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Monday, March 9, 2015

From the Incubator to the Crib: When Joy Turns to Heart-Wrenching Sorrow and Sorrow Gives Way to Acceptance

Raising a child with disabilities requires patience, compassion, understanding. The difficult circumstances made my wife and I question having other children. Still, when my wife got pregnant unexpectedly, we saw it as a blessing and a joyful surprise. Even more joyful was later news that everything with the pregnancy was proceeding normally.

A normal pregnancy is a term doctors use, as opposed to an abnormal pregnancy. This time, all it took for me to fall in love with our child, was an ultrasound picture taken at about six months, showing our child’s beautiful face and cute, little fingers. Until that picture, I had doubts about whether this really would be a normal pregnancy for my wife and our child. I wished it to be, but that doesn’t make it so.

I could tell my wife was just as relieved as I was and we seemed to be in the home stretch, until everything went terribly wrong. My wife was rushed to the hospital in preterm labor. The doctors did what they could and gave her medication to try to stop the labor.

It was a tense 24 hours, with lots of pacing and hair pulling, but my wife and child made it through and the preterm labor was halted. My wife was sent home from the hospital and ordered to stay in bed for the next few weeks.

Bed rest isn’t something we were unfamiliar with. My wife was prescribed bed rest several times during her previous pregnancy.

Bed rest worked until it didn’t and my wife was rushed to the hospital about a week later. This time, the doctors were unable to stop her preterm labor. My wife gave birth in a hospital room swarming with doctors and specialists.

At barely 32-weeks in utero, our child, who we later named Jasmine, was born way too early. Jasmine was tiny and blue, and she wasn’t breathing. She was handed off immediately to a neonatal specialist who tried desperately to clear her lungs and get her to breathe.

I cried, and I’ll admit to crying to whoever asks, when she finally breathed. But I never got to hold baby girl Jasmine that day and neither did my wife.

My wife and new daughter spent several days in the hospital together. At barely 4 pounds, Jasmine was in the neonatal care unit, inside an incubator, and my wife was in a hospital recovery room.

When my wife was finally discharged from the hospital, I’ve never seen anyone look sadder than she did when she had to leave baby girl Jasmine behind.

Day after day, week after week, we visited our baby girl in the hospital, watched her in the incubator. My wife would stay all day and often into the evening.

Several weeks passed before we could actually hold baby girl Jasmine. Eight weeks would pass before we could finally bring her home. Those days and nights were an agony, but nothing compared to the heart-wrenching moments when Jasmine wasn’t breathing.

Until next time

Robert Stanek

Monday, January 19, 2015

Raising a Child with Disabilities: How Love, Compassion and Understanding Can Conquer Tragedy

After the birth of my son, Will, my wife had another difficult pregnancy. The medical recommendation was an abortion, or how the doctors put it: “A premature ending of the pregnancy using a surgical dilation and curettage.” That was the day my wife and I learned our child had genetic defects that could bring lifelong problems including congenital heart problems. That was the day my wife and I chose life instead of death and asked the doctors to stitch her uterus so she could try to carry our child to term.

NOTE: This post is a follow up to Tragedy, Hope and New Beginnings, which discusses the effects of toxins and poisons military members and their families are exposed to.

The doctors told us if we did this there would need to be more testing, other procedures, and that we likely would still lose our child. The doctors told us of a life of medical expenses, hospital visits, and likely more surgeries. My wife and I allowed the procedures that would ensure our child’s health but we never wanted to know the results of the tests. We never wanted to know the exact, devastating diagnosis.

Why? Because our child was more important to us than the devastating diagnosis or how such diagnosis could be used to help us “make the right” decision. The right decision to us was to have our child, as long as our child’s health and my wife’s health were not in danger.

Until that moment, I thought I’d lived through difficult days. As a child, I’d been hit by a car while riding my bike and dragged beneath it. I’d seen my step-father die in an explosion and soon after, my sister, Bridgette, from an undiagnosed brain injury suffered in the explosion. I’d been deployed to conflict zones and survived numerous combat and combat support missions.

But that moment—that day—was one of the most difficult of my life and it was followed by months of difficulty, with the pregnancy, with stress and worry. That year was also the first of many to follow where our medical expenses topped $30,000.

There were many more scares during the pregnancy and times when our child was almost lost to us, but six months later, my daughter was born. I took one look at her and named her Sapphire, because to me, she was as precious and wonderful as the gemstone which is her namesake.

The doctors saw only her devastating diagnosis as they whisked her away. I saw five fingers on each tiny hand, five toes on each tiny foot, beautiful brown eyes, and a cute button nose. I saw Sapphire, my daughter, who I loved instantly and unquestioningly.





Until next time,
Robert Stanek

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Joys and the Dangers Untold: Suicide & the Holidays

In 2011, I lost a close friend to suicide due to relentless online attacks that were thoughtless, hateful and unwarranted. The target of the attacks wasn’t my friend but me, and it became very personal and caused much stress for myself and those close to me for a very long time. I never knew how personally some of those around me took these attacks until it was too late.

I’ve written about these attacks on many previous occasions. Although these hateful activities began in 2002, the first time I spoke publicly about them was May 2007 . I didn’t say anything more about these matters publicly until October and November 2009. More recently, I’ve been blogging about these problems and related issues at Read Indies. My posts on these matters include:

Unethical Competitors, January 2013
Authors Who Trash Competitors, March 2013

Authors Who Are Trolls, September 2013

Whoever said time heals all wounds was wrong. Absolutely wrong. It’s only now some three years later that I can look back and let myself truly mourn the loss. But the wound created by the loss? It’ll never be gone. Such a tragedy should never have happened—and those responsible are still at large, likely seeking other targets to harass and terrorize simply because they believe they can get away with it without consequences. 

This wasn’t the first friend I’d lost to suicide. I’d lost another years before. She’d taken her own life on Christmas Eve. You’d think that it couldn’t be possible for anyone to kill themselves during such a joyous occasion or the holidays in particular, but you might be surprised to know that instead of declining during the holidays suicides actually spike.

The holidays are a joyous time but they can also be a stressful, strenuous time. Losing someone close to you to suicide is something you never get over. You wonder what you could have or should have done. You wonder if the pain of loss will ever go away. Take it from someone who has searched and searched for the answers, I don’t think the pain ever really goes away because I still feel it as acutely as I did before.

Some suicides I think are utterly avoidable, especially those related to online attacks. The online world makes it all too easy for bullies, trolls and other hateful persons to make anonymous attacks on anyone for any reason or none at all. But all it takes to stamp out hate is kindness, compassion, consideration.

Show kindness for any reason or no reason at all. Show compassion simply because you can. Show consideration because it reveals the truth of your humanity. For those who can’t manage kindness, compassion or consideration, at the least try to show empathy. A little empathy and common courtesy go a long, long way. They really, really do.

This holiday and every day, make sure those around you know what’s in your heart. Don’t be afraid to share and care. Don’t be afraid to give and receive. And don’t ever forget that during any occasion, joyful or sorrowful, holiday or not, there may be those around you who are so torn up inside with pain and hurt that suicide seems the only way out. For them, your simple act of kindness, consideration or compassion might be what gets them through the dark hours of the longest night of their lives.

Thank you for reading,

Robert Stanek

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lots of Books Require Lots of Effort: Writing & Releasing Books Into the Wild

Often, it takes a very long time to work books through the writing, editing, review, and publishing processes. Recently, my publisher and I re-did the interior layout of all the Bugville books for new digital editions to accommodate the improved standards of today's e-readers.

There are 100+ Bugville books. They re-released at the same time to all markets after 18 months of hard work from a dedicated team.

I started work on the Bugville books 20 years ago. Most of the Bugville books are created from full-size watercolors (paintings). No one created thousands of original watercolors in a few days or wrote 100+ stories in a few days, but when we released the new editions, we released them to all markets at the same time.

Even with the original releases, many of the Bugville books ending up being released at the same time. Why?

In 2005, I was finally able to publish the first two sets of books, 15 in all, after years of work and waiting. Although the books were written and illustrated over a period of years, the digital rendering, text layout, editing, review, and final publishing processes all came together at close to the same time.

Over the next 9 years, I've published the original works I created over many years along with new ones until finally I caught up and released everything I'd created. 100 illustrated books created over 20 years is a rate of 5 a year, but many of the books came out in batches because that's how they worked through all the processes to get to official release dates.

Over the years, there have been many readers favorites. Here are a few of them, as well as a few of mine:

Bugville Critters Explore the Solar System was a runaway hit from its first release. In the Book, Buster has a dream where he pilots a rocket ship through the solar system. I often hear from readers about how much they love the story and its beautiful watercolors.
Talking about healthy eating habits doesn't have to be a bummer and it's one of the reasons Bugville Critters Visit Garden Box Farms was been a reader favorite for years.

Bugville Critters Go to School is another perennial reader favorite. Kids love the story of Buster's first day of school and how he overcomes his jitters.

Pirates Stole My Booty is laugh out loud fun, complete with a pirate dictionary. It's always been one of my favorites and a favorite of readers.

Another reader favorite is Start Summer Vacation. This book tells the story of Buster's last day of school before vacation.
Hope you enjoy these favorite reads!

Robert Stanek

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tragedy, Hope and New Beginnings: A Story That’s Not in My Military Memoir Stormjammers But Perhaps Should Be in My Next

My wife’s second miscarriage was a clue that something was terribly wrong. I thought it was the stress of being a combat flyer’s wife, constant deployments, or the subsequent ever-changing schedule when I worked inside the secretive underground facility known as the Tunnel. I never imagined that it was due to the air we breathed, the water we drank or the soil beneath our feet, but it likely was as lead from lead-based paints had leached into the soil we used for gardening and other toxic substances were throughout our base housing and the places we worked.

No one tells you when you join the military you’re risking not just your life but your health—and that of your family and even your unborn children. As Newsweek said in its July 25, 2014 cover story, the US Military is supposed to protect the country’s citizens and soldiers and not poison them.

Throughout the United States, there are 141 military bases and related Department of Defense facilities on the Environmental Protection Agency’s superfund list and the National Priorities List for cleanup—and that list of 141 isn’t all inclusive by any means. It is simply a list of the worst of the worst, bases and facilities with toxic contamination so bad that the EPA has assigned them its highest priority for cleanup due to unacceptable risks to human health.

Many of the worst facilities are closed or closing. However, it’s not like the toxins in the soil and ground water are going to stay where they are. They’re going to continue to pollute and contaminate adjacent facilities until they are cleaned up once and for all. What’s waiting beyond the 141 highly toxic bases and facilities? Well, the Department of Defense has identified 39,000 contaminated locations so far, from areas as small as a building to as large as an airfield, and those locations are spread across many of the 4,127 DOD installations located in the United States.

As a soldier who was deployed overseas for many years, I was stationed at Department of Defense facilities all over the world and I can’t help but wonder what toxic nightmare is lurking at the thousands of Department of Defense facilities that are located outside the United States. What I suspect is that there are likely as many contaminated locations and highly toxic sites at Department of Defense facilities located outside the US as there are inside the US.

All those years ago, I didn’t know about these issues or that toxins were possibly changing my life and my family, but I guessed there was something going on beyond stress. I started asking questions, and a healthcare worker who treated my wife suggested I look at environmental factors in our home and workplaces.

In our pre-World War II base housing, lead paint often was prevalent and possibly other toxic substances. We dug up the garden which was alongside the house, stopped drinking the tap water, and made other changes. With these changes, our overall health seemed to improve. Months later, my wife got pregnant again and this time, she carried the pregnancy well and my son, Will, was born.

Will arrived a few weeks early, but healthy. For us, it was a new beginning and a hope for the future of our family.

Until next time,
Robert Stanek

Monday, July 14, 2014

Diversity in Children’s and Young Adult Novels: Making a Difference and Taking a Stand

This post is dedicated to Walter Dean Myers who inspired and guided me through his writing. As a writer, I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to infuse my work with diversity. After all, we live in a world of color and diversity, a world of many peoples, beliefs and religions – and writing, especially children’s writing, should mirror, reflect and embrace this diversity. Sometimes my embrace of race, religion and belief systems has made my work controversial, but controversy hasn’t changed my views or my writing.

A few months before his death, Walter wrote a blistering essay about the lack of diversity in children’s books, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” And I wanted to reply to my old friend: That there are many diverse books in print. That there are many books that present diversity honestly and compassionately. Though clearly, not enough, and perhaps not in ways some expected, and yet perhaps also because books that embrace diversity can come in many forms.

Can a contemporary fiction or nonfiction story embrace diversity? Yes, it can—but so can other types of writing from children’s picture books featuring cute little critters to fantasy, dystopian and science fiction novels.

Anyone who has visited Bugville, the BIG little place where my more than 100 Bugville Critters, Bugville Jr and Bugville Learning picture books take place, knows Bugville is as diverse as our own world. Not only is Bugville a place where the real problems of our world exist, it is a place where light shines on darkness, a place that invites children and their parents to discuss important issues and our natural world.

The critter friends are of many races, religions and beliefs and come from all levels of socioeconomic standing. There are many different types of bugs in Bugville, which do in fact honestly and compassionately reflect the peoples of our world:

* The Ladybug family is upper class, with a mom who is the CEO of her own company, a dad of color who is the mayor, and children who are from different marriages.

* The Bee family is working-class, with a blue-color dad who is a factory worker, a stay at home mom, and three children.

* The Dragonfly family has an unemployed working-class dad, a mom and two children.

* The Caterpillar family has a single mom who works at the Post Office and a special needs daughter.

* The Silkworm family, who recently emigrated from Japan, has a daughter who is having trouble adapting to the cultural changes of her new home and difficulty learning English as a second language.

Anyone who has visited the Magic Lands, where my Ruin Mist: Magic Lands stories take place, knows that underlying themes relate to race, color and the rights of indigenous peoples. Ray and his people are people of color. Their lands, beliefs and rights are being encroached upon by outsiders. Ray faces difficult decisions when his spirit journey takes him into the outsider’s world and cultures clash.

The themes in Magic Lands aren’t overt, rather they are subtle, integral parts of the story that reflect the challenges of a diverse world. A world that is just like our own, whether you are on the inside looking out or the outside looking in.

The world of Ruin Mist is in fact a very diverse place. The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches and In the Service of Dragons books, peoples of many different backgrounds, religions, beliefs and nationalities are central to the story. The characters thoughts and actions reflect their heritages, belief systems and religions. The people's of the southern kingdoms are peoples of color. The elves of Greye are as well, as is Uver, the father of modern elves.

There often are racial and other prejudices at work.The ancient hatred between the Men of the Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches. The banning and burning of books. The purges to cleanse the world of all that is magical, be it creature, man or device. The clashes between beliefs and religions.

Though a character’s prejudices and preconceptions can shape his or her thoughts and actions, preconceptions and prejudices can and do give way to understanding and tolerance. Again, these themes aren’t overt, but they are integral parts of the story that reflect the challenges of a diverse world. A world that is just like our own, whether you are on the inside looking out or the outside looking in.

After reading this, I hope you’ll look at Walter’s works. Read Monster, Hoops, Dope Sick or my personal favorites, Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah.

Until next time,

Robert Stanek