This is What Happens...

Jul 30, 2012

...when you leave for ten days and put your husband in charge of watering the flowers.

Here are the texts that were exchanged on the sixth day of my absence:

Me: Have you been remembering to water my flowers?
Mike: I'm happy to report that I did water them before you reminded me. But only barely. 

[Remember, at this point we'd been gone almost a full week with dry, 100-degree weather in the interim.]

Me (clarifying): So they've only been watered once?
Mike: Yes, but it was a really good watering.
Me: Well now water them every day.
Mike: Yes ma'am. They will look better than when you left. Maybe even changing to new colors and types.

I wish I had a before picture because I can assure you, they do not look better than when I left. In fact, I was quite proud of how lush and full the flowers looked two weeks ago since I usually have poor luck with keeping plants alive. Mike said that he actually was going to buy some new flowers and re-plant the pots before I got home, but none of the nearby grocery stores had any.

I can't blame Mike though. We have both come to rely on each other for remembering certain things. For example, he relies on me to remember names, birthdays, pregnancies, family activities, etc. I rely on him for technical information, how to get places, car maintenance, etc. It's one of the beauties of marriage: you work together and become one, and because of that, you don't have to remember as much!

And it's time away from each other, like this last little separation, that reminds us that we really do need each other, want each other, and love each other.

It's good to be home!

Four Facts for Friday

Jul 27, 2012

1. A random fact about myself: I have never dyed my hair;  furthermore, I have absolutely no desire to dye my hair. But if I start going grey before the age of 80? Yes, I will dye my hair.

2. A random fact about today: Mike is on his way to pick up the boys and me from Colorado (T-minus 6 hours and counting...). We are more than a little excited. 

3. A random fact about books: I am reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and am finding it completely fascinating. I seem to have some dim recollection of learning about HeLa cells in high school biology, but science is much more likely to stay with me if there's some sort of human interest connection. I assure you, I won't forget about HeLa cells again.

4. A random fact about my past: When I was a little girl, I thought the two most beautiful names in all the world were Katerina and Teodora. My tastes have since changed. I still think they're pretty names, but I wouldn't give them to my daughters. (Not that I've even had the chance, what with three boys and all...)

KidPages: Three Childhood Favorites

Jul 25, 2012

I neglected any mention of picture books in my last post, but my parents' have plenty of those too. The boys and I have been enjoying some of my old favorites.

1. The King, the Mice, and the Cheese, Nancy and Eric Gurney
Not counting this most recent trip home, I had not read this book in probably at least 10 years. In fact, I think it's safe to say I had quite forgotten its existence. (That's the great thing about my parents' owning so many picture seems like new ones resurface every time we come for a visit.)

Anyway, since it had been so long, I opened it with some trepidation. You know what that's like, right? When you have such fond memories of something, but then when you come back to it years later, you realize it wasn't as wonderful as you remembered? I fully expected that to happen with this book.

But it didn't! The nostalgia was thick and heavy in the room, so maybe I'm not the best judge, but I still really liked it. And Aaron and Maxwell really did, too. Unfortunately, the book is out of print, so even if it really is a good book, it is no longer readily available.

In the same vein as There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, the story begins with a king (he wears a turban...where do you think he's from?) who sits down to enjoy his favorite food, cheese. He is displeased to discover that mice have invaded the palace and enjoy his cheese as much as he does. His wise men solve the problem by bringing in an army of cats who do a great job of chasing out the mice, but then, well, then the king is stuck with dozens of cats...can you see where this is going?

The illustrations are simple pen and ink with very little color added which lends itself well to some great  expressions on the faces of the king and animals. 

The story has the potential to fall into a vicious cycle, but instead a solution is discovered which is both clever and agreeable to all parties involved. 

2. The Baby Blue Cat and the Whole Batch of Cookies, Ainslie Pryor
I don't know where my family got this book, but I can't find it in anywhere, so it seems to have come and gone without leaving much of a trace. From what I can tell, I don't know that it was ever even published in the United States, so maybe that explains some of its unavailability. Apparently, there was a whole series about the baby blue cat, but this is the only one I ever knew.

In this particular episode in Baby Blue Cat's life, Mama Cat has just made a big batch of cookies which Baby Blue Cat and his siblings will get to eat...right after playtime. But Baby Blue Cat loves cookies so much, he just can't wait. One cookie at a time, he eats his way through the whole plate.

I've always liked the illustrations: the soft pastels and simple drawings are warm and charming. But in recent readings, I have found the ending to be lacking in both originality and a believable resolution. The story is set up to provide a great moral for kids ("Don't follow Baby Blue Cat's example because..."), but it doesn't follow through. Mama Cat is just patient and loving (which are, unarguably, great qualities for any mother, cat or otherwise, to have), but she doesn't provide any sort of guidance to help Baby Blue Cat learn from his mistake. (I never analyzed the ending as a child...unbelievable, I know...and I came through it unscathed...although I cannot resist warm chocolate chip cookies...maybe I've finally found the reason why!)

Let's move on from the ending, shall we? The real reason I like this book is because it is a great read-aloud.  The words nip nip nip and gone gone gone are repeated many times, and it's easy for kids to join in. Also, there's plenty of suspense and excitement as the cookies gradually disappear.

3. Watch Your Step, Mr. Rabbit!, Richard Scarry
For some reason, this easy reader has almost instant kid appeal. I remember reading it over and over again as a child. And Max found it on this trip (another one of the books that resurfaced), and he and Aaron were completely engrossed through the first reading and have heard it several times since.

The storyline is simple: Mr. Rabbit accidentally walks into a patch of newly poured cement (he's busy reading his newspaper), and the town tries a variety of ways to get him unstuck.

It's another good read-aloud because it asks questions, such as, "Can we push him out?" and my boys love giving the emphatic answer, "No!" Also, there is something so intriguing about wet cement. I can just see the wheels in Aaron's head turning, wondering if it really is possibly to get so permanently stuck by stepping into some cement. Mr. Rabbit doesn't really learn his lesson, so the book has a funny ending which my boys love as well.

The problem with some easy readers is that, in an effort to make them simple, they really just become dumb...dumb stories and dialogue and sentence structure. That doesn't happen in this one; it's simple, yes, but engaging nonetheless.

The thing that amuses me the most about it is that the patch of cement never stays quite the same size or shape from page to page. And why are they pouring a big blob of cement in the middle of the street anyway?

What were some of your favorite books as a child? And have they stood the test of time?


Jul 23, 2012

I am not the type of person who, when wondering what to read next, peruses the book tables at Costco and buys the latest bestseller. First off, I don't wonder what to read next...that's what Goodreads is for. And second, I don't buy books without having read (and loved) them first...that's what the library is for.

The acquirement of books has been on my mind for two reasons (it seems my thoughts are running in twos today): first, exciting announcement, we're moving next month(!), and the new home has two full walls of built-in bookcases, and second, like I said in the previous post, I'm in Colorado visiting my parents, and they have a couple of rooms filled with books.

As I've tried to decide what will occupy all that space (referring back to the home we're moving into...let us not gloss over that all-important word, moving), I have been spending a lot of time in my parents' attic looking over their 50+ years of accumulated books.

I think you would describe both the bookshelves and the content on the shelves as eclectic. My parents' only requirement for book content is that it must be in line with our family values; other than that, anything goes, and so there are long-standing classics that sit right next to self-published failures. There are books from my mom's childhood, and even ones originally owned by my grandma and great-grandma. There are books that were purchased hot off the press and others worn and tattered from garage sales.

I always have a mixed reaction when I look over my parents' books. My first thought is always, Why are they keeping all these books? Has anyone ever read them? Will anyone ever read them? They're just cluttering up perfectly good shelves. Take this shelf, for example:

This shelf is comprised almost entirely of books my mom purchased many years ago (maybe even before I was born?) at a library book sale. Titles range from Caroline and Her Kettle Named Maud by Miriam E. Mason to Linda's Homecoming by Phyllis A. Whitney. Question: Have I ever read any of these books? Answer: No (although as I was preparing this post, I realized that there actually were some real gems among the old bindings, but of course they were not appealing in any way to a 10-year-old me). It  makes me a little sad to look over some of these titles and to think about the authors who wrote them, maybe imagining great success, but instead they're long forgotten and out of print and the only copies that remain are wedged onto my parents' attic bookshelves.

My second reaction (did you think I wasn't going to mention my other thought? I wouldn't have forgotten...I'm thinking in pairs today, remember?) when I look at all of my parents' books is, Oh, I remember that book! I wonder why I liked it so much? What a weird title...what could this even be about? Oooh, I don't think I've ever seen this one before, and before I know it, I've wasted a big chunk of time lost in the variety and the memories. For example:

Here is a collection of books my mom owned as a teenager. In all of her books, she would write her name, the date she received it, and how she came to own it. In The Key Above the Door, she wrote, "Bonnie Jones. Gave to me by Grandma. Was once hers. Oct. 4, 1970." Isn't that cool? A little piece of history right there. And then look at the cover for Sorority Girl! If you want to take an authentic step into the 50's, read that one. It might not be timeless, but there's something special about reading the time period not as historical fiction but as actually being written in the 50's. And then there's Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. I read that book when I was probably fifteen myself, and I loved it so much. I could have died with giddiness when Stan gives Jane his identification bracelet. And I don't know that I ever would have picked it up if it hadn't been sitting on our bookshelves.

I have dreamed of having my own library ever since I was a little girl: a well-lit room with comfortable chairs and pillows, big windows (at least one of which will be a bay window with a window seat), soft lamps, and walls of bookshelves filled with the very best in literature (very idealized, I know; I'm sure I'll become more original if it ever looks like it might become a reality).

When I say "the best in literature," I am not referring solely to the classics (though beautifully bound editions of Jane Eyre and A Tale of Two Cities will definitely hold their own honored places). To me, "the best in literature" is something that I will read more than once, something that I will share or read with my children, something that I will make reference to over the years, and something that has passages I savor and remember long after the book is closed. Those are the books I want occupying my shelves.

Would all of my parents' books pass that test? No, not by a long shot. Like I said, that's what the library is for. But am I irritated with my parents for keeping all the books they have? No...but...I used to be; I wanted to go through and purge all of those bookshelves and leave them with a nice little stack of treasures. But I've changed. Not completely. But enough to realize that this kind of book collecting can be special too.

And after all, isn't it more fun to dig for treasure than to just have it placed in your lap?

Nothing But a Scratch

Jul 20, 2012

Last time I checked, I wasn't fluent in Braille, so I need my eyes to read. But sadly, good vision and I have not been too chummy these last fourteen days.

A couple Fridays ago, I woke up, put in my contacts, and went outside to go running with my friend. My right contact was bothering me, so much so that I had to run back inside, take it out, rinse it, and put it back in. It felt much better, and I went on my run without further incident.

Later that day, I was driving home around lunchtime. I could hardly keep my eyes open...not because I was tired but because for some reason they felt dry and seemed extremely sensitive to light.

And from there, things grew steadily worse. I never feared I was losing the ability to see, but if your eyes won't stay open, well, that's just as much a vision impairment as less than 20/20 vision.

On Monday, having been convinced by someone at church that if  left unchecked it could lead to orbital celulitis (which sounds truly frightening), I went to the doctor. He did a quick exam, diagnosed it as a superficial corneal abrasion (i.e., a miniscule scratch) , and said it would heal in a couple of days. I felt a little foolish for going in, but better safe than sorry, right?

And he was right. By Thursday, my eyes were as good as new. And by Friday, I was wearing my contacts again (a new pair). I was scarred just enough by the experience to make me appreciate being able to walk outside without screaming in agony and retreating to the depths of a cool, dark room.

But then on Tuesday, without warning, and after just five days of good vision, all of the same symptoms started reappearing, and by that night, I couldn't even crack my eyelid.

What were the chances, I moaned, of scratching my eye twice in less than two weeks when I've been wearing contacts for ten years without ever a problem? Or was this something worse than a scratch? Would I never be able to wear contacts again? Would I deal with chronic eye pain for the rest of my life?

It turns out the chances are slim to none that you'll scratch your eye again so soon after the first time unless you wear the old pair of contacts again. Which I did. Accidentally, of course. I'm sure you're wondering why I kept the old contacts. I'm wondering that myself actually. I guess I didn't know for sure if the lens itself was defective, so I thought I might be in a desperate situation sometime and need to wear them. Well, now I know I will never be that desperate. I'm donating them to Mike so he can examine them under the microscope (because he's like that), and then they're going into the trash where they should have gone in the first place.

And as for me, my eye is finally close to normal (for the second time)...this blog post is proof of that since there's no way I would have been able to stare at a computer screen for this long two days ago.

In other news, the boys and I are in Colorado for a 10-day stay with my family while Mike finishes his dissertation. (And let me tell you: riding in the car for nine hours without being able to read...well, I'd use words like "torture" and "agony," but that might be getting a little too dramatic. )

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

Jul 16, 2012

I remembered only two things from my first reading of this book: 1) Emily's cold nights in bed with her austere Aunt Elizabeth and 2) cutting bangs for herself against Aunt Elizabeth's wishes. Now, after having read it a second time, I find it amusing that those were the two things that stuck with me. They are not particularly important to the plot, and even as I was reading it, nothing else stirred or came forward in my memory...not even the mystery surrounding Ilse's mother or Aunt Elizabeth and Emily's relationship eventually coming to a head. Memory truly is a sporadic and flighty thing.

When the story begins, Emily's father is dying of consumption. After he dies (I don't consider that a spoiler since it happened in the first 20 pages), Emily is sent to live with her proud, tradition-loving Murray relatives. Between Aunt Elizabeth's stern dislike, Aunt Laura's sweet and sensitive concern, and Cousin Jimmy's unquestioning love, Emily finds plenty of material to write about on any scrap of paper she can find. (Aunt Elizabeth doesn't believe in having too much paper around.) And then to spice things up, there's also a visit to the unconventional Aunt Nancy, a near-tragic fall down a deep ravine, and a disturbing scandal surrounding the disappearance of Emily's best friend's mother.

Of course I couldn't read this book and not compare Emily to my beloved Anne Shirley. There are three Emily books, and I only ever read this one, whereas I read the entire Anne series plus several re-reads, so it is only natural I suppose that I would be more attached to Anne. That said, Emily is very easy to love and shows some definite similarities to Anne: a  strong, and sometimes overactive, imagination, orphaned, and a desire to write and create. But where Anne is dramatic and emotional, Emily is dependable and somewhat defiant. Anne can fly into a quick temper, but Emily's emotions seem to run a little deeper and last a little longer. And although Emily loves to hear the Wind Woman outside her window, she doesn't give luscious and charming names to every flower and brook the way Anne does. I don't think Emily could ever replace Anne for me, but I'd still take her as a friend.

In true L.M. Montgomery fashion, the story is full of delightful descriptions and memorable characters. I especially love her minor characters...those ones that flit in and out of the story but that leave a marked impression because they are so brilliantly described. Take Father Cassidy, for example. He takes part in just one chapter (save for a couple of brief references later on), but I couldn't forget him because of this image: "Emily thought he looked just like a big nut--a big, brown, wholesome nut." It's not flattering, but it's also not unflattering. It simple and perfect. In addition to that though, Father Cassidy is memorable because he has a distinctive voice ("Don't be afraid of the B'y. He eats tender little Protestants sometimes, but he never meddles with leprechauns.") and he encourages Emily in her talents. I won't bore you with analyzing every single minor character, but just know that Montgomery is just as vivid with all her characters.

Oh, and she has such a wry sense of humor. For example, after Aunt Laura piteously asks Emily what she was thinking, Aunt Elizabeth advises sarcastically, "I think it will be better if you do not ask that child what she is thinking of." I think I used to miss a lot of the subtle humor when I read these books as a child, but now it is another reason why I love L.M. Montgomery so much.

And she also has some great one-liners...those times where she says just the right thing in just a few words. Take this description about Cousin Jimmy, who lives with Aunt Laura and Aunt Elizabeth because he fell in a well when he was a boy and was never the same since: "Whatever was missing, it wasn't his heart." Doesn't that just make you love Cousin Jimmy? And you haven't even read the book!

One last thing that I loved about this book were the chapters that were composed entirely of Emily's letters to her father. In these sections, the writing switches to first-person by Emily, where we get an inside look into how she feels about life and certain events/people. I loved having most of the book told in third-person with the occasional snippets told in first-person. Seeing Emily's character from two angles and perspectives really fleshed her out for me and made her more real.

This was just a wonderful summer read. Since I never read Emily Climbs or Emily's Quest, I'm looking forward to finishing the Emily trilogy.

Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Child in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World by MaryBeth Hicks

Jul 13, 2012

I've done it. I have cracked the code on my parent's parenting philosophy. They might not know it, but they practically followed this book to the letter. In fact, if they wrote a parenting book, it would be this one, so I guess they can cross that off their to-do list.

I thought about how to go about writing this review. Should I summarize each of the points? Share my favorite quotes? Or wax philosophical? But really, I couldn't escape how eerily familiar the whole book was to my own growing up. I could see myself in every single geeky characteristic. And so, I thought, why not discuss the book through some personal comparisons?

But first, a definition: According to MaryBeth Hicks, a geek is a Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kid. In the introduction, she says that geeky parents raise children to have "good characters and strong values." They do not raise them to be popular (although being popular does not automatically exclude them from being a geek, but it is highly improbable).

And now, to expose my true geeky nature, here are the ten characteristics of a geek:

1. Geeks are Brainiacs
I was homeschooled. Need I say more? I'm pretty sure homeschoolers would fall under the "geekier than geeky" category. In my home, there was a natural, near-constant emphasis placed on education. Just as an example, my dad enjoyed having us give "One-Minute Talks" around the dinner table where he (or someone else) would give someone a subject that they would then have to talk about for one minute. So, check, definitely a brainiac (which, by the way, just means that  you enjoy learning, not necessarily that you're brilliant). One of the things I really enjoyed about this chapter were the eight kinds of intelligence that MaryBeth Hicks discussed. It really opened my eyes to the multitude of ways a person can be smart.

2. Geeks are Sheltered
When I was living at home, we had a strict rule: Only G-rated media. No exceptions. Harsh and rigid? Maybe (my parents have bended a little bit in recent years), but it was meant to weed out the bad without having to do much weeding (some good was lost with it, but nothing that we couldn't live without). I am by no means advocating this rule nor am I condemning it. I am just stating it like it was. Regardless of whether you agree or not, I think the point is that we had a standard and we stuck to it religiously. Every family should know what they will or will not allow into their home.

3. Geeks are Uncommon
I'm not going to lie. I felt this one, and it hurt just a little. I could tell I was different. I couldn't join in on conversations with my peers because I either didn't know what they were talking about or didn't care. Part of me wanted to hang out at Wal-Mart (remember, I'm from rural Colorado...that was the only cool hangout for miles around) or be asked to prom, but the other part of me knew that even if I did, I would still feel isolated. Looking back, I realize that some of my interests that contributed to me being "uncommon" (sewing, playing the piano and organ, etc.) have actually helped me to be more successful as an adult. Which is why, even though it hurt, it was probably worth it.

4. Adults like Geeks
Oh my goodness, I can't even tell you how much adults loved me. They all wanted me to either be their daughter (or granddaughter) or to marry their son (problem was, the sons did not feel the same way because...well, because I was a geek). Since I was homeschooled, I probably spent more than the usual amount of time with adults, and I honestly could carry on great conversations because I just viewed them as older, wiser friends. I was also polite and wrote thank-you notes, and adults love that.

5. Geeks are Late-Bloomers
Okay, this is hard to admit (but it definitely proves this point): I played with dolls well into my teens. Yes, it's true. My mom didn't encourage me to be interested in make-up or dating, and so I hung onto my childhood. (But that's not to say I didn't have make-up and dating in my peripheral vision; it just wasn't front and center and all-consuming.) So while I was mature in some ways, I came into other parts of adolescence rather slowly. (Now admit it...those of you who have daughters now, aren't you glad you get to play with dolls again?)

6. Geeks are Team Players
My family is not a sports family; we are a music family. This means that while only a few of us played on baseball and soccer city leagues, we all played a musical instrument, no negotiation. But even without the sports emphasis, I think my parents still instilled the value of being a good team player: competing with dignity and grace, trying your best, and pulling your share of the load.

7. Geeks are True Friends
As Aaron gets closer to going to school (still more than a year away but coming too fast for me), I've thought a lot about friends. I've realized that if he can just find some great geeky friends, he will be happy. As with most things, it is so much easier to do (or not do) things if you're not alone.. I had a few really good friends growing up (that are still my friends today), but I felt like the geeks really came out of the woodwork once I went to college (or maybe it was just because the ratio of geeks to non-geeks increased significantly).

8. Geeks are Homebodies
I already admitted that I never hung out at Wal-Mart. And it wasn't because I was somewhere else with my friends. It was because I was at home with my family. Dinner as a family was a priority (when else could we do our one-minute talks?!). Supporting each other by attending recitals or T-ball games was required. And doing activities together as a family was expected. Was I akways happy about this? Definitely not. As the oldest of eight kids, it was extremely embarrassing for me to go places with my family. The ten of us were not inconspicuous by any definition of the word.  And being inconspicuous was all I really wanted. But you know what? I survived. They were happy events then, and they're even happier events now, and doing those things built strong bonds of friendship that have outlived the embarrassment.

9. Geeks are Principled.
Oh boy. I know I matched this one. I had a reputation for speaking my mind, obeying the rules, and standing up for my values. My conscience pricked very easily (it still does), and I often apologized for my tone of voice or a perceived implication. I turned down many a movie invitation because of the aforementioned family standard. And my sense of right and wrong was very black and white. In the book, MaryBeth Hicks said: "Experts counsel that parents should avoid criticizing children at all costs because it makes kids feel bad about themselves." And then she quotes Betsy Hart who said, "Well no doubt. This used to be called developing a conscience." With all of the current emphasis on raising a kid with a high self-esteem, I really appreciated the reminder that feeling bad about your actions is not only healthy but essential to becoming a personal with high morals.

10. Geeks are Faithful
MaryBeth Hicks makes the distinction between spirituality ("an intimate relationship [with God] as expressed through personal prayer and contemplation") and religion ("the expression of faith in a structured way"). Growing up, my parents stressed the importance of both. Without turning this into a religious discussion, I will say I am very grateful for the strong foundation my religion has provided. My parents instilled their beliefs into me, but those beliefs became my own as I acted on my faith and discovered things for myself. My testimony and trust in my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ has anchored me and given my life purpose and meaning.

As I read this book, I realized there were two aspects of my upbringing that made me incredibly geeky: first, that I was homeschooled. (I don't think you could be homeschooled and not be a geek.) And second, I'm a Mormon, which means there are certain standards already in place which naturally lead to a more geeky lifestyle. So, I loved it that MaryBeth Hicks neither homeschooled her kids nor was she a Mormon (she and her family are Roman Catholics). This was so refreshing for look at the geeky lifestyle from a completely different angle and to know that it can work in many different ways.

It reminded me of a friend I had when I was 17 and 18. His mom wanted me to marry him (naturally...see #4), but he actually really liked me too...probably because he was just as geeky as myself. But although I considered him a friend, I never liked him like that. I remember my inner turmoil over it...was it impossible to have high, geeky standards and be socially adept?

And the good news is, no! Just like MaryBeth Hicks and I are both geeks even though we come from very different backgrounds, I found a geek that I fell madly in love with. Mike is geeky in all of the important ways but without any of the social awkwardness. Which is to say, there are many different ways to apply the geeky lifestyle to you and your family. (And also, in my friend's defense, I lost touch with him, but I'm guessing he outgrew some of his awkward geekiness. To a certain extent, most geeks do.)

And finally just a few technical thoughts on the book itself: I really didn't like all her references to "experts say..." without actually giving concrete sources. (She has a bibliography in the back, but I prefer things to be cited within the context they were given.) Also, she frequently said, "I'm no expert, but..." and it just rubbed me the wrong way. I loved  that she wasn't an expert but wished she hadn't referred to the fact so often (but maybe she felt the need to reiterate that point so other people wouldn't criticize her for acting like she had professional expertise. I guess you can't win.)

And finally, if you're going to pay someone to design a cover, I would hope they could turn out a better result than this. The subtitle especially bugs me. Just my opinion.

All in all, this is a parenting book that I would recommend. If nothing else, it will make you think about why you're doing what you're doing, and if it's really leading to the kind of results you want.

But even if I hadn't read this book, I think my kids would still have been doomed. With Mike and me as parents, we'd be hard pressed to raise anything but geeks.

Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Why I Don't Watch TV

Jul 11, 2012

Usually, during a typical conversation, especially if it goes on for long enough, television will come up in some form, either referencing a show or actor or scandal or season finale or whatever . If this is a group conversation, I'm usually fine. I can nod or shake my head appropriately and smile attentively. But if it's a one-on-one conversation, I'm forced to admit that I don't know what or who they're talking about because "I don't watch a lot of TV."

What is my definition of "not a lot of TV"? A simple Q&A should clear things up:

Q: What do you mean by TV?
A: I mean anything with actors that moves on a screen (so movies, shows via internet, and regular channels on TV all count).

Q: Do you watch TV every day?
A: No.

Q: How much TV do you watch in a week? 
A: 1 hour, maybe 2-3 if I watch a movie.

Q: Do you have a Netflix or Hulu account?
A: No.

Q: Do you have cable or satellite?
A: No.

Q: Do you have any channels?
A: Yes. Five or maybe six?

Q: What was the last show you actually watched week by week?
A: Biggest Loser, January-May 2011

Q: What was the last movie you saw in the theater?
A: Toy Story 3

Q: What was the last movie you saw at home?
A: Father of the Bride (1991). I had never seen it. 

Q: What do you watch?
A: Currently, Chopped or Downton Abbey.

Q: Have you always been this way?
A: No. That is, according to my definition of TV, I used to watch more shows and movies, but rarely have I watched anything current. When I was a teenager, I watched almost every movie that was made in the 1940's and 50's (slight exaggeration), but almost nothing that came out in the 90's and early 2000's. What can I say? I was (and am) a geek. (Stay tuned for my upcoming review of Bringing Up Geeks where I will reveal even more about my geeky nature.)

Q: What do you do in the evenings?
A: I clean my house (which is a tornado by 8:00pm). I waste time on the internet. I always think I'll have time to read. But I rarely do. (But I always listen to a book while I'm cleaning.)

Q: Do you like TV?
A: Yes, sometimes. I like it when it's clean and uplifting or funny (hmmm....maybe that's why I watch so little). I don't like to watch by myself, so I don't even think about it unless Mike is home.

Q: Why are you spending all this time talking about your TV habits?
A: I don't know. Probably because I was thinking about how awkward some conversations are with me because I don't know the names of any actors or even which shows are popular. I thought I'd give everyone an explanation for my ignorance.

Final Q: Do you let your kids watch TV?
Final A: Yes. In fact, they watch something pretty much every morning while I get ready for the day. I'm not opposed to TV (monitored and in moderation). It's just not how I choose to spend my free time.

LibraryPages: Finding a Good Book

Jul 9, 2012

Nearly four years ago, when Aaron was just a wee babe, I began making regular trips to the library in search of high-quality children's literature. I soon found that while searching through the stacks sometimes yielded some real gems, it could also be rather fruitless. I also discovered that leisurely perusing shelf after shelf was just not that practical while trying to keep track of one, and then two, and now three children.

The solution? Let the librarians do the work for me! From the comfort of my comfortable couch, I can find the books I want and put them on hold. Then when I go to the library, I pick up the pile of 15-20 books that are ready and waiting for me. It's so easy! If I have time to wander down the aisles, great, but if one of the boys has a meltdown, we can leave right then, and I'll still be going home with a bag full of new books. Isn't the library wonderful?

Well, that's all well and good, you might say, but how are you deciding which titles to put on hold? 

Excellent question! I'll admit that staring at the blinking library cursor can be just as daunting as looking over the expanse of books in the children's section. Here are a few of my favorite resources for finding the really good books:

1. The library catalog itself
I've had great success with the keyword search. If Aaron is interested in sharks, then I put in the word "shark" and see which titles come up. It's a little bit of a blind search (just because the title sounds intriguing or the cover looks promising doesn't mean it will be worth the time, and doing it this way you don't have the added advantage of being able to peek inside), but I've found that the descriptions reveal a lot, and it's still more convenient to search from home.

Also, on our library catalog, I can view the recently acquired items, and, I'll be honest, I LOVE being the first or second patron to check out a book. All the flaps are in good shape, the plastic is shiny, and there aren't any disgusting fingerprints to wipe off.

Finally, when we find authors we like, I look up the other books they've written, and over the course of several months, we check them out. For example, everyone knows Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, but have you ever read Lentil, also by Robert McCloskey? Definitely worth checking out.

2. Award lists
There are all sorts of children's book awards...from the prestigious Caldecott to the Geisel Award to local honors like the Beehive Book Award. Looking up winners from past years is a great way to rediscover some forgotten treasures.

3. Book lists
Goodreads has hundreds of great lists that have been compiled on any number of subjects. For example, I entered "children nature" into the search field and found this great list of 80 picture books about gardens.

Also, don't forget about Google! You can pull up all sorts of book lists by looking for things like Best Picture Books of 2003. (Why would I narrow it down by year like that? Simply because I like to weed out some of the popular classics, like Where the Wild Things Are, that will show up on every single list if you're not careful. I already know that's a good book. I want some new ideas.)

And, of course, the ever-popular Pinterest. I see book lists pinned all the time over there (but, just so you know, they're often the same kinds of lists, so you see a lot of repetition...and really, there are waaaaay more than 25 good books out there!).

4. Blogs
So often, someone has already done the work for me. They've already tested and tried a stack of picture books and reported on the ones they love. Here are a few of my favorite sites to go to:

Amy @ Delightful Children's Books
Besides posting dozens of lists herself, a few weeks ago Amy did a similar post to this one where she listed many of her favorite resources. This was such a valuable post. I definitely recommend checking it out and pinning it so you have it for future reference.

Allison McDonald @ No Time for Flashcards
Besides having frequent guest posts, Allison posts these great reading lists which feature great books by subject. I've gone to this page many times when I'm out of ideas.

Janssen @ Everyday Reading
Hands down, this is one of my very favorite blogs. You really should take a look at it. But not to get sidetracked from the subject at hand, Janssen has a two-year-old little girl, and she often writes about their current favorite books.

Tara @ Feels Like Home
Tara created a list of 101 of her favorite picture books. It was a really unique and original list, which I appreciated. 

Danielle @ There's a Book 
Danielle has regular picture book reviews which include thoughts from her kids. This year she's also doing the Year of the Picture Book where she features a favorite picture book almost every day.

So now you see why I can have a new pile of books waiting for me every week at the library and also why there isn't enough time in the day to get through all the good books (or to waste my time on the bad ones!).

KidPages: Three Newly Discovered Classics

Jul 6, 2012

I'm always surprised when I discover something that's been loved for years by practically the entire world, but I've never even heard of it.  I totally understand this when it comes to pop culture or politics or even the news because, frankly, I really don't pay any  attention to those things, and when I do it's only with half an ear. But picture books? I have three small boys for crying out loud! We go to the library at least once a week. And we read dozens of different titles every month. It's at moments like these that I seriously wonder if I'm living in some sort of windowless cave.

This is how I felt when we found the following three books. But better late than never, right?

1. Fortunately by Remy Charlip
I'm going to be perfectly honest: I . . . was not impressed with the illustrations in this book. They are blocky and undefinable. As a non-artist, I can't pull out any sort of description that would set them apart from any other artist's style, except maybe to say they're flat and not unique, so maybe that makes them unique?

And yet, in spite of the less-than-noteworthy illustrations, I was hooked by the second page. It took just that long for me to catch the rhythm of the story: "Fortunately one day Ned was invited to a surprise birthday party" (color illustration). "Unfortunately, the party was in Florida and Ned was in New York" (black and white illustration). The positive/negative scenarios gradually get more and more ridiculous. (My favorite involved a pitchfork in a haystack; Aaron and Max's favorite involved shark-infested waters.)

I think this book has not only immediate but also long-lasting appeal because the story is predictably unpredictable. We know something bad (or good) is going to happen, but what? And then, Ned's luck is so bad (and good) that is just sends us into fits of giggles. Plus, although life's circumstances are not usually so extreme, our days are full of ups and downs, and I think this book shows that even though bad experiences come, they're usually followed by something good.

2. Bark, George by Jules Feiffer
Every time I read this book, I like it a little better. The text is simple, the illustrations are simple, but the humor seems to grow and expand with each retelling. It just gets funnier and funnier.

George is a dog. His mother wants him to give a respectable bark. But George only manages to meow, quack, oink, and moo. So George's mother takes him to the vet who soon gets to the bottom of the problem and restores George's bark. There is a surprise twist at the end that just leaves readers, young and old, laughing but also going, "Huh?"

It's really exceptional storytelling: It has sparse text so even the smallest listener stays interested. It's paced well; it uses something familiar in a new way; and it brings back certain elements of the story which were introduced in the beginning.

I honestly think Jules Feiffer could not have picked a better name for the dog. I've tried other names ("Bark, Rover!" "Bark, Spot!" "Bark, Lyle!"), but none of them have that same direct punch (I was going to say "none of them roll off the tongue," but neither "bark" nor "George" are words that do much rolling, so it didn't really apply). There's something about saying, "Bark, George!" that feels just right. (C'mon, give it a try. See what I mean?)

3. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illus. by Robert Lawson
This is one that Mike's mom read to him when he was little (although I think it's the Disney version that is more firmly anchored in his memory). Regardless of the medium, it brought on the nostalgia when he saw it in the library stack.

It's opening line is: "Once upon a time in Spain..." I love this beginning because 1) it's not your traditional fairy tale and 2) it stars a young bull named Ferdinand (not a potential princess or an evil witch or a big, bad wolf). By beginning with "Once upon a time," the reader immediately begins with certain expectations, and I love it that those expectations are met in a non-traditional way.

Speaking of Ferdinand, he likes to sit by himself under a cork tree and smell the flowers. One day, quite by mistake, he gets selected to be in the bull fight in Madrid. He is taken to the big city amid much pomp and energy, but in the end, the crowds of people go home disappointed.

Ultimately the message of Ferdinand is to "be yourself." Just because everyone else wants you to jump around and kick and fight doesn't mean that's what you have to do. If, instead, you want to enjoy the beauty around you and quietly keep to yourself, then that's fine, too. Really, in a world of near-constant peer pressure, it's not only a great message for kids but adults as well.

And there you have it...three awesome titles that haven't lost any of their charm in the years since they were published. Are they new to anyone else? Secretly, I love it when I find a "new" old title. It makes me realize that there are more old treasures out there that are just waiting to be discovered.

5 Books That Will Make You Proud to Be an American

Jul 4, 2012

In honor of the day, here are five books that will put a little patriotism in your heart:

1. 1776 by David McCullough
America's birth was nothing short of a miracle...or rather, a series of miracles. In true David McCullough fashion, this book is full to the brim with facts but is still very readable. In both quality and content, it's history at its finest.

2. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Fought on American soil, the Civil War placed American against American. I read this book two years ago during a family vacation where we visited Gettysburg. It gave meaning and depth to the experience. As we walked through the sites of some of the battles, I could practically see the soldiers and hear the sound of the guns and cannons. That's the power of a good book. The Civil War was full of upstanding and honorable Americans on both sides, and I'm so grateful that in the end, our country stayed together.

3. Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody
I've been meaning to re-read this book for quite some time. When I was younger, my dad read all eight books out loud, and I have very fond memories of listening to him read while we traveled in the car. It is Ralph Moody's personal account of ranching in Colorado at the turn of the century. America continues to grow and prosper because of people like the Moody family who aren't afraid of hard work or of chasing their dreams.

4. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan
This is the true story of Evelyn Ryan. Her husband was an alcoholic, and she raised their ten children, kept food on the table, and paid the rent by composing one-liner phrases and short poems for various jingles and commercial contests. It was the 1950's when these kinds of contests were quite popular, and she made a regular business out of it. To read about this mother's ingenuity and fierce determination is inspiring. I feel like this is the heart of America: whatever you have, no matter how little you've been given, you can make something of yourself, and you can make a difference.

5. Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Whether you're a baseball fan or not, there's something about the sport that gets the patriotism stirring. In this memoir, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles her childhood in the 1950's. She was an avid Dodgers fan, and the anticipation, triumphs, and heartbreaks of the sport are interwoven with the normal adventures of childhood. In this light, baseball becomes magical and of course, very American.

Have a wonderful 4th of July!

Like a Tortoise With a Lame Foot

Jul 2, 2012

Confession: I am not a speed reader. I am not a fast reader. In fact, by all counts and measures, I think you'd define me as a "slow reader."

When a friend says, "Oh, this was such a fast read. I blazed through it in less than a day," I think, Okay, so probably more like four or five days for me. And when someone else says, "I was only going to read two or three chapters and then, oops, before I knew it, I'd finished the book!" I think, Has that ever happened to me? And when still another person says, "I'm just going to read the first couple hundred pages tonight," I think, I'm just going to read the first 30 pages tonight. 

So I'm sure you're dying to know: How slow am I really? I conducted a couple of informal tests, and the answer is S-L-O-W. I was reading at about 165 words per minute. As a reference point, average reading speed for most adults is about 200 words per minute, which is about the speed that most people read out loud.

(It now makes sense why I can get through a book faster if I listen to the audio instead of read it myself! Also, I hope you appreciate the blow my ego took to admit that.)

Over the last three years or so, I've read an average of 50 books each year. That's about a book a week. Although not outstanding, it's a respectable number. But think, oh just think, how many more books I could read if I read just a little bit faster!

So the question is Why? Why am I so slow?
I have my suspicions, and most of them point to my obsessive compulsive nature. If I don't understand something, I re-read it. Sometimes it's just a sentence, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a whole page. The problem is, I often get in a vicious cycle where I read something, I don't understand it, so I re-read it, but my attention kind of zones out, so I don't understand it any better (because I wasn't paying attention), so I re-read it again...and again...and sometimes even again. This goes for textbooks all the way down to chick lit or children's novels.

(Actually, this is more the way I used to read. I've improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years and rarely re-read so obsessively, but I'm still fast-as-a-turtle slow.)
Anytime I try to read faster, I feel like my comprehension goes way down, and I end up re-reading it, so in the end, it probably takes me longer than if I'd just read it at my slow pace to begin with. And so I do.

The thing is, I would LOVE to read faster. I have so many books I want to read. It is agonizing to read at such a slow pace.

So, all you speed readers out there (especially those of you who didn't start out so speedy), what tips do you have for me? I honestly do not want to use some computer program...I'm tight on time as it is. If I'm going to improve, it needs to be with something that I already want to read. Make sense?

Stay tuned for a more specific goal, but for now I want your advice! (And maybe your sympathy, too.)
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