Friday, May 16, 2014

Allegiant -- A Book Review for Cautious Christian Moms

Veronica Roth had a great idea for a book series. Actually, she may have had a great idea for a book and then dragged it out into a series. An alternative title for the series might be:

The Divergent Trilogy: A Practical How-To Guide to Capitalizing on Teenage Girls' Emotions So Completely That They Don't Even Notice a Book is Poorly Written

The third book in the series, Allegiant, is the worst of the three, in my opinion, for a variety of reasons.

 -- A whole new mysterious world with its own set of rules and realities arises at the beginning of Allegiant--something I found initially to be intriguing and hopeful. However, this serves to introduce us to a myriad of new characters who seem very one-dimensional, flat, and unbelievable. How our "heroes" know to instantly trust some of them and distrust others is baffling.

-- A new writing format emerges. Tris, a sixteen year old girl and the main character, was the narrator for the first two books in the series, but in Allegiant her love interest, eighteen year old Tobias, takes alternating chapters to narrate himself. This was disconcerting at first, as I wasn't accustomed to hearing Tobias' perspective, but I accepted the idea in concept after a few chapters. Sadly, as the book dragged on, I noticed a marked sameness in the "voice" of the two main characters and had to continually look back to the title at the start of each chapter to remind myself of whose thoughts were being conveyed. Very little is accomplished by the switching out of narrators, except to provide an alternate voice for when one narrator is...ahem...unable to narrate any longer. (Yes, that is a bit of a spoiler there. Sorry. I'm guessing you aren't going to be running out to read this book anyway.)

-- In Allegiant, the main characters seem to break form with who we have always known them to be and how we have always known them to act, but with no justification given. Truly, it is as if the author has forgotten their character traits and expects us to forget, too. Tris, who was always so cautious, guarded and careful, begins to randomly trust strangers and repeatedly discusses top-secret plans right out in public where she could easily be overheard. Tobias, who was always self-assured, level-headed and strong, becomes filled with self-doubt and fear, unable to make decisions and act upon them. Also, after being forced to shoot a friend early in the series, Tris becomes terribly nervous around guns and panics every time she has to hold one in her hand--all the way until the climax of this last book, when she has no problem shooting her way through a crowd of "bad guys" with no mention of shaky hands or nerves at all. Tobias' distrust of his own mother--who has a well-deserved reputation for being two-faced and heartless toward him--suddenly disappears, too, and he is somehow willing to risk anything for her sake when she expresses that she loves him.

-- At the beginning of the series Tris is presented as a girl who is uncomfortable with physical affection and romance. She is reserved and guarded, protective of her body as belonging solely to her, and doesn't want anyone to push her into moving faster than she wants, physically. This was so refreshing to me! By Allegiant, however, she cannot wait to get alone and physical with Tobias. We know this because the author reminds us of it often and builds the sexual tension so completely that readers are likely relieved any time the two of them can finally get some time alone--one pushing the other up against whatever wall is handy--and then ultimately getting the opportunity to have a room to themselves overnight. The author treats this final physical scene more vaguely than the others, not defining what actually goes on in that room behind closed doors, but in the morning we find them in bed together, with clothes on the floor. Not much imagination is required. Incredulously, the fact that they finally had sex is never really mentioned again. There is no personal assessment or evaluation of whether or not this was a good idea or how they feel about what happened. It happened and we all just move on. It is presented as if it is inevitable and really no big deal at all. Nothing worthy of another thought. So disappointing.

There were other disappointments in the book, but frankly, I am tired of it, so I am going to leave it alone and walk away. I told Ellie about my frustration after I had finished previewing it. She was frustrated, too, but was so invested in the series that she wanted to be able to read for the plot. She asked me to find a way to cover up the "kissy parts" (and worse) so she could read for actual plot-advancing content. I cut heavy card stock to size and double-side taped it over the scenes she didn't want to read.

Again, this is not because I am a prude and want my daughter to know nothing of human sexuality. On the contrary, I want my daughter to know more than most of her peers, namely, that human sexuality is an incredibly beautiful thing that was designed to flourish best within the confines of a long-term, committed relationship, i.e. marriage. In other words, there is no sense in trying to see how much fire one can play with in the middle of an open, dry prairie on a hot and windy day--without igniting a brush fire. Playing with fire recklessly is ignorant and foolish, and I want my daughter to be smarter than that. Fire is a wonderful, beautiful thing, though, when properly contained in a fire ring or a woodstove, or as part of a controlled burn by the fire department or forest service. The same is true with human sexuality.

She read the book and said it was ok, but not great. In my accounting, that is a generous evaluation. Had I known at the beginning where it was going to end, we would have never wasted our time. If you, reader, haven't started yet, don't bother. It's not worth it.

To read my reviews of the other two books in the series, click here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Insurgent: A Book Review for Cautious Christian Moms

After reading Divergent, the first book in the recent trilogy by Veronica Roth, I was cautiously hopeful for the rest of the series. I found Divergent to be clever and fresh, not the best writing I've ever seen, but compared to the other offerings in the burgeoning genre of teen dystopian fiction, I liked it. I didn't like the kissy parts, as I felt they were thoroughly unnecessary to the telling of the story, but I have already mentioned this in my last entry.

I liked the direction Roth seemed to be going, examining the corrupt nature of the human heart, allowing a young woman to have her own standards for purity despite the expectations of the surrounding culture, digging beneath the surface to find out what a person is truly made of, a new and better definition of bravery than what we have heard before, a curiosity about God.

I previewed the second book, Insurgent, however, before handing it off to my daughter, and it left me bored and frustrated. The kissy parts--although they are few and far between because the main characters spend most of their time in conflict--are more intense, more graphic, more passionate, more...hungry.  This is not what I want for my young teenage daughter. More on this topic later.

The rest of the book can be summarized in two words: tragedy porn.

The body count in this book is high. The characters tumble headlong from crisis to crisis. No one can be trusted. No situation is safe. There is no rest for the reader at all. It is like watching a playoffs hockey game between two rivals--more time is spent fighting than advancing the plot, it seems. Add to this the near constant tension between the two main lovebirds and the book seems to be not-so-cleverly designed to simply play on the emotions of teenage girls.

(Come to think of it, that does seem to be the formula for selling books to teenage girls, doesn't it?)

I found the book to be tedious. It was so action-packed that I stopped caring by about the half-way point. I trudged through Insurgent to the end, though, because I needed its content to advance me to the third and final book, the one that would surely wrap up the topics introduced in the first book.

Before I move on to Book Three, though, I want to address how we dealt with the kissy scenes. I don't like to censor books. I don't often have the desire to rip out pages or black out lines with a  Sharpie marker. This book left me feeling this way, however--or at least one steamy scene in particular, where I felt like the author let the sixteen year old protagonist go too far, too fast, not stopping to think, and screeching on the brakes just short of the point of no return.

I discussed it with my husband and we agreed that the most powerful thing about a scene like that is the young and curious reader's ability to savor the descriptions slowly, alone and hidden away. Secrets are far more powerful than things brought to light. We needed to find a way to strip the passage of its power and make it something to skim through as quickly as possible, rather than linger over. My husband suggested a most unusual plan of action. Our daughter could read the scene aloud. Yuck! Who wants to do that? Further refining our twisted plan, it was determined that she would read the scene her Daddy.

This was not to be a punishment of any kind, but rather a technique designed solely to make her uncomfortable with the passage, with no desire to relive privately the awkward feelings associated with reading it. Call us crazy. Call us prudish. Call us sick and twisted. Call us whatever you want, but we know our daughter and we thought this was the right approach. A husband and wife's physical relationship is a beautiful thing, and one to be celebrated and enjoyed, but only amongst themselves. None of us have any business spying on someone else's most intimate moments. It should be uncomfortable when it happens--even in literature. I placed a sticky note over the text where the scene begins and wrote on it that she should come to me before continuing.

She handled it very well. She was uncomfortable reading the passage aloud, but not to the point of humiliation, and she read the few pages quickly and without emotion, anxious to move beyond them and frustrated that the author felt the need to include them at all when they do very little to advance the plot.

That was two weeks ago. Yesterday, I finished reading the third and final book in the series: Allegiant.

Stay tuned for the final installment in this series of reviews. I will say this: The last book surprised me. For my review of Allegiant, the third and final book of the trilogy, click here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Divergent: A Book Review for Cautious Christian Moms

 “But my friend read it and so did her little sister, and their mom thinks it’s fine!"

I have heard this line a time or twenty. The problem is that it doesn’t really help me. I am a very picky and conservative mom. I don’t think my early teenage daughter needs to have her head filled with very worldly older teenage or adult thoughts. Just to make things complicated, though, I am also a very liberal and permissive mom. I don’t tend to censor books as some think I should. I want my kids to learn to process, filter and discuss what they read, rather than simply avoid questionable or controversial topics. This contradictory set of standards leaves me in a pickle every time my daughter wants to read something that is unknown to me.

When she was younger it was easier. I would simply preview most of her books. They were generally quick, easy reads, and I could skim through them easily. Her books now, however, are anything but quick, easy reads and I simply don’t have time to pre-read everything.

So when she wants to start a new series, particularly one that is all over the teenage pop culture scene, I am in a bit of a quandary. This is where I found myself when she wanted to read Divergent, by Veronica Roth. She asked if she could read it and I was crazy busy right then. It was recommended by a few friends and an older teen girl of whom I think highly, so I just blindly gave my consent.

Within forty-eight hours, she was finished and placed the book into my hands, insisting that I read it. “It is SO GOOD!” she declared. She doesn’t always invite me into her world so willingly and enthusiastically, so I vowed to clear some time in my schedule and dug right in.

I discovered quickly that she was right. Immediately, I found Divergent to be clever in its premise and creative in its setting. It was even thought provoking and deep, in a teenage-y sort of way. However, I was shocked to find part way through that it is a kissy book—far more so than I am comfortable with. The strong female lead character is sixteen years old and falls for a boy who is eighteen. Perhaps your daughter is already there, but falling in love for the first time and learning the joys of kissing a boy are not things I want filling the head of my thirteen year old yet!

I kept reading.

By the end of Divergent, the first in a series of three, I had decided to forgive the author for adding in all the unnecessary kissy scenes and move on to the second book, surprising even myself. Without giving any spoilers, the following is my list of reasons:

1. The author is an unabashed Christian. Although she is respectful of faith and religion in the story, I did not realize she is a Christian herself until I was finished with the book and saw her acknowledgements page. The fact that she approaches life through a lens of faith in Jesus means that she lives and works with a sense of purpose that I respect. She and I share a worldview, at least in part. This makes me reconsider everything and question more deeply the reasons behind adding in the kissy parts. For more on Veronica Roth’s faith, check out this article I found on her blog:

2. There are quite a few significant themes running throughout the book, things that are worthy of discussion. Here are a few that I picked out without much effort:
  • We are products of both “nature” and “nurture.” 
  • We are deeply influenced both by how we were raised, and what we choose to pursue for ourselves as we come of age, but ultimately, neither of these things defines us.
  • There is usually much more to a person than initially meets the eye.
  • People who find they don’t fit well into the norms of this world are people fitted for a higher purpose. There is no shame in not fitting in. On the contrary, it is often an indicator of hidden talent or rare strength of character.
  • Girls can and should set limits for how others can touch their bodies. Willingly giving up one’s own personal standards is weak.
  • Selfless giving and serving others are not weak. On the contrary, they require exceptional courage and strength.
  • Bravery is not the same as fearlessness. Bravery is the ability to think clearly and do what is right in the face of fear.
  • A courageous heart is of little value without a purpose to guide it.
  • Selfless giving and serving, along with honesty, courage, a willingness to learn and grow, and the pursuit of peace and harmony are all things to be valued highly.
  • Man’s attempts at controlling the corrupt nature of the human heart are futile and will ultimately fail.
3. I am curious where she is going with the rest of the trilogy. I like the foundation she has set in this first book and hope she builds on it wisely.

4. I don’t know it for sure, but I am guessing that that her publisher required more kissy parts to be added to the story in order for it to appeal to a general, secular young adult audience. She was not writing these books for the shelves of the Christian bookstores, after all.

5. I would rather my daughter know how to pick apart a book, find the things the author is trying to communicate, and take note of the unnecessary scenes—like the kissy parts of this book—than take every part of a book at face value with no filters in place.

I did ask my daughter to allow me to read the second book, Insurgent, before she attacked it herself. She was anxious to get at it, but respectfully handed the book over. I have now finished reading it and there is an even worse kissy scene in that book, but I still passed it on to her when I was through. I will write more on why we are continuing the series and how we will be handling the gratuitous kissy scenes later.

Hope this was helpful. If you think other moms you know might want to read this, too, please share it. Thanks.  

For my review of the second book in this series, Insurgent, click here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friend Time for Grown-Ups

I'm crazy busy right now, nearly every hour filled between now and when we hit the road next week for our next round of travels.  I am compassionate, though, toward my children who miss their friends when we are on the road and want to get one last visit in with each of them before we go, so I try to accommodate them.  They each made arrangements this afternoon to sleep over at a friend's house tonight.

My son Tano, sixteen years old, wanted to spend the night with his good buddy Liam.  They love to play guitars, watch 'guy' movies, and then stay up late talking about life, the universe, and everything (seriously, they can talk for hours about the origins of life, the extent of the known universe, and theoretical physics).  Liam happens to be the son of my dear friend Jen, and she and I had already arranged for our 'one last visit' to be tonight on the sidelines of her daughter's six o'clock soccer game, which happened to be fairly near our house.  That meant that sending Tano to spend the night with Liam was going to be easy and convenient.

Jen would be at the field at 5:30 for warm-ups and the game would go until seven, so that meant we technically had an hour and a half to sit and visit.  I really couldn't afford the time away (just like I can't afford to write this post), and sitting at a soccer game in Montana in October is generally a cold and miserable experience, but I had to get a little bit of Jen-Time, as it is always so refreshing and encouraging. 

The problem was that I had to get my daughter, age thirteen, ready for her seventh of nine community theater performances before I could go.  (Who else remembers Seven of Nine?  That's funny.)  Three times each week, she must be transformed into a woman from the 1850s.  Her make-up and costuming happens at the playhouse, but I am responsible for doing her hair.  [This is remarkable, actually, as I never learned how to do girls' hair and my clumsy fingers can barely manage the simplest of braids.  Being performance seven of nine (plus one dress rehearsal), however, I have become fairly proficient with this one basic 1850s hairstyle.]  Doing my daughter's hair at the dining room table while she finished up her English grammar test meant that I wouldn't be out the door until 6:00.  I would arrive at the soccer field at 6:15 and get 45 out of a possible 90 minutes of Jen-Time.  It wasn't ideal, but I would take what I could get.  Separate, comb, spray, curl.  Separate, comb, spray, curl.  Separate, comb, spray, curl.  Bobby pin, bobby pin, bobby pin.  Done.  Her ride to the playhouse had arrived and she ran out the door.

I hurried Tano to the car so we could zip down to the soccer field.  I realized quickly that I'd forgotten to grab a heavy jacket, but I was unwilling to lose any more Jen-Time to go back for it.  I shivered involuntarily at the mere prospect of the cold sidelines, but it would only last for 45 minutes.  I would live and it would be worth it.

As we drove to the field, though, I felt the unfairness of it all and vented to my carefree son sitting next to me.  "You know, grown-ups should get to have sleepovers, too.  Do you know how much time I get to spend with MY friend before we leave?  I get the leftover forty-five minutes that we could both spare, in the cold, on the sidelines of her kid's soccer game."  He listened in silence, alternately nodding and shaking his head solemnly at appropriate times (these are the makings of a great husband, by the way).  "How much time do you get with YOUR friend?"  I rambled on.  "You get to spend a long evening hanging out doing fun stuff, then stay up super late talking about interesting things, and still have some time the next morning.  And you get to do this several times in a month.  I get 45 minutes out of the last two weeks.  And at her kid's soccer game!  In the cold!"

He recited his lines as if he had studied the script.  "You're right, Mom.  You need time with your friends, too.  Forty-five minutes is not enough--especially not at a soccer game in the cold.  You should get to have sleepovers, too."

I thanked him for his compassion and we drove in silence for a moment before he added, "When Liam and I are adults, we will probably still have sleepovers or at least stay up super late on a Friday night pretty often."

I laughed out loud. 

"What?"  he wondered at my skeptical response.  "I think it's important for friends to still get together."

I laughed again and agreed that it is indeed important, but then I gave him a vision of the future.

"Tano, you are going to come home from work on a Friday night all excited about going to hang out with Liam, but when you get into the house, your wife is going to say, 'Really, Tano?  Really?  I've been cooped up in the house with the baby all week long and I was just hoping to have a little bit of adult conversation, some time with you, a little bit of a break.'  You're going to realize it is true and call Liam.

"'Hey, Liam, about tonight, wife is wiped out from being with the baby all week and I just really feel like I should stay home with her instead.  I'm really sorry, man.'

"And Liam is going to be so relieved that you called.  'Yeah, Tano, I was actually just thinking the same thing.  The twins have been fussy all day and my wife is pretty exhausted, too.  So it's cool.  Maybe another night, dude.'"

Tano smiled at the vision of him and his buddy as husbands and fathers.  We mused that he ought to encourage a friendship between his wife and Liam's wife so on nights like that they could encourage the two women to go out together and have some friend time out of the house, while the guys hang out together.  I gave a possible scenario:

"'Hey, why don't you bring the baby over here and we can play xBox?'

"'That sounds great!  I need to bring the pack 'n' play, though, so I can put her down when it's her bedtime.  Oh, and I need to pack the diaper bag and get a bottle.  I'll be over as soon as I can.'"

I mentioned that they wouldn't be able to start their gaming until the kids were all down.  Tano disagreed.  Babies can be held in laps while game controllers are held in hands, he insisted.  I smiled, but let it go.  Tano was smug.  "See?  We will find a way to work it out."

I countered.  "That will work, I suppose, until they are two years old and start really paying attention to the violent games on the screen.  'Daddy?  Why is that man's blood coming out?  That's yucky, Daddy.  I'm scared about that blood.  I don't like that bad man with the big gun.'  And Liam will say, 'Yeah, actually, Tano, my son has been waking up with bad dreams after every time we get together.  I think we better wait until the kids go to bed before we play xBox.'  And you will agree because you know it's the right thing to do.  And even after the kids go down, you will keep the volume low."

My handsome teenage son was undeterred.  "Well, as soon as they get a little older, it will be easier."

I disagreed.  "Not exactly.  Friday night will come and you have one kid that needs to be at tee-ball practice and one kid that has a ballet recital.  You and your wife will have to split up kid duties and you will be headed to a ballet recital."

"Right," he nodded confidently, "so Liam and I can meet at the brewery for a beer while my daughter is at ballet."

" are the dad.  You are expected to attend the ballet recital."

"I have to go to the recital?"  This was obviously news to him.

"Yes.  Not only do you have to go, but you have to sit attentively through the whole entire thing and clap politely after every number, even if they really weren't very good at all."  His face fell.

"But when they are a little older..." he started hopefully, but I interrupted him.

"When they are a little older, they will both be in soccer on different fields on different nights.  Your only hope is to make sure your kids are the same ages as Liam's kids, so maybe you can get both yours and Liam's kids on the same teams."  It was coming around full-circle.

"That way, you can squeeze in a quick conversation on the sidelines of the soccer game.  In the cold."



Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Standing with Kenya...and the World

This little blog, though technically active since 2004, has been collecting cobwebs as of late.  I have been sucked into the world of social media--particularly microblogging, posts that fit within the bounds of Twitter or the etiquette of Facebook.  When I started to jot a quick one-liner on this topic, however, I found that I just couldn't do it.  I needed to share so much more.
I am so relieved that the siege in Nairobi has come to an end.  It has been so terrible.  I want to join the nation of Kenya in their prescribed three days of mourning.  However, sometimes (actually, often) I feel that if I really stop to acknowledge the pain of one city or people, then I am choosing them above so many others facing equal or greater pain and loss. 

By grieving for Kenya, am I ignoring the 80 Christians killed in Pakistan on Sunday who were attacked by suicide bombers while enjoying an after-church picnic?  Am I ignoring the 100+ victims of Hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel in Mexico, or those whose lives have been forever ripped apart by a deranged gunman with a twisted vendetta?  Am I ignoring those trapped in the sex trade in Southeast Asia; in Las Vegas; in Lake County, Minnesota?  Am I ignoring the heart-wrenching stories of the families separated by soldiers, landmines and razor wire on the Korean Peninsula; or the child soldiers in Uganda; or the horrific plight of the unborn within our own country? 

And what about those around the world still struggling to rebuild their lives after catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis, and those living quietly in fear of persecution from their own government, from violent drug smugglers, from rogue militant groups who have taken the law into their own hands? 

If I mourn for Kenya, is it only because their recent attack occurred at an upscale shopping mall with a rainbow of skin tones present so it received more media attention than other stories where the people affected were primarily brown-skinned and poor, or have a name that is difficult for the American tongue to pronounce?  If I mourn one, does that imply that I don't care about the others--especially the ones that didn't even get mentioned in this very limited list?

May it never be.  Although they weigh heavily upon my mind—an inconvenience in a mind crowded already with the daily life clutter of the typical middle class American mom—I will still read their stories, too.  I will still be found at my computer at random times throughout the day, suddenly in tears over the suffering I find there.  Many of their stories will never be mentioned by me in a Facebook status update or a blog post.  Some may not even come up around the dinner table, but I feel the weight of them because I carry so many of them in my heart.  And then I discover a new one—new to me, at least—and I feel illogical shame that I have not been aware of this one, that I have not carried this one, too.

And so I have to make choices. 

I could live in a perpetual state of mourning and ignore the joys of life that do exist. 

I could stop reading the news. 

I could choose to ignore what I know. 

I could begin using more general terms to cover hordes of hurting people with general prayers and statements about “the less-fortunate” or “those affected by recent world events.” 

However, I don’t believe that any of these options will work for me.  I know too much.  Worse yet, I have traveled in the lands of “the less-fortunate.”  I have seen too much. 

Instead, I will initiate a discussion at the dinner table or call my teenage children to sit with me at the computer and read a story or watch a video about something in the news. 

I will choose to occasionally bring something to light among my contacts in social media, be it a link to someone else’s well-written news story or blog post, or something of my own. 

I will pray—seemingly haphazardly—for suffering people in one part of the world one day and another part of the world another day, jumping from topic to topic as my scattered heart is touched by this and that.

I will try my hand at researching and cooking ethnic foods for a themed-dinner to celebrate a great joy, as I did when the trapped Chilean miners (remember ‘los 33’?) were rescued.

I will help my children research the geography of a land when a natural disaster has struck, as we did when a terrible earthquake hit Haiti a few years back.  (We finally had to throw away my daughter’s salt dough model of Haiti with the colored toothpick flags marking the worst hit areas and the magic marker fault lines.)

I will share our food with people holding cardboard signs when I am stopped at a red light without trying to analyze whether they truly need it or not.

I will say to a friend who has suffered a great loss, “I’m so sorry.  This must be so hard for you.  Do you want to tell me about it?”  And then I will shut up and just listen.

I will choose not to complain about the trivial little inconvenience of my relatively easy life.

For me, it is impossible to ignore the suffering around me, and although I cannot do everything I wish I could do; I can at least do these things.   It hardly seems like much, really, but it is what I can do.  And I pray that my eyes and ears, as well as my heart, will be open to recognize the opportunities to do even more.

I implore you, friends, to likewise not ignore the suffering of the world around you.  Take the time and the emotional energy it takes to acknowledge people’s pain and grieve with them, both those who live nearby and those who live afar off and have names you don’t know.  Do what you can do to help.

Thanks for reading.  I’m off to study Kenyan recipes, as we will need something significant to end their official three days of mourning and mark our solidarity with those who suffer.   

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Significance of 42

I read the first four books of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in college.  I have been a lifelong fan of Jackie Robinson.  I have been to Manhattan half a dozen times and am a fan of Broadway musicals.  In other words, I know that forty-two is a very important number.

So, it was with great anticipation that I approached my 42nd year.  Indeed, it did not disappoint.  Yesterday, I finished it out with a midnight sighting of the aurora borealis, a fitting close to a wonderful year.  The things listed below also happened the year I was 42.  They are only some of the more prominent highlights that stand out in my memory.  The list could be much longer and I am certain that I have left out some very important things.  What a joy to not even be able to remember all the wonderful things that I have experienced in this past year!

When I was 42, I:

Gained a niece

Taught an entirely online literature class for teens

Published and sold teaching curriculum online

Explored Lewis and Clark Caverns

Hiked/climbed a really scary old mining area

Saw my daughter baptized in the Bitterroot River 

Made a series of vintage travel posters that was featured in an art gallery

Got my first tattoo

Went to my first writer's conference and was encouraged

Added a cat to our family 

Got a real job with a title and a regular pretty paycheck and everything

Got a smart phone and iPad 

Drove 18,300 miles with the family in a single road trip

Jumped off dunes at White Sands National Monument

Drove through spectacular Monument Valley

Sat on the rim of the Grand Canyon to watch the sun rise

Saw The Lion King on Broadway

Took a Louisiana bayou swamp tour

Held a two year old alligator in my hands

Rode roller coasters all day with my family
Hiked Saguaro National Monument

Learned to eat crawfish in New Orleans

Instituted the Snoopy Cam

Watched my children both learn to be gainfully employed and work hard like adults

Walked through Central Park

Visited The Met and the Milwaukee Museum of Art

Ate at Oklahoma Joe's

Graduated to having two teenagers in my home

Taught my son to drive

Painted my house, inside and out

Saw the movie 42 

Found deep satisfaction in my life

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Timely Disappointment

I just got today's mail.  On top was a letter addressed to me in my own handwriting, a self-addressed, stamped envelope being returned to me.  My heart skipped a beat.  It was a reply from the literary agent who had been recommended to me at the writer's conference I attended in September.  I had sent her a manuscript that I have been working on and shopping around for years.  Slowly and methodically, I opened the envelope and scanned the letterhead stationery.  I stopped when my eyes found the word 'unfortunately.'  It was another 'no thank-you' letter.

I have received so many of them at this point that I don't react very strongly anymore, but I had held out higher hope for this one, since it came on a recommendation from someone within the industry.  I sighed.

As I mused on the matter, I realized that it was very timely to receive that letter today.  Regarding this query to the literary agent, I did what I could.  I worked hard on making sure my manuscript was as good as I could possibly make it.  I wrote an excellent cover letter.  I had a personal recommendation of an agent who might be able to market it to publishing houses.  I put it in the mail with the proper postage and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.  I jumped through all the hoops.  I did everything I could possibly do to make sure this one was a success.

But it didn't turn out the way I had hoped.

How do I respond?  Do I become despondent?  Bitter?  Angry?  Do I give up all hope of ever seeing any of my work published?  Do I allow myself to believe that this is it--the end of all my hopes and dreams?  Is everything ruined and my future in jeopardy?

Of course not.  That would be silly, you say.  You did what you could do and it didn't turn out the way you had hoped, you say.

If you are a Christian, you may even say things like, "Sorry it didn't work out the way you had hoped, but don't despair--God has a bigger plan than this one thing.  He knows the plans he has for you, and His purposes cannot be thwarted.  Perhaps God is doing a greater work in you through this disappointment.  He is still on the throne and is so much bigger than our circumstances."  You might say those things, right?

No matter how this election turns out, and no matter who you voted for, remember these things.  Whichever side wins, it is likely not the end of the world for those who are disappointed in the outcome.  Conversely, it is likely not the great hope of the future for those who celebrate the results.

God uses all sorts of bizarre circumstances to further His kingdom.  Trust Him.

Do what you can, yes.  By all means, educate yourself, be an informed citizen and VOTE!  We have this freedom and privilege and it should not be squandered.  But if things don't turn out like you had hoped, don't despair.  Trust.  And pray for our leader, for the 'king' that God has allowed to be appointed to this position of leadership.  There is a bigger plan at work.  God is still on the throne and His purposes cannot be thwarted.

Sigh a little, yes, but then move on.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It Could Happen

When I was a young woman my uncle died suddenly.  He and my aunt were all set to move across the country.  The U-Haul trailer was packed and they were making the final arrangements to drive away.   He went out to check on the trailer hitch or the tire pressure or something entirely ordinary and never came back.  My aunt went to see what was taking him so long and found him on the ground, dead.  He had suffered a massive heart attack.

I wasn't close to my uncle.  I didn't see him often as a child, and when I did, he was quiet and mysterious to me, not overly interested in the antics of children.  I never thought of him as stern and disapproving, mind you, just not interested in us kids.  His voice, when heard, emerged in a slow southern drawl.  We lived in Michigan.  He smoked a pipe.  No one in our family smoked except him, my Uncle Vance.  Even writing Uncle Vance feels forced and awkward to me.  I doubt I ever called him that.  I can't remember ever addressing him by any name, actually.  I thought of him only as Vance, my strange, quiet uncle who spends portions of every family gathering out on the porch smoking his pipe.

I liked the smell of his pipe smoke, but I didn't admit it.  We weren't supposed to approve of smoking.

I wondered if he knew my name.

When Vance died, I honestly didn't feel any great loss for myself.  It was shocking to my parents and I felt terrible for his wife, my Aunt Mary Jane, for whom I had always felt some fondness.  She must have loved him, after all, to have been married to him for so very many years.  I was a newly married woman myself, so my heart went out to her, but there was no personal grief.  I honestly had no idea if his own children were close to him or not.

Vance's death has stayed with me, though.  All these years later, probably going on twenty now, I am haunted by it.  When my own husband is working late out in the shop I think of Aunt Mary Jane walking out to the U-Haul with not a care in the world other than to get on the road and instead finding her husband's body.  I wonder, as the hour grows later, will tonight be the night that I walk out to the shop and find him in a pile of sawdust, dead?

I suppose that sounds terribly morbid, but it could happen.

A few years later, terrorists hijacked passenger jets and flew them into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan.  In horror and stunned disbelief, I watched the second tower collapse on live television while my toddler clambered around my legs, oblivious, and my preschooler stood quietly by, staring at the screen and asking what was happening.  I didn't even know what to tell him.

Since that terrible morning in 2001, the morning that changed the world in many ways, the morning that my husband called me from work and said, "You'd better turn on the TV," I have been haunted by checking the news.  I open up the online news service and wait the split second for the page to load.  I wonder if my heart is actually beating faster, like it seems, as I wait to scan the first few headlines for the next tragedy.  American political rivalry, another bombing in the Middle East, a movie star arrested for drunk driving; I breathe easier.  Nothing there shakes my world--even if, perhaps, it should.

But the next time I look at the news, I repeat the same scene.  Today could be the day that things fall apart.  It could happen.

Even opening Facebook can be startling.  Two years ago, it was a quick check of Facebook on the way out the door to church that told me that my dear friend's house had burned to the ground, her family escaping only with their pajamas and their lives only hours before.

My cell phone, with its cheery and cute ringtone, has rung just prior to the words, "Your dad has had a heart attack," "The test results came back and it's cancer," "My husband has left me for another woman," "There's been an accident," "She's gone," "Your mom may be having a heart attack."

Like Pavlov's dog at the sound of the bell, my heart now skips a beat nearly every time the phone rings.  Could this be the call that changes everything?

When I was a kid, nothing frightened me, not really.  I jumped out of trees and rode my bike no-handed and faced down pitchers' fast balls.  I picked up snakes and swam in the rip tide and crossed raging streams.  Other people got hurt.  Not me.  I was invincible, then.  I don't feel so invincible anymore.

Now don't get me wrong; I really don't live in fear all the time.  But the older I get, the more the reality sinks in:  It could happen.  Sure, those things only happen to other people, but we are someone else's 'other people.'

It is a discipline, choosing to not live in fear.  It requires prayer.  It requires trust.  Sometimes it requires more than I am willing to give and I fall into a pattern of worrying.  Some people just live there, worrying.  I choose not to.  God will provide what I need, even if it is my turn to face terrible personal tragedy.

Paul, a first century C.E. Christian, wrote in his second letter to the church at Corinth, "...we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."


That is what we must do.

That is what I must do.



Sunday, May 20, 2012

No Little Rowboat to China, but Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Last night I had the strangest dream.  I dreamed that I got up at o'dark-thirty in the morning and started cooking eggs to make a breakfast burrito while my son took a shower.  Then, oddly enough, I drove him to his friend's house to get his xBox which he had left there--yes, at 5:20 AM.  Why would he need to get his xBox at 5:20 AM?  Why, to take with him on a school field trip, of course.  

Dreams are odd that way.

He informed me that he needed his xBox because the field trip was located at Yellowstone National Park and the class would be staying at a hotel so the science teacher had encouraged all the boys to bring their xBoxes to do a link-up from room to room so they could all play against each other in the hotel.

Crazy, huh?

So we went to his buddy's house and he found an unlocked door, petted the dog to keep him quiet, tiptoed around the house to collect all the cords and controllers and got back in the car so I could get him to school to catch the school bus--at 5:45 on a Sunday morning.


From there, I dreamed that I went to the grocery store because, in my dream, my tiny little town of 1800 people had a big 24-hour grocery store.  Sure.  I dreamed that I wandered around the store to collect my few purchases.  The checkstands and aisles were eerily empty, but the lights were bright and the cheesy muzak was playing over the sound system.  I decided to treat myself to a donut as my prize for having accomplished so much before six o'clock, but the donut display in the bakery department was empty and clean.  It was even too early for donuts.   

When I was ready to check out, there was no one in sight and I had to flag down a man pushing a noisy floor waxing machine down the chips and cookies aisle.  He called for a checker over the loudspeaker, a call that seemed to echo through the empty store.  A grimy warehouse worker in need of a shave came trotting from the back and rang up my purchases with a surprising amount of cheerfulness.

I dreamed that I drove home as the sun came up and the sky was so pretty.  Arriving home, I let the dogs out of the shop where they sleep, fed them breakfast, put away the groceries, and went back to bed at a quarter past six.  

When I awoke to get ready for church, the boy was nowhere to be found.  Apparently, it wasn't actually a dream.  

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.      

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Origins of European Surnames

Some great information here for anyone interested in names, as I am.  Some of this I knew already and some is new information for me.  This stuff fascinates me.  Thanks to Bob White, who originally published the following as part of his report on his own genealogical search, entitled, "Eight Great Names," written in July, 2005:
Up until about the 10th century, most people in Europe did not have surnames, they were just “Mary” or “Greta” or “Arthur”.  For a while thereafter, only those of high social status used surnames, but as populations increased and the peasants’ knowledge of other communities increased, surnames began to take hold as a way to verbally distinguish one specific “William” from another.

Most surnames were originally based on one of four schemes:

1)      PatronymicO’Connor (son of Connor), McBride, Johnson, Petrovic, HanssenFitzHenry, Stanislavski, Larsdotter, RothschilddeMaupassant, or the shortened possessives: Jones, Williams, Hanks, Roberts, Michaels, Daniels, Rogers, Peters, etc.

2)      Occupational: Archer, Baker, Barber, Bishop, Boardman, Bowman, Brewer, Butler, Cantor, Cardinal, Carpenter, Carter, Chandler, Clark, Collier, Cook, Cooper, Courier, Farmer, Fisher, Gardiner, Goldsmith, Hunter, King, Knight, Lord, Major, Mason, Mayor, Merchant, Messenger, Miller, Miner, Painter, Parson, Pope, Porter, Potter, Sawyer, Shearer, Shepard, Shoemaker, Singer, Skinner, Slater, Smith, Tanner, Taylor, Thatcher, Tinker, Wagoner, Weaver, Wheeler, Wright

3)      Characteristic: Armstrong, Best, Brightman, Brown, Elder, Fairchild, Goodman, Grace, Gray, Hardy, Keen, Loud, Rich, Schwartz, Sharp, Short, Strong, Swift, Walker, Wise, Young

4)      Locational: Atwood, Atwater, Bridges, Brooker, Church, Countryman, Dupont (at the bridge), Eastwood, Fields, Ford, Forest, Green, Hall, Heath, Hill, Kirk (church), Lake, Lane, London, Meadows, North, Pond, Rivers, Sands, Spring, Stone, Valley, West, Wood (and maybe Summers and Winter for the 11th century snowbirds?)