Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Old Lang Syne

It's 10:30 p.m., and we're all dropping like flies here. I'm thinking that we're not going to make it to midnight and y'know, I'm really OK with that. I guess this means that The Dean and I are officially old, as this has been the case for several years now. Betty and Boo made a valiant effort to stay awake - and did so until almost 10 p.m. - but are now camped out asleep on the family room floor waiting for 2009. The Dean is asleep in the recliner, and I and my headache are seriously considering bed.

It's been a fun-filled night here, as you may have surmised. Ordered pizza and chicken fingers for the kids; Greek salad for me. Watched a bunch of "Hannah Montana" episodes as well as several Muppet DVDs. I tried to finish my book, to no avail. Made Hot Buttered Rum in the crockpot, but it tasted medicinal. Drank un-spiked eggnog instead.

Yes, we are old. So, as I head off to bed shortly, allow me to wish you a very happy and healthy New Year! Thanks so much for being along for the journey here this year!

How Much Do You Remember About 2008?

If you're hanging out at home this New Year's Eve, here's a fun quiz to take:

Enjoy, and Happy 2009!

A Year of Books, part 2

I've made kind of a mess out of my Year of Books posts, I'm afraid. I joined before beginning this blog in August, so as a result, some reviews that I wrote earlier in the year are posted at Shelfari and haven't found their way over here yet. My intent was to do a list of what I've read in 2008 and rank them (which I did here) and then, for the days leading up to 2009, give you links to the reviews on this blog (for new readers) and post my Shelfari reviews. Sounds simple, yes? Alas, no ... but here they are anyway.

If You Could See Me Now - Cecilia Ahern (audiobook)
Cecelia Ahern is a talented young author (just 26!)who has created an imaginary world amidst the realities of every day life. Ahern's fairy tale is enchanting, funny, delightful and thought-provoking for anyone who has ever been around a child who has an imaginary friend (or friends). This story will stay with me for awhile, and deservedly so. Would highly recommend the audio book version of this book, which has won an award for audio books. The narrators do an excellent job in bringing the characters of Elizabeth and Ivan to life.

Garden Spells - by Sarah Addison Allen
In "Garden Spells," one of the characters is compelled to give people things. She isn't sure exactly why the recipient will need the item (a jar of cherries, two quarters, a mango splitter, among other things) but they will. Similarly, Sarah Addison Allen has given her readers an delightfully creative tale that just might make one realize that one enjoys magical realism. This is a mostly lighthearted read about two sisters and their quirky family dynamics and history which is infamous throughout their small North Carolina town. The book's themes are layered throughout; while some plotlines are given somewhat simplistic and predictable treatment, others allow the reader to come to his or her own interpretations. Overall, an enjoyable book about family and how one's past is ever so present.

Finding Nouf - by Zoe Ferraris
Click here for my review, posted on 11/29/08.

When Children Ask About God, by Harold S. Kushner
In this book, Kushner gives the reader some thoughts to consider when children ask questions about God, death, and other weighty topics that often confound and confuse parents wishing to provide just the right answer. This isn't a question and answer type of book in the sense that Kushner doesn't list a question (i.e. "can God see me all the time?") followed by THE answer, but rather gives a perspective from which to frame one's own answers. I found myself wishing this wasn't a library book because there were many places that I wanted to highlight (hence the reason this is on my Wish List now). This is a book to refer to as one's children and their understanding (and ours) grows. ”

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (audio)
On Chesil Beach is an incredibly poignant and sad story about a young couple on their wedding night who bring all their fears and apprehensions to the honeymoon suite. Initially, this seems to be a simplistic tale, but as the reader (or, in my case, the listener) gets drawn into the story, it's impossible not to be caught up in the complexities of Edward and Florence's unspoken emotions.

The novel takes place over just three hours, but that's plenty of time to lead the couple to a life-changing conclusion. This is a story about the consequences of things left unsaid and how such silences have the power to alter the course of one's life. It's a fascinating premise, this idea that the slightest decision can change things forever. I enjoyed this story and as an audiobook, it works well - especially with McEwan himself as the narrator. I particularly like when the author narrates his or her own work. Doing so allows the listener to get caught up in the author's enthusiasm and emotion. At the end of the audiobook is an interview with McEwan about the story, which is enjoyable to listen to also.

All He Ever Wanted, by Anita Shreve (audio)
My review can be found here.

The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian (audio)
In "The Buffalo Soldier", author Chris Bohjalian gives the reader two stories for the price of one: the first story being that of Terry and Laura Sheldon and their foster child Alfred, and the second being the story of George Rowe, "the buffalo soldier." Just as the circumstances and emotions surrounding the Sheldon girls' tragic deaths is a constant theme throughout the novel, so is the story of the buffalo soldiers. Perhaps it was because I listened to this novel on audio, but it is not apparent at first how the two stories are symbolically connected - and at times (again, possibly due to the audio format), the quotes from Rowe seemed to be distracting from the story itself.

The weather, the cold, and the presence of water (in all its forms - rain, the river, etc.) are also key symbolic elements that are an integral part of this novel. It is set in late fall and winter, so the Vermont landscape is often depicted as very cold and gloomy. Such is also the case for the marriage of Terry and Laura Sheldon following the deaths of their daughters. The reader isn't given much of a glimpse into the Sheldons' marriage prior to this incident, but understandably so, the couple deals with their emotions to their shared tragedy in separate ways. Bohjalian portrays the emotions experienced by the wife, Laura, extremely well; his portrayal of 10-year Alfred is also exceptionally well-done.

Much of the writing in "The Buffalo Soldier" is well-done. Bohjalian shines in his descriptions of the landscape, and the interactions between Laura and Alfred as well as Alfred and the retired college professor and his wife who live across the street, are beautifully brought to life. I did not care much for Terry or Phoebe, which may have been the reaction that Bohjalian hoped to arose in his readers. The story does fall short in its ending. The drama that fills the climatic scenes in the book are believable, but the resolution of the conflict in the story absolutely is not. It's wrapped up hastily (as if there was a page limit that was foisted upon the author) and too neatly - a little too "movie-of-the-week"-ish. With all the complexities that each character carries, they - and the reader - needed something more. Overall, I liked the novel and will certainly read more of Bohjalian's work as he is a talented writer.

Anytime Playdate, by Dade Hayes
Many parents of preschoolers are on a first name basis with Dora, Diego, Blue - and the many other Nick and Noggin characters that are always available for an "anytime playdate." Dade Hayes, father of two, explores the world of preschool entertainment in this book by providing a glimpse behind several of the genre's most successful shows. One of the newest offerings, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, is discussed in detail - from the show's earliest beginnings to the research conducted with preschoolers at a New York school to the process of the show getting on the airwaves. In doing so, Hayes gives an interesting, eye-opening view of the world of preschool entertainment.

I expected this book to take a stance on the never-ending debate of whether preschoolers should even be watching TV to begin with, but instead, refreshingly, Hayes respects his reader's intelligence and parenting abilities enough to allow them the right to make their own decisions and form their own opinions. The "behind the scenes" glimpses into the process behind several shows is very interesting and makes for a well-done read.

Here's the Story, by Maureen McCormick
My review was a blog post on 12/10/08.

Schulz & Peanuts, by David Michaelis
Michaelis' biography of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz provides the reader with an incredibly detailed - and sometimes tedious and sad - look at the life of one of America's most beloved cartoonists. With more than 200 "Peanuts" strips interspersed through the book, the reader comes away with a newfound insight into the inspiration and life experiences that became the lives of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, and other members of the "Peanuts" gang. It is impossible to come away from this book without a deeper appreciation for Schulz and "Peanuts" as well as respect for David Michaelis for presenting such a richly detailed and extensively researched look at the life of Charles Schulz.

Still Summer, by Jacquelyn Mitchard (audio)
I listened to this on audio and while it wasn't the best book I've ever read, nor the worse, it kept my interest. I found myself wondering whether or not the four would be rescued, hoping they would be, and speculating on how they might be found. The scenes with the pirates were very well done, suspenseful, and among the best in the book (I thought the outcome would be different.) Also, I know very little about boats and sailing, but it seemed as if Mitchard either did considerable research into nautical life or has been around boats previously, as these details seemed authentic to me.

The ending (August) was a disappointment, as it seemed incredibly contrived and too "neat." Some of the plot was predictable (the storyline with Olivia/Tracy/Cammie) and Cammie's beauty and youthfulness was described in excess, but this was a good "don't-need-to-think-too-hard" type of read. Kiersten Potter, the narrator of the audiobook, was wonderful. There are quite a few characters introduced early on in this book and Potter did an excellent job with various voices which helps greatly with the listener's ability to keep them all

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold (audio)
Like many others, I found this book to be a difficult one to get through. I listened to it on audio and almost gave up after the second tape as Helen was becoming rather unlikeable and the subject matter was getting a bit heavy and depressing for my afternoon commute home from work. However, I believe one of the qualities of a good writer is the ability to make the reader have feelings (good or bad) about your characters. I gave this 3 stars because it was such a tough, heavy book to get through. However, I thought Sebold's writing was excellent, particularly during the scene when the neighbors came into the yard looking for Helen's mother. The tension was palpable and listening to this on audio had me gripping the steering wheel until this part was over.

Mermaids in the Basement, by Michael Lee West
My review was posted here on 11/2/08.

The Pilot's Wife, by Anita Shreve (audio)
My review was posted here on 12/23/08.

I'm still trying to finish Beyond Time Out: From Chaos to Calm by Beth A. Grosshans before the end of 2008. (I have this thing about not being in the middle of a book when the New Year rolls around. I know, it sounds nuts. But because Betty and Boo are creating more chaos than calm this afternoon, this may be the year where (horrors!) I'm reading the same book on January 1 as I was on December 31. And y'know, somehow I think the world will keep on turning ....

Here's to a year of great reading in 2009!

Profound New Year's Sentiments from ABBA

This ABBA song ("Happy New Year") is running rampant through my head, so I post the lyrics here as a New Year's greeting. Surprisingly, it's quite fitting for the times we live in, even though it was written 30 years or so ago (the lyric about "the end of eighty-nine" is classic). It's one of the reasons why I loooooooove ABBA ... their music and lyrics are so timeless. Say what you want, but I adore them.

No more champagne and the fireworks are through
Here we are, me and you
Feeling lost and feeling blue
It's the end of the party
And the morning seems so grey, so unlike yesterday
Now's the time for us to say...

Happy new year, Happy new year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy new year, Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Sometimes I see how the brave new world arrives
And I see how it thrives in the ashes of our lives
Oh yes, man is a fool
And he thinks he'll be okay
Dragging on, feet of clay
Never knowing he's astray
Keeps on going anyway...

Happy new year, Happy new year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy new year, Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Seems to me now that the dreams we had before
Are all dead, nothing more
Than confetti on the floor
It's the end of a decade
In another ten years time
Who can say what we'll find
What lies waiting down the line
In the end of eighty-nine...

Happy new year, Happy new year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy new year, Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Monday, December 29, 2008

Best and Worst Book Lists for 2008

This was a discussion post on Feel free to play along on your blog.

Best Book I Read in 2008:
It's a three-way tie between The Last Lecture, Water for Elephants, and The Glass Castle. They're all very different from each other so it is really hard to pick just one.

Worst Book I Read:
The Pilot's Wife.

Book I'll probably read again:
I rarely re-read books (or watch movies more than twice, for that matter) but if I had to pick one, it would be The Last Lecture.

Author I read the most of:
Anita Shreve.

Book that I didn't think I'd like:
If You Could See Me Now, by Cecilia Ahern.

Author who I want to read more of:
Sarah Addison Allen. I picked up her newest novel, "The Sugar Queen" at the library on Saturday and was immediately hooked on the few pages I'd read. Also Chris Bohjalian.

Best Book you re-read:
Little Women (with Betty)

Any cool book story or fact?: I won a copy of "Matrimony" by Josh Henkin, which I promise to review very, very soon. And I discovered the world of audiobooks!

List of books that read in 2008 with authors if you can remember them: See previous post.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Year of Books, part 1

This was a pretty good year of reading for me, with 28 books read in 2008. That's definitely the most books I've read in twelve months time since before Betty and Boo arrived, but I'd like to do a little better next year. Still, having a 1.5 - 2-hour commute to work (each way!) helped boost my total, as I've discovered audiobooks. I never thought I would like them or have the required attention span, but a good story combined with a good narrator can be a nice diversion on the road. I'm limited in the selection of audios to what is available on cassette at our library, however, as my van only has a tape deck and no CD player.

Below are the books I read, by rating and alphabetically within the ratings. If I've written a review on this blog, I included a link. Before starting this blog in August, I wrote some reviews on, and I've cut and pasted them here.

5 stars (wonderful book, highly recommended)

  1. Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons (audio)
  2. Water for Elephants, by Sarah Gruen
  3. The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch
  4. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

4 stars (very good book, would recommend)

  1. If You Could See Me Now, by Cecilia Ahern (audio)
  2. Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
  3. Little Sugar Addicts, by Kathryn Desmaisons
  4. Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris
  5. Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  6. Catching Genius, by Kristy Kiernan
  7. When Children Ask About God, by Harold S. Kushner
  8. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (audio)
  9. All He Ever Wanted, by Anita Shreve (audio)

3 stars (good book, enjoyable)

  1. Basic Black, by Cathie Black
  2. The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian (audio)
  3. What's Next: The Experts' Guide: Predictions from 50 of America's Most Compelling People, by Jane Buckingham
  4. Giving, by Bill Clinton (audio)
  5. The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton
  6. Anytime Playdate, by Dade Hayes
  7. Here's the Story, by Maureen McCormick
  8. Schultz & Peanuts, by David Michaelis
  9. Still Summer, by Jacquelyn Mitchard (audio)
  10. The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta
  11. The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold (audio)
  12. Mermaids in the Basement, by Michael Lee West

2 stars (average, somewhat unremarkable)

  1. The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, by Steve Leveen

1 star (disappointing read, would not recommend)

  1. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
  2. The Pilot's Wife, by Anita Shreve (audio)

Started but Abandoned

  1. The Last Summer of You and Me, by Ann Brashares
  2. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
  3. Waterbaby, by Cris Mazza
  4. The Senator's Wife, by Sue Miller
  5. Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler


I reviewed Ellen Foster in this post from 10/6/08. The following reviews are taken from my page (and were written before I started this blog).

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen This is a beautifully written book that, for me, was impossible to put down. Gruen's imagery of Depression-era circus life allows the reader to connect with and care about Jacob. I absolutely loved this book and recommend this to everyone. One of my all-time favorites.

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch A beautifully written, inspiring and heartbreaking book. I absolutely loved this. Much of what Pausch conveys in this book has been expressed by others in similar circumstances and in other forms, but it is the upbeat way he lived his all-too-brief life that becomes the inspiration for all of us to continue his legacy by striving to become better parents and people. This is definitely a "take stock" type of book - meaning that, it affords the reader the opportunity to reflect on how one is living one's life and how to become a better person in doing so.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls One of the best first lines in any book - novel, memoir, nonfiction, etc - is found on the first page of The Glass Castle:

"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I
looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster."

With those few words, Walls immediately captures her reader's attention. Her description of her childhood and the extreme poverty that the Walls family endured conjures up a dizzying array of emotions from anger to humor to sadness. This is a fast-paced book, the type of book that keeps one up late at night and becomes impossible to put down. I found myself reading the last 100 pages incredibly quickly, just so I could find out what happens to everyone. The fact that this is a memoir, that these kids survived all that they endured, makes this even more of a powerful story. I've had this on my plan-to-read list for awhile now and my only disappointment is that I didn't read it sooner. This one will stick with me for some time to come.

More reviews and other book commentary to come in another post ....

Ye Shall Receive and Read

We received a sleighload of books under our tree this Christmas. Here are just a few of the great reads awaiting us.

For me: I'm very privileged to call author Beth Kephart a blogging friend, so I was thrilled to find House of Dance, Undercover, and Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World underneath the tree. They were presents from Betty and Boo, chosen with assistance from The Dean (after providing him with a list of suggested gift items). I think I am going to read them in the order pictured here, as House of Dance is the newest release. Before reading Seeing Past Z, I think I'll read Beth's memoir A Slant of Sun.

On occasion, I have to take a reading and blogging break to actually make something edible for my family, so these cookbooks below were ones that were on my wish list. Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook was also a present from Betty and Boo (not that they will actually eat anything that I make from this) via The Dean. I'd had this out from the library and only had a chance to make one recipe (Hot German Potato Salad). Tonight I will be making Lucky Chili for a get-together with friends tomorrow.

Mediterreanean Fresh was also a library book and because I am trying to adhere to a Mediterranean diet lately, I thought many of the recipes sounded good.

And finally, I don't need to covet my mother's Christmas gift any longer because, faithful blog reader of mine that she is, she bought me my own copy of the New England Soup Factory Cookbook, as well as all the spices that I've indicated that I didn't have in previous posts!

For The Dean: He mostly reads biographies or autobigraphies, and mostly of presidents. For awhile, he would dip into a Stephen King novel, but that's faded. He doesn't read fiction or much other nonfiction. Jon Meacham's American Lion is getting some nice buzz, so hopefully he will enjoy this. He received this from my mom and C., at my suggestion after hearing the author interviewed on my favorite morning talk radio show.

For Boo: Like his father, Boo is also very interested in the presidents and knows more about them than most grown-ups. He received these books for Christmas.

For Betty: She's just getting into the American Girl series of books, which I am very pleased about. And, I am thrilled that she got Free to Be ... You and Me, which I'd gotten when I was 6 and which I continue to love to this day. All the original songs ("Free to Be ...", "Glad to Have a Friend Like You," "It's All Right to Cry" etc. are included, as are the stories "Boy Meets Girl" - which Boo adores - "The Pain and The Great One," "Ladies First," etc.) The lyrics and melodies came back to me instantaneously as I browsed through this on Christmas, and the kids and I are having a great time reading this at snack time. I'm loving how much they're loving this. Both kids also received Barnes & Noble gift cards, too. Since they can't drive yet, that means a trip to B&N for me, too.

All in all, some great books to read during the holidays and to start the New Year off with!

Friday, December 26, 2008

But Do You Recall, the Trickiest Reindeer of All?

If you've read this post about Boo's interest in a particular impeached president (or this one)you won't be surprised to hear that his version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" begins this way:

"You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Nixon ...."

Thursday, December 25, 2008

You Had Me at Hello

Boo burst in the door of my mother's house today and upon seeing my almost-91 year old grandfather (who has many more bad days lately than good ones) greeted him with this:

"You know what my Mommy told me? She says you're going to die soon!"

We were all somewhat speechless for a moment, then laughed somewhat nervously, and then I said, "I don't think so, Boo. I think Grandpop-pop is going to outlive all of us."

For the record, I've never voiced any such sentiments to Boo about his great-grandfather's demise. (He may have heard a conversation or two between The Dean and I about my grandfather's poor health.) However, the likelihood is that it's very possible that we just celebrated the last Christmas with my grandfather. One never knows these things, of course. Given the way things tend to go in my family, he very well may outlive all of us.

I'm a compulsive picture taker, but for some reason, I don't take many photos of my side of the family, particularly of my grandfather. Maybe it's because I remember him differently, as the grandfather who climbed ladders with ease while wallpapering our entire house in a weekend, or the grandfather who cooked the majority of our holiday dinners (he made the best damn mashed potatoes ever). I don't know this fragile soul for whom even taking the smallest of baby steps is an exercise in searing, agonizing pain.

There's something macabre about taking photos of someone who is unwell, who knows exactly why you're pleading with your children to pose next to him while threatening to FedEx all their Christmas presents straight back to the North Pole if they don't comply right this very second.

But despite the awkwardness, despite Betty's pouting and Boo making a goofy face, despite my grandfather laughing at their antics, and despite my mother and I admonishing all three of them to be serious for a moment, I snapped the picture anyway.

And then hugs, kisses, I love you's and you-take-care-of-yourselves. Casual but weighty goodbyes as we donned coats and carried gifts and children out to the car. On the garden path in the dark, crisp Christmas air, I caught a glimpse of my grandfather in the window, sitting serenely in the empty family room, waiting, bathed in the light.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Gift List

Christmas Gift Suggestions
To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

~ Oren Arnold (as found on my friend Robin's blog).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hard Times, A Helping Hand

By far, this is the best Christmas story I have ever read. (New York Times, 12/22/08: Hard Times, A Helping Hand.)

Just ... wow. Can you imagine being this guy, opening this suitcase, and seeing what he saw?

I heard about this on the radio this morning, and I swear, I drove for about 10 minutes with my mouth open in disbelief. What a heartwarming way to start the day.

So this is Xmas ... and what have we done?

A package arrived via UPS today, and The Dean brought it inside, placing it under the tree. It took a little while, but the kids finally noticed it.


"Excuse me?" I asked.

"This present is from John Lennon!"

I looked at the return address. As expected, it was not from John Lennon. (It's from my aunt and uncle, if you're interested.)

"Why do you think this is from John Lennon?" I asked.

"Because," said Boo, pointing to the instructions Do Not Open Until Xmas! written on the brown-wrapping paper.

"It's from John Lennon because Xmas is how he spells Christmas!"

Happy Xmas
A very merry Christmas and a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear
And so this is Christmas, and what have you done
Another year over, and a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one, The old and the young.

Book Review: The Pilot's Wife, by Anita Shreve

I usually like to include at least one thing that I liked about the book in my reviews ... but in this case, I'm coming up a little short. Truthfully, I didn't like very much about The Pilot's Wife. I wanted to like this, have been wanting to read it since Oprah chose it for her book club in March 1999, and I was thrilled to find it at a used book sale someplace. But, the novel falls short in so many places.

The characters are as remote as the landscape where the plane that Jack Lyons is piloting crashes - and perhaps that was intentional (if so, that's well-done). I never felt a connection to anyone in the novel, and I expected to - particularly with Mattie, the daughter, as I understand on a personal level what it is like to lose a father suddenly. Kathryn and Mattie's reactions to the loss of Jack, their husband and father, respectively, are devoid of emotions - and the descriptions of what emotions they do feel are empty. In one scene, Kathryn learns a truly devastating secret about her husband; mere hours later, she claims that she "is over the worst of it."

Plot-wise, this storyline is incredibly predictable and indistinguishable from other movies-of-the-week with similar scenarios. Even the revelation in the most climatic scenes is predictable enough.

Shreve's writing in "The Pilot's Wife" is cliche-ridden and trite. The plane crash that claims the life of her husband occurs mere days before Christmas. When asked how her holiday was, the widow Kathryn responds:
"Sad," she said. "Pathetic. Every minute was pathetic. The
worst was how hard Mattie was trying. As if she owed it to Julia and
me. As if she owed it somehow to her father. I wish now we had
canceled the whole thing."

I know the feeling.

Or Kathryn's exchange with her grandmother upon learning of her husband Jack's death:

"I loved him," Kathryn said.
"I know you did. I know you
did. I loved him, too. We all loved him."
"Why did this happen?"
"Forget the why," Julia said. "There is no why. It doesn't
matter. It doesn't help. It's done and can't be undone."

The Pilot's Wife was written a decade ago and the reader is aware of the absence of the Internet as well as that of cell phones. During the past decade, Anita Shreve has gained a following as a very popular writer. Thankfully, her writing seems to have become stronger with time, leaving the reader with less of a feeling of being on autopilot.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Boo and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

(With apologies to Judith Viorst.)

The wonderful woman who takes care of Betty and Boo before and after school (and on most school vacations) is on a well-deserved vacation herself this week, necessitating some creative scheduling from The Dean and me. I'm on Parent Pick Up duty.

Today I arrived early at the kids' school, stealing 15 blessed minutes in the car to read, earning looks from the other parents who were either a) wondering about my sanity for reading in a freezing car or b) contemplating turning me into the authorities for reading Beyond Time Out: From Chaos to Calm - Five Ways to Happier Children. (I have mixed feelings on this book, as you'll read in a review sometime in the near future.)

Boo comes out first. "Ohhhhh, Mommy!" he says, dramatically. "I just had the worst day of my whole entire life!"

(I'll remind you that he just turned 7 years old.)

"Really?" I say. "Hmm. That sounds serious. What happened?"

He proceeds to tell me that another child wasn't stacking her chair on the table. Apparently, the reason why was that said child had too many things in her hand.

He continued: "So I told her I said I told her to put her stuff down and then she could DO HER JOB and stack the chair."

"And then what happened?" I asked.

"She said, she said, she said, where should I put it? And I said ... on the table!!! But she wasn't listening! If she had put her stuff down then she could have stacked her chair. And I wouldn't have had the worst day of my life!"

There's a life lesson in this somewhere ...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Egg on My Facebook


I stand corrected. After complaining just a week or so ago about how Facebook is something that only teenagers should be doing, I've done an about face and signed myself up. I justified it by telling myself that I need to be a little more savvy with this new social networking because of my job (and that is partially true).

I am fairly certain that I am the last person in the world to join Facebook. And dare I say ... I'm almost wondering what took me so long. This is a bit too much fun. Not to mention addictive. (I should be in bed. It's 11:40 p.m.)

The very second that I logged onto Facebook, I had two Friend requests. What the ... I thought. And they were from two legitimate people, one person who reads this blog faithfully (thank you, gail elle) and another who is a former coworker. I befriended them both, and went to look up who among my high school class is on here. There's 66 of us (out of something like 200 people)! And then I went trolling for other people ... and found someone who I've been known to use as a professional reference, a recruiter who I've been in recent contact for a job that I didn't get, and a bunch of relatives who would be the last people I'd have imagined to be on there.

I may never log off my computer again.

Book Review: All He Ever Wanted (audiobook)

From Anita Shreve's All He Ever Wanted reads like Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own told from the perspective of the husband. The wife gains a measure of freedom, but how does the repressive, abandoned husband feel about that freedom? Set in the early 1900s in the fictional New England college town of Thrupp, and narrated by the pompous Nicholas Van Tassel, All He Ever Wanted is at once an academic satire, a period novel, and a tale of suspense. Shreve's ability to nimbly hop through genres brings a liveliness to this story of love gone depressingly wrong.
Van Tassel is an undistinguished professor of rhetoric at Thrupp College and a confirmed bachelor when he meets--in no less flamy a scenario than a hotel fire--the arresting Miss Etna Bliss. Immediately smitten, he woos and wins her. At least, he persuades her to become his wife. But Van Tassel hasn't really won her. Etna keeps her secrets and her feelings to herself. The extent of her withholding only becomes clear after a couple of kids and a decade or so of marriage. (review clipped because I think that it gives too much away.)

I confess: this is the first Anita Shreve book that I've read, which says something because this novel was published in 2003. I tend not to jump on the bandwagon with authors; I know who and what I like, and in most cases, it's usually not the hottest writer or book. I have no interest in the Twilight saga, I read my first Jodi Picoult novel last year, and such is the case now with Anita Shreve. (I'm listening to the audio of her fifth novel, The Pilot's Wife, published in 1999.) But, I picked up the audiobook of All He Ever Wanted at the library a few weeks ago and I found myself liking this much more than I anticipated.

Audiobooks depend on a good narrator, and in this case, Dennis Boutsikaris is excellent. If snobby has a sound, it is Boutsikaris as Nicholas Van Tassel. He and Shreve capture very well the ivory towers (real and assumed) that make up academia and the folks inhabiting them.

As the Amazon description states, this is a novel set in the early 1900s; some may say that the time period is an explanation for Nicholas' behavior towards his wife. I saw this as a commentary on the subtle side of domestic abuse, which doesn't always need to manifest itself in a physical way. Nicholas' controlling tactics are ones characteristic of someone who is emotionally abusive, tendencies fueled by Nicholas' inherent jealously in terms of his colleagues and his wife's past. The lengths he goes to in order to gain all he ever wanted becomes the climax of the novel, and the ultimate question for Nicholas as he reflects on his life (and tells the story in flashback as he writes his memoirs on a train ride to his sister's funeral )is whether it was worth it.

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. I also had the printed version, and I read the last several chapters as opposed to listening to them. Still, the audiobook kept me engaged and, perhaps more importantly, awake on my long afternoon commute home. (I'm not sure that I can say the same about The Pilot's Wife, which I am not enjoying as much as All He Ever Wanted.)

Best of the Week - Dec 14-20

This is somewhat of an abbreviated (and belated) Best Of this week, as several items that would have made it into this list (Save Handmade, Dating is Dead, Sweet Caroline) were determined to be full post-worthy. Still, here are some additional tidbits that are worth checking out.

My friend Robin has a great post on her blog, called The 3 R's to Live By: Responsibility. Respect. Reverence.

And while you're at Robin's site, check out her other post about the flying squirrel she and her husband encountered in their bedroom. All I have to say is that Robin and Jeff are much more calmer than The Dean and I . We would have been FREAKING. I also think it's pretty funny that we know two couples named Robin and Jeff, albeit with a slightly different spelling, and that each of them has a kid with the same name as the other couple.)

Speaking of friends, I've written previously about how The Dean and I have a circle of friends that we've been connected to since elementary school. These friendships have survived several long-distance moves initiated by several of us, but we always seem to stay connected. It seems as if the Obamas are similar in that way, and the commitment of their friends to still stay a part of their lives is admirable, (although who wouldn't want to make an effort to maintain a friendship if one of those friends was the POTUS?)

A snippet from an obit from today's Philadelphia Inquirer: (name of deceased), age 81, died Dec. 18, 2008; the roofer from Germantown, Wyncote and Ft. Washington. No viewing, no funeral, no kidding.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Save Handmade

Notice that cute little Save Handmade button on my sidebar? Here's the story behind it, courtesy of the website Cool Mom Picks:

We're all for strengthening the safety standards of mass-produced toys, clothes, and accessories made in China, and banning toxins like phthalates and lead. But this year, Congress passed the ill-conceived Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act, a law which goes into effect in two months and will absolutely decimate the small toy manufacturers, independent artisans, and crafters who have already earned the public trust.

With this act going into effect February 10 2009 so many people we love will be affected: Moms who sew beautiful handmade waldorf dolls out of home, artists who have spent decades hand-carving trucks and cars out of natural woods, that guy at the craft show who sold you the cute handmade puzzle--even larger US companies who employ local workers and have not once had any sort of safety issue will no longer be able to sell their goods. Not without investing tens of thousands of dollars into third-party testing and labeling, just to prove that toys that never had a single toxic chemical in them still don't have a single toxic chemical in them.

You can make a difference with this issue. Continue reading here at Cool Mom Picks to see how.

Tonight's Dinner: Too-Tasty-to-Be-Good-for-You Cauliflower Macaroni and Cheese

Spent more time than usual in the kitchen today, so I thought I would share some the recipes with you. First up was dinner, which was Rachael Ray's Too-Tasty-to-Be-Good-for-You Cauliflower Macaroni and Cheese. (photo credit: Tina Rupp, as listed on (My camera battery needs to be charged, hence the need to use the more prettier photo.)

Mac and cheese is one of the very few foods that Betty will eat. Almost overnight, her sensory sensibilities have become extreme. It's becoming a bit disruptive to daily life and is getting more than a bit concerning, but that's a different post for a different day. One of the foods she still continues to eat is macaroni and cheese, with a preference for Stouffer's. I'm trying to cut down our weekly grocery bill, so I've been making my own mac and cheese instead of paying $5.99 for a medium Stouffers. We also had a big ol' head of cauliflower in the fridge from the farm, and it needed to be used up.

So, I thought this recipe from Rachael Ray would be a winner, plus I could sneak some veggies in it. I broke the cauliflower in smaller florets than the recipe called for, but otherwise I made it as found on Rachael Ray's website (it's a kid's recipe, but you can tell Rach doesn't have children because - and I'm just speaking for mine here - there's no way a kid would willingly make something with cauliflower in it. Or maybe that's just in my house.)

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1 pound whole wheat pasta
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup chicken broth (I used one Not Chicken boullion cube)
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (didn't have ... but if I make this again, I think the mustard would be a good addition)

1. Ask a GH (Grown-Up Helper) to bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it, add the cauliflower and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Ask your GH to transfer the florets with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. In the same boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente, then drain in a colander. Add the pasta to the cauliflower.

2. While the pasta is working, ask your GH to melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Have your GH help you whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute, then whisk in the milk and chicken broth and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cheese. Whisk in the mustard and season with pepper. Stir the cheese sauce into the pasta and cauliflower. Yum-o.

What We Thought:
I underestimated my kids. They found the cauliflower immediately. I thought this was very well-hidden, so perhaps you might have better luck. Boo ate most of it. The Dean was less than thrilled about the cauliflower, but ate it anyway. Betty had a tantrum but eventually wound up eating several bites. I liked it. I served a green salad with this, which included cauliflower(and which was all that Betty ate of the salad. Go figure.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

I Am Not a Crook, Says Tricky Boo

The passing yesterday of W. Mark Felt, the anonymous source known as Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, prompted me to share this revelation that The Dean and I learned at Betty's parent-teacher conference.

As a way to learn about the concept of snail mail, the kids' school has instituted a post office. Kids can write letters to one another, parents can write notes to kids ... it's all very cute.

Being the admirer of Richard Nixon that he is, Boo has learned to use this system to his benefit.

Betty and Boo are in separate classrooms. Our choice, and that's how it's been since preschool. (The same-classroom ended when we learned that Boo would go up to Betty at naptime and literally pry open her eyes as she slept.)

Lately, Betty has been having some behavioral issues in the classroom. At the dinner table, Boo has been reporting that John (a classmate of Betty's) informed him that Betty's behavior was not very good. We couldn't figure out how Boo knew this. I had visions of Boo and John meeting secretly in the hallway, exhanging information on the playground, conferring on the bus.

Enter the postal service.

It seems that Boo has been using the school post office system to write to John to get daily reports on his sister's behavior.

Shepherd's Pie

This week I was having a serious craving for Shepherd's Pie, but I didn't have time to make some. When I was home with Betty this week, I happened to be going through some magazines and found this Shepherd's Pie recipe in the April 2008 issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray. We had most of the ingredients in the pantry, and on the way to pick up Boo, we made a quick trip to a local farm for some fresh veggies. Here are the ingredients:

2 pounds small yellow-fleshed potatoes, halved (I was lazy and used instant.)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
10 ounces cremini mushroom slices (none at the farm ... I used regular white button mushrooms instead)
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces (I used a handful or two of baby carrots)
2 parsnips, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, chopped
1 pound 93-percent lean ground beef (I used Boca Burger vegetarian ground beef)
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups beef broth (I used vegetable broth)
1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes (I used 1/2 c. of leftover marinara sauce)
Salt and pepper
3/4 cup 2-percent milk
1 1/2 pounds baby spinach (I used half a bag of frozen cut spinach)

1. In a large saucepan, combine the potatoes and enough salted water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and return to the pot; cover. (Because I was using the instant mashed potatoes, I skipped this step.)

2. In a large, deep skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over high heat, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until browned, about 5 minutes.
Arrange in a greased 9-by- 13-inch baking dish in an even layer. In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, parsnips and onion and cook, stirring, until crisp-tender, 6 to 7 minutes.

Add the beef and cook, breaking it up, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Stir in the flour.

Add the beef broth and tomatoes and simmer, stirring, until thickened, about 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Ladle the meat mixture over the mushrooms. Reserve the skillet.

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 400°. Add the milk to the potatoes and mash. Season with salt and pepper. (This was where I improvised and made the instant mashed potatoes. And then I remembered that there was some leftover corn in the fridge from Taco Night, so I dumped the corn on top of the mixture too. If you haven't figured it out yet, this is an easily-adaptable dish. )

In the reserved skillet, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Add the spinach and cook, turning, until wilted, about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a colander; press to extract any liquid. (I microwaved our frozen spinach. Turned out great!)

Arrange the spinach over the meat mixture, then spoon the potatoes on top. Drizzle with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil.

Bake until golden, about 25 minutes.

I thought this was delicious. It provided that comfort-food goodness that I was craving, but in a healthier version. Rachael Ray's version doesn't give the cholesterol counts, but if you follow her directions instead of my variations, a serving is 311 calories, there's 7g. of fat, and 2 g. of saturated fat. The Dean also liked this, but said he could do with fewer vegetables. (He suggested eliminating the parsnips. I think this might be because I told him they were included.)
The kids ... well, I wish I could say that my kids cleaned their plates. Boo ate approximately 1/3 of his portion. Predictably, Betty had a tantrum and refused to even look at this. Her rationale? There were "brown spots" on the mashed potatoes, there was sauce on the vegetables and she doesn't eat sauce ... I could go on. (Her food issues are getting a bit, well, challenging of late. That's a whole 'nuther post.)
I think that this could be made ahead of time and just put into the oven. If I make this again (which I am inclined to do), and if it is on a weeknight, I will likely try it that way. For a printable version of this recipe as it appeared in Every Day with Rachael Ray, go here on Rachael Ray's website.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Comma Commentary

"Hey, Mommy," Betty said this evening, while reading The World's Best Fairy Tales.


"This sentence is missing a comma. There should be a comma here," she said, pointing to a page.

Stunned, I looked at her. She's a first grader. Who knew that today's 7 year olds even know what a comma is? (And might I add how damn glad I am that they do!)

I looked at the story, "Jorinda and Joringel." (Who the hell are they? World's Best Fairy Tales, yeah right. Has anyone ever even heard of this fairy tale?)

Once upon a time there was a castle in the middle of a deep forest where an old woman lived quite alone, for she was an enchantress. In the daytime she changed herself into a cat or an owl, but in the evening she became an ordinary woman again. She was able to entice animals and birds to come to her castle, and then she would kill and cook them.

(Yes, this is what I - Mother of the Year - allow my 7 year old to check out from the library.)

"See?" Betty said. "There should be a comma after daytime."

Well, how about that. I asked her why she thought a comma should be there, and she couldn't provide a reason. It just should.

And you know, I tend to agree.

New Additions to My Bookshelves

Y'know, it is a mighty dangerous thing when you work for an organization that has a resale shop. Especially one that often has some great books for sale, all in great condition, practically brand new. I had reason to go over to the shop on Monday and while perusing the used books, I found these goodies.

Hold Tight - by Harlan Coben

The Middle Place - by Kelly Corrigan

The Maytrees - by Annie Dillard

Me and Emma - by Elizabeth Flock

The Emporer's Children - by Claire Messud

Collected Stories: Carol Shields

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America - by Thomas Frank

These would have cost me over $85 on Amazon, but instead I paid $19 at our resale shop. Have you read any of these? Thoughts? Reviews? I am especially looking forward to The Middle Place and am putting this on my list of books that I'd like to read in 2009.

Just Breathe

Betty's been under the weather for the last few weeks. I'm generally not an alarmist when it comes to childhood illnesses (or, for that matter, any illnesses) and I typically tend to let these things ride their course. This bug seemed to be lingering, but "it was going around," and then it seemed that we'd turned the corner on this.

Or so thought until Tuesday, when the school nurse called saying that Betty had a fever and needed to go home.

Four hours later we were in the doctor's office, where he suspected that she had, at the very least, severe bronchiolitis - but most likely, walking pneumonia. He didn't like the sounds in her lungs. Betty was given a breathing treatment, I was given a tutorial on operating a nebulizer and we were both sent home with MisterNeb as well as a prescription for Zithromax. We are to do three breathing treatments with the nebulizer per day, and each one takes about 10 minutes.

After just a few of these, Betty started feeling better and her cough has pretty much disappeared. And along the way, I've noticed that there's something strangely relaxing about this process of doing these breathing treatments.

For most of us, life gets a bit more hectic than usual at this time of year - at least that's the case in our household. I haven't done our holiday cards (although they have been ordered and have arrived!), I've barely started my Christmas shopping, and I need to bake a blizzard of cookies this weekend as gifts for The Dean's staff. Not to mention that I work in a field where this is one of the busiest times of the year, and our before/after school provider is on vacation starting on Monday (necessitating a wacky schedule for the four of us), and yeah ... you've got the makings of a busy time.

But three times a day we're sitting ... and breathing ... breathing ... breathing ... and dare I say that there is something quite pleasant and enjoyable about this.

A gift of stillness in a season that is often anything but.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dating is Dead

Apparently, the concept of dating someone - as in, actually going out someplace with another person you're romantically interested in - is dead. At least that's what "The Demise of Dating", an article that appeared in Saturday's New York Times, says.

I have a lot of thoughts on this, so either feel free to hit delete now or bear with me.

According to journalist Charles Blow (I swear, that's the name on the byline), teenagers today are more inclined to hook up with someone and then figure out if said person is worthy of one's time. It's only after the two tango then the dating begins.

As usual, this generation's got things a little backwards. Either that, or I am officially old. (Don't answer that.) In my day - and in all of the days in previous generations before this one - it was the opposite. You liked someone, you got that person's attention or you got your friend to get the person's attention, someone was asked to "go out." Maybe it was to a school dance, maybe it was to see "The Breakfast Club," whatever. Phone calls (that's what we ancients did pre-texting) to a home where an actual parental unit could answer the phone usually needed to be made. Doors needed to be knocked on, and parents - usually fathers - needed to give the dates the hairy eyeball.

I can't speak for The Dean (he has his own blog), but knowing The Dean as well as I do, I'd imagine he was looking forward to giving Betty's prospective suitors the same treatment he endured when courting all the former lovelies predating me. I am guessing that the thought of being the parent with the power to inflict the same emotional agita on some sweaty-palmed, pimply-faced teenager was the only source of potential pleasure in what to him is likely to be an experience akin to a colonoscopy.

Nope. Now it's all about the hook up, not the dating. And my concern with this - among my many, many concerns with this - is what this does to the long-term damage of the psyches and hard-wiring of our girls, our young women. As teenagers, we're fragile enough as it is and lucky enough to escape adolescence with a shred of self-esteem intact. (I mean, just speaking for my own self here ....) Now, a young woman's self-esteem is being judged by - we interrupt this blog post to bring you, live from the Betty and Boo family room, darling Betty who is sick and watching The Disney Channel on the couch. Aladdin just ended and now some horrid show called As the Bell Rings just came on. Three flaxen-haired divas just sashayed Heathers-style up to three boys who appear to be imitating Arthur Fonzerelli. One girl is clad in a strapless black dress (ahem, what are these, middle school students??!!) that is nicer than any such frock in my closet. She coos, "Do you like bad girls?" Good Mommy that I am, I just bolted into the family room and wordlessly turned off the TV. My point.

Back to the blog. As I was saying, now young women's self-esteem is at stake because of a new generational society that values superficial sexual encounters (and let's face it, they are all sexual encounters, regardless of the actual acts occurring) over the quaint notion from the dinosaur days of the 1980s and '90s of getting to know someone. The erosion of one's self-esteem in this way only lays a pathway for other issues that are detrimental to girls and women. The Fonzie-wannabees in As the Bell Rings aren't interested in getting to know the chicks on the show. They'll decide later if they want to date them.

Something's wrong with this. Very wrong. The bell isn't tolling for just the idea of dating. It's tolling for a generation of youths who have lost their way more than they will ever know.

Sweet Caroline

I was going to save this for inclusion in my Best of the Week roundup, but my guess is that Caroline Kennedy might become the newest Kennedy in the Senate by then, so it won't matter.

I discovered a new site, Women on the Web, which has this article ("Move Over, Caroline") profiling six women who have more experience and qualifications to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat than Caroline Kennedy.

Now, I like Caroline Kennedy. And God knows I liked - and am still in mourning for - her brother John-John. But as others more intelligent than I have commented, what exactly does Ms. Kennedy do for a living that qualifies her as Senatorial material above and beyond being a member of the Lucky Sperm Club? Yes, I know she was on Obama's VP search selection committee and that she is engaged in all sorts of charitable endeavors. All fine resume fodder.

I don't live in New York, nor have I ever, so I don't have a dog in this fight. And we could certainly do much, much, much worse than selecting Caroline Kennedy as New York's next Senator and most likely Ms. Kennedy would perform superbly in that role and make America proud.

But the six women profiled in the Women on the Web article are due at least the courtesy of being considered for what they might bring to the table - aside from a non-household name - as New York's next Senator.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Some Children's Book Reviews (Plus, A Review From Boo)

The kids and I recently read four very good children's books from the library. Here they are, with their descriptions. in case you are buying books for the holidays and need some ideas.
As my gift to you, my dear Betty and Boo Chronicle readers, Boo himself reviews the first one, Too Many Toys by David Shannon.
i thouth that the funnyist part was that spencer`s trumpet had that art supplies in it. and his mother said `` WHAT ARE YOU A LOWER?!"

Kindly allow The Mommy to translate. This is an adorable book, one that had us in hysterics. Like many children, including the two who live in this house, Spencer has too many toys. They're everywhere, including in his trumpet. ("The funnyist part," according to Boo.) Spencer negotiates with his mother on which toys should be given away, at which point his mother, exasperated, says, "What are you, a lawyer?" For whatever reason, this line brought down the house ... to which afterwards Boo asked, "What's a lawyer?" Spencer succeeds in cleaning up his toys ... and parents everywhere will surely relate to what is Spencer's favorite toy of all.

Pumpkin Soup, by Helen Cooper

Boo's review: i thouth of pumkin soup is that the funnyist part of pumkin soup was SPITING ALL OVER THE PLACE! the very sad part was, the cat and the squirell were crying the 2 said `` it was our fault we should have let duck stir the pumkin soup."

Sad to say, my son is into gross humor these days. His favorite words seem to be "underwear," "butt," and "eyeball." Anything that is remotely rude or disgusting elicts guffaws galore from Boo. There's a scene in Pumpkin Soup where the animals make the soup, but it doesn't turn out quite right ... hence, the SPITTING ALL OVER THE PLACE! The highlight of the book.

Mommy thought this was a very cute book about Cat, Squirrel, and Duck. They're hanging out, playing music on their respective instruments. The trio also enjoys cooking, particularly their specialty, Pumpkin Soup. Each member of the group has their own role in preparing the soup. But, according to Publishers' Weekly, "one day, Duck decides to be the stirrer instead of the salt pourer, and an all-out battle ensues. Here the warm golden glow that has permeated their dwelling turns an angry orange-red with paws, wings and "@#$!"s flying. After Duck waddles off in a huff, the remaining pair heads out to hunt for him to no avail. In a charming time-lapse sequence, vignettes of Cat and Squirrel moping on the steps of their house form an arc along the side of a spread."

Dejected but determined, Cat and Squirrel resume their cooking, but the soup just isn't the same without Duck. (It's salty, necessitating it to be spit out.) Thankfully, Duck returns safe and sound. More soup is made. The result is a story about how to resolve and overcome the differences among friends when a squabble occurs. Ages 4-8.

The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-Be, by Mimi Grey. Betty picked this out from the library because - you guessed it - the word princess was in the title. Rather than a standard retelling of the fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea," this is that story told from the pea's point of view. This cute book is an example of how to look at the same story from a different perspective. The pea exhibits creativity and ingenuity in his (her?) quest.

You're On Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt is the story about the childhood of America's 26th President of the United States. As a child, Teddy (who was called "Teedie") suffered from debilitating asthma. Sports were difficult for him, but he was determined to get stronger. This is a story about never quitting or giving up and becoming the best person you can become. Judith St. George's previous book So You Want to Be President is equally as charming. Combined with this, she is well on her way to becoming one of the best presidential biographers for children. For kids in grades 2 - 4.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Make Your Own Gift Boxes From Old Greeting Cards!

At church today, Betty and Boo made the cutest thing ever in their RE (religious education) class. It's a small gift box made from an old greeting card, and it is so stinkin' easy.

Take an old holiday greeting card.

Open the card and cut it on the center fold. Make an X on the left panel.

Fold the top portion of the card panel halfway to the center. Do the same with the bottom portion of the card panel.

Cut notches in the four quadrants, as shown below.

Fold the left and right sides into the card. Tape the tabs to form an open box.

Turn it over. You've made the top of your gift box!

Repeat the same with the other panel of the card.
This will become the bottom part of your gift box.

Fold the top and botton portions of the card, cut the notches in the corners,
fold the sides, and tape the tabs.

Fit the top and bottom together. You might need to trim the sides a bit.

Voila! A cute little gift box. You could put tissue paper down in the inside to cover up the greeting. This is the perfect sized box for a gift card or a piece of jewelry or something small.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Melvin and The Auto Industry Bailout

I can't read an article about the auto industry bailout crisis without thinking about Melvin.

My first job out of college was organizing "a-thons" for a national nonprofit. Walk-a-thons, bike-a-thons, jail-a-thons - our special events department did it all. Along the way, we met some interesting, inspiring people who fundraised their hearts out for these events.

People like Melvin.

Melvin wasn't a bicyclist, but there was something about our bike-a-thon event that gave him a way to keep his mother's memory alive. He didn't want any other son or daughter to go through what he went through in caring for his mother. The man was driven to find a cure. So driven that he pedalled his bike in the 65-mile bike-a-thon every year for 18 years. He was always one of our top fundraisers; the total amount he raised was close to $100,000 but I am guessing it was much, much more.

Melvin worked the night shift at the Ford Assembly Plant. I think he was an assembly-line worker making pickup trucks. My boss and I arranged to present Melvin with an award at the plant, and I remember half-heartedly making the long trip up the NJ Turnpike to Edison. I had a lot to do in the office, and at first I saw it as being a waste of a day.

At the Ford Assembly Plant, we were treated to the grand tour. I can honestly say that it was absolutely fascinating. While I don't remember the details of what cars we were watching being manufactured before our very eyes on the assembly line, what I still remember more than 14 years since then are the workers - workers with photos of their families at their stations, newlyweds, newborns, grandkids. Workers with American flag posters and pins. The work they were doing was not easy, but they were proud as hell to be doing it. And the fact that we corporate types would drive such a distance just to recognize and thank one of their own was A Big, Big Deal.

There was something about the acknowledgement that we gave Melvin, the very fact that we showed up and said your hard work matters, you're making a difference and we noticed. I'm glad we took the time to recognize him because a few years afterwards, Melvin was killed in a car accident. He was 49 years old.

So this talk of the auto industry bailout inevitably makes me think of people like Melvin and his coworkers at the Ford Assembly Plant in Edison.

Which also isn't there anymore, having been closed and demolished in 2004 to make way for a shopping center.

Best of the Week - Dec 7-13

In the past week alone, two people that I know through my professional life sent me invitations to be their friend on Facebook. These are not co-worker friends; these are people who I have what I consider to be a professional relationship. So, this opinion piece by Michael Smerconish (Head Strong: Facebook epidemic. More than 120 million have joined, many too old for this nonsense. Whatever value it could have is trumped by the etiquette traps it sets)and published in the 12/7/08 Philadelphia Inquirer, resonated with me. For you Philly folks, it might hold special interest. (I adore Michael. One of my former coworkers refers to him as my "radio husband.")

(The Dean's Sister just told me this morning that two of The Dean's cousins are on Facebook. One is 48 and the other is not far behind. My point.)

This piece from the 12/7/08 New York Times is why I haven't joined a real-life book club.

I believe My Friend Amy had the idea first, but this piece by Stephen Dubner supports the idea of buying books for the holidays in this post about A Bookstore Stimulus Package.

Kristina from Autism Vox has this great post called "Enmeshment and the Special Needs Parent" .

As I type, Betty and The Dean's Mom are making chocolate chip cookies. The Dean's Mom's cookies are legendary. (Well, at least in our family.) The Dean's staff has worked really hard this year, so they might get some of these as holiday presents ... if the cookies last long enough, that is. If they disappear this evening, this recipe for Chocolate Dipped Gingerbread and Cinnamon Chip Biscotti looks like a tasty substitute. Or maybe these Chocolate Chip Oreo Cookies. (I am loving the cookie ideas on Picky Palate.)

Speaking of co-workers, you're not alone if you have dysfunctional office-mates. This article proves that even Santa Claus has troubles getting along with his colleagues.

I may have missed a few things since I'm a little behind on my blog-reading from the last couple days, due to being out of the house very early this morning and finally watching the last three episodes of this season's Mad Men last night (Eggheadmom! Now that I've seen the season finale, we must chat. Email me. That goes for anyone else, too, who is into Mad Men.) Loooove that show.

Have a great week!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Christmas Meme

I got this Christmas meme from a post on Shelfari. Feel free to play along on your blog too.

Wrapping paper or gift bags?
A little of both.

Real tree or Artificial?
Artificial. The same one for the past 13 years.

When do you put up the tree?
Usually the first or second weekend in December.

When do you take the tree down?
Usually the first or second weekend in January.

Do you like eggnog?
I absolutely LOVE eggnog. Love it. Thanks to my cholesterol-levels, I've had to switch to the Silk Nog, but it's not bad.

Favorite gift received as a child?
Santa brought me a typewriter when I was 5 years old. I was in my absolute glory.

Hardest person to buy for?
My 91 year old grandfather.

Easiest person to buy for?
Do I count?

Do you have a nativity scene?

Mail or email Christmas cards?
Mostly mail, but there might be a few emailed this year.

Worst Christmas gift you ever received?
I don't know ... and even if I did, the gift-giver could be reading this blog.

Favorite Christmas Movie?
It's a Wonderful Life.

When do you start shopping for Christmas?
I usually have one or two gifts purchased and put away by Halloween, if not sooner.

Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?
It's possible that I may have.

Favorite thing to eat at Christmas?
My mother-in-law's Christmas cookies.

Lights on the tree?

Favorite Christmas song?
Of all time? Carly Simon's "Christmas is Almost Here." Also, Josh Groban's version of "O Holy Night", Kenny Loggins' "Celebrate Me Home," Melissa Etheridge's version of "Happy Christmas", and James Taylor's version of "River." There's others, but those are my favorites.

Travel at Christmas or stay home?


Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

I think so ... but I'm tired, so I'm not going to embarrass myself.

Angel on the tree top or a star?

Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning?
Christmas morning.

Most annoying thing about this time of the year?
It's cold.

Favorite ornament theme or color?
The ones my kids made in preschool.

Favorite for Christmas dinner?

What do you want for Christmas this year?
Not much.

What is your favorite thing about the holidays?

I love Christmas cards. I love writing the holiday letter, I love getting holiday letters, I love seeing photos of people's kids ... I love everything about Christmas cards.

Your turn!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: Here's The Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice, by Maureen McCormick

It's hard to believe that Maureen McCormick only played "Marcia Brady" on The Brady Bunch for five years. The Brady Bunch has become such a part of pop culture that it seems as if the series ran for much longer (syndication will do that, I guess).

Although each of the child actors and actresses who portrayed the Brady kids became closely identified with his or her character, America (and a good deal of Hollywood) seems to find it most difficult to separate Maureen McCormick from Marcia Brady. Hence the rationale for writing this book. Life in the Brady household was picture-perfect ... and whatever problems or crises erupted were easily solved within the episode. And nobody was more perfect and more idolized than Marcia.

Here's the Story gives a backstage look at McCormick's life before, during, and especially after starring on The Brady Bunch. Much of the publicity surrounding the book's release centered on the juicy tidbits she reveals within: the confirmation of her romance with Barry Williams, who played big brother Greg; the wild parties at the Playboy Mansion; the dates with Steve Martin and Michael Jackson. While I initially picked up this book because of these nuggets, that's not what the book is about.

Judging people on what we pereceive them to be is a recurrent theme throughout the book. As a young girl, McCormick's father lectures his offspring around the kitchen table about judging others - a bitter irony in so many respects, particularly in regards to McCormick's parents' relationship, her own relationship with her mother, her view of herself, and of course, America's view of how life must be for Marcia/Maureen. She writes poignantly about her brother Denny, who is intellectually handicapped, and the harsh judgement that is inflicted on him by her friends who weren't allowed to stay overnight (for fears that Denny could be get violent) or when he hears people calling him a "retard" and asks his sister what that means. On a personal level, I would have liked to have read more of her experience and thoughts on having a sibling with special needs, but that's not what the book is about.

Ultimately, this is a book about the process of accepting yourself for who you truly are - not who or what society dictates that you are, even if you are Marcia Brady. Here's the Story is a fast read, made such because a good deal of the writing tends to stray into cliches and banality with frequent uses of "cool" and "hot." At times it seems as if Marcia herself is writing this memoir, especially when reading such passages as this, when discussing her romance with co-star Barry Williams.

There was so much electricity between us that I felt the hair on my arms stand up every time we got close to each other on the set. I thought about Barry even when I had scenes with other guys. I used to ask myself how I could ever look in eyes other than his liquid blues and feel such love.

Gag me with a spoon, for sure.

The most gripping parts of this book comes in the last several chapters. The reader feels McCormick's pain as she discusses her mother's death and the family dynamics playing out in the aftermath. Unlike on a sit-com, there's no easy resolution to these messy and emotionally painful issues.

I liked this book more than I thought I would, and give it 3.5 stars (out of 5). Would recommend reading if you're a Brady Bunch fan, but moreso as an interesting read about the struggle for self-acceptance on all levels.