Thursday, April 30, 2009

Retail Therapy in the Form of Books

A coworker and I were feeling kind of blah today for no apparent reason, so I suggested a visit to a nearby thrift store (not the one affiliated with our organization) to peruse their used books section. My colleague, being a fellow bookworm herself, eagerly agreed such a trip was in order and at lunchtime we headed off in search of new-to-us books and Starbucks.

This particular thrift store sells hardbacks for 90 cents and paperbacks for - wait for it! - 35 cents. Yes indeedy, a mere thirty-five cents! I never leave this store disappointed.

Here's what I found today:

Virginia Woolf, An Illustrated Anthology (such a cute little book with excerpts from her novels and letters, along with drawings and paintings)

Great Short Stories by American Women (this one is 13 stories from 19th and early 20th century writers)

Touch and Go - by Studs Terkel (I started this on audio a few months ago but just couldn't get into it much. I love Studs Terkel, though, so maybe I'll have better luck with the printed version.)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - by Alice Munro

Friend of My Youth - by Alice Munro (I've never read Alice Munro. I know, I know. I own several of her books, so there's no excuse. None whatsoever.)

House of Windows - by Adina Hoffman (The premise of this one looked intriguing, and according to the cover, the copy I bought today is an ARC. According to the back cover, it's a memoir of living in Musrara, a neighborhood on the border of the western (Jewish) and eastern (Arab) sides of Jerusalem.)

Expecting Adam - by Martha Beck (This has been on my TBR list for years. For me, Martha's monthly columns in O are hit or miss - but I am interested in her story about knowing that her son would have Down Syndrome and the decision to continue the pregnancy.)

A Big Storm Knocked It Over - by Laurie Colwin (Because I've never read any Laurie Colwin either, can you believe that?)

A Year in Provence - by Peter Mayle (Just because it looked interesting, and this might be good for one of the challenges that I am blanking on ... the Summer Travels Challenge? The Summer Vacation Challenge? Oh, hell, you know which one I'm talking about ...)

Written By Herself - by Jill Kerr Conway (Because I cannot resist any anthology of autobiographies of American women.)

The Third Angel - by Alice Hoffman (Another author I've never read, but probably should.)

The Post-Birthday World - by Lionel Shriver (Been on my TBR list for awhile now.)

Treasury of Women's Quotations - by Carolyn Warner (Because I can't resist quotation books either.)

Ready for the total cost? $8.11. Eight dollars and eleven cents, people! Ah, yes, is there any better retail therapy than 13 books for just over eight bucks?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine

Is it just me, or does anyone else automatically think of R.E.M. whenever they read yet another news report about the swine flu?

Sing it with me, won't you? "It's the end of the world as we know it, it's the end of the world as we know it, it's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."

Now we've got the World Health Organization telling us that a pandemic is "imminent." WHO said they were planning to announce this at 4 p.m., presumably so we could all enjoy this breaking news story as we drive off the nearest bridge on the way home from work (assuming that we're all still fortunate to be gainfully employed). As I drove home listing to the traffic report, the local news radio station led with the story that four college kids in my state were sick. "They definitely have the flu," the announcer intoned ominously. Four college kids. On a campus with 20,500 students. (An update to this says there's now 10 "probable cases" there now and their website is emblazoned with HEALTH ALERT.)

Reports say they don't know why or how the swine flu is being spread so easily. Well, that's a no-brainer. It's because of people like the freakin' idiot in the car in front of me at Dunkin' Donuts this morning who was PICKING HIS FREAKIN' TEETH WITH HIS FINGERNAILS WHILE WAITING IN LINE AT THE DRIVE THRU ... and then using that same hand to exchange money and food with the same cashier who had my order up next! I'm so not kidding. I'm supposed to be worried about swine flu when I've got to contend with that asshole? I'm telling you, I damn near crashed into his car while frantically scavaging for the Purell in my purse and you know, the guy would have deserved it if I rear-ended him. No jury in the world would have found me guilty, I guarantee it. That's the pig who is going to get me sick faster than anything else. That's the pig who is going to be the end of civilization as we know it.

I don't know why this has me so laissez-faire. I really have a few other things on my mind besides the possibility of getting swine flu. Are people working themselves into a lather about this because deep down they're afraid of confronting their own mortality? Is our attention being diverted from something else? ("Wag the Dog" anyone?)

I don't know the answers to any of these rambling questions, and I don't wish any ill will on anyone who is sick. I hope everyone who has the flu - be it swine or the normal, garden-variety versions - gets better quickly. I'm aware that there was a major influenza epidemic in 1918 and that it killed thousands. I'm also acutely, painfully aware that the flu does, indeed, kill nearly 500,000 people each year. (My own father was one of those fatalities.)

In the meantime, we could all benefit from keeping some perspective - and Purell - close at hand.

Wondrous Words Wednesday

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. Feel free to join in the fun.

Before I get to my words, though, I just had to share a funny story from Boo. When I picked him up after school on Tuesday, he greeted me by saying he wanted to play a game whereby (he didn't actually say whereby) he would give me a word and I'd have to provide the definition. OK, I said, that sounds fun.

"What's my first word?" I asked.

"Evade."

"Evade?" (keep in mind the kid is in first grade. I highly doubt this was a spelling word.)

"Yes. Evade."

"Um, well, to kind of hide from something or to not tell someone the truth ...."

"You! Are! Correct!" Boo says.

And with that, here are this week's wondrous words.

crepuscular adjective
1.of, pertaining to, or resembling twilight; dim; indistinct.
2.Zoology. appearing or active in the twilight, as certain bats and insects.

Flannery's describing herself as 'thirteenth century' on their walks shows the weightiness of some of these crepuscular conversations; she wasn't much for small talk." (From Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch).

cynosure - noun
1. something that strongly attracts attention by its brilliance, interest, etc.: the cynosure of all eyes.
2.something serving for guidance or direction.

A single-scene character study of an imperious Mrs. Peterdon being ushered to her seat at the theater was titled "The Cynosure" ...." (From Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch).

neologisms - noun
1.a new word, meaning, usage, or phrase.
2.the introduction or use of new words or new senses of existing words.
3.a new doctrine, esp. a new interpretation of sacred writings.
4. Psychiatry. a new word, often consisting of a combination of other words, that is understood only by the speaker: occurring most often in the speech of schizophrenics.

Her readings in Joyce and Faulkner were echoed in neologisms like "greyflying" to describe the train whizzing by. (From Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch).

metier - noun
1. An occupation, a trade, or a profession.
2. Work or activity for which a person is particularly suited; one's specialty.

Whether or not I was correct to conclude that fiction was my metier, I clearly couldn't be trusted with the facts. (Jay McInerney, on his stint as a fact-checker for The New Yorker, as written in the preface to his new collection of stories "How It Ended")

physiognomy –noun, plural -mies.
1.the face or countenance, esp. when considered as an index to the character: a fierce physiognomy.
2. Also called anthroposcopy. the art of determining character or personal characteristics from the form or features of the body, esp. of the face.
3. the outward appearance of anything, taken as offering some insight into its character: the physiognomy of a nation.

Later he would realize that most of us believe in our ability to read character from physiognomy. (From the short story "Smoke", included in the collection "How It Ended" by Jay McInerney.)

What new words did you discover this week?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Next Time, Try Photoshop-ing the Photo-Op

What the hell were they thinking?

Oh, right ... that's sort of the problem. Someone was clearly not thinking when they decided to fly the substitute Air Force One at low altitude among buildings in downtown Manhattan.

For the purpose of getting new photos of Air Force One with national landmarks like the Statue of Liberty.

Now, answer me this. Be honest now. When was the last time you actually saw such a photo? I mean, have you ever seen a photo of Air Force One flying by Lady Liberty's torch? Or the Empire State Building? I'm betting that the first such photos you, like me, ever saw of such a scenario were the heart-attacking inducing images that we saw on our computer screens and newspapers of this atrocity (Assuming you, like me, are one of those dinosaurs who actually prefer a newsprinted newspaper these days).

I mean, this is just sheer bullshit on so many levels.

We're hanging on by a thread here in the worst goddamn economic crisis of our time, one that my kids and grandkids will be paying for until ... well, forever. And we need a photo op of Air Force One among the New York landmarks? Are you freakin' KIDDING me? I read something today (not from an official source, probably a comment on a newsposting or something) that claimed this little photo op cost $2 million dollars. Two million dollars! This may or may not be true, but you can believe it wasn't free. Someone had to pay for this. Take a guess who that was? You and me, baby. You and me.

The problem is, the real people aren't going to pay diddly-squat for this complete and utter stupidity. Louis E. Caldera, the director of the White House Military Office who approved this insanity, might have officially apologized, and Obama might have called this a mistake, but you or I would have had our behinds drop kicked to the curb. We live in a world where an employee with over 30 years of service and an exemplary work history can be fired for taking a pair of reading glasses to complete his job, like Bob from Acme was. But yet everyone who was involved in this flyover is, presumably, going to work tomorrow and, presumably, making a shitload more money than Bob from Acme.

And another point: didn't we just have an incident where a jetliner plunged into the Hudson because of a bird strike? Didn't we just read reports that such incidents are much more common than you would have ever imagined? What if there was such an incident during this flyover photo op? What if the pilot had a heart attack and crashed into a building?

Would it have still been called a mistake?

Would the price have been worth it?

Finally, I'll tell you what I think this incident truly illustrates in a picture-perfect way. I think it tells us that a few people in our government have clearly forgotten 9/11. Not the everyday Jane and Joe who goes to work in New York's financial services district and elsewhere. No, by the reactions of people who fled office buildings yesterday, they sure haven't forgotten their colleagues jumping out of windows 60, 70, 80 stories in the air. They haven't forgotten the horror that was 9/11. )

Rather it's the people in charge of the White House Military Office who have forgotten what that day was like. They may deny it, but their actions of keeping this from the public so blatantly shows that they have forgotten what September 11, 2001 was like for this country. Call me melodramatic (hell, I've been called much worse) but that, my friends, will now keep me up at night - as it should you.

In the meantime, here's a message for Louis Caldera. Mosey on over to adobe.com and download yourself a free copy of Photoshop. With any luck, unemployment will give you lots of free time to learn how to use it the next time you find yourself in need of a few new photos of Air Force One appearing to fly into buildings in New York City on a picture-perfect gorgeous day with not a cloud in the sky.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Best of the Week - April 19-25, 2009

Some of the best posts that I've read this week from various places around the blogosphere. It's arranged in a bit of a hodgepodge fashion, but I've been up for three hours with Boo this morning (and it's only 7:15 a.m.), so that's my excuse.

One reason I love the blogging world so much is having a chance to read young writers like 11-year old Maya Ganesan. I particularly like this poem of hers, What's Mine is Missing.

Another reason I love the blogging world is how complete strangers can bond together, especially when someone is in need like Baby Stellan, whose mom is Mckmama at My Charming Kids. Stellan had a very risky, complicated heart surgery this week and people all over the country wore orange and prayed for him today. I just think that's so cool. I also like Mckmama's post on prayer which offers a lot to ponder, regardless of how religious you are or are not.

Holly Anderson's post ("Ever Evolving: Special Needs Kids and the Impact of Us") on Blissfully Domestic is the second in a series of the impact of special needs on parents. I still need to go back and read Holly's first installment, but I plan to, as it sounds like something I need this week.

Do you need to do a Home Organizing Audit? I sure do. From Zen Habits, here's what an Organizing Audit is and how you can do one in your house.

Along with the Organizing Audit, it's probably also time to revisit the notion of creating a Household Organization Notebook. I did this awhile back and never kept it up; maybe it's time to give it another go. And while we're at it, some organizing and containerizing might be in order.

I need to do all of the above because my kids have Too. Much. Crap. I'm sure we're not alone in this regard. I've been trying to be more conscientious about our gift-giving, which is why I like this Great Gifts for Kids that Don't Involve "Stuff" list from Small Notebook.

Girl With Pen writes an interesting post about how "New Orleans has become a pilgrimage of sorts for the nation’s youth." She continues, “Like Juan Ponce DeLeon’s mythological fountain of youth, the Lower 9th Ward has become upper-middle-class America’s source of feel-good absolution….But the darker side of all of this well-intentioned activism is that it has created a revolving door of services and support in a parish that is in dire need of a strategic plan.”

Earth Day was this week. This guest post by Gemma Bulos on All Things Girl about her humanitarian organization A Single Drop, which provides safe water solutions in Asia and Africa, is very eye-opening. It's unfathomable to think that "[c]urrently, 1.2 billion people do not have access to water and 3-5 million die of water-related disease per year. 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation facilities and toilets."

Love this photo from Friday morning's Philadelphia Inquirer. I've had the privilege of meeting Clem, who is a wonderful photographer and an all-around gentleman.

Melissa from Melissa's Bookshelf (love the blog title) offers up some Blogger Tips and Widgets. That's where my Recent Comments widget came from. What do you think - like it? Or is it distracting?

Hope you have a great week!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri


Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Isn't it the most delicious feeling when you discover a new-to-you author? I certainly think so. I'd heard of Jhumpa Lahiri, of course, but I hadn't read any of her work until Unaccustomed Earth. You can be sure I'll be reading more by this incredibly talented writer.

Unaccustomed Earth
is a collection of eight short stories involving several Bengali families living in the United States. (The last three stories are all connected as a triptych.) Lahiri explores the themes of familial and marital relations in these stories, all of which have incredibly well-drawn and identifiable characters. She writes with detail about the cultural and generational gaps between parents and their adult children.

In each story - and I loved each one - there seemed to be a moment of dramatic tension or suspense. It was subtle, in some cases, but present enough to register that something was going to happen. Usually it was something not exactly foreseen (especially true for the last story.)

I confess an unfamiliarity with Bengali culture, so I wasn't certain what to expect from Unaccustomed Earth. I needn't have worried because although the characters are Bengali, the dramatic conflict in the stories (a sibling's struggle with alcoholism, a parent's remarriage, unrequited love) are universal. Other reviewers on Amazon have commented that it seems as if Lahiri is going back to the well too often by presenting similar themes and characters as in her previous works, but since I haven't read those, I can't comment on that. This criticism does seem to surface regularly enough to mention here.

I love short stories and always have. I'd never listened to a short story collection on audio, though, and if you're new to audiobooks, I think this would be a good one to try. The stories are of a longer length than that of a typical short story, which lends itself nicely to audio.

The title comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" in which he writes: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Unaccustomed Earth was just released in paperback earlier this month and it is well worth the read. I enjoyed this tremendously and look forward to reading more by Jhumpa Lahiri. My rating: 4 stars. (I'm actually not sure why I'm not giving it 5. There's no reason, but something is holding me back. I usually reserve those for books I can't put down, and this didn't have quite that strong of a pull for me. Maybe that's all it is, I dunno.)

What Other Book Bloggers are Saying:
(if I missed yours, feel free to leave me a link in the comments and I'll add it.)

And this from the New York Times Book Review

Surviving the Regression (or, The Storm Before the Calm)

These episodes seem to sneak up on me quietly, in the night almost, making me feel like I've been hit over the head with a 2x4 and thrown right back into the black hole days of the early autism years.

From time to time, Boo seems to regress - not so much in skills, but in behavior. We are all too clearly in one such phase right now and it's always a little difficult for me to cope with. My strategy is to keep telling myself that we usually see some leap forward out of all of these regressions, and that's usually what keeps me hangin' on.

It's a phase with much more repetitive noise from Boo than usual (and I've learned that I have a very low tolerance for repetitive noise). Almost constant talking in a very high-pitched, glass-shattering, mega-decibel voice. Frustration at the slightest thing that doesn't go his way or when he is merely corrected about something. A complete inability to listen. Solitary play that is met with outbursts if I even dare try to join in, as we spent hours doing through floortime. An increase in the usual obsession with time. Sleep quirkiness. ("I'm going to sleep from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m.," and then somehow, as if by saying it makes it so, his little body becomes hard-wired to greet the day at 4 a.m. Thankfully, he does remain very quiet at this wee hour, content to read, write, or play a computer game.)

All we can really do is muddle through. Point out to his teacher when she emails about his behaviors that yes, he's still on the autism spectrum and special ed services might actually be helpful with this. (Oh, but that's right ... silly me, I forgot, we're not autistic enough for services. We became less autistic when we moved here and crossed the state line. That's a whole 'nother post.) Try and give the before/after school provider some tips on what helps, knowing that it depends on the day, the weather, the color shirt Boo's wearing.

I know that this is nothing compared to what others are going through and have gone through, and I feel almost guilty posting this as it seems complaining and pity-partying (but hey, it's my blog and I'll whine on occasion if I want to). It's my way of holding on, of trying to cope with feeling like I will have a 2 year old forever, of being able to look back in a couple weeks or so and say a-ha, that's what all that was about. The storm before the calm.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Just Making Sure

Me, this morning to Boo, as I left for work: "I love you, Boo."
Boo: "I love you, too."
And then he added, "I know that all the time."

I'm just making sure you do, pal. Just making sure.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Train of Thought

As we washed our hands in the restroom, a long conference day behind us, a former co-worker turned to me. "So did you take the train today?"

Yes, I replied, adding that it was a new station for me and the first time I'd taken the train into Philadelphia from our new house.

Overhearing our public restroom conversation, another woman said she was taking the same train and was going to the stop after mine. Did I happen to know how to get to the train station from where we were? I did, and she asked if I would mind waiting and showing her where to go.

Chatting as we bounded down the series of escalators, into the terminal, down a set of stairs, back up the same stairs, down another set of stairs, onto the platform and finally, onto the train, we semi-collapsed into two side-by-side seats. We talked for the entire trip, about the conference we'd just attended, about her consulting work, about the economy and the trends we were observing in our profession.

Indeed, had you been a passenger on this rail journey with us, traversing state lines and heading into the late afternoon sun, you might have thought we were longtime friends with the ease in which (at least from my perspective) we spoke. You would have heard me tell her about my wearisome four hour round trip daily commute and my futile two-year search for a new job in my new state. You would have heard her say she'd keep an eye out for opportunities, and you would have heard me thanking her and believing that she actually will do so.

And then you would have heard her present an idea to me, a thought, a scenario to consider offering my current employer, an arrangement that could, maybe, possibly work. It's an out-of-the-box maybe for the culture of the organization I'm employed by (and I'm not sure how receptive my boss would be). But just the idea of having this as a potential option for my work situation has made my step a little lighter this evening. It's a new way of thinking about something that I had probably gotten a little too close to. I need to give this possibility more thought - especially in terms of how I present it to my boss - but tonight, I'm grateful to my new friend for sharing her thoughts while sharing the ride.

Because as I was showing her the way back to the train station, she was actually showing me a potential new way and a new path.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Creamy Split Pea Soup

It seems as if we should really be beyond soup weather, doesn't it? With the exception of just a handful of glorious days, this spring seems to have had more than its usual fair share of rainy and cloudy skies. And so, the crockpots remain on the kitchen counter (actually, they never get put away around here) because as much as we want to move past soup, some days just call for a big bowl.

That's fine with me, especially if it's this Creamy Split Pea Soup from Betty Crocker Easy Everyday Vegetarian. This is the second recipe I've made from this collection ... and it's a crockpot recipe!

Prep time: 20 minutes
Start to finish: 10 hours, 50 minutes
Makes 8 servings

Ingredients:

1 lb. dried green split peas (2 cups), sorted, rinsed
6 cups water
1/2 cup dry sherry or apple juice (I used apple juice)
1 large dark-orange sweet potato, peeled, cubed (2 cups)
1 large onion, chopped (1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsps. salt
3 cups firmly packed chopped fresh spinach leaves (I omitted and we didn't miss it)
1 cup whipping (heavy) cream
2 tbsps. chopped fresh dill weed
freshly ground pepper to taste

(Don't tell The Dean or my kids, but I substituted 10 oz. of frozen cooked winter squash for the sweet potato. You'll see that I have it hidden so they wouldn't even see it as I took the photo. They were none the wiser at the dinner table. Heh, heh, heh.)

In a 3.5 - 4 qt. slow cooker, mix split peas, water, sherry or apple juice, sweet potato, onion, garlic and salt. Cover, cook on Low heat setting for 10 to 11 hours. Stir in spinach, whipping cream and dill weed. Cover; cook on Low heat for about 30 minutes or until spinach is wilted. Season with pepper.

I cooked this for a little less than the stated time, thanks to getting a late start on this. It turned out to be something like 5 hours on Low and 3 on High. I'll admit this turned out a little bit on the bland side, but it's still worth keeping. Next time, I'll add some vegetarian bacon and I might try doing 3 cups of vegetable broth and 3 cups of water.

Suggested accompaniments to this are a fruit salad, a green salad, and some warm crusty rolls.

I know, not the best of photos, but pea soup - like the weather that inspires making it - is hard to photograph nicely.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Best of the Week: April 12-18

From The Happiness Project, here are 10 tips on how to be a more light-hearted parent.

And from Dorinda's post on Multiple Bliss, Tips for Traveling With Multiples. We're not planning any extensive driving trips this summer, sans our usual 2 hour drive to the shore, but these tips are worthy for anyone planning such an adventure, regardless of the number of kids in tow.

A wonderful, touching post by John Elder Robison (author of Look Me In the Eye) about his first friend, a boy named Doug who was a playmate when they lived in Philadelphia. (For my relatives who read this blog: I know, I did a double take too. It's not our Doug.)

Like all 47 million people who've watched the YouTube video, I was captivated last week by Susan Boyle. This is a great feature from The Herald (UK) newspaper that gives us a glimpse into this amazing woman.

It's been a tough week in Philadelphia with the death of longtime Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. As I wrote here, Harry was beloved by this city. There's been a bazillion tributes over the past week. Here's The Dean's post ("Wild About Harry") from his blog. I was the person responsible for The Dean having the opportunity to meet Harry Kalas. It was 1999, a new Barnes & Noble had just opened, and I saw an ad in the paper for a book-signing. The Dean was going to be in the area that day, so I clipped it and encouraged him to go.

Hope you had a great week and that this one is off to a good start.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Birds on a Limb


Photo of a tree in my mom's backyard, taken this morning

My thoughts this evening have been branching out in many directions. There's lots that I want to write about, that I need to write about, but I am all over the place right now.

I'm coming down from the high of a successful event last night at work. This particular event always induces an exhaustion in me for several days thereafter. Tomorrow will be no exception as I continue to edit more than 400 photos that I'll fret over, hoping they capture what I saw through the lens. (I'm hardly an amateur photographer, but because of the unavailability of the photographer I usually work with, I'm relying on myself and some great assistants to tell the stories.)

And an ongoing family situation with no end in sight took a turn in the night as a mockingbird sang nonstop in the deepest darkness, continued chirping at daybreak, and accompanied my mother and me as we walked and talked in the garden, checking on the new plantings, pacing through the dampness, looking skyward for solutions unforthcoming. Photographing the garden and knowing the tranquil morning was only on the surface. The answers out of the darkness not yet within our grasp of understanding.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wishful Reading for the 24-Hour Read-a-thon

Oh, how I wish I was doing Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon this weekend. You have no idea how much I wish I was doing this. (Don't know what the Read-a-Thon is or what it's all about? Go here.) Instead, I'll be doing this:

Every year, there's an event at my workplace that involves all hands being on deck. This takes months of planning, has enough drama to rival any soap opera, and is very labor-intensive. Of course, it's tomorrow. I'm not directly involved, but as I'm one of the hands on deck, I need to work tomorrow afternoon all the way into the wee small hours of Sunday morning. I like my paycheck, so that's where I will be.

But if I was participating, here's what I would be reading. (Just in case you needed some more ideas.)

This stack includes two Beth Kephart books, Undercover (which comes out in paperback soon - you can watch the trailer here) and Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. I received Undercover as a Christmas present and I purchased Flow at Beth's talk back in February, where she graciously indulged my groupie-like self and signed both books (and four of her others!)

Also keeping in the Philadelphia spirit, I would read two others. Daniel Gottlieb's Letters to Sam: A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life is a collection of letters that Gottlieb wrote to his young grandson, Sam, who has autism. Daniel Gottlieb is a local therapist who writes extensively for the Inquirer and other outlets. He is a local treasure. Kelly Corrigan, author of The Middle Place, grew up in suburban Philadelphia and her memoir would also be on my Read-a-thon list.

I would also try and read later, at the bar by Rebecca Barry, which I summarized here when I picked this up as part of my Library Loot. I would also include The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton and The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. All of these three (and more!) are due back to the library real soon.

Sigh. I didn't sign up as an official Cheerleader, but I plan to do so anyway, at least during the morning hours when I also plan to read as much as I can. (Most likely that will be my current read, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch.)

There's also an optional charitable portion of the Read-a-Thon. Although I'm not officially participating, I will be officially contributing. The charity I've chosen is 10,000 Books for Children: The Free Library of Philadelphia's Book Drive. Here's what this project is all about:

Join the Free Library and help buy 10,000 Books for Children to ensure that children and teens have new and exciting books to keep them reading over the summer. The Free Library’s book budget was cut 25% earlier this year and the Library had to stop ordering new books until early July. We need your help to stock the shelves for the 65,000 children and teens who will be going to their local branch libraries for books to read over the summer. Studies show that reading four or five books over the summer has an impact comparable to attending summer school and can play a significant role in helping children maintain their reading level. Even preschoolers benefit from early literacy activities—they are more likely to be “ready for school” and their literacy measures, such as rhyming, alliteration, and concepts of writing, are superior to youngsters with little or no exposure to books.

I chose 10,000 Books for Children because The Free Library of Philadelphia was my very first library - the one where my mother took me to, and the one where I joined my first Summer Reading Club in 1974. I still remember going to storytime there (and being photographed for the newspaper!) and I believe strongly in the Summer Reading Club program. Plus, with the heavy emphasis on Philadelphia in the books I would have been reading tomorrow, it makes perfect sense.

Happy Reading, everyone! I'm looking forward to reading everyone's posts and cheerleading as much as I can.

Look What I Got Today!

It's always fun to get something other than bills in the mail, isn't it? I was Jill's winner for her birthday post - you can see what I'm talking about here on her blog, Fizzy Thoughts - and today I came home to a package in the mail. Inside was this:


Cool wrapping paper, huh? (After I opened it, Betty quickly absconded with the paper, claiming it for a recycling project next week at school.) Inside was THIS:


A journal! Not just any journal, but one titled Il Quaderno di Venezia. As Jill writes in the accompanying card, she found it in a little art supply shop hidden in the streets of Venice.

And that smaller package? 'Twas a bookmark, pictured here on top of the journal. It's a beautiful sea-green metal bookmark, beaded with "Joy" enscribed on it.


A new journal ...a new bookmark ... a new blogging friend. Joy.

Thanks so much, Jill!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review: The Best American Poetry 2008


The Best American Poetry 2008, Guest Editor: Charles Wright, Series Editor: David Lehman.

I selected this from the New Releases shelf at the library because of April being National Poetry Month and I wanted to broaden my literary horizons by reading some contemporary poets.

I'll be honest and say that, as a regular everyday reader trying to read more poetry, I struggled with this collection. Although I was an English/Communications major, I didn't study a great deal of poetry (and it's been waaaaayyyy too long since my last college class where I would have done so). In that sense, I don't even feel qualified to offer a review. What I can say is how this collection made me feel. It seemed as if a sadness or a depression hung over this book, as many of the works seemed to deal with heavy topics - and given the oft-depressing news cycle in 2008, perhaps that is to be expected.

I liked the Contributors' Notes and Comments at the end of the book, and as someone needing a refresher on poetry terminology and introduction to today's poets, this was helpful. Each poem in The Best American Poetry is presented alphabetically by poet, and the Contributors' section has a brief bio of each poet along with his or her interpretations of (and inspiration for) their work. I always find it interesting to hear reflections by authors on their work, so I enjoyed this section.

As I said, I selected this because I wanted to become more familiar with contemporary poetry and poets. Although this collection wasn't my favorite and was challenging to read at times, it certainly made me appreciate today's poetry and continue to respect those who write it. Rating: 2.5

Susan Boyle: She Dreamed a Dream In Time Gone By

Without a doubt, the absolute picture of perfection and inspiration can be found here, in this YouTube video of 47-year old Susan Boyle, who appeared on Britain's Got Talent (the UK version of American Idol) on Saturday.

Susan's no idol to behold, looks-wise. Coverage of Susan's appearance has focused on her appearance as being "frumpy" and "spinster-like." And indeed, Susan - who lives alone with her cats - is not what immediately comes to mind when thinking of superstars.

Make no mistake about it: she is. Susan Boyle is the picture-perfect portrait of inspiration for all of us who have ever had a dream of any kind in our life. For those of us who dreamed a dream of the day that we would take to the stage and show them (whomever they may be) what we can do, and triumph. For those of us who needed a reminder to not judge a voice by it's cover - and let's face it, that was most of the audience.

The cynic in me is hoping beyond hope that this is not a hoax. I want to believe that dreams are still possible for those of us who have been laughed at and discounted. And you know, even if it is a hoax, I don't care.

Here's the YouTube link again. I dare you to watch this and not be moved to tears or stirred by emotion of some kind. And really listen to the words.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted.

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame.

And still I dream he'll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Best of Last Week

Once again, I am belatedly giving you my Best of the Week roundup. This was supposed to be from April 5-12 and I'd planned to post this last night but got caught up in writing about Harry Kalas and catching up on the last few episodes of "Big Love." (I don't know how I lived without On Demand.)

So, here's the Best of Last Week. (Maybe that's what I need to call this from now on.)

Paul Collins, author of Not Even Wrong and father of Morgan, has a great article in Cookie Magazine about including a child with autism in birthday parties.

The Autism Society of America has some incredible artwork here. (I love greeting cards, so it is very tempting to order myself some from every masterpiece that has that option.)

Fleecy, author of the blog "Bleating in the Fields" (where I saw the autism artwork mentioned above), has a very thought-provoking post about the stimming, vocalizations, etc. that can be common characteristics of people on the spectrum. Boo does a lot of singing and verbal vocalizations - I mean, a lot - and this perspective is a good one for me to keep in mind.

An interesting article ("A New Chapter of Grief in a Sad Literary Legacy") from the New York Times on Saturday about the life of Nicholas Hughes, son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Love this post ("Dear Family, I am inhabiting an alternate universe ...") from blog like no one is reading.

As well as this post focusing on the positives (and to stop comparing ourselves to other mothers) from Debbie at Suburb Sanity.

Everyone who has ever had a mammogram should read Anna Lefler's post ("Wham. Bam. Mammogram.") from Anna Lefler's blog Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder. Even if you haven't had a mammogram, it's still hilarious stuff. I was reading this at work when I needed a little pick me up and oh my God, did Anna deliver. Thank you, Anna!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hard to Believe, Harry

His signature song was "High Hopes" and he was entitled to it. After all, when you spend 38 years as the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, you need a few high hopes.

This afternoon, Phillies fans needed the highest of high hopes when we learned that beloved broadcaster Harry Kalas had been found unconscious in the press box while preparing for today's game against the Washington Nationals. He died shortly after being rushed to the hospital and our city is now mourning the loss of a legend in our own time.

To non-Philadelphians, this post will mean little. But to denizens of the City of Brotherly Love, you get it. You know how much Harry Kalas was part of this team, of this city, of our history. For it was Harry's voice on the radio that welcomed spring and the promise of another new season on that field of dreams. It was Harry who we listened to in the car, on sultry summer nights in the backyard. It was Harry who our hearts broke for when his broadcasting partner Richie "Whitey" Ashburn died suddenly, in a manner all too similar to Harry's passing. It was Harry who told us that finally, finally, finally our beloved Phils won the World Series and it was Harry who took to the field and sang - you guessed it - "High Hopes." It was Harry, less than six months ago, riding down Broad Street in our World Series Championship victory parade, the first since 1980 and a day that Philadelphians claimed as a national holiday.

What Harry Kalas gave us was simple. He called the game in his simple but distinguished way. But for 38 years - think about that, for a moment - he gave us the feeling that no matter whatever crap we were dealing with in our lives and whatever the world was throwing at us, there would always be something we could count on. Spring would come, our Phillies would again be contenders (even if just on Opening Day), hope would spring eternal, and Harry would be in the booth.

It's been said in several of the tributes I've read that Harry was like a member of the family, and in a way, that's what makes this especially sad. We're thinking tonight about those family members who enjoyed listening to Harry with us or who always had the game on while working in the yard (as my Dad did). Our grandfathers, our uncles, our brothers, our fathers. In mourning Harry, we're mourning all of them.

Perhaps we're mourning our own dreams and our own high hopes. For Harry Kalas - the high school senior who is pictured in his yearbook with "Harry Kalas ... Future Sports Announcer" as his caption, got to live his dream of being a sports announcer, one who was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and today, he died living that dream, doing what he loved most. It is fitting that Harry died in the broadcast booth.

And it's fitting that he left us in spring, in these early days when our hopes once again have the chance to soar anew on our own personal fields of dreams.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Smiling Strangers In Our Midst

On the same day when Sandra Cantu's Sunday School teacher was arrested in connection with the 8-year old girl's murder, I watched my 7 year old son follow an absolute stranger and disappear briefly from my sight.

The woman who Boo walked away with wasn't the boogeywoman. She was friendly, smiling, approaching him in the children's section of the library. Boo was sitting at a round table, engrossed in reading The 3-D Library of the Human Body: The Head and Neck - Learning How We Use Our Muscles . (I think he's hoping to cure The Dean's herniated discs. If so, go to it, pal.) He's been asking a lot of questions about the human body, particularly the brain and the mind, and since my English/Communications degree and The Dean's masters in history are proving futile in giving him answers, I suggested a trip to the library.

Boo was within my eye and earshot as I searched for his latest request, a book about blood. I heard the woman talking with him, asking questions about what he was reading. The young boy with her bounced all over the children's room, seemingly uninterested in anything, perhaps a compadre of Boo's inhabiting the autism spectrum.

"What reading level is he at?" said the woman, by way of greeting.

"Um ... I don't really know exactly," I said.

"You don't? I can't believe he's reading such advanced books."

"Yeah, well ...." I replied. "That's what he does." Because he has Aspergers! I wanted to scream.

"Did you teach him to read like that?" she inquired.

"Well, no, he just sort of picked it up," I answered. "He's just that kind of kid."

She continued to linger around, gawking at Boo like he would be sprouting a 3-D head and neck like the ones he was reading about. I wanted to go over to the New Releases, and normally would have left the kids at the table, as it was still within eyesight of where I wanted to browse. (This is not a very large library.) Instead, we moved to a closer table and Boo resumed reading.

His anxiety about being away from The Dean started fomenting, so I took that as our cue to depart. Betty and Boo moved from the table to two chairs directly parallel to the circulation desk as the librarian, a flighty woman who could be kin to Edith Bunker, began her running commentary on every one of the 50 or so books we were checking out.

And over the loquacious librarian I heard her again.

"You go to the same school as my son! Come with me."

Exorcist-like, I whipped my head around to see, - literally, 10 feet away - the woman we encountered earlier leading Boo away - around the stacks of books, back to the corner of the children's room.

"This is Cornelius," I heard her say.

"Oh, my, we have a problem, actually two problems," said the librarian. "You're at the limit for borrowing, you are only allowed 99 books, what should we do?"

I thrust Betty's library card at her, straining to keep the woman and Boo in my sights.

"Yo, Boo? Can you come back here? NOW!" I barked, quiet rules be damned. And then, "Let's put the rest of the books on this card, please," I said, handing the librarian Betty's card.

"Oh, righty then, yes I think we can do that - yes, we can. Mmmm hmmm."

By now, Boo reappeared. "Stay right here with Mommy, please, OK, sweetie?"

Remember, his anxiety level was increasing anyway, so reprimanding him right then and there would not have been pretty. Nor was it an option to leave all our books there. He was only gone from my view for a few seconds - and the woman's intent was probably only to foster a friendship, albeit temporary, with her son and mine.

Still.

The three of us walked out into the parking lot and once secured into the booster seats, I exhaled. "Now, both of you, when we get home, Daddy and I are going to need to talk with you about something very important."

"What did I do? Am I in trouble?" Boo said.

"No, no, no ... you're not in trouble. But," I began as prelude. "Now, I am not angry with you and you're not in trouble and you're not going to get a time-out. But, it made me very scared to see you walk off with that lady."

"Why?"

"Well, we don't know her ..."

"But she was nice."

And so, I'd imagine, was Sandra Cantu's Sunday School teacher at one time. (Although the chick's mug shot certainly gives an impression of someone angry as all hell, does it not?)

"Boo, why did you go with that lady?" I asked, quietly.

"Because she was a grown-up and she told me to."

My heart sank under the monumental weight of the literal Aspie mind. Of course going off with a complete stranger seemed OK to Boo. She was a grown up, smiling, a nice enough lady. She wanted him to meet Cornelius. Again, that was probably her true intent. Probably.

"Do you know Cornelius from school?" I asked. "Is he in your class or on your bus?"

"No, I don't know him," Boo replied. "I was just meeting him."

And so, back in the family room, we talked, the four of us, about strangers. About how some people might seem nice, but it is never OK to walk off with someone. How Mommy or Daddy need to know where you are all the time.

And where Boo is, I realized, is still in a place where everyone is a friendly mom. Where everyone smiles and where stranger danger is nonexistent. So with that, how do you teach these abstract concepts to someone on the autism spectrum, someone like Boo who is incapable of lying? To someone so innocent and trusting, completely unaware of the utterly incomprehensible workings of the human brain and mind?

For those of you with kids on the autism spectrum, I'd love to hear your thoughts on effective ways of teaching and reinforcing these sorts of lessons to our kids. Thanks.

Happy Easter, Happy Spring

Happy Easter ...

Happy Spring ...

Happy everything
(These flowers are from the bouquet that The Dean gave me for my birthday.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hannah Montana: The Movie, Meet Hannah Montana: The Review

I'm performing a little public service for y'all this weekend. (You're welcome.) On behalf of my 29 subscribers to this blog, I've braved the phalanx of pre-teens and tweens (same thing?), pre-tweens, pre-pre-tweens, their parental units, and any other demographic you can think of - all of the purpose of forking over a couple bucks to the Cyrus clan. Yes, we walked down the red carpet for the premiere of "Hannah Montana: The Movie" yesterday and as such, I offer you my review of this movie, mom-to-mom, parent-to-parent. Because let's get real, people: if you have a Hannah/Miley fan in the house, you know that seeing this movie is in your future.

At 102 minutes, The Movie (the geniuses at Disney really couldn't come up with a better title than The Movie?) is only slightly longer than the unsufferable previews that preceded it. (I know "previews that preceded" is redundant. Such were the previews of every movie scheduled to be released for the remainder of Barack Obama's term as president. We were treated to scenes of cars blowing up and whatnot that really were not appropriate for a pre-pre-pre-tween audience.

But I digress. Forgive me, for I probably haven't been to a movie in the actual Cinemultidigitalsurroundsoundplex since ... well, let's just say that I was smitten with the concept of stadium seating. Yeah, I get out a lot.)

In that spirit, I give you my own previews to The Review.

The Time: 5:43 a.m.

The Day: Saturday (Oh wait, scratch that. Here's what I meant to write.)

The Day: Saturday. One with no therapy sessions, no agenda, nothing to do.

(OK, that's more accurate.)

What: Hannah Montana serenading me from the family room

"Life is just a party so come as you are ..."

Followed by,"He's playing MY CD ON THE COMPUTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Did I mention that this was at 5:43 a.m.? On a Saturday when we have nothing to do? On a morning that greeted us with a downpour? Yeeeeaaaah. None of that was enough to stop the Hannah fever in this house, but especially on The Morning After seeing The Movie in The Theater.

Here's another preview: Mommy and Betty standing in line. The parent of another Hannah fan approached. "Are you seeing the Hannah movie?" she asked.

I wonder what could have possibly given it away. The hot-pink Secret Pop Star jersey with pink leggings that Betty was wearing? I nodded, yes indeed.

"I have an extra ticket for this show that I bought online," she said, proffering the ticket. "If you want it."

I'm thinking I'm in the middle of Groundhog Day or The Truman Show, because this has happened before - like last month when Betty and I went to the Flower Show. I stared at her. "Are you sure?" And just like the woman at the Flower Show, she disappeared into the crowd, leaving me as the bearer of a ticket to The Movie.

(Since I'm apparently a magnet for people bestowing tickets on me, I want it known that I am currently accepting any and all lottery tickets that folks don't plan on using - preferably the mega-millions-income-equivalent-to-that-of-Miley-Cyrus'-earnings winning version. I mean, I'm just sayin'.)

OK, now for our Feature Presentation. The Review of Hannah Montana: The Movie. Let's cut to the chase: Disney has hit a home run out of the park with this one. Hannah Montana: The Movie is what kids movies should be like, and what they used to be like. I rewound the VHS to my own childhood when I recalled seeing the likes of Benji and The Black Stallion on the big screen. It's that type of feel-good type family movie. And by family, the whole family can see this and enjoy it without feeling uncomfortable or worried about explaining some sexual reference or innuendo. There's no bad language, nothing that would make a parent cringe.

Instead, I found myself singin' and smilin' at Miley, remembering what it was like to fall for a cute guy (and cutie patootie Lucas Till fits the bill there nicely) and want him to fall for me too. (Like back then. Not now, lest you think I'm getting all coo-coo-ca-choo Mrs. Robinson here.)

The plot of The Movie is also innocent enough. Being Hannah has gone to Miley's head, so her father (played by her real-life dad Billy Ray Cyrus) takes her back to Tennessee - coincidentally, the name of his new single on his new CD (his 11th! who knew?) - for a lesson in remembering who she is and where she comes from. Back in Tennessee, Miley has several mishaps - falling off chicken coops and falling in love. Robby Ray, still missing Miley's mom (played by Brooke Shields on the show but only shown in a touching photo in The Movie), also falls for someone new, too. (Melora Hardin, also known as Jan from The Office.) The fictional town of Crowley Corners is falling into the hands of a greedy developer who wants to build a shopping mall so a fundraising concert is held to save the town.

Speaking of music, that's a big highlight of The Movie, obviously, and it's pretty decent. (Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts make appearances, too.) It has that Mamma Mia feel, when you just want to get up and dance in the aisle. And in our theater, a few kiddos did just that. It's a really fun time, and judging from the comments I overheard as we left ("I could watch that like 10 more times, like all in a row!") we weren't alone.

We also weren't alone in those dancing down the mall corrider afterwards, high steppin' it to FYE in search of the Hannah Montana: The Movie soundtrack, which we played at top volume in the car en route home.

After all, in the immortal words of Hannah Montana, life is just a party ....

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Real Character

At snack time tonight, Boo was telling us about something funny that E., one of his classmates, said.

"Wow, he sounds like a character," I commented.

"He's REAL!" Boo replied.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wonderous Words Wednesday

When I was around 9 or 10, I decided I wanted to learn every word in the dictionary. I got myself a notebook and, beginning with A, would scan the list of words until I came across one that was unfamiliar. Then, I'd write it down, definition and all, in my handy-dandy notebook.

Yes, this was my idea of a fun time back then ... and in some ways it still is. I love this new weekly meme started by Bermudaonion where we list the new words (to us) that we've come across during our reading this week. (Bermudaonion's new words can be found here). Here are my new-to-me words for this week:

cenotaph: n.
a sepulchral monument erected in memory of a deceased person whose body is buried elsewhere.
Arron's closet became a makeshift cenotaph. (From The Alchemy of Loss, by Abigail Carter).

torpid:adj. 1. inactive or sluggish; 2. slow; dull; apathetic; lethargic. 3. dormant, as a hibernating or estivating animal.

The dog days made her torpid.(From The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, by Joshilyn Jackson)

penury: n.
1.extreme poverty; destitution.
2.scarcity; dearth; inadequacy; insufficiency.
But even that makes me feel ashamed of my penury and like I am doing nothing to encourage the needy economy. (From Liz Smith's post on wowOwow, "Liz Smith Follows Fred Friendly's Advice on Spending")

What new words did you learn this week?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Reflections on The Alchemy of Loss by Abigail Carter

It seems strange to say that I really liked Abigail Carter's book, The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation. I mean, I didn't even want to title this post as a book review, because it feels like I'm reviewing someone's life - and this is a story that is very much about someone's life. Several lives, to be exact. But it's such an exquisite read that I need to share it with you, just as Abby has shared her story.

Abby was a 30-something married mother of two young children when her husband Arron called her on the morning of September 11, 2001. As part of his new job, he was attending a trade show that fateful morning at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center.

In her memoir, Abby writes poignantly and with heartbreaking detail of the days and months following 9/11. (It is rare that I cry while reading books, but I found myself tearing up on several occasions, particularly as she described one night in the first uncertain days after 9/11 when the hall light inexplicably and abruptly turned on and she knew that Arron had died.) As our country was trying to make sense of our new reality, so was Abby. She writes of the big issues - her relationships with her children and immediate family members, all of whom were grieving in their own ways, and of her anger born of grief - as well as the small things (not needing to buy Ruffles potato chips, Arron's favorite). She shares the emotions of being part of the public memorials, her indecision about returning to work, her first forays into dating.

And always, through it all, there is Arron. Woven throughout the book are memories and flashbacks of their life together and Arron's personality; in reading these stories, one's compassion deepens (as if that is even possible, but it is). Through her recollections, Abby gives us a vivid portrait of her husband, of the person behind the mistaken name read at the first anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero. You understand just how much Abby and her children have lost.

The Alchemy of Loss is also about what Abby has learned and how she has changed because of the experience of 9/11. The title is taken from the premise of a book, After the Darkest Hour, by Kathleen Brehony. As Abby writes:

"[she] maintains that loss is a form of 'spiritual alchemy' and can offer us an opportunity to change and grow. Alchemy is an ancient science and form of spiritualism that combines chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and medicine. It's followers aimed to turn lead into gold. The transmutation process follows three steps. First there is a 'blackening' where the lead is stripped of its original alloys and broken down to its barest essential elements to prepare it for transformation. The original form ceases to exist. In spiritual terms, this is the loss of what is familiar and is often characterized by a state of confusion, where we feel disoriented and anxious.

The next stage is the 'whitening' process whereby the metal [or the human spirit] is cleansed and purified, transforming its original chemistry. The confusion and chaos become regulated, more predictable, and we begin to see opportunities in our transformation to develop a fuller awareness of ourselves and our spirituality. Kathleen Brehony describes this stage in the journey as a 'baptism ... a spiritual and psychological awakening.'

A red powder made from the mythical philosopher's stone mediates the final stage, the 'reddening,' resulting in a superpure form of gold. An individual rises above his old, earthbound beliefs and values and achieves a higher level of enlightenment. He is transformed into his gold, pure, or awakened state."

I think this concept is a wonderful way to look at the grieving process, and as such, I've recommended The Alchemy of Loss to my mother. I'll be interested to hear her thoughts, since she buried two husbands before she turned 50. (One of those was my dad; having lost him when I was 15, I could relate to some of young Olivia's emotions.)

The Alchemy of Loss is a highly recommended, loving tribute to someone gone too young and a testament to the power of renewal that life offers. Thank you, Abby, for sharing so much of yourself, Arron, and your family with us. We are better people for you having done so.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Best of the Week, March 22-April 5

You get a double scoop of the best of posts this week. I only had a couple items from last week and for whatever reason, never posted them. They're still worthy, as are some finds from this week.

Here's the latest on the story of Charlie Balasavage (who I wrote about here) and 1,200 other juveniles who had the misfortune to become ensnared in the corrupt courtroom of Luzerne County Court Judge Mark Ciavarella and one other judge. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave the judge who is reviewing the 1,200 cases the discretion to overturn them.


I love playing Scramble on Facebook ... and I completely agree with this list about why it's so fun and additive.

Bad spelling is one of my pet peeves, so I particularly enjoyed this article on Read Street (a blog that is part of the Baltimore Sun). Thanks to Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books for sharing the link with us (and for a great post commenting on the Read Street article).

Becca wrote a very thoughtful post about the suicide of Sylvia Plath's son.

April is Autism Awareness Month. Even though Boo is on the milder side of the spectrum, we cannot help but be aware of autism 24/7 in this house. Susan E., from The Family Room explains why this month can be difficult, and Kristina's post, "Where It Begins" should be read by every single person who works in education. (Kristina's post that appears here and links to her 2008 Autism Awareness Month post is also well worth the read. As is her entire blog.)

It's also National Poetry Month, and that I am celebrating. I've been reading more poetry than usual. I have The Best American Poetry 2008 out from the library. If I'm exhausted and only up for reading a few moments, I'll read a couple poems - however, some of these verses are a little over my head. I'm just not getting a lot of them. On the other hand, I've become smitten with the poet Billy Collins thanks to two bloggers who shared some of his work this week. Iliana posted an excerpt from Journal on bookgirl's nightstand and Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness posted "Marginalia". I'm looking forward to reading more poetry this month (and the next!)

And now that we're into April, how are your New Years Resolutions going? Or shouldn't I ask? I've broken mine (but it only took me until last Friday to do so, so that's not too bad, right?) This post from Zen Habits ("You're Not Perfect, So What? Five Steps to Reclaim Your New Year's Resolution) tells us that it's not too late to start over.

Betty was pretty sick last week, and as such, I took a vacation day to stay home with her. I'm very, very lucky to have a wonderfully understanding, sympathetic, and flexible boss in these sorts of regards. However, I know there are many people who don't have such arrangements at work, and that's why this post from Working Moms Against Guilt about Homewatch Caregivers was so interesting.

According to this article, the powers-that-be at a local Acme store (Philadelphians know this as a supermarket chain) aren't as understanding as my boss. Produce manager Bob Martucci was finishing up some inventory work and needed a pair of reading glasses to do so. He'd forgotten his at home and other pairs in his office weren't the correct strength. Wanting to complete his work in time, Bob took a $9 pair of reading glasses from a rack in the store and cut off the price tag because it was hindering his sight. The glasses never left the store. Bob, however, was told otherwise. Citing employee theft, Acme fired him. He has 30 years with the company with no incidents in his personnel file, and his termination prompted at least one longtime customer to speak up. In what is the worst economic climate of our lifetimes, we need to keep the Bobs of this world working - and to perhaps try to treat people with a little more compassion.

Let's close on a funny note, shall we? Cid's post on "blog like no one is reading" (love that title!) about a conversation with her 11 year old son was one of the funniest things I'd read all week.

What's the best thing you've read this week?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Freaky Friday Weather for My Fortieth

I'm celebrating a birthday today, and it's one of those milestone years. You know, one of those birthdays where people tend to throw surprise parties or arrange for something like 40 cardboard cows to poop (I mean pop) up on your lawn. I've avoided both today, thankfully. (Most folks know me well enough to figure out that surprises and pooping cows aren't exactly my favorite things.)

Still, the weather has been downright freaky here on this birthday Friday. This morning dawned gray and foggy, and I was grateful that my boss allowed me to work at home today. Then a torrent of rain accompanied by lightning bolts and thunderbursts straight out of Greek mythology. The Dean and I cancelled our lunch plans as sheets of rain slammed against the windows. The doorbell rang mid-conversation, the Fed-Ex guy holding a bunch of bursting tulips from ProFlowers. And then a brilliant blue sky with clouds so puffy and Charminesque that you felt you could just stand on tiptoe and squeeze one.

It was then that I decided to venture out, to put down the laptop and visit the bargain bookstore and the library. The air was fresh, the road empty, and the radio and I sang songs from the 70s with the window down. "Oooooh, baby, baby it's a wiiiiiiiild world, it's hard to get by just upon a smile. Oooooh, baby, baby, it's a wiiiiiiild world and I'll always remember you like a child, girl." I felt like Lauren Ambrose's character Claire Fisher, in the ending montage of Six Feet Under (I'm still in deep mourning for that show) as she careens down the highway in her green hearse.

And then, after a few hours of sun-drenched brilliant-blue sky goodness, a reappearance of the storm clouds, as this photo taken right outside our door at 5:00 p.m. today shows.

Followed by this one, six minutes later.
Dinner was delivered and cleaned up, the kids went downstairs to play and I recounted my day to The Dean along with the latest medical report from my mother about my ailing (but stubborn as all hell) grandfather. (He has yet another infection and my mother tells me she has his pre-arranged funeral song, "How Great Thou Art" in her head ... could that be a sign of sorts that he's finally, finally, finally ready to let go?) I returned again to my laptop and started writing a blog post about today's freaky weather being symbolic for the storms and serenities that comprise this life of ours, that if today's weather was any indication of my next 40 years, it was going to be a wild world indeed. And then The Dean called out, "Wow ... you've got to see this!" and this, this is what we saw in the backyard sky.


We hustled the kids to the window, I grabbed the camera and ran outside. A young neighborhood boy, walking alongside the houses in the grass behind ours, head down, missing this.

"Hey, look," I said to the boy, gesturing as the rainbow's brilliance faded. He stopped, looked up just in time to catch a glimpse and smiled. Oooooh, baby, baby it's a wild world, it's hard to get by just upon a smile ...

I stood for a moment as the rainbow faded, watching in awesome wonder.

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
- How Great Thou Art
How great indeed.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Review (Kids of all ages): Happy Birthday to You!

Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World, by Margot Theis Raven and paintings by Chris Soentpiet

"Imagine having a birthday with no one singing the song "Happy Birthday to You." Before the 1900s, that's exactly the way things were. You might have had presents, cake, candles, and cards, but there was no Happy Birthday song to sing because it had not yet been written. Then once upon a happy day the famous song was born in a children's garden. Impossible, you say? Grow a song in a garden? Not impossible at all for a most unusual family that lived in a most unusual home at the time of the Civil War ...."

Tomorrow is my birthday (or maybe today, depending whether the calendar has turned to Friday where you are), so what better time than the last evening of my 30s to tell you about a perfectly delightful children's picture book, Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World.

I almost hesitate to categorize this as a children's book, because it really is one of those classically beautiful stories (think Love You Forever by Robert Munsch) for all ages. This is the story of the Hill family, whose patriarch Rev. William Hill founded a school "to instruct young women of the South. He believed, most unusually for steamboat days, an educated woman need not marry to have a home." (Yes! My man!) This was also in the days when children toiled in factories, but Rev. Hill and his wife Martha believed "that play was a child's most important work, the way to discover the world." Their household was one filled with play, songs, and poetry.

Patty Hill became acquainted with another Kentucky native, Anna Bryan, who brought a new educational concept - kindergarten - to Louisville. Under Miss Bryan's tutelage, Patty studied to become a kindergarten teacher. Just as her parents did, Patty wrote a simple little ditty to welcome the children to the classroom each day: "Good morning to you, Good morning to you, Good morning dear children, Good morning to all!" Patty and her sisters had fun trying out different verses ("Happy Vacation to You", "Happy New Year", "Happy Christmas") and then, "Happy Birthday." The next child who had a birthday in Patty Hill's kindergarten class was serenaded with the "Happy Birthday" song ... and the rest is history.

Happy Birthday to You! concludes with a fascinating historical timeline of the song, from its inclusion in Patty Hill's "Kindergarten Exhibition" at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, to being included in a 1924 song book as the second verse to "Good Morning to All!" (with no attribution to Patty Hill), to its popularity as a Singing Telegram song (again, uncredited and unattributed), and to an Irving Berlin musical.

It wouldn't be until 1935, when Patty Hill retired from teaching, before the song was copyrighted and credited to Patty and Mildred Hill. Today, whenever the melody and lyrics are commercially used, a royalty is paid to the Hill Foundation, which promotes early-childhood education. The song royalties typically generate $2 million annually. Patty Hill died in 1946, and according to the book, mourners sang "Happy Birthday to You" during her funeral.

I absolutely adored this book. The illustrations are gorgeous and the story is captivating. My kids liked it, but weren't crazed about it. I do think that the verbiage is a little excessive in some places - a lot of details and people that could seem overwhelming to a younger child. Barnes and Noble has this listed as suitable for kids ages 5-11, or grades 1-4 and I think that's pretty accurate. Slightly older kids than my 7 year olds might enjoy this - and, I suspect, a few of their parents too.

Yup - even ones who are 40, like me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Curveball

You never know what life is going to throw at you.

As the parent of a kid on the autism spectrum, that's kind of the understated tagline of our lives. It's also the tagline for curveball, a newly-released independent film featuring a Little League Challenger Baseball team called the Upper Providence Phillies as they prepare for Opening Day. As the synopsis on the film's website says, this team is not your average little league team. This team is located in a small town outside Philadelphia - and these Phillies are made up of mentally and physically disabled kids who have big challenges ... and bigger hearts. With a unique coach and supportive families these kids prepare for a day they will remember for the rest of their lives.

This weekend, curveball gets its own Opening Day when it will be shown as part of the 7th Annual Garden State Film Festival April 2-5, 2009 in Asbury Park, NJ.

I've watched the film's trailer several times this morning, always with happy tears in my eyes as I remember April and May 2007. Our Saturday mornings that spring were spent on a dewy field of dreams watching Boo play Challenger Baseball. (We actually played the Upper Providence Phillies that year and they were beyond gracious and welcoming.) When we first signed Boo up, we weren't sure what to expect from the experience - whether Boo would actually play or if we would once again be steeling our hearts against disappointment.

Truthfully, there was a little piece of our guarded hearts that wished we weren't members of this special needs parents team, that we didn't have to go to floortime therapy right after baseball, that we could be like the perceived "normal" families spilling out of minivans headed for the baseball diamonds across the road. It's exactly what one of the parents says in the trailer for curveball - with a special needs child, you have to give up the storybook fantasy of the child you expected, the one who you expected to play catch with in the backyard.

All of that was forgotten from the moment the first pitch was thrown. I don't remember any of the other kids' names on the team, nor their parents. What I do remember is what curveball captures so well: the incredible determination and spirit of every one of Boo's teammates, the sheer, unconditional acceptance from the volunteer coaches, the parents in the stands cheering for every single player on our team and the opposing team. I mean, in what quote-unquote "normal" youth sports organization does that happen? Quite simply, it doesn't. Not in a society that needs an awareness campaign about the r-word.

That spring, these were all of our kids, every one of them. We were, all of us, part of a team that got it. Where our kids were included, celebrated, accepted, loved - if only for one brief shining moment in the sun.

And as the calendar turns to April and another season of youth sports gets underway, we could all do well to remember the lessons from curveball.

And the curveballs that life throws at us.