Tuesday, November 11, 2014

More Wallpaper: The Living Room Saga - Part 3

Once our walls were finally painted and dry and looking significantly better than when we moved in I finally put the pictures that had been sitting in our guest room for the past three years on our walls. The living room was finally started to feel like home. The next step was buying and putting up a new chandelier to replace this one:

Besides the fact that this particular chandelier was not our style at all, it was clearly not someone else's style, evidenced by the $20 masking tape sticker that was stuck to the side. I have no problems with using and reusing items. I believe that some of the greatest treasures can be found in other people's trash. HOWEVER, there is a limit, and that chandelier was the limit for me.

The very first time my husband and I attempted to put up a chandelier was when we first moved into our house in Indy. The dining area (because we didn't have a dining room) had a hideous fruit Tiffany style lamp hanging from the ceiling. It was one of the first things we replaced, and it was one of many home improvement projects in the early years of our marriage and home ownership that jeopardized our relationship. This time, with the evening hours quickly fading and two children running around singing along to the Muppets soundtrack (a wonderfully fun movie for all children of the 70s and 80s who grew up watching the Muppets), we fairly calmly put up the new and much more attractive chandelier. As always, my arms got tired from holding the piece over my head, but it was a relatively light piece compared to other ceiling mounted light fixtures we have installed, and quite frankly, I usually get the easy job: chase down pieces that get dropped and hand my husband new pieces as needed. I am very happy with the new fixture.

Then we had to wait for window replacements. The story of replacing the windows really goes back to when we first moved into the house. It is nearing late fall, and my husband decided to finally fix the broken gable vent in our attic that appeared to be the entry point for some large animal that continued to get into the house. As he tried to close the ladder, the heavy end snapped down, and before any of us could stop it we watched the ladder crash through our bay window. Not just any window, but one of the most expensive windows in the house to replace. I called a glass company, they came and replaced the single pane, making our bay window way less efficient but at least still useable, and so we have managed for nearly three years. Additionally, the wood on one of the crank windows rotted to the point that we ended up cracking the glass the last time we shut it. It is safe to say we have an energy draining useless bay window in the dining room.

Then my husband had the misfortune about two months ago to hit a hidden rock in the grass that somehow managed to fly into our daughter's second story bedroom window. Thankfully, it didn't break through the storm window, meaning the window was useable but still needed to be replaced ASAP.

During the course of getting window estimates (and anyone who has had that done knows how painful it can be to hear that final number) one of the companies suggested that we wouldn't have to replace the entire bay window. Instead, we could rewrap it and get new glass at half the cost. SOLD!

The full window story is recounted here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

New First Steps

Theoretically, it should have been easy. I never stopped working, which means that for the last five years my little girl has been attending some kind daycare situation. We had a wonderful first three months together (thanks to my perfectly timed April delivery which extended my maternity leave into the summer months) and then she was off to a wonderful in-home daycare. Because of moves and circumstances beyond our control, she has moved around some, but for the last two years (her preschool years) she has been attending the same daycare as her little brother. I have dropped her off in the morning for a day of learning, snacks, and play. And then during the summer months she has been at home with me.

Everything changed today. Today my baby girl started Kindergarten. I remember when I started Kindergarten 30 years ago. That was back when a half day of school was the standard. I started school with a couple of my preschool classmates and my childhood best friend was a little girl who I also went to church with. I had a small group of ready made friends but quickly made more. We spent our mornings learning things that my daughter was learning to do in preschool. My afternoons were free. But it was still the start of my academic career. By the time the year was over I could read and do simple math and thanks to the wonderful teachers at our inner city Detroit Lutheran school, I had a strong foundation for later, weaker years of education. I was loved by my teachers and they daily shared both knowledge and the love of Christ. But it was me. I was the one growing up, not my little girl. I was the one looking forward to my future and the world that was opening up in front of me, not my little girl.

I am excited to see my little girl grow up. I am excited to see what God has in store for her. I am excited to see her grow and mature in knowledge and faith. I am excited to see her excitement when she reads her very first chapter book on her own or to read the very first story that she writes on her own without me spelling every single word out for her. I am excited to watch her school plays and concerts. I am excited to see her learn new things about the world around her in both science and social studies. I am excited to see the relationships she will build with her new classmates. But I'm also sad. I am sad because this is a new first step into more independence. As parents we walk this fine line of eagerly waiting for the day that our children do not need us to do certain things for them (i.e. change their diapers, spoon feed them, tie shoes, dress them) and sadness when they reach those milestones and they need us less. I know that we never stop needing our parents. Even as adults we never stop needing our parents. But those needs change and become less frequent, less pressing.

And then there is the realization that this change is also a change in my responsibilities as a parent and that scares me. I am seriously afraid that I am going to become the parent that drives me, the teacher, crazy. When she was in preschool I couldn't remember to sign permission forms and turn in book orders on time. During registration two days ago there was so much paperwork that I was overwhelmed. How was I going to keep everything straight? I have to remember lunch (which was always covered by daycare), have to get her up in time to eat some breakfast (which has proven to be a difficult task since she was born), have to help with homework and make sure that she is given the time to do it, and have to figure out drop off and pick up at two different locations for two years while we wait for our son to enter Kindergarten. And that is just the stuff that I know about. We are entering the unknown and it is just as scary for Mommy as it is for daughter. Possibly more so.

I know that she will be fine. Just like me, she has a little girl in her class who she went to preschool with and they were thrilled to be reunited during registration. Maybe she will become my daughter's childhood best friend. My baby girl is a sweet, smart, and talented little girl who will thrive. But that doesn't change the fact that this is much harder than I anticipated it would be five years ago. So for now I will pray for her, as I did last night when I was running around the block. And today I will be thankful that her little brother still has two more years of early childhood. We'll just drag that one out for as long as we can.

Here I am on the first day of Kindergarten in 1984.
Here is my daughter on the first day of school in 2014.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

This Is When It Gets Hard

I am a wife, a mother, and a teacher. They are three vocations (not jobs) that I relish. They make me who I am, and without one of those vocations I don't feel complete. But this is the time of year when those three vocations collide in uncomfortable ways: the beginning of the school year.

As usual, this summer has been fantastic, and as I noted last year, the older my kids get, the more enjoyable that summer time is. And this summer was packed. We camped, both kids had swimming lessons, my daughter went to two day camps, and I spent the majority of the summer purging and selling a much as I could through Facebook garage sale groups. We went to the park, to the drive-in, and hung out. It was a good summer for all of us. During one weekend camping trip my daughter asked my husband why he couldn't be a teacher. She wanted to camp for longer and knew that if Daddy also had the summer off she wouldn't have to go home yet. We laughed at the idea of my computer nerd of a husband being a teacher but also enjoyed our daughter's sweet sentiment. She just wanted to spend more time with her whole family.

Contrary to popular belief, most teachers don't take the whole summer off. There are workshops, summer assignments, summer school, professional reading, and getting everything done that doesn't get done during the school year. Really, when you are working anywhere between 50-70 hours in a given school week, depending on the time of the year, a lot gets neglected during the school year. That includes quality time with our kids. But we working moms who are teachers are blessed. We get to spend our summer months with our kids, a luxury that our fellow non-teacher working moms do not have. I can take my kids to work with me during the summer. I can grade summer reading assignments with them sitting next to me on the couch (thanks to the Internet). And I have a lot more time for them. Nights can get later without worrying about getting them up in time for daycare and work the next morning. I don't have to worry about staying on a strict schedule (with the exception of things like swimming lessons and day camp). I honestly have a hard time flipping that switch at the beginning of the summer and by the end of summer I am ready for routine again, but the in-between time is awesome.

Then we have to go back to school. My daughter has always gone with the flow and this year things change again because she is starting kindergarten, which means a new schedule and routine for the three of us as we get ready in the morning. But my son has never been good about getting back into routine. He thrives on routine but he prefers that his routine include Mommy. So this week has been hard. REALLY hard. We've had two mornings of kicking, screaming, and tears. He doesn't want to go back to school. He wants to go to school with Mommy. I'm beginning to think that those couple of days hanging out with just me last week while his sister was at day camp spoiled both of us. He played in my room, watched movies, and took naps on my floor. The last two mornings have been hard on me too. I don't like seeing my baby upset. I love that he wants to be with me. And I'm frustrated because his tantrums and tears are keeping me from a tight morning schedule. This is when the guilt and frustration gets to be a little much. This is when I question one of my three vocations.

And yet I'm still excited for a new year. I know that in the next couple of weeks things will settle down. My son will be back in his routine, my daughter will be thriving in Kindergarten, and I will be living it up talking about composition, rhetoric, and literature. But until then I am once again reminded that this is when the job is hard. This is when it feels more like a job than a vocation. But I know that this what I am called to do. I am called to be a wife, mom, AND a teacher. And with God's help, we will make it through the start of another school year.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Yeah, I Don't Really Miss the Tent

In our third year of marriage,  my husband suggested that we go out to Yellowstone for a summer vacation. I felt like the suggestion came out of nowhere. As a well-traveled girl who spent five years living in Wyoming I scoffed at the idea that we would be able to just up and travel to Yellowstone without months of advance planning. After all, it is one of the most popular national parks in the US. I remembered visiting once, when I was 11, and the crowds were sizable, especially considering that our family visited shortly after the wildfires that nearly destroyed the Old Faithful Lodge. But we did quick research, discovered campsites along the way that were still available, and made plans and quick reservations. In a matter of weeks we were packing up our little four-door Focus with all the camping equipment that would fit and we headed out west.

It turned out to be the most amazing vacation of our married life, at least before we had kids. We stopped at Wall Drug, drove through the Badlands, saw Mount Rushmore, drove past Crazy Horse, and then drove through Yellowstone National Park to our campsite in West Yellowstone, Montana, setting up our tent in the dark with only a lantern to light the way. We slept in our tent, pulled most of our meals out of our cooler, cooked on our stove under the big western sky, and enjoyed the cool, arid nights. And we dreamed. We dreamed of a day when we would bring our kids on the same trip out west, visiting all the sights we had visited, adding sights that we had skipped, and camping the whole way. Our dreams for our future children included vacations during which they got to see the country up close and personal. We wanted them to see God's beautiful creation and experience it out in the open. It's no secret that I am a big fan of the NPS. Our trip last summer to Gettysburg made that perfectly clear. But from early on in our marriage it hasn't just been about what we wanted to see for ourselves. It has been about the kind of experiences that we want our kids to have.

But life got away from us. We were dealing with two jobs, graduate school, and suddenly two kiddos, and while we still dreamed of vacations to see as many of the national parks as possible, the reality appeared to be out of our grasp. We believed in tent camping. We made fun of the people who "camped" in trailers. And then I caved. My husband wanted to get back out there, and he knew the only way he was going to successfully get me going was if we got a camper. And so we did it. And less than a year later we decided to just bite the bullet and get the one we really wanted. We sold the first camper and signed the papers for the camper that is to be our home away from home for the next several years.

Sure, there are times that I am wistfully nostalgic about tent camping. Learning how to set up a tent taught us about teamwork. I remember one particularly bad night setting up camp when we put up our brand new clearance Eddie Bauer tent in the dark. It was considerably bigger than our first tent. We nicknamed it the "Tent Majal" for a reason. One tent pole got broken (but was still usable) and by the time we went to bed we were tired and frustrated with each other. But we got over it. We had a good weekend camping and in the end still had fun. And we had learned together. Tent camping helped us grow as a couple. I love the sound of rain on the nylon rain fly. I love early morning sounds that can't be muffled by thin tent walls. I love snuggling up under a warm sleeping bag on those cool spring and fall nights. I love those things as much as I loathe trying to stay dry when it rains all weekend, failing to warm back up when the fire can't light, and hot, humid nights from which there is no escape. I look with awe upon other 30-something parents setting up tent cities with their broods in tow. They amaze me because I know how much work it was to do it with just the two of us. Amazing? Yes. Memorable? Yes. Cheap? YES! But it was still work and I can't imagine how much work it would be with our two loveable yet energetic little ones.

Yes, we have caved and taken the "easy" way out, but this summer of camping adventures has convinced us that we have made the right decision. While that long trip out west is still waiting in the wings, we have taken our kids all over the state of Indiana to experience what the wonderful Indiana state park system has to offer. And it has a lot to offer. Our kids aren't at home being tempted by the TV, Netflix, and our extensive movie collection. They are getting dirty playing at our campsite, learning how to ride their bikes around the relatively safe park roads, making friends with kids around the campground, and learning from the various ranger programs. They are out in nature. They are seeing what God created. And they are gaining a thirst for more. Last weekend on our trip to Ouabache State Park (a fantastic park for those of you who live in Indiana), we took them on the mile long hike around the Bison preserve. The kids weren't just awed by the size of the bison. They were awed by all there was to learn about bison. We talked about everything from what they eat to the fact that pioneers used buffalo chips to make fires out on the prairie. And we promised them to someday take them to a place where they could see buffalo in their natural habitat, a prospect that excited them. They were simple lessons and it was an easy walk around the perimeter of the preserve but it was a chance for quality family time and an opportunity for my husband and I to teach our children while hanging out with them.

As 21st century parents there is a kind of pressure to give our kids experiences and decide what kind of memories we want our kids to have. We want to give them everything. Disney was great, and we plan to do that again, but we don't want Disney vacations to be the highlight trips of their youth. We want them to remember that they got to see the country. We want the whole family to unplug and experience the great United States together. We know that someday the magic will end. The kids won't want to be around us. They won't want to spend hours and weeks in the truck and in close quarters in a camper. They'll want to be on their own. And while we could make many of those memories from the confines of a tent or two, we have decided that for our family a portable tin and plywood box with heating and air conditioning is best. I'm ok with that. We'll just keep the tents close by for when the kids are ready to move out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

My family lived in Wyoming between my 6th grade year and junior year of high school. Those five years were a learning experience for me in many areas of my life, but one of the surprising areas was in a new perspective on race in America. I was a Midwestern girl who had spent eight of her earliest formative years in Detroit, a city where I was surrounded by race issues related to black/white. One of my best friends was an African American girl who lived next door and my Lutheran elementary school had a healthy racial mix. When we moved to Wyoming I was suddenly surrounded by a sea of white. There are exceptions, which was true in our town, but for the most part the Wyoming population is very white. That is until one visits the reservation, or the "rez." While exposure to other races had never been lacking in my upbringing, exposure to real, live Indians was a new experience for me. And as I get older and learn more, the minimal exposure to Native Americans that I experienced during that five year period begins to make more sense. It also makes me more passionate about what I believe is the most disenfranchised racial group in the United States, a passion I even carry into my teaching of American Literature.

Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was a delightful addition to my summer reading. It is a book that has faced censorship nationwide, but the English teacher in me cannot resist a little controversy in my summer reading selections. The book is funny, heartbreaking, and eye opening, and while I can definitely see why some parents might object to the content in the book, I believe that it is a story worth reading. It is honest. And it is important.

The novel follows Junior (Arnold) as he makes the controversial decision to leave the "rez" and attend a small, all-white school in the neighboring town. Near the beginning of his freshman year, Junior's teacher convinces him that he needs to get off the reservation to save himself. Junior knows his teacher is right but it is a scary move. To leave the reservation and attend a "white" school is to renounce his tribe. He knows that if he leaves he will be seen as a traitor. He also knows that he will be an outsider at his new school, surrounded by racists and individuals with preconceived notions about Native Americans. But he knows that the only way to escape a future of poverty and alcoholism is for him to attend school off of the reservation. In the process he loses his best friend and he and his family are persecuted by their family, friends, and neighbors. However, he discovers new opportunities that he would have never had if he had stayed on the reservation.

It is the story of a teenage boy caught between two worlds. Many teenagers are caught between two worlds and it is for that reason that this novel speaks to teenagers. Much of what Junior experiences in the novel mirrors their own high school experiences. But it also the story of a Native American teenager caught between two very different worlds. Alexie, a Spokane Indian himself, captures the uniqueness that is 21st century Native American adolescence. He humorously critiques both the white world and the Native American Indian world, both of which appear to perpetuate a broken system that keeps Native Americans poor and outside of the American Dream. He shines a light on the problems that plague modern Native Americans, primarily alcoholism, substance abuse, and poor education, which turn the revolving door of poverty. He shatters many of the assumptions that people outside of the reservations have concerning Native Americans.

Near the end of the novel Junior realizes that in order for him to be ok, he needs to leave. "I wept and wept and wept because I knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life out in the white world. I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream. I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms...It was a huge realization. And that's when I knew that I was going to be okay. But it also reminded me of the people who were not going to be ok." Alexie's character does what he also did; he leaves. That is the only thing that will save Junior. The reservation killed his parents' dreams. It will kill his best friend's dreams. But he will not let it kill his dreams.

There is so much discussion in this country about people of various races and their difficulties, past and present. We debate immigration, we discuss inequity in the legal system, we argue about welfare reform and who it will hurt most, we criticize the education system and the apparent racism in the SAT. But we forget about the first Americans. We preach about the horrors of slavery (and yes, it was horrible) but we ignore the 19th century genocide  of tribe after tribe of Native Americans (and according to the definition of "genocide" from 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, it was genocide). Native Americans are an important part of United States history. In a recent interview, Sherman Alexie said "I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian." I believe that is what struck me most about the novel. That is also what was so heartbreaking about the novel. We don't concern ourselves with learning about Native American history, believing that they are all the same and putting them into a singular group. We don't concern ourselves with their history and significant tribal differences. We allow most of what we know about them as a people to come from the media. We say "Let them have their casinos and as long as they don't come off the reservation, we don't have to own up to the fact that we forget they even exist." I am not immune to this attitude and belief. I was entering adolescence before I saw my first "real, live Indian," but I don't want it to be that way for my children. I don't want them to see Native Americans as a relic of the past but as a vibrant part of our current American culture.

Native Americans are suddenly in the media spotlight because of a sports controversy. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole current Redskins controversy, but I personally do not believe that this is the most important issue facing Native Americans in 21st century America. I personally feel that the entire Native American community would be much better served if the rest of this country tried to figure out how to enfranchise them into mainstream American society without forcing them to give up their culture and identity. That is something we haven't figured out how to do in 400 years. One of the critiques of the novel is that it is anti-Christian. As a Christian woman, the "slams" against Christianity made me squirm. But as a historian I completely understand where those slams came from. I am much more uncomfortable with the history of "conversion" of Native American Indians than I am with Alexie's novelized critique of Christianity and organized religion. The 19th and early 20th century approach of "Kill the Indian to save the soul" has done much more harm than good with lasting damage reaching into the 21st century. There is no easy answer to how to help the original Americans, but I believe it is time that the rest of us stop ignoring that it is a problem. A book like True Diary is important reading for young adults and adults. It gives a glimpse into a world that most of us will never personally encounter while being entertaining at the same time. Books can open worlds and minds, so why not start with this one?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brave New World of Memories

Picture of me in Florence, Italy - September 1999 - I was a pretty cute 20 year old.
I spent the fall semester of 1999 studying in London. That semester included a trip to the continent (France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany), a long weekend trip to Scotland, a week long trip to Ireland, and trips all over London. I took many rolls of film with me, tried to heed the warnings about what x-ray machines would do to my film when going through customs, and when I finally returned to the States I eagerly waited with bated breath for the store to finish developing over 300 (that's right, THREE HUNDRED) pictures.

By contrast I took nearly 400 pictures on digital devices during a single week long family vacation to Florida.

I love taking pictures. I love looking at pictures. Photographs are a time capsule; they capture a moment, an emotion, a memory. And they help us share those moments, emotions, and memories with those who cannot be there in person.

I was so excited when I got my first camera. It was a new kind of independence. Suddenly I was in charge of my own memories. I wasn't dependent on my mom and dad to take all of my pictures. With my little 110 mm camera I was able to take pictures of anything I wanted: vacations, youth group trips, randomness. While I would still occasionally try to get doubles of pictures my parents developed (remember getting doubles???) most of the time I would use my saved allowance so that I could pay for photo developing of my very own pictures. It was exciting to open up that envelope of freshly developed pictures to see how my photography had turned out.

I took this picture at Niagara Falls shortly after I got the camera.

Then I moved to the 35 mm camera and a whole new world was opened to me: better pictures and now I had a choice between 3.5 inch prints or 4.5 inch prints. I was traveling more, spending more time away from family, and I had a better camera with which to capture those moments. In the months leading up to the above mentioned semester in London I lamented the fact that I had a poor camera with which to take pictures of exciting new places. My parents bought themselves a new camera with a significant zoom lens and they let me take it to Europe. Problem solved. I came home with mostly fantastic shots of my adventure. Then my fiance (now husband) bought me a new camera to take with us to Colorado to visit his sister. More great pictures taken with a new and even better camera than I had before.

A couple years later, as we packed for our trip out to Yellowstone, my husband's parents loaned us their 3 megapixel camera. I was anti-digital. Why would I want to give up my film camera for a digital camera? How would I print pictures? Where would I store the pictures? Would they even be as good as the pictures that I took with my fairly decent film camera? During that trip we took pictures with both cameras. Both sets of pictures turned out great and I did, in fact, print out the digital photos. We have all those photos stored in a photo album somewhere on a shelf.

Nearly ten years later we live in a digital world with multiple digital devices that we use to document nearly every moment of our family's life. Like many American families we each have phones with cameras built in and we have a separate digital camera. We actually have two digital cameras, but I don't know when we last used the other one. We take pictures and videos all the time. If the kids are doing something funny and my husband isn't around, I take pictures and send them to him. Sometimes I just post them straight to Facebook. And I am no longer printing out those photos and putting them into photo albums. In fact, the last couple of years I have felt like a terrible parent as I have seen the other family displays that other kids have at daycare (each of the rooms have a collage of pictures for the kids to look at during the day so they can see their families) and felt like a terrible mother. Since I never print out the hundreds upon hundreds of pictures that we take all year round, my kids have not had the best family collages. Maybe that is another summer project I need to add to the list.

I started thinking about this yesterday as I sat down to work on photo books for the kids and for us. Photo printing may be a rarity, but I do keep our photos printed in the form of digitally produced photo books. I am not a scrapbooker, but I do try to keep up with the photo books, if only to make sure that we have hard copies of them somewhere in the house. However, I am seriously behind. As of this writing I have the last year of photos to catch up on for the whole family and the last seven months of photos to catch up on for both kids. And that is after spending the last three days trying to get caught up and completing three photo books that now need to be ordered. As I slaved away on my computer selecting photos and "dragging" them to their newly assigned place in a yet to be printed book, I started thinking about the loss of photographs as a hard record of events. I love looking at old photos, not just my old photos but photographs of my parents and grandparents. The loss of photographs is like the loss of letter writing, another former tool of record keeping that has gone the way of email and social media. While I love my now thousands of digital photos, all proudly displayed on my Facebook page, there is something significant about the tangible. About being able to hold a picture or letter and know that it is not a virus or finger swipe away from deletion.

I think about my many teenage students. They have grown up in a digital world. All of their memories are stored on hard drives or in cyberspace. They lose their phone or camera or something gets hit with a virus and every photo, every captured memory, could be erased. Some print out the pictures, but just like when I was a high school and college student, printing costs money. And unlike my high school experience, they can still see their pictures and share them with each other without thinking about potential dangers to their digital world.

Don't get me wrong. Digital photography is a fantastic advancement. It has made capturing the moment so much easier. But in the last couple days I have been reminded of the importance of the tangible, of keeping a hard copy of those memories at hand. I don't know if I could ever go back and I have no desire to do so, but that doesn't mean I have to stop filling up photo albums to share with future generations. So I guess I have work to do this summer...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review - A Long Way Gone

Several years ago we saw Ishmael Beah give an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As frequently happens when we see Jon Stewart give an interview with the author of a newly released book, our interest was piqued. And again, as frequently happens when a book piques our interest, my husband read the book and I didn't. When I made my goals for 2014 I publicly promised myself I would read more for fun, or at least for personal gain, in an attempt to get away from my terrible habit of just reading for professional and academic purposes. And while A Long Way Gone is a title on my extensive AP reading list, it is also a book that I wanted to read. So when my reading for the 2013-2014 school year was complete, I finally picked it off of the shelf and began reading.

Beah's book recounts his experiences growing up during the war in Sierra Leone, including the couple of years that he served in the government army as a child soldier. His heartbreaking account of separation from his friends, family, and childhood opened my eyes to events that were happening on the other side of the world while I was navigating new hallways my freshman year of high school. He opens with a simple yet telling sentence: "My high school friends have begun to suspect that I haven't told them the fully story of my life." He goes on to show the disconnect between us Americans and those who have lived through and participated in their country's wars. His friends ask "You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?" When he responds "Yes, all the time," they respond with "Cool."

His experience was far from cool.

By the end of the first chapter, the war has changed Beah's life forever. He has been separated from his parents and is running from rebels with only the clothes on his back and tape cassettes of popular 90s rap artists. His love for Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J, and Run-DMC initially saves his life on a couple occasions, as he and his friends are able to prove to frightened villagers that they encounter that they are not a part of the rebel army. He travels up the western coast of Sierra Leone with his small group of friends, which for awhile includes his brother, and they manage to escape the rebel army for quite awhile. But then they are found by the government army. While their physical lives might be temporarily saved, their emotional and psychological lives are destroyed. Soldiers feed them a steady stream of cocaine, marijuana, and "brown brown," a mix of powdered cocaine and gunpowder. They show them violent movies (including a lot of Rambo) and convince them that every act of violence is justifiable revenge for what has happened to their families. Beah goes down a dark path from which he sees no escape. Even I, as a reader, was unsure of his escape, although I knew he had to escape because he survived to write a book about it.

When he is fifteen, UNICEF workers show up in the middle of the fighting to take a group of boy soldiers with them. Beah never reveals what made his commanders hand over the brainwashed boys, but he was one of those selected for rehabilitation. For the next several months, UNICEF workers, and those from related organizations, patiently work with boys from both the government and rebel armies as they slowly withdraw from the drugs and violence to which they have become accustomed. The boys are physically and emotionally abusive to workers who consistently respond to their behavior with "It's not your fault." I have worked with teenagers for my entire career. I love them and have no desire to give it up. But I do not know how these men and women continued to show physical and emotional support for boys who abused them back at every turn. Their love and determination was almost as inspirational as Beah's survival. But freedom from the fighting is nearly impossible, and by the end of the book I was shocked that he made it out of his country alive. Now an American immigrant, his story of survival is both heartbreaking, shocking, and full of hope for those children who are still stuck in war torn areas around the globe.

It is strange to read books written by someone your own age as they recount events that happened to them in a completely different area of the world. I was a typical American teenager, more concerned with boys and school than I was in the suffering of fellow teenagers around the globe. Sierra Leone was far off my radar and probably still would have been had I not read Beah's book. The book made me angry. Angry at rebels who felt that the best way to achieve their goals was to kill anyone and everyone who might stand in their way. Angry at a government army that felt that the best way to achieve its goals was to kill anyone and everyone who might stand in its way. Angry at a government that allowed the murder of everyone and anyone who might stand in its way. And angry at a world that just stood by and let it happen. But that I know that isn't fair. Sin has caused wars for thousands of years. I don't understand what could possess people to act as they did in Sierra Leone and as they are currently acting in every war torn country around the world at this very moment. To read this book as fighting continues to break out across the Middle East opened my adult eyes to the world that my children are growing up in, but it also brought home the fact that these "new" conflicts are not new. In our sinful world there will always be fighting, and while I have no idea how to protect children around the world from facing the same fate as Ishmael Beah, my hope and prayer is that stories like his will not just raise awareness but change that will at the very least prevent more children from facing the same fate.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Most Magical Place On Earth

My first trip to a Disney park was before I was even born. My parents lived in southern California at the time, and while they only lived there a short time, they took advantage of the experience. They took me, in utero, to Disneyland. When I was six months old my parents took me back to Disneyland with my paternal grandparents and my two youngest aunts. I've been told I rode "it's a small world" with my grandparents over and over again to great delight. I do not remember the experience, but it's nice to know that I had the experience as an infant.

When I was nine, I traveled back to California with my parents and two younger sisters. We stayed with friends of  my parents and got to experience a lot of southern California, including Disneyland. I loved Disneyland. We did everything we could at the park. I wasn't brave enough to try "Space Mountain" and I freaked out when my mom tried to take us on the Snow White ride (even at nine I was still reeling from the psychological damage inflicted by being taken to see Snow White when I wasn't quite three) but I remember loving the "Mad Tea Party," being awed by the Michael Jackson 3-D spectacular "Captain EO," tolerating "it's a small world," getting jealous of my little sister who got to be a part of the parade and came home with her very own pair of Minnie Mouse ears, and somewhere in a box I still have the diary that I bought as a souvenir. But I also remember it as a great trip with my family.

When I was a sophomore in college our choir went on tour through the southeast, ending in Florida. The tour included one day off during which we got to pick a single Disney park. Having already been to Disneyland ten years before, I chose to go to MGM (now Hollywood Studios) and loved it. It was a great time with friends and I really didn't think that I missed out on much. After all, I got to participate in movie magic. I didn't need fantasy magic, did I?

Six years ago, when we were in the midst of infertility heartbreak, we vacationed in Orlando with my in-laws and I got to go to Magic Kingdom for the first time ever. It was during that trip that I became convinced that Walt Disney really did create the most magical place on Earth. I loved Magic Kingdom and looked forward to a day when I could take my children there, that is, if God ever blessed us with children. But I enjoyed the Magic Kingdom as an adult does. We rode the rides intended for adults (and some for children) and didn't pay much attention to the parades, shows, and character hot spots. It made for a simple one day trip and I had yet to understand the complex undertaking that it is to take children through Disney World.

Three years ago I was seven months pregnant, uncomfortable, a full-time grad student, a teaching assistant, and we were flat broke. When my husband came home to tell me that he had to attend a conference in Orlando, the place we had been intending on going for vacation seven months before when we didn't know I would be pregnant, I was somewhat crushed. I knew that we couldn't afford to fly me down and I had both classes to attend and classes to teach that week. But our almost two-year-old daughter could go with him and stay with my vacationing in-laws, and she could do it for free. It was a great opportunity for her, but it meant me missing her first trip to Disney. Daddy got to make her toddler dreams come true. I didn't. She doesn't remember the trip, but it doesn't change the fact that I missed it.

But this time I wasn't missing it. This year's spring break vacation to Orlando meant that I got to go with both of our kiddos to the Magic Kingdom, and since our daughter didn't remember her first trip, we treated it like it was the first time for both of them, starting at the ticket booth when we got their 1st Visit pins. In preparation for our visit to Disney, we went out the night before to Walmart to get both kids their own autograph books for any autographs that they might get while at the Magic Kingdom. That trip itself was an adventure with a very tired little boy throwing a tantrum in the store because we wouldn't get him the popsicles that he wanted. For the record, our son is usually sweet and relatively well behaved, but his tantrums are epic, eardrum shattering, events. We were more than happy to bring him back to the condo and put him in bed so that he could be well rested for our very full Disney day. He was asleep in minutes, but the fact that he was so tired before crashing into bed the night before a full day at the Magic Kingdom made me more than a little nervous.

We didn't quite get on the road at 8:30 like I had originally intended. My husband, still recovering from two days nearly completely out of commission (and we now know that he probably had strep), was not going that quickly and even though they were very excited, our children were also moving slowly out of the door. Thankfully, my in-laws came with us so they helped me by getting sunscreen on the kids (another potential battle), we packed up snacks, filled the Camel Paks, double checked to make sure we had everything we could possibly need, and packed up four adults and two kids into the car and towards Disney World. We were still early in the day, got into the closer lots, and took the tram from the ticket booths to the front gate. Just as we did at Legoland, we rented a double-stroller (OUCH$$$) and headed towards Main Street. Our first stop was just as we entered Main Street. A musical number was starting and the kids were mesmerized.

As we were leaving the performance L immediately asked for her autograph book. She wanted to record what she had seen and she especially mesmerized by the girl in the purple dress (her favorite color). She started drawing this:

Next we headed towards Adventureland but were stopped when we realized that "Dream Along With Mickey" was starting right in front of the castle. We stopped everything and got the kids close enough so they could both see. With the appearance of Minnie and the princesses Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora, L was all set to get back to her drawing as she recorded everything she was seeing. She did inform my husband, however, that she had no interest in drawing Maleficent, the primary villain who showed up in the show. Below are pictures of both the show and her drawings:

Next was Adventureland. We rode on Grandpa's favorite ride, "Jungle Cruise," quickly got through the line for "The Magic Carpets of Aladdin" (E was a little upset that we got a purple magic carpet instead of a blue one, but he quickly got over it), and then headed towards "Pirates of the Caribbean." During a pre-ride pit stop, E caught sight of the pirate swords in the store and suddenly I didn't think we would get out of the store without buying one. I finally convinced him that we had to do the ride first and we were headed towards another fast moving line. I was beginning to feel invincible. We had waits, but they weren't that long and Disney lines are constantly moving, so even if it takes awhile I at least felt like we were getting somewhere. The kids were fascinated by everything that they saw along the way, but then we got to the ride. Having only gone on the ride once before, I forgot about the potential scary parts. You know, like the fact that it gets pitch dark and then drops a little before getting to the actual ride portion where you see the story of the pirates? Yeah, the kiddos got a little scared.

But our son was still mesmerized and spent forever at the gift shop searching for the perfect sword. He finally found it and it spent most of the day in his hands, usually out of the scabbard, and it was frequently used as either a comfort object for him or a tool of leverage for Mom and Dad.

From there we hit the "Swiss Family Treehouse" (so I guess now the kids have to see the movie) and then into Frontierland where we hit "Country Bear Jamboree" while deciding what to do for food. The kids LOVED the show (what kid doesn't love watching animatronic bears singing country songs) and by the time we headed out of the adjoining restaurant the "Festival of Fantasy" parade was about to begin. This time L got to see all of her favorite characters, including Anna and Elsa. This was important! We were not going to pay to go to Epcot just so that she could meet them in person (because like every little girl in the country she is obsessed with Frozen) so she at least got to see them. She waved to everyone, got to actually shake hands with Tiana, and when the parade was over and she could get out of the hot, blinding sun, she sat down to draw this:

With the exception of not meeting Aladdin and Jasmine, who were not in the parade, her day was now complete, and it wasn't even 3:30 yet. Since we were in close proximity, we headed to the "Haunted Mansion" next, which we think is hilarious but apparently our kids did not agree. Well, E really liked it until he discovered that his sister did NOT enjoy it and then he changed his mind. To get them excited again we headed straight for "it's a small world" and the parents survived the experience, especially since it brought back the smiles.

Then it was time to meet Aladdin and Jasmine. This was no small thing. When L first went to the Magic Kingdom three years ago she was obsessed the Beauty and the Beast, and primarily with Beast. Shortly after her return she became obsessed with Aladdin. The characters became her imaginary friends, her best friends. And while she has moved on to new things (Frozen being primary among those things) she still has a special place in her heart for Aladdin. When we got to the line we discovered that we had missed that timed meeting so we had to wait for the next meeting. She was devastated, but we promised we wouldn't leave until she got to meet them. So we waited another 30 minutes, got into line, and then discovered that Jasmine was off finding Rajah. Thankfully L still loves Aladdin, so she was fine with just meeting him. Then it was off to meet Merida, who WAS one of her favorite princesses until the introduction of Anna and Elsa. It turned out to be the last of her signatures, but it was still a fantastic experience for both kids. Merida took time to talk to both of them, L got to show her the pictures she had colored while waiting, and then they both got to learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. Merida was also gracious enough to listen to L talk about the awesomeness of Anna and Elsa. I'm sure the poor girl hears about them every day, but she was fantastic about it.

From there we wandered into Tomorrowland and enjoyed a short wait to get into the "Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor." It's fun for the kids and parents and is different every time. Then the "Tomorrowland Speedway," where we paired off to drive. My husband got to drive with L and I got to drive with E. It took one ride around the loop to convince me that I am not the one to teach our children how to drive. I got a glimpse into my future if I do: yelling, stomping on an imaginary break, steering wheel grabbing, and just general conflict from the time my kids start the ignition. My poor son was desperate to just drive while I couldn't relinquish control. L had a lot more fun with her more patient father. An ice cream stop and we left Tomorrowland heading back to Fantasyland.

As the sun started to set we stopped at "Dumbo the Flying Elephant," continuing the trend of no lines. At a busier time we might have been able to stop to enjoy the indoor play yard for kids who are waiting in line, but we didn't have lines so the kids and I rode on Dumbo together (my husband hates any kind of circular motion and was happy taking pictures from below). Then we quickly got through the line to "Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid," a fantastic ride that took us through the entire Disney story of The Little Mermaid. Normally it is a long wait. I think it took us longer to walk from the entrance to the ride than it did for us to do the ride, and we didn't have to wait once we got to the end of the line. From there we finally found a real line - "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh." Not only was the ride itself fun, but the many activities as we waited in line were also a lot of fun for both kids. We almost didn't get them on the ride because they were so distracted by the fun they were having waiting in line. As we were leaving the ride L exclaimed, "I want to come here every day." Yeah, that's not happening, but it was good to know that she was thoroughly enjoying herself. Our ride adventures for the day ended as we rounded a corner and a collection of colorful teacups caught my daughter's eye.

"What are those?" She was instantly mesmerized by the oversized pieces of china.

"They're the teacups. Do you want to ride on them?"


So once again I rode a ride with circles by myself with both kids. I was honestly thrilled. "Mad Hatter Tea" was one of my favorite rides when I went to Disneyland as a nine-year-old. Here I was, 25 years later, enjoying the ride with my own kids with my husband sitting on the sidelines avoiding the centrifugal motion.

We gradually worked two very tired kiddos towards the park entrance, getting stopped by the "Main Street Electrical Parade" and then finding a place to stop and watch "Celebrate the Magic." It's an impressive show with clips from many Disney movies, past and present, telling the story of everything Disney. E didn't make it through the show, quickly falling asleep once we stopped in one place. L, however, was mesmerized, as was I. The most entertaining moment for me was the collective gasp from every little girl in the park when Elsa, from Frozen, was projected on Cinderella's Castle singing "Let It Go." By the time we finally worked our way through the crowds, dropped off the stroller, and met up with my in-laws, we were all exhausted. Exhausted but happy, and I was without regrets.

Say what you will about all things Disney, but it truly is a magical place for kids and adults, and seeing my kids experience it for the first time was awesome. We will go back and we will spend more time there the next time, but we were glad to have that first experience as a family. It was a highlight of our spring break trip and one our kids still talk about. Now we just have to start saving for a full Disney vacation.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Adventures Made of Blocks

Today, for the first time ever, we took both children to an amusement park.

Our daughter has been to Disney (more on that when we get to our Magic Kingdom day) and both have been to the zoo numerous times, but we had never gone to an amusement park as a whole family. That is, until today.

In Orlando there are many choices for family entertainment, but when you are the parents of two small children, there are different factors to consider than those with older children. While it may certainly cost less to take your family to the parks (children under three are free at most parks and they tend to eat less) you also have to decide if it is worth the money that you will be spending in addition to the exhausted children at the end of the day. Older children may cost more but they are also able to do more, remember more of what they did, and they usually have significantly more stamina in the sleep department than toddlers. Or at least, they are much better at pretending that they do.

We have primarily planned a week of fun and relaxation with our kids. But we wanted to do some memory creating big item things with them. We considered our options Saturday night into Sunday; we opted for the park that advertises that it is perfect for children between the ages of 2-12, and they were right. Legoland it was for the day.

Our son is an early riser, our daughter is not, so it might be a testament to their current state of exhaustion that our daughter was up and going before our son. After a quick breakfast, a tearful sunscreening (we've had a couple minor mishaps with sunscreen which makes the process a little difficult), and gathering of goods, we headed out the door and to the park.

The kids were excited and we were excited to see them so excited. But the day was complicated by the fact that we started with one very sleepy little boy who needed to stay with us for eight more hours. We had gotten our tickets for the park for a steal (thanks to going to a timeshare presentation) but that also meant standing in line for longer to validate our voucher. We were also fighting a slew of school kids and home school kids who were there for the day. When I'm on spring break I have a hard time remembering that other people are still in school, even with a niece and nephew who are visiting back and forth because they have school this week. We finally decided that it would be best for us to rent a stroller to avoid carrying tired kids (ours didn't fit in the car for the drive down). It took awhile to get E to get into the stroller, but our decision was eventually validated.

Our first ride was the "Island in the Sky," a simple ride that gave us a 360 view of the park. While far from exciting, it at least gave the kids an idea of everything there was to see. Then we walked through Fun Town and the kids saw the Grand Carousel. My husband, who HATES circles, braved the centrifugal motion so that both kids could ride with a parent. They both got their desired brown and black horses but we had to ride in separate rows. A quick lunch at a fairly decent pasta and pizza buffet and both kids were happily filled enough for us to see a 4D presentation during which both kids insisted on taking off their 3D glasses. L was a little scared (I didn't believe it was that scary but the sound and wind did heighten her already tired senses) but she did enjoy the falling snow.

From there it was Miniland. I've always enjoyed Legos. As a child I went through a brief period of architect dreams and proving that I am my father's daughter (my dad taught drafting for eight years in Detroit) I found great pleasure in building a variety of houses with all the Legos in our house. Unfortunately for me, they were my little sister's Legos and not mine, so it did mean learning to share. Miniland was like my childhood dream come true. I don't know how long it took the master builders to create Miniland, but it was more than a little incredible. I honestly think I was more enthralled than my children, but they did enjoy pushing random buttons to make the different displays do things, including mini-water cannons, moving seals, and men fishing off of a pier.

From there it was Land of Adventure. We did our first real ride, "Lost Kingdom Adventure." We weren't sure what to expect, but it was definitely a game for Mommy and Daddy as opposed to the kids. Sitting in cars through the Egyptian tombs we got to shoot lazer guns at targets and try to get the highest score. L sat with me and hit nothing but really tried, E sat with my husband and pointed his gun but never actually pulled the trigger, and Mommy was happy because she got a higher score than Daddy. Then L was promised her very first roller coaster, the wooden coaster "Coastersaurus." This is where the drama started. Our kids got along great (they usually do) and worked well together on our trip to Legoland, but when E discovered that his sister got to go on the roller coaster with Daddy and he was stuck with Mommy he lost it. I think the entire park heard him lose it. I still don't think that my hearing has recovered. When he finally settled down long enough for me to have a conversation with him (because there is no reasoning with a crying, screaming, babbling two-year-old) he agreed to stand in line at the "Safari Trek." Less than five minutes later I got the person behind us in line to take this picture of him as I held him.

That's right. He was asleep. When Daddy and L returned from the roller coaster (the line was more like 10 minutes long as opposed to 45 minutes long) I handed him off. He still looked like this:

Of course by the time we got to the front of the line, he looked like this:

Apparently L really enjoyed her first experience on a roller coaster, until the second drop when her belly got pinched and she was hurt. It was an unfortunate incident that took some distraction to get her to stop whining, but she eventually got over it even though she didn't forget.

From there we ventured into Lego City in hopes that the kids would get to try driving cars at the "Ford Jr. Driving School." It's a great idea, but poorly executed. The bulk of the cars for the driving school are at the "Ford Driving School" for kids 6-12. The Junior version has fewer cars and usually only one attendant, and the attendant there yesterday was not in top physical condition to be working with small children to help them through the course. And that is putting it kindly. The advertised 15 minutes wait was more like an hour 15 minutes with two small children. Actually it was a long wait with a lot of other parents and their small children. It took out a huge chunk of our day and was irritating because we were trying to keep our children entertained in a line that was only supposed to take a couple minutes. When they finally got into the cars, a tired E struggled to figure out that he could push the pedal to go and while L got the hang of it eventually she did run into a couple curbs along the way, personally fulfilling the stereotype of woman drivers. In the end they enjoyed it, but I'm still not sure that it was worth the hour+ we stood in line. The rest of Lego City included the Rescue Academy (which involved Mommy and Daddy doing most of the work) and the Boating School. E and Daddy took forever to get around the course because Daddy let him do the driving and L let Mommy do the driving while she watched what was going on around the course.

From there we headed to Lego Kingdom with a stop back in Land of Adventure so the kids could play with balls at "Pharaoh's Revenge" and then straight to "The Dragon" so that L could try a roller coaster with Mommy that wasn't wooden and would hopefully not pinch her. By the end of the day, this kid friendly park had no waits for the lines so we got right through to the ride. This time we got through the roller coaster injury free and both of us got to have fun. When we exited, instead of getting to see our picture, E grabbed my hand and dragged me over to the foam swords and shields that he had found on display outside of the castle. He had it all figured out. He grabbed two of each, one for him and his sister, and insisted that he walk away with them. Apparently when Daddy told him that he had to ask Mommy about the swords E heard "Mommy will buy you the swords." We compromised. No shields and L got a pink sword instead of a matching dragon sword with E.

We ended the day with a water ride. The daytime temperatures were cooling off and I was hesitant. The situation brought back memories of a trip to Cedar Point the summer after my senior year of high school when we chose to go on a water ride as the Ohio weather turned from hot and sunny to cool and drizzly, but we went anyway. L had a blast, E got drenched right away and was sad for the rest of the ride (Daddy protected him from further drenching), and Mommy was just wet. As we exited the ride, the family looked like this:

I hate spending extra money, but we entered the full body dryers so we weren't quite so drenched, checked out the huge store at the front, and then headed back to the car. We were shocked that both kids stayed awake for the 50 minute drive back to the condo, but they were determined to not go back to sleep, even after their bellies were full from a Popeye's meal.

Overall, it was a good time. The ads are right; It is the perfect place when it comes to activities for ages 2-12. Duplo Village isn't open yet, which would have been an added bonus for our son, and the water park was also closed until next week, but we wouldn't have had time for that even if we had paid for it. My biggest problem with the park was the much longer than advertised wait at one stop with inadequate staff, to say the very least. While customer service may not match Disney (an unfortunate comparison in Orlando) our kids still had a wonderful experience and the price was right. All in all, it was a great vacation day and good way to break them into the theme park experience before Disney. Now to prepare for the Magic Kingdom!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Book Review - Allegiant

The third book in a trilogy is tricky. I've been reading a long time and I've read a lot of series and a lot of endings to series. For example, I love both Return of the King and Deathly Hallows. Both novels wrap ups series and characters that I grew to love over the course of reading all of the books. They conclude the series in a logical way while also giving the reader just enough information to believe that the characters one has grown to love have a fruitful future ahead of them. Life will not be perfect. life may not even be easy, but they have a future that will be more positive than negative. I remember my disappointment after finishing Mockingjay, the conclusion to the Hunger Games series. While not the greatest of literary achievements, I did enjoy the series. However, Mockingjay was a letdown after the action packed, character driven Catching Fire. I wanted to see where their story ended up, but it was kind of slow and predicable. I guess that's what happens when an author has a vision of the dystopia but he or she has to figure out how to get his or her characters out of the dystopian universe. Maybe that's what makes the ending to Orwell's 1984 so perfect. He doesn't let his protagonist out of the dystopia. The dystopia never ends. The dystopia wins. Winston is dead and has finally fully given himself to the ideology of "Big Brother."

It is with those thoughts that I begin my review of Allegiant. Like the other books, I enjoyed it. Possibly more than Divergent, but not as much as Insurgent. At the end of Insurgent the reason for the Chicago colony is revealed, as well as a possible answer to what is outside of the city. At the beginning of Allegiant, Tris, Tobias, and a handful of others rebel against Tobias's mother and leave the city to discover what is truly outside. What they discover is a high tech community stationed at the former O'Hare Airport that has the responsibility of overseeing the activity inside Chicago. It is a modern society that has continued outside of the city. A society where "divergence" is the desired norm. Where "divergence" indicates genetic healing. Many years before scientists attempted to correct the ills of society by playing with genes correcting their mistakes as they went along. What resulted was generations of "Genetically Damaged" individuals. In the "Purity Wars" that followed, pitting "Genetically Damaged" (GD) against "Genetically Pure" (GP), society finally determined that GDs needed to be separated from society in city experiments that would wait to see what would happen to the gene pool if people were left alone long enough to correct the genetic problems that scientists had caused.

A lot happens in the final book and I do not want to reveal too much. It is good but not great. Characters die but I didn't mourn their deaths. I just didn't care enough. There are many twists, but the twists are not completely unexpected even if I didn't predict them. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out on film in the next couple years, and I suppose I should be happy that Tris, while not necessarily a role model I would want my daughter to follow, is certainly a much stronger female character than we are finding in other popular teen fiction.

In many ways I feel that the dystopian genre is starting to suffer a decline due to mainstream marketing. One of the first books of the new era, at least for young adults, was The Giver. I loved the book. I loved teaching the book. I feel it has important themes that children and young adults can discuss. That is the purpose of dystopian fiction, and perhaps it is the purist in me, but I feel that the misfortune of these current mainstream books is that the central message is being lost in favor of romance and action.

Overall the series is a good story with decent writing. I don't believe that is should become mainstream classroom reading, as there are plenty of other choices out there that are better writing and more thought provoking, but the series does make one consider what the end result could be if we continue to insist on playing with genes in the quest to fix our imperfections. Where is the line? And what will happen if or when we cross it? Unlike more serious classics in the genre, I believe the series is more interested in exploring teen relationships and coming of age than it is the greater issues I alluded to above. I believe that the best dystopian fiction is meant to scare us and force us to think about very real current societal issues. I guess I'm just waiting for something that will not just entertain me but challenge me to think about the future. Until then, I'll just have to unhappily settle for ok.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Zombies and Steinbeck Collide

I am not a fan of horror fiction. As a child and pre-teen I didn't get into the Goosebumps series or Christopher Pike books. I like mysteries, but I still don't like horror films. I can handle a good psychological thriller (like Silence of the Lambs) but I hate slasher films. They are gross, purposelessly violent, and make me afraid of the dark. To this day I still have not seen any of the Friday the 13th films or any related to that genre from my childhood. The closest I have come is seeing Gremlins, and let's be honest, that is child's play next to Chucky.

But I love fiction that speculates on what could be. Fiction that looks at our sinful human nature and explores what would happen in the face of any kind of worldwide disaster. So when a new show was being advertised during the early seasons of Mad Men, my husband encouraged me to watch. I have never liked zombie fiction, but within the first couple episodes of The Walking Dead I was hooked. It wasn't the zombies. It was the human struggle for survival, a theme that I love to explore as both a reader and a teacher. A theme that was a favorite of John Steinbeck's. And a theme that runs through one of my favorite books to teach, Of Mice and Men.

Last night, my love of The Walking Dead and Of Mice and Men violently collided in such a way that I was left going to bed emotionally distraught.

I have taught Of Mice and Men nearly ever year of my teaching career and I reread it every year that I teach it. It follows Lennie, a large man with a low IQ who approaches the world with a childlike innocence wrapped in a dangerously large and strong adult body, and George, a quick, intelligent man who simultaneously tolerates and cares for Lennie. They are migrant workers who travel from ranch to ranch, earning money and dreaming of a time when they will have a farm of their own. Lennie believes in the dream. He believes that someday they will have a farm and he will have his very own rabbits that will be his responsibility. He will be able to pet them and love them and no one will stop him. But the dream is a mirage designed to keep a Great Depression induced desperation at bay. Lennie is too loving, too unaware of his own strength. We first see him kill mice because he is too rough with them while he pets their soft skin. Then we see him kill a puppy when his rough handling causes the puppy to bite him and Lennie to inadvertently kills the puppy with his bare hands. Finally we see him pet Curly's wife's hair so hard that it panics her. Her panic causes him to fearfully overreact, resulting in her snapped neck. Curly vows a painful revenge and George takes off to find Lennie before the other ranch hands can hurt him. When George finds him, he has Lennie look off into the distance while George recounts their dream and shoots Lennie in the head before Curly can torture the gentle giant to death. The ending is moving and terrible and shocking and leaves me reeling every time.

It is one of my favorite novels to teach, mostly because in 100 pages Steinbeck is able to evoke a rare, strong reaction from my students. They love Lennie and can't understand why George would kill his friend. I teach in a Christian culture that celebrates the sanctity of life, and in that setting the novel brings up a powerful discussion of the value of life. It challenges my students (and me) to consider what makes life valuable. My students want to know why George couldn't just help Lennie escape, all the while remembering that Lennie has proven that he is a danger to himself and others. They also have to ask themselves if it is better for George to kill Lennie as opposed to letting the sadistic Curly torture and kill him. The answer is never easy, and we often leave the discussion without an absolute conclusion, but they love to hate the book that sucked them in and left them distraught.

Last night's grotesquely beautiful re-rendering of Steinbeck's classic tale was also moving and terrible and shocking. But the difference is that while Lennie operates with a childlike innocence, Lizzie operates with a sociopathic ignorance. Lennie plays with mice and accidentally kills them as he pets them. Lizzie finds rats so that she can feed them to zombies that she believes are actually still alive. Lenny kills the puppy because he doesn't know his strength. Lizzie tortures and kills rabbits (an animal with which Lennie is obsessed) for fun. Lennie accidentally kills Curly's wife out of fear that he will have his dream of rabbits taken away. Lizzie kills her sister because she mistakenly believes that it is the only way to prove to Carol and Tyrese that the "walkers" are not as dangerous as everyone believes. Lennie tells George that he has done a bad thing. Lizzie apologizes, not for killing her innocent little sister, but for pointing a gun at Carol when Carol tries to take care of Mika's body. When Carol tells Lizzie to look at the flowers as Carol tearfully raises her gun, she is not killing an innocent. She is killing a child killer with no awareness that she has done anything wrong.

In the last 24 hours the blogosphere has exploded. The Internet is abuzz with fans and foes alike debating last night's episode. Did they go to far? Did it come from nowhere? Why, with two episodes left, did they go there?

Was I shocked? Yes. Am I distraught? Yes. I understand that these are fictional characters with fictional lives but it was difficult to watch. It was difficult for me to watch as a fan and as a mother. Do I feel they went too far? No.

I struggle with Lennie's death because in 100 pages I learn again and again to love the man-child whose only dream is to live off "the fat o' the lan'." I struggle with Lizzie's death because I hate to see her executioner suffer the death of the dream that she could save two girls to replace the daughter she lost. The moment Carol pulls the trigger she has to trade one dream for a new one. Lizzie destroyed any hope she and Mika had for survival in this post-apocalyptic world. Carol understands that things happen for a reason, a belief that Mika reiterates as they find the house in the middle of the woods, unknowingly foreshadowing her own death. Now Carol has to hope that she can do better for Judith. She couldn't save her own daughter. She couldn't save two girls who, for different reasons, were not made for this life. But maybe she can save Lori's daughter. A little girl born into this world. In Of Mice and Men George must walk away from his friend's body while being reminded by Slim that he "hadda." There is no chance for personal redemption and forgiveness for George, just more of the same as he wanders from one ranch to the next, only now without a companion who keeps the dream alive. But Carol has one more chance to do it right, and I look forward to watching her do it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Snow, Snow, Go Away, So I Can Teach a Full Five Days

No, we have not brought in the nativity.
Poor Joseph is just praying that he will see his family again.
 I am a California baby who has spent her entire academic career in the northern half of the United States. I fondly remember those rare snow days in Detroit, MI. Snow was far from a rarity, but those snow days in the city were a treat. There was one Valentine's Day party that got completely skipped, which was probably a good thing since the Valentine's Day cards my mom had ordered from Current hadn't arrived in time for the scheduled party. We built snowmen and forts and dug through the snow fully decked out in poofy snow pants and boots. Then we moved to Illinois where we experienced more of the same kind of weather, although maybe with a little less of the hardy Michigan attitude toward snow. Then came five years in Wyoming where days off of school for snow were rare. Our first year there it hit -40 degrees the week before Christmas and we still went to school. One May it snowed every Saturday and then melted by the following Tuesday before starting all over again the next weekend. I honestly don't remember snow days during those years. I'm sure we had a couple, but when you live surrounded by snowy mountain ranges I guess it's hard to justify calling off school for cold and snow. Then my last two years in Michigan led to more of the same. Lots of snow but rare snow days. Our school district was in a constant game of chicken with our local district rival. I remember senior year my dad laughing when the radio announcer said that hell had frozen over; both districts had finally caved and closed. My entire K-12 education I faced the possibility of snow days and was frequently enough treated with those special days off from the daily grind of school work. This was in an age before text alerts. We had to wait for the television or radio announcers to let us know that we were closed. But once we heard the announcement it meant a day of no school work and all play.

Then I got to college in Nebraska, a state that vacillates between bitterly cold and unseasonably warm all winter long. My freshman year we had our first snowfall of the year the week before Halloween and my floor had an epic snowball fight with our brother freshman floor. Four months later a late winter snowstorm followed me home to Michigan at the beginning of my spring break and left me snowed in for several days. In college we didn't get snow days. We lived on campus and the belief was that we could walk through the snow to get to class. Cold didn't matter either. It was up to us to dress warmly enough to get across campus without getting frostbite.

Then I started teaching. First the far south side of Chicago, then Central Indiana, and now Northeast Indiana. I have always taught in the cold. I have always had the possibility of snow days, and usually those snow days have been welcome relief. Surprise days off during which I could do laundry, clean, grade homework, do a little extra lesson planning, and once the roads were clear, have a little "me" time. I even got treated to a rare snow day our first year living here when I was working as a TA and going to school full time. The teacher and the student got a snow day and because it was a snow emergency I got to spend the day at home with my husband (who also got a state mandated snow day from work) and our little girl. Northeast Indiana also brought on the regular occurrence of two-hour delays, and new phenomenon in my teaching career. I experienced them on occasion living in Central Indiana; these special mornings are called for everything from fog to ice to freshly fallen snow to extreme cold. And in our county, they are called regularly.

I love the snow. I love snow days. I appreciate the extra morning time of a two-hour delay. But I am one of many who are saying "Enough is enough."

This winter has been a rare winter. I heard a forecast of a bad winter, but back in November I didn't believe it. It was unseasonably warm and we hadn't seen a real snowfall yet.

Then December hit with full force.

It isn't just that it's been snowy or cold. It's been snowy and icy and COLD. We're now to the point where we're running out of places to put the snow and the roads are constantly icy in places because it hasn't gotten warm enough to completely melt the ice that keeps forming. I want to send my kids, especially my very energetic two and a half year old little boy, outside to play, but to send him outside means to risk frostbite or seeing him get swallowed by the foot and a half plus of snow in our backyard.

Yeah, this is just the snow off of our deck.
Straight snow build-up from a month and a half of no snow melt.

And then there is the fact that this winter is seriously interfering with my job.

If you know me well you know that I love teaching. It is my professional calling and I take my responsibility as a teacher of young adults very seriously. We were supposed to be back at school January 7. We haven't had a single full week of school since our second semester started and while I might see my students every single day this week, we are on our second two-hour delay in a row. It has almost become a social media game in which my colleagues and I watch the school closings and delays being announced on the television and then start taking Facebook bets as to when we are going to be next ones to fall. We watch the public schools close and then hold our breaths to see how long the Catholic schools will hold out. Once they fall we know that we are doomed. Many of us have resorted to handing out assignments before potential snow days and expecting our students to complete them on their days off. My AP students have come to expect (and probably dread) emails from me with assignments on their days off. We have been in school for four weeks but have no learning momentum, no consistency. I want my routine back. I am tired of changing lesson plans every day. I am tired of cutting plans and important learning activities short. And I miss my students.

My dear husband, who loves the snow and has excitedly used every snow fall since January as an excuse to use his new snow blower, says that if he hears one more person say they are done with this winter and the snow that he might lose it. Why? Because he is loving this winter. He is loving all of the snow. And he doesn't want to see it all melt yet, especially if it contributes to a flood of Biblical proportions, which appears to be very likely. But I am done with this winter. It's time for a regular routine again. It is time for me to be allowed to teach without a middle of the week interruption or a shortened period during which I am forced to cram a 50 minute lesson into 30 minutes.

It has been a beautiful winter. When I look out our front or back windows I see a beautiful, thick blanket of white snow. It is truly gorgeous and evidence that God has a sense of humor when it comes to weather. It's hard to be mad when I am inside looking out at the best winter wonderland that I've seen in years. But I am ready for spring and the return of "normal." Anyone else?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Climate Change or Not? Does It Really Matter?

Here in the Midwest we are currently enduring the worst winter that I remember in 34 years. Sure, I've endured cold winters and I've endured snowy winters, but this winter takes the cake. Technically I have been back at school for 16 days. I have worked nine out of those 16 days because of snow/ice/cold days. We've heard about about the polar vortex, we've witnessed the weather reporters shivering in the cold all around the Midwest and Northeast, and we've seen the photos and memes advertising just how cold it is outside. With the last two days off of school I have stayed at home with my two young children, making the decision to not take them out into the cold to daycare. Yes, this winter appears to be quite the phenomenon. And it's not just because of the weather outside of our houses.

For years there has been a lot of discussion in the scientific community concerning first "global warming" and now "climate change." The argument is that the earth is warming due to greenhouse gasses produced by world wide pollution. Much has been made of this suggestion. Al Gore made a lot of money off of An Inconvenient Truth while several conservative pundits have pulled together their own "experts" to prove that there is no such thing as man-made global climate change. This winter's weather has given the latter a lot of ammunition for arguing against man-made global climate change. After all, how can one argue that the earth is getting considerably warmer when it feels like Dante's last circle of Hell outside?

But my response to all the bickering is, does it matter?

At creation God gave us ONE planet, ONE home on which to grow families, communities, cities, and countries. That's it. Until death and eternity we have ONE place to live. So shouldn't we take care of it regardless of whether or not we believe the temperature of the earth is increasing due to human pollution?

Clearly, my response to this question is a resounding yes.

I get it. We are Americans. We like our personal liberties. We like to be left to make our own decisions. We don't want people telling us what we can and cannot do. It goes all the way back the Revolution. But at some point common sense should prevail. If something will save money while at the same decreasing fuel and power usage and as a result decrease pollution and destruction of our earthly home, why not do it?

In our home we started moving to CFL and LED lights years ago. I realize that there are many who cannot handle CFLs because of migraines, but for us the switch has been good, especially in a house with a lot of lights. If we could afford solar panels we would buy them to get as much off of the grid as possible. We have a truck but are excited to find out what the new F150 holds with better gas mileage, and we will switch a more efficient sedan when our kids no longer need the space of an SUV. We recycle everything we can. And our favorite vacations involve camping and taking our kids out into nature to see God's creation. We want them to appreciate the world around them. We want to teach them how to take care of their earthly home. We want them to understand that until they are in heaven, this is what they have so they should take care of it.

This is a big world. There are a lot of countries that have both a negative and positive impact on our worldwide environment. And while some national laws may be extreme and have an negative impact on certain sectors of our economy, common sense must prevail. We have to stop looking at each other as adversaries. If we are more focused on how we can clean up our earthly home and keep it clean we all benefit. It needs to stop being about whether man-made "global climate change" is real and start being about preserving the beautiful world we live in for our children and grandchildren. We need to stop making discussion of environmental issues about national politics and make it about doing the right thing for us and the generations to come. This is just one place of many where we need more common sense, but it's a place to start.