Author Archives: Jillian Kuhlmann

About Jillian Kuhlmann

Nerd. Writer. Mama.

When Your Oldest is Five and You Are Undone

There are 4×6 photographs of my oldest daughter hanging around my house – in the kitchen where we work together to prepare meals and messes, in the bathroom she shares with her sister, in the hall at the base of the stairs where she and her sister sit to calm down when they’ve thrown a tantrum. These photographs aren’t framed, just taped up, and they’re all from when she was about two years old: before Little Sister was born, and before she began demonstrating so regularly the behaviors that have convinced me she will be the CEO of a continent by 25.

I hung them about a year ago when I needed a reminder that she is small and still learning, to help me remember that her fierceness is sometimes her only response to figuring out the world and herself.

Miss E is a wonder. She manages to be all of the best and worst of me and of her father and still so uniquely herself. Stubborn as mountains and startlingly sweet, at times. Her father was sick recently so I slept in the basement to avoid the contagion, and I heard her come downstairs from her room in the morning and begin to sob. I found her on the couch, crocodile tears fat as diamonds on her cheeks, and as she clutched at me she said, “I thought you were gone.”

We feel such big feelings about and at each other. We anger easily and quickly. Just this week after we’d “disagreed” about how to discipline her throwing toys around when she didn’t get her way, she said something equally impactful.

“Stupid mom.”

I told her, repeatedly, that what she had said had really hurt my feelings. Really, really, really. She began to cry, hard, curling herself up in a ball on the floor. So I held her in the same way she’d held me when, just a few weeks ago, I’d lost my temper with her and put her rather roughly to bed. When I was unkind, when I’d inadvertently taught her just how effective unkindness can sometimes be in curbing the things we don’t like to see in each other.

But she forgave me.

And I forgave her.

And as she says when we have each had time to breathe and try again to be better,

“You will always love me. There’s nothing I could do that would make you not love me.”

It’s true, my girl, forever.

Going (Orion) Green at Dragon Con

I’ve been trying this year to make more conscientious choices, specifically concerning single-use plastics and changing my habits regarding things I know I am going to need/need to do regularly, and as I anticipate another year at Dragon Con, I’ve been thinking about how I can make some more earth-friendly choices while I am there.

Image credited to Dragon Con Media Relations.

An ultra-crowded convention in sweltering downtown Atlanta over a holiday weekend might not seem like the best place for thinking about sustainability, but it’s possible to shrink your footprint – your Trooper print? Furry paw print? Inexplicably spindly anime stiletto print? – with a little forethought and a relatively small – I promise! – commitment. A few things I am planning to do, and encourage you to try:

  1. Plastic water bottles are basically the worst. Even if plastic bottles get recycled – and most of them don’t – we’re still wasting resources to create something that’s used only once. While I absolutely recognize the need to stay hydrated in a suit of Power Armor, there are many reusable water bottles available that are small enough to keep nearby, or on your person if your cosplay allows for it. I hate carrying anything more than I have to, but in recent years I’ve made it a point to make sure every cosplay I choose has some kind of bag or purse – and if I can fit my cell phone, Kindle, and a notebook in there, I’m telling myself there’s room for a 10 or 12 oz. water bottle, too, that I can refill. I just bought this one for $10!
  2. Bring your bag of holding. I am already rubbing my hands together like a cartoon villain thinking of all of the goodies I am going to acquire – Comic & Pop Artist Alley, take my money – but I am not excited thinking about the single-use plastic bags that come with every small purchase. There are many reusable bags that fold up pretty tidily – these are cute as hell and compact – and you can feel good about nestling your treasures in something that won’t just end up in the trash.
  3. I have a coffee problem, but who wants to wait in the line at Starbucks or Caribou, anyway? I make an audible sigh of pleasure after the first sip of coffee, every day. It’s embarrassing, but it’s the truth. Not only am I not interested in waiting in the crazy lines for coffee at the con, I also don’t want to throw away a plastic cup and straw – and I don’t want to carry one of my reusable cups, which aren’t nearly as easy to stow as a water bottle. So, I called ahead to our hotel to see if we could have a fridge in our room and it was easier than I anticipated it would be. Even if we don’t end up getting one, I can keep some half & half on ice and my new favorite beverage can be stored at room temperature. If you’re a hot coffee drinker, pack a mug and enjoy your sweet, sweet caffeine before heading out for the day.
  4. Speaking of straws, skip them if you can. If you’re eating in the food court or sitting down at a restaurant, ask yourself, do you really need a straw? Forego the straw and lid on your takeaway cup and just drink as ye olde cup makers intended. And if you’re wearing makeup, I get it. I’ll be blue, potentially, for two days of the con, but I’m going to have to reapply lipstick and touch up every time I eat, anyway, so is a straw really going to save me much more trouble? Probably not.
  5. Do you really need that business card/post card/sticker? I want all of the free stuff. I do. But inevitably when I get home from a con, I end up tossing most of the swag that I’ve picked up. While I recycle everything that’s paper, if Captain Planet taught me anything, it’s that the first step is to reduce, which means not picking it up in the first place unless I really and truly need it. Snap a picture of a booth you love so you can look it up later. Exchange a text with a new friend rather than swapping cards. As a writer, I’m really struggling with this one because I feel like I ought to have my business card on me, and maybe I will cave and take a handful just in case, but I’m eagerly awaiting the day when I can make an easy digital exchange like in Ready Player One.

There’s a lot out there on making the con-going experience easier on yourself, and I encourage you to make it a little easier on the planet, too.

Top 5 Influential Childhood Reads

Every writer was a reader first. Have I said that before? Probably.

But beyond the logistics of that necessarily needing to be the case, I imagine there are for all of us books we read in our youth that made us love stories, books that through the act of reading unlocked the desire to storytell within us. I’ve often wondered, especially after a rigorous six years of studying literature, what makes some writers pursue genre fiction and others more realistic avenues. I know I have, at least, read and loved books of all kinds, both as a young person and as an adult. But even the more literary short stories I wrote in graduate workshop always had a dreamy element, odd angles and awkward edges that made it harder to get by, to be taken seriously, to make the necessary social and academic connections with my more literal-minded peers.

In thinking about the books that moved me as a child, I wonder, what was it about these that made me the writer that I am, stubbornly, today?

What was it about Meg and Charles Wallace and their world(s) in A Wrinkle in Time that so appealed to me? A Wrinkle in Time is probably the first example of real science fiction that I read as a child. From the lasting image of Mrs. Who explaining traveling by tesseract to the mistaken jaunt to the world whose gravity nearly crushed the group to the haunting sameness of the world where her father was imprisoned, there was realized for me so much potential for strangeness and horror, but with a real heart beating between the turning of pages. I wanted more.

I recently tried to re-read Anne of Green Gables with the intent of getting to my later favorite in the series, Anne of the Island, and I was shocked to learn how little actually happens on the page. I remember Anne as adventurous and bold, dreaming with her and feeling as near to her scrapes as she was. But really, the reader is so much more like Marilla, merely hearing about these wild things that Anne has undertaken off the page. She comes home from a day at school or an afternoon in the fairy grove with Diana and tells Marilla, and be default, the reader, all about it. There’s very little actual doing to be read, and I wonder now if Anne isn’t in part to blame for how close I like to be to my narrators. I want to write each touch and taste of the world and invite the reader to taste and touch, too. Anne remains vibrant as ever despite the narrative choices, which is surely a testament to what a strong and likeable character she is.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins is the first of two orphan stories on this list, and really only one of many I devoured as a child. The quiet strength and resourcefulness of the main character was always a wonder to me as a child, and I loved all of the details about how she navigated her solitude, what she did, ate, made, and built, and how. I haven’t re-read this book as an adult, but I don’t remember her feeling sad or sorry for herself, but rather reckoning with what has happened to her through action – moving forward, rather than dwelling on the past. She was competent and serene and strong, and I wanted to think that I could be just like her, if I had to be.

The main character from The Secret Garden was, conversely, not serene. She had edges and angers that I liked, and a willfulness to take whatever she could from the hand she’d been dealt that greatly appealed to me. Also, there was just something so romantic about an English country house and the idea that a young woman alone could discover and conquer its secrets. I liked that she and the boys challenged and changed each other, and that they could each, in their own way, find happiness.

I also feel like it’s a hallmark of readers of my generation to still look for doors in hedges. Even my husband does it.

My love for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew are nearly equal, and I think it’s because they both stretch beyond the boundaries of Narnia as know them in the rest of the books of the series. The memorable fountains as doorways to other worlds in The Magician’s Nephew is such a treat that it’s one of my favorite things lifted into Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and reaching the very edge of the horizon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and being irrevocably changed by the experience was powerful and wonderful. We weren’t church-going when I was a child and the nearest I came to salvation was someone passing me a coloring sheet outside of a grocery store with a little prayer on it that I could say and “be saved,” so the religious overtures in Lewis’ works were always lost on me. What Lucy and Edmund and Eustace, and Digory and Polly and the others, experience was purely magical and human, and I reveled in it.

What about you? What were the childhood classics that shaped you?

Whose Icon Would You Be?

You might be an icon if you feel feelings. Or if you don’t. But there’s really only one way to find out.

Take the quiz!

I will not tell you how many hours I spent putting this very simple Buzzfeed quiz together, which uses total guesswork science to determine whose icon you would be, if you were an icon. It was worth every minute to not have to cheat to get exactly who I wanted on my first try.

Though I suppose knowing how to answer in advance is the signature definition of cheating.

But, I won’t spoil you provided you promise to tell me who you got.

 

Top 5 Underrated Films

While there are certainly movies among my collection that I consider to be guilty pleasures – Super Mario Bros., I’m looking at you – there are others that I feel are just vastly underrated. I’m not even remotely embarrassed to celebrate my love for these films, and I hope you’re with me – or at the very least, that you’re willing to pop some popcorn and settle in.

The Illusionist came out in the same season as The Prestige, which was unfortunate, because it is a vastly superior piece of storytelling. The Illusionist is atmospheric and lovely, with truly stellar performances by Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, and Jessica Biel. I’ve never wanted to make out with somebody with a beard more than I do in Ed Norton in this movie. The twist is unexpected but no less real, unlike, in my opinion, the hot mess of no-explanation that was The Prestige‘s climax. It’s a compact, romantic, and deeply satisfying tale.

Time was whenever I was feeling low I would watch Fanboys, and I’m honestly probably due for another viewing. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I celebrate anything that celebrates nerd culture, and this film is unabashedly sweet and generous with its heroes – and lone heroine. I loved Kristen Bell here first, and Sam Huntington, too. It’s a romp and I’m not even sorry about it.

There were a number of moody, dystopian films out for awhile, and Equilibrium takes itself just seriously enough to be a stand out for me. The first time that I saw it my husband and I both marveled at the Gun Kata, which was just silly and spectacular enough to be entertaining. He probably liked it because of math. I just appreciated Christian Bale’s sheer badassery. Also, bonus Sean Bean.

Stranger Than Fiction is my kind of romance, and unlike Ruby Sparks, which I so wanted to love but which made me feel terrible about being a writer and a woman, this story feels real and complicated and ultimately, sweet. Will Ferrell has never been more adorable. Also, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson. Come on.

When I recently learned that they’re likely abandoning Tron Legacy and rebooting the franchise, again, I was so disappointed. I love the nostalgia of this installment but also everything about it that feels slick and fresh – including Jeff Bridges’ The Dude inspired performance of Flynn. And the music, my goodness, the music.

What about you? Any dark horse favorites?

64, 54, 34

My mom had a coloring book before coloring books for adults were cool.

I remember visiting a family friend, her kids and my brother running in the sprinkler outside and hollering and hooting and what I wanted to do, instead, was sit and watch my mother at their kitchen table carefully coloring a picture of Snow White. She was probably younger then than I am now, her slim fingers selecting pristine crayons from a well-kept box of 64. She had her own coloring book, and her own crayons, because even though I was an observant child, I was still a child and clumsy and like to lose or break or color my favorite colors down to flat nothings.

And besides, she frequently offered me dollars to select coloring books of my own when we went to the grocery store. It’s probably why I can’t resist picking them up for my girls.

I can still see her hands, their strong, brightly painted nails and the rings she liked to wear featuring her favorite gemstone: amethysts. I decided that it was my favorite, too, lamenting that we didn’t share a birth month, as though only those born in the bitter cold of an Ohio February could appreciate that glittering, purple beauty. But I was born in October to my 20-year-old mother, giving her, according to members of my family, something to build her life around. She had always wanted children and my brother and I have probably broken her heart about a thousand times, so it’s only fair that she’s breaking mine now.

She’s in the hospital and she’s not wearing any rings. She showed me her toenails, though, painted purple with sparkles. She felt well enough to paint them, a few weeks ago. But not today. Not now.

I am thinking of the last time that I saw her well and whole, when my mother held my youngest in her arms and her grin was so wide, such a perfect expression of delight, that she’s wearing it in every photograph from that visit. We went to the pool, the zoo, she read the girls a story in the little toddler bed, everyone in pajamas with clean hair and fresh faces.

She’s 54.

She’s very sick.

She might not get better.

I’m 34.

And I’m not ready.

She isn’t, either, and we’re still coming up short on answers and appropriate sentiments. She’s home with my auntie, now, but still so far from me. I am telling myself, regarding distance, not for long.

I am telling myself, regarding time, for a lot, lot longer.

What the Internet is For

When I read Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet I was so delighted by her descriptions of how she approached marketing and promotion for The Guild, how everything was genuine, personal, and obsessively orchestrated by Day herself. As I stalked around my city on my lunch breaks hanging flyers in Cincinnati’s many coffee spots and libraries about my book’s launch and signing earlier this month, or when I still stubbornly respond to every RT and send thank you emails, I like how close to the work that I feel. I enjoy being a part of a community of writers and readers and dreamers, and growing that community all the time.

There are a lot of demands around how to market oneself online and create a personal brand, and I feel grateful to have gotten first involved in an internet before this was a thing. I started blogging in 2001 on Diaryland. I was 18 and it was then, at least for me, about cultivating a voice and entering a conversation. I made friends then that I treasure still now, as I did in subsequent years on Livejournal. At some point, blogging became less about play and more about product, and I’ve always been a little sorry for the change. But social media came along to fill the void at just the right time, and for a few years Myspace, and later Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr, allowed for the same informal socializing online. We shared things. We got giddy about things, and sad, and silly.

The medium changes, but my approach doesn’t.

Thinking about Day, again. She has always felt so authentic to me, and so kind, and that’s exactly what I’ve endeavored to be on the internet. I want people to feel as heard as they would if we were sitting across from each other over coffee. I didn’t grow up with the internet, but it’s been part of my adult life for my entire adult life, which is probably why I balk at folks who are just a few years older than I am, in some cases, acting like the conversations and speculations we’re having online are any less real than the ones we’d have in person. If I’m engaging with you, I’m engaging with you. The same goes, I imagine, for so much of my peer group and folks much younger than me, too. I’m just barely a Millennial – I remember when I was growing up, we were called Generation Y, and I’ve always felt there’s a subtle difference for those of us born in the early 80s, old enough to remember the world before the World Wide Web, young enough to appreciate both worlds as they are.

As a writer and a human with stories to share, I am always going to want to talk to you, learn about you, learn from you. I am going to pursue honesty and whimsy and friendship as ardently in a virtual space as I would in a real one – because both are real.

Don’t you think?

Leave Room for Wonder

I stared out my bedroom window as a kid and watched a running woman pursued at night down my rural street by a car with its brights on. I memorized her appearance – athletic build, white tank, grey shorts, fair hair in a ponytail – lying in bed repeating the details to myself long after I couldn’t see her or the car anymore. I figured, based on what I’d witnessed binge-watching Unsolved Mysteries before binge-watching was a thing, that the police would come to my house the next day to question me about this mysterious occurrence.

In retrospect, twenty plus years on, this woman was probably training for a marathon. The car was going very slowly, and she was jogging – maintaining her pace. But I was 10 or 11 at the time and had an extremely overactive imagination fed by conspiracy theories on television and reading too much. I had previously been convinced that the deadened indentations left in our yard by barrels were crop circles, and would in years to come hear indistinct music coming from our woods and assume there was a fairy circle I hadn’t discovered yet. There was magic in the world. There was mystery. And eventually, I would find myself at the center of it.

That day hasn’t come yet, but I’m still dreaming of it. It is the nature of the human mind to seek patterns, to organize and make sense of what we see and hear and touch, and when that’s coupled with a love of the fantastic and the supernatural, I think there’s always going to be a little room for wonder. When I was struggling with anxiety a few months ago, I recall a moment listening to Lore – a podcast I’ve admitted my love for before and not one I would necessarily call inspiring – where the magic of the unexplained came as such a relief to me. No matter how certain or how certainly terrible things seem, I want to always believe in the unbelievable.  There’s plenty of beauty in the known and the comfortable, and I treasure the worn-smooth edges of my life. But I never want to say no to the unknown.

Can you blame me?

Guilty as Charged

My second book has been out for a week, officially. Pretty weird, right? Here’s how I’ve celebrated.

On Tuesday, I shared a kids’ chocolate shake with my littles. Because there’s no not sharing something sweet when your children are awake.

On Wednesday, my husband went out of town for work, so I ferried and fed and bathed my children sans backup. We watched Reading Rainbow and ate leftovers and I stole a few moments to write after they were asleep.

On Thursday, I read a whole graphic novel before bed.

On Friday, my husband came home. We drank coffee, played video games, and did some writing and reading, respectively, before bed.

On Saturday, I mailed copies of both my first and second books to my parents, along with a late Mother’s Day card and an early Father’s Day card.

On Sunday, I folded a whole lot of laundry. We blew bubbles on the porch, watered the vegetable garden, and went to our girls’ first baseball game.

On Monday, I balanced an unpleasant but necessary errand in the morning by taking myself to see Wonder Woman.

Sometimes being a creator means a whole lot of guilt.

And today, I’m thinking that for as momentous as it seems and as it really is to be authoring, not much has changed or is likely to change for me. I work. I mother. I help take care of my family and my home. I don’t spend enough time nurturing relationships with friends, I don’t read enough books, I never write enough. I will waste time on Twitter. I will never see the end of little socks and undies vomited forth from the dryer. I will bake things and eat them even when I know that I shouldn’t. I will be inspired to write on my commute only to have my ideas flee when I have a moment to devote to them.

I’ll live and love and daydream of living and loving differently.

I’ll always want to be and do better.

I feel like the question comes up a lot, why do you write? And my answer is always the same. I can’t not write. There are days when I wish I didn’t feel the pressure to create, because I’m usually exhausted and only want to relax like a normal human. Watch television. Play Skyrim. Pursue any number of leisure activities without guilt. But that’s not who I am, perhaps especially on days when I wish that’s who I could be.

So, my second book has been out for a full week, and my life goes on. I’m working on something new. I’m obsessively checking for reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. I’m cooking and cleaning up and putting in my 40 hours a week. I am trying.

And that’s okay.

See You on the Other Side

My first book was first published nearly four years ago, and it’s been with me in one form or another for far longer than that. There have been a number of instances since that have made me feel like a “real” author, but honestly, with the launch of my second book newly behind me, a signing at my favorite local independent bookseller is the realest.

I love signings and I’ve written before about how conflicted I feel when I listen to other authors read and discuss their works, when I throw my money at them for a signed copy and some swag. I’m an avid reader and fangirl, and that’s not something that’s like to change, ever. But getting to be on the other side of the table, even once, it gives me thrills just thinking about it.

If you’re in Cincinnati or near to it, I hope you’ll consider stopping in and saying hello. I’ll be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion at 7 PM, discussing and signing both books. I’m going to be making buttons at our local library’s MakerSpace to give away, and I’ve also ordered cookies that will change your life. And, of course, there will be books!