The truth wasn’t important, factual memory wasn’t important, who was friends or did or didn’t get along back then was not important at our gathering.

Also it’s pretty cool to drink in what used to be the library of your middle school.

I really wish this dumb website would have saved my awesome post. WordPress, you are on my LIST right now.

Murder in Montmarte

Murder in Montmartre (Aimee Leduc Investigations, #6)Murder in Montmartre by Cara Black
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book in a Little Free Library on the way into what was sure to be a boring series of meetings. Every time I could, I snuck a peek at it. This was about a year ago, and I just decided to pick up the book and finish it.

Overall, this was a very fun mystery. My favorite part, of course, was the location. The author has a very intimate knowledge of Paris. It surprised me that she wasn’t French. Also she has a really good understanding of French politics and different cultures that make up the Paris neighborhoods. This book educated me about Corsica, actually. Though I’ve been to France 5 times and researched a bit about it, I didn’t know anything about Corsican history and the colonization (knew more about Algeria). I adored that it was set in the ’90s, too — that really added to it for me as a ’90s kid.

I hadn’t read any other books in the series, but I was still able to follow the story and get a flavor for Aimee’s character. She’s a bit of an archetype in a way. She reminded me of a more tech-savvy Jessica Jones. Sassy, but sad inside, with a bit of a self-destructive streak.

I thought the pacing of the book was great. I don’t have a lot of time to read, so it was great to read a fast-paced book with a lot of action and characters packed in, and a great setting to boot. It definitely was more enjoyable than the last book I read, which was like 800 pages of people reading in archives and then dodging a vampire every 200 pages or so.

My only complaint was that there were times where the writing maybe… pandered to an audience who just wanted to have the characters’ emotions told to them, or who wanted a symbol explained. When Aimee sees plastic bags blowing around but not getting anywhere, the narrator makes sure we know that’s how she feels inside, which is a lot of hand-holding for a more apt reader. Not everyone is a writer/English teacher, but I don’t like it when nuances of character emotion or symbolism are rolled out too obviously.

If I found another one of these books, preferably the first one, I would read it. Thanks to Cara Black for a well-researched mystery!

I put the book back in a Little Free Library for the next person to enjoy 🙂

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Insomnia = Forever Alone

Humans allegedly spend a third of their lives asleep. Like eating and pooping, sleeping should be one of the easiest human things to do, something extremely hard to be terrible at. Sleeping. Duh. You lay down when you’re tired and you sleep and then you wake up and you aren’t tired any more. No prob, Bob!

Yeah, except about 30%-35% of us experience brief periods of insomnia, and for %10 of the population, it’s a chronic problem. I’ve been ass-terrible at sleeping my entire life, though I don’t know if I would describe my issues as chronic insomnia so much as, well, being crap at sleeping. Like how I’m crap at Scrabble.

Here are some gifs that I think nicely illustrate what my frustration with sleep has been like over the years.

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I’ll just be over here entertaining myself *sob)
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why does everyone else get to sleep


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The worst part about insomnia isn’t actually the sleep deprivation. Motherhood has proven to me that I can rely on a lot less sleep than I think I need. The second part that sucks of course is the anxiety factor. “If I go to sleep RIGHT NOW I will have four hours of sleep, and I need to sleep because it’s a field trip day tomorrow…” That mental chanting is definitely not fun. But the worst part is actually the loneliness. Everyone else is asleep, so you’re up by yourself, but you can’t really do anything because it might wake people up. So you crawl into a little corner with a flashlight and hate your existence.

I was never a good sleeper. My mom had to bribe me to stay in my bed. She put a purse on the doorknob, and put a dime in it each night. If I stayed in my bed and didn’t call for her, I got to keep the dime. Eventually I saved up enough to buy a My Little Pony. Maybe I need to start doing that again? Definitely something I’ll try with my daughter, because I’m afraid she’s on the same track.

The worst, though, was sleepovers. Call me crazy, but as a tween/teen I liked to sleep in a bed, with the lights off, in a quiet place. My friends’ random basements and bedrooms did not provide me with that. I guess I was sleep-picky because I couldn’t fall under with the TV on, watching whatever movies we’d rented, and people snoring, rustling around, etc. Seriously, everyone at the slumber party would go to sleep and I would just lay there in my sleeping bag wondering why I was doing this. It’s seriously detrimental to not be able to sleep in other places. I’m sure there were slumber parties I skipped and social situations I missed out on because I didn’t want to pull an all-nighter all by myself.

I remember one night in particular I spent the night at a friend’s with a bunch of other girls, and I ended up reading a stack of Newsweek magazines in the bathroom for hours. Newsweek. I was 14.

You’d think that would be a low point, but it was actually college. My freshman year, I had a room mate I ended up not getting along with for a number of reasons (this link should explain our lifestyle and philosophical differences). She wasn’t super accommodating about my sleep schedule, and would often stay up until midnight or later on AOL instant messenger… keeping the dumb little messaging sounds on the computer so I had to lay there and listen to it. She came home late a lot, and her computer desk was like right next to my head. The light from the screen she NEVER SHUT OFF didn’t help. Never mind the people talking loudly on the phone in the hallway, or the fact that they were building the Belin-Blank Honors Center right outside our window. Let’s just say I drank a lot of NyQuill that year. Like, a lot of it.

To this day, I still struggle. At least now they have invented Ambien, and I can get it when I need it. Mostly. Because it’s like I feel bad explaining to my doctor that I am so much more rested on that medication. I suppose they don’t want people taking it all the time, but if it helps?!?!?! Don’t judge me. Still, some nights, I wander around our condo while my husband and daughter and all three stupid cats are asleep.

Ideally, I would sleep in a soundproof pod with just a little bit of violet ambient light. I always thought it would be super cool to go into cryogenic sleep because you’d have no choice other than to fall asleep, right? Or go into stasis on a space ship for a long voyage…

There are some nights when I know I have an early morning where I’m just hoping Spock would come along and just neck pinch me.

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why is she always asking

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