Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: The Glass Castle

I'm not sure where I heard about this book, but when I saw it among the books at the free library at camp, I snatched it up.  It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list.  Plus, the front cover is filled with accolades from various publications.

The Glass Castle is a memoir of the extraordinarily wild upbringing of the Walls children.  Jeannette Walls manages to keep the reader riveted to the page as she recounts episode after episode of complete and utter family dysfunction.  I agree with The Cleveland Plain Dealer in their assertion that "each memory is more incredible than the last."  Indeed, some of the earlier episodes seemed downright unbelievable, in part because the precociousness of dialogue coming from these young children and in part because the parents' behavior and reactions seem untenable.

It was inspiring to read of the author's triumph in the face of such a bad beginning (sleeping in cardboard boxes, scrounging the trash for something to eat).  With an idealistic, irresponsible, alcoholic father and a dreamy, artistic, depressed mother, it is amazing that each of the children in this family go on to survive their incredible upbringing.  The title of the book comes from a dream of the author's father, to build a glass castle, which never comes to fruition.  The children are dragged along from one hovel to another, starving for food and ostracized by classmates.  But each child manages to break free from this crazy family (most before they've even finished school) and move to New York, where they find jobs and establish functional lives for themselves.  The mother and father eventually head to New York to rejoin their children and end up living on the streets for years by choice.

This book was highly engaging.  The storytelling was superb (if unbelievable, at times).  I discovered that Jeannette Walls has also written another book about her family life, called Half-Broke Horses.  While The Glass Castle revealed quite a bit about her father's underachieving life due to alcoholism, the next book focuses on her intelligent, capable mother (and her mother's mother) and her background.  I will have to look for that book, as well.  Interesting reading.  Great story of triumph over adversity.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bizarre Life-Threatening Experience

Tuesday night, I kissed the ground when I returned home from picking up my oldest son, Bryce, from his football practice.  I also kissed my husband and sons.  Then I proceeded to tell them why Bryce and I were lucky to be alive.

As I pulled out of the school parking lot onto the county road where the speed limit is 55 mph, I noticed a black SUV approaching in my rear-view mirror like a bat out of hell.  The vehicle then began to weave back and forth across both lanes.  I declared aloud to Bryce, "There's a drunk behind us and he's going to kill us if we don't get away from him."  I began speeding, but the guy was going above the speed limit as well.  We watched as he drove off the side into the grass and assumed that he might flip his vehicle or crash, but he didn't.  He merely swerved back onto the road and into the other lane.  I continued to speed up until I approached a white truck.  I had to make a quick decision and I decided to pass him in order to get away from this lunatic driver.  I barely made it around him because there was a car coming in the opposite direction (I'm pretty sure I was in a no-passing zone, but getting away was my primary focus at that point).  When I sped up enough, Bryce told me to turn off at the next intersection.  I did and my heart was beating out of my chest.

We still don't know whatever happened to the white truck that had then been in front of the lunatic.  We got back on the country road and proceeded home, wondering aloud about where the crazy man was.  Eventually, we saw him again.  This time he was on the grass beyond the other side of the roadway and his vehicle leaped in the air as he bumped along and then back onto the road.  There were other vehicles there, but he weaved between them.  As we got closer, a large dump truck crossed our lane and turned around in a grassy field on our side of the road.  He got back on driving in the direction of the main strip of our little town, where the speed limit is only 30 mph and the lunatic was sure to injure or kill someone.  We discovered that the truck had turned because of an accident (no surprise).  The erratic driver was nowhere in sight (must have driven on), but there was a blue pick-up truck with the back end smashed and the rear tire completely off on the ground.  Someone was running to the driver, who appeared to be uninjured.

At that point, we turned to go another direction home, to get away from the immanent traffic jam.  As we drove, a police car came speeding towards the scene of the accident.  We still don't know if the deranged lunatic ended up killing someone or not.

I shook for a good long hour after returning home and could not get the images of our near-death experience out of my mind.  It was like the driver thought he was in a video game and could swerve and weave and dodge traffic with impunity.  Every time I get in the car now, I feel traumatized, wondering if others will stay on their side of the road.  Still, as my husband said, we're "lucky to have been in front of the guy instead of on the opposite side of the road."  What a wild experience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Unsettling School Sentiments

We've been back to school for a little over two weeks now.  The house is so quiet during the day.  I am able to walk a mile and a half each morning, run errands alone, and fit in great chunks of writing time.  It has been a blessing.

If only I felt the boys were equally blessed by school.  Bryce is doing very well.  In fact, he and I went out to Dairy Queen to celebrate last night because he scored the only perfect score on the first difficult AP Chemistry exam.  The class average was 51%.  He says he hasn't missed a single point in any class so far.  Yay, Bryce.

It is the little boys who concern me.  They just don't seem to be enjoying school.  In fact, it has become a source of stress for them.  Trevor is back to praying every night, "and please help me to have a good day at school tomorrow and not to forget anything" (this was a constant from last year).  Sean says he hates school because all it is is work and more work.  He outlined his daily schedule as "work, work, carpet time, work, work, work, lunchtime, recess, work, work, carpet time, work work."  He has said the only thing he likes is recess.

Of course, this was how Bryce was.  He used to always say his favorite class was P.E.  However, he never seemed uptight about the requirements of school.  Trevor tells Sean he should be glad he's not in second grade because they have so many rules, like they can't get out of their seats without raising their hand and asking permission and they have to remember to push in their chairs and one of his teachers (he is in a team teaching situation) yells at them.

Yesterday, Sean met me at the door with eagerness.  He wanted to show me a particular paper out of the mass of worksheets he comes home with.  He held it up in his little hands and said, "Didn't I do a good job on this?"  I was all ready to tell him he did fine, when I noticed a post-it note affixed to the paper.  It read: "Sean says that you say 'Good Job' when he brings home a paper like this.  I think he can do better" and was signed by the teacher.

How to respond to that?  On the one hand, I want Sean to do his very best work.  On the other hand, Sean doesn't have the hand-eye coordination that Trevor has.  He finds it difficult to stay in the lines, and well ... yes, he does just want to get the work over with.  Then again, how important is it that he churn out diligently colored horses?

Here his class is working on the numbers one to four, while Sean can already count well past 100, knows what a googol is, understands negative numbers and can add and subtract right alongside his second grade brother.  But he is called out for coloring outside the lines on two horses. Trevor is more artistic than any other second grader around, yet last year he was chastised for drawing on the sides of his assignments.  I begin to feel like my children aren't being seen for who they are and the wonderful gifts and abilities they have been given.  Instead, they are being forced into a cookie-cutter mold of discipline and structure.

Perhaps I don't provide them with enough discipline and structure, but it seems to me that school should be something a child looks forward to.  Learning should be fun so that children want to spend even more time learning on their own.

I don't know what I can do to make this a more positive experience for them.  Maybe I can't do anything.  Maybe this is just going to be a source of stress and discomfort for them.  Life is full of stress and discomfort.  That, too, is a life-lesson.

When Bryce was in the elementary years, he was basically the top banana in a school system that taught to the lowest common denominator.  The question is:  would you rather your child be the top banana in a school system that teaches to the lowest common denominator or would you rather your child be a mediocre student in a school system that stresses academic excellence and discipline?  I suppose I don't want either.  I just want my bright, intelligent sons to be seen for their strengths and to be treated in a positive manner.  I want them to look forward to the school day. Is that asking too much?

Update:  I'm feeling much better about the school situation.  See this more recent post concerning their teachers.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Father Knows Less

The concept behind this book was intriguing.  Author Wendell Jamieson took the questions of his young son (and other children) and sought the answers from experts.  I found this book while searching for books about raising sons.  Although it wasn't directly about the parenting process, I thought it might be interesting to read the questions of young boys and figured that some of them might be questions my own sons might ask.

Sadly, I wasn't impressed with this book.  The jacket promised "hilarious questions and answers" and "a heartwarming exploration of that childlike curiosity that lives within us all."  Initially, the questions were interesting: "Why is the highway so loud? Why is the sky blue? How far up can my balloon go before it pops?"  It was, indeed, full of the kinds of questions my boys tend to ask, like: "What would hurt more- getting run over by a car or getting stung by a jellyfish?" and "Why do your hands and feet get wrinkly in the tub, and not the rest of you?"  And there was even a question I've asked: "Why is noon p.m. instead of a.m., since it has been a.m. right up to twelve o'clock?"  But there were also questions which seemed unnecessary, like "Is George Bush evil?" and "What is porn?" and "What does 'sexy' mean?" and "Do large animals need help to have sex?"

Plus, it just seemed like the book was trying, unsuccessfully, to be funny.  I found myself wishing it had been written by Bill Bryson, who could have pulled off the "funny" aspect.  Still, I kept reading, didn't I?  So, I suppose it had some pull to it.  The personal essay introductions to the questions were easy reading and interesting enough to keep my attention.  But, my overall response to the book was just "meh."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Tell the Wolves I'm Home

This was a wonderfully engaging first book by Carol Rifka Brunt.  I'm always amazed by authors who can pack so much power into a first book.  I would probably be the writer whose writing requires several novels before it packs the kind of punch this first novel holds.

June Elbus is fourteen years old and about to experience one of the most profound losses, the death of a beloved relative.  Junie's uncle Finn was her godfather, but also her best friend.  He understood her more than anyone else and she is shattered by his death.  While grappling with her profound grief, she receives a package from a special friend of Finn's, containing the beautiful teapot Finn always used when Junie and her sister visited to sit for a portrait he was painting.  The gift of this teapot triggers an unlikely (unacceptable even, in the eyes of her family) friendship.  June discovers someone who loved Finn as much as she had and who holds secrets she never expected.

The story read like unwrapping a special package.  With each layer of exposure, the gift became more profound. I loved how June grew and was nurtured by the compassion of another.  I loved how Finn's portrait played a significant role in the unfolding of the story.  I enjoyed watching Junie change and grow both in her understanding of her world and her ability to love and restore hope for another individual.  Because the story takes place in 1987, there were many references which made my heart smile in recognition.

Although the story line involves homosexuality, the plot was not driven by this element.  Indeed the story was central and the homosexual relationship was merely part of the tension which led June into herself and into maturity.  Although I know this book will not be for everyone, I was touched by it.  I appreciated the characters, the pacing, the tensions and the redemptive resolution.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: Wintergirls

I must thank my blogging friend, Amy, for introducing me to the great young adult fiction of Laurie Halse Anderson.  A year ago, I read her best-selling novel, Speak.  It powerfully moved me.

In Wintergirls, Anderson once again takes on issues pertinent to today's young women.  This time her main character is struggling with anorexia.  I was worried that the book would turn out to be a real downer and depress me, but I found myself transfixed.  I couldn't stop reading.  I started one day and finished the next.

Lia and Cassie were best friends who had made a pact to be the thinnest girls in school.  But now Cassie is dead and Lia is haunted by the knowledge that Cassie tried to call her 33 times on the night of her death.  Grappling with feelings of loss, grief and guilt, Cassie begins to plummet into her own personal nightmare, taunted by the ghost of her dead friend and her dead friend's secrets and driven to maintain a semblance of control over her body that nobody else understands or appreciates.

The book reels the reader into every fractured relationship in Lia's life.  Anderson's skill at character development is sublime.  With every page, I felt more invested in the life of this poor, struggling girl.  I felt her alienation and sense of being lost.  I cried as things spiralled more and more out of control, wounding Cassie and those around her.

This book will certainly be a big hit with middle and high school girls.  While it is not an easy book to read, (the subject matter is intense) it is valuable. My experience with individuals who struggle with anorexia and bulimia has been minimal.  I've known two, but only in the most peripheral way and more after the fact than in the midst of the struggle.  Now, my heart goes out to the many young women who are out there suffering in silence.  I hope this book is a tremendous help to the women caught in this whirlpool of self-delusion.  I hope they are able to find a way out to a more forgiving, embracing view of their bodies.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Book Review: Boys Should Be Boys

I've been feeling convicted that since my blog is about books and boys, I really should be reading more books about parenting boys.  So, I checked out the library holdings at my library, a neighboring library and my mother-in-law's library.  I made a list and I'll be trying to check off several of these books in the near future.

For now, I read Dr. Meg Meeker's fine book, Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons.  This was an outstanding book on raising boys, better than many of the other "raising boys" books I have read.  For one thing, it included God in the equation.

My response to the book was a combination of confidence and conviction.  Dr. Meeker makes it simple and clear that the most important thing your son needs is YOU.  In that, I feel like I am doing an adequate job raising my boy brood.  I am there for all three of them in the ways that they need.  There were many areas where I felt I could pat myself on the back.  I have wonderful communication with my teenage son.  There is no friction between us and I am grateful to God for that.  He is very open with us and we work through issues fairly well. 

There are only two areas where I would desire better from my oldest son.  The first is in his woefully low level of empathy.  I'm not sure this is just a boy thing.  I think it is perhaps just a Bryce thing.  He doesn't genuinely care for the needs and feelings of others.  The second area I would love to see improve is in his relationship with Trevor.  He doesn't pick on Sean at all, but he picks on Trevor mercilessly.  When Trevor continues to lick his lips (I have mentioned his lip licker's dermatitis issues which we have been battling since April and also for a stretch back when he was four), Bryce is convinced that he can harass Trevor into stopping.  Those are the two things I have long felt concern over with Bryce.

But, there were plenty of other areas of this book, where I felt that I fall far too short.  She is adamant about how our boys need far less computer and television time.  I fail miserably in this area (as my mother-in-law is quick to point out when she visits and sees them at the computer instead of reading).  I understand and agree that they are confronted with a hostile world from these sources.  I want to do better, but when push comes to shove, I cannot seem to extricate them from the technological toys they enjoy.  My younger boys do enjoy being read to, but it is still an effort to pull them away from the computer when it comes time to read.  I feel that I need to offer far more incentives for spending time in good books and in spirited outdoor play.  It is probably laziness on my part, because pulling them away from their favored activities is work and painful work at that, usually.

I also worry that I have not instilled enough strong character into my sons.  My husband reads a wonderful set of books to the little boys called Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.   We have two volumes of these fantastic books and they provide excellent opportunities for my husband to discuss virtues and character.  We didn't have those books when Bryce was in his formative years.

As I read Dr. Meeker's words, encouraging the intentional building of character in sons, I worried that I haven't done a good enough job instilling character in Bryce.  For these last two years that we have Bryce with us (prior to college), the poor kid is probably going to be beaten over the head with these virtue and character instructions that I feel I need to give to make up for lost time.  Today, he and I went to the hair salon and it was crowded (13 people on the waiting list and only one chair available in the waiting area).  A woman entered with two small children.  I motioned to Bryce to stand up and give her his chair.  Before he could figure out what I was implying (he thought I meant he should stand up to go get his hair cut), the woman sat in the one available chair and her two little ones dropped to the floor to play with a bin of toys.  On the way home, I explained that it would have been honorable to give up his chair so the woman could sit down with her children.

Anyway, back to the book.  This is one of the better books concerning parenting of sons.   Dr. Meeker recognizes the challenges and obstacles boys encounter in today's world and she rallies for their enrichment and toughening.  She wants boys to be encouraged to grow into fine men, to be held to high standards and to be schooled in what it means to be strong for the role they will take on as men.

She provides a few helpful, concise lists.  The seven secrets to raising healthy boys? - Encourage your son - Understand what he needs - Send him outdoors - Provide rules - Encourage virtue - Teach him about the big questions of life - Remember that the most important person in his life is YOU.

Ten basic principles successful parents follow:  1) Know that you change his world. 2) Raise him from the inside out. 3) Help his masculinity explode. 4) Help him find purpose and passion. 5) Teach him to serve. 6) Insist on self-respect. 7) Persevere. 8) Be his hero. 9) Watch, then watch again. 10) Give him the best of yourself.

I feel challenged to do better as a parent of boys.  I sincerely want to raise great men ... men who love God, serve others, and fulfill their life's calling.  I don't want to offer up my sons to the mainstream media to raise.  I want to be intentional about instilling character and virtue in their lives.  And, most of all, I want to give them back to God, knowing that He wants even better for them than I do.  In reality, I'm not enough to raise them to be the men they need to be.  I'll need His help and the help of others, for sure.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Best of CBLI 2012

Another blessed time at CBLI has come and gone for us.  We had a truly wonderful time.  My back healed up and didn't give me a bit of trouble.  Trevor assisted in carrying the one heavy item I had to unload (an under-the-bed box, which we discovered early on in our CBLI ventures to be a great tool for storing clothes in the cabins easily and out of sight).

We did, indeed, listen to Mercy Watson (Sean requested it often) and Tale of Despereaux (at Trevor's request).  It was a great tool for keeping the boys quieter during the evenings, when we would come back and have a small snack before brushing teeth and heading to bed.  Keeping them quiet was actually quite a challenge this year.  We were in a larger cabin, Goldfinch, which had a room for them (with two sets of bunk beds) and a room for me and a front sitting room with a small table, couch and chair.  I attempted to keep them in the front room or bathroom as opposed to the bedroom areas because the walls were paper-thin and these were the only two rooms which didn't border another unit.  The first night, I was kept awake for a bit by our neighbors who talked into the night and then awoken at 3 a.m. by their coughing baby (I could have sworn that baby had croup - I know the sound of croup, thanks to Sean).  However, they really weren't a problem after the first night, when they must have realized how easily sound carries in this particular adjoining set of cabins.  Instead, WE were the problem.

Wednesday morning, as I was coming out of the bathroom after my shower, I heard the Dad yell loudly, "Thanks for waking up my children!"  When I asked the boys what they had been doing while I was in the shower, they explained that they had been tossing Trevor's water bottle around.  It must have hit their wall and woken their two quiet girls (I believe parents with girls will never understand the boisterous nature of boys).  I felt horrible.  This was the one morning where families were allowed to sleep in and we had woken them at 7:30.

Actually, our internal clocks (set to Indianapolis' Eastern time zone) were greatly appreciated.  It made getting the boys up to bed after the evening program fairly easy, since by the time they went to bed each night it was 10:30 Eastern time.  Plus, we never missed breakfast once.  They tended to wake at 7:15 each morning (Central time) and breakfast is one of the best meals at camp (waffles, omelets, french toast sticks, bacon and eggs, etc).

We tried to stay out of the cabin during the afternoon free-time (I assumed that the neighbors' 2 and 4 year old girls would be napping during that time).  The very first day, we drove into town and purchased ice for our cooler and worms for our fishing.  We headed down to the pier and found our good friend, Todd, already there fishing.  On Trevor's first cast, he brought in a 19 inch large-mouth bass.  Todd exclaimed, "Hey, that's the fish I've been fishing for all day!"  Todd helped him get it off the hook and then snapped a photo on his cell phone.  Sadly, when he tried to send me the photo it didn't go through.  Man, I wish I had a photo of that fish.  It was enormous.  We know that it was 19 inches because there is always a "Biggest fish" competition (Trevor won first place with that fish) and we were able to measure his shirt (in the photo, the fish went from the neck of his shirt to the bottom).  Both boys caught loads of blue gill and a couple other medium sized fish.  Sean was eager to catch something similar to his brother, so every time he'd bring up another blue gill, he'd exclaim, "Not another stupid blue gill!  I want to catch a bass!"  Since camp, Trevor has spent every spare moment of computer time looking at videos of people catching large fish. Plus, he's been working on a book of drawings of small, medium and large fish.

We only went to the zip line once this time around.  Last year, it seemed like we spent many free-times there.  This year, they just felt more like fishing than zipping.  They also were eager to spend their free time with two little friends they had made at camp, Bramwell and Jonas (two brothers who were 5 and 6).  Every day, I had to try to put them off because they wanted to go knock on Bram and Jonas' door to hang out.  The boys have a baby brother, who was, no doubt, napping.

The little free library which my friend, Cheryl, put together was fabulous.  We brought about 15 books to contribute.  Since we were one of the first customers, we were able to get a tote bag and 5 books to take with us.  I thought I found some interesting books, including one for the boys.

Trevor seemed really excited about his class this year (the theme was pirates) and even found some Christian music he likes ... a group called "Go Fish." Ha!  Sean, on the other hand, was not very enthused about his classes.  Every day he repeated over and over again, "Come pick me up as soon as you can.  Be the first person there for pick-up!"  He would ask how long I would be gone.  Frankly, I'm glad he had to go through this separation because it will have been good for him to get used to before school starts this coming Monday.

All in all, we had a wonderfully relaxing time.  By Friday, the boys were starting to ask when we could go home.  Trevor's class was holding a water balloon fight on Saturday night, so it was easy to hold them off from wanting to go home early.  The water balloon fight was to celebrate the amount of money the kids raised for tin roofs in Papau New Guinea - over $800!  Trevor was thrilled that the boys won, raising just a few dollars more than the girls.

Here are a few pictures I gleaned from others' Facebook albums (since my camera was broken by Trevor a few weeks prior to camp):