Kara Kinney Cartwright, JUST DON'T BE AN A*SSHOLE

Kara Kinney Cartwright, JUST DON'T BE AN A*SSHOLE

Zibby Owens: Kara Kinney Cartwright is the author of Just Don’t Be an Assh*le: A Surprisingly Necessary Guide to Being a Good Guy, which is a frank and very funny guidebook designed to help teach younger men how to have positive interactions, make good decisions, and recognize when they’re being jerkfaces. That’s her words, not mine. Kara lives in near Washington DC and works in legal publishing. She married a total good guy. Through relentless lecturing, teasing, cash bribing, and tricking, they have raised two sons who are not assholes, for the most part. If you happen to know her in person, her book is not about you, for the most part.

Kara Kinney Cartwright: Hi.

Zibby: Hi. How are you?

Kara: I’m definitely here with you, Zibby. I can’t believe it. To see you on my screen only and not the whole world’s screen is such a treat. Thank you for talking with me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m obsessed with your book. I ordered three copies of it. One of my questions to you is — so your book is Just Don’t Be an Assh*le: A Surprisingly Necessary Guide to Being a Good Guy. Of course, I got copies for both my sons. I kind of have someone else in mind I want to give it to. How do you give this as a gift to someone who could use it without being completely offensive?

Kara: It’s so hard. As parents, we’re allowed to call our own kids assholes, but we’re not allowed to call other people’s kids assholes. I don’t have the answer to that one. How old is the recipient?

Zibby: It’s a grown man.

Kara: Well, then I think you can give it with good humor. I think that’s fair game. If someone is a full-grown person and is in need of this book, they should probably have a sense of humor about it.

Zibby: What made you write this book? How did this come about? Tell listeners also what exactly it’s about. Although, I think it’s fairly obvious. You might not know just from the title how clever it is. Although, you probably would guess. Anyway, you tell it.

Kara: You’ve looked at it, so I’m really interested to hear what you think. I think it’s a direct and frank and funny and sarcastic guidebook to give our teen sons in that moment when it finally dawns on you, even though it’s been totally obvious since the day they were born, that they’re going to leave you and go out in the world. As a mom at that moment, I had this sort of panicky feeling. Did I tell them everything? Did I say everything? Did we give them everything they need to go out in the world and be the kind of man that we want them to be? At that same moment, your influence is really waning with your kids. In normal times, they’re busy. They’re not around. You have limited bandwidth and limited time to give them the messages you want. A little shock value, a little humor, and a very quick, concise, direct, instruction I think is probably the best way to go in that interval. That’s what this book is supposed to be.

Zibby: That’s so great. I love how you organized it. How not to be an asshole at school, how not to be an asshole with friends, with your family, in the world, to yourself. It’s just so great. It’s in every iteration. I just wanted to read this one quote. You said, “Here’s the thing. There’s no way around it. You have to do school. You have to show up and do school every day until they hand you a cap and gown. Why? Because every employer is looking for doers, not quitters.” It’s just so great. You don’t get a choice in the world. You just don’t. This is it. Then you had this little thing about jerky things not to say, like, at six in the morning, go out and to your parents, “I need something for school,” and it’s early in the morning and you have to go get it. There are just such little gems all over. I love all the charts and the graphics. It’s just so user-friendly and so awesome.

Kara: I’m so happy to hear that because my hope is that any teenager who encounters this book laying around the house will pick it up. On every single page, maybe there’s something. Maybe there’s a chart. Maybe there’s a sentence. Maybe there’s a pull quote, some little thing that will penetrate the teenage mind. Then maybe someday when they need it, they’ll have that tool. They’ll come back to it. They’ll remember why it’s important. That’s so great to hear.

Zibby: There’s another book that came out recently. It’s called How to be a Grown Up by Catherine Newman. Are you familiar with that?

Kara: I have it. I’ve seen it, but I haven’t read it yet.

Zibby: Your two books should be the required go-to book for every teenager. Every teenage boy needs to get this little care package. You know what? Maybe I could figure out a way to sell like a — now you have me thinking. I have four kids. One of my four kids is an almost-thirteen-year-old boy. By the time this airs, he will be thirteen. It’s such a challenge. You want to do your best to teach them how to be. You have to model good behavior. Yet they’re off — when are they listening? When is it sinking in? At least with your book, it’s like, when you’re ready, here it is. When they’re receptive to it, now at least they have all the information. It doesn’t have to be me being like, no, listen to me. Are you listening?

Kara: I’m so happy to hear you say that because it really was at the time — the title of the book was actually the idea of my editor, Matthew Benjamin. At the time when my agent, Monika Verma, put us together for this project, my sons were a few months away from graduating high school and college in the same week. With that on the horizon, I really did want to create a one-stop final insurance policy manifesto gift. Also, it gave me the opportunity to trick them into reading it because I had to say, “Listen guys, if there’s anything in here that you feel is a little too revealing or a little too close to home or a little too embarrassing for you and your friends, this is your one chance to let me know before it goes out in the world.” That all-in-one feeling that you’re getting from it is really coming out of my own desperation to tell my kids everything I want them to know before they were launching out into the world.

Zibby: Not to put you on the spot or anything, but if you had to pick the top three tips that were in the book for if there’s a mom out there who has a teen son or a son graduating and wants to share, what are the three things you think that kids need to hear the most?

Kara: It’s not a big secret. The golden rule is what this book is about. Other people who are not your teenage self are also human beings in the world. It seems such a silly and old-school message. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. The teenage brain is not really good at appreciating that other people are also fully realized human people. I would say right now in this moment when we’re captive with our teens, the chapter on family might be really useful to some parents. We’re in this really difficult moment when our teens are disappointed. They’re frustrated. They’re angry. They’re missing out on a lot of the things they had pictured for themselves this spring and summer. Most parents, I think, I do, create in their home, a safe space where their children can really be themselves and share their feelings and vent and express their true emotions. The problem with being a parent of a teenager during a pandemic is they’re venting it directly in our direction. I think there’s a moment here where we have an opportunity to talk with our teens, to share our own humanity with them, and to acknowledge theirs. I know you’re disappointed about all the things you’re missing, but I’m worried too. I’m worried about my job. I’m worried about grandma. I’m worried about what you’re going to do this fall. I’m worried about you and your siblings. To the extent that we can convince them that we’re also people — we’re maybe the last humans that teenagers ultimately recognize as humans, is their own parents. If we can make a little headway on that during this very weird time, I think that would be a good thing for everybody in the house.

Zibby: I agree. That would be great. Kara, how d you end up writing this book now? What was the rest of your life like? Have you been interested writing? I don’t know much about your — I couldn’t find a lot of bio material on you out there. What are we hiding here?

Kara: It’s funny you should ask, Zibby. You’re very perceptive. I was writing maybe close to ten years under a pen name online. I was doing a lot of mom humor and parenting humor. I had published a little gift book. In 2016, I started having the feeling I wanted to do another project. I wanted to address what seemed to me to be an increasingly mean America and to address what felt to me like just more and more rudeness in our society. I was pitching this little book. It was called something like Have a Nice Life: How to Save America One Jerkface at a Time or something like that. It was sort of similar to this book in that it was how to be nice at the movies, how to be nice at the PTA meeting, how to be nice when you’re with your pets, or things that just seemed to me — every time I left the house I was just feeling so much like, is this how we live now? Is this how people act? That project was not successful in that it was sort of about being aggressively, vengefully nice in the world, which was confusing for people.

Then when Matthew Benjamin was talking to Monika Verma about this idea that he had for a project for teenage boys of how to be confident and brave and kind with a very simple bottom-line message, just don’t be an asshole, she thought, I think I know the right person for this project. When she put us together and we talked about our sons and we talked about his vision for the book and my thoughts about raising my sons at this time right before they were launching out into the world, the stars perfectly aligned and it all came together. It’s a miracle. Every book is sort of a little miracle that everything lines up with the right people in the right time and the right topic. I feel very fortunate to have worked on this project for my family at this time.

Zibby: Why a pen name before? Why not now?

Kara: I was writing something I called Suburban Haiku. My kids were small. I felt like seventeen syllables was about how much I could write in a day. I wanted to do something that was intellectually stimulating and funny and fun for me to do. It really gave me a sense of accomplishment to write a poem every day. My kids were small. I was writing observational humor about my neighborhood and my neighbors. Also, I have a full-time day job in legal publishing, which is a very different culture. And so at that time, I was using a pen name. Something we talked about a lot when we first got together about this book was, am I ready to stand behind this with my name and to promote it with my name considering the cover and the title of it and the approach? I was because I think it’s important. I think it’s true to our family, and our family culture. I’m happy to share my story.

Zibby: I wrote for a little while under a pen name also. I was doing my first foray into writing about parenting. I was afraid of talking about my kids or exposing them and my whole family. I used a pen name. Of course, one of the first essays I wrote got so much attention. Then HuffPost TV or whatever it was called wanted me to come on and talk about it. I was like, oh, my gosh, the one — . Now I can’t do this. This was so long ago too, ten years or something. I was so frustrated.

Kara: I bet you I know that essay. I bet you I know it. You’ll have to tell me after.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll tell you after.

Kara: I had those moments too because you can’t talk to news-based outlets with a pen name. I ran up against that from time to time. During that period of my life, it made sense for me to draw the line there. It’s funny because a lot of my fellow mom bloggers that I came up with talk quite a lot about their kids when they’re little. Then as they get older, they get less comfortable with it and they say much less about it. I sort of took the opposite path bringing my whole family out of the closet because I felt like they were old enough to decide. They were old enough to decide if this was an okay thing to share and if they felt all right with their names being attached to mine out there in the universe with this content. They did. They were supportive.

Zibby: It is a really relevant issue for anybody who writes about parenting because the kids, they’re not yours only. As you were saying, the whole point is they’re their own people. I always ask my kids, how do you feel about this? I also feel like, as parents, sometimes I have to sort of overrule even what they think and be more — maybe they’re okay with things, but maybe they shouldn’t be. Then I think, well then, I shouldn’t write — I don’t know. If I have any doubt, I don’t put it in.

Kara: That’s right. Teenagers are not highly skilled at looking at long-term consequences even to themselves, let alone to the people around them. There are times as a parent where we have to say, I don’t think you’re really seeing how this is going to work out for you six months or a year from now, and let’s talk about that. It’s a very important part of parenting, is to help kids to think long term. That’s part of what I tried to do in the book, is to make things very concrete and very personal because it’s hard. It’s hard with teenagers. This whole COVID thing, they feel invincible. They think it doesn’t matter. I don’t feel sick. My friends aren’t sick. Even if we do get sick, nothing bad’s going to happen to us. It’s our job as parents to help them think about, well, what about me and dad? What about your grandparents? What about the cashier at the place where you think you’re going to stop and get a drink? These are real people in your life. How would you feel about that if you knew that you were the cause of their illness? That’s just part of being a parent, is to sort of see the writing on the wall or look a little farther ahead than our kids can and try, we don’t always succeed, but try to convince them.

Zibby: You wrap it in a bow of humor. It’s all so funny. That’s the best way to reach kids, I think. When you make jokes or it’s funny, they’re so much more likely to listen than when you try to dictate anything.

Kara: My sons are now nineteen and twenty-two. Our nineteen-year-old is home from college with us for the summer. My twenty-two-year-old lives on his own and, knock, knock, employed and all that good stuff. I can’t tell you how many ridiculous, ridiculous texts that I send to them. Wash your hands. Save the grannies. Every time I see something on the news, you just get that mom feeling in your heart, like, did I tell them? Do they know? Are they going to do the right thing if they’re not in front of me? When my son walks out the door with his — I know he’s going to ride his bike. I yell, “I love your brain.” That’s how I say wear your helmet. He’s nineteen. I can’t say wear your helmet, but I’m allowed to say I love your brain. It helps because you just get a second sometimes of their attention. In my family, teasing and sarcasm and humor, that’s our love language. It’s not for everyone. If your children are suffering from anxiety, you maybe don’t want to say to them, straighten up or you’re going to live in the basement forever. That might not be the way to go. You have to know your own kid.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you? Are you going to write another book? Are you going back to blogging? What are you thinking?

Kara: I don’t know. In a way, I feel like this book hasn’t happened yet because it was published on March 24th and I haven’t seen it in a bookstore yet. I haven’t been with people yet who have read it. In a way, I feel like I’m still waiting for this one to really find its place in the world. Then after that, I don’t know. I never thought I would write another book after Suburban Haiku, but here we are. This happened. Maybe the inspiration will strike and the stars will align again. I don’t know what it’ll be. Right now, we’re taking it day by day like everybody else.

Zibby: Yes, good plan. That’s the only way to do it. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Kara: Yes. I would say keep trying. Just keep writing. The words that you write, even if no one reads them, they bring you closer to your true message and your true audience and your true voice. I was writing Haiku for a long time. Then to promote my Haiku book, I started writing mom humor, mom jokes. Then as my kids got older and their perspective was changing, I was more interested in writing about societal things. Then that book about just being a nice person in the world, it didn’t come to fruition, but it absolutely was the kernel of what this new book became, which was much closer to my heart and with a much clearer audience who lived under my own roof. Things just have a way of building on one another. You may think you’re writing “the” book now. You may look back on it in a few years and say, that wasn’t the book, this is the book. Just keep going. Collect your people. Be generous. Be kind. Take your tribe along with you. Keep growing as a person, and your message will grow also.

Zibby: That’s great. Excellent advice. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on my show. Thanks for your great book.

Kara: Zibby, this is so exciting to see you on the screen and to be talking with you and to know that this book resonated with your family. I just appreciate how much you love books and how generous you are with authors and with our message and lifting our voices at this weird time especially. It’s a pleasure, pleasure, pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Aw, it’s my pleasure. Thanks, Kara. Have a great day.

Kara: Thank you. Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Kara Kinney Cartwright, JUST DON'T BE AN A*SSHOLE