Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Be It Hereby Resolved ...

Normally by this time on December 31, I've got my list of resolutions written down, on a cardboard calendar insert or the equivalent, and am ready to prepare the traditional New Year's Eve nachos. The problem at the immediate moment is that I can't find last year's resolutions, which I usually review prior to writing down the new ones. I hid them from prying eyes (not the husband's or kids' because we share our resolutions with each other) and now can't remember where I put them.

Oh well! I'll do the best I can. I know that I did not achieve the resolution regarding my weight, though at the same time I very clearly slam-dunked the resolution regarding the number of times I would work out during the year. That one was the usual five times weekly or 260 times during the year, including lifting weights 104 times or twice each week. If I'm remembering what's written on the calendar upstairs, I've worked out 343 days of this year (the last day I did not work out was election day when I at least stood up, at a voting machine, for 13 hours), and lifted weights just about exactly the 104 times I resolved. I did get my brown belt in Myo Sim kendo. I did not make progress on the book I'm supposed to be co-authoring, but that's not my own doing. The principal author hasn't had a good year, and the book is one of the things that has suffered. Finally, I know I made some other, more touchy-feely resolutions, like listening more and talking less, but if I can't recall them all that distinctly, then I probably didn't achieve them.

So, what about some resolutions for 2009? Well, I always have the weight one. About six years ago, I lost 30 pounds. I've since gained just over ten of those back, and would like to lose them again. I always have an exercise resolution, and that one will stay as it always does: work out 260 days, lifting weights 104 times. The fact that I'll be away for two months suggests that I not resolve to earn my kendo black belt, though I do resolve to make progress in that direction. Having recently begun the study of Myo Sim karate, I would like to progress far enough in that to learn tumble falls, something that will help on the kendo side. Because of the way rank requirements work, this means I have just resolved to earn a yellow belt in karate since learning tumble falls is done at the yellow belt level as one works toward a green belt.

I hereby also resolve to try to be better about this whole blog thing. Since it's easier for me to meet my resolutions when they're quantitative in nature, I could resolve to post something weekly on at least one of the blogs I maintain. I actually have a list of things I'd like to post--the follow-up to the Christmas post that sits below this one, some reviews for the 42 Challenge, thoughts on taking up karate in addition to the kendo, the workouts from hell that a personal trainer has given me. Would two posts a week be a better goal? We shall see. I will put something on the list about being a better blogger, with the specifics to be worked out between now and when I write the list.

On the less quantitative side, it would be nice to resolve to stress less, listen more, create beauty, inspire thought or laughter, be a better person, end hunger, and work for world peace. Yeah, right! Perhaps the best way to try to hit some of those items is to keep in mind two quotes from others who actually did at least some of those things:

"Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth." I first found this sentiment attributed to Shirley Chisholm, though I've also seen in attributed to Marian Wright Edelman as well.

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Winston Churchill

It certainly couldn't hurt to resolve to reflect as well as reflect on those sentiments as much as possible in the coming year. Whatever your resolutions or lack thereof, Happy New Year! I can't help but think that 2009 is gonna be one heck of a ride.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is It Christmas Yet?

If her hair were only blond then I could claim this as a holiday portrait of, yes, yours truly. Christmas always seems to bring out the best bitch in me. There are people whose house spontaneously becomes Christmasy sometime between Thanksgiving dinner and getting up early to shop on Black Friday. I am not one of them.

I have been informed by the men in the house (well, by the eldest of them) that a tree will be procured tomorrow, to be decorated in the afternoon. Hmmm. Younger son plans to walk home from the university tomorrow (a distance of about eight miles) if it's not raining. Whatever doesn't come home from the dorm room today will be coming home tomorrow ... in the same pickup truck that is supposed to bring the tree home. Unless younger son has to be out of his dorm room by noon, he may not be starting his walk until afternoon. The evening is out for decorating because elder son will be helping to judge a karate rank exam, which I would like to attend for the purposes of practicing my photography. In other words, I'm not seeing tomorrow, afternoon or evening, as an optimal time for holiday prep.

Thursday? Ha! I will be up and starting a batch of bread by not much after 6:00 so that I can get it done before meeting a friend for lunch at 11:30. I have been informed that the husband's departmental Christmas party is from 2:00 until 4:00. The evening is reserved for kendo. I only give that up for my own office Christmas party, and that was last night (yes, I gave up kendo for it). Are we seeing a pattern yet?

Unless the holiday fairies magically appear and take on the decorating chores, it will likely be Friday before things start to come together, or less than a week before Christmas. I wanted to put up the tree and decorate over a week ago, but the husband mandates that it be a family affair and not take place until dormitory move-out has been accomplished. Never mind that I will be the one bringing the majority of the decoration boxes in from the garage and sorting out what goes where. The sons will each put an ornament or two on the tree and then retire to reading, writing, or the computer. The husband will have the outdoor lights to hang since ladders are not necessarily my friends. After Christmas has been decorated, I will either take the mostly empty boxes out to the garage or whine unpleasantly until the men do that for me since simple requests for help are often countered with whines of their own.

Am I being appropriately bitchy or Scroogey yet? If not, I'll get there. Maybe one day I will learn how to make it all flow. Before marriage and family, I actually enjoyed Christmas preparation. I put up the tiny artifical, already decorated tree that a friend gave me the year I was laid up following knee surgery. I would play Christmas carols and maybe make a long chain of red and green construction paper rings to hang wherever. It was fun! Now it seems an organizational nightmare.

Don't worry. I will get over it, and we will have a real Christmas here. A tree will go up, and all the wrapped presents sitting on the furniture around the room behind me will have a home at least. My Christmas cards have been mailed, and the husband's cards have been addressed and stamped (though not by him) and had the family Christmas newsletter I wrote inserted in the envelopes. I learned long ago not to stress once I've handed him the stack of cards ready for personal notes or not as he sees fit (I've already signed the cards, too). I have done my part; if his friends and family want to blame me if/when his cards are late, I can live with it knowing that I did my part.

On Christmas Eve, I will prepare my overnight cinnamon roll dough before we go to the Christmas Eve service at a friend's church. I will get up well before the sons on Christmas morning and get cinnamon rolls ready for when we wake them up. We will play Christmas music (at last!) and open presents, assuming the men go out on Christmas Eve day and buy some for me as is their tradition. We will eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and I will prepare a grand Christmas dinner, and perhaps even have time to soak in a bubble bath if I care to clear out all the potted plants wintering in the jacuzzi tub under the bathroom skylight. Life will be good. No, life is good in the sense that I have the time and mind to sit here and bitch a bit. Yes, life is good. Allow me to wish you a Merry Christmas a bit early just in case you don't make it back here before the big day.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Six Sevens

Debi tagged me for this last week, so I know she's waiting breathlessly for my lists. It came with something called the Kreativ Blogger Award, which I definitely take as a compliment.

I titled this post "Six Sevens" because, as usual, I don't really have seven people to tag in the last item. Such is the life of a relative loner. You may notice that the first three sets of seven are best read together.

7 Things I Did Before:
1. Arrived early or on time
2. Tennis
3. Sewed clothes
4. Crocheted
5. Did counted cross stitch
6. Worried about my job
7. Thought about writing a novel

7 Things I Do Now:
1. Arrive on time or late
2. Kendo
3. Sew quilts
4. Knit
5. Felt knitted things
6. Worry about my family
7. Have written three novels (I didn’t say they were good ones!)

7 Things I Want To Do:
1. Keep going
2. Earn black belt in kendo
3. Make a quilt to keep for myself
4. Design a knitted something from scratch
5. Wet felting (making fiber into felt)
6. Stop worrying so much
7. Keep writing

7 Things That Attract Me To The Opposite Sex:
1. Knowing how to do laundry (I met my husband in a laundromat)
2. Doing Sunday crosswords in ink (why we noticed each other)
3. Wearing interesting sweaters (he often wore a fisherman's knit sweater his mother made for him)
4. Cool, caring eyes
5. Help with the housework
6. Emotional stability (to complement my own light-switch nature)
7. Making me laugh

7 Favorite Foods:
1. Prime rib, medium rare (why I’d have trouble being a vegetarian)
2. Vegetarian #7 on Guadalajara’s current menu (mixed vegetables, black beans, rice, and flour tortillas)
3. Caramel sundaes
4. Bing cherries
5. Vanilla ice cream
6. My own homemade bread, still warm, with butter and/or honey
7. Coffee with Splenda and a bit of half & half

7 Things I Say Most Often:
1. Thank you
2. You’re welcome
3. No problem
4. Yeah, right (with the appropriate intonation)
5. Love you (or "love you, too")
6. Leave it! (this to the dog)
7. @#$%&* (a bit too often, but nobody’s perfect)

And, now, 7 people to tag for this award: Instead of tagging people, I will tell a story on myself. I took a cooking class at our local technical education center last week and found myself sitting at a table with two other women, both of whom were saving seats for friends. A woman came around checking off names against the registration list. The first woman said, "I'm (name), and this seat is for my friend (name)." The second woman said, "I'm (name), and this seat is for my friend (name)." I said, "I'm Jean Norum, and I have no friends." While that's not a totally true statement, I did enjoy seeing the looks on their faces.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Better Late than Never—More Thoughts from Inside the Polls

Election Day was a long one, though not as long as it could have been. We arrived at the usual 5:00 a.m., and had the polls ready for the more than 50 people in line when we opened at 6:00. We had already been somewhat angrily accused by the Republican workers outside of not opening the polls on time. It seems that although these good folks had set their home clocks back an hour for the end of daylight savings time the weekend before, they had neglected to change their wristwatches. We had long (for us) lines from opening until close to 7:30, a short line in the lunchtime range, and another short line once in the late afternoon. Otherwise, we had a fairly steady trickle of voters, finishing the day with 1,056 folks having voted in person. Another 140 from our precinct cast absentee ballots, making for an 82 percent turnout.

I know this sounds somewhat hokey, but I still get tingly when we stand there in the gym at 5:30 or so, after having put up most of the signs, raise our right hands, and take our oath of office for the day. We, just plain people, are about to put on an election. This is still a big deal to me and if it ever isn’t, that’s probably the time I shouldn’t be doing it any longer.

What will stick with me from this year’s election apart from the obvious historical mark of having elected the nation’s first president of color? As usual, we had some people voting for the first time. Several of them were well beyond 18 years; one may have been a half-century beyond. One voter well past his own half century said it was only the second time he had voted in his life. If these new voters had a sample ballot in their hands, it was typically the Democrats’ blue one as opposed to the orange one issued by the Republicans, in line with the pundits’ observations that the Democrats were particularly effective in getting first-timers out to vote. I congratulated all the first-time voters, which made some of the teenagers giggle.

On the sentimental side, there was the couple who appeared to be in their 70s, and probably late 70s at that, who checked in at the pollbook table and then approached the two voting machines, holding hands, and obviously for love rather than physical assistance. That little gesture transmitted so much affection it’s still making me smile.

And on the LOL humorous side, there was the voter who asked for assistance in reading the names on the ballot because she’d just had an ophthalmologic procedure done and couldn’t see the names clearly enough to tell which was which. She couldn’t read the blurred ballot, yet she said she had just driven herself to the school to vote. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be locked in the polls all day and not out on the roads.

Largely because there were only three races on the ballot and we had a record crew of 11 people (as opposed to our usual six or seven), we left for home, paperwork complete, gym and hallway restored to their pre-election states, at 8:00, just an hour after the polls closed. The paycheck should arrive next week; normally I spend it on an indulgence such as the short metal sword I bought using the proceeds from the winter primary. This election’s bounty gets saved for the spring adventure. The next election is the state-level Democrat primary scheduled for June 9; that will be a much slower, seemingly longer day than we had last week, but no less important in the big picture.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Someone Has a Sense of Humo(u)r

Yesterday's "Style and Arts" section of The Washington Post contained a page that was one-fourth photo of Daniel Craig from the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, and three-fourths ads. The caption below the photo? Priceless! Here it is, with bold and italics done as in the original: "Here's Daniel Craig in the new Bond movie, opening Friday. We don't have any real reason for running this photo except, jeez, look at this guy." Thanks, some anonymous Post editor. I needed that!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

When Life Gets in the Way

One of my neighbors phoned yesterday. Her father died, and she wondered whether we could feed her cats for three days while she and her daughter were away for the funeral. Of course! This is not a big deal. Older son has watched the cats before, so he even already knows the fine points, such as the possum that eats the food left on the porch railing for the outdoor kitties. He and I went down today and picked up the key so we're set for our first visit on Tuesday night.

It bothers me, though, that I haven't really chatted with this neighbor in several years. We used to see each other quite a lot when our dogs were puppies and liked to play together and older son and her daughter were in elementary school together. We'd sit around on a summer evening, sip margaritas or daiquiris, and expound on life. Then the dogs got older, and her daughter went to a private high school, and we somewhat lost touch. We chatted occasionally if she were out in the yard as I walked the dog, or if she were driving in or out as I walked. Hi! How are things? How is (insert kid's name) doing? See ya later! I knew her dog had been ailing, but I didn't know she'd had him put down in July.

What happened? Life got in the way. I've thought more than several times how it would be nice to spend time with her again, to share a bottle of wine or watch a sunset. I've thought that I should call her, but never at a time when it was actually convenient to make the call. I told her today, as older son and I were leaving with the key and after I'd given her a hug, that I felt bad that we hadn't really seen each other in oh so very long, and that it seemed wrong that it took a death for us to get us in touch again. She said that she, too, had often thought that she should call me, but never at the "right" time. I need to make sure that when I take her key back, we set something up, make a date to get together.

Life has been getting in the way a lot lately. I have the start of a post about Election Day in my precinct sitting on the desktop computer. I've been working on it for several days, in between finishing up a project for a client. I got the project submitted 15 minutes before the deadline Friday afternoon, the lateness due in to the client's sending me an incorrect data file more than once. I'll get paid for the hours (lots of them) of work that I had to re-do because of something that wasn't my doing, I would rather have had the time. I don't like feeling stretched as thin as I've felt stretched lately. I'll try to post the election thing tomorrow, but now I'm going to go sit on the couch and knit and ponder ways to get life under control.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What's in a Name (II) Challenge

So I have no real idea what I'll read for this one, but I can't not do Annie's new challenge. I'll add ideas here as they come to me. For now, though, the categories are


Time of Day

Body Part

Medical Condition
My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor)
The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead (David Shields)

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (Sue Monk Kidd)

The Foreign Correspondent (Alan Furst)
The Zookeeper's Wife (Diane Ackerman)

Adventures in Amigurumi

Last spring I played around a bit with amigurumi, which Wikipedia defines as"the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures. Amigurumi are typically cute animals (such as bears, rabbits, cats, dogs, etc.), but can include inanimate objects endowed with anthropomorphic features. Amigurumi can be either knitted or crocheted. In recent years crocheted amigurumi are more popular and more commonly seen." I started with squid, one for a fellow kendo student and one for older son Don, and then moved on to corgis, one for older son and one for younger son and his girlfriend. While I was making the corgis, younger son put in his request for an amigurumi hybrid with the head of a corgi, the body of a prawn, and the tentacles and whips of a squid. Younger son being younger son, he also asked that the squid tentacles and whips be detachable. I did the parts for the corgi head then, back in the spring, but only now got around to making the other components and assembling the creature. Is it too cute for words, an abomination, or just "possibly one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen" (I think this was how younger son said his girlfriend described it)? You be the judge.

Corgi Head:

Prawn Body:

Squid Tentacles and Whips:


The Quilts of Summer (2008)

Another summer, another black belt test (well, almost--the test itself wasn't until October), another batch of quilts. This year, Don tested for his first dan black belt in Myo Sim karate. He asked for quilts for his four principal karate instructors, one of whom also got a quilt last summer as a kendo instructor. I started these around July 1, and finished the last one on October 16. That was about as close as I wanted to cut it since the test was October 18.

The first quilt I started (though not the first one I finished) was"Books and Blocks." I did the front--the Blocks of the title--using a nifty technique for starting with 12 squares of fabric and ending up with 12 squares that each have nine different fabrics in them. You basically make one cut in the stack of fabrics, move the top piece from one pile to the bottom, then sew the two stacks together. Make another cut perpendicular to the first one, move two pieces from the top of one stack to the bottom, and sew the pieces together. Make another cut parallel to the first one, and move four pieces from the top of one stack to the bottom. Sew. Make a final cut, move seven pieces, and sew. Voila! It's a really quick way to make a real fun quilt top. And if you remember "Shooting Star" from last year, some of the fabrics are, indeed, the same. I planned "Books and Blocks" to use up some of the kanji fabric left over from "Shooting Star."

The Books part of the title came from the back of the quilt. The recipients were a married couple, both of whom are third dan black belts in karate. The husband works at the UVa library and supposedly has a personal book collection that rivals or even exceeds Don's. As a result, Don asked that I make the back of the quilt look like a bookcase. He also asked that the books be different sizes and that, as on our bookcases around the house, the larger books go on the bottom shelf. I had used book fabric in another quilt three years ago; fortunately, it hadn't gone out of print, so I was able to get it easily. For the shelves, I used a woody fabric. Because I had to quilt this one fairly quickly, the back has a couple of puckers that I'm not proud of, but it was leave them in or give the quilt late. I didn't have time to take out the quilting, repin the layers, and start over.

The other three quilts all follow the same theme as last year's "Another View of Mt. Fuji" in that all the fabrics on the front are Japanese, and the center panel is a Japanese scene. Two of these went to karate master instructors, and the third went to someone who tested for his master rank at the same time Don tested for his black belt. I showed Don various Japanese panels I could get, and he chose three for me to use.

"Cranes above the Water" went to a master instructor whose day job is superintendent of a school division near Richmond. The title of the quilt was inspired by the Beatles song "Uncle Albert" and its refrain of "hands across the water, hands across the sky." This particular karate master has an incredible music library and will occasionally have us move in karate or kendo stances to music. Giving the quilt a musical name just seemed to fit. The quilting in the borders simply echoes the outline of the picture panel. For the picture, I quilted in details on the waves, the sun, and the cranes. I also quilted in some curves in the blue around the picture.

Cranes also were the focus of the picture panel in "Cranes of a Feather," named because I see similarities in Don's personality and the personality of the master instructor to whom this quilt went. While Don admitted to liking this name, he also said he was a little afraid that the master getting this quilt might think it presumptuous to link them together. I told Don that if the master said something to that effect to refer him to me, since I chose the title. As with "Cranes above the Water," I quilted the borders to echo the picture panel and then quilted in a fair amount of detail on the picture itself.

The final quilt, "Clouded Dragon," put its recipient in a very select group of teachers (he's the fourth) for whom I have made two quilts. He received "Symmelaritries" last year, so "Clouded Dragon" was actually of the "and now for something totally different" variety. I quilted this one last, so I had the luxury of being a little more relaxed about how much time I could take. As a result, quilting in the detail was a bit more relaxing than on the others. Or maybe it was that the big dragon gave me more room in which to play around with the quilting details compared with the tiny cranes on the others. I don't know how well the detail will show up in the close-up, but I hope that at least some of it shows.

With these quilts presented, I'm busily sorting batik strips I cut years ago to make a graduation quilt for one of my heart children (these are the friends of my kids who have taken to calling me "mom" and whom I would gladly take in if the need ever arose). I also have another Japanese panel I might make into a quilted wall hanging for someone. So many projects (I didn't even touch on the knitting ones here), so little time, but then that's what keeps life interesting.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Banned Books Week Just a Bit Late

Debi had this one posted the other day, piggybacking on Nymeth, and it looked worth repeating. What follows is the American Library Association's list of the most frequently challenged books of 1990-2000. The ones in bold are the ones I've read at some point in my life. I will admit that some of these I read so long ago I would be hard-pressed to tell you why someone would want to ban them. If you really pay attention to detail, you might notice that none of the Stephen King books are in bold. I'll take your word for it that he's a decent writer; I've just never warmed up to what I've heard about his books or the movies made from them.

#1 Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz
#2 Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite
#3 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
#4 The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
#5 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
#6 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
#7 Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling

#8 Forever by Judy Blume
#9 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
#10 Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
#11 Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
#12 My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
#13 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
#14 The Giver by Lois Lowry

#15 It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
#16 Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
#17 A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
#18 The Color Purple by Alice Walker
#19 Sex by Madonna
#20 Earth’s Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
#21 The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
#22 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
#23 Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
#24 Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
#25 In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
#26 The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
#27 The Witches by Roald Dahl
#28 The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
#29 Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
#30 The Goats by Brock Cole
#31 Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
#32 Blubber by Judy Blume
#33 Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
#34 Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
#35 We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
#36 Final Exit by Derek Humphry
#37 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
#38 Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

#39 The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
#40 What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
#41 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
#42 Beloved by Toni Morrison
#43 The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

#44 The Pigman by Paul Zindel
#45 Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
#46 Deenie by Judy Blume
#47 Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
#48 Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
#49 The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
#50 Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
#51 A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
#52 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

#53 Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
#54 Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
#55 Cujo by Stephen King
#56 James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
#57 The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
#58 Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
#59 Ordinary People by Judith Guest
#60 American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
#61 What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
#62 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
#63 Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
#64 Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
#65 Fade by Robert Cormier
#66 Guess What? by Mem Fox
#67 The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
#68 The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
#69 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
#70 Lord of the Flies by William Golding
#71 Native Son by Richard Wright

#72 Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies by Nancy Friday
#73 Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
#74 Jack by A.M. Homes
#75 Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
#76 Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
#77 Carrie by Stephen King
#78 Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
#79 On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
#80 Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
#81 Family Secrets by Norma Klein
#82 Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
#83 The Dead Zone by Stephen King
#84 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
#85 Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

#86 Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
#87 Private Parts by Howard Stern
#88 Where’s Waldo? by Martin Hanford
#89 Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
#90 Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

#91 Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
#92 Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
#93 Sex Education by Jenny Davis
#94 The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
#95 Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
#96 How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
#97 View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
#98 The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
#99 The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
#100 Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

Monday, October 6, 2008

National Book Festival

I wasn't going to post this until after Christmas (you'll see why if you read on), but Debi has made it sound as if I can. Elder son asked way back in the summer if someone would take him to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, on September 27. Neil Gaiman was on the program, and elder son really wanted to hear him speak even if it meant getting there super-early to stand in line and wait. At the time younger son agreed to handle the driving. (Younger son is 18 and has a driver's license; elder son is 20 and has a learner's permit.)

Fast forward to the week before the National Book Festival, and younger son decided he'd rather go to the Vegetarian Festival here in Charlottesville than the Book Festival in DC. Not wanting to see older son heartbroken, I agreed to take him. I will be honest here and say up front that at the time I had never read a word by Neil Gaiman. I'd been meaning to, after hearing both sons extol Neil's writing, and after reading several of Debi's reviews. I did get Neverwhere (the local Barnes and Noble was out of American Gods and start to read it Tuesday of that week, but that was as far as I'd gotten. When Don and I were talking on Tuesday night about our upcoming adventure on Saturday, I mentioned that I could get a book signed, too. He suggested that I could get one signed for Annie, so I shot a quick e-mail to Debi and asked whether I could do that--was there a Neil Gaiman book that she and Rich would like to give Annie for Christmas that I could take up and get inscribed? She replied the next day that they would love to give Annie a copy of Coraline, so I picked that up Wednesday night.

Saturday morning, older son and I left the house at 7:00, drove to Vienna, where we hopped on the Metro. We were on the Mall at about 10:00. Neil was speaking from 11:45 to 12:15 and signing from 1:00 to 3:00. As we approached the area where the Book Festival was, we could see a line that may have been a quarter of a mile long waiting to pass though a medical detector, bag search, and other security. We started to get a bit nervous about spending the day in the security line. Luckily, a chat with someone in the line revealed that this was the line to get into the children's tent, where Laura and Jenna Bush were speaking and signing. Neil was going to be in the teens and childrens tent, and we could walk through the children's tent security line and straight into that tent. We got seats in the back, and listened to the end of the first talk, by Judith Viorst. When people left after her talk, we grabbed two seats in the front row, and sat through two more talks by people we'd never heard of but who were still somewhat interesting. It also gave me the chance to see what kind of photo ops I might have with the 10X zoom lens on my digital camera. The picture here is of the speaker who preceded Neil, Joseph Bruchac.

By the time Neil came on, the tent was packed to the gills. He told some great stories including that The Graveyard Book is one of the few books for which he can say very definitively how he got the idea. He also told about the two books inspired by his children (Wolves in the Wall, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish). He read part of The Graveyard Book and answered some questions. Very, very entertaining and, yes, for those of you who might be wondering, very, very pleasant to gaze at and listen to. As you can see in the photos, he was dressed in his usual black jeans, black t-shirt, and black leather jacket. He was also wearing black leather shoes that I almost took a photo of but didn't. They looked somewhat clunky, but comfortable, like the sort of shoes I like. They also looked as if they might add an inch to his height, though I have no idea if that was the intent.

After the talk ended, older son and I hustled to the book sale tent and scored three copies of The Graveyard Book. It actually wasn't released until the following Tuesday (September 30), but the publisher had agreed to let copies be sold in conjunction with Neil's appearance at the Festival. I don't know how many copies they had on sale, but they sold out while we were standing in line to pay for ours. Of course, we saw a couple of people with six or more copies in their arms, but perhaps they were buying for friends who were holding places in the signing line.

As for the signing line, that's where we hustled to from the book sale tent. We arrived there at 12:45 and were directed to the end of a line. We were thinking that we weren't all that far back in line which was good. About that time, though, we realized that the line to our right was also a Neil Gaiman line as was the line to its right. It turned out that we were in the fifth Neil Gaiman line. We were initially told that he would sign three things for each person. Fine, we decided. I could get Coraline signed for Annie, one copy of The Graveyard Book signed for Debi, and another signed for me. Older son could get Sandman signed for himself, American Gods signed for younger son, and another book signed for a teenaged friend of mine who goes to the College of William and Mary. Not too much later, as the seventh line was filling up, they announced that it would be one item per person. (Oh, yeah, I didn't mention that Neil had a broken finger on his right hand, the middle finger, in one of those funky metal braces.) I decided then and there that my one item would be Coraline for Annie. Much as I would have liked to have something signed by Neil Gaiman (I had been reading The Graveyard Book in line and was greatly enjoying it), I knew that it would be even more special for Annie to have something.

So we stood. We sat. Don lay down and slept for a while. I read half of The Graveyard Book before it started to drizzle. We stood up. Drizzle changed to rain. Rain changed to hard rain at an angle. We waited, by this time watching lines two and three move forward. At 3:00, they stopped letting people get in line and announced that Neil would be staying until at least 5:00; they later announced that he would stay until everyone in line by 3:00 had been seen. We watched line four move. Eventually, line five started to move. By this time it had stopped raining, and there was a rainbow that put the pot of gold in, of all places, the U.S. Capitol. I found this somewhat appropriate given that this was the weekend right after the first attempt at a Wall Street bailout had failed.

Finally, four hours after we got in line, we got up to the signing table. Neil was joking and thanking people for waiting for him in the rain. I handed over Coraline, with a card inside saying "Annie" (we had been directed to do this so that he didn't have to ask how to spell the name). I told him, though, that I wasn't Annie, so please don't write something like "thanks for waiting." He asked who Annie was, and I told him she was my cousin. He commented that she must be pretty special if I was having the book signed for her and not myself. I said that she certainly was special, that she had used National Novel Writing Month last year to write a 50,000 word novel at the age of 10. "She IS very special then," he said as he drew ... a mouse ... and autographed it.

Then Don got his book signed, and we headed back down the mall to the Metro station. We took the Metro back to Vienna, hopped in the car. After picking up food to eat on the way home (we hadn't eaten since breakfast in the car on the way up), we got home around 8:30. It was a very long day, but a great time. It was also a long day for Neil. According to his blog, at about 5:00 he took his pen and just moved down the line signing a book for everyone. The National Book Festival estimated that he signed for 1,400 people. Wow!

As for why this wasn't supposed to be published until after Christmas, well, as Debi put it, she and Rich "caved" and gave Annie her book early. I can't say I blame them. I probably would have given it early, too.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Six Random Things about Myself

Annie tagged me for this one, so here goes. First off, the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. (Done!)

2. Post the rules on your blog. (Being done!)

3. Write six random things about yourself. (See below.)

4. Tag sixish people at the end of your post. (I'll try, but Annie already tagged several that I would have, and since I'm not as into the whole blogging world as some people are, my contacts are limited.)

5. Let each person know he or she has been tagged. (See 4. above.)

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. (Okey-dokey.)

Now for the six random things about me.

1. I have won a couple of things in the Style Invitational humor contest run by The Washington Post. In fact, one of my entries was put on the list of the 10 best entries of all time about the time the Invitational changed editors from the Czar to the Empress. That one was an item for an underachiever's list of midlife goals: Win the respect and admiration of my dog. I won a pen for that one. I also won a t-shirt for a sonnet I wrote about Osama bin Laden, and bumper stickers for another underachiever's goal (End hunger in my aquarium.) and a statement in which each word starting with the letters spelling out the name of someone to whom the statement related. In the event that explanation doesn't make sense, here's my entry: "Gore elected! Oh really! Gore elected! Wait! Bring us Supreme help." More recently, I won a refrigerator magnet by coming up with a new and different definition for the word "alabaster," which I won't repeat here for fear I might offend someone.

2. I am deaf in my right ear. It's happened over the course of the last ten years, and the docs can't find a cause. They've ruled out the potentially nasty things such as a tumor as well as some of the not-so-nasty things such as genetics. I'm learning to cope with it. I have a single ear bud for my iPod (who would have thought they made such things!) and have learned to turn my body to localize sound. It's hard to echo-locate with only one working ear.

3. My feet are too wide for most women's dress shoes, which is fine with me. I hate heels and refuse to wear them. My dress shoes are Earth shoe MaryJanes (see blog photo).

4. I am not assertive enough, or so I have been told. I'm the person that the group usually doesn't consult when choosing a restaurant, movie, etc., because the view tends to be that I'll be flexible and go along with anything. Go too many times without asserting yourself, and look what it gets you. You're no longer asked for your opinion.

5. I am a disappointed Hillary supporter who most emphatically does NOT (did I write that loudly enough) support Sarah Palin. I bring this up because my boss was teasing me about this earlier. I've told my dear (and Canadian) husband that should the McCain-Palin ticket win, he will be encouraged to look for a new job in the Great White North.

6. While not as much of a loner as one of my sons, I am much more a loner than a social person. Read Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, and you'll understand me better.

And since I'm somewhat of a loner, I shall now struggle with which six people to tag. I can think of more than six people whose blogs I read, but remember that whole not being assertive thing? I figure they might not like being tagged because I don't think I've ever seen some of them respond to any sort of meme going around. Seriously. It's sort of like the chain letters I court disaster with by breaking the chain. So I'm just gonna piggyback on Annie's tagging of Debi and Rich and think that maybe someone I know who has a blog will read this and decide to post their own random things. If they do, I hope they let me know.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fall-ing Down

Yeah, it's fall now, which means I should probably offer an update on how I did with the summer goals that Debi tagged me to do back in June. Let's see ...

(1) Knock some items off "The 50." Well, other than getting a blog set up about that (a blog on which I have yet to fully detail the items I've finished), I didn't do squat on the list. I'll try to do better this fall.

(2) Figure out the tabletop loom I bought last summer. Hey! I did something on this one. I took a week-long weaving class (more like weaving bootcamp) at Stony Mountain Fibers, and learned what I need to know. (When I'm on the right computer, I'll actually post some photos.) Unfortunately, one thing I learned is that my loom is missing all the heddles. However, in the small six-degrees-of-separation world in which we live, it turned out that a friend had gotten extra heddles when she bought her loom, so she passed them on to me. As a result, a project for the winter is to get them installed on my loom and then figure out if I need to order some more.

(3) Try to learn the rest of the skill forms I need to know for a black belt in Myo Sim kendo. I managed to learn a couple of them, and have a couple still to learn. That's okay, though, since there's at least a year and probably two before I'd be ready to test.

(4) Battle the clutter and disarray that is my house. Yeah, right! I did get things a bit cleaner when younger son returned to the dorm, but it's basically the same cluttered hovel it was in June around here. In fact, having admitted that, I should probably finish this post and go vacuum. The vacuum cleaner has been sitting in the foyer since the time I vacuumed the dog and cat hair out of the bedroom (upstairs) and off the stairs; I think that was about three weeks ago. I have been trying to will one of the resident men to vacuum the main floor, but shall concede defeat and do it myself. Yeah, they win this round.

Finally in terms of updates from the summer, my new hero successfully finished her summer of basic training at the Air Force Academy, and has started classes. It's still not an easy existence, but she's hanging in there. And she's still my hero for doing so.

Some summer highlights: Various work projects; The Dark Knight, though I only saw it once; four quilts (a Quilts of Summer II post will come once they've been formally presented); a short trip here and there (sailing on the Chesapeake Bay; Gettysburg, some details of which can be found here; a pig roast thrown by Mark Warner); lots of kendo; a bit of planning for the Vietnam adventure; and probably not enough sleep. And now, to the vacuum!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rocky Horror Picture Show (Review)

I absolutely could not stick this classic science fiction film with the three in my other post. Rocky is one of those classics that gets better with age. I say this as someone who has never seen it in a theater in all its participatory glory. I've only seen in on a TV screen, albeit in the company of my dear husband who is a fanatic and who sings along and shouts all the right answers at all the right moments. And now that younger son has seen it in participatory fashion, he can join in the fun.

Rocky is, at its heart, a musical tribute to all the classic science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s with a few horror and detective movies thrown in. It is not for the faint of heart or the prudish. The story is recounted matter-of-factly by a criminologist, with the action starting as he begins to recount his tale. After watching the wedding of two of their friends, our hero (Brad, played by Barry Bostwick) and heroine (Janet, played by Susan Sarandon) depart to visit the professor in whose class they first met. Their car breaks down on a deserted road and, to get out of the rain, they end up in the castle of Dr. Frankenfurter (played by Tim Curry) who appears to be having a party of some sort. After that, as my sons would say, hilarity ensues. Strange hilarity. Bizarre hilarity ... with get-up-and-dance-or-at-least-sing-along music. To describe it in detail would not do it justice.

One day, I may just have to see this in its cinematic, participatory goodness, but until then I'll continue to enjoy it on DVD, seeing something new or having a new bizarre thought each time I watch it.

Bad Blogger ... No Biscuit

I could make any number of excuses why it's been a month and a half since the last post. Too many little things to do? Nah, that's always the case around here. A trip? Can't count, 'cause it was only for two days. Steve took my power adapter to the dorm? Well, he did, but that only accounts for the last week. Too much killing time with unimportant things? Now we might be getting somewhere. One quilt down and at least two to go in the near future? Okay, we're getting closer now. Whatever the reasons, I'm back, with the first order of business being three quick movie reviews for the 42 Challenge I'm doing. I do have some science fiction books set aside to read, but movies seem to be so much easier to watch, typically while I multi-task and do something else at the same time. And it's not as though we've been watching highbrow or cerebral movies here this summer either, as you can see from the reviews below.

Escape from New York

This movie was made in the early 1980s but was set in the late 1990s, which was a good thing because laughing at the way the (now) past was foreseen was one of the more entertaining things about this movie. In the movie, the government has turned Manhatten into a maximum security prison where the most brutal criminals are locked away for life. There is a wall around the island, the bridges onto the island have been mined, and troops patrol the opposite shore to deal with anyone who tries to escape across the water.

The President in en route to a conference to unveil a new advance in nuclear fission when his plane is hijacked and crashed into a building (one thing the filmmakers, regrettably, in a way foresaw correctly). He escapes the crash by ejecting in a pod, but then is stranded in the middle of the island prison. On the mainland, Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell) is awaiting transport to the island. A special forces war hero before starting a second career robbing banks, Snake is offered his freedom if he can rescue the president and retrieve the cassette (one thing the filmmakers got wrong about the late 1990s) containing the fission information within 24 hours. To ensure cooperation, he is injected with two microscopic explosives that will only be deactivated if he returns with the president and the cassette. If he doesn't, they will explode when the 24-hour clock runs out.

I won’t spoil the movie (should you elect to watch it) by revealing the ending except to say that there is a plot twist or two along the way. The saving grace of the movie was, as suggested above, seeing what the filmmakers hit and what they missed about their near future and our near past. The rival to the continued reliance on cassette tapes in terms of sheer hilarity was the larger-than-a-brick wireless phones used in the command center. On its own, the movie probably doesn’t merit a close look; the redeming value is comparing what really was in the late 1990s to the film’s vision.

Night of the Comet

It’s hard to imagine 1980s Valley Girl sisters, a comet, and zombies combining into something worth watching, but I actually enjoyed this movie. A comet passes by the Earth, turning anyone who wasn’t properly shielded to dust, and turning those who were only partially shielded into zombies. With the help of a hunky truck driver who also survived the comet’s passing, the girls battle both zombies and a think tank of scientists at risk of becoming zombies and who want the girls’ blood to help find a vaccine. Viewed as a comedy and with a nod to the 1980s and all things Valley, this movie is well worth watching, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it for kids. It will also help you know why, if I’m a bit disappointed in something, I might let out with “Daddy would have gotten us Uzis!” in my best Valley Girl voice.


Disclaimer, nay, Warning: This movie is so politically incorrect that even Fox, its maker, ended up truly embarrassed by it and put it into very limited release before hiding it on DVD and/or HBO. It makes the current controversy over the use of the term “retarded” in Tropic Thunder look like an ice cube beside an ice cap. This was not just a dumb movie; it was a very dumb movie. But, much as I shouldn’t admit it, parts were laugh-out-loud funny. If that makes me a bad person, well, so be it. The movie was made by Mike Judge (of King of the Hill and Office Space fame), and parts were downright funny.

In the present, several volunteers, chosen to be about as average as they come, are placed in frozen hibernation to test the idea that the best soldiers, if not needed to fight a war today, could be stored to fight in a future one. Unfortunately, the people running the experiment are arrested, and the hibernation capsules are forgotten. Fast forward 500 years, and the country has turned into a bastion of stupidity thanks to people with lower IQs having had more children than people with higher IQs. When two of the capsules are unearthed and come open, Joe and Rita, two of the most average people to be found in the 2000s, become the two smartest people in the world in the 2500s. Of course, they aren’t seen that way at first, and get accepted only after they save the world’s plant population. Parts of this movie are extremely tasteless and juvenile, but other parts are quite funny. I’m not sure I’d spend money to rent this one, but I wasn’t sorry I switched to this on one HBO channel when the season finale of Generation Kill ended on another.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Announcing ... The Fifty (a new blog)

One of my summer goals was to make progress on what I referred to as "The Fifty," a list of 50 things I made to try to do in my 50th year of life. I didn't make it and, having just turned 52, am still working on it. I've listed all 50 things in the new blog, noting which ones I've completed. As I can, I'll add details, pictures where I can, and other fun stuff. World, you owe this one to Debi, who very politely guilted me into putting this up. I've thought about doing this as a blog for some time, but Debi pushed me over the edge. As I said, I'll update it as I can. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My New Hero

My kids are fond of saying, “He’s my new hero!” when hearing or reading of someone (usually a male; hence, the “he”) who is doing or has done something they consider to be totally awesome. I have my own new hero these days, the young woman with whom I tested for a brown belt in Myo Sim Kendo in February 2008. At the time we tested, she was one-third my age, which sounds so much nicer (to me) than saying that I was three times her age. Whatever. When we tested, she was 17 and I was 51; we’ve both since moved up a year on the age scale.

At first glance, one might not expect her to be my new hero. Besides the age difference, she joked about putting her “Run, Hillary, Run” bumber sticker on the front of her car, while mine definitely went on the rear bumper. In terms of both politics and religion, those two subjects rarely brought up in polite company, we’re sort of at opposite ends of the continua. All that aside, I’ve told her she’s my new hero because of where she is and what she’s doing these days.

She’s my hero these days for knowing as well as anyone can as a teenager what she wants to do with her life at least for a while, taking the steps to make it all happen, and then following through and doing it, hard though it may be. She’s now into her third week of Basic Cadet Training (known to some as “Basic Cadet Torture”) at the US Air Force Academy, currently living in a tent at someplace called Jacks Valley for two weeks, doing such things as learning field first aid, hand-to-hand combat, and how to shoot an M-16; running the obstacle course and an “assault course”; and (my personal favorite) putting on padded suits and fighting with sticks. I expect that my new hero will excel at this given her kendo experience. She’s certainly used to sparring with men much bigger than she is; two of her fellow kendo students are her height while they are on their knees, and she holds her own with them as well as or better than any student at her level.

As I told her in one of my cards (cards and letters supposedly really helping Basics get through their training), I don’t think I could have done what she’s doing when I was her age. Physically, my body might have been able to handle the training, but I know I couldn’t have handled it mentally. Now, I probably could handle the mental part, but the physical part, probably not. There’s also the issue of knowing at some deep level what she wants to do with her life. I’ve always admired people who know what they want to do when they grow up, or who have the whole ten-year career plan mapped out. There’s probably a comfort there that those of us who much more wing it through life might enjoy were we to feel it.

About 1,400 Basics started their training at the Academy almost three weeks ago. I think about 20 have left so far, having decided that it wasn’t for them. Another 300 or so will leave before the graduation. I hope my new hero makes it. I think she will, but even if she doesn’t she’d still be my hero for trying. (And if you're wondering why I've very pointedly left her name out of this post, it's just in case anyone she knows out there were to find it; I wouldn't want this to come back to haunt her.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Real Genius (Review)

This is another movie that purists might not call “science fiction,” but since, as with Transformers, it’s listed under that genre in the Internet Movie Database, I’m counting it for the 42 Challenge. My two sons, one of whom had already seen this, put it in the Netflix queue, and it didn’t take long for me to know why. Highly intelligent young men; lasers; pranks, hijinks and MIT-style hacks—what was there not to like?

In terms of plot, a university professor is using his undergraduate geniuses (one of whom is played by a much younger Val Kilmer) to do the work on a laser project that a secret arm of the government is funding for use in a weapons system. The students don’t know what the research will be used for, but when, with the help of a former student who dropped out in his own unique way, they find out, they fight back in the way they know best, by re-engineering the system to … well, it’s a quite worthy hack.

According to my atomic physicist son, much of the laser research presented in this movie is dead on. In other words, what sounds like jargon really does mean something if you speak that language. The premise of the laser as used in the weapons system stretches things, but I was assured that much of the rest was valid.

Was this movie deeply thought-provoking? No. Was it fun? Heck, yes! I've already told my nuclear physicist husband (who arrives home from a workshop late tonight) that he's watching this with me tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What I Might Do this Summer

Debi tagged me with the meme that Becky tagged her with, that of listing goals for the upcoming summer. The number of goals does not seem to be specified, but both Debi and Becky listed four. A list-maker at heart (this year, my daily list is written on the back of the previous day’s entry from the Zen Page-a-Day calendar), I may not be able to keep it to four, but I’ll try.

Goals for the Summer (and possibly beyond):

(1) Knock some more items off “The 50.” (I really need to blog on this topic at length one day, or maybe even set up a blog with each entry devoted to a different item.) The basic idea is that on my 49th birthday, as I was entering my 50th year, I made a list of 50 things to try to do in that year. Said year got extended into a two-year celebration centered around my 50th birthday, and then extended again. After some swapping of items on the list for things I did on my recent trip to New Mexico (another blog post I need to write), I have 13 items left to do. I figure I should probably try to finish by my 55th birthday because at some point after that I’ll want to start on a list of 60 things to do to commemorate my 60th year.

(2) Get out the tabletop loom I got at the Y’Art Sale last year and figure out how to set it up and use it. The one-morning-a-year Y’Art Sale is sponsored by our local Second Street Gallery as a fundraiser and features all manner of artsy and craftsy supplies, samples, whatever. I couldn’t justify the floor loom they had because unless we were to totally clean out the upstairs of our garage I have no place to put it, but I did get the tabletop loom. One of my elementary classrooms had a floor loom, and I used to love using it until the day the teacher banned me from it. See, we could start weaving after we’d finished our work, and since I was always the first one to finish, I always got the loom first. After a while of this, I got banned in the interest of fairness even though I was not the one who said that you could go weave when you were done with your work. I didn't make the rules; I just took advantage of them. And no, this was not the start of my disillusionment with the public education system (another blog post I should write!) but it certainly didn’t help.

(3) Try to learn the four or five skill forms I still need to learn for a black belt in Myo Sim kendo. Black belt tests are held once a year, usually in late summer, so learning them this summer would make for a good start to a year (one year minimum; it could easily be more) of intense practice to get all the various forms to the appropriate level of speed, intensity, and accuracy. Let’s see. I still need to be taught three ways to take a sword away from someone who is attacking me (in case the eight I ‘ve already been taught aren’t enough) and one (out of six) tea party, a two-person form involving an attack from close quarters. Tea parties are a bit humbling because they’re typically done with metal-bladed swords, making the possibility of doing harm to one’s partner or self very real. They also involve some pretty rough leg switches, as in going from kneeling on the left knee with the right leg out in front of you, bent at the knee, to the exact opposite position, kneeling on the right knee with the left leg out in front of you, a switch to be done as fast as possible, without lifting one’s head any higher than absolutely necessary. Oh, yeah, you’re also drawing and swinging that metal-bladed sword at another person as you do this. In other words, the more practice, the better. I also need to work more on some partner exercises, which are two-person forms you create with a partner.

(4) Finally, in the interest of harmony at home and my own sanity, I should probably include the continuation of my ongoing battle with the clutter and disarray of living with three adult or nearly so males who don’t really care where things get put down or what gets left where. Part of the battle is modeling good behavior to them without at the same time enabling their tendency to avoid cleaning up after themselves and letting me do it. Having recently gotten a new refrigerator and a new, slightly larger dining room table, I’m currently concentrating my efforts on the kitchen and dining room. I may not make it past those this summer, but just getting those two rooms done would be a good start.

See—I managed to stop at four! I could add all sorts of things like lose a few pounds, but those are better suited to New Year’s resolutions than summer goals. Besides, if I manage to accomplish even part of the above, I’ll probably lose a little weight in the process.

In the interest of sharing the fun, I’d love to see if Rich’s and Annie’s summer goals bear any resemblance to Debi’s. I’d hate to think of the family all pulling in different directions. And it might be interesting to see what Debi's friend Kara has planned now that she's back from her trip.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Born on a Blue Day (Review)

I was going to use The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the color part of Annie’s What’s In a Name Challenge, but I found it a struggle to read best described by my image of the author as the slightly drunk academic monopolizing the cocktail party conversation with his obviously superior intellect and opinions. When I saw Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger’s and an Extraordinary Mind by Daniel Tammet on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble, I knew I could put The Black Swan out of my misery at least for now. I had absolutely no problem making my way through this book.

Daniel Tammet has an autism spectrum condition as well as synaesthesia, the visual and emotional experience of numbers. The two combine into what Daniel calls savant syndrome, made well known by the 1988 Dustin Hoffman movie, Rain Man. Because of his synaesthetic experiences, Daniel can retain and calculate huge numbers in his head without conscious effort. He holds the British and European records for reciting Pi from memory, reciting 22, 514 digits correctly in five hours and nine minutes. He can do extremely complicated arithmetic calculations such as squaring six-digit numbers in his head. The synaesthesia also gives him an incredible facility with languages; he learned enough Icelandic in one week to conduct a live interview on Icelandic television. To put this accomplishment in context, Icelandic is considered one of the most complex and most difficult to learn languages. For example, there are at least 12 different words for each of the numbers from one to four, depending on the sentence’s context.

Daniel demonstrated some of the classic signs of an autism spectrum condition such as an obsessive need for order very early in life. At the same time, there was no significant delay in his language development, one of the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. At the age of four, he suffered several seizures and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, though he has been seizure-free for over 20 years. Even as a child, Daniel was well aware of how different he was from other children, as described in the following passage:

I remember standing alone under the shade of the trees that dotted the perimeter of the school playground, watching the other children running and shouting and playing from the sidelines. I am ten and know that I am different to them in a way that I cannot express or comprehend. The children are noisy and move quickly, bumping and pushing into one another. I’m constantly afraid of being hit by one of the balls that are frequently thrown or kicked through the air, which is one of the reasons why I prefer to stand on the edges of the playground far away from my schoolmates. I do this every playtime without fail, so that it soon becomes a running joke and it is perceived as common knowledge that Daniel talks to the trees and that he is weird.

At the same time, though, Daniel ended up having several close friendships, typically with other kids who were also “different” in some way. At the age of eleven, he realized that he was attracted to other boys, although it was several years before he considered himself “gay.”

After graduation from high school, Daniel applied to work with Voluntary Services Overseas, an international development charity and spent a year teaching English in Lithuania. When he returned to England, he got a computer as part of an “end of service” grant to write about his experiences. I loved Daniel’s description of what a computer can mean to someone with an autism spectrum condition:

There is something exciting and reassuring for individuals on the autistic spectrum about communicating with other people over the Internet. For one thing, talking in chat rooms or by email does not require you to know how to initiate a conversation or when to smile or the numerous intricacies of body language, as in other social situations. There is no ey contact and it is possible to understand the other person’s every word because everything is writted down. The use of ‘emoticons’, such as (smiley face) and (frowny face), in chat room conversations also makes it easier to know how the other person is feeling, because he or she tells you in a simple, visual method.

In fact, Daniel met his partner, Neil, online, moving in with him six months after they met. After applying for and not getting numerous library jobs (Daniel describes how difficult the nuances of a job interview can be for someone with an autism spectrum condition), Daniel eventually set up Optimnem, an educational website with online courses for language learners. Neil handles the technical details, while Daniel develops the content.

Daniel memorized the digits of pi as a fundraiser for the National Society for Epiloepsy, a charity in the United Kingdom. The publicity surrounding the event led to Daniel’s appearance in the documentary Brainman, shown in the U.S. on the Science Channel. Part of Brainman showed Daniel working with researchers interested in his savant syndrome; he has continued this work in the time since Brainman was finished. Daniel hopes that such research will advance understanding of the many facets of autism spectrum condition and, more broadly, “encouraging a wider appreciation of different ways of learning.”

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. Very easy to read but with lots of food for thought. I applaud Daniel for offering such an intimate look at his life.

Audience Rating: Not everyone would be interested in this book. Obviously, someone with personal experience with an autism spectrum condition would want to read it, as would someone with a background or interest in cognitive psychology or gifted education. And anyone who has ever even half seriously wondered how the brain works would find lots here to think about.

Transformers—The 2007 Movie (Review)

There was debate at my house as to whether this counted as “science fiction.” The two resident young males argued that it didn't, but since the Internet Movie Database lists Sci-Fi in the list of genre, I’m counting Transformers for the 42 Challenge. The 42 Challenge is to read, watch, or listen to, and then review 42 science-fiction-related items in the 42 weeks and 42 days between the official start date of January 1, 2009, and the official end date of December 3, 2009. However, since Becky, the challenge’s host, has graciously invited unofficial starts at any time after joining the challenge, I’m starting now.

We got Transformers via Netflix, and the familial reaction to it was perhaps best summed up by my husband’s comment early the next morning as he left the house to get the newspapers from the road. “I’ll put this in the mailbox myself to make darn sure it leaves the house.” Yeah, it was that bad, but then the standards for science and science fiction are pretty high when dad is a nuclear physicist, elder son is finishing his master’s in atomic physics, and younger son is whizzing through an undergraduate math major. I’m not exactly ignorant myself when it comes to science, and can only say that my memories of the animated Transformers movie are more positive than what I thought of this live-action take on the same world.

Just as in the animated Transformers world, the live-action world hinged on the good-guy Autobots versus the bad-guy Decepticons. Key to the story is an astral cube that had been frozen in the Arctic along with, as it turns out, head Decepticon Megatron. An explorer stumbled on them, and ended up with important information imprinted on the eyeglasses he was wearing. Fast forward decades later, and one of the explorer’s descendants (played by Shia LaBeouf) is trying to sell the glasses on eBay to raise money for a car. As a result, he is being sought by both the Autobots, which find him first, and the Decepticons. The rest of the movie is best summarized with one of the lines my kids often use in telling a story: “And hilarity ensues.”

So as not to trash the movie totally, I will say that it includes a spurt of dialog that we all thought was pretty priceless. Agents of the super-secret government unit Sector 7 knock on the door of the Shia LeBeouf character’s house. Flashing a badge, the head agent identifies himself as being with Sector 7. “Never heard of it,” comments Shia LeBeouf’s father. “Never will,” responds the agent, totally deadpan.

In short, if you’re looking for serious science or science fiction, look elsewhere. If, however, you’re willing to be entertained by how low a movie can stoop or want to compare this to other D (for dreadful) movies, then this might be the way to go.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Time Bandit (Review)

This book’s full title is Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs. If you’ve seen “The Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel, you’ll appreciate this book a bit—no, a lot—more. I know I appreciated it more having just watched several hours of Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch Mother’s Day Marathon.” (I kid you not; it reminded me of 1990, when the BBC showed “The Bridge on the River Kwai” on Mothering Sunday and received a very large number of complaints.)

In other words, someone not familiar with “Deadliest Catch” will lack the background needed for much of this book. And even having that background, I found the structure of the book cumbersome. Some chapters are written from the perspective of brother Johnathan Hillstrand, from the point of view of his drifting in a disabled fishing boat. Others are written from the perspective of brother Andy Hillstrand as he awaits word of Johnathan’s fate. As one brother or the other moved away from the story of Johnathan’s being adrift to reflect on his own past or on the broader picture of the fishing life, I sometimes lost track of which brother was telling his story. More than once I had to backtrack to the beginning of a chapter to remind myself which brother was telling his story.

And Time Bandit offers much more a memoir of the brothers’ lives than an in-depth look at the fishing industry and its perils and thrills. Such works as Linda Greenlaw’s The Hungy Ocean and the Sebastian Junger’s classic, The Perfect Storm, better describe fishing as a profession rather than a recreation. I can honestly say that the parts of Time Bandit I found most entertaining were the stories of two brothers growing up and trying to out-do each other in more and more creative ways—stories only the mother of two sons could love and truly appreciate. I now know how much harder I could have had it ... or still might have it since at least one of my sons has read this book as well.

Derailing one Train of Thought for Another

I saw this meme on Songmom's blog and decided that it offered a nice break from some work I've been doing to get ready for a noon phone call. I'm not going to tag anyone else to follow me, but if it sounds interesting, feel free to play along.

What were you doing 10 years ago?
In the spring of 2008, elder son was in 5th grade and younger son was in 2nd. I was in my first year of the same hourly work I do now as well as volunteering at the elementary school (I'd have a link to their website, but it doesn't appear to be up right now).

Name five things on today's "to do" list.
Removing the list from the front right pocket of today's jeans, I see such tasks as phone call with Ralph at noon, review Time Bandit for Library Thing and this blog, continue assembling Lauren's amigurumi corgi, pick up Aillinn at 6:00 for kendo at 7:00, and e-mail Andrea about helping her pack this weekend.

If I were a billionaire ...
I would love to be more philanthropic than I can afford to be now.

Name three bad habits you have.
How about picking my toenails, finishing my husband's sentences (he calls it interrupting), and saying "yes" to volunteer work when I should say "no."

List five places you've lived.
Great Falls, Montana (born there)
Morehead, Kentucky
Nashville, Tennessee
Soest, The Netherlands
Charlottesville, Virginia

Name five jobs you've held.
Intramural sports official (as an undergrad)
Statistical consultant (as a grad student)
Computer programmer (first job after grad school)
University planning associate
Freelance writer and editor

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Birthday Presence

The father of a friend and fellow member of an online circle of friends died earlier this year after a protracted illness. In the discussion that followed, several women noted, “you never stop being Daddy’s little girl.” As in the case of it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a boy to be a sissy, a woman can remain Daddy’s little girl much longer and more easily than a man can be or stay a Mama’s boy. I’ve sometimes thought it would have been nice to have had a daughter and seen what kind of relationship she might have had with her father, the man I married and still love. Instead, I can only say, most assuredly, that the two male offspring in my household are not Mama’s boys.

My dad has self-published several memoir-type volumes in retirement, a fact for which I am exceedingly grateful. They have given me a glimpse into how he became the man I grew up knowing and who has influenced me in so many ways. When, in graduate school, I politely asked the policeman who pulled me over but would not give me a ticket but only a verbal warning (he claimed I had been drinking while driving—I had been, but it was a diet 7-up, not the beer he said it was), what the procedure was for filing a complaint against him, I was only channeling the nerve of a man who bluffed his way onto a tarmac as members of the British royal family were boarding their plane. To those among my friends who have said I’m not a safe person to hang out with after hearing what I said to that policeman, I can only say that if you heard some of the other things my dad has done you’d know what an amateur I am compared to him.

Because my parents separated and then divorced when I was in elementary school, in the mid-1960s before divorce became something of a way of life, most of my childhood memories of my father are from when I was very young. I remember the time I didn’t want to go get the much-touted polio vaccine on a Saturday morning because I was watching some television show. Dad spanked me royally as I recall (this was the early 1960s, when spanking wasn’t the big deal it is now) and then, in what hurt more than the spanking, made me sit down and watch the rest of the show before we went, while he, my mother, and my brother waited for me. I remember that my watching and their waiting hurt more than the spanking, which was probably the point.

At that stage in his life, Dad was a biologist and biology teacher, which probably accounted for my correcting one of my own teachers—Mrs. Sorenson in first grade, I think—who said that butterflies came out of cocoons spun by caterpillars. Not so, said the smart aleck girl totally bored with first grade, a moth comes out of a cocoon, while a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. Dad’s science background also probably accounted for the fact that when our Great Falls, Montana neighborhood flooded in June, 1964—with the waters of the Sun River coming down the street from one direction, while the waters of the Missouri River came down the street from the other direction—my brother and I got to sit on our dry front step and watch all the other kids (and some adults) in the neighborhood swim and play, even walk on stilts, in the water. We hated it, but we somehow didn’t mind, later, when we were the only neighborhood kids not to have to get typhoid fever shots because of what they might have caught by playing in the water.

The September before that, Dad’s being a teacher at Great Falls High School allowed us access to the school’s roof as President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in the football stadium below. Dad set up a telescope, and we took turns looking through it to see President Kennedy more up close and personal. I vaguely recall a policeman or perhaps a secret service agent coming out onto the roof to check on what might have looked from the ground like a rifle peeking out over the rooftop. Remember that this was less than two months before Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I doubt we would have been allowed such “higher” proximity to a presidential talk after that. I think I heard once that Kennedy’s visit to Great Falls was his last trip outside of Washington, D.C. before his fateful visit to Dallas, but given the travel schedule of presidents today, I find that somewhat hard to believe. Maybe times really were different then.

As would any former child, I remember childhood Christmases, or at least the annual hunts for the perfect Christmas tree. We would drive, usually in the family station wagon (in which my brother and I never wore seat belts and often passed the time seeing who could keep their balance the longest, crouching in the back compartment as Dad intentionally swerved down the road), out into the mountains in search of a tree. We would walk what seemed like miles (my legs were shorter then) through the woods, considering this tree and that one. When we finally found just the right one, Dad would get out his camera and use the timer to get a family picture of the four of us with that year’s tree. I have a couple of these photos in an album Dad made for me; they help the memory stay alive.

And the Christmas I was in kindergarten, all I wanted was a big teddy bear. I must have asked for that bear all fall long, because I remember Dad’s coming home from work many times with stories of how he saw a bear downtown that day, but it got into a taxicab and got away before he could catch it for me. Joe, the bear who was waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning, lives with me to this day. When he no longer needed to comfort me regularly, he moved on to being the stuffed animal of choice when one of my sons was sick, staying on their bed for as long as they needed him. I have every intention of passing from this world before Joe does, or at least taking him with me when I go. In a punch line to the story of how Joe joined the family, I should note that I proudly took Joe to school with me, for show-and-tell, the first day back after vacation. Darned if another girl in the class hadn’t gotten a bigger teddy bear! It didn’t matter, though; I loved Joe none the less for it.

The “view my complete profile” tab at the right includes a random question generated by Blogger. I change it—question and answer—every now and then for no good reason other than to entertain the couple of people who might look there. For a while the question was something along the lines of “You’re on the ferris wheel. Will your father take a bite of your cotton candy while you’re gone?” My very truthful answer was that my father wouldn’t be standing on the ground holding my cotton candy—he would be on the ferris wheel with me. That’s because the childhood memory I cherish most strongly is that of riding the ferris wheel beside my father. To this day, I am a bit more than moderately afraid of heights and am terrified of ferris wheels or any other amusement park ride that involves heights (not to mention speed—roller coasters are most definitely not my friend). While I did ride a very, very small ferris wheel with my sons during a summer spent in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I find the thought of riding a “real” ferris wheel or, even worse, a double ferris wheel, paralyzingly frightening. But I rode them as a child, because with her father beside her, Daddy’s little girl wasn’t all that afraid. I distinctly remember sitting in a ferris wheel car, descending along the front of the wheel, legs dangling, feeling happy … and safe.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I figured you didn’t need any more “stuff” but might like a gift you could keep with you always.

Your Little Girl
(still and always)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Food for Thought from a Campaign Trail

I went to a political rally this week, something I honestly can’t remember doing since, maybe, high school, embarrassing though that statement may be. Probably because I have made several financial donations to the Democratic Party or to Democratic candidates (John Edwards and Hillary Clinton this time around), I last week got a recorded phone invitation to Mark Warner’s appearance in Charlottesville on his tour to kick off his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs due to the retirement of Senator John Warner. (In an interesting note, Mark Warner ran against John Warner in the 1996 Senate race, giving rise to the classic “Mark Not John” and “John Not Mark” bumper stickers.) For no good reason other than it seemed like the right thing to do, I decided to go.

It was an interesting, racially diverse crowd. The media put the size at around 300 people (they didn't mention the cute dog). I tried to get a photo of the African-American man wearing a large sign on his chest proclaiming the number of dead in Iraq (4,017 and counting), but couldn't get a good one that really showed the sign. Probably because it was 2:15 on a Tuesday afternoon, during finals week at the University of Virginia and the first week of AP exams at the local high schools, there were very few young people. Other than my older son, the only other student-appearing people I saw were the volunteers handing out literature, bumber stickers, etc. The crowd all looked to be my age or older—lots of retired people, again probably as a function of when the rally was held.

There was a parade of speakers before Warner took the stage; actually, the parade of speakers started before Warner even arrived at the rally. Perhaps the powers that be sensed the crowd was getting restless. It was interesting but otherwise unimportant that three of the five speakers were Davids. David Brown, former mayor of Charlottesville, acted as emcee introducing the other speakers, which included Dave Norris, the current mayor of Charlottesville, and David Toscano, another former mayor and the current Delegate representing Charlottesville in the Virginia General Assembly.

Warner was actually introduced by a Republican, local businessman Bill Crutchfield. In his remarks, Crutchfield noted that he had only supported two Democrats in his life: Don Beyer in 1997 and Mark Warner this year. My immediate (and continuing) thought was to wonder whether Crutchfield was supporting Beyer and Warner entirely on their own merits, since the Republican opponent in each case was/is Jim Gilmore who, in my humble opinion, was one of the worst governors Virginia has had since I moved here in 1969. Gilmore's following through on a campaign pledge to end or reduce the personal property tax on automobiles plunged the state into a revenue abyss from which Warner had to extricate us when he became the next governor. (Virginia has a built-in term limit on the governorship, not allowing two successive terms.)

Warner spoke quite comfortably without notes, though I imagine he had been using much the same script at each stop on his tour. As might be expected, he concentrated on his accomplishments as governor with an emphasis on the usual areas: the economy, energy, education, health care, etc. He got a large round of applause when he promised to place a priority on repairing or replacing the country's crumbling infrastructure. He repeatedly pledged to continue to try to work across party lines as he had as governor. He suggested that if elected he would try to find another four or five moderate Democratic Senators and an equal number of like-minded Republican Senators to form a group of "radical centrists" to work together to get needed legislation passed. Subvert from within? I like that!

It was most interesting seeing a candidate and hearing him speak on such intimate terms, just a few feet away rather than on TV or in a larger, impersonal setting. Candidates have always seemed more like celebrities than real people I might work with or go for coffee with. Perhaps because of the distance imparted by media coverage, they never really seem real. They seem surreal, someone (something?) created by the coverage they’re getting. Being able to shake hands with and wish good luck to Warner as he came down to mingle with the crowd after the rally had more significance than I expected it to. Just as working as an election official has helped me see the electoral process differently, going to a rally, especially a small, more personal one, is prompting me to think about political campaigns and candidates in a new light. I may not be the only one either, since my older son came home from the rally and registered on the Warner campaign's website offering to assist with issues research.

And if it wasn't already obvious, I shall eagerly cast my vote for Mark Warner for U.S. Senate in November, though once I hit the "Cast Vote" button and step back outside the voting booth, I will work to ensure that even those citizens who want to vote for his opponent have the opportunity to do so. Democracy ... it's a good thing! And, as I'm discovering, a personal one as well.