Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Merry Little Christmas for Me

Today, somebody posted a video preview on facebook for this movie, which (sadly) won't be in theaters for another twelve months. Until then, though, I can look out my living room window and imagine Gandalf knocking on Bilbo's door. Clint started building this hobbit house a few summers ago. He was hoping to use only natural materials, but then his clay mixture started to prove recalcitrant, so he had to reinforce it with some plastic-ish webbing. He also laid rolled roofing under the soil on the roof to make it less leaky. Still, it looks hobbit-ish enough for me. Maybe this summer, he'll finish it and we can sit in there and puff smoky ships and dragons with our hand-whittled pipes.

This is what it looks like outside right now. Down in that hollow is our neighbor Thelma's yard. There's an apple tree back there in the haze, and it is the favorite eating ground of a family of deer. We see them all the time, and sometimes they leave their tracks in the snow around our house. When we have snow, that is.

So, on to the main reason for my post: Yesterday after baking, Lauren and I went out hunting for a second-hand pea coat for Jonah. Don't you think he would look nice in one? I don't want to pay full price because the boy is bound to start growing soon, I think. He's been about the same height for over a year now, and all the other boys in his class have started to sprout up.

After a futile coat search, I asked Lauren where she wanted to go, and she suggested the Jackson Antique Mall (which, by the way, is haunted...the top floor...very spooky up there).

She took off on her own looking for vintage coats and gloves, and I wandered around the booths looking at who knows what. Have you ever taken note of the astonishing number of freaky antique figurines in shops like this? I think they are supposed to be cute, but who would want to purchase a leering lamb or a winking lion? That is not cute; that is pretty close to demonic.

Anyway, I found a couple of wonderful things. Clint has been looking for liquor decanters for a top-secret project I can't tell you about, and after shattering the stopper of a $99 one he saw at Home Goods (oh, I wasn't supposed to tell you about that either), I cut him off from handling the expensive ones.

And lo and behold, I found a whole stash of them in a dusty bottom shelf--FOR TWO DOLLARS APIECE! I just got two, that's how reserved I was.

And as I was carrying them around and basking in my antiquing genius, I turned a corner into the chilly back room (where I think the ghost might also visit, judging by temperature alone), I found this set! A Fontanini Nativity. Do you know how long I've wanted one of these? A long, long time. Ever since Jonah stole the cow and lamb from someone. (I don't know who it was; if it was you, I am really sorry. But I just want to let you know that I am not giving them back because the set I just bought didn't come with animals. So I need them. Plus, I've had them a long time, so I think they're mine now anyway.)

Also, I bought a pair of earrings for myself and a pair for Lauren. They have BIRDS on them. Yes, birds. I love birds very much, but not the swarming ones. When they all fly up suddenly from a tree and swoop and swarm around in a complicated twist, I don't like them at all. I fear them. But birds on jewelry? I love those birds very much. Lauren said we should save them for Christmas, but that resolve lasted only until we got home. Five days is too long to wait!

I'll post a picture of the earrings when she wakes up--and when I have better light for shooting.

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to all!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Yesterday I finished reading this book by Allison Hoover Bartlett. A little embarrassed to admit that I didn't realize it was nonfiction until I started reading it, even though the cover quite clearly says it is a true story. Hmm. Silly girl, I am.

Usually, I steer quite clear of nonfiction as a general rule. I just love stories, and I have always found nonfiction to be pretty dry, but I'm reading Devil in the White City right now as well, another piece of NF, and it isn't dry at all! Neither was this book.

So, did you even know that book theft--especially rare book theft--is a pretty common crime? I had no idea. A book is much more likely to be stolen than a piece of art. And I'm not talking about cheap paperbacks either here; I'm talking about valuable books. Old books, rare books, first editions, things like that. Some of these books are worth hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are the things book thieves steal.

The book centers around two main characters: John Gilkey, a book thief, and Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who is obsessed with tracking down book thieves, especially John Gilkey.

The author spoke with Gilkey many times, visiting him often in prison in the times when he was caught and punished for his crimes, and also out of prison when he had been released.

Of the two men, Gilkey was perhaps more fascinating than Sanders because his moral code was so different from anyone's I've ever met--in "real" life or on the page. I spent most of my time while reading the book trying to figure out, like the author was, whether Gilkey was insane, brilliant, a psychopath, or a little bit of all of them. Gilkey refused to use the word "steal" when talking about his career of theft. Instead, he said he "took" books, almost as if they belonged to him in the first place and he was just claiming his property. He seemed to desperately want to prove to the world that he was a man of learning and culture, and to do that, he felt he needed a wide array of impressive books. He studied bibliographies, planning the books he would steal, and he primarily used stolen credit card numbers (he worked for some time at Saks, where he copied down customers' numbers) or bad checks. He was methodical and unpredictable in his thefts, usually just "taking" one book at a time, and not always from the same geographical or literary area.

Rare book store owners are typically embarrassed to admit they have been stolen from. They seem to believe as a group that being the victim of theft or fraud implies that they have been lax in their duty, so they rarely report the crimes. And policemen and other officials are often not very interested in book theft anyway, as no one has been hurt and the criminal is likely not a dangerous person.

But whether a book thief is a dangerous person is a matter of opinion, I think. When a book thief named Daniel Spiegelman was caught and brought to trial for stealing a vast number of books (some of which were the only remaining books of their kind) from Columbia University, his judge stated the following when explaining Daniel's sentence:

"In callously stealing, mutilating, and destroying rare and unique elements of our common intellectual heritage, Spiegelman did not simply aim to divest Columbia of $1.3 million worth of physical property. He risked stunting, and probably stunted, the growth of human knowledge to the detriment of us all. By the very nature of the crime, it is impossible to know exactly what damage he has done. But this much is clear: this crime was quite different from the theft of cash equal to the appraised value of the materials stolen, because it deprived not only Columbia, but the world, of irreplaceable pieces of the past and the benefits of future scholarship."

When seen in this light, the theft of a book is really a crime against human history, especially if it is a rare book. If the thief endangers the book or removes it from public access, that piece of our history could be lost forever. In that way, the theft of one book can make us all that much poorer.

In all, this was an interesting and enlightening read. I learned a bit about the rare book market and trade, about the ways in which dealers evaluate books, and about the complex psychology of one particular thief. My only complaint, and it is a small one, is with the organization of the book. I am betting that the author had done so much research about the world of rare books that she wanted to include her findings in this book along with the story of Gilkey's thefts and Sanders's attempts to find him and hold him accountable for them. I understand how hard it is to find ways to incorporate tidbits of information in the context of the story. But while I sympathize and understand, I must complain that the flow of the narrative was often interrupted by these side-trips into the products of her extensive background research. It was all interesting--very much so!--but sometimes the story hurt for these interruptions, I think.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

40 before 40? Hmm...

Lately, I've been hearing lots of people talking about bucket lists and such (maybe I'm hanging out with too many oldies? don't know...), and the other evening when Clint and I went out on a date (he finally took me out...after much hinting and threatening), we both began to write our lists. Here's what we have so far. I'll start with Clint's (keep in mind, though, that the man either has to get really busy in the next 5 1/2 months or he'll have to re-title his list to 45 before 45 or something) (oh, and these aren't in any special order of to-do-ish-ness):
1. climb a 13-14,000 foot mountain (huh, that one's not on my list AT ALL)
2. stone the porch (not the lethal kind of stoning, mind you. I mean the sandstone around the pole thingies kind)
3. go on a mission trip and speak some Spanish to the natives (hopefully, they also speak Spanish)
4. brew beer
5. take an art class--maybe painting?
6. build a cool workshop
7. get a buck that has a nice rack (this is hunter lingo for antlers. What were you thinking?)
8. sell some of his woodcraft projects
9. go on monthly dates with me (this was his idea, I'm almost 86% sure)
10. go to Yosemite
11. visit the British Isles
12. eat horse (why??? I blame my dad for this idea) (I threw up a little bit just typing it)
13. visit Quebec
14. visit Nova Scotia
15. visit New Zealand and Australia
16. train to be a reserve police man
17. build a wood-fire oven for pizza and bread on the patio (yes, please!)
18. go to a Rush concert
19. go to a Bond/Riverdance/Opera Babes concert

Now for my list:
1. run a 5k
2. perfect the installation of a hidden zipper
3. learn a foreign language
4. take an art class
5. learn how to make chocolate like the lady in Chocolat
6. be more dedicated to my blog (it's been a long time!)
7. learn how to knit (if only I had a dear, sweet friend who could teach me)
8. sell some of my art
9. learn how to use photoshop
10. give Clint a cool-nerdy makeover (wouldn't he look sweet?)
11. learn how to felt wool and make cute little wooly animals with it
12. start a Christmas puzzle tradition at our house
13. go to an AWP conference (have I told you that it's in Chicago this year? And Margaret Atwood is the keynote speaker? that's what I'm saying)
14. learn how to make tiny animals out of clay and make a whole menagerie
15. visit the British Isles
16. eat my way through either France or Italy, consuming mainly bread, cheese, and wine
17. go to Maine
18. go to Boston
19. go to Florence and Rome
20. did I mention the British Isles?
21. see a famous person (I saw Sean Connery in a kilt once!)
22. finish writing another novel or two
23. design a dress and sew it
24. make a trench coat

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review: The Lost Hero

I don't have the time to pre-read everything my kids read. Mama has her own teetering stacks of books to devour. I ask them about their books, though, and when something piques my interest, I will definitely add it to my own pile after the child has finished (or, occasionally--as was the case of a certain someone who read the last Harry Potter book much too slowly--before). This is what happened with the Percy Jackson series.
The author, Rick Riordan, says that he first developed an interest in mythology when he was hooked on the Lord of the Rings series in middle school. His teacher told him the author (Tolkien, of course) had been heavily influenced by Norse mythology (I didn't know that, but it makes sense, eh?), so young Rick soon turned to Norse mythology, which then naturally progressed to Greek and Roman.
I loved his Percy Jackson series (a total of five books) because he made Greek mythology easily readable and accessible to a wide audience--even adults! The books have great characters, they're funny, and the action and mystery are intense and well-paced. I also enjoyed the way Riordan wove appearances of mythological beings (gods, demigods, monsters, etc.) into modern culture. The Three Fates as taxi drivers (and you know how crazy that would be: they share an eye),Medusa's garden sculpture shop (everything is stone, of course), the Empire State building as Mt. Olympus. Each book was a fun read, and I could understand why my kids enjoyed them.
The Lost Hero is the first book in a new series, but it picks up where the Percy Jackson series ended, and many of the characters reappear. Just like the other series, you have great action, adventure, and memorable characters.
In this series we meet Jason, Leo, and Piper--all three of whom are castoffs and misfits, trying to figure out why they don't really seem to get along with their peers or fit in anywhere. For those who've become familiar with Riordan's series, the reason is clear: they're demigods, children of a mortal's union with a god. Sure enough, they end up at Camp Half-Blood with other demi-gods where many of their questions are answered and their divine parentage is revealed. But Jason's past is still shrouded in mystery. It's like someone has deliberately erased his memory, and the only one who might have a clue--Chiron, the centaur head teacher at Camp Half-Blood--gets pretty nervous and starts pawing the ground when asked directly.
Soon the three set off on a quest to rescue Hera, stop an evil (and unknown, for most of the book) being from overthrowing the entire order of the world, and of course they make a few stops along the way to visit various gods and beings and ask for help or fight for their lives--or both. The characters take turns as narrative focii in the chapters, which gives unique insight into their varied backgrounds and issues, and each one adds a different sort of spice to the story.
This novel also introduces Roman mythology, where the first series was entirely Greek. It's interesting how the characters acknowledge that while the Roman gods were usually very similar to their Greek counterparts, there were some distinct differences, which makes sense, considering the vast differences between Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. I was particularly interested by this part of the novel, as it wasn't something I had really considered before. I knew that most of the Greek gods played a part in Roman mythology and their names were interchangeable, but I hadn't considered that the Romans would have valued certain characteristics in their deities over others and superimposed them on the "characters" of the Greek gods as they'd already been established. But as I said, it makes sense.
Anyway, a fun read. Lighthearted and a little bit educational as well, which is always a bonus. If I have any complaint, it is that there is less of a meld of the mythological world with the "real" world, but I did learn that Jack London was a demigod. Did you know that? Hmm. I didn't think so. (Well, I guess I didn't either before I read the book. We're even.) (Well, we will be if you read at least one of Riordan's books.) (If you don't like Greek and Roman mythology, you can try one of his Kane Chronicles. Those are about Egyptian gods and are equally funny, although I didn't love the characters as much.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Playing God

One of my favorite things about sunny, warm days is hanging clothes outside on the clothes line. Sure, my towels may be a little scratchy and my jeans may be a little stiff when I first put them on, but I like some crunch in my clothes and some backbone in my bedsheets.

So anyway, this morning--knowing it was going to be a bright and beautiful day--I strolled outside to the back yard and began hanging t-shirts and sheets on the clothes line. I got to the end of the line, the part near the boundary of our property where there is a thick line of bushes, and some movement caught my eye.

It was a white moth, and it was caught in a spider web. The moth was fluttering, flapping, trying desperately to free itself. I hung the sheet, smoothing its damp edges, and I began to turn away.

I have been reading Charlotte's Web to Jared, after all, and Charlotte has reminded us both that spiders are not bloodthirsty monsters but animals who need to eat just as much as pigs--or people--do.

Photo credit: John Shappell

Even though I had turned my back on the desperately struggling moth, I kept seeing its frantic struggle in my mind's eye. I hung another shirt and tried to close that inner eye. The moth had blundered into the spider's web. The spider needed to eat. I should let nature take its course. Who was I to try to free the moth? As I hung another shirt, I felt a glow of self-righteousness, thinking Charlotte would be proud of me. I was quite certain that if she were nearby, she would weave an adjective or two about me into her web.

I hung the last towel on the line and picked up the basket to go back inside. Then I hesitated. I had to look back one more time. The moth was still struggling, still fluttering, still hoping to live. I set the basket down and stepped closer, looking for the spider. I thought, maybe the spider is right there, watching its dinner lose its will to live and surrender to fate. But I couldn't see the spider at all, just the moth.

Then, without even really thinking about what I was doing, I stretched forth my godlike finger and tore at the net. I tore and tore around the moth, freeing it. Without one word of thanks, it fluttered away, and I stood up, staring at the devastation I had caused, brushing sticky shreds from my fingers.

And I thought, as I bent to pick up the empty laundry basket, of how easy that had been for me: how with a few strokes of my finger, I had saved a life and destroyed something beautiful. Would the spider snare another moth--or something less lovely, perhaps--later that day, or would it have to wait days before its next meal? Would it survive those hungry days, or had I doomed it to starvation--certainly, I had made a mess of its web, and it would have to repair it.

Photo credit: The Natural Stone (

As I stumbled through the rest of my day, I tried not to think too much about the divine power I had used, refusing to think about things like guilt or remorse or pride. These were a spider and a moth, and I had more important things to take care of, like feeding my children and paying bills, but now, as I sit in my quiet chair, my day's tasks nearly completed, I think again about the godlike action I took this morning, and I wonder whether I did the right thing.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Decorating the Branch

This past fall while cutting wood at a local church, Clint found this branch and, knowing I'd love it, he brought it home. I walked around and around it, carried it around the house for awhile, and then decided it needed to hang from the ceiling in our family room. At Christmas time, it was decorated with ornaments that sparkled and glittered and some lovely birds. The birds got to stay on the branch after I took the ornaments down.

They look too comfortable, I think, to be packed away in the darkness of the basement. And I like to look at this teal one in particular. He has such lovely tail feathers, and sometimes I think he winks at me.

But if the bird loved me, the bare branch taunted me. I knew it needed decoration, but I couldn't decide what. Whatever I chose had to be light weight so as not to break the fragile small limbs, and not too fancy or frilly as it wouldn't go with the rest of the room. I knew I wanted to make it, and I didn't want to spend a lot of money.

So, one day I sat down and started sketching simple flowers and leaves. I cut a flower out and held it up to the light, but it was just a little bit too boring. It needed some dimension, some shape. Also, my sketch was a little lackluster, if I must admit, and I wanted something more simple and less fussy.

After searching awhile online, I found this tutorial, which was both easy to follow and simple in design. I don't have extra vellum, and I was looking through my paper stash when lightning struck my brain in a moment of sheer crafting and penny-pinching genius: I could use last month's Crate and Barrel catalog. (I had saved it for once and have been using the pages for wrapping paper and envelopes...hate to thow such beautiful pictures away!)

I used a small glass to trace lots and lots of circles, as the tutorial instructed. Then, I cut out each circle (and you don't need to be super precise because the edges get rounded). After cutting each circle, I folded them into eighths (half and half and half again) and then rounded off the edges. Then after unfolding my almost-flower (and here's where you really need to look at the tutorial to get the visual help), I cut out one little section and a tiny part of another. Apply a kiss of glue stick and adhere the cut tab to the other part of the flower and voila! 3-D flower.

Having a one-girl assembly line makes the process run much more quickly, I think, than making each flower individually. The next step is making the stems. As the tutorial suggested, I cut pieces of floral wire and bent one end into a hooky thing to look like the (ahem) reproductive parts of a flower. Thread the unbent end of the wire through the very, very tiny hole in the middle of the flower and there you go! All set. Now I just needed to attach them to the branch.

Here's one lone guy on his branch. He's waiting for more friends to join him.

And soon they were all on the branch (except for the few who still sit on my counter top: I ran out of floral wire!), where they introduced themselves quite politely to Mr. Teal Bird and his friends. Sometimes I look up from my chair (which is right below the branch, of course, almost like a halo of crafty benediction) and smile at them as they bob gently in the breeze from the window.

You'll be happy to know that the branch no longer taunts me at all. It has become quite friendly since the addition of the flowers. The only trouble now is the nagging I get from the flowers that still lack their wires. I'll get to it, I assure both them and you, in my own sweet time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review: The God of Animals

This is the first sentence: "Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy." If you're anything like me, you want to read this book already, don't you--even without the rest of this review.
Well, here's the rest, for those of you who still aren't convinced:
The narrator, Alice Winston, is a twelve-year old girl, a lonely girl who wishes she had at least one friend, who wishes her father relies on her as much as he had relied on her older sister--the one who ran off with the cowboy without a word of explanation. Alice's father owns a struggling horse ranch in the town of Desert Valley, Colorado. Nona had won a slew of awards at local, national, and international levels for her horsemanship, but Joe Winston won't even let Alice get on a horse to start training for a show. Instead, he trains an inept rich girl, flattering her in the hopes that she will bring her rich friends out for lessons as well. When no rich friends show up and the situation becomes even more desperate, Joe takes on boarders, and the owners of these pampered horses seem interested mainly in grooming their horses, eating frozen grapes, drinking wine and gossiping--oh, and flirting with Joe. They are rich, indolent women, and Alice is both intrigued by them and repulsed.
In her loneliness, Alice manufactures a friendship with the drowned Polly Cain to initiate a secret friendship with her English teacher, lets Sheila (the rich girl taking showmanship lessons) into her life, lies about why her mother hasn't left her bedroom since Alice was a baby, and accepts gifts of clothing and jewelry from one of the boarders. Matters come to a head as all of her lies and fabrications are tested and begin to unravel, as she desperately rides one of her father's wildest horses in a show, as Nona and her husband reappear one day at the ranch. And as the long, brutally dry days of summer come to a shattering end with first a rainstorm and then, a short while later, a blizzard.
Aryn Kyle, the author, is a first-time novelist, and according to the notes at the end of the novel, she considers herself more a short story writer than a novelist. Indeed, the first chapter in the novel began as a short story, which won an award from The Atlantic Monthly. Many of the chapters read a bit more like short stories than novel chapters, actually, as in each one, Alice learns something of a life lesson and each could function as a complete whole in itself.
The plot is certainly compelling with all the troubles of the Winston ranch and the uncertainty of its survival, but what really makes this story work is the variety and complexity of the characters, major and minor alike. Alice's adolescent voice is honest and wry, naive and yet wise, clear-sighted and also self-absorbed. She is both selfish and selfless, compassionate and careless. She is very much a young girl. The other characters are similarly beautiful and yet flawed. Most have a secret they would like very much to keep buried. Some of them are revealed through the course of the novel and some are not. As Sheila Altman remarks near the end of the novel: "That's what we do for the people we love...we keep their secrets."
Also, Aryn's written style is something to be remarked upon. Desert Valley is a fictional place, but the descriptions of the setting are quite realistic. Consider this: "And the snow fell. Like in a dream, it distorted shapes and colors, hiding everything that was familiar, burying everything that was real. Somewhere in the distance was the barn, the house, the world of my childhood. But the snow swirled like a million white insects around me, and I could see none of it."
In the end, though, Alice is what remains in my head. Like I said, she is wise beyond her years but also quick to make judgments and innocent despite her clear vision. Listen to her:

"But alongside the canal, there were no such promises. The water rushed, fierce and hungry. I pictured it rising, spreading across the entire valley until the town disappeared beneath, a sunken ship lost forever on the ocean floor. Maybe when it happened, I would float to the surface. Maybe the blue ribbon, worn and grubby in my backpack, and the memory of myself inside the ring--the lightness of my body, the pure, perfect silence--would be enough to lift me. And from up above, I would peer down into the watery ruin of the town, trying to remind myself what it had been like to live there, to recognize the place that had been my home before the rain came and everything old was lost."

"I tried to imagine anything I could do for my entire life, anything I was good enough at that someone might pay me to do it. I'd been repeatedly complimented on both my penmanship and my ability to whistle through my fingers like a boy, but these skills seemed unlikely to pay off in the long run."

"Through the window, Jerry's eyes locked with mine. In the movies, there were two sorts of men who had guns: heroes and criminals. Inside the truck, Jerry reached down, yanking the blanket back across the floor, then climbed out, locking the door behind him. He turned to face me and I could feel the fear rising inside my chest like ice water. Jerry was not a hero."

"All those years I had been unnoticeable, hiding behind my hair, slumping my shoulders, scuffing through the hallways alone. There was no way to get that time back, and so there was no point in thinking about it. What was important was today, tomorrow, the day that came after. What was important was knowing that all I had to do to be better than other people was act like I was."

"The sun was shining into my face, drying my tears, stiffening my skin. 'Even when you were a baby,' my father told me, 'we never knew what to make of you. We'd try to hold you and you'd arch your back, squirming away.' He turned his face to mine, and his eyes softened with seriousness, a moment of pure perfect truth. 'You're just like me.'
We looked at each other through the blinding glare of sunlight. This was the closest my father would ever come to saying that he had been wrong, the closest thing I would ever get to an apology. And I tried to smile at him, my lips waxy with dried tears. I tried to show that it was enough."

You need to read this book. Trust me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Review: Sarah's Key

I have a hard time stopping reading a book I don't like, and I don't know if this is a good quality or a bad one. Does it mean I am stubborn and refuse to give up--or that I am optimistic and keep hoping the book will redeem itself? Or is it a mix of both? I have a stack of books to read: it's not like there aren't more options, but for some reason, I persist--even when I am not enthralled with the book. Such was the case with Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.
I had heard good things about it, and the blurb on the back looked promising. And I must admit: the first 100 pages were great, actually. I like a novel that alternates between past and present, as this one does. Let me explain the premise:
In 1942, 10 year old Sarah is taken with her parents from their home in Paris. Before she leaves, she locks her young brother in the secret cupboard in their bedroom, promising him that she'll be home soon, never suspecting that she will not. Thousands of Jews--mostly women and children--are detained in a bus station in the city for days without adequate food or water or bathroom facilities. When Sarah shows her parents the key and explains that she locked little Michel into the secret cupboard, they are horrified, and Sarah quickly realizes that she has doomed her brother to a horrific fate. From the bus station, which is called the Vel' d'Hiv, they are taken to an internment camp near Orleans, and soon Sarah is separated from her parents, who are taken to Auschwitz. Sarah's story continues on, though, as she is tormented by her brother's fate--for which she blames herself completely.
In 2002, an American woman, a journalist living in France, is assigned to report on the 60th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, something that she--and most people in France or elsewhere--know little about. Julia is appalled to learn that this operation was carried out by French policeman under German orders. As she learns about the inhumanity of the treatment of the prisoners, she feels personally affected and soon becomes caught up in the story. By tracing the clues and talking with witnesses, she learns that the apartment her husband is renovating--the one his father had lived in as a child--was Sarah's home. Many past secrets, long buried, are revealed as Julia keeps digging.
Doesn't this all sound good? It is a great idea for a novel and an important piece of history that deserves to be told. I have no problem with any of this. For the first 150 pages or so, the brief chapters alternate between Sarah's story and Julia's. Then, midway through the book, Sarah's story reaches a climax and ends. The rest of the novel is Julia's story alone. The chapters are short and often fast-paced, and indeed the novel itself is a fast read.
I guess the part that annoyed me about the novel is the fact that Julia's character was so much less interesting than Sarah's, and Sarah's story ended so precipitously. I felt there were other paths the author could have taken with the plot, paths that would have been more satisfying and less predictable. The ending was too obvious, and yet the motivations of the characters when they got to the end weren't entirely believable. The last thirty pages skipped three years into the future, and all of Julia's problems from the rest of the story were summed up and swept under the rug. I actually rolled my eyes a few times in the last scene!
Normally, I consider myself a pretty tolerant reader, but this novel had the potential to be so much more, and I thought the pace, the character development, and the plot did not live up to it. I would have liked to see more mystery, stronger characters, fewer loose ends with minor characters, and (please) longer, more complex sentences.
Apparently, there is a film version of the book, and I plan to see it. It will be interesting to see how the film makers handle the story. I'm looking forward, however, to my next book. I hope it far surpasses this one.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Apron Thanks

A dear friend admired one of my aprons a few months ago and inquired about whether I took commissions. I assured her that I do, but after thinking about the project for some time, I realized that I could not accept payment from this selfless woman. She gives her time, her treasure, and her many talents with a recklessness I admire. Thus the thank-you apron was born.

Not surprisingly, an apron of this gratitudinal magnitude required a trip to one of my favorite fabric stores (in Ann Arbor, where so many of my other favorite stores live), where the fam helped me choose the three coordinating fabrics. (Okay, mainly they walked around and picked out other fabrics I should buy them to make purses and aprons and pjs and pillows with.)

The friend I made the apron for gives me an earthy vibe, so I chose fabrics in that range, but she also loves to get crazy, hence the bold prints and the zany orange stripes. I made this a pretty apron, with ruffles and a drawstring on the bodice because this friend gives so much of herself to others that she often forgets to pamper herself. I wanted her to remember that she is beautiful and well-loved each time she puts this apron on.

A few years ago when I opened my etsy shop (etsy is like a huge online shopping mall for handmade and vintage items), I thought it would be smart to have a label that would help create a brand for my work. I found Jennifer's Jewels on etsy, and she helped me design a sew-in tag that would suit my purposes. It didn't take me long to sew through my first package of labels. I reordered another (larger) supply a month or so ago. (PS: in case you didn't know, I no longer stock my etsy shop. I found that sewing is more fun when I sew for those I know and love.) (I do take commissions, though!)

I almost thought I was done with the apron, but when I held it up and squinted my critical eye at it, I realized it needed a pocket. For the pocket, I cut two large rectangles of contrasting fabric (so the pocket is lined), a narrow strip for the trim, and sewed them together. But a big straightforward pocket was too boring for my fun apron--and certainly too boring for my fun friend. I played around with the shape, folding it and turning it on a slight angle, and I came up with this design. It looks a little like a flower itself, I think. The extra pleats make the pocket nice and roomy inside.

And here it is, the finished product. You can see the belt ties hanging down in back. I used two different fabrics for them: one for the front and one for the back, so when tied, the colors will both show.
I can't wait to give this to my friend. I hope she knows, each time she wears it, how much we love her and appreciate all she does.

I picked up this book at the used bookstore in town (which, by the way, I love. It's not as organzied as my other favorite bookstores (Horizon in TC or Schuler's in Lansing), but it is such a rambling place, full of odd stacks of unshelved books, a treasure-hunter's paradise. I have often spent hours in its incense-spiced rooms, my arms becoming increasingly heavy with the growing pile), hoping I'd find some great information, the sorts of odd, often-gruesome facts my World History students love to learn about when we talk of the middle ages.
And--just like those freshmen--I'd rather learn history in a fun way than a boring one, so I figured a travel account would be much more fun to read than that history book about medieval history I bought a couple years ago...the one with the still-pristine cover and uncracked binding. (Wonder why it still looks new?)
This book was certainly easy to read, a nice slow amble from London to Canterbury as the author walked the distance in a week's time, chronicling his experiences, the people he met and the thoughts he had. Along the way, he adds information about the differences between medieval life and modern.
I was hoping for some new nuggets of information but didn't find them, aside from the fact that medieval wine and beer had to be consumed immediately, as they didn't have a great way to preserve them. Beer particulary had to be drunk as soon as it was brewed, but wine could last up to a year, afterward becoming so acidic and bitter that it was unpalatable.
Jerry Ellis, the author, is half British-half Native American. Earlier, he walked the Trail of Tears, on which the Cherokee nation was forced to travel from their homes in Georgia to a barren landscape in Oklahoma, and chronicled his journey. His native American ancestry is clear throughout this narrative as well. He speaks often of a kinship with nature, of shamanistic spiritual ideas, of saving bits and pieces of his trip to bury at home under a sacred tree so that he can preserve the spirit of this journey with the one he took on the Trail of Tears.
I must admit, I rolled my eyes a few times at his mysticism. I try to keep an open mind as a reader, but I had such high hopes about this book, and I found that while I enjoyed learning of his journey and the very friendly people he met along the way, and while I admired the spirit with which he undertook the journey--fully prepared to take what came to him, eyes wide open, his ruminations on the past were not as deep as I had hoped.
Maybe, though, I just know more than I thought I did about the middle ages. Yes, maybe I am just too lofty a genius to appreciate this dabbling in the past. I think I'll tell myself that to assuage the disappointment I feel.

(Which reminds me of my favorite line in "A Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving: "Tom consoled himself with the loss of his property with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude.")

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trip to Chicago

This past weekend, we headed to the Chicago area to visit family. We left Friday morning and traveled through a pretty fierce (but much needed) thunderstorm to arrive safely at Lynette's in Crystal Lake. As we were driving through Algonquin's many shopping venues, I noticed something both exciting and horrifying! Borders is going out of business. I guess I should have known it was coming: I've been hearing about their financial woes for quite awhile. But wait, you're thinking, she said "exciting." What's exciting about a bookstore going out of business? I'll tell you what's exciting: books on sale! The signs were prominent: 40% off. Clint took one look at my gleaming eyes and sighed. "Let's get to Lynette's first," he said. "I promise we'll come back."

There is really only one important thing that must be discussed when gathering with Genthners, I have come to realize: food. We talked for I think two whole days about food. In the meanwhile, the girls fit in a nail polishing session and the kids all jumped on the trampoline and played hide and seek. And we ate lots of good food. Like Lynette's homemade green tea gelato. Green tea! Who knew?
You're probably worried about whether I got to Borders. Fret no longer: I did. But here's the sad part, the part I couldn't see as we were driving 55 mph along the road: there were two tiny little words above the 40% off. Guess what they were? That's right: Up To. There wasn't much on sale, really--not much cheaper than Amazon, that is...which is probably why Borders is closing, eh? I got a few things from the bargain books section...
Then we headed over to visit Jeanette and Frederick for a night, eating more delicious food and sharing a great bottle of wine. More thunderstorms and rain...Sunday was a going away party for Annette's family: they're moving back to California. It is sad to see them go, but now we have a place to stay when we finally make the cross-country trip!
Sunday evening we headed over to see Micah and Sarah, who live in Buffalo Grove. Somebody really, really loves her cousin Jonah.

I'd often look into the living room as Sarah and I were talking about...well, food, if you must know--to see Eva settled comfortably on Jonah's lap. And he's a pretty easygoing thirteen year old boy, I think, because he didn't seem to mind. One time as they were walking out the door to get back on the swing set, I heard Eva say, "Jonah, you're my best friend" as she slipped her little hand into his.

Monday evening, we drove a mile or so to a park that boasts having the highest spot in the Chicagoland area. It did have a great view: we could see downtown. The kids were more interested in the small things, though, like grasshoppers.

And it was Micah and Sarah's anniversary! We cooked South African food together before going to the park, and we went out for ice cream afterward at Oberweis. Yummy. (I had Key Lime Pie ice cream!)

Tuesday morning, we took the kids down to the city (Chicago) to walk around and see the sights. Marilyn was new to me. The picture crops out all the loads of tourists (which, of course, we are not) standing below taking closer pictures.

There will be a new Lego store soon in Watertower Place, but for now, they have a temporary location in the mall and some of their sculptures for photo opportunities. Doesn't Jonah look happy?

I wanted to get more shots of the gorgeous architecture, but we were trying to walk quickly so as not to spend too much time downtown (somebody was mentally tallying our parking cost) and we were worried about how long Jared would last.

Lunch was a toss up: Chicago style pizza or Italian beef? By 1:00, we were so hungry and footsore, we didn't care which as long as it was readily available. We decided to just head back in the general direction of our parking garage and hope something caught our eye. We were waiting at a light when I heard a lady say, "Let's stop for pizza; it's right down here." I think she may have been an angel. We followed her and her family to Gino's East where, Lauren was pleased to learn, graffiti is encouraged. The pizza was great, and it was nice to rest our feet.

After lunch we walked east so we could see the lake, but we didn't get close enough to get our feet wet. All in all, it was a nice, relaxing trip. Good times, great food. Wonderful families.

Behemoth by Scott Westerfield

A few years ago, I read Leviathan, a novel by Scott Westerfield that puts an unusual spin on World War I. In the real world, the war started with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. It was primarily a war between Germany and its ally, Austria-Hungary, and Britain and its ally, France (and later, the United States). These facts are consistently maintained in the novel.

But the novel is different in that Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie have a young son named Aleksander, who has been sheltered from the public eye and who, when his grand-uncle, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, dies, should assume the throne. When news of his parents' assassination reaches Austria-Hungary, young prince Alek is spirited away to safety in the middle of the night--in a tank that walks!
Yes, you heard me right: the scientific developments of Westerfield's alternate historical novel are the other thing that sets it apart from fact. In Alek's world, the nations of Eastern Europe (particularly the Germans) have developed machines to wage war. These machines remind me of the AT-AT Walkers in Star Wars, which walk around on long, stilt-like legs. There are other machines as well, ships and planes and tanks that have highly advanced weapons and navigation systems.
While the Clankers (slang word for the machine-loving Germans) were busy building machines, the Brits were busy as well. They are called Darwinists, for they have taken the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin to create creatures of war. In Britain, giant whales have been evolved so that they can be filled with helium and survive out of water, creating giant living blimps. There are messenger lizards, frogs that can record (and recite) up to an hour of conversation, and smaller flying/floating beasties that look like jellyfish, among other things.
A girl named Deryn Sharp has pretended to be a boy so that she can join the British Navy and sail on the Leviathan as a crewman. There, under exciting circumstances which I will not describe so as not to give away the plot, she eventually meets Alek, and they become friends.

Behemoth is the sequel to Leviathan, and you really need to read #1 to understand the world of #2. This book is set primarily in the Ottoman Empire, which both Germany and Britain would like to make into an ally. Germany has a stronger foothold already (as the Ottomans are rather upset that Winston Churchill decided to keep the warship and its accompanying top-secret new water beast (it's called a Behemoth, by the way) the Ottomans had commissioned--and paid for), and it is into this atmosphere that the Leviathan sails on a diplomatic mission, hoping to assuage their anger. Meanwhile, the Germans have already promised the Ottomans two ships (one of which has a cannon that creates and then shoots lightning!) and military training. Of course, the adults totally boggle the transaction, and it is up to Alek and Deryn (who has begun to have romantic feelings toward Alek--who still thinks she's a boy) to save the operation.
It's a complicated world and difficult to describe in a few paragraphs, but the idea is intriguiging and the characters are well developed. The story moves along quickly; I think I finished reading this second book in a few days. And whenever the world gets too difficult to imagine, an illustration helps explain it all.

I highly recommend these novels for any reader; I think the target age group is fourth-ninth grades, but I found them entertaining and educational. Plus, I like books with pictures. There is a third book coming out in hardcover on September 20, and it's available for pre-order on Amazon. Hmm...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Discovering Idea-ology

Yesterday I stopped in at Jo-Ann to look for paper. I've been thinking about this last Patera pendant (which I got at the Found Gallery in A2--love that place!) lately, thinking I should finish it up. This spring I drew a mouse sniffing at a delicious wedge of Jarlsberg and painted it with watercolor, but I got too hasty when checking to see whether the Gel du Soleil (epoxy) had dried and I totally burbled the whole thing. I was ready to tearfully give up on the whole project, but Clint shouldered his heat gun and rescued me (and the pendant).
Lately, I've been entranced with the pendants I've seen that use tiny little vintage prints inside. So, I went to Jo-Ann to look for paper.

And of course, whilst in the paper section, what should I find but loads of new products from K&C Company (can you guess why my favorite?) (You're right! Because they have the most beautiful stuff). I dithered awhile between chipboards and mat stacks and stickers and all sorts of delicious products, ending up by being frugal with a small mat pad.
Then I walked through the paper sheets (found nothing interesting--cause all the good stuff is in the bound packs, of course!) and as I was turning to leave, I found craft books. I picked up one about book making (which, as you know, I have tried my hand at) and thought about it for awhile, but I frugally put it down. Then I found this book:

Those of you who have gotten a birthday card from me lately know I couldn't pass this up! And those of you who are thinking about the f-word I've been sprinkling through this post (I mean frugal. What word are you thinking about?) should rest assured: this week is COUPON COMMOTION at Jo-Ann. Yes, that's right. A whole ad full of 40% off coupons, which, you must admit, means things are practically free. Of course I put the book in my cart.
So now, I had not only a lovely pack of paper, but I also had an inspirational book. I was halfway to paper heaven, I assure you. But then I saw a sight that pushed my crafty self the last few feet toward those pearlescent gates. That's right: a new display.

Ignore Casey and the cool tiger which I tossed into the picture for visual appeal. Look at those big paper stacks beneath. Yes, that's right. Tiny writing and birds and distressed prints all in one package? How could I say no? And that delightful Tim Holtz created another pack with big, small, and TINY designs. Yes, that's right. I said tiny designs. (Remember the part about 40% off? I certainly was not forgetting that.) Into the cart!

So now, here I am: hard at work on cards (or ahem blog posts) with my cool new papers close by for decorating assistance and my new book close at hand for creative inspiration. Could a girl be any happier? I don't think so.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to Survive a Family Vacation in Mexico

If you are considering traveling out of the country with your family, I would suggest you consider the following items:

1) When in a large airport, keep at least two pairs of eyes--or better, a firm hand--on any child under the age of seven. Airports are busy places and things like escalators and those conveyor belts people walk on are very, very enticing for young children. It does not matter in the least if you are bogged down with your purse, your book-laden carry-on, his book-laden backpack, and five other things. Keep tabs on the kid. Otherwise, you may find him grinning at you from halfway up the escalator. And you know how you hate escalators.

(photo via Caren Explains It All)

2) When you get to the foreign country, say Mexico perhaps, take in a deep breath of air through your pursed lips and thank your lucky stars that Michigan, while it has its negative aspects, also has things like low humidity and temperatures--most of the time. This might be a good time to just give up on your hair, as well. Remember that having fun is more important than maintaining great curls. (Although, of course, these two can often coincide in a way that is both beautiful and gratifying.)

3) Once you leave your gate in the Cancun airport, you'll need to find the baggage claim area and go through immigration with your luggage. At this point, it is perfectly fine to look as though you have been up since 1:30am (which you have because your flight was at 6), and you may well find that the immigration line has been magically shortened for you and your family. This is because the attendant has taken pity on either a) your tired look, or b) the fact that you are traveling with children. He will usher you with a smile into a much shorter line composed of other traveling families. The security guard will wave you through with a wink and a nod, no luggage or bags scanned at all.

(photo via Treva Tribit photography)
4) You can anticipate a very fun experience when you have loaded all of your bags into the van your husband has arranged to take you to the airport. This exercise is called "Take advantage of the silly Americans." When they tell you you must get out of the van, you can certainly refuse, but then you will miss enjoying this activity. Once you have urged all your family members out of the van, go inside and listen as the agents promise reduced admission to various local attractions. Assure them you only are interested in the Mayan ruins at Tulum. When they offer to get you discounted tickets ($100 instead of the $260 you'd likely pay if you book at the resort), continue to act disinterested. Then, when they offer to cut that price in half, perk up a little. (Half! you think. That's the price of just one ticket at the resort! How can anyone say no to that?) Just realize that there are always, always strings attached. This time, the strings involve a van ride that takes nearly 90 minutes, breakfast with a salesman, and six conversations with agents who will try to sell you membership in a vacation club, even though the first man you spoke with told you quite honestly that you are not the sort of travelers they are looking for. You're too cheap. Be grateful upon returning to your resort five hours later that at least you got some very tasty French toast out of the deal. That and cheap tickets to Tulum. Ignore the fact that you are suspicious about the Tulum deal and actually dread leaving the resort another time. Assume Tulum will be wonderful.

5) When you check in at the resort, the lady at the desk will ask you if you want to upgrade your second room since your first room is "Privileged" and your second is "Standard." If you don't upgrade the second, you and your husband will be in a totally separate building from your children. As appealing as this may sound, remember that you are in another country and you're on vacation with them, so distance is not desirable or advisable. If you're penny pinchers like we are, you'll ask if you can downgrade your premium room so that you can get a room close to the standard kids' room. I would advise upgrading their room. You don't stay at resorts often, and what is another $100 or so when you've already saved almost $200 by agreeing to the sales pitch earlier? Besides, the nicer room comes with a stocked mini-bar!

6) Spend all available time at the beach or the pool. Exchange your dollars for pesos because the coins are easier to use at the swim up bar (for tips--drinks are free!) than dollars, which, as you know, are not water resistant. Take lots of books to read and apply sunscreen liberally. Swim to cool off and take plenty of pictures.

7) When preparing to head out to Tulum, talk to someone about what to expect. If you do, then your trip will be much more pleasant. You should know to bring sunscreen and a towel or two, and you should wear your swimsuit, not pack it. If you do these simple things, you will avoid being a feast for bugs and you'll get to cool off instead of looking longingly down at those who knew what to expect whilst sweltering in your shorts. Look around at Tulum at the ruins and see how many iguanas you can spot.

8) Most importantly, enjoy these moments with your family. This is the purpose of your trip. Celebrate the snorkling voyages, observe the rituals of the pelican, eat good food, and let your children swim up to the bar to order drinks. Don't let the bartender give your daughter tequila, though, as much as he seems to want to.

9) Oh, and wait in line for the crepes at breakfast. Eat them with custard and chocolate sauce. Shoo the birds away from your table, and trust your husband when he says to take the long way around on the beach. Jonah doesn't need to see those two ladies who are taking full advantage of the rays of the sun. Neither do you, really.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Apology: Twenty-Six Years Ovedue

Dear Grandpa,

We are very sorry about the hay bale incident.
It's just that we were having so much fun in the hayloft and sometimes when a large number of kids is together having fun, they neglect to be sensible. But really, sensible isn't the right word. What we did made perfect sense to us.
We wanted to leap into emptiness from the safety of the hayloft, swinging out wide as we held tight to the thick rope, letting dusty bars of sunlight flick past our lean, tanned bodies. Having something soft to cushion our fall was sensible.
Hay bales were available: we used them.
How could we have known they were of such great worth? How could we have known they weren't even yours, that you were storing them for a neighbor?
When you stood in the door of the barn, blocking the light, your gnarled hands fisted on the faded green of your trousers, we knew that our definition of sensible was vastly different from yours.
You didn't have to say a word; you rarely said many. But your eyes spoke volumes, and your lips were a thin, pale line. We knew we had done wrong.
We filed silently down the ladder and stood knee deep in a bright pile of unbaled hay. Probably thirty bales we had thrown down to catch us when we fell.
We had only gotten one or two turns each to leap into the air, breathless in fear and also joy as we flew through those dusty beams of light. We stood, heads bowed before you as you finally spoke.
You spoke shame to us and we felt it, even though we still didn't understand what we had done.
Then our fathers and mothers found us, and their words and their punishment made us smart but not wise.
We are wise now, Grandpa, and we know what we did wrong. We are sorry about the cost of our fun. We are sorry that our scheme created destruction. We apologize for trying to fly.

Children Playing in Hay Loft by Victor C. Anderson

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Day of Disturbing Images

***Warning: this post contains graphic and disturbing material. Read with caution, squeamish people.***

It started off as an innocent morning. I woke up in a room that seemed to glow with promise. This is probably because the bedroom I was sleeping in at my mom's house catches the morning sun and filters it through bright yellow curtains, but I took it to have metaphorical significance, and it was with eagerness that I bounded downstairs for my first cup of coffee.
The living room was empty, unusual for that early hour, but mom was checking her email in the other room and dad was down near the barn getting ready to go to a job site and install some doors. Everyone else was still sleeping. My full coffee cup in hand, I began to step down into the living room when something caught my eye and made me pause, mid-step.
It was a spider on the floor. Now, as a mother of two boys who love animals, a spider of that prodigious size is nearly guaranteed to be a toy, but I couldn't be sure. I bent down to peer at it closely and make sure it was not real before I stepped on it. Imagine, if you will, my alarm when I realized that the thing was most certainly alive. I think I shrieked, but I am certain I did not drop my coffee.
Instead, I called my mom away from her position of safety at the computer to come see this hideous creature. She obeyed with alacrity and immediately swooped down upon it with a jar and a piece of cardstock to capture it. It was then that I knew without doubt that having seven children and staying home to care for them robbed the world of what might have been its most assiduous scientist to date.
I do not consider myself an arachnophobe, certainly not a killer of spiders, but at the sight of that beast, all of the happy bright images I had upon awakening were shattered. Something fearful had crept into the house and it poisoned my morning as it sat, wriggling its long legs at me from its jar on the counter top. Even when I removed myself to the other end of the house to sit and type, I could feel all of its beady eyes trained on me, haunting me.

The spider I saw was NOT this spider. She is lovely, even though she does look rather large.

That evil start to the morning, though, was only the precursor of the horror to come. The spider shocked me, but what I heard about later appalled me.
Jared finally awoke and came downstairs. He must have stopped first to look out at the kittens as they played on the deck. One of them will be his as soon as it's old enough to leave his mother, and he has already developed the pride and love of a pet owner. As he came skipping into the back room to see me and get his morning hug, I told him about the spider in the jar. Unfazed, he replied that he had already seen it and then he insisted I follow him back to the deck to see the kittens and their prize.
He was rather close-mouthed about what that prize was, but he did not seem alarmed at all--excited with a twinge of glee would be an accurate way to describe his demeanor at the time. What I found on the deck near where the kittens usually gambol in their innocent kitten-ish glee was the second (and--I hope--last) disturbing image of the day. There was a very small pile of innards glistening in the murky daylight, and this pile seemed to writhe a bit, but this was merely because of the long line of ants busily working away at it.

Nearby, and indeed I almost missed it until Jared pointed out, was the body that had until just lately enclosed those innards. Well, if I am being precise, I should say part of the body. What I saw was the head and shovel-like front paws of a mole and most of its torso, ending in a gnawed stump. Jared informed me that the mother cat had been teaching her babies how to eat meat. He squatted near me to look more closely and I stumbled away from the sight, now forced to contend with two horrific images seared indelibly on my brain.

I thought about posting pictures of these images for you, but then I realized that such an action would be too hideous, too evil to contemplate. So, whilst my words may offend you, I pray that the only lingering images in your mind are the two pictures I have shared. If it is only my brain that is damaged today, I can perhaps rest tonight in peace and hope that tomorrow morning's promise of joy bears a more palatable fruit.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Commencement: Conquering a Fear

Board members, faculty, staff, parents, friends and family, graduates. It is a great honor to be standing before you on this special day.

I know it is said that time flies as you get older, and I always thought that was just a sneaky way less youthful people covered themselves after forgetting something, but in my advanced age (my birthday was yesterday) and wisdom, I have found it to be true. I blinked one day, and my daughter sprouted from a preschool student to a high school student, and the same thing has happened with you, graduates.

It truly does seem like yesterday that I met some of you for the first time, as you walked into my classroom on your first day of high school. Some of you were my STAR [homeroom] students, and some were World History or Creative Writing students. I remember how large your eyes were, how some of you stared around the classroom in awe, and how attentively you listened to me explain the rules of my classroom. It didn't take long for that shine of newness to wear off and soon you showed me who you truly were: not scared, shy freshmen, but young people who were (for the most part) ready to learn and ready to become a part of Napoleon history.

Time passed, and you grew older. Some of you went on to win praise from teachers for academic achievements. Some went on to win cheers on the field or the court or the track. Some won accolades for your art. Some of you kept your brilliance to yourself, but all of you cast a glow on your four years with us, and it is with a mixture of both pride and sadness that we watch you leave.

I look out at your faces, graduates, and I see the future sitting before me. And you are just as brilliant, just as eager for that future as you were four years ago—maybe more so. I look out at you and see tomorrow's lawyers and businessmen who are very very good at persuasion, some computer engineers, a baker or two, a professional golfer who really should trust me and buy some plaid pants, a couple of guys who will make tons of money playing video games if only they can figure out how, teachers, musicians, artists, movie critics. I see cosmetologists and machinists, construction engineers and nurses. You are our future, graduates, and we are so proud of you.

For some reason, I was afforded the great honor of giving the commencement address today. In a tiny part of my heart, I can't help but wonder if you graduates are sadistic people who enjoy torture. I am pretty sure I was quite clear last year when I said, looking certain of you straight in the eye: "I do not want to give the commencement address. I do not like speaking in public." Despite that, you asked, and I could not say no.

But then another part--a larger and wiser piece of my heart--told that whimpering tiny part of me that maybe you didn't ask me out of sadism but out of something else. Maybe you asked me to speak because you liked being in my class and you wanted to hear, one more time, what I have to say to you.

So this is what I have to say: I have discovered the key to happiness, and I am here to share it with you today.

Now I am not a millionaire and I will probably never be one. And when I googled myself , I only got 192 hits (which is actually not bad! I was pretty impressed!), so I'm not really famous outside of Jackson County. Or even in it, probably.

But even though I'm not on a list in Time or People or Forbes magazines, I have found a measure of success and the secret to living a happy life. Here it is: love one another.

You probably thought it was going to be more flashy, but I really think it is that simple. Here's why: when you walked into my classroom, I showed you that I care about you. I listened to you, I helped you fix your essays and figure out your relationships, I hugged you when you needed a hug. That's love, people, the kind of love I'm talking about. And in return, most of you probably found that the vibe in room 132 was a happy one, a safe and comfortable one, where learning could happen.

Loving others makes me happy, and I have found that that sort of happiness is contagious. So, here is my advice: when you talk with people—new friends or old, family or co-workers, find a way to love them. Look for the good in others and open your arms and your minds to the possibility that learning about people and sharing in their lives is more important than talking about yourself.

When you leave this place today, if you take that philosophy with you, you'll be on the road to happiness. Because when you love others, they usually love you back, and soon you'll find that your heart is overflowing with goodwill and you can't stop smiling.

I can't share any reputable journal articles with you proving my theory about the key to happiness, and I don't have scientific data to back this up. I'm just telling you what I have found to be true. When you meet new people, listen to them. Show them you care by shutting up about yourself and letting them talk. Give lots of hugs. Smile often. Appreciate what you have and stop wishing for more. Enjoy each moment. This is how I live my life, and it has brought me great joy and the success of being content with who I am. I pray it will work for you.

Now I can't sit down before I mention a few other words of advice and encouragement. I'm a happy person, but I'm also an observant person, and aside from watching for the bake sale carts, I like to watch people. I notice things. And I've noticed a few things about you that you might want to take into consideration.

Some of you would do well to find a hobby. It is so easy to waste time, to let yourself get distracted by your phone, your facebook, your games, your whatever. But haven't you ever found yourself blinking away the haze that settles when you've lost yourself in these mindless pursuits and thought, where has the time gone? Has it really been four hours? What have I accomplished? I'm telling you, it will be a very sad day if one day you blink and it is not just four hours that have passed but four years—or more. So find something constructive to do with your time, like a job. Study for your college classes. Read a book or play an instrument. Spend time with loved ones.

Some of you would do well to take more pride in who you are. Some of you have already figured this out, but I'm talking to those of you who haven't. You have talent, you have worth, you have gifts. I have seen them. Discover what they are and be proud of them. Don't worry about what other people think of you; celebrate yourself.

Some of you would do well to stop worrying about things you can't fix. There will always be troubles in the world, and there will always be tasks that are overwhelming or people who are too demanding. There will be days when your future looks bleak and hopeless, when you go to bed at night and wonder how you can possibly please everyone and accomplish everything you need to do the next day. But you can't worry about that. Worrying accomplishes nothing positive—it only makes you feel less capable and less confident. Instead, try to set your fears aside, breathe deeply, and meet the task as best you can. Sacrifice what is impossible for what is possible and do your best with that.

As I close today, I want you to know that we all have high hopes for you. As I said earlier, from the first day I met you, I knew that you were special. That you were destined for greatness. And you have fulfilled that early promise.

But in the four years you've spent in high school, as you've learned tough lessons and faced challenges that have brought you crying to your knees, some of you may have lost a little bit of that eagerness, that bright-eyed enthusiasm you had four years ago. I challenge you to find it again. Be shining examples in the world, showing them what it means to be a graduate of Napoleon High School. Your senior year is over, and your life is before you.

Reach for it, grasp it firmly, open your heart and your eyes to love, and follow that bright vision. I can't wait to see where it takes you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jared's Little Brother

This Sunday in church, Clint and I had a foretaste of what it will be like when we're once more parents of an only child. Jonah was out of town with his cousins (thanks, Ric and Katie!), and Lauren was acolyting, so we just had Jared in the pew between us. Kinda cozy.
Jared was quietly drawing a happy eight-legged monster for the first part of the service, but he must have started to feel lonely because suddenly, he set the monster aside just as he was adding a lurid dollop of earwax and turned to a blank piece of paper.
Quickly, he sketched a head and two round ears, then he added a body and the limbs. "What are you drawing now," I asked, "a monkey?"
He looked at me, exasperated. "No, mom," he replied. "It's my new brother."

When you consider just how much a parent's education and imagination are clearly lacking, it's surprising there aren't more toddler uprisings.
So anyway, I am pleased to present the newest addition to our family. His name is Junior (which you can read on his hat, if you'd like. I wrote that for Jared; his super-fine motor skills aren't capable of such tiny letters yet). He might look somewhat simian, but he is most definitely human, as Jared will strongly insist. He is still pretty young, thus the orange bottle on his left, full of milk. He likes his toy rattle (which is, clearly, on his right) and he's eager to open his present (to his far left), which, you may be able to see, is a teddy bear under the red wrapping. He also has a pet ladybug which is flying overhead. His name is Charles. And in case you don't realize how much value we place on safety, you should recognize that Junior is sitting in a five-point harness car seat.
Junior was quiet in church, which made me happy, and he doesn't eat much, which makes Daddy happy. He's hanging out on our fridge currently, so feel free to stop by for a visit if you'd like to meet him. His personality is a little flat, but I think that he's far more interesting than one might expect, considering his close relation to the great apes (don't tell Jared I said that) and the fact that he was fully formed in under twenty minutes.