Raising Readers: When a Book Finds You at Just the Right Time

Feb 21, 2017

I love it when a book falls into my lap at just the right time, and my life seems to converge with the characters in the story in an almost uncanny way. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I pay attention.

One of the most notable times this has happened in our family was last fall when I was reading All-of-a-Kind Family to my kids (one of our favorite readalouds of the year!)

The very first chapter is about Sarah, the middle of five daughters. One Friday afternoon, the girls are getting ready to make their weekly trip to the library, an activity that is eagerly anticipated by all of them. Except this Friday, Sarah is found in a crying heap instead of getting ready with her sisters. When questioned, she chokes out the awful truth: She can't find her library book.

The whole family is enlisted to help search, but it doesn't turn up, which doesn't surprise Sarah because she actually loaned the book to her friend, Tillie, who said she returned it to Sarah's desk at school but Sarah never saw it. Although sympathetic to Sarah's plight, Mother tells her she won't be allowed to check out anything else from the library unless she pays for the book.

It's a hard lesson, particularly because, most likely, it was Tillie who lost it, not Sarah, but, as Mother says, "You borrowed the book, and that makes you responsible. The library lets you borrow the book, and you're not supposed to lend it to anybody else." Things get even harder when Sarah asks her mother is she'll come with her to the library, and Mother says, "No, Sarah, that's something you must do yourself. If you explain just how it happened, I'm sure the library lady will understand that you didn't mean to be careless. Find out what you have to do, and we'll talk about it when you get back."

It's a long walk to the library, and when it's finally Sarah's turn to talk to the librarian, she can barely get out the words. She's so embarrassed and ashamed. Luckily, the librarian is incredibly kind and understanding, and even though Sarah ends up having to pay for the book (it costs a dollar, which takes Sarah several months to pay off), she is allowed to check out another book, and it's the beginning of a sweet and lovely friendship with the librarian.

I know that was a rather long recounting, but it will be worth it, I promise.

Not two days after we read that chapter, Maxwell came home from school with a slip of paper. It was an overdue notice from the school library, which said that one of his books was ninety days past due, so he would need to pay for it. He seemed fine when he handed me the paper, but as soon as I started questioning him about it, he burst into tears.

I was completely unaware that he'd even lost a library book, much less that it had been gone for ninety days, but from the way he was crying, it was apparent that he'd known it was missing all those weeks but just didn't know what to do about it. All of the pressure and stress and worry unleashed itself in a great flood of inconsolable sobs.

Maxwell has always been very concerned with his image. At school, he is a model student. He does careful work, pays attention, and follows directions to the letter. But a model student does not lose his library book, and the thought of having to own up to it and fix it was almost too much for him to handle. He was not at all unlike Sarah, who was also absolutely mortified at the impression the pretty, new librarian would have of her if she admitted to losing a library book.

I'll admit that my heart almost burst seeing Maxwell's anguish. I was ready to swoop in and take care of it all for him when I remembered the words of Sarah's mother: "This is something you must do yourself." And so instead I said, "Max, do you remember what happened when Sarah lost her library book? She had to talk to the librarian and take care of it herself. I know you can take care of this, too."

We came up with a plan: We were sure he'd lost the book at school because it hadn't ever come home with him. The next day was Thursday. He would talk to his teacher first and explain the situation to her (during first recess because he was adamant that none of his friends know about his mistake). He would ask her if he could look through the bookshelves in the classroom and see if it had somehow been shelved there by mistake. ("Maybe she'll even help you look for it," we said. "She's been teaching for a long time. You aren't the first of her students to lose a library book.") If the book was nowhere to be found, he would go to the library on Friday and pay for it so that it would all be taken care of before the weekend.

The next morning, we said a prayer before he left for school. We prayed that he would be brave and that, if possible, he'd be able to find his book. Then, armed with the memory of how it had all worked out for Sarah, he walked into school. And I let him go.

His story has a happy ending, even happier than Sarah's. He followed our plan and talked to his teacher during first recess and, just as I'd suspected, she helped him look for the book, and they found it on one of the classroom shelves. He returned it to the school library and cleared his record. When he came out of school, his eyes were bright and happy and he was literally beaming.

I know Max's experience would have probably turned out very much the same whether we'd read that chapter or not. But it was so nice to feel like there was someone, albeit fictional, in our corner. It gave both of us a little boost of confidence to do the right thing.

Have you had any experiences like this, where your life bears an uncanny resemblance to that of a fictional character? How have stories helped you through tough learning moments? 

In Progress: Home Comforts, Part 1 (Why am I Reading This Book?!)

Feb 17, 2017

One of my reading goals this year is to read Cheryl Mendelson's 900-page tome on housekeeping. It's long. It's intense. It's not for the faint of heart (which may or may not describe me--I haven't decided yet).

Rather than give one over-arching review of it at the end of the year (because I fully anticipate it taking me the entire year to finish), I thought I'd do little monthly reports--mini-reviews, if you will. I'll share the tidbits I've found helpful (or not helpful, as the case might be) and how I'm applying what I'm learning. Hopefully, this will keep me accountable as well so that I actually chip away at it every month rather than saving it all for the end of the year (which would surely be akin to torture).

I think the first real emotion I felt soon after starting this book was depression. Not exactly the emotion I was hoping for, but there it was. The second chapter was about establishing a routine, which I'm definitely in favor of, but as I looked at her daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cleaning lists, I felt like a miserable failure.

To clarify the daily routine, Cheryl Mendelson said, "A daily routine restores the household to a level of basic order twice each day: once before work or after breakfast, and once before bed."

It was at that point that I wanted to raise my hand and ask, "And, um, what about the ten hours in between? How do you suggest I deal with the spilled milk and the crumbs from fifty snacks and the dirt and/or snow tracked in and the 500-pieces from two mixed-up puzzles and the paper scraps from an over-zealous, scissor-wielding two-year-old and the jam painted on the window and the large couch cushion and blanket fort and the four abandoned board games and the piles of books and the flooded bathroom because the (same) two-year-old decided to get himself a drink of water and the three discarded outfits and . . . and . . .????? What if by the time bedtime rolls around, I've already cleaned up so many interim messes that I'm too tired to "restore order" for supposedly only the "second" time?"

Honestly, at this point in my life, it sounds rather heavenly to straighten up in the morning, close the front door, and return in the evening with the house looking exactly the same. But as it is, if my house looks even close to the same at 5:00pm as it did at 8:00am, it's because I've done nothing but clean all day.

But it wasn't just the daily routine that depressed me. It was learning about all of the things I should be doing every week in order to establish the bare minimum of "health, safety, and comfort" for my family and realizing that I fall far, far short.

(Quick poll: How often do you wash your family's sheets? I'm genuinely curious because apparently, we aren't washing ours frequently enough.)

And thus it was that not even two chapters into the book, Mike forbade me from reading any more of it: "This is not helpful. Why are you even reading it?"

So I had a little heart-to-heart with myself and asked that very question: "Why am I reading this book?"

And it turns out, it wasn't for the routines or lists or to achieve the perpetually clean house. It was more narrow, more focused, than that. I wanted a simple how-to on all the little tasks that go into keeping a clean house: scouring a sink or doing laundry or cleaning a toilet. I do all of those things, of course, but was I doing them the "right" way . . . or was there even a right way? Those were the answers I was looking for, and they're coming, but the book had to begin with the over-arching objective before breaking it down into its smaller components.

So I didn't listen to Mike. Instead, I took a deep breath, relaxed, and realized a house with four young kids in it looks markedly different from a home with two working adults. I'm not trying to make excuses for myself (well, maybe a little . . . ), but standards are different. They have to be, unless 1) cleaning is your passion/hobby so you don't mind doing the same work a dozen times over in one day (I know people who fall into that category) or 2) cleaning is not your passion, but you're okay with feeling perpetual despair and frenzied anxiety all the time because your house is never as clean as you want it to be (there are days when I definitely feel like this). Personally, I'm not okay with either of those options.

Don't get me wrong, I am infinitely happier in a clean, uncluttered home, but I also have other interests and responsibilities outside of cleaning, so I have to find a balance that works for me, my kids, and Mike. And I think that balance is different from Cheryl Mendelson's.

But I decided to continue with the book because, while the big picture looks overwhelming and daunting, focusing on one thing at a time doesn't sound too bad. If she expounds on the fine art of cleaning a toilet, for example, I can read and learn and maybe tweak and hone my own toilet-brushing skills, and that sounds totally doable.

And no matter how Mike feels about the book, we're already seeing some positive changes from it. I decided we really should be more organized about our Saturday cleaning. Usually it's something that gets dragged out over the course of the whole day with us handing out jobs to our kids and listening to them whine and complain for hours and hours. I knew that if we all focused on the task at hand and split up the load, we could be done in a couple of hours and be left with a clean house (for at least five minutes). We actually did use Cheryl Mendelson's weekly cleaning checklist to give some structure, and we've been altering it as needed. It feels so good to work together as a family in such a concentrated way, and I'm glad my kids are learning the joy and satisfaction that comes from hard work.

The next chapter in the book focuses on food (as in menu planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation, etc.), which honestly doesn't interest me that much, so we'll see if I have much to talk about next month.

Have any of you read this book? If so, what were the most helpful bits you gleaned from it? And whether you've read it or not, how do you maintain your sanity and a clean house at the same time? (And don't forget the clean sheets question!)

The Book Blab Episode 11: Love and Marriage in Books Plus Two of Our Favorite Reads from 2016

Feb 13, 2017

Were you wondering if Suzanne and I had abandoned The Book Blab in favor of other pursuits? Well, I guess we did, but only temporarily. Suzanne had her baby girl at the end of December and took a little maternity leave from her blog. But she's back, which means we're back with another episode of The Book Blab! This time, we discussed our favorite literary romances, shared a couple of favorite recommendations from 2016, and announced the book we'll be reading for our upcoming mini-book club. Enjoy, and please let us know your favorite romances in the comments!

0:35 - Suzanne had her baby!
1:42 - Today's topic: Romance novels . . . the tame variety.
3:15 - Regency/Classic romances
  • 3:55 - Favorite Jane Austen novels
  • 7:15 - Defining the actual regency period
  • 9:45 - Contemporary regency romances
  • 12:21 - Other favorite classics with love stories
15:47 - Contemporary romances
21:23 - Fantasy/Fairy Tale romances
23:35 - Young Adult romances
26:14 - Love and marriage in nonfiction
29:33 - Two favorite reads from 2016
  • 30:10 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 31:00 - Amy's recommendation 
32:55 - Upcoming mini-book club: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
35:17 - Conclusion

Books mentioned during the show:

Persuasion by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Amy's review)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Gone With the Wind by  Margaret Mitchell (Amy's review)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Amy's review)
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Suzanne's review)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Amy's review)
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlemarch by George Eliot (Amy's review)
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (Amy's review)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Amy and Suzanne's combined review in Episode 6)
Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock (Amy's review)
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy in Spite of Herself is #6 in the series)
Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery (Suzanne's review)
Emily of New Moon trilogy by L.M. Montgomery (Amy's review)
Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin (Amy's review)
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman (Suzanne's review)
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman and D. Ross Campbell (Suzanne's review)
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanaukin (Suzanne's review)
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatramen (Amy's review)

A Little of This and That in January

Feb 6, 2017

I did it. I made it through the dreaded month of January, and actually, as far as Januarys go, it really wasn't bad. I think I'm slowly giving myself permission to survive winter the way I want to (which usually means opting for indoor activities, but not always). In January, we were:

Embracing . . . hygge. I've actually been meaning to write a whole post about this because I think my coming to terms with winter is due, in large part, to the concept of hygge. It's a Danish word (pronounced hoo-gah) that entails living in the moment, embracing simple pleasures, and creating a cozy mood or environment. I've realized that during these cold, dark months, I am happiest when I'm in my own home doing the simple, comforting things I take real joy in: reading (alone or with my kids), knitting, writing, baking cookies, or chatting with family or friends. Hygge doesn't necessarily mean staying inside, but for me, for the most part, it does. I know many people survive winter by getting out, and I've had people tell me I just need to try winter sports or get the right gear, but I'm finally realizing that I survive (and thrive) by staying in. And that's okay.

Celebrating . . . my birthday. I don't have the greatest track record with enjoying my birthdays, mainly because I don't like January and getting older depresses me, but I'm working on both of those things, and this year, the whole day was delightful. Mike took me out for breakfast in the morning, which felt super indulgent, especially since I know Mike would prefer going out for dinner instead of breakfast. Then we picked out a new chair for our front room, which looks great with the new wall. And then, my family came over for cake and presents. (Oh, and I got some quiet time in my room, which is basically the equivalent to heaven for me.)

Spending . . . some quality time in the hospital. The day after my birthday was not so much fun. I've been having sharp abdominal pains since the beginning of this pregnancy. I always thought they were related to an umbilical hernia (a souvenir from Clark's birth) because the pain usually starts right at that point. Sometimes it stays localized to that spot and other times it spreads across my abdomen. Anyway, the evening after my birthday, it escalated to something atrocious. I acted like I was in labor (the pain wasn't at all the same, but it was the same kind of intensity, even reaching the point of vomiting because it was so severe). Even though I was sure it would go away eventually, we decided to go to the emergency room to see if we could get some answers, relief, and peace of mind. Everyone at the hospital acted like there was no way an umbilical hernia would be causing that level of pain. To them, it sounded more like kidney stones or gallstones. They did a bunch of tests and an ultrasound but didn't find anything conclusive. I've decided to go with the gallbladder theory (all of the facts match up except for where the pain originates), so I've been treating it as such and haven't had another episode since (fingers crossed).

Experimenting . . . with metal in the microwave. Mike had to bring home his $5 microwave from work because they wouldn't let him take it to their new building, so he decided to let the boys have at it for their science fair projects. Maxwell's project involved testing the effectiveness of the turntable in producing uniform heat. Aaron's project involved metal, and I'm still not sure exactly what his hypothesis was, but there seemed to be a lot of sparks and fire, followed by exuberant cheers. Mike enjoyed himself as much as the boys.

Listening . . . to some truly excellent lectures on the scriptures. A friend pointed them out to me. They're given by three women who live in our neighborhood, and they have changed my personal scripture study. I'm learning so much.

Soaking . . . up the sunshine in Las Vegas. I already wrote details about the trip here. But the short version is: it was one of the best family vacations we've been on. And just yesterday, Clark said, "Remember when we went on the High Roller?" And then today, he asked, "Remember when we went to M&M World?" Those good memories are sustaining us through the rest of winter.

Feeling . . . the baby kick. I've been feeling this baby for months, but it's only been in the last few weeks that the boys have finally been rewarded with some big punches. Clark especially loves all of the movements and likes to put his face right next to my tummy in the hopes that he'll get blasted in the cheek. (Also related: I entered the third trimester, and all of a sudden, my hips hurt, I can't bend over to put on my shoes, and I get heartburn every night. It's almost like this baby knew when I hit 28 weeks and decided to up his game.)

Taking . . . advantage of all the snow. After talking to my friend, Alicia, about the "snow day" they had in Arizona where a bunch of artificial snow was trucked in for the kids to play in, I felt like we should appreciate our real snow a little more. So we (meaning, the kids) are trying. A couple of weeks ago, Aaron built a giant snowman all by himself (almost . . . he just needed a little help lifting the middle ball into place; wet snow is heavy!).

Trying . . . some new recipes. I'm pretty much a failure at meal planning, and if I'm being totally honest, I let Mike take the reigns in the kitchen more often than not. But I actually do enjoy making new things if I've thought about it enough in advance to actually cull together all the necessary ingredients. This past month, I tried Ham and Pasta Skillet Dinner, Chicken Apple Sausage Couscous, Chicken and Zucchini Poppers with Citrus Avocado Dip, and Overnight Oats (from the cookbook, 100 Days of Real Food). I would make all of them again.

Walking . . . through the majestic ice castles in Midway, Utah. This is the first year we've gone, and we were kind of awestruck. They were bigger and more intricate than we imagined. It was a beautifully clear day, and the sky was gorgeous. And there were a bunch of ice slides for our kids to go down over and over and over again. We arrived at 4:30 and hoped we'd be able to see them in the light and dark, but as the sun went down, so did the temperature, and we wimped out at 8 degrees.

Setting . . . goals. I still haven't written about any of my goals except for the reading ones, but that doesn't mean I didn't set any others. I have a personal theme for the year (based on a quote by Marjorie Pay Hinckley), I've set a few project-type goals to be completed during the year, and I've been setting smaller, weekly goals every Sunday (which has actually been very successful so far). I'm still planning on writing about it all in great detail . . . you can still talk about goals in February, right?

Waiting . . . for our 2017 calendar. I made one through Shutterfly and ordered it at the beginning of the month. When it hadn't arrived a couple of weeks later, I contacted the company, and we figured out that I'd had it shipped to an old address. They were nice enough to send a new calendar off right away, but it still didn't get here until the end of the month, so we didn't get to enjoy January's pictures for very long. (Also, I didn't realize how dependent I am on just our good, old-fashioned paper calendar for writing down appointments and such until I didn't have it for almost the entire month. Luckily, I didn't miss anything too important.) 

Going . . . to a Vocal Point concert. My friend, Alicia's, nine-year-old son is obsessed with Vocal Point (BYU's male acapella group), and so she gave him tickets to their concert for Christmas. She asked if Aaron and I wanted to come, too, and of course I said yes, even though, up to that point, Aaron had never heard any of their music. Well, the concert was fantastic, and now we can't get enough of them. In fact, I checked out one of their albums from the library, and Maxwell has been listening to it on repeat ever since, so I'm thinking I should have taken him to the concert, too.

Laughing . . . at all the comments on my last post. Not because they were funny (they were actually very enlightening and helpful), but because you all proved my point that women really can't resist the invitation to talk about birth. Where are all of you on my other posts?! :-)

As I'm writing this, it's 54-degrees and sunny, so I have a pretty good feeling about February. What were the highlights of your January?

Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent

Feb 1, 2017

I am a self-diagnosed birth story junkie. I'll take them in any format (blog posts, books, conversations), about any person (stranger, family member, distant acquaintance), from any time period or part of the world. Basically, the act of giving birth fascinates me. Each story is so different while also being so much the same.

Pregnancy, labor, and birth bind women together. No matter our experiences or background, they put us on common ground with one another. Mike jokes that women can't get together and not talk about birth. It's like this magnetic subject that pulls all other topics to it--no matter where the conversation started, somehow it always comes around to childbirth.

I've written about my own children's births in great detail (Clark's is the only one that's here on the blog, but I'm always happy to email the others to anyone who wants to read them), and I've found that rereading them plus reading and listening to other women's birth stories is one of the best ways I prepare myself to go through the labor of love again.

And once more, that time is approaching. I've just reached the 28-week mark, and if the next 12ish weeks are anything like my other pregnancies, they will go both incredibly fast and impossibly slow--the great paradox of pregnancy.

So I've been seeking out birth stories to pump myself up and get myself ready. Aside from the scary stories, which I do try to avoid around this time because they tend to put me in a unproductive place mentally, most birth stories create a feeling of almost supernatural power: This is what my body was made to do. Birth is a natural process. I am strong. I can do it. And those feelings go a long way in helping me gear up for the real thing. Because often--definitely not always, but often--labor is one big mental game.

And that is why I picked up Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent. I've had it on my to-read list for a couple of years, and so I knew I wanted it to be one of the books to fulfill my reading goal of reading two books about childbirth.

But I wasn't expecting it to blow every other childbirth book I've read completely out of the water. It was the most interesting, entertaining, and, dare I say, helpful book on childbirth I've ever read.

It's not even billed as a childbirth manual, per se. It's simply Peggy Vincent's own memories of her career as first, a nursing student in 1962 (where standard practice in the hospital at Duke University was to wheel a laboring women into a large delivery room (complete with bleachers) where she'd be knocked out for a couple of hours and wake up to a baby), followed by a few years' stint as a public health nurse, after which she worked as a labor-and-delivery nurse, and finally ended with her following her passion to become a certified nurse midwife.

It helps that her writing is honest, funny, and just so beautifully accessible. She begins with one of her earliest patients, Zelda. At the time, she's a nursing student and not even sure if she wants to continue in the program, but then she does her rotation in the labor-and-delivery department at Duke University. Zelda is a young black woman, laboring with her third child, and, despite Peggy's pleas for her to lie down and be a good patient, Zelda dances her way through each contraction while standing on the bed.

Zelda begs Peggy to keep the doctor out as long as possible, knowing that she can labor just fine on her own, but as a young nursing student, Peggy doesn't have any real authority and is worried about the consequences that might come with defying protocol. When Zelda's cries become loud enough for the medical staff in the hall to hear her, she is forced onto a stretcher and rolled to the blindingly stark delivery room. Despite her protests, she is strapped down. Peggy can see that she's moments away from pushing out the baby, but they put a gas mask over her face anyway. Zelda rips it off, but they get it back into place just as the baby comes out. But instead of taking off the mask, they let her slip under, grateful to have her quiet at last.

That experience is the spark Peggy needs to propel her through nursing school, but other things help to fan the flames.

For example, several years later, Peggy is instrumental in establishing a birth center at Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, California. Many of the doctors are uncomfortable with the idea of women laboring on their own without pain meds. In fact, one of the doctors is quite irate about having nothing to do except catch the baby. Peggy protests, "But if the birth is normal, then what's there to do?" The doctor responds with something Peggy never forgets: "Normal birth is a retrospective diagnosis. No birth is normal until after the fact. All births are complicated until proven otherwise."

It is because of that declaration that Peggy takes the final leap to become certified as a nurse midwife. She has her own private practice in the 1980s where she assists in hundreds of home births while still enjoying hospital privileges: if one of her patients needs emergency intervention or simply wants to deliver in the hospital with a midwife by her side, she can do that without sacrificing anything in continuity of care. It's really the best of both worlds, and something that is actually not possible in many states today. (In Utah, you can either deliver with a lay midwife at home or a certified nurse midwife in the hospital but you can't cross those invisible barriers.)

With the other childbirth books I've read, I've found myself wanting to skim over some of the techniques or instructions so that I could get back to the actual stories. But not with this one. That's because Peggy already edited out all that other stuff so it's literally just birth story after birth story after birth story.

And these are some birth stories! In one home, Peggy has to fend off an ultra-protective, and maybe slightly psychotic, cat with one arm while delivering a baby with the other. At another, she has to navigate a slippery pier on the San Fransisco bay during a torrential rainstorm to help with a delivery in the leaky cabin of a sailboat. At still another, she coaches a dad through the delivery of his own baby, and he freaks out when the baby turns his head, opens his eyes, and looks at him: "Oh my gosh! It's a baby!" (I laughed at that one.) Some of the labors are loud and slow; others are silent and fast. Sometimes older children or a dozen family members are present, while other times the couple wants to be completely alone. Peggy learns to have zero expectations when attending a birth because there's just no way to predict how things are going to go.

Besides just the unpredictability of birth however, because she's practicing in Berkeley, she also has some very colorful clients with unconventional lifestyles and abrasive mouths. I have to admit that I wasn't entirely comfortable with every birth story I read, but Peggy took it all in stride and never cast judgment but just did her job.

And hidden among all these stories were the little observations or tidbits of info or helpful tips that made me stop and think, Well, isn't that good to know?! Such as:
  • the changes in a woman's voice, complexion, and attitude when she's reached the pushing stage (besides when it's totally obvious because she's freaking out)
  • the importance of pushing slowly and having someone support the perineum, even if you feel like your body has taken over and everything's out of your control
  • the different clues that make each stage of labor obvious without ever checking the cervix
  • the danger signs of a distressed baby
This book was as gripping as a fast-paced novel to me, and I couldn't put it down. And as the end approached, it really did reach something of a climax--a rather heartbreaking climax actually, and that made it even more impossible to stop reading. Without giving away too many details, Peggy ends up helping with a birth that does not end happily. The mother had wanted Peggy to attend her at home, but Peggy refused because the woman had had a previous C-section. So the woman was actually being attended by a doctor, but things did not go as planned, and Peggy ended up being a big part of the birth. Because of the outcome, the family sued, and the result was disastrous for Peggy's career and actually goes a long way in explaining some of the standards and rules governing midwives today.

Personally, I've been in a bit of a weird place with my current pregnancy. For the first time ever, I'm vacillating between another unmedicated birth or getting an epidural. I'm not exactly sure why an epidural has even entered my mind; all four of my children's births have been overwhelmingly positive experiences--excruciatingly painful, yes, but ending with such crowning moments that they've made all the pain worth it. I've always had a similar view to Peggy's patient, Julie: "It hurt a lot, but it was my pain, and it wasn't something I wanted anyone to take away from me."

But this time, I also keep thinking about the positive epidural stories I've heard, and wow, I just can't even imagine what it would be like to be in the last stages of labor and still be able to carry on a fairly normal conversation (I'm sure Mike can't imagine that either). I guess I'm a little curious--I mean, here I am pregnant with my fifth baby and I've never experienced an epidural. Doesn't it seem like I should know what both sides are like so I can compare and contrast?

And yet, this is birth we're talking about--not a science experiment! And so I really want to do what will be best for me and for my baby . . . but I don't know what that is.

I was hoping this book would provide some answers, but instead it just jumbled up everything even more. I'd read one story and think, That sounds amazing. Of course I don't want an epidural! But then I'd almost instantly counter myself with, But an epidural? That just sounds heavenly. Why wouldn't I want one?

So you can see my predicament, and of course I'd love to hear about your experiences with or without an epidural. They might help me, and they probably won't make me feel any more conflicted than I already do. In the meantime, I guess I'll start another childbirth book in the hopes that I'll have an "aha!" moment and know what to do.

A Birthday Trip to Las Vegas

Jan 27, 2017

You might remember the rather brilliant idea I came up with last year to help myself combat the winter blues and celebrate my birthday: go somewhere warm and sunny for a few days in January. Last year, we went to San Diego, which ended up being one of the highlights of the year.

This year, we planned a trip to Las Vegas.

Before I tell you about it, I feel like I have to answer the question, "Why Las Vegas?" because it seemed like that's what everyone asked us when we told them where we were going.

Besides the obvious reason that it fulfilled the necessary qualifications (sunny and thirty degrees warmer than Salt Lake City), we also chose it because it was an easy day's drive away, it was cheap, and I'd never been there before.

In future years, I anticipate some of our January getaways to be a little more exotic (Hawaii? the Caribbean?), but I'm also a firm believer that you shouldn't overlook the destinations that are a mere hop, skip, and a jump away from you. It seemed silly to plan an expensive trip to somewhere far away when there was a city just waiting to be explored in the state right next door to ours.

People also seemed a little surprised that we were taking our kids with us--as if the only things to do in Las Vegas were restricted to adults. (The thing is, Mike and I don't drink or gamble or live on the edge, so it's not like going without our kids would have freed us up to "have fun" because we wouldn't have been doing those things anyway.) And after reading Janssen's post about 7 Places to Visit in Las Vegas with Children, I was convinced we wouldn't have any trouble finding family-friendly things to do.

And we didn't. In fact, we could have easily filled up several more days with fun activities (and when our day to return home dawned bright and sunny, I almost couldn't force myself to get back in the van). Highlights included:

Going with friends
We planned the trip with our dear friends, the Gardners. They also have four kids (two girls and two boys), and everything about the trip was made better with them along. For example: Our kids always had someone to play with (and Clark was obsessed with their baby); we shared the cost of the condo where we stayed; there were other adults to talk to (and they happened to be adults we really enjoy being around); we got to swap kids and go on a date (more on that below); they helped us navigate the city (they've been to Vegas countless times); and we had someone to share the memories with. You can be sure we made quite the scene walking down the strip while herding eight children in front of us, but, aside from a scary ten minutes where we were sure we'd lost the Gardner's three-year-old, we didn't have any major mishaps.

The condo
When we went to San Diego, we stayed in a teeny-tiny condo. Granted, it was just our family that time and also, the location was ideal (we were right on the beach), but the limited space was the cause of almost all our (read: my) meltdowns. This time we rented a much larger condo that easily fit our family and the Gardners. It had four bedrooms (but the master bedroom had an attached suite that we used as a fifth bedroom), three bathrooms, a large kitchen/family room, and a formal dining room. A few weeks before the trip, the owner contacted us and asked if we'd be willing to switch to a smaller condo, and I refused. I just had a feeling space would be the key to a good trip, and I'm pretty sure it was. The kids all went to bed really well each night because they weren't distracting each other, the adults could stay up late talking and playing games without disturbing anyone, the kitchen was great for fixing and serving meals, and I could always find a quiet place to recharge (very important for me). 

The Bellagio Conservatory
We loved walking through this small botanical garden. Right now, it is themed around the Chinese New Year, and the traditional costumes made out of flowers, as well as the giant fire rooster, were quite impressive. Afterwards, we stopped at Cafe Gelato for the cinnamon rolls and gelato (per Janssen's recommendation), and they didn't disappoint. (This is also where Clark sat on a rope and pulled a stanchion over onto his head. A passing security guard saw it and made us fill out an accident report. True story.)

The High Roller
After we got home, we talked about our favorite activities from the trip, and this competed for the top spot. Similar to the London Eye, this 550-foot high observation wheel gave us an amazing view of the city. Each compartment/pod can probably hold close to forty people, but it wasn't busy when we went, so we had the entire space to ourselves. Our kids danced and jumped and ran from side to side, taking everything in. We were up in the air for thirty minutes, and it was a party the entire time.

The food
When I was growing up, my family ate out very little when we were traveling, and that was totally fine. But now, food is a really big deal to me, and experiencing the tastes and food culture of a particular place is one of the things I love the most about traveling. So when it comes to budgeting traveling expenses, we don't scrimp in the food department. And I just have to say, I was wowed by the food in Las Vegas. Besides Cafe Gelato, we also ate at KoMex (a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant that sounds a little weird but was so good), the Shake Shack (that lived up to all the hype), Gordon Ramsay Fish and Chips (I'd love to go back and try the seasoned fries), and Viva Chicken (which is actually in St. George--we stopped there on our way home). Just writing about these places makes me want to go back right now. So yummy.

The fountain show at the Bellagio
Although everyone loved the High Roller, this was actually the activity that topped the list for a couple of my kids. And we almost didn't do it! We had been meaning to but just ended up not being in the right place at the right time. On Saturday afternoon, we were driving back to the condo and thought that maybe we could time it right to just drive past and see the fountains going off. But as we got closer, we knew it wasn't going to work out. At the last minute, Mike said, "You know what? I'm just going to go park. We're so close, and we're not going to come back if we don't see them now." So we did. We raced through the parking garage so we could be by the water when the fountains went off at 3:00. We snagged a great spot and stood there waiting . . . and waiting. 3:05. . . 3:10. . . 3:15 . . . no fountains. We decided we'd hold out until 3:30 in case the 3:00 show had just been randomly skipped. But then, a few minutes before 3:30, something began bubbling to the surface, and within seconds, the water was transformed into a breathtaking show of dancing and exploding fountains. We were all captivated. It was one of those times where the actual thing far exceeded our expectations. But then, it got even better. After the song was over and the water was quiet once more, we decided that maybe that had been the 3:00 show (albeit twenty minutes late), so if we stuck around, we might still get to see the 3:30 show. Sure enough, in about two minutes, the fountains came back up, this time to a Frank Sinatra song. The music ended, but since it still wasn't 3:30, we decided to wait again, and once more, we were rewarded. So we saw three shows in the space of ten minutes, and our kids thought it was the best thing ever.

A night out on the town
Because we went with friends, we could do a babysitting swap and each enjoy a night out. It was fantastic. Mike and I saw the Beatles Cirque du Soleil show, which was equal parts unbelievable, fun, and weird. On the way out at the end of the show, Mike said, "Well, now I know what it would have felt like to be a drug-addict hippie in the 60's." And while it's true that there were parts where we both turned to each other and mouthed, "What is happening right now?!" and also a couple of risque costumes that made me uncomfortable, we also spent a lot of the evening with our jaws hanging open in disbelief at some of the things people are willing to do in the name of entertainment. But mostly, we just enjoyed being together. It felt like such a rare treat to be on vacation with our kids but to get to spend an evening without them.

Playing outside
We had a little rain on our first morning, but other than that, the sky was blue and the sun was shining, and we soaked up every minute of it. The temperature hovered in the upper 50's, so most of us still preferred a jacket, but then we were quite comfortable. We played at a couple of different parks (the Container Park and Exploration Peak Park--both of them fabulous), and we also went on a short hike in Red Rock Canyon. It just felt so good to be outside without shivering the entire time.

Every time I go to a new place, I find myself melding my preconceived idea with the actual thing, and Las Vegas was certainly no exception. On one hand, it was totally different than I was expecting: the strip was cleaner, brighter, and more family friendly (particularly during the day) than I envisioned. At the same time, the whole city felt a bit fake: shiny buildings, replica landmarks, creepy costumed characters on every corner. You almost felt like it was wearing a mask--putting on this showy exterior to hide something ugly underneath. And then, in some ways, it was exactly what I was expecting: a city where anything goes, where illegal behavior is suddenly legal--the true Wild, Wild West.

But overall, I would say we were pleasantly surprised and the activities that we chose were a huge success. I remember when we got home from San Diego last year and I was able to take an objective look at the trip, I figured that 80-85% of the moments were good, and so the trip seemed worth it. This time, it would be closer to 97%. I'm sure it was a combination of friends, good weather, a spacious condo, fun activities, and good-natured kids (basically everything I mentioned above), but the whole thing went off with hardly a hitch, and I don't know if we'll ever be that lucky again.

I know we missed a lot of fun things while we were there, so feel free to share your favorite Vegas activities in the comments. I'm sure we'll be going back!

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Jan 24, 2017

Despite being made into a movie or television series no fewer than three times (with the latest one being released just last year), I had never heard of Gerald Durrell's personal account of his idyllic childhood in Corfu, Greece until this book was selected as the January pick for my book club.

After hearing it pitched by one of our book club members, I expected something that was light and funny and anecdotal, not necessarily description or fact heavy. What I failed to realize was that this book isn't shelved in the 500's section of the library (that would be the "natural sciences," specifically "zoology") for nothing.

When Gerald's family moves to Corfu from England in 1935, he is ten years old. His father passed away several years before, but the rest of the family consists of his mother, his brothers (Larry, age 23, and Leslie, age 19), and his sister, Margo (age 18). Upon landing in Corfu, they are fortunate enough to meet Spiro, a burly, headstrong Greek, who speaks English and is able to help them find just the kind of villa they're looking for (i.e., one that has indoor plumbing and a bathroom).

They get settled quickly and while Mother is gardening and cooking, Larry is writing, Leslie is hunting, and Margo is sunbathing, Gerry fills his days in the garden and on the hillsides and down by the ocean where he becomes acquainted with all the peasants as well as the animal life. Animals and nature are his first loves and he would rather be outside, lying quietly in the grass, than just about anywhere else.

Sometimes a deadline can be quite beneficial, and in the case of this book, it definitely was. I'm pretty sure it would have taken me at least two months to get through if I'd been reading it at my own pace. As it was, the pace was set for me because I really only had a week to read it, but the first half was so slow-going, I didn't think I was going to make it.

It wasn't that I didn't like it but rather that some of the descriptions of Corfu's animal life were so long and involved and detailed that I was only able to push my way through them by sheer willpower.

At one point, Mike, knowing that I was under a bit of a time constraint, asked, "Is it picking up?" "It's not that kind of book," I answered. There wasn't any plot or major drama, and I didn't expect any to show up.

But then, right around the halfway point, there was an ever-so-subtle shift, and the pace actually seemed to quicken. At first, I couldn't figure out what had caused the change: Larry was still complaining about everyone except himself, Mother was still doing her best to appease and calm family tensions, and Gerry was still bringing home the strangest creatures. On the surface, it seemed like the story was progressing just as it had over the first one hundred and thirty pages.

But I think two things had actually happened: first, by that point, I was really well-acquainted with all of the characters and had, I admit, begun to develop a real fondness for them, and second, the descriptions actually did get shorter, the witty dialogue got longer, and the stories were even funnier, and, if possible, more ridiculous. I usually wouldn't give a book one hundred and thirty pages before giving up on it, but I think I was enjoying it enough (the first half definitely had its highlights) and I really wanted to finish it for book club, and then the payoff came, so I'm so glad I stuck with it.

Let me just give you a little taste of the dialogue since it was the conversations that really made me love the book. This one is between Larry and the rest of the family. Larry, as you've probably gathered from what I've already said, has a very difficult personality. He is arrogant, never admits to any faults, and teases and criticizes his mother relentlessly. And she takes everything in stride and generally ignores his obnoxiousness:

"There should be a law against parking those loathsome beasts [donkeys] anywhere near a house. Can't one of you go and move it?"

"Why should we? It's not disturbing us," said Leslie.

"That's the trouble with this family," said Larry bitterly; "no give and take, no consideration for others."

"You don't have much consideration for others," said Margo.

"It's all your fault, Mother," said Larry austerely; "you shouldn't have brought us up to be so selfish."

"I like that!" exclaimed Mother. "I never did anything of the sort!"

"Well, we didn't get as selfish as this without some guidance," said Larry.
And for all of my early complaining about the long and detailed descriptions, I can't deny that Gerald Durrell has such a mesmerizing way with words that by the end, I almost felt like I'd actually visited Corfu (but instead of satisfying me, it just made me want to see the real thing in person). For example, this: "Lying spread-eagled in the silky water, gazing into the sky, only moving my hands and feet slightly to keep afloat, I was looking at the Milky Way stretched like a chiffon scarf across the sky and wondering how many stars it contained." And just a few paragraphs later, a whole pod of porpoises shows up and surrounds Gerry in a kind of ethereal and moonlit dance, which makes the whole episode even more magical.

Speaking of which, apparently life on Corfu was not as idyllic as Gerry made it out to be, which is, sadly, so often the case with real life. But then, aren't our childhood memories often sprinkled with just a touch more stardust than was actually there? And isn't that a blessing? For me personally, I hope my kids favor the good moments in their memories rather than the bad, and I think that's exactly what Gerry did. I'm sure some stories are embellished, some are idealized, and maybe some are even made up, but I think he got to the heart of what he felt like as a ten-year-old boy on the beautiful island of Corfu, and so in many ways, that's more accurate than if he'd made sure everything was chronologically and historically true to life.

By the end, even the animal descriptions had taken on a certain charm--so much so that when he began laying out the details of a battle between a gecko and a mantid, I was riveted to the page. The setup and relaying of the actual event took up a total of ten pages, and I didn't even care.  I had to see how it turned out.

Even if I hadn't started enjoying the book, finishing it would have still been worth it because the book club discussion was so delightful and wouldn't have been half as fun if I hadn't read the stories myself. We spent a good portion of the evening just reliving some of the funniest moments, and I can't remember a time when I've laughed so much at book club. There were times when I laughed out loud while reading, but somehow sharing those stories with friends who had also read them elevated them to something that was not just hilarious but worth remembering, too. 

One of my very favorite characters was Theodore Stephanides, a doctor and naturalist who becomes very close with the entire Durrell family. He's a bit eccentric, as are all of the characters, but he's also incredibly kind and can't resist telling a good joke. Because he and Gerry both share a love of nature, they develop a special bond, and he is one of Gerry's most beloved mentors.

One time, after sharing an especially ridiculous story about a play gone awry, Larry accuses him of making the whole thing up, but Theodore assures him it was true:

"'Here in Corfu,' said Theodore, his eyes twinkling with pride, 'anything can happen.'"

When I read that line, I knew that was really what this book was all about. Whether the stories are all entirely true or not, the point is that when Gerald Durrell was ten years old, he really felt like in Corfu, anything could happen, and as the reader, I felt like that, too.
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