Monday, August 30, 2010

First Day

Somewhere in between Maren starting full-day preschool at the Montessori school two weeks ago, Bryce and Annie starting fifth and fourth grades at their respective elementary schools, and me starting both teaching and going to class tomorrow, this beautiful thing happened...

It's not a great picture (I'm the "this is old hat" mom, on her third kid, who forgot the camera and shot a single photo with her phone this morning. There were many, many moms frenetically snapping pictures through their tears, but I was not among them). He's so much cuter than he looks here, through my smudged lens, but you can tell through the bad-quality photo that he's confident and ready to be here.

At least one of us feels that way. I sure do love this little guy, and I'm so glad that he's a kindergartener, running on the playground right alongside his friends, walking to and from school with his big brother.

Hobble Creek Half Marathon Race Report

I ran this race last weekend, but just got around to writing the report. If you saw the cryptic message of 1:27:03 showing up on my facebook status last week, here's the back story.

We had a busy day on Friday. We took the kids on the Heber Creeper, then went rafting on the Provo River, then had shakes at Granny's, then rode the chair lift up at Sundance, then had dinner at Brick Oven. With a belly full of pizza and milkshake, I fell asleep alongside Maren at about 9pm.

We spent the night at my IL's cabin in Hobble Creek Canyon, and the race ran right past the entrance to their neighborhood. So I was able to wake up relatively late (5!), ride down the canyon, and hop on a bus. By the time I made it up there, some of my running group arrived and we shivered and hopped as the sun rose too high while we waited for the race to begin. I saw Sheree and was really happy to see her. There are five or six "fast girls" in my running group, and four of us were running the race, and we all decided to head out together (with our coach) in hopes of finishing in the 1:30 range. Coach and I ran side-by-side, and the other three girls weren't far behind.

The first seven or eight miles of the race were really fun-- fast, cool and easy with the downhill. But I knew when the race started late that it was going to get hot, and it did around mile 8. Then it became a matter of enduring. I knew I was slowing down a little bit (my first four miles were all in the 6:20 range) but the key was not to slow down too much before the finish.

Finally, I saw the sign indicating the last half mile. It felt like it lasted forever. I could see what I thought was the finish line. But it wasn't it. Then I spotted something further down the road that looked like it, but it wasn't it either. Finally, I turned a corner and ran in. The time said just under 1:27 as I started through the finisher's chute, and I crossed the line at 1:27:03. Although I'd lost my girlfriends around mile 5 and my coach around mile 8, one of the girls had saved a lot for her finish and came in about 5 seconds behind me. We stood on the sidelines and cheered in the people in our group until everyone finished.

Then I jumped back in my car and drove to the cabin, where my mom was waiting for me so she could do her workout. While I was gone, she walked 60 times around my IL's cabin, and was depressed to discover that each lap was only 227 feet. I grabbed a calculator as she walked out the door, but wasn't able to catch her in time to tell her that she'd actually walked 3 miles! She didn't come back until she'd walked six more, and by now it was the heat of midday. She'd never hiked the Y before, and she wanted to do it (and we'd told the kids we would), so after she showered, we drove to Provo, where I strapped Maren and a lot of water into my backpack, and we spent the next hour and a half sweating our way up and down Y mountain. Honestly, I'm not sure if running the race or wearing a 3 1/2-year-old up the side of a mountain in 90+ degree weather was harder. The kids were all troupers, and we rewarded them with a late lunch at the Creamery, where I ate every bit of my cheeseburger, fries, and ice cream sundae.

When I got home, I had texts from friends in my group letting me know that I'd placed 1st in my age group and had won a plaque and a pair of socks! (LOL!). The race was a 5 minute PR for me, and my overall pace was 6:39/mile.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book #97: Quotidiana

QuotidianaTitle: Quotidiana
Author: Patrick Madden

In my pre-parental years, I was an excellent student. I never missed a reading assignment, handed things in on time, and usually had relevant things to add to class discussion. I haven't been a full-time student since before Bryce was born, so going back to class in two days (to teach and to learn) is going to be a new experience. I'm nervous. So I'm falling back on my old habits while I still can, and trying to prepare myself as well as I can. One of the ways I decided to prepare for my Creative Nonfiction workshop with Patrick Madden was to read his recently-released book of personal essays, Quotidiana. I figured that I'd get some insight into Madden's life and what he might want out of us for the course by reading his essays. It's kind of weird going into this class feeling like I know a lot about him, while he knows nothing at all about me. 

After reading Quotidiana, I feel like the class is going to be more challenging than I expected, but also more interesting and rewarding. Madden, who studied physics at Notre Dame as an undergraduate, and who peppers his essays with quotations from famous essayists, Latin phrases, and mathematical equations, isn't writing in the "I'm trying to get out my feelings as a stay-at-home mom" vein that most of the work I've written, read and edited over the last few years comes from. Honestly, when I read Madden's essays closely they were brilliant and insightful and very roundabout (he'd throw something out there that seemed extraneous, then come back to it five pages later), but they required a lot more of me than I was prepared to give, reading them for fun and in a series in my bed on a Sunday morning. These essays are more like poetry-- they deserve to be read singly, with time to ponder them. But I'm accustomed to reading novels, and it's hard for me to take a break and think once I come to the end of a chapter/essay. In that regard, I feel like I have a lot to learn. I definitely know I'm going to be challenged by Patrick Madden this semester, but I also feel that I'll be a better writer for it.

Book #96: "Shut Up!" He Explained

Title: "Shut Up!" He Explained: A Writer's Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue
Author: William Noble

I read "Shut Up" He Explained in preparation for the Young Adult Novel workshop I'm taking this fall as part of my MFA in Creative Writing program at BYU (didn't know I was doing that? Well, I am, I guess, but I'm not sure yet how I'm going to balance it all). Anyway, part of the course requirements is to write a young adult novel. I know, I can hardly believe it either-- in three and a half months I'll have a novel written. I'm not sure that it will be a good novel, but hey, I'm a beginner. I had to submit part of a draft earlier this spring and said during a conference that one of the things I was struggling with the most was writing dialogue, so my professor, Chris Crowe, suggested that I read this book.

Although the book is old (published in 1987) and likely out of print, it did have great advice for a beginner like me about writing dialogue. Noble talks about when to use dialogue (for character development, to move along the plot, etc...) and also how to use dialogue effectively (when to use "he said," for example, instead of "he exclaimed," and allowing the words the character speaks to establish tone and stuff like that). It's a pretty short book, and well-organized enough that I feel like I can use it as a resource to return to when I'm in the nitty-gritty of writing and need a place to turn to help me use dialogue to foreshadow, or how to incorporate dialect into my dialogue.

Book #95: Devil's Food Cake

Devil's Food Cake: A Culinary MysteryTitle: Devil's Food Cake: A Culinary Mystery
Author: Josi S. Kilpack

First of all, I'm going to show my prejudice here as the daughter of a foodie, as a girl who was raised to know the difference between Valrhona and Ghirardelli, as a woman who (almost) always has homemade hot fudge in her refrigerator and would only resort to using Mrs. Richardson's in an emergency (and who thinks that Smucker's hot fudge belongs in outer darkness along with canned frosting). I'm skeptical of the recipes Josi Kilpack includes as Sadie's recipes in Devil's Food Cake (her fancy "French Chocolate" recipe includes a jar of Mrs. Richardson's, but everyone knows that cheap hot fudge negates the influence of all of the good ingredients in that recipe), and therefore I have a hard time trusting Sadie superlatives, whether related to food or to tracking down murderers in the middle of the night.

There's nothing exactly wrong with Sadie's recipes. I'm sure they're tasty and rib-sticking, but they're not the gourmet showstoppers Sadie passes them off as being. I do admit to being very curious about her Evil Chicken, although perhaps not curious enough to actually try making it. Maybe this is intentional on Kilpack's part, to characterize Sadie as a small-town woman with big ambitions, but I can't really tell. I do think they're probably appropriate for the "cozies" genre, fluffy and not too difficult to digest.

That aside, I think there are a number of things that do well in Devil's Food Cake. She closely follows the unities-- the book takes place over the course of about 18 hours (most of it through the night-- a wild ride for a fifty-something retired schoolteacher), in a single town, and with a single focus. Sadie's character also made me laugh, but sometimes I can't tell if I'm laughing at her or laughing with her. Kilpack paints her as the kind of woman who would do a great job with a class of fourth graders or heading up a dinner committee, but I can't help but seeing her as more meddlesome than helpful when she involves herself in murder investigations. I felt it more in this book than in Lemon Tart, because in Devil's Food Cake she solves the murder only inadvertently, when the murderer shows up to off her and she manages to get away.

All in all, I'd say the book is enjoyable, but not great. I'll pass it along to my mom, who appreciates the genre more than I do, and seems to fit the intended audience demographic better than I do, but who will undoubtedly scoff at Sadie's choice of chocolate.

Book #94: Columbine

ColumbineTitle: Columbine
Author: Dave Cullen

This probably wasn't the best book for us to listen to on our family car trip to Mesa Verde a few weeks ago. It would have been a great book if there had only been adults in the car, but when you're reading a nonfiction book about psychopathic and depressive teenagers who turn into mass-murderers, you can probably be fairly well assured that what you read won't be appropriate for the five-year-old in the back seat.

We should have turned the book off, but we were too engrossed. Readers have compared Columbine to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and I think the comparison really works. Columbine is the story of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School near Denver, and specifically the story of the motivations of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters who killed twelve students and a teacher and injured many more. In the years Cullen spent researching and constructing the book, he gained access to journals and videotapes from Eric and Dylan, interviews from most of the survivors and many of the relatives of the fallen, and was able to create a novelistic portrait of the events of April 20th, as well as the years leading up to and following that day.

Columbine is an intense book. It was eventually too intense to listen to with our kids in the car, and as I've listened to it in bits and pieces since, I've learned to pace myself. Listening to it for an hour down to Provo and an hour back as I went to training this week proved too much, but listening for half an hour was okay. It's hard to hear about how children can turn into murderers, and I found that the characters I felt the most identification with and sorrow for (see, Cullen paints them so clearly that they seem like characters) were Tom and Sue Klebold and Wayne and Kathy Harris, parents who tried hard to raise their boys right and didn't realize how troubled they were.

Book #93: The Magician's Book

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in NarniaTitle: The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia
Author: Laura Miller

I can't tell you how long it took me to finish The Magician's Book. I bought it early in the spring, when Miller appeared on RadioWest here in Salt Lake City, and I felt intrigued enough by Miller's interactions with C. S. Lewis's Narnia books to download it to my phone (it was before I had the Kindle). I read the first chapter, and the book wasn't what I expected. I'd thought it was going to be a memoir, guided mainly by Miller's personal experiences in Narnia, and I loved the idea of reading a book about how a single literary series could shape a childhood. In the early chapters, I got some of that. Miller wrote about how a teacher influenced her to start reading, and how she read the books over and over from the time she was about eight until she reached her early teens. Then, when she was an adult, she got wind of the Christian symbolism in the books and felt betrayed, but gradually came back to appreciating them. I thought that was enough for an entire story. But apparently Miller didn't, and the book quickly morphed into a study of Lewis's life and influences, and in later chapters, segued over to Tolkien and his friendship with Lewis and how the Narnia books differed from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Frankly, if I'd known I was buying a bio of C. S. Lewis, I would have bought Surprised by Joy instead. At least that's a memoir. This book felt like it didn't know what it was-- was it a memoir of Miller's experience, a bio of Lewis or scholarly articles about Lewis and Tolkien? I was never sure. I can appreciate genre-busting at times, but it didn't really work here. If I had taken the book out of the library, I would have returned it after several chapters. But I paid $10 for this book, so I was determined to get my money's worth. As it was, I skimmed the last few chapters, which seemed to go on forever. If you want to read about Narnia, go to the primary source.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book #92: The Case of the Missing Servant

The Case of the Missing Servant: A Vish Puri Mystery (Vish Puri Mysteries)Title: The Case of the Missing Servant: A Vish Puri Mystery
Author: Tarquin Hall

If you like Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books but are tiring of Botswana or Precious Ramotswe, the tireless "traditionally-built" detective, then follow Tarquin Hall to India, where Vish Puri, also a little on the chubby side, sneaking pakoras on the sly, solves similar sorts of stories, with a colorful cast of characters and a Brit's perspective on a former colony. I like Alexander McCall Smith's books when I'm in the mood for a light read, and I eventually determined that Hall's book was similarly entertaining and not too challenging. I've enjoyed most of the books I've read that are set in an India that is changing and modernizing so quickly, and found Delhi to be the most engaging character in Hall's novel.

Book #91: Innocent

InnocentTitle: Innocent
Author: Scott Turow

More than twenty years have passed since Rusty Sabich's trial for the murder of Carolyn Polhemus ended with him getting freedom... of a sort. For the last twenty years, he's lived with the knowledge that his wife, Barbara, was both mentally unstable and capable of murder. And for the last twenty years, Sabich has advanced his career (he's now a judge, running for State Supreme Court, or something of that ilk), while Tommy Molto has worked to redeem himself after his thrashing during the first trial. Rusty's also done a good job of staying on the straight and narrow with other women, because the only time he had an affair things ended very badly.

Eventually Rusty finds himself in the arms and bed of Anna Vostic, his law clerk. After a few months, his responsibility for Barbara outweighs his passion for Anna, but keeping a secret from Barbara proves as impossible in 2007 as it was in 1987, and he soon finds himself on trial for murder once more, facing Tommy Molto again as his prosecutor.

While Presumed Innocent was a good whodunit, with impressive courtroom scenes, Innocent feels more domestic in nature. Turow spends significant amounts of time exploring complicated marriages, relationships between parents and children, remote older men, and finding love late in life (Tommy Molto is married! With babies!) In that sense, I enjoyed the book more. While the mystery, given the events of the previous book, wasn't all that mysterious, probing the whys of the mystery gives readers a lot to think about.

Book #90: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of SarajevoTitle: The Cellist of Sarajevo
Author: Steven Galloway

I added The Cellist of Sarajevo to my Kindle on recommendation from Melissa at Gerbera Daisy Diaries, who said it was one of the best books she's read recently, and she's read a lot. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I didn't know much of the back story of the conflict that rendered Sarajevo a war zone in the mid-90s, and had certainly never heard of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who honored the 22 people killed in a bread line in 1992 by playing his cello in the spot of the massacre every day for 22 days, despite the fact that his life was constantly in danger from snipers. I read most of the novel yesterday on our drive from Salt Lake to Moab, where internet access is spotty, so I wasn't able to educate myself about the story until I was almost done with it.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a beautifully-written, short, spare novel. Galloway tells the story of four or five of the residents of Sarajevo during the siege (Galloway compresses the siege, which really lasted almost four years, into the span of a few months for the sake of the story), and captures their fear, their despair, their cowardice, their bravery, and ultimately their hope. Although the story was definitely changed for the sake of the novel, it, like other great fictionalized accounts of historical people and events (think A Beautiful Mind) captured the essence of what life was like during the siege. Interestingly enough, Smailovic was not happy about his portrayal in the book and demanded compensation from Galloway.

Book #89: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A NovelTitle: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender

Rose Edelstein has a gift. Or a curse. It's hard to tell which. She can taste the emotional state of the person who has cooked the food she eats. She's able to sense her mother's depression, and later her extramarital affair, by what she serves the family for dinner. She never knows whether she'll be elevated or crushed by her meals, so she learns to rely on prepackaged, factory-made meals, which taste less like emotion and more like cardboard. Rose eventually learns that she's not the only one in her family with unusual powers. Her father's intense fear of hospitals seems to stem from his belief that "something will happen to him" if he goes there. And Rose's brilliant older brother gets absorbed, literally, by the "gifts" he possesses.

I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of magical realism as a genre. I think that Bender gives us adequate knowledge that things aren't always what they seem, since Rose's "gifts" become apparent in the first chapter of the book, but everyone else in the novel seems so normal, that just seems like a personality quirk. I expected the story to end with Rose finding a way to resolve her gifts with her ambitions, but it moved to a completely different place, and the ending felt unsatisfying. I liked the premise, but wish that Bender had gone in a different direction with the plot.

Book #88: Presumed Innocent

Presumed InnocentTitle: Presumed Innocent
Author: Scott Turow

Eddie read Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent at what must have been a formative time in his life, because more than 20 years later, he still remembers details of the story that are hazy for me a week after finishing the audiobook. There are some definite gaps in my cultural literacy, and until I ordered both Presumed Innocent and the long-awaited sequel Innocent for my iPod a few weeks ago, this was one of the glaring holes. If you, like me, were a preteenager when the book was originally released, then you may not know that Presumed Innocent details the story of prosecuting attorney Rusty Sabich, is put on trial by his former colleagues for the death of a former colleague. Did Sabich kill Carolyn Polhemus, an attorney in the office with whom he, and several other guys at work, were sleeping? Is the case a vendetta for political and personal reasons, or is there reasonable doubt? Most importantly, did Rusty do it?

I really enjoyed listening to Presumed Innocent. The narrator, Edward Herrmann, read the story well without being annoying or doing weird things with his voice. The story is also suspenseful and intelligent, but relatively easy to follow. If I had to stop for a second to help a kid or say hi to a neighbor while I was out running, it wasn't too hard for me to pick up the story. I'd compare it to a smart John Grisham story of the early days, but I guess that it predated those good early Grishams (weirdly enough). The only thing that sticks out a week later that bugged me about the story is that it was set in the fictional Kindle County. It's fairly obvious even to the uninitiated that Kindle County is Chicago, but I don't understand exactly why he didn't just set the book in Chicago. I breezed through the 16 hours of the story in a few days, and immediately plunged into Innocent, so that testifies to its readability and the strength of the story.

Book #87: Medium Raw

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who CookTitle: Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
Author: Anthony Bourdain

I like Anthony Bourdain. I enjoyed his first memoir, Kitchen Confidential, when I picked it up a few years ago, and No Reservations has been my laundry-folding Netflix show of choice lately. I like watching him stroll the streets of the world's cities, eating weird things, and looking like he doesn't have a care in the world. Here's a guy who will eat things like raw seal meat and the intestines and genitalia of just about anything, but in Medium Raw, he talks about his biggest food fear-- the Chicken McNugget.

I'll admit to feeling a little bit defensive when I read Bourdain's passages in which he gleefully brainwashes his preschool-age daughter into believing that Ronald McDonald abducts children and smells bad. For someone who gained his cred eating anything and everything, who didn't even have health insurance until a decade or so ago, he certainly seems to have adjusted to life on the Upper East Side pretty quickly. Seriously-- he can poison his body with all kinds of drugs and alcohol and consume multitudes of weird stuff, but the very thought of his precious baby eating a chicken nugget has him quaking in his boots? Gag me.

Other than that, I found the book fairly typical (which means good) Bourdain fare. I enjoyed the stories about people he's met and worked with in the food world, even those I don't know much about. I also loved hearing about his family. My favorite chapter was the food porn chapter-- it made me want to travel the world, or at least stray a little further than the familiar Wendy's (or McDonalds-- the horror!) the next time I take a road trip.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The dog days

When we lived in Texas, I had a visiting teaching companion who spent her summers fretting over the fact that, come August, she'd have to send her girls back to school. She loved being with her daughters, and it stressed her out to put them in the hands of the public schools for seven hours a day. I had a lot in common with this friend-- we were both married to cardiology fellows and had four kids and had lived in the same town before moving to Houston, but I always felt a little bit guilty that I didn't share her ardor for summers with my kids.

Bryce and Annie go back to school on August 23rd-- that's 18 days from today, and I cannot wait. While I always think that I'll enjoy the laid-back days of summer, the popsicles, and the long afternoons reading-- the truth is that popsicles inevitably melt into red puddles on the table, the floor or the back porch, the kids beg for their reading "time-outs" (Bryce calls it the "hour of pain") to be over, and I just don't do laid-back.

I'm a much better mom when there's structure-- when I can say, "You must be in bed at 8:30 tonight because you have school tomorrow" and when I can use piano and swimming lessons as the reason why they can't have play dates after school. I'm more patient when I can escape to my bedroom for 30 minutes after lunch to read and I know that no one will be up there jumping on the squeaky bed, watching iCarly or playing a DS. They're awake before I finish my morning run, often still awake by the time I fall, exhausted, into my bed, and frequently crawl into my bed at night. I want a few hours with no responsibilities, no tattling, no requests for grape juice in a sippy, no Moose A Moose, no elaborate schemes for lemonade stands, no pseudo-swearing from my ten-year-old, no popcorn on the couch, none of the extra laundry running through the sprinkler provides, no taking everyone to the grocery store, no "I'm bored"s.

When I had three toddlers, I often felt crazy. Not just overwhelmed or tired, but insane. They were omnipresent, like a burr I couldn't shake off my sock. Now they're bigger, and during the school year, I approach a feeling of competence and sanity with Isaac and Maren around. When Maren started her hour and a half of preschool twice a week this winter, I even got three whole hours of time to myself each week. It wasn't much, but it was enough. But the summers still depress me. Isaac starts kindergarten on August 30th, and instead of feeling nostalgic about him growing up, I'll push him out the door to join his brother and sister in the big wide world.

Mostly, I want an hour or two of silence and NO ONE TOUCHING ME. No ambient sounds of video games or older brothers torturing younger sisters, no Phineas and Ferb providing the soundtrack of my life. The sad thing is, I'd probably fall stone cold asleep. Or else I'd miss them.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Monica's Closet

If you, like me, came home from college classes and sacked out in front of reruns of Friends, you probably understand the title of this post. If not, let me explain: the "Friends" usually hung out at Monica's apartment (when they weren't at Central Perk, the downstairs coffee shop). Monica's apartment was obsessively neat. When Joey and Chandler really wanted to mess with her, they'd do things like shift a picture frame an inch to the right and watch her self-destruct. In her apartment, she had a locked closet in the hallway. Everyone wondered what she kept in there. Ski gear? Out-of-season clothes? Sex toys? Dead bodies? Finally, the Friends found a way to get into the closet, only to find that it was just a jumbled mess-- a spot for her to stuff all the junk that didn't have a place in her obsessively-organized life. She could throw it in there, lock the door, and forget it existed.

There's a Monica Closet in my house too (more accurately, it's behind the house). I'm pretty good at faking neatness and organization in most of my spaces (don't look too closely in my kids' clothes drawers), but my garage is an absolute disaster. There are cardboard boxes spilling out the doors, tools hopelessly jumbled in bins, and a month or so ago, I got a six-inch gash on my shin when I tripped over the kickstand of one of the many bikes lying on the floor. Every so often I halfheartedly pick up the bikes, take the boxes to the recycling center, haul a load to DI, and sweep it out, but I lose my enthusiasm for the project before I tackle the tools or actually figure out a way to efficiently store the bins that are out there. Even when I take an afternoon to neaten it up, there are five other people living here, and it seems to mess itself up again, a fact which I don't notice until it's back at an overwhelming state. A few weeks ago a friend's husband was helping me with a project, and I was mortified by the idea of taking him out to the garage to see the utter disorganization of my tool bins.

Is there a Monica Closet in your house? Do you try to do something about it or just let it be? Do you think it's psychologically important for neatniks to have a place like a Monica Closet?