Friday, December 31, 2010

Celebrating the New

Two weeks before Christmas, my husband's father (who had struggled with prostate cancer and the side effects of over-seeding with radiation to cure it) passed away. We were pretty sure it was coming. He had been very poorly at Thanksgiving time. Plus, during the previous week, he had been unable to speak. This made our Christmas visit with my husband's family bittersweet this year.

We have just finished hosting my family for a Christmas gathering here in our home in Indiana. This was the first year since my parent's retired from Salvation Army officership that all of us were able to be together. With my parents and all five children, spouses and grandchildren, we packed the house in with 30 people.

Sadly, I didn't really bring out my camera very often. I can't claim that I was busy in the kitchen, because that really isn't my area of expertise or comfort. Thankfully, I am blessing with a very helpful husband and the assistance of several other family members.

We piled everyone into the porch (so grateful that we were able to get it heated a year ago) and took some photos. All 18 grandchildren stood still for ages while numerous cameras snapped photos and then we opened our gifts to one another.

Of course, the children from the youngest all the way to the oldest, had a fantastic time playing with our Magnatiles (that gift has been well-used!).

The littlest grandchild, ran from a dog (not ours - that would have terrified him thoroughly) and right into my arms when his family arrived. I loved those little snuggles. He's a total cutie pie!

His older sister performed some Irish dance for us in full costume. Bryce performed several of his drum covers for the whole gang. Another grandchild played part of her piano recital for us and Trevor made everyone laugh as he enthusiastically performed moves from his wrestling practices (when we erupted in laughter over his sprawl, he threatened to shoot anyone who laughed with his cap gun. Then he revised it to an offer to give a dollar to anyone who watched but didn't laugh).

I never know whether to be embarrassed about Trevor or just laugh along. He gets his talkative nature from me, so I can't really complain or fuss. Still, it was like he was on a sugar high when everyone arrived. He tried to get his 19 year old cousin in a half Nelson on the floor. Then, while seated around the table, he informed us of the four or five jobs he planned on getting (doctor, artist, snake scientist, etc.). I think someone wondered aloud if he would be able to find a wife, given that schedule. He responded by explaining that he plans to be hard on his wife. I was panicky, wondering what in the world he could possibly mean. He explained that he's going to make her have 13 kids, "like that show we watch." Ha! Watch out Duggars!

One of my favorite things about our time together was the playing of two fast-paced fun card games. For several years now, we have played Scum. Bryce even remembers it from the Christmas when Trevor was just a baby.

To play Scum, we draw cards to determine places. The highest card drawn becomes the president, next, the vice president, on down, with the two final chairs being for the assistant Scum and Scum. The cards are divided evenly, with the Scum having to take the largest pile. Next the Scum trades his two highest cards for the President's two lowest cards and the assistants both trade one card. The President leads and everyone must build piles until all the cards have been played and new places determined (with the first to go out being president, on down). It is a load of fun.

This year, they introduced me to the game of Spoons as well. This game works along the lines of musical chairs. If five people are playing, four spoons are placed on the middle of the table. Each player is given three chocolates (to represent their lives) and dealt four cards. The goal is to acquire four of a kind and then grab a spoon. The dealer begins drawing a card from the pile and determining whether it will be of use to him. He then passes it to the next player and continues to search for four of a kind. The fun comes when someone has grabbed a spoon and everyone must scramble to grab the others spoons, so that they don't lose a life. Apparently, the game played on the first evening (when I was off putting my little guys to bed) led to two individuals lunging under the table for a spoon. We're a competitive group. I was pleasantly surprised when John agreed to play with us, because he normally says, "I don't play games." I think even he had fun with it.

The kids were all able to go out sledding down our back yard hill. By the day when my youngest brother and family left (they usually stay the longest and our kids love hanging out with their kids), the snow was melting away quickly. My sister-in-law and I went out for a walk, with her dog (Harley was in the kennel up until the last day of their visit). We were hoping to work off some of the plentiful cookies and treats we had consumed.

I must say, as much as I enjoyed the visit, it was thoroughly exhausting to me. At times, I felt a need to withdraw because there was so much chaos and stimulation. After the walk, when the final family departed, I collapsed in bed for an hour. I was absolutely shattered.

We are convinced that something is clearly not right with me. Normal stresses seem to be magnified ten-fold to me. I don't even have enough energy for a normal walk. It is all very disconcerting.

Indeed, it led to some scary dreams last night. The dreams all had to do with normal unexpected changes in schedule or plans that completely threw me for a loop and I responded very poorly. At one point, I was trying to choke Trevor for lying to his teacher and coming home early from school. Another part of the dream had me heading to my room with a tie and plans to do myself in, but not a single person coming to check on me.

I must admit, I am quite horrified that suicide shows up in my dreams. Plus, I'm equally concerned about the way I seem to be declining in stamina. I'm not sure what is wrong (and haven't found a doctor who can remedy this).

Today, Trevor had wrestling practice this morning. As we headed to the van, he began to regale me with a list of stuff he wants next Christmas (good to plan ahead, right?). I told him the only thing I want for Christmas is my old self back. He said, "It's okay, Mommy. Did you know that when you get to heaven you get to have a new body?"

I told him that I knew that. In fact, I said, "it reminds me of that song:
'when we all get to Heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be,
when we all see Jesus,
we'll sing and shout the victory."

Trevor said, "That sounds like New Year's Eve."

I agreed and said, "yes, we'll be celebrating, but instead of celebrating a new year, we'll be celebrating a new body and eternity with Jesus."

It is comforting to think of John's dad in a new body (devoid of cancer, heart conditions or fatigue). Sounds pretty good to me! How about you?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: Angling Life

When I was a little girl, I used to go on fishing excursions with my dad and brothers. We would rise early in the morning (3 or 4 a.m.). I remember one time in particular when my grandmother had made a Ziploc baggie full of Chex mix for us to munch. We would climb in the car and promptly go back to sleep while my dad drove to Camp Mihaska, a Salvation Army camp in Missouri. Here is a brief video I found that shows where we fished (although, I remember it a bit differently).

One time, our fishing venture was a total wash. I remember that my dad decided to stop by a local fish hatchery on our way home. This was a place where they breed fish to stock ponds. Somehow my dad convinced the man to let us fish in the small runs teeming with trout. I think my dad paid for us to catch about four each. We caught those fish in record time. Best fishing trip ever (minus the exhilaration of actual challenge, of course).

While I have limited experience and passion for fishing, Captain Dan Keating is a professional. In his book, Angling Life: A Fisherman Reflects on Success, Failure and the Ultimate Catch, the author provides a romping tale of fishing adventures. However, this book is more than just a good fish story! It weaves the tales of fishing in order to reveal deeper truths about life and our spiritual quest. Indeed, it is a fisherman's apologetic.

I loved the inscription to his son Ethan, a challenge to listen to his life and to continue to live with passion. I loved the forward containing a brief story about a woman contemplating suicide who gets an unexpected break. This was a perfect introduction for a book about God "helping his children believe."

There is a sense of story throughout this book that captures you. Even though I am not a trained or skilled fisherman, I could completely relate to the struggles the author presents in the story of his life and his fishing adventures. Captain Keating's passion for fishing reminded me to examine my own passions for the fingerprints of God.

The book is also peppered with wonderful quotes from Thoreau and others. Here were two of my favorites (both Thoreau):

"Many go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after."

"A truly good book teaches me better than to read it; I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint; what I began by reading, I must finish by acting."

I loved Keating's analogy about people:

"Boats, like people, are created in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Some are rather fragile and best suited for shallow water. If they are caught offshore in an unexpected storm, the waves will quickly consume them. Some are designed to withstand long journeys into uncharted deep water ..."

I felt challenged by these words:

"Jesus doesn't want us to be distracted by the wind or waves, the loss of a job, a broken relationship, a dwindling savings account, or a difficult health challenge. He wants us to focus on Him. The foundation of every decision, of every act of obedience and repentance, of our love for God and neighbors, is all anchored by our confidence in Jesus. When you trust Jesus with your life, work, family, health, savings, sins, recreation, abilities, everything, there's no telling what God will do in your life. Who knows, you may even find yourself walking on water!"

If you know a person who is passionate about fishing, you might like to recommend this book. To learn more about this book and how you can order a copy today, check out the book's web-page or Captain Dan Keating's charter sport fishing site.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Review: The Memory Book

On the back cover of the audio version of this book, a blurb states that Penelope J. Stokes' best-selling novels tell inspirational tales of personal discovery. This sounded like my cup of tea. I really enjoyed listening to this book.

Phoebe Lange has just finished her graduate degree and is engaged to be married to a fine young man, an up and coming lawyer. For some reason, Phoebe has lingering doubts about what she should really do. She loves her fiance, but feels that he doesn't really know her and that if he did, he might not feel the same. In an attempt to sort out her feelings, Phoebe takes a break to return to the house of the grandmother who raised her.

While there, she discovers an old dusty memory book with photos and memories of a woman who bears her same name. The older Phoebe, her great-aunt, raised her younger brother until she died mysteriously in a car accident on the night of her high school graduation. As Phoebe investigates the book, she uncovers information about her own past and gains an opportunity for facing challenges that reveal her inner self and the source of her ultimate strength.

I will certainly keep my eye out for another Penelope Stokes book.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: The Perfect Love Song

This book was brand new at my library when I saw it in the browsing rack. I imagine I am the first patron to read it. Indeed, I feel a little guilty because I finished the book a few weeks back, but kept it on hand to write this review. I'm sure there are other library patrons out there who are looking for a pleasant, light holiday read.

While it wasn't quite as good as one of Karen Kingsbury's Red Glove books (my favorite holiday reads, I think), this was a tender little story about a girl, Kara, who is inspired by an old Irish lady to return to her first love, Jack ... the boy who grew up next door to her. Only now, Jack is a grown man and he and his brother, Jimmy, are part of a touring band. Plus, Jimmy has fallen in love with Kara's best friend, Charlotte. The brothers aren't exactly thrilled to return to their old home town because it brings up many unhappy memories of life with their alcoholic father.

Jimmy writes a love song for Charlotte. But when others hear it, they are convinced that it is "the perfect Christmas song." As the song gains popularity, Jimmy is tugged further and further away from the source of the song that may finally bring him the fame he has dreamed of.

The story culminates with a lead-up to Kara and Jack's wedding in Ireland. Will Jimmy continue to take on additional commitments to nurse his popularity or will he make it to Ireland in time for the wedding and reclaim the things that matter more than the success of his song?

I think my mother, who hopes to go to Ireland one of these days, would really enjoy this book. Plus, I have to be sure to copy one of the final pages, where the author shares a recipe for Emerald Isle Shortbread. It seems just the season to try such a recipe, no?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: Imperfect Birds

It has been about six and a half years since I first stumbled upon Anne Lamott. I remember sitting in the indoor pool in Arlington Heights, reading her famous writing tome, Bird by Bird, while Bryce swam. I was pregnant with my second son and happily settled in to reading after finishing my own laps. It was an awesome book, and I have contextualized it into my brain with the location where I read the book.

I will admit that I am not as big a fan of Lamott's fiction as I am of her non-fiction. But still, if she can write about the task of writing so brilliantly, I'm usually game to try one of her novels. This time around, I selected Imperfect Birds, because it dealt with a teen whose lies sabotage the lives of her family members. This seemed like perfect reading since I was working on a novel about a teen boy whose lies create havoc for the lives around him.

In Imperfect Birds, we are introduced first to the parents, Elizabeth (a recovering alcoholic) and James (a step-father). They want to believe the best of their daughter, Rosie, but are definitely struggling with navigating the tricky waters of parenting a teen. It was a very realistic portrayal of the dynamics at play in many parent-child relationships, where the child is keenly attuned to the weaknesses and needs of the parent. Elizabeth's desperate need for everyone to be happy fuels the perfect atmosphere for her daughter's ongoing deception and downward spiral into addictive destructiveness.

At times, it was almost too much, to read the nitty gritty of such troubled lives. I wanted to look away ... to not know how easily some teens acquire substances for consumption. I didn't want to peek in these windows. Yet, at the same time, I cried as the story unfolded and felt the mother's deep frustration and helplessness. Once the parents sent Rosie off to a wilderness rehabilitation facility, the novel began to enter into the restoration phase. Rosie had to face her own demons and Elizabeth began to see herself as separate from her child.

Although it won't go on my favorites of 2010 list, it was definitely worth the read. Plus, I think I benefited from reading a story about a teen while writing my own teen fiction. I only wish I had been able to review this when the book was more recently on my mind.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hallelujah - November is Over!

What a long arduous month this has turned out to be. I loved the Nanowrimo challenge, but it was a bit harder going this year than last year.

The first few days, I had a wonderful start. I was writing over 2000 words each day. It was going so well that I even asked a writing friend to read the manuscript (something the Nanowrimo people urge you to avoid). The writing was fun and not too stressful.

Then came a troublesome sinus infection. Still, I fought on.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the whole thing took a turn for the worse. I ended up wrapping up all the pieces of the puzzle too quickly and the novel seemed to limp to an end, well short of 50,000 words. (Last year, when I worked on my novel about the secret drawer, I wrote the full 50K goal without even getting to the climax of the story.)

Thankfully, I had an interview with a local police officer lined up for that Tuesday. When I left her office, I felt much better about the book. I had a few new wrinkles to weave into the story and more clarity as to when the story should take place. I needed to avoid the DNA expertise because it would solve the plot problems too quickly. I shifted the story back to the beginning of the 1980s (an easy time to set it in, since I was a teen back then).

However, all that shifting meant that I had to write in scenes that had been left out, shift other scenes to later in the book and revamp a character or two. The novel began to feel like a jumbled mess.

Thankfully, I managed to make the word count goal by 1 p.m. this afternoon and even wrote the final words of the novel. However, when I pasted the document into the word count submission box, it only attributed 49,906 words. What????

I wondered if the counter failed to count things in red (since this is what they suggest doing with comments you want to add to remind you to re-work something later). I figured this could be a real problem, since I had typed in the name "Town Drunk" in red every time his character came up - because I am still waiting for a lightning bolt from the heavens with the perfect name for this character. I went back and turned the red to black and it still refused to accept my word count.

I finally managed to tweak enough to have 50,261 words. The counter read it as 50,023 ... but I'll take it! I printed out the certificate and here is my fantastic winner's badge:

I am vowing not to let this manuscript sit neglected. My first order of business (after getting more sufficient sleep to fight off my wicked sinus infection) is to rework the manuscript to the point where I can send off a final installment to my writer friend (he's patiently waiting for more and says he is "intrigued" - a good sign). Then, I want to have the manuscript ready to send out to some possible publishers by February, just in case I get noticed in the Young Adult Novel contest I entered. It may not be the best novel ever written ... but it is not bad, and it is the first one where I've actually completed a rough draft. That's success, in my book!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Art of Dining Out Graciously

Tonight, we went out to dinner as a family. We expect difficulties to arise, because our smaller children tend to misbehave. I somewhat dread these little excursions because I never know how they will act. Still we go, because the kids will never learn proper social behavior without being introduced into society. Every time we take them out to eat, I view it as a lesson in comportment.

The climate was already a bit testy. Trevor had just gotten onto the computer to begin drawing an image he liked there. Bryce was chomping at the bit to go, since it was his favorite restaurant. Trevor begged for ten more minutes to draw. We explained he could draw when he returned home. That answer didn't satisfy him, so he began to complain. Hubby suggested I take the two other boys and he would remain home with the sullen boy. This managed to light a fire under Trevor's rear.

Once we arrived at the restaurant, we learned that it was packed. Almost every single table in the place was filled. We waited for a long time just to talk with the waiter. We planned to order water for the little boys, since last time they didn't really finish their milk. As I tried to place our orders, Trevor continually interrupted me. He was trying to tell the waiter that he would like his water to come in a grown-up cup, not the Styrofoam ones that come for children ... and he wanted a slice of lemon in it. I finally put my hand over his mouth and finished placing our order.

As soon as the waiter walked away, I whisked Trevor off to the bathroom. I emphasized that he is never to interrupt and is to allow the grown-ups to place the order without his help. He cried big crocodile tears. I assured him that I still loved him, but that what he had done was very rude and also difficult because the restaurant is full of people and the waiter cannot be bothered by his interruptions.

After he had calmed down, we returned to the table. At this point, another melt-down ensued. A Styrofoam cup sat in front of his seat, while across the table, his younger brother was sipping from a grown-up cup of water (no lemon). Trevor was incensed at the injustice of this and began to sob his question of why a 3 year old was given a grown-up water, but he wasn't. I quickly exchanged my water for his and tried to hush his loud emotional outburst. He wondered why we didn't get lemons when every other table had lemons in their water. All I could suggest was that every time I order there, I ask for a water without lemon and usually they forget and bring me one with lemon. This was the first time that I didn't make the request and ... wah-la! our water came without lemon.

From that point on, they did really well. At this particular restaurant, they know Dad will buy them a ring pop at the register if they have been well-behaved. Sadly, due to the interruptions, my order was incomplete and had to be fixed.

I overheard another jumbled order from the table behind me. The woman had ordered nachos supreme but instead of the beef, she wanted steak. She claimed that the waiter had assured her that she could get this substitution for the same $9.99 price. They had brought her nachos with beef. She sent the plate back. When the waiter came to inform her that he could not give her the nachos with steak at the same price, she snapped that she didn't want anything and that he should merely strike her order from the party's bill.

On the way home, I was remembering a friend I once had who was overly demanding (she had specific instructions and dragged me to three different places before her order was finally filled to her satisfaction - and I mentally determined that I would never eat out with her again). It struck me as arrogant that the issue of ice in her drink (it was something like that) was more important than whether or not I enjoyed the restaurant and wanted to stay there. In fact, I remember feeling that she seemed to be the only person who mattered in the equation of our dining experience.

Somehow, I hope I'm teaching my boys to be patient, flexible and accommodating ... and to never interrupt! But next time we eat at this restaurant, I think we'll leave the boys home and make it a date for two.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Climbers Ahead of Me

One of the things I have said I appreciate so much about Nanowrimo is the chance to watch others moving towards the same goal. It helps so much to see other writers breaking out in front of the pack and tackling the obstacles in pursuit of the peak. It is sort of like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and being able to see someone ahead of me, taking ahold of new ground. I can sing to myself, "Well, now ... they've made it, so I'm sure I can, too."

Tonight, this feeling was both tested and proved, but not in terms of my writing for Nanowrimo (which is going amazingly well even though I only know of one other writer in the pack and he is usually 1000 words behind me).

First off, I finally answered the phone when someone from Wheaton College called. They have been calling for the past week or so and usually I have to let it ring off because the distractions of my boys and bedtime don't allow for a 10 to 15 minute phone solicitation call. But, please don't misunderstand. I LOVE these calls from Wheaton.

Every year I get the chance to talk to a current student about my time at Wheaton (some of the very best years of my life). Plus, I genuinely care about the Fund Drive for Wheaton College. When I was attending school there, it would have been completely impossible for me to attend without financial assistance. My parents were Salvation Army officers with five children. They had no established college funds for us. I reaped the benefits of those Fund Drives all four years of my attendance at Wheaton.

The difficulty came when it got to the point of actual solicitation. The student suggested an amount of $250. She had already clarified our present employment situation (mine: NONE, husband's: part-time at an institution not likely to offer a matching grant or anything). I explained that, although I wish I could, there was no way I could pledge $250. She reduced this amount to $100 and tried again. When I stated an amount of $25, the same that I pledged last year (our situation being the same for the past four years), she urged me to increase it by 10 percent to $27.50. Hubby was already balking at my desire to give $25, so I had to hold firm at that level.

After I hung up, the discouragement set in. I wanted to be up ahead of the pack. I wanted to offer up the large sums and feel that surge of generosity in giving. I didn't want to be at the bottom of the mountain, still looking way up to the top and seeing loads of other climbers who have advanced far more than I have.

Indeed, my heart auto-piloted into self-pity mode. I began to despair that I really haven't made anything of worth out of this life of mine. Here I sit, biding time. Opportunities are all in the past and the future is merely a big blur. My mind kept repeating, "What do I have to show for my life?"

Thankfully, I didn't go to bed on that thought. Since I tackled most of my Nanowrimo writing this afternoon, while the boys were at afternoon preschool, I decided to skim through the news. I came across this touching story of a 38 year old man, Chad Arnold, whose 34 year old brother, Ryan, offered up a liver to extend Chad's life and ended up dying of cardiac arrest during the transplant operation. The story linked to Chad's blog.

I have spent almost an hour reading the words of their story, Chad's journey. His writing is full of nuggets of wisdom:

"If God were small enough to understand, He wouldn't be big enough to be worshipped." - Evelyn Underhill

"When we become so enshrouded with the awareness of just ourselves, we don't see the pain surrounding us and the opportunity to extend love, or at the very least kindness, to the mad world around us." - Chad

"In love's service, only the wounded soldiers can serve." - Thornton Wilder

"The result of the prayer, really, isn't the point. The lesson learned (or missed) is how we respond - humility and stewardship when we get what we want and total reliance on our Creator when we don't." - Chad

Chad's blog journal and his faith journey have brought me back to the point of inspiration. He's up there ahead of me. He's passing through some really difficult patches that I haven't even imagined plowing through yet, but he's hanging on and that inspires me to hang on as well.

Thank God for those climbers ahead of me who remind me to rely totally on my Creator, even when stumbling in the dark.

Book Review: The Sacred Romance

A while back, when I was reading Better Than my Dreams by Paula Rinehart, a friend of mine suggested Brent Curtis and John Eldredge's The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God. I was familiar with John Eldredge's name because my past counselor had talked about his book, Wild at Heart.

This book speaks to the heart yearning that all of us feel, a longing for transcendence, that desire for something more than we are experiencing. It calls us to recognize our lives as a love story where we are God's beloved and he is pursuing us relentlessly and hoping we will recognize Him despite the "arrows" that life aims at us. We have all been injured by arrows, but we must choose whether to remain in a shallow protective mode or jump into the depths by throwing ourselves entirely onto the love and provisions of God.

One of my favorite illustrations from the book, from Chapter 4, tells of the story of a Scottish discus thrower who made his own iron discus from a description in a book. What he didn't know was that the competition discus was wooden with a rim of iron. He made his entirely of iron. When time for the competition came, he out threw everyone. I hope to remember this illustration at times when I am looking over my life and comparing it to others, whose burdens seem to be lighter or more easily managed. The moral they proclaimed was: "Train under a great burden and you will be so far beyond the rest of the world that you will be untouchable."

So many of the questions and responses to God that the authors discuss resonated thoroughly with me. The grief-laden questions of "God, why did you allow this to happen to me? Why did you make me like this? What will you allow to happen next?" They go on to write, "In the secret places of our heart, we believe God is the One who did not protect us from these things..." so "like a lover who's been wronged, we guard our hearts against future disappointment." The authors clearly identified the source of this thinking. "Satan's greatest deception is to convince us that God's love isn't good ... that He is holding out on us."

Most of us, facing the heart's God-given hunger and life's disappointments, seek either anesthesia (dulling our senses, lowering our demands) or indulgence (addictive behaviors). But as Oswald Chambers observed, "There is only One Being who can satisfy the last aching abyss of the human heart, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ."

Another favorite quote from the authors: "How is God wooing us through flat tires, bounced checks, and rained-out picnics? What is he after as we face cancer, sexual struggles, and abandonment?" Their answer? "His wooing seems wild because he seeks to free our hearts from the attachments and addictions we've chosen, thanks to the Arrows we've known."

My goal, after reading this book, will be to constantly remind myself of the romance and the end of the story ... especially in moments when I am stuck in the middle and the end seems all too distant. I want to practice "redemptive remembering." As the authors conclude: "Redemptive remembering is where we develop a life script by interpreting the past, with both the Arrows and the Haunting, in a way that gives energy to the present and direction to the future."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writing with Mad Abandon

This will be a newsy post. No great thoughts. I will inundate you with photos and call it a night. Tonight I reached the 17,000 word mark in my novel. I have been aiming for 2000 words a day, but life has (as expected) gotten in the way.

To begin with, after a bold start out the gate (two days in a row with over 2000 words), Trevor awoke on November 3rd with a hideous rash around his left eye. He is prone to skin issues (ever since we moved here), but this was obviously something that the nurse would have sent him right back home for. Since he had only recently gotten over a bout of what our primary physician called a contact dermatitis, I decided to pull out the big guns and take him to a dermatologist.

The boy has a case of impetigo. Yee-haw! Suddenly, I was faced with two days of both little boys at home for the. entire. day. Yikes! That's hard on novel writing, let me tell you. These photos barely show the hideousness, but Trevor did want documentation. He has also been clamouring to start his own blog. I keep putting him off with, "maybe in December."

Bryce's drum instructor (a graduate student at Butler University) has been busy with end of semester concerts and such, so he has cancelled the past two Wednesday night lessons. Trevor was thrilled because it allowed him to attend Awana with a friend. The instructor made up the time with an hour long lesson this past Saturday, a day that just happened to coincide with the Monumental Marathon. The runners were expected to enter the Butler streets around 9 a.m., so we arrived 15 minutes before the 9 a.m. lesson and had no trouble parking.

The little boys and I went exploring. Exploring has been trumping reading almost every time because the campus is absolutely beautiful.

Their favorite thing to do is explore around the fountain and then climb the numerous steps up to a gigantic bell tower. This is a photo from a few weeks ago (hence the short sleeves) that shows the steps and bell tower:

This time, we actually encountered people on the high ropes course. It was fun to stand and watch them climb.

Leaving Butler wasn't quite as easy as arriving on Saturday. We were on campus and the race was proceeding on the road between campus and where we needed to go to return to the highway. For a while I drove right next to the runners. I hope I didn't slow any of them down (that would make for some unhappy runners). I know I feel discouraged when my writing gets slowed down by small boys.

Last night, I was up writing until a little past midnight. When I went to the Nanowrimo site to upload my word count (so that my widget there on the right stays current), I noticed a Nano blog. I have never investigated this before.

I skimmed through a few posts and then stumbled upon a post about a Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest. They indicated that the contest is open for entering between November 1st and 30th. To enter you must submit your title and the first 250 words of your novel. The first 100 entrants receive a copy of the judge's book on writing for young adults.

For some reason, as late as it was in the evening, I felt like if I sat on it, I might talk myself out of entering. So, I sent off my submission of novel title and first 250 words.

This morning, I was kicking myself. Instead of attempting to be among the first 100 (probably laughable, since it was already 8 days into the submission period), I should have honed my first 250 words more thoroughly. Still, I'm glad that I took a stab at it. It would be amazing to be among the top five entrants (these lucky few receive a one-on-one pitch session with an eminent agent and can have their novel reviewed by editors from major publishing houses).

I find it interesting that whenever I talk about my Nanowrimo experience, the first thing people ask is where my work is published. Then I have to explain that I'm not published yet. Humbling and motivating at the same time.

Still, just like last year, I'm feeling like my novel holds a great deal of promise. I am thoroughly enjoying the process (although some nights I begin with a desire to merely go to bed instead of forcing myself to write). The tone of this novel feels very different than last year's work. I'm guessing it is because I am plowing a lot more of myself into this manuscript. It is a very therapeutic venture!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: Made in the U.S.A.

I had such mixed feelings about this book. Many years ago, I read Billie Letts' Oprah Winfrey pick, Where the Heart Is, which told the story of a young girl who is abandoned while on a road trip and takes up temporary residence inside the local WalMart, where she delivers her baby, naming her America.

This was another book I chose because I could listen to it on longer drives. I must admit that I almost gave up on it after the first few tracks. But, I didn't have anything else to listen to and was due for another hour long stint in the car by myself, so I gave in and listened anyway.

Made in the U.S.A. tells the story of 15 year old Lutie McFee and her 11 year old brother, Fate. As the book opens, in another Walmart, Lutie is shoplifting a sweater when she is interrupted by her father's ex-girlfriend and legal guardian, Floy Satterfield. After Floy drops dead of a heart attack, right inside the Walmart, Lutie is determined that she and Fate will not go to foster care. They take off in Floy's car, heading for Las Vegas, in the hopes of finding their father (who had left a year ago and never responded to letters sent to his address).

I struggled with not wanting to spend time dwelling in the immoral activities and the seedier side of life that these kids encounter. For quite a while (especially while they were living on the streets in Las Vegas), I could barely tolerate listening to the story, despite a very engaging young narrator (Cassandra Morris) and the internal desire for something to finally work out for the two kids. Things continued to go from bad to worse. Eventually, Lutie makes arrangements to film a porn movie in order to secure the $600 the two would need for an apartment in the Paradise school district (where Fate hopes to attend a top notch new elementary school). She is robbed of this money and beaten almost beyond recognition. Finally, a savior (in the form of a homeless man named Juan Vargas) enters the scene and transports the two runaways to his home in Oklahoma, where his family runs a circus.

From the time the kids arrive in Oklahoma to the end of the book, it was as if the book was being redeemed. Juan Vargas has been running from his own demons and must confront his deep need for family. Lutie and Fate both discover their own redemption, of sorts, as well.

Recently, my blogging friend Amy discussed this dilemma as well. She wrote:

"A few weeks ago, I helped a library patron find a few books to take home. "I want something nice and cheery," she said. "Not sad or offensive. I don't understand why anyone wants to read anything about the awful things that happen in the world." I sent her on her merry, oblivious way with some gentle reads and a metaphorical eye roll. We read about awful things because by reading about them we can understand them without having to experience them. Or we read about them because we have experienced them and are searching for commonality, for someone else's experience to erase the loneliness of our own. We read about the ugly, dark things in the world so as to understand how people overcome them, so we can see courage in the face of trouble and hope set against despair. We read so our empathy may be doubled. Ignoring the awful things that happen doesn't make them go away. Ignorance make them more awful. Keeping the dark things in the dark gives them more power. Shining a light on them takes it away. Choosing to read brings that needed light."

Sometimes I totally understand that feeling of not wanting to read anything that is disturbing or unsettling. I get wanting to escape from the realities of this depraved world. However, the ending of a book often determines whether I feel the book was worth slogging through all the garbage in between.

In this case, I do feel glad to have read the book. By the final chapters, I was weeping as I listened to the raw emotions of Lutie dealing with her past losses and her difficulty in making life work. I felt invested in these motley characters, despite their bad choices and foul language. I wanted the best for them. Since this wasn't a Christian book, I didn't receive that "best" in the packaging of spiritual redemption. But, there was redemption and lessons were learned. The value of family was graphically elaborated. I felt edified and built up, despite the moments when I declared that I was "really hating the book I'm reading right now."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Frightfully Good Weekend

One of the boys' favorite activities, on Fall weekends, is to build a bonfire and roast marshmallows with their dad. Between that and rides on the go-kart in the meadow, these boys are happy campers!

Here are the boys on Sunday morning, just after we returned from church:

And here they are again, later last night:

I'm pretty sure they look almost exactly like they did last year. After buying the ninja costume for Trevor's birthday, he only wore it for his classroom party. Last night, he decided he would rather dress, again, as the grim reaper. It didn't really matter one way or the other, since, just like last year, both boys only lasted five minutes in their masks and ended up trick-or-treating without the masks. They were thrilled with their candy and I am determined to stay away from it.

As for Nanowrimo, I'm going to bite the bullet. I have no idea what I will work on, but any progress is better than no progress at all. So, goodbye October. Hello November and loads of writing!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

To Nano or Not to Nano, That is the Question

I keep see-sawing back and forth about this year's National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). It was such a good thing for me last year. Despite having written loads of things previously, it was the first time I accomplished 50,000 words on any one manuscript and the first time I continuously worked on something like that for almost 30 days in a row. The freedom to write without worrying about failing was exhilarating. The encouragement of watching my peers crank out the words (especially Cardiogirl, who totally kept me inspired by always keeping ahead of the pack) was tremendously motivating. Mostly, it was just a phenomenal thing for me to have a goal, a vision, and to be plugging away at it, instead of merely passing my days here in the barren wasteland.

So why, then, am I dragging my heels about participating in the Nanowrimo reindeer games this year?? I guess, primarily I am worried that I will not have the gumption to see it through. Lately, everything has become far more overwhelming than it should be.

Case in point, Trevor's classroom Halloween party. I have agonized over that darn thing for too many nights, waking and finding myself unable to go back to sleep because I was worried about whether things would turn out all right. I didn't want to end up paying for the whole thing, but also didn't want to collect money and then end up not requiring as much as people sent in.

I didn't want to plan too few things, in case we ran out of ideas or something failed and we needed a back-up plan. I wasn't sure about the snack. I didn't want the kids to take home another useless craft like a spider headband.

In the end, I clearly over-analyzed the whole deal and one other parent even boldly told me to my face that I had spent too much time thinking about the party. She agreed to man the craft station where 5 groups of 5 students came to make an ABC pattern beaded necklace. It was obviously too much for the students because when they made their way to my station, I could see that the students had only beaded half of the beads I had provided.

I barely survived manning my snack station. With each rotation of five students, I had ten minutes to dole out mini pizza crusts (that I had prepared the night before, making my own dough since only five parents ended up sending in money), spread a spoonful of sauce for those who wished it, hand out a slice of cheese (and help unwrap, since most of them struggled with this) and a toothpick, for them to carve their jack-o-lantern face pieces.

The Queasy Bake Oven did indeed eat most of the toppings and none of the kids seems all that excited about the oven (besides Trevor, who was sad that I wouldn't let him be one of the ones to bake his pizza in the oven). I'd say most of the kids had a shell-shocked look about them (but then, perhaps I did, as well). The girls seemed to wonder why the Easy-Bake Oven had a spider on it.

The other three stations seemed to have too much time. For games, the kids tossed bean-bags into a Halloween bucket. For a counting station, I had them guess how many candy corn filled the candy corn container and then guess how many popcorn kernels it would take to cover a ghost drawing. Finally, I asked the teacher to lead an erasing game (where the students were to erase items from the board after figuring out a rhyme). She must not have felt comfortable drawing the items on the white board, so she read the books that I had brought and told a Halloween participation story I had copied from the computer.

I'm sure in the end, the kids had a good time. I went home with a massive migraine and a general feeling of self-doubt (asking myself over and over again why this has become such a difficult thing for me to handle, when I handled parties and more, with ease, in the past).

And now, I am facing the question of Nanowrimo. The badge alone makes me want to join in. It has such a cool monkey (and I've always been a sucker for monkeys). It looks like it was made just for me ... just to make me want to participate.

I keep telling myself, "what is the worst that could happen?" So what if I tell the whole world that I am going to attempt to win the Nanowrimo challenge again, while knowing that I don't have nearly the steam built up for the whole process that I had last year, and end up falling on my face? In fact, how many people are even going to care whether I meet the goal this year or not?

As for me, it is probably better for me to have something to focus on than to have nothing to focus on. Indeed, my old counsellor has recently enlightened me to the fact that I choose to sleep in the "victim" tent.

There was a great deal of truth to his assessment. It is far easier for me to sit around and moan about how unfulfilling my life is and how much better off I'd be if I didn't have to live in this isolated house, constantly pulled every which direction by the needs of the four males who rely on my feminine care. I want, desperately, to be happy ... but seem to expect that happiness to come from somewhere outside of myself.

I need to address this. I need to figure out how to make myself happy. I need to learn how to meet my own needs. Perhaps, I do need to do Nanowrimo, after all. But, for tonight ... the jury is still out. I have one more day to decide, right?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Funny, Funny Boy

Last night we all dined out as a family. We have a favorite Mexican restaurant and the boys really look forward to a meal there. If Bryce could ignore Trevor's loud voice and antsy behavior, the family dinner out would be a totally marvelous experience. Usually, Bryce chooses to bait Trevor and then complain about every action Trevor makes that might draw attention to our table.

This past summer, we had a chance to visit some friends back in DeKalb. The girls, who were always big fans of Bryce and begged for Bryce stories whenever I would visit, decided to open the computer and play some old videos stored there. They brought up two or three featuring my colorful, silly, ridiculously animated oldest son back when he was 9 or 10.

He stared at those videos in utter disbelief. There was almost no convincing him that he actually starred in those videos ... that he used to behave in ways that others might find embarrassing. It was hard not to laugh uncontrollably, because he was hilarious. A lunatic, but hilarious!

Tonight, we were again trying to remind Bryce that he drew loads of attention to himself when he was Trevor's age and we attempted to eat out at restaurants. He still didn't believe it, choosing to focus merely on the fact that Trevor spilled his milk, talked loudly and took forever to eat his food.

As for me, it was delightful to have Trevor along (not so delightful to have the scorning teenager). He is such a funny boy.

There are large-screen televisions posted so that patrons may watch sports while eating their meal. The screen on the wall behind me was showing a soccer game.

Suddenly, Trevor said, "Look! Look! There are holograms on there."

I looked behind me and said, "Where?"

"See those bouncing soccer balls? They are holograms. See, they disappear after they bounce across the field for a while."

True enough, they did disappear. I turned and asked, "You're only six, so how do you know about holograms?"

He replied, "From Scooby-Doo" (with a thick "duh" inflection).

Then I said, "So what is a hologram?"

At this he looked at me and lowered his head. "I'm not gonna spill ALL my secrets in a public place."

I was practically rolling on the floor laughing. He is such a card. Too bad his older brother can't appreciate him for who he is.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Aching for the Best For and From my Offspring

I make no bones about the fact that it has been very hard for me to break in and find a place for myself here in this small rural community. Perhaps I came here assuming that I would quickly assimilate and blend right in. Perhaps I tried too hard to mold the new experiences to old ones I felt safe with in Illinois.

At the time, I did chalk much of the initial emotional difficulty up to my very round body. We arrived here in August and I delivered my youngest son in December. That first month was fraught with dizzying emotions.

The best example would have to be my initial experience with my oldest son's school. I received an e-mail requesting a donation of baked goods for the annual back-to-school teacher appreciation gathering. Somehow, in my head, I immediately likened it to a time held back in our old school for parents and students to gather and meet the teachers. In my head it was a beautiful cozy event for meeting and greeting, something I was ripe for.

It was due to start immediately following one of the first school days. I arrived twenty minutes early, bearing my gift of a loaf of banana chocolate chip bread and a tray of school bus shaped rice crispy treats (complete with mini Oreo wheels). I had given Bryce the heads-up that he didn't have to ride the bus home because he could ride home with me.

The tables were arrayed with an explosion of food - a good forty or fifty feet full of delectable treats. I stood off a ways, by myself, waiting for the festivities to get under way. It felt like everyone else there was sizing me up, wondering who in the world I was and why I was there. (John believes this was my imagination. I believe it was my perception.)

There was only one individual who came up and spoke to me. Ironically, she bore the same name as my previous supervisor when I worked at Littlejohn Elementary in DeKalb. I don't remember if it was the same exact name or merely the same surname, but for matters of anonymity, we'll call her "Muriel Schlurbenflibber." She was a para-educator. I was a para-educator. We both remarked on how curious it was that I should encounter someone with a unique name like Schlurbenflibber. She was pleasant and very friendly.

When my son arrived, he was dying to sample all the goodies. I reminded him that the teachers should go first (still not realizing the full understanding that this was an event orchestrated for the teachers and the teachers ALONE). Eventually, the woman who was in charge of organizing it asked me if I wanted to have my son wait in a side room. The light still didn't click on, sadly. She escorted him to a small room off the cafeteria and then took him a small plate of food.

As I stood at the end of the line and it began to finally dawn on me that there were no other parents or students arriving. I was MORTIFIED. It was as if a cartoon image of me were suddenly replaced with a cartoon image of a donkey braying. I hurried over to Bryce and told him we had to leave immediately. I cried the whole way home out of disappointment over the loss of opportunity for getting to know the teachers and out of embarrassment for my misunderstanding.

The rest of the year seemed to continue to roll down-hill. My first PTA meeting, not a single person spoke to me and at the close of the meeting, everyone merely turned to each other and began animatedly talking. I never went back, despite having paid my dues.

At every school related function, the only individual who ever spoke to me was Mrs. Schlurbenflibber. Her son was in the same grade level as mine. She was not originally from this small town, but had recently moved here when her husband was appointed as a local pastor. When I see Mrs. Schlurbenflibber, I smile and feel accepted.

When Sean made his appearance and our family life erupted in total chaos (how is it that a second child brings not much more than a ripple, but a third child ... when the two youngest are close in age ... feels like a tsunami hit?), Bryce began acting out at school. He was seeking attention from his peers. He was embellishing stories of his exploits. He was bringing harmful things to school (a lighter). Used to being a boy in the limelight, well known by everyone in a school where his mother worked, we figured he was desperately trying to assimilate to his new status as sole new kid in a small rural school.

We were frustrated. The school administrator was frustrated. We barrelled on, trying to help him find his way. The school administrator, on the other hand, black-balled my son. He told us that she would stop by his classroom and call him out to the hall and ask him what kind of trouble he was plotting. It broke my heart and seemed so unfair.

This was a fairly good kid (with a bundle of imagination and a strong desire to fit in), yet she was treating him as a potential felon. I wanted to shake her and say "Look, Miss, I worked in a school outside of Chicago. If you want to know what a true juvenile delinquent looks like, I can tell you. Would you like to hear about my student, Zeus (my husband always reminded me, "You let him know he's not GOD!")? He defaced a class bib the students were making for me, when instead of painting his name, he penned "Pimp Zeus" on the bib. "What???? That's my name!" he said, when accosted.

Thankfully, Bryce found his way. When he entered middle school, he was no longer the only new kid. The middle school merged two rural elementary schools. He began to strive for the best grades. His teachers had good things to say about him. When he got in a bit of trouble, he wasn't treated as if he had a stronger propensity for trouble than the next middle school boy.

He now has a whole host of friends and seems to have a very full social agenda. Last night, he went to a birthday party. He had secured a ride home from someone else and so I went out to lock the door after he returned home. He was full of animation as he began to tell me about their fun.

He was telling me about a football game they played where they were divided into teams of ten. The goal was to get a football all the way over to the blacktop of the other side.

"Oh, and sorry ... 'cuz I ripped my shirt," he turned to show me a rip in an Aeropostale shirt (the only kind of shirt you can wear, if you don't want to be considered a dweeb, he has informed me - although dweeb is probably the word I'm filling in).

"How did that happen?"

"Well, Hubert Schlurbenflibber was on the other team and I don't like him much ..."

"Oh, really?" I interject.


"Why's that?" I'm thinking ... "He's a good student from a good family, in the accelerated classes with Bryce, involved in sports..."

"No, 'cuz he's full of himself."

"And you're not, right?" I poke back.

"Well, Hubert has kind of a bad wrist ... like he sprained it or something ... and he grabbed onto to me and I flung him off and hurt his wrist."

"Oh, Bryce, you didn't!" I'm again MORTIFIED!

"Yeah, and he ripped my shirt as he tried to hang on."

Aye-yi-yi! I hate it when my child does something that I, then, feel guilty about. And something that might make Mrs. Schlurbenflibber less friendly towards me.

John suggested I give her a call to say we were wondering how the boy's wrist is doing and hoping that he's alright. I thought about making such a call several times today. I just never got around to it.

As much as I want others to treat my sons fairly, I also long for my sons to treat others fairly. The sad truth is ... I can't control either equation. Still, I think hubby is right. I should let the mother know that I am concerned about her son. After all, she's another mom aching for the best for her son.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Book Review: The Everafter

What a fascinating read! Amy Huntley's book, The Everafter, held me from beginning to end, even though the beginning was so odd and surreal. Madison Stanton is dead. She doesn't have a body. She doesn't remember who she was when living and she doesn't know how or when she died. She is in a dark void, surrounded by glowing objects that turn out to be items she had lost in life. When she discovers that by interacting with the objects she can return to her life, she begins putting together the pieces that led to her present state.

When I went to Amy Huntley's website, I discovered a paragraph that leads me to believe she is a kindred soul:

"On any given day you can find me book hopping between children's books and 19th Century British literature. Or between a great young adult novel and an adult spy thriller. A teacher of 18 years, I use my career as an excuse to read 100 or more books a year. After all, I'm just trying to put the 'right book in the right student's hands.'"

Even if we didn't share similar passions, she is an author I would recommend. I hope we'll be seeing more from this author who is definitely connected to the heart and voice of young people.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Review: Heart of the Matter

This summer I stumbled upon a new book review blog, Booking Mama. One of the books that sounded interesting was Emily Giffin's Heart of the Matter. The reviewer touted that this was one of her favorite Giffin books so far. I didn't read down to the details of the book, since I didn't want to read any spoiler information. I did skim through the book description (which is taken directly from the front cover).

It describes two women with little in common besides their love for their children. Tessa Russo is the wife of a plastic surgeon who has recently given up her career to stay home with their small children. Valerie Anderson is an attorney and a single mother to her six year old son, Charlie. A tragic accident "causes their lives to converge in ways no one could have imagined."

I was intrigued. I wanted to know how these different women would be brought together. What I didn't realize is that they weren't really brought together by the "tragic accident." Instead, the husband and single mother were brought together.

Although the characters were well fleshed out and the story did keep me reading, there were too many unsettling aspects to this book. At the outset, it felt like the entire first five chapters were riddled with cliches. Despite the fact that I could relate to the cliches (because they were centered on the angst and daily difficulties women face when they leave passionate employment behind in order to remain at home with demanding small children) it still felt formulaic.

She's a New York Times best-selling author and numerous people have favorable things to say about her work. However, this book just didn't really sit well with me. Readable? Yes. One I would want to read again? No.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Less Than Stellar

Two words come to mind to describe yesterday: inconvenience and irritation. Thankfully, I'm also rejoicing in the fact that we ALL made it to today, intact.

We started the day with a plumber's visit to attend to seriously sluggish drains and for a routine water heater flush and check. Of course, this ended in estimates given for a new water heater which we will most likely need to have installed (living in an old house seems to automatically infer numerous visits from various workmen and constant litanies of new expenses - then we get the extra visits, like tomorrow's scheduled appointment to have our cracked window replaced, yippee).

After ushering the plumber out the door, I rushed the boys to their afternoon school and returned home for a walk with the dog. It is far easier to walk without the dog, but I feel guilty leaving him in the house, in desperate need of the energy-release of a walk.

Of course, we never really take a walk. I say he takes me for a drag. He is convinced it is a race and I am always the loser. Yesterday, it was a typical start to our walk. Minus the requisite choke chain, I spend the first three blocks or so forcing Harley to sit and giving the command of "Walk." My husband cannot understand why this doesn't work for me. He says he merely jerks back on the lead and firmly says "Walk," and Harley walks. Too bad it doesn't work for me.

When I walk the dog (since we live in the country and it wouldn't be safe to walk along the busy country road), I walk a space up the road to a retirement/golfing community nearby. Lately, it has been bursting with beauty. I took this picture last week:

We had only gone a few blocks into the neighborhood when I was approached by a woman. She asked if she could interact with my dog. I tried to explain that I don't have very good control of him. Harley seemed to instinctively wish to give her a demonstration. He bolted right out of his collar and ran off, loping back towards us over and over. She helped me reign him back in and attempted to tighten his collar. I think she could tell that I am totally overwhelmed with this dog. She even offered to check around and see if someone she knows might be able to take Harley. I've gotten my hopes up for that before, so I inwardly reminded myself of reality.

As we finished the walk, walking along the edge of our property back to the house, I decided to take care of the most recent episode of country-bumpkin-trash-dumping. I have mentioned before how much this irritates me. Yesterday, I was beyond irritated. In fact, I stewed about it all day long and for a few hours of wakefulness in the middle of the night. I imagined the perfect purgatorial punishment for such offenders.

Someone, with an astounding lack of class or consideration, had chucked an entire Budweiser box out of their vehicle onto the grass along our oak orchard. Every single bottle (about 18, I'm guessing) had come out of the box and many of them had broken into tiny shards of glass. In addition, there were probably six or seven empty beer cans littering the same space.

Since the box was intact, I decided to pick up the glass shards and carry the mess back in the box to the curb for trash pickup. It was especially tedious work, given the fact that I still had Harley on his leash (John wondered aloud why I hadn't walked all the way back to the house, deposited him there and then returned to do the job). Holding the box from the underside, I began to walk back to our driveway, but mid-way there, the dog yanked on the leash and the box toppled over, spilling beer all down my sweats and requiring a second pick-up maneuver. I was fuming. I imagined attaching a motion-detecting device to take photos (of course, I do realize that it would snap a photo of every car that races by on this road, so that would be futile).

After showering, I attended Trevor's parent-teacher conference and picked the little boys up from school. I believed that Bryce had asked me to pick him up from wrestling practice at 4:10, so we departed around 4 p.m. We waited and waited and waited. They finally finished up at 5:10. By this point, Trevor and Sean had gotten to the bursting point and I had allowed them to get out and run up and down a nearby hill. Just as Bryce finally came out, Sean declared a need for the bathroom (just figures, doesn't it?).

We arrived home about the same time as Daddy and he offered to go outside to watch Trevor ride his bike for a bit. Not ten minutes later, Trevor came running in, quite upset. Apparently, his pants had gotten caught on the bike's chain. Unable to stop and not knowing what to do, he shot across the street and landed on the neighbor's meadow. John was in a state, as well, explaining that he could have been hit by a car (cars generally go about 50 mph on this road). The recognition of this fact registered with Trevor and he dissolved into a fit of tears.

The only thing that salvaged the day in any way was the fact that the parent-teacher conference had gone so well that I promised Trevor a Wendy's frosty as a reward. Once we got over the trauma of thinking about how this day could have ended our Trevor's life, I decided I would take all the boys for dinner at Wendy's while John exercised.

I'm so thankful for the guardian angels that work overtime on behalf of my boys!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Quesy Bake Fun

This year is the first year that I have signed on as a Room Parent. I prefer to be in a role where I play a supporting part. But after volunteering for this post, I discovered that I'm IT ... the sole parent in charge of the Fall and Spring classroom parties.

In the past, this really wouldn't have been a problem. I have loads of experience planning Halloween parties, since Bryce basically had a Halloween party every year from age 3 to age 9. It really began as a fluke. A friend had called to say that she was miscarrying her twin boys and needed to head to the hospital, but didn't want her young daughters to know what was going on (she had previously lost a baby that they had been aware of). I jumped into rescue mode and told her to tell them that I had invited them to an impromptu Halloween party. Those three kids had a wonderful time that day (although my friend, sadly didn't). We had so much fun that the following year, we decided to do it again ... and again ... and again.

So, really, planning this year's party for the Kindergarten class should feel like no big deal, right? Well, somehow it has been hanging over my head and filling me with dread. There are 25 students. I am not guaranteed any help (in fact, I only recently met two of the other parents at the Muffins for Mom event last week). The suggestion (from the Room Parent coordinator) was to send a letter requesting donations for the party.

I have been dragging my heels, not sure exactly what I want to do and loathe to ask for monetary amounts before I'm sure what I might be spending. Finally, today, I had a chance to talk with Trevor's teacher and share a few of my ideas.

I figure these kids are going to be loaded up with a sugar high the whole weekend, so I wanted to steer clear of snacks like cupcakes or sugary cookies. So, I came up with the brilliant plan to make Jack-O-Lantern pizzas using my oldest son's old Queasy Bake Oven.

The Queasy Bake Oven is a boy's dream. Bryce did have loads of fun (back in the day) preparing concoctions like Chocolate Crud Cake, Bugs 'n Worms, Delicious Dirt, Cool Drool and Crunchy Dog Bones. Of course, the extra mixes I had purchased for him eventually became outdated and now we merely have the oven.

I figured we could have the kindergartners rotate between five stations (like crafts, math activities, games, and the snack). When they came to the snack table, they would be given an English muffin topped with a thin layer of pizza sauce. They could select pepperoni eyes, cheesy mouths, green pepper warts, etc. Then, they could take turns baking their treat in the Queasy Bake Oven. The teacher also offered up her toaster oven, to speed things along.

So, tonight, I decided to give it a trial run with Trevor. I headed to the fridge to look for our English muffins. Alas, the last one had been eaten. No pepperoni either. No worries! I pulled out a package of square strip crescent roll dough (I usually use this for my Salmon Wellington recipe).

I prepared a Spinach/Mushroom Calzone for myself and used the third rectangle to cut out three circles (from the provided pans in the Queasy Bake Oven box). We baked the dough circles first for about 7 minutes and then I barely coated them with pizza sauce. I handed Trevor a piece of cheese and he cut out eyes and a jagged-tooth mouth.

The difficulty came when we attempted to slide the treat into the oven. The slot for the baking chamber is extremely narrow (in fact the pan depth is the size of one finger). Immediately, I could tell that pizza sauce and cheese were going to adhere to the insides of the oven.

We set the timer for two minutes and allowed the pizza to cook. After pushing the pan into the cooling chamber, we waited another two minutes. Trevor had the thing eaten before I had begun to cool Sean's pizza (for this one I merely cut eyes and mouth out of the cheese).

In the end, Trevor ate all three pizzas. The other boys had to have something else for dinner (they were otherwise-occupied, so weren't concerned). As far as he is concerned, we should certainly bring the oven to school and allow his friends to experience Queasy Bake Pizza.

I'm thinking we may have to stick with the toaster oven since the English muffins would be even thicker than the baked crescent roll dough. Perhaps I'd better come up with a different plan altogether ... waffles individually decorated by the kids with frosting faces???? I also have a feeling we'll be doing lots more Queasy cooking in this household in the coming months.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review: The Pleasing Hour

Whenever I have an appointment with the doctor who diagnosed my hypothyroidism, I have to drive 45 minutes (an hour and a half round trip). Thus, I ran into the library shortly before my last doctor appointment, hoping to select something quickly to listen to during the drive. I was hoping for another book in the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series.

Instead, I ended up picking up Lily King's The Pleasing Hour. From the very moment I began listening, I was bewitched. This author has an incredible skill for drawing characters. It felt as if I were being introduced to a painting and the author was shining a flashlight on each segment of the painting, one at a time, with each new revelation building on what was learned before. I found myself anxious to hear more of the story and discover more of the background.

The tale begins with a young girl, Rosie, who is arriving in Paris with hundreds of other girls to begin a new school-year shift working as an au pair (a fille - pronounced "fee"). Apparently, families in France bring in international girls each fall to begin a one-year stint in this nanny position. Rosie has come to Paris, not to work on her language skills, but to run away from an agonizing senior year and some intense personal pain. In the process, she struggles to keep up with the demanding mother and becomes keenly attached to the delightful daughter. Plus, she begins to uncover the secrets which drive the mother.

I will admit that half the fun of listening to this book was in hearing the narrator pronounce the French names and words (with names like Nicole - knee-cole, and Odile - o-deal, and Guillome - gee-ohm). It has such a pleasing lilt and I felt like I was right there in Paris watching the whole story take place. Still, I cannot praise this author enough for gently, gradually introducing each character and carving out their strengths and weaknesses, dishing up their past and revealing the secrets to their inner workings. For a first novel, this was remarkable.

I was desperately in love with the book, until I reached the final two cds. At that point, two characters veer off into a story line that I just couldn't appreciate. I'm not sure why authors feel a need to include sexual exploits in their novels. For me, it merely muddies the story.

Still, I absolutely loved the experience of listening to this novel and entering the world of Parisian au pairs. I will probably even check this one out again when I have a long car trip a few years down the line. The beginning was magical and I was swept away.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: Compelled to Write to You

I have always been a big fan of personal letters. Back in my high school days, I probably wrote between 5 and ten letters a week to various friends living around the country. It was always a tremendous thrill to get the mail and discover a response.

I can imagine how cool it would be to write to an author whose book touched you in some way and then receive not only a response to your letter, but the precious gift of a mutually stimulating correspondence relationship. That is exactly what happened to prompt the publication of the book Compelled to Write to You: Letters on Faith, Love, Service and Life.

Liz Mosbo was a 21 year old student at North Park College. When she read Christopher de Vinck's book, The Power of the Powerless, (a book about his mentally disabled and blind brother, Oliver, who lived in his bed for 32 years) she felt compelled to write to him. Amazingly, he felt compelled to write back and the book contains a year's worth of correspondence between the two.

The letters are truly thought-provoking and inspiring. I found myself identifying so strongly with Liz, despite being well beyond the stage of life she is dealing with. She is clearly trying to discern where to head with her life when there are many open doors and options and soul-longings to sift through. Her letters articulate the desire for ideals and significance.

Liz begins to explain some of her background as an explanation for her view of God. This paragraph, in particular, deeply resonated with me:

"I have never doubted God's existence.... I am not, however, what I call a "campy," peppy sort of Christian, someone who answers every problem and question with "God will take care of it." I could have easily been that way, not hearing people's real concerns because of my own ideas about God (emphasis mine); but I couldn't be because of the reality that I saw staining all those simple answers. Yes, God is in control of my mother's life, but why was she as an innocent child forever marred by abuse if God is always in control? Why, if God is in control, didn't God make my father's parents more loving and encouraging so that he would feel accepted? Why, if God is in control, are there so many problems in a church, even one filled with kind-hearted people? Why so many disagreements and resentments and anger? Why, if God is in control, do people I idolized at my Bible camp have children at seventeen and get divorced and fall away from their fiery faith? I almost threw out religion a couple of times in my life when I dealt with those issues, but instead was left with a more realistic, sustainable faith in the refining process, one that is hopefully based more on what God is trying to do in the world and not on the failures or successes of people."

Like Liz, my faith has been tested by doubts and confusion. Like Liz, I haven't chucked my faith, but I also respond in ways that are less simplistic. I am willing to sit with the doubts in the midst of declaring God to still be good.

I appreciated so many of the things Christopher de Vinck shared with her. At one point he reminds Liz that their friendship is a serendipitous gift. He says, "all, and I mean all, of the most wonderful things in my life have come to me unbidden ... gifts from God, really, and at just the right time. Think about this, Liz. There are people in this world whom you have not yet met but who will have a profound impact on your life. Isn't that exciting to think there are so many people who are just waiting for you?"

I found this idea tantalizing. I can't wait to meet those people whom God has waiting for me at some future junction in my life. It makes the loss of those meaningful relationships (like those I had with some of my colleagues and students in my former work) feel less sorrowful.

I also share his view of letter-writing. He writes, "We are losing each second the art or the impetus to have real correspondences with people. Something too: I like so much receiving mail and having the actual letter and signature of the person who writes. E-mail is so blank-looking with no signature, no feel for the paper or card chosen, no smell of ink. Also, a letter can linger on my desk for days or weeks before I answer it, and I feel comfortable with this because it allows me to write back when I have comfortable time and when I can focus specially on the person I am writing to."

How I would love to embark on a correspondence just like this one. One where each individual truly renders forth their soul and the exchange is even and mutually stimulating. I had just such a correspondence during my high school and college years. My deepest questions could be poured out, knowing full well I would receive a response that required equal thought and effort. I anxiously awaited the return letters and relished the idea of sitting down, of an evening, to pour out another "epistle," as I called them, because they were usually lengthy. Even today, I marvel at the blessings of that correspondence.

Finally, I was intrigued by this confession by Christopher: "I have had various experiences in my life when I fought God's plan for me, and that struggle placed me in near-depression. Each time, however, when I said yes to the path that was obvious, the pain and doubt were lifted."

I wondered if, perhaps, this is something of my own struggle. I wondered if maybe I am merely fighting God's plan to place me squarely in a spot of extreme loneliness, filling my days with meeting the needs of others and finding so little to bolster my own soul or my hunger for companionship. I truly was stuck on this page for a long time and still don't know whether I am fighting or submitting to what God has called me to.

To me, this is an identifying characteristic of an outstanding book, when you come away lingering over questions raised during the read. This was actually my second reading of this book. A few weeks back, I found myself using the words of the title, "compelled to write to you," in my own correspondence and it reminded me of the book, which I own. I located it and began to read it anew. It was interesting to contemplate how I drew different things from the book this time than I probably did in my last reading. There were things that I obviously was ripe for this time around. I am grateful to own the book, so that I may read it again ... a few years hence, and glean even more.

If you cannot lay hands on this book, you might wish to read Christopher de Vinck's brief essay about his brother, Oliver, or some of his essays at You could also visit Elizabeth M. Mosbo VerHage's blog. They both have great things to say and the wherewithal to say it well! As for me, I'm long overdue for locating a copy of Christopher de Vinck's powerful book, The Power of the Powerless.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Looking Forward to Hump Day

I am really enjoying Wednesdays. It doesn't even make sense, but it is the truth. I look forward to my hump day, but not because it means that the week is half over. My favorite days of the week don't fall on the weekend, but rather smack dab in the middle of the week.

I like Tuesdays and Thursdays because those are the days when both of my little boys go to afternoon school. Sean and I have a lazy morning. Then, I prepare their lunches and we head off to pick Trevor up from Kindergarten. We drive straight from there to drop Sean off at Parent's Day Out. Trevor's class doesn't start for another 45 minutes, so I have started taking him on little errands during that time. Then, I have my afternoon to myself (I try to walk the dog and get a bit of cleaning done).

But, Wednesdays hold special promise. On Wednesdays now, Bryce has a drum lesson with a graduate student at Butler University. It is a bit of a drive, and I wish it didn't fall right during rush-hour traffic, but it feels like such an adventure.

I usually prepare the Broccoli Casserole ahead of time and pop it in the fridge. John is able to return from work and exercise in quiet. Then, he heats our casserole and prepares something simple for the boys (canned mini-ravioli and fruit, this evening).

Today, we arrived at Butler a bit early (after Bryce argued intensely that we wouldn't be late, while I yelled at him to hurry up, fearing the traffic). Sean had fallen asleep and I didn't want him to waken yet, so we drove around the campus. It is such a lovely campus. We discovered a little nook that I promised we would explore another day (today, I am battling a fierce head-cold and, without a shower, was looking as frightful as I felt).

Once we drop Bryce off at Lilly Hall, I drive to find a parking spot. Then, I let the boys get out of their seats and we listen to books. In the past, we have always brought books on tape or CD from the library (last week it was The Composer is Dead). Today, I didn't feel up to a trip to the library, so I merely loaded up five books and I read aloud.

I love this time, reading to them. Indeed, they are a captive audience. O.K., well, not completely. Trevor tends to get antsy. Sean never even bothers to get out of his seat. Today, Trevor sprawled across the dashboard. I told him people were probably thinking he was insane, when they walked past our vehicle. But, as long as he listens, I don't mind his need to stretch and amuse himself. He even read a few of the pages from the books today.

It isn't always perfectly rosy. Bryce usually drums the entire drive to and fro (on the back of the passenger seat, incessantly). Often, they fight. Bryce will announce the "Quiet Game," and then bait Trevor into talking so that he can shoot off, "ah, you lost!" Trevor then dissolves into tears. No matter how many times I try to remind Trevor to ignore his brother's words, he gets sucked in every time.

Tonight, when they started to bicker, I merely ordered silence and turned on the radio. Even with the chaos, though, I have to say I enjoy our Wednesday routine. It is good to spend the time with all three of the boys. It is good to have that time to look forward to. Last week, Trevor even commented, "This is OUR time, isn't it?"

Yes, it is, and I'm loving it!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mary Poppins

Back in June, when my parents came for a visit, they raved about "Mary Poppins." My father had surprised my mother with tickets to the show and they were so blown away by the performance that they purchased the DVD. They showed us the incredible footage where Mary Poppins flies out over the heads of the audience and where Bert walks the walls and ceiling.

A few months back, I received a Groupon notification of a substantial savings on tickets to "Mary Poppins." I didn't even bother asking hubby's permission. I just snatched up two tickets right away. Now, I am a bit skeptical as to whether I really, in fact, saved money with Groupon or not. The tickets themselves listed a price that was far lower than what I paid (despite the fact that they were touted as being a 40% savings). Plus, a woman seated next to me (who also snagged the Groupon "deal" stated that she received an e-mail from the theater itself stating a lowering of prices for the show, far lower than the price we paid. Hmphh!

Since my husband didn't seem to care one way or the other, I decided to take Trevor. I reminded him about the You Tube clips we had watched of Bert walking the walls and ceiling. We even watched our Disney tape of "Mary Poppins" last week.

Yet, yesterday morning, Trevor said, "So, tonight we go to Harry Potter, right?"

"Um, no .... Mary Poppins."

I was, frankly, quite worried that he would not sit still for the performance. It was two hours and forty-five minutes long (including the 15 minute intermission).

He did fairly well. We were seated next to a brave woman who had brought five young girls (around 8 or 9 years old) with her. At times, these girls were as antsy as Trevor. Mostly, he just kept asking when Bert was going to walk on the walls.

For my part, it was absolutely amazing. The thing that really struck me about the performance was the contrasting atmospheres of the stage props. During many scenes, the stage was almost black. But during the scenes where they enter the park, the color literally exploded across the stage. I don't know how they managed to make it seem so incredibly bright. They eye was assaulted with too many things to take in. The dancing was vibrant and colorful.

I loved the house on Cherry Tree Lane. It was like a small doll's house, opening to reveal different sections of the house where the action took place.

I also loved the bits of humor sprinkled throughout. My favorite line of all was when the head servant (cook) said something like "The slaves in ancient Rome were on a luxury cruise compared to the role I play in this house!"

We had a wonderful time. Trevor loved the city. He kept remarking about how much he liked looking up at the tall, lit-up buildings. He felt grown up to be out at night in the city with me. But, he clearly realized it was past his bed-time. During the second half, he even told me he just wanted to go home and go to bed.

As we were driving home, and Trevor was dozing off, I was pulled over by a police officer. Apparently, I had just made an illegal left turn, right in front of him. I was just wanting to get home. I explained that we had come from "Mary Poppins" and I was following a Mapquest map to get home. Thank goodness for those Mapquest pages. I think they saved me from a ticket.

It was a wonderful night. One that I am sure both Trevor and I will remember for a long time to come.