Log in

On moving and catching up

I just sewed on the seventh different council patch on my son's scout shirt. If I even knew where they all were, I'd take a gigantic photo. There should seriously be some kind of merit badge for moving. The last place we lived had great local leadership, but the district level kind of had an attitude of weeding out all but a few when it came to Eagle projects. Both as a parent and as a scout committee member, I often felt discouraged. Kids would come up with a project and either the district would shoot it down, or the lower levels would have been burned so many times that they'd already know it wouldn't fly. My oldest tried to come up with a project before we left, but there were so many additional things hung on it to guarantee he could push it through the district that he never had time to complete it. (Also, we didn't know where or when we were going until quite late.) And now his 18th birthday is approaching and while the scout leaders here are VERY diligent, I just don't know if it's going to happen. When you don't know an area at all, it's hard to think up good ideas for benefiting that area. And of course, you should never ever wait for your senior year to do this! There are just too many things going on that year that you HAVE to take care of. But when you move every two years, it's really hard to find a time when you CAN. I hate the fact that in so many ways, it looks like my kid has been doing nothing. And yet, all of my kids have had to expend twice the energy to keep up as any "regular" kid who hasn't had that upheaval in their lives. I was reading Cynthia Lord's latest book, A Handful of Stars, while in the DMV the other day (waiting on my almost-18YO who was FINALLY getting a chance to take his drivers' test and get a regular license). It's about a girl who makes friends with the daughter of some migrant blueberry pickers up in Maine. And man, that book should have come with a warning--Do Not Read in Public--because I'm sure the people around me were wondering why I was so sniffly. But I realized that while we might not be in agriculture, but we ARE migrant workers, thanks to the universities' destruction of the tenure system.* And that is HARD.

On the positive side, I'm proud of the hard work my kids HAVE done throughout it all. And glad for all the teachers who have worked with my kids. Herr Zündt, my son's math teacher and principal at his German school, just retired this year. He reached out to this kid who didn't even understand the language, and saw that he was good at math, and gave him a voice through numbers. Coach Allan, who gave my older kids a lifelong guide for personal excellence and the importance of teamwork. Mr. Hansen, who took in kids who joined orchestra late--really late, like YEARS late--and helped them catch up and excel. I'm hoping my kids can somehow write this moving experience into their college entrance essays. Because it takes just as much effort to move frequently, catch up with the weird educational theories du jour in each new place, make new friends, change sports/music, have dreams interrupted, have to build respect from teachers all over again, etc. as it does to be captain of your cheer squad, or be student body president, or whatever the Very Important Extracurricular Activities that applications want in order to Prove You Are Special!!

So when you see new people show up once everyone else is already well established, please reach out. Please remember that while they might be new and time might be short, they probably have something to offer, too. Even if they're just "the rental people." Or the migrant workers. Or the I-don't-know-what-the-parents-were-thinking-to-move-senior-year family.

*Nearly 70% of current US university faculty are now contingent. This doesn't mean the absence of cushy tenure positions where a horrible professor can do no wrong. This means severely, dangerously underpaid positions that come with an end date stamped on them the first day you show up. It's bad for the professors, it's bad for the students, and it's bad for academic freedom.

What central Alabama looks like

By FAR the first thing you notice (if you're me, anyway, coming from tree-starved northern plains) is the TREES. They are so huge! So beautiful! It's obviously not with my ears, but I swear I can hear them somehow. It just FEELS different here. The trees are ginormous, too. Everywhere you look, there are 100-foot pines. (Pictured.) Also sweetgum. (Not pictured.) I had no idea sweetgum trees could grow that tall, but they do! Also tulip trees (not pictured), which people plant decoratively elsewhere, but which appear to grow wild (and also tall) here. There are also occasional cypress and redwood type trees (pictured). There is something lovely and very filling about walking on silent pine needles as the trees look down kindly on you.

Read more...Collapse )

Culture clashes

My very polite, very respectful 10YO daughter got talked to sternly today while in the pick-up line after school today.

"Is that your car?" the older teacher asked.


"Yes, ma'am."

Daughter raised her eyebrows, confused. Maybe the teacher didn't hear her? "Yeah."

"Yes, ma'am," the teacher reprimanded.

*both people in conversation are blown away by the utter rudeness of the other person*

I think that one of the big culture shocks going from the north/west to the south is how people show niceness/meanness. I'm from a very egalitarian culture, where you are nice to people and show respect by putting them on your same level. In my "home culture," even if you have a system that looks hierarchical--the LDS church has a worldwide, centralized leadership, for example, and that's certainly part of my home culture--the idea is not one person at the top dictating everyone's choices. It's someone putting their trust in another person as they delegate responsibility: "Here, this is your job, do it the best you know how, I trust you to use your resources and to take care of it, and then we can talk over the results as colleagues." Or, "Let's do this together. I know your brain is different from mine, but we'll work together and complement our differences and something good will come out of it." Any leadership structure is for the sake of efficiency, cohesion, and ease of transmitting information. To me it's a bit rude for one person to decide whose ideas are worthy and whose aren't based on status--and I expect people to speak up when they have something to say, and if they don't, that they don't. Things that point out explicit power structures can seem rude--if a northern kid said "Yes, sir!" to his dad, his dad might (as my dad would tell you) feel like the kid was back-talking. (This really bothered my NJ-born dad when we moved south, BTW. He had to tell himself every time that they were being polite.)

The south, OTOH, is an authoritative culture, which shows respect by putting everyone on a hierarchy, and you are required to give proper obeisance (in words--sir, ma'am, Miz Lizzy--and in exact, unchallenging obedience) to those higher up on the ladder than you are. In Southern, someone who doesn't do this is being very rude and mean. But to a westerner/northerner, the hierarchy thing feels like a smackdown and a power grab, and therefore mean. And sirring and ma'aming your parents? No way! that would be like waking up and finding that your parents don't love you anymore and are turning you into a child soldier! But to a Southerner going north, they feel that the lack of honorifics is a sign of rudeness. Lack of "proper" respect for those higher up the authority chain (by contradicting their ideas or approaching as an equal) is also rude. That close, almost parent-child setup is gone, and it feels very cold and disconnected. Lonely and unfeeling, like people don't care about others, just their own ideas.

After living in the north and west for so long, this setup feels very much in my face, and I have to consciously remind myself that it's not "wrong," and it's certainly not meant to be mean--it's just a different way that people in a different place have used to work for them. So yeah (ahem, not yes, ma'am!), I think we'll be having quite a lot of discussions on this at home...


We've been in Alabama for a week, now. Wow. It's extremely much like moving to a foreign country! Once upon a time, we lived in the south, but it's been a looooooooooooooooooooooooong time. Here are some thoughts:

1. I'm pretty sure there has been more paperwork involved to move to Alabama than there was moving to either Germany or Chile.
2. I miss the Canadian flag (they flew it everywhere in ND), but the Alabama flag is strikingly NOT like a lot of other state flags (ahem, it's essentially a reverse-color image of the Confederate flag, and looks really odd plastered all over).
3. Speaking of flags, the neighbor down the street does not have a US flag, but has a gigantic confederate flag on a pole out front.
4. The schools all lead out with What Your Child Will Probably Do Wrong and What the Punishment Will Be. It's a little discouraging. The teachers, OTOH, are nice in person.
5. It is soooooooooooooooooooo hot!
6. There are a zillion Koreans in town, due to some Korean car plants here, I think. My kids have all come home from school saying they need to learn Korean so they can undersatnd their peers.
7. It is WAY more diverse here than in ND. My one blond son's teacher couldn't remember his name and called him "the blond kid" the other day. Because he was the only one. Lol. That is NOT a distinguishing characteristic in Norwegian North Dakota! It's kind of fun to have a larger ethnic mix--I think it's a lot easier on individuals. You don't have to feel like you represent your ENTIRE race or ethnicity by every move you make. You can just be "regular." (That said, my son's AP classes are unusually UN-diverse. Except for stats, in which he's one of the few non-Koreans.)
8. Thanks to the Koreans, there is a massive Asian grocery store in town that has some fruits I have never heard of (and I am rather wide in my culinary range). Jackfruit, anyone? (It has spines and is as large as a baby. And you have to grease it before cutting because latex??)
9. Every famous African-American you've ever heard of is from Alabama. You probably know this. But not having any ties to the state before, I never put it all together. Also, the courthouse in To Kill a Mockingbird? Real place, in this state. Some kids in my son's class have been there. (Oh yeah, and there's Helen Keller, too.)
10. Football. Oh, my. We've lived in the SEC before, but I'd sort of blanked that part out. I'm already looking for alternate routes out of my house if necessary (the main connector from our subdivision also connects to a primary highway people use to come into town for games.)
11. A southern accent after a ND/MN accent is almost like another language.
12. The trees. THEY ARE WONDERFUL! I knew I missed trees, but I didn't realize just how starved I was. HUGE pines and oaks and sweetgum. Beautiful. Alabama is a very beautiful place!
13. Our house is wonderful. We moved in sight unseen, and are very relieved that that it worked out. It's larger than our ND house (and doesn't leak!), but it doesn't have a garage, so we have to figure out what to do with things like the lawnmower and garden shovels and bikes, etc. However, it is NINETY YEARS NEWER than our last house, and has things like modern outlets, and water pressure, and level floors. It's kind of wonderful.

I'm sure I'll have more things to say about Alabama, but right now I need to make the daily taxi run, plus unpack more stuff.


Oh, it's cold! We had a very warm December, with little snow. January is trying to catch up. My teenagers are all off sledding at the park tonight. Yes, it's -5 with a refreshing breeze. Yes, we have another blizzard warning on for tomorrow. We're busy plugging holes and trying to keep the cold out of the house, but when your house is 135 years old and not restored, well... Let's just say we all got furry blankets for Christmas, and are using those gifts wisely.

So because we just had that large book-gift-giving holiday, I've read a few things this year already. Yay! I'm a paper book girl, definitely, but there are a few things that are only available in e-book format, so I am now also the owner of a Kindle (Paperwhite--which is easy on the eyes, but sort of awkwardly designed in other ways. I can borrow kindle books from the library, but I have to have a separate computer to check them out with, for example--I can't just check them out directly on my device. Which is a large flaw, IMO. But whatever, once they're on there, it's fine.) Anyway, it turns out that Overdrive gives you access to a larger pool of books, outside just your particular library. Which is nice, because every library has their own purchasing biases, and this way you can expand out a bit.

ANYWAY. Here's what I've read so far this year, between Christmas books and Overdrive. Not every book is for every person, and that's okay. But it's always nice to hear of new and interesting books, and who knows, maybe this will help the right person find the right book. Oh, and all of these are YA fiction.

Stravaganza: City of Swords, by Mary Hoffman. I like this series. It's got time travel and an alternate world Italy. Modern teens travel to Talia (Italy at the time of the di Medicis, only in this alternate version, they're di Chimici, instead) by way of talismans. These travelers are called Stravagantes. There is intrigue and mystery and romance and history. Each book stars a different character, although they all interact with the main characters of other books. The first is my favorite, though--I like Lucien and Ariana and have a hard time changing loyalties! Anyway, this is the last of the series. It's been enjoyable.

Fox and Phoenix, by Beth Bernobich. I couldn't help feeling like there was a book prior to it that I missed, but all I could find was that it was the first youth book by this author. So... I don't know. I could follow it just fine, so that wasn't a problem, but a lot of things were referenced, and it would be nice to go back and read about them in more detail. Anyway, it's sort of steampunk, and sort of fantasy, only set in a place inspired by China. There's technology and magic both. I liked this (and my 9YO REALLY liked it)--the Chinese aspect was refreshing, and it had a lovely sense of place to it, especially in the mountains. Story: Kai and his friend Yun and their spirit animals travel out of the mountains to the Phoenix empire to get their princess back because her father is dying under mysterious and suspicious circumstances.

Starry Nights, by Daisy Whitney. I wouldn't say this smacks of realism, but sometimes you just need something light and entertaining, which this is. It's about a French guy named Julien whose mom is an art curator. He loves art, too--and he can see when the paintings in the museum come alive at night. Then a family donates their own painting to the musuem--a previously unknown Renoir--and the girl in it is very interesting indeed. At the same time, all the other paintings start to have things go wrong with them--things that other people, and not just Julien, are able to see, too. So they have to stop what's going on. It's fun.

The Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides, by Ben Tripp. I think the author usually writes adult books. This has some of that flavor, I think--a tall tale for the young'uns. It's told in old fashioned (like Robert Louis Stevenson) language, a swashbuckling story of a boy named Kit Bristol whose highwayman master gets killed, leaving him to take over the job of rescuing a fairy princess. I couldn't help thinking while reading that this is the sort of story that begs to be told. It has adventure and magic and a plucky young hero and plenty of action--for the right reader, this will hit the spot.

Ondine, by Ebony McKenna. Okay, this book is candy. Sometimes you need something very silly and entertaining. (Really. Sometimes you do--if you are going through something major, you need something light to give your brain a bit of a breather.) It's about a girl, Ondine, who lives in a fictional European country called Brugel. It's modern day (they watch Eurovision, although they've never won it), but they do magic, too. There is a talking ferret (who used to be a man), and there is a plot against the duke. And much admiration of boys. (Actually, Ondine is a *little* young in that she's more influenced by a boy's appearance than what he's actually like. But--she has a bit of growth there, too.) It's a good book to give a reluctant reader because things happen without having to wade through a lof of irrelevant stuff.

No Life But This, Anna Sheehan. This is the sequel to A Long, Long Sleep that came out a couple years ago (although from different publishers--I got this via thebookdepository.com, which takes a looooooong time to ship, but OTOH, has free shipping all over the English speaking world.) The series is clearly sci fi (not dystopian), set in the future, and the first book is a futuristic, thriller setting of Sleeping Beauty. Rose's parents ran the UniCorps company that now runs the solar system--very wealthy and important, but they also had the nasty habit of putting their daughter in stasis whenever they didn't want to deal with her. The last time, they forgot about her, and died--and sixty years later, she wakes up. That was book 1. This book is about her friend Otto, who looks human (aside from being blue), but who has DNA from the native one-celled organisms from Jupiter's moon Europa. Otto can't talk like a normal person--but he can touch someone and communicate directly with their mind. Many of his "siblings" (created like him) did not survive, and now his body is breaking down, not to mention what all the thought sharing is doing to his mind. So to save his life, they take him to Europa and see if someone there can help him. One of the things that Sheehan does so well is to allow for real consequences. She doesn't try to save her characters from their own actions, or the actions of others. It gives the story a lot of weight, and makes the reader curiously attached to the characters. I reeeeeeeally hope there is a sequel to this one. It's set up for one. If you like books by Jackie Dolamore or RJ Anderson, and you like sci fi, give these a whirl. They have a fresh feel to them that is very welcome!

What have you read this year so far?

2014 Books--part 3 (YA)

And now to the category I read most of. Trends I noticed: lots more interstellar sci fi, lots more contemporary books that aren't so much about plot as about rooooomance, some parallel world books, and a number of books with the identical plot of wanting to fill a dead friend's bucket list. A lot of books that I read in YA this year, it turns out, aren't published (so I didn't include them-but someday, hopefully I can!) I was somewhat limited to the flavors my library buys, which are not anywhere as varied as the MG they stock, for some reason. So if there is a YA book you loved that you don't see here, let me know about it!

Nomad, by RJ Anderson. I just needed a book where I could depend on the author to tell a good story, and she did. This is the sequel to Swift, and Ivy the piskey is the main character. She’s been exiled from the Delve by her aunt (who is the Joan, or the leader) who doesn’t believe that there is poison down in the old mine they live in. I have no idea how to talk about this book without spoilers for the series, but suffice it to say that Stuff Happens, and Rebecca is good at getting across great emotion through restrained characters.

Belle Epoque, by Elizabeth Ross. About Maud, a plain girl who leaves home to escape having to marry the 40YO butcher across the street, and heads to Paris. But the only job she can do is at this agency where plain and/or ugly girls are hired to play the foil to more lovely society ladies. Generally people hire their own foils, but in Maud’s case, it’s the girl’s mother who hires Maud without her knowledge. But Isabelle, the girl, doesn’t want to get married—she wants to go to the university. And Maud is caught between her employer and her actual friend.

Read more...Collapse )

2014 Books--part 2 (middle grade)

I lean more towards YA than MG, but this year, the MG books I encountered at my library just had a lot more variety in story, voice, character, and general feel than the YA did. Buying trends? Publishing trends? I don't know. In any case, I read a LOT of them.

Egg and Spoon, by Gregory Maguire. MG, no matter what the publisher and library say. About Russia. And global warming. And Baba Yaga. And want. And magic. Two girls, a peasant and a noble, accidentally get switched when the train they’re on starts moving and the wrong one falls off. Both converge at the party for the Tsar’s godson, one bearing a Faberge egg and one the egg of the Firebird. Things go wrong, and they run to the north to find out why magic is failing and how to get the Firebird to hatch and how to stop winter from ending too early. Baba Yaga is rather funny in this.

The Princess in the Opal Mask, by Jenny Lundquist. Almost a prince and the pauper tale, of twin princesses where, thanks to a historical event involving one princess ancestress revolting against the other, the twins were separated at birth. Then they're reunited when war threatens their country.  Many loose ends, but my daughter got the sequel for Christmas, so...

The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell. Sort of a mix of the 12 Dancing Princesses and Beauty and the Beast. Could use a sequel. Takes place in Romania.

Read more...Collapse )
I used to do a post listing every book I read all year. Now I think I have too many--not *quite* as many as last year (which, with moving, was a rather stressful year, and the books helped me keep it together), but still, a lot. So I'm just going to list some standouts, by genre. Since everyone has different kinds of books that appeal to them, it makes sense to reveal my biases up front. :) I lean towards books with magic, though I like all kinds of genres. I prefer books with likable characters whose feelings are rooted in reality. I require books to have an actual story where Stuff Happens, and I like an underlying layer of truth in them. I read for hope. Books I have a hard time connecting with include those that depend too much on worldbuilding and not enough on real characters (ie super! quirky!--but shallow--characters!), or books about "life is terrible and then you go on" (as a child I was sometimes forced to read this kind of book in school--adults often like them but the kids they're supposedly for don't relate as well). I like adult nonfiction, but confess that something about the storytelling structure and/or general outlook on life in adult fiction escapes me. And I strongly dislike books of any kind that feel pretentious, porporting to convey Great Wisdom when they are, to quote Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

That said, here are some standouts from this year that I liked in a variety of genres.

Chapter Books

1-4. Kung Pow Chicken, by Cyndi Marko. This is a fun little series that my 6YO adores. It's about a chicken who is a kid, but has an alter ego that's a superhero. He and his little brother (sidekick name: Egg Drop) go around town, solving superhero crimes. Great fun for your emerging reader!

Adult Fiction

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger. Admittedly, I read this first years ago. But since I now live on the ND/MN border where this book takes place, I figured I should reread it. I liked it because the writing was lovely and because, despite the subject material (boy's older brother shoots and kills someone who was harassing the family, and the family tries to shield him from the law), it was full of hope and miracles.

Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson. If you love Big Fat Fantasy, this book is for you! First you have to read The Way of Kings, though. There were some extremely awesome payoff moments for Kaladin in this book. One thing Sanderson is so good at is setting up good payoff moments, and this was really excellent.


I read a number of interesting ones this year; this category is surprisingly large.

Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, by Samira Kawash. About the history of candy in the US. From people feeling it was poison (late 1800s-early 1900s) to thinking it was actual food,a nd good for you (1910s/1920s--an ad in a 1928 Saturday Evening Post reads, "Do you eat enough candy? See what the modern authorities say about candy in the diet--why and how you should eat it. How candy fills important bodily needs. A hint to women (and men, too) who want to be thinner. How to use candy as a food.") To the 1930s, when people realized candy made you fat, to the candification of all kinds of foods (fruit snacks, sugary cereal, granola bars, etc.) There was even a bit in there on how candy is fed to cows in feed lots. The author's opinion is that candy at least says what it is. There isn't much difference between candy and other processed foods, so if you eat candy along with that, you're just eating more of the same. But if you eat real food and some candy now and then, the world won't end.

Year of No Sugar, by Eve Schaub. Schaub saw a video by Robert Lustig on TV (author of Fat Chance), and decided to lead her family on a year's fast from sugar. She blogged about it, then wrote this book. I think she had a slighly easier time doing this because of relative easy access to nutty fruity organic food (some areas just don't have that as a trend), but it was still really haaaaard. A fun and funny read, and interesting to watch someone (else) put this into action. It was hard to give up desserts, but the most difficult thing was rooting out added sugar from foods that should be savory. Which should perhaps be a wakeup call to America. Maybe we wouldn't have to worry so much about dessert if it wasn't already such a part of the everyday meal.

Last Ape Standing: The Seven Million Year Story of How and Why We Survived, by Chip Walter. Interesting book about all the different kinds of humans (we have found 27, including us), our origins and wanderings and interactions. Did you know we have as many neurons in our brains as there are stars in the Milky Way? Also, 40-85% of the standing metabolism of small children is taken up in brain development. Also, we know that our ancestors met up with other hominids because they gave us head lice, and the evidence is still around. Neanderthals may have split from us, but we got back together, because many of us have Neanderthal DNA. The ending chapters seemed speculative and sketchy, and I'm inclined to not take them seriously, but the rest of the book is fascinating.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask, by Anton Treuer. He has family ties to the Red Lake tribe in Minnesota. I didn't even know there were that many questions to ask. It was quite fascinating. I learned that Indian politics are extremely complicated! The book made me more knowledgeable about my neighbors, but also a little nervous of making a misstep. Still, things like this should be required reading in school.

Harry Potter Page to Screen, the Complete Filmmaking Journey, by Bob McCabe. Wow. What a cool book! It goes through the entire process of making all the movies--from the directors requiring essays about their characters from the actors, to casting and location choices, to making all the different creatures. (Most of the special effects were real, not just CGI.) I love reading about different forms of storytelling, so I'm always interested in how books get turned into film. You can learn a lot from looking at stories in different ways. I think the designers had a lot of fun--all that creativity, with no price limit! Beautiful artistic creation--it must have felt wonderful to pull that off.

Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers, by Marcos Mateu-Mestre and Jeffrey Katzenberg. By an animator who is a master in the field, this book talks about how to compose frames and sequences for animation and graphic novels. I found it very good, dealing with multiple-sequence visual storytelling. You could use it even in single frame photography for ideas on how to convey a sense of movement.

My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders--An Intimate History of Damage and Denial, by Stephan and Norbert Lebert. Horrifying and piteous all at once--about the incredible damage inflicted on the children of high ranking Nazi officials as they dealt with the heritage they were given. Interviews from 1959, followed up in 2000 by the son of the original interviewer. Might be interesting to follow up with the autobiography of Martin Bormann, Living against the Shadow (Leben gegen den Schatten)--he became a priest and seems to have dealt with things better than the others.

Graphic Novels/Art

Sisters and also Smile, by Rain Tegelmeier. Funny and autobiographical. Smile is about falling on the concrete and wiping out her two front teeth, just as she entered adolescence, and the six years it took to put it all back together. Makes me scared of dentists! But it was a good read.

Noah's Ark, by Rien Poortvliet. He's a Dutch artist I discovered when I was a teenager. He is my very favorite animal artist, and I found this book browsing in the library. It's a treasury of animal art, framing the story of Noah's Ark. Such a lovely, intimate look at what it might have been like to be on the ark, plus a sense of wonder and appreciation for animals in general.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War, by Matt Faulkner. About some Japanese-Americans who were taken into a Japanese internment camp in WWII, and the difficulties they faced. Told from the kids' POV. Great art!

Searching for summer

I am still alive, but I haven't had very many interesting photos lately, and we are in the same routine as last year--I spend a ton of time driving kids to school and various extracurriculars, and now that we've entered the cold season, I also spend a lot of time shivering. So it is not from lack of interest in posting--it's just that I don't want to sound redundant!

(When I say cold, I mean the -30 degree windchill of the other morning. Ow. Why do I live here again?)

One thing we have done lately is to get a gym membership. I am not a gym person, and neither is anyone in our family. But we have a kid who's been running cross country this year, like my husband did in high school, and they've been running together all summer. The season may have ended, but they want to keep running (the 14YO just does better at everything when he gets a little regular exercise). But--as you can see, extreme cold is a problem. So we broke down and got a membership for the winter. Our first visit went something like this:

Nice membership lady: I used to work in a bookstore, but it was so awful I quit. Then I got on here--and it's wonderful!

Me: (stares)

NML: And here are all the wonderful $7000 machines we have! Work those upper muscles! Come to the spin class and bike like a maniac! Only...you can only use these ones during class because they cost so much. But any of these machines out here on the floor, you can use. Just ask an employee to show you how to work it first. Because expensive.

Me: (backs away in case of touching something and destroying it)

NML: Look at this fabulous machine! You can watch programs on it, "ride" trails. And look, it comes in different languages!

Me and spouse: (These machines all look eerily like the Roma birthing wheel we saw on a tour of a German labor and delivery room once.We are scared. If we use this machine, do we get to listen to Mayan midwives crooning?)

NML: You can totally hook up your phone.

Me: (Which machines can you put a book on? Better yet, which machines have space to put a laptop on, so I can finish writing a book while I'm getting exercise?)

Both of us: Er...could we just walk around your indoor track once?

NML: (stares as if to say, did you not hear a word I just said???)

Other general observations: there is babysitting for toddlers and there are some limited activities for kids 8 and up, but 6YOs fall into a void. We came back with the family--because we got a family membership, see--and the 6YO was utterly frustrated because there was nothing for him to do. And anyway, a parent has to be right next to a kid while in there. Which means that if we all go, some of us get to exercise and some don't. Although given that those expensive machines scare me a little, I think I'm good with running on the track and swimming (the only two things he CAN do).

Also, Camazotz. I am so grateful there IS an indoor track, don't get me wrong! I like the views of the parking lot, the pool, the tennis courts, and the people doing weights. But all too quickly, you return to the site where people are using treadmills and...all those other machines whose names I don't know. They are all staring at the screen. They are all moving in identical rhythms. It's either a giant hamster wheel or Camazotz (and since we have a building near us that looks eerily like CENTRAL Central intelligence, well...)

Now, feel free to come back in three months and poke fun at me for my ignorance now. Because our insurance will give us money back if we go X times per month, which sort of means we HAVE to go to make it worth it. And given how sore my ankles are after a two-month hiatus from running and then running on a totally new surface, I'm going to HAVE to ask someone how to use one of those mysterious machines.

Who knows. I might even like it. *nods in perfect time and hops on the hamster wheel*

Things that make good writing

I've been trying so hard to write lately, and I have ideas crowding my head and rising up in my insides and wanting to get out. But at the same time, it's that pre-school runup where schedules are insane and each kid has a unique time and date for registration, dentist, etc. Add in tons of cross country practice and a track meet to the schedule, my own scout committee meetings, startup events for my husband's department (as in social events we should make an appearance at), and basically, I am losing my mind. I just have a hard time writing something intimate and personal (or funny and adventurous--whatever it is, it comes from that quiet whisper in my mind that I need alone time to process) when I'm sitting RIGHT next to someone in the waiting room and they are looking over my shoulder. So I brought a book to read and ended up taking notes. And thinking about not only this book, but others I've read that are particularly strong in something. So here are a couple of things I've learned from books that are especially well-written:

1. I think I have a fairly well developed sense of justice. So one thing that makes me really like a character is if they are essentially decent people in a world that isn't. If they quietly do their good thing without complaining, and let me, the reader, complain about injustice on their behalf, I'm hooked. Arthur in Kevin Crossley-Holland's books. Sam in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Harry against the Dursleys or Umbridge or Voldemort or Snape. I'm pretty sure this is a personal thing, but I am much more sympathetic to these kinds of characters than the Bad Person Who is Misunderstood/aka Hot Bad Boy. Regardless which kind of character you like, though, standing two very different characters against each other can help saturate their colors a bit, and make them for vivid and memorable.

2. The use of weaknesses to solve the ultimate problem. I like a character with weaknesses. Someone likeable who still has something to struggle against. And I love it when they find a way to use what seemed a weakness as a strength. Brandon Sanderson's characters do this quite a lot. And even if it's not exactly a weakness, I notice this kind of "seeding" happening in other books, where the pieces crop up as the book goes along, seemingly unconnected, and then--the final piece falls into place and the MC realizes that this--THIS--is how to solve the unsolveable problem. There's a fantastic kickboxing scene at the end of The Knights of Crystallia (Alcatraz) that pulls a bunch of threads together quite awesomely. No less interesting is the way the ultimate solution in Shiver is laid out. I like this sort of thing because I like to be able to be surprised and at the same time reread and see how it was inevitable.

3. Nouns and verbs. Specific nouns and verbs that show what kind of thing your focal character pays attention to and cares about. I still remember wanting to eat Elizabeth Bunce's book A Curse Dark as Gold when I read it the first time. I'd spent nearly two years in Germany, and while I speak Germany, my reading lags. Being me, I had a library card and checked out books all the time in German. But it was still slow going. To get a book that was in my own language, and to have such LOVELY language...well, I didn't eat it, but I came close. :) The thing with language is, it doesn't have to be all sunsets and purple. It just has to fit the character, be specific, and surprise your reader with new ways of looking at things.

4. Just as you lay in the pieces of the plot solution, you should lay in reasons for meaning. In The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith, the actual on the ground plot is slight. Two people get on an airplane. They talk. They get out at the other end, and one goes to a wedding and the other to...well, not a wedding. The thing that makes the book work is all of the investment the author made so we know the meaning of the events. The MC is scared to fly. Her dad was the one who helped her over that fear. Except it's her dad's wedding she's going to--to a new wife, the woman he left their family for. So when this total stranger (but very nice! See #1) helps her through her flying fears, the whole action takes on tons more meaning. In Shiver, we get a bit of backstory about something the characters went through earlier in life. Then in the Now, we get a similar situation--only, the stakes are higher this time. We already have a clue how that character will react, which heightens the tension, because we know how much more is at stake in the Now. In Harry Potter, we have been amply shown--over pages and volumes and bucketloads of story--everything Harry stands to lose if he acts. But we've also been shown why he can't NOT act when he walks into the forest.

What about you? What have you learned about writing from reading good books?