Friday, October 25, 2019

My tiny girl

Yesterday, on the way to pick the boys up from school, Neva told me that she had watched a Netflix show, a show that I had prohibited after viewing about ten minutes and finding the main character to be really unpleasant. “The ladybug girl isn’t bad,” she declared. “She just doesn’t want to be friends with that other girl.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, she’s not bad, Mom. I watched the whole show.”

“With whom?!”

“Yeah!”

I think she might have suckered Brian into playing it for her. 

And last night, when Brian came home with a beautiful ten-point buck, she ran outside to see, then came back to tell me, “MOM. Daddy caught a deer!”

——

The other day:

Neva: “Mom, I really hate to tell you this, but-”

Mac: “Mom!”

Neva: “Mac! I’m trying to talk to Mommy! Ok, Mom. Mom, I know you’re not going to like this, but-”

Mac: “Mom!”

Neva: “MAC! Please stop! I’m trying to tell Mommy something! Mom, I really hate to tell you this, but-”

Mac, now smirking with mischief: “Mom.”

Neva: “Mac! You’ve got to stop distrupting me! I’m trying to talk to Mommy! Mom, I know you’re not going to like this, but-”

Mac: “Mom!”

Neva: “MAC!”

Me: “Neva, ignore him! For goodness’ sake! What do you need to tell me?”

Neva (grinning impishly, looking out at the sunshine, grasping for something to say): “Ummm, it’s probably going to rain.”

——

Today, while wiping her after going potty:

Neva: Mom, I HATE bears.

Me: What? You don't hate bears, Neva.

Neva: I don't hate the Berenstain Bears. I hate real bears. I HATE them.

Me: Oh, honey, bears are really important. Without bears, there would be TOO many elk and TOO many deer. They'd eat too many resources and they'd get sick.

Neva: I HATE bears. They want to EAT me.

Me: Neva, you don't need to worry about bears. They don't live anywhere near here.

Neva: No, Mom! The panda bears! They are SO dangerous.

Me: Neva, panda bears eat plants! And they don't live anywhere near here!

Neva: Mom! they don't live in Africa space! They live right next to our HOUSE!

——

She has this cute little valley girl way of talking. The other day I heard her express decidedly, in the tone of voice you might hear a teenager using to describe her manicure, “I LOVE Jesus. I LOVE the Lord.” And can this girl TALK. She talks pretty much nonstop, and it’s delightful to listen in. She intersperses her observations with nonsense words and phrases, just to keep a steady stream going. I can hear exactly what she’s thinking at every moment. And a lot of the commentary takes place in front of- or passing- a mirror. She acts like she’s talking to someone, but what she’s really doing is verifying that she is successfully pulling off an imitation of a big girl

She mothers Mac and dotes on him, except for the times when she gets a mischievous gleam in her eyes and decides its time to reestablish the pecking order. Overall, she’s a wonderful big sister and often remarks, “This is my baby brother. He’s SO cute. I just LOVE him. I’m just going to KEEP him.”

She literally sings my praises. I often hear her singing,
My mommy is the best,
The best there ever was,
My mommy is the best, 
And I love her just because
She takes care of me and loves me and [insert extra reasons]
She’s the greatest mommy that I have ever seen!
She’s the greatest mommy that I have ever seen-
(Repeat refrain indefinitely)

I certainly don’t deserve that, but do I love it?! I do. 

The little bit of love I pour into Neva returns one-hundredfold. She, unfortunately, does not get a lot of attention from me. Between Mac’s constant shenanigans and homeschooling the oldest two, she has to entertain herself much of the day. And she really does a wonderful job of it, even though she would love to spend hours playing with ME. She’s such a good girl, and I’m so thankful for her. 


Back in Montana, in our “sister shirts” from Aunt Kathleen

Monday, October 21, 2019

Big Girls Don’t Cry

At the end of last week, I was flying around the kitchen, pulling dinner together for the instant pot, and went to thaw a quart of frozen chicken stock. I threw it into the microwave and hurriedly entered “666” (for seven minutes and six seconds) and that number literally broke the microwave. The light went on, the timer began counting down, but it just stopped heating.

As I write this, I confess to hiding in a corner of the house for a moment’s peace. It’s lunchtime, and I hear Mac screaming in displeasure, a bite of turkey sitting unchewed in his cheek. The past couple of weeks have been a bit of a struggle… a string of those days that you look around and think, my life’s work is cooking food people don’t want to eat, teaching people who don’t want to learn, and cleaning a house that never looks clean. Sometime after returning from Montana, I began an ambitious list of five and ten-year goals, items like learning new languages, attaining new fitness goals, being involved in new ministries, and single-handedly accomplishing renovation projects. The days that followed were so laughably frenzied, culminating in arm-length lists of “bare minimum tasks” I had not accomplished, that I have not returned to even view that list of goals. Furthermore, I honestly don’t even know if “shoot-for-the-moon-to-land-among-the-stars” is the right approach for my next ten years, or if I should just set the bar low enough so that I feel like a smashing success if everyone gets their flu shots before Christmas and no one starves. 

I am learning when to press on, and when to let go. It’s not easy. 

Nevertheless, there are always victories. Always. Even when for every victory you can count four shortcomings, failures, or tasks undone… There are always victories. So here are mine:

1. I saw Neva standing in the mirror, whispering to herself, ”You are perfect just the way you are.”
2. William wanted a bedtime snack of leftover turkey last night. This is huge, for my picky big boy. In fact, since our return, I’ve tightened up our diet enough that all the kids are happily eating healthy food they’d normally resist. 
3. I took the kids to the park two times last week. We collected brilliant leaves, made new friends, and raced each other up slides. It was less than fifty degrees and all of us were so warm from running that we ditched our coats. 
4. I worked out almost every day. Strength training? Not much of that, but I did something. I was considering my lack of lifting a failure, until I realized that the workouts I had done would’ve been incomprehensibly strenuous for me five years ago.
5. I beat Brian in chess!
6. Will is reading so well. Mac and Neva are playing together so nicely. Barrett is obsessed with porgs and snapping shrimp. At night the kids are asking for a made-up song called “Porg Time,” about fictitious Star Wars birds who befriend Chewbacca. 
7. Little by little, I’m tackling the overdue deep cleaning projects that have been under my skin. The basement is mopped and reorganized, the homeschool room has been purged and re-sorted, and the bathroom floor is finally looking new again since I discovered the right product for the weird, white, pebbly plastic tile that was looking so grungy. The Honda upholstery looks fresh, the pantry has been resorted, and I think we are over the post-vacation laundry hump. There is still so much to be done. One bite at a time. 
8. We are in Week 9 of school. I haven’t quit yet. 

See? In five years, when I read back over this post, I’ll laugh about the microwave, smile at our successes, and wonder what on earth could’ve possibly been wrong this month. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Breaking out the big guns.

“Mom!” Neva wails, running into the bathroom, where I’m putting away laundry, getting ready for the day. “Barrett’s not sharing his mints! He’s not letting me eat them!”

“Where are YOUR mints?” I ask her, knowing the answer. 

“I ate them already! I ate them one-at-a-time!” HER mints, which were distributed as equally as those of her brothers, have been gone for weeks. It took two days for hers to disappear. 

“Honey, Barrett is saving his.”

“He’s not! He’s not, Mom! He won’t give me ANY!”

“That’s because HE wants to eat his own mints, Neva. He’s saving them so HE can enjoy them.”

“No! He’s NOT, Mom! He hasn’t eaten any in a WEEK!” To Barrett and Neva, a “week” is the greatest conceivable measure of time. It’s longer than a year. (Definable lengths of time have no basis in their reality. I often hear phrases like, “It hasn’t been my birthday in a WEEK.” “Ten minutes to put away all these clothes? That’s like, one second!” “Forty-five minutes?! That’s like an hour!”)

“Honey, he doesn’t have to share them if he doesn’t want to. YOU got your own mints; you ate yours. He wants to eat his.”

“Well, fine,” she concedes rather maturely. She shrugs, tosses her hair over her shoulder, and then continues in three-year old babble. “But I think it’s inappropriate. And if you don’t care about me—” another pause— “well then, I’m not going to be on the girls’ team anymore. I’m on the boys’ team.” She blinks and looks at me defiantly. 

I give her my most exaggerated shocked-high-school-girl chin-drop gasp. “No. You’re not going to be on the girls’ team anymore, Neva?!”

She breaks into a big, little-girl smile. “I’m just kidding. I’m on your team, Mom.”

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Mister Mac




Talking to Mac, who’s cranky after a bath:
“Can I hug you?” 
No!” 
“Can I kiss you?” 
No!” 
“Can I tickle you?” 
No!” 
“Can I squeeze you?” 
No!” 
“Can I love you? 
“No— yeah.”

Mac can make the d sound only at the beginning of a word, not at the end. So if he’s not hot, he’s “coln,” and when he greets Brian at the door, he says, “Hey, Dan.” When he’s impressed, he says, slowly, “Oh my wern.” When he’s tired, he asks, “Go t’ ben, Mom?”

Somehow, he knows Michael Jackson’s song Bad and sings it often, making up his own words to suit his mood. Because he can’t pronounce the final consonant in “bad,” and doesn’t know any other words (so they come out in an indistinguishable stream), it can be hard to catch. 
For “more bread:”
“More bren, more bren, no lo lo bren.”
For “I’m mad:”
“I’m man, I’m man, no lo lo man.” 
Etc. 

He calls Neva, girl, and William and Barrett are “guys.” (He never calls Neva by her name. Only “girl.”) “Tell Neva ‘thank you,’ Mac.” “K’ou, girl.”

He loves to sing. He’ll mouth the words to songs in the car, after telling me to ‘watch this’- “Mom, ah dis!”
He sings “Twinkle Little Star” like this:
“Keno, keno, keno tar
Up buh buh buh buh buh high.”

At night, he asks for the “Neva Mae” song: “Ah Mae?”  He wants the same thing Neva has, wants to do the same thing she does. Sometimes he requests the alphabet song first: “C-D-D?”

He’s in the thick of learning how to speak English, and I am holding onto this phase tightly with both hands. I am going to miss it with all my heart. 
“Broke-it, this, mama.”
“Have-it, this?”
“Eat-it, this?”
“Hold-you, me?”
“Oh, ‘licious!” (delicious)
“Oh, shoes!”
“Oh, un-wear!” (underwear)
“Lap!”
“Hand!”

He replaces the w at the beginning of words with l
After potty: “Mom, I lipe?”
In the car: “Down, lindow?”

In August, he took to potty training like a fish to water. He’s had the fewest accidents of any of the kids, which I didn’t expect. (This is probably because anything his siblings do, he wants to do, too, and just as expertly.) He quickly- almost magically- transitioned, upon turning two, from being a pretty cranky guy, to such a pleasant little fellow. He trucks along at a good jog to keep up with everyone, climbing and jumping when they do, swinging his fat arms as he runs. 

He loves to be a big helper. After he picks up toys or puts food into Bo’s bowl, I gush over him: “Mac! That was so nice of you!” “Nice-you,” he repeats. Sometimes, he praises himself before anyone else does. “Nice-you!”

We have played this game over the past month, but I think it’s ended. He doesn’t seem to like it anymore. I’d tell him, “I kiss!” And then I’d kiss his cheek. He’d reply in his husky little voice, “No, I kiss!” He’d wrap his arms around my head and pull my face in to kiss my cheek. We’d go back-and-forth like that seven or eight times: “I kiss!” “No, I kiss!” Can you imagine a better game? I’m so glad I just wrote it down. I never want to forget it. 

Finally, I never want to forget how each night, in the dark, I hear him tell me I love you: “Luh loo, Mom.”

My big boy

William, at seven-and-a-half, is a lot like me as a kid. A LOT. Right down to the poor eyesight and bumpy knees. I am right on his wavelength. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not baffled by his random fears and eccentricities at times (as I’m sure my parents were baffled by mine). Recently he’s developed a fear of midnight. “Is it midnight?” - he’ll ask, as soon as the sky is dark. “Is it midnight?” - he’ll persist, when I check in him after bedtime. I’ve sat down with him numerous times to analyze and neutralize this fear. I’ve drawn pictures, gotten out the classroom clock, and had him unknowingly stay up until midnight having fun with friends, only to say, “See? Midnight won’t hurt you.” It persists. The other day he sat bolt upright over his Cheerios. “Is there a midday?!” And riding home the other night commented that the worst part of a storm was “probably the midstorm.” 

I remember laying in bed at night as a kid, afraid my parents would go to sleep and I would be the only one in the house awake. William struggles with the same fear. For some reason, he can’t fall asleep for at least an hour and a half after I put him to bed. I give him a flashlight and books, and play children’s audio dramas for him. I keep promising I’ll be back to check on him once more. He wants to know I’ll check on him when he is sleeping. He is such a good little boy to lay there, holding his blanket to his face, looking up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep. 

He sees the world in black and white. He likes knowing the rules, following the rules, enforcing the rules. He asks me several times before doing something he’s patently allowed to do, wanting the reassurance that YES, you can go upstairs to put socks on. He hates crying; he seems to consider it shameful. When he sets his jaw and blinks hard, I know it’s time for a quiet talk.

He loves Bo deeply. He pets him every day, and when Bo presses against him for more affection, William laughs and says, “Bo, I’ve been petting you all day long!” But Will always obliges. He likes to rub my back and play with my hair too, because he knows I love it. At night, when I go to check on him, I sit on the edge of the bed and talk to him, and he reaches over to rub my back, “so you’ll stay with me and you won’t be able to leave!”

He loves tickle fights. He loves to initiate them, usually at the most inopportune moments. I’ll be holding a cup of coffee, or cutting an apple, or deep in thought and focus, when I feel fingertips abruptly shoved into my armpit. Cue deep annoyance (which, to be fair, is a reaction he loves to elicit from all of us). One day I’ll look back on this and laugh (okay, I’m laughing to myself now), and I’ll think, I should’ve been a little more lighthearted and fun-loving, but as it is, I don’t handle being tickled very well, and I usually respond with, “Gah! William! that’s enough!” I keep a mental tally of how many times I rebuff his tickling advances and how many times I laugh and try to tickle him back… I try to keep the tally fairly even.

He has his Shelf of Treasures. This is an important aspect of William. These treasures are broken toys, interesting pieces of debris found in parking lots, spent gift cards, shiny objects, rocks and shells. He is the proud curator of a museum of things saved from the garbage can. He doesn’t really ever look at the objects; he just enjoys knowing they’re there. Mixed among all of this are some truly cool things, like a geode he found in Montana and a Petoskey stone he got from Uncle Mike. He often approaches me with a communal object - Neva’s necklace, a Star Wars book – “Mom, makes me want to put this on my shelf.”

He loves saving his money more than he likes spending it. He was in the habit of promising his siblings a certain amount of money to do favors for him – bribing Barrett to wrestle with him or Neva to let him play with her toy- then he would, for the rest of the day, threaten to withhold the payment if they did not continue doing other things for him. I put a stop to that.

The other day, halfway through a game of Long Cow: “Hey! Is this a CARD game?!”

He made me laugh so hard a few weeks ago. We had just picked out our Halloween/harvest party costumes from Goodwill, and he was so intrigued that his Revvit costume covered up his face so effectively. He began concocting a plan to go to his school harvest party as a new, different student. “Mom,” he said excitedly, “I’ll go in with my costume on, and you’ll say, ‘This is Dan. We just moved to town and we go to this school now.’” He paused considerably. “Oh, you’ll have to say, ‘We just visited William, and he’s sick, so he won’t be here, and this is Dan.’” Another pause. “And Mom, you can wear your sunglasses- and different earrings- and your rocketship shirt” (a t-shirt from my Dearborn 10k with Hannah) “and you can tell them that your name is Kelly. And no one will recognize you. And you can tell them that our last name is Slaze.......dird.” The last name was devised so arbitrarily that I could not stop laughing, even later when I related the story to some friends. 

Today we were slogging through some online discussion board work (“slogging” is being generous- it was an exercise in patience- Will does not love making his virtual academy contributions) and after at least an hour, we were on the very last question. “Okay, Will. One more. Stay with me. ‘What is subtraction, in your own words? Give an example using apples.’” His eyes were already viewing distant planets before I’d reached the end of the question. I rephrased it, helping him define subtraction, then said, “Now, tell me a story to illustrate subtraction, using apples.” (Every other kid had entered something like: “Four apples take away two is two apples.”) William instantly perked up. “Okay,” he said, “four apples walk into a haunted castle. Suddenly, a live skeleton jumps out and grabs two and eats them! Now there are two left. They run down a dark passageway, but it’s not a passageway! It’s a monster’s mouth! He eats them! CHOMP! Now there are zero.” 

When he was very little- three years old- he decided he was afraid of swings. “I don’t want one to break,” he told me. 

“Honey,” I assured him, “swings are strong. They won’t break underneath you.” 

“Well,” he replied, “I saw a broken one, once. SOMEBODY was swinging on it when it broke.” I was dumbfounded. Since then, he has not wanted to swing- until this year. Now, we swing side by side at the park, and I’m so proud of him for moving past that. I know that he will continue to conquer each and every fear he faces- in his own time. You can’t rush a William (or a Maegan). You just encourage, and wait. 

Will’s favorite things to do are: reading in the book nook, playing LEGOs, eating chips, watching football with Daddy, helping Daddy work outside, wrestling with Barrett, playing Beyblades and checkers with anyone who will join him, watching movies, talking to me, and playing VIDEO GAMES. He lives for video games. 

He is just like me, in so many ways, and I’m so delighted to be able to understand and relate to his quirks. I’m so curious to discover what he will do and become. It’s such a profound privilege to be his mom- his, and Barrett’s, and Neva’s, and Mac’s mom. Will, if you read this someday, I hope you know that you are- and have always been- and always will be- very much loved. 


His favorite horse at the Shelby carousel, named “Ben”


Target practice


Being my teammate for “Oregon Trail” board game


His most faithful friend


Do you see Dan Slayzdird back there???

Monday, October 7, 2019

Currently-

Four hours to go, on our return drive from Montana. We’ve driven under North Dakota stars, into a foggy Wisconsin sunrise, and through the hubbub of Chicago. At one point, when I was the only soul awake, struggling a bit to stay alert as I drove through Wisconsin, a large bird flew out of the timber and kept pace with the truck. Wondering if it might be a loon, I peered closer and saw a bald eagle- flying alongside the truck! I’ve never seen one in the wild before today. That was exciting; that put a pep in my step, so to speak. 

The last seven hours of this drive pass the most slowly. After almost twenty hours, you think, “Seven hours is nothing!” Over the seven hours, however, the antsiness grows, the entertainment loses its luster, and the conversation becomes terse. But somehow, we always make it home. 

I’m currently reading... everything. After my stringent “media fast” ended on September 18, I’ve been a sponge. I’m reading (alternately) A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Primal Blueprint, and listening to All the Light We Cannot See. I was also listening to The Power of Habit in Life and Business, but my loan ended... and the book won’t be available for another sixteen weeks. Ha! I’ll have to start over. I should’ve known I wouldn’t be able to finish an audiobook during our time in MT. I’m really enjoying Owen Meany, but I’m 80% done and fear it’s going to get pretty sad. The Primal Blueprint is an effort to psyche myself up again to get back on my “moron diet,” but the book is not really striking a chord- I know I need to get my nutrition back in line, but it’s hard to swallow the extreme diet dogma. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. And All the Light, I like so far. I wanted something to listen to during my driving stint, it’s been recommended to me by many friends, and it was available on Libby, but after four hours of diligently trying to follow what seemed like a very disjointed story, I was not a fan. I lifted up my phone to see that I had somehow been periodically skipping my way ten hours in, without realizing it, and decided to start over. Now, Brian’s at the wheel again, so I’m finishing Owen Meany.

I’m currently looking forward to getting back into a routine at home with the kids and school. Homeschooling seems to be going so well with this new program. I still feel like I’m in over my head most days, but at least I know that I’m not dropping the education ball. I’m also looking forward to getting my nutrition and exercise back on track. I’ll post my diet/fitness notes another time- but I’m excited about that.

I’m currently pondering my conflicted feelings about having another child. My time with Erin was more restorative than I can describe. I already miss her very much. Being with someone who loves and accepts you, makes you laugh, loves your kids, and with whom you have so much in common- is such a rare and wonderful experience. We had so much fun. It was a really precious time. What in the world would I do without my sister? I’m coming away even more despondent than usual about the fact that Neva will never have this experience. I’ve always felt sad about not giving her a sister. Do I want another baby? Frankly, no. With all my heart, I do not want to deprive my kids of a mom for another 2-3 years (which is how it feels, when pregnancy and infancy take so much energy), BUT if I knew I’d have another girl, I’d do it. I know that sounds awful, but truthfully- I could easily convince myself to have another child- girl OR boy- even two or THREE more- I couldn’t imagine life without any one of my four, and I know I’d say the same if I had double that number. But I recognize very practically that I can’t be the mom my kids need if I have eight, or seven, or six kiddos (because let’s admit it- I’m not the mom to FOUR that I wish I were). And then there’s Brian, who is not at all on board to add another. I could maaaaaybe convince him if I were certain, myself. But I am not. I feel sad to think that one day I’ll say, “I should have had one more. I should have tried for a sister for Neva.” Yes, there are a hundred arguments to be made for accepting that she isn’t meant to have a sister. I repeat them to myself often (and try to ignore the mental counterattacks). Yet, my relationship with my sister feels so vital to me, that it’s hard not to feel I’m depriving Neva of one of life’s crucial joys. 

This, ultimately, is not in my hands. I have to find peace in letting go. 

I’m currently watching... nothing. Brian and I are all caught up with Stranger Things, which we started in July and is actually the first show we’ve watched together in years. I liked it a LOT- it’s a good thing we had the Montana trip to distract me from grieving that it was over :). Erin and I finally finished up all the Harry Potter movies (having started them together last year!), which felt a bit “meh,” since film adaptations rarely measure up to the books, then moved onto the Fantastic Beasts movies, which we watched twice, and which I loved. I love when films so convincingly create such a beautiful fantasy world. Those are lovely movies, plot holes and inconsistencies notwithstanding. 

Finally, I’m currently LOVING:
Mac’s way of saying “another”- “nawr-one, book! Nawr-one, star! Nawr-one, plane!” 
Neva’s fervent mama-love. And how her latest favorite words are “paranoid” and “inappropriate,” which she uses completely out of context. 
Barrett’s constantly-changing favorite reptile or amphibian. Madagascar tomato frog (real), American spadefoot toad (real), “slobber dragon” (fictional), “freezing breath dragon” (ditto), have been his recent (within the past two days) favorites. And how he earnestly insists, “Mom, I really don’t need a coat- I’m cold blooded!”
William’s very serious approach to life. Midnight is very scary, boys should NEVER go into the women’s restroom, toy guns need to be strapped on in multiples, “FREEZE OR I’LL SHOOT!” needs to be loud and fervent, and Long Cow is the BEST GAME EVER (and he’s serious about winning). He’s still very much a little boy. I am really trying to not let the other kids’ needs constantly eclipse his quiet, serious little heart. 

Current favorite quote: 
“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn't try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn't need others' approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” Lao Tzu 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Fifty Books in Five Years (or Less)

Reading fifty new books in the next five years is a goal I've set during this period of my life in which I keenly feel my brain shrinking. I'm shooting for roughly 60% nonfiction, and plan to briefly review them here. I began this goal in October 2019.

1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
4/5 - Finished 10/8/19
Very well written characters, compelling story. I pictured Owen Meany as a kid I once knew well; it made the story feel more personal. I enjoyed reading a story set in the Vietnam War and (alternately) Reagan administration. Drawbacks- The narrator conveys a sort of apathy about his own existence (compared to his passion for Owen Meany) that kind of impacted my interest in his outcome; also, it’s divulged early on that the ending will be grim, and I think that (maybe intentionally?) distorts the lighter, amusing parts of the story. 

Favorite quotes:
1. “Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”

2. “‘I want to go on being a student,’ I told him. ‘I want to be a teacher. I'm just a reader,’ I said.

‘DON'T SOUND SO ASHAMED,’ he said. ‘READING IS A GIFT.’

‘I learned it from you,’ I told him.

‘IT DOESN'T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT- IT'S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT. IF YOU'RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.’”

2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
4/5 - Finished listening 10/17/19
Beautifully descriptive. Just really lovely prose- the author is a poet. I really enjoyed this; I love historical fiction, and this book provided a unique perspective of World War II. What would it be like to be a blind girl in France? To be a protector of a priceless national treasure? To be a brilliant orphan boy with a conscience, growing up in the Reich? While exquisitely written, this book was downgraded from “LOVED It” to “Really Liked It” because the plot, though interesting, was kind of slow. I suppose that’s what happens when you write about a blind girl and a young teenage boy during World War II; they‘re not going to be involved in a lot of exciting action. So I admit that there were days that I felt less than compelled to keep listening. (Zach Appelman does an excellent job narrating.)

Standout quotes:
1. “Werner wonders in the dead of night, isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and life sets in upon it. Taking things from it, stuffing things into it.”

2. “It is the obliviousness of our children that saves us.” (True; and ruins us, too, no doubt.)

3. “The sky seems high and far away. Somewhere, someone is figuring out how to push back the hood of grief, but Marie-Laure cannot. Not yet.”

4. “The others who wait at the gare d'austerlitz whisper that one out of every hundred will come back, that you can loop your thumb and forefinger around their necks, that when they take off their shirts, you can see their lungs moving inside their chests. Every bite of food she takes is a betrayal.  Even those who have returned, she can tell, have returned different, older than they should be, as though they have been on another planet, where years pass more quickly.”

3. After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
3/5 - Finished 10/20/19

This is an incredibly imaginative approach to the post-apocalyptic novel, but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not. The beginning, like an undercurrent, sucked me right in. (Sorry- groan- I know.) The premise, one hundred years in the future, is a world completely flooded, the tops of our mountain ranges now the only land upon which to settle. The human race is attempting to rebuild itself, its existence having been reduced to basic impulse and need. The main character is a mother of two- one child with her, the other having been kidnapped from her by her husband years before. Her quest is to find her lost daughter (and to take revenge upon her husband). The book contains vivid descriptions of a life lived largely on the water, and includes some powerful thoughts about the nature of loss and parenting in an uncertain world. I found myself copying several passages that struck a chord. What I did not like about this book were the characters. None of them, from the little girl to the rugged, mysterious navigator/love interest, were particularly likable or even multi-dimensional. The action scenes were often over-the-top unrealistic, and the main character was so intensely hypocritical that I didn’t find myself really caring what happened to her (so much as wanting to know what would happen at the end). I usually choose my books based on what's available in the library database, and I've often been rewarded with some incredible reads. All I can say of this one, however, is that I don't regret reading it- though my time could’ve been spent on something I liked better. 

Memorable passages:
1. "Sometimes you could see shadows darkening the water where the mountains rose up to meet the sky, and when you sailed over them, you could look down and see the rocky peaks like ancient faces floating in the deep, looking back up at you. The ocean churned above them, its currents eddying among the rocks, coral springing up anew, new sea creatures adapting and forming in the dark. I wouldn’t be here for whatever new things would grow out of this new world; I’d be ash before they sprouted fully formed. But I wondered about them, wondering what Pearl would live to see and hoping they’d be good things."

2. "knew it was sometimes easier to love ghosts than the people who were around you. Ghosts could be perfect, frozen beyond time, beyond reality, the crystal form they’d never been before, the person you needed them to be. Sometimes I wanted only the good moments to surface in my memory."

4. You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier
5/5 - Finished listening 10/23/19

I stumbled upon this book in Libby; something about its description snagged my attention and I put it on hold. It was my first (unintentional) foray into modern technological philosophy, and I LOVED it. As soon as it ended, I began listening to it a second time. Rob Shapiro does an excellent job narrating the author's meandering, astute observations of the myriad ways the internet has influenced modern culture in ways both positive and negative. My only drawback is that it's been ten years since it was written; I'd love to know what Lanier would think about internet culture a decade later (though I believe his predictions have been largely verified). While I didn't agree with everything he postulated, I found myself nodding along to several opinions I had always instinctively held but lacked the knowledge to articulate. I've always considered myself a bit of a resistant Luddite - a dinosaur, I guess - less interested in interacting with social media than culture suggests is necessary, and intimidated by the threat to human interaction that I've believed technology poses. Not only was it extremely gratifying to hear my opinions verbalized and verified by someone who has been immersed in computer science and instrumental in developing web technology/virtual reality, I also felt refreshingly hopeful about the potential for these technologies. I plan to read Lanier's other works - as soon as I'm done with this one (which might not be anytime soon).

Notable quotes:
(One problem with audiobooks is that I find it difficult to take down ear-catching quotes. It's time-consuming to transcribe a passage. I captured a few, but if I had the book in hand, I'd likely take up an inordinate amount of space on this page for quotes from You Are Not a Gadget.)

(Discussing how Facebook is like "No Child Left Behind"): "What computerized analysis of all the country's school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do. (Whether one expects computers to improve in the future is a different issue.)"

"If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and content-less. The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments, to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

"It’s easy to break into physical cars and houses, for instance, and yet few people do so. Locks are only amulets of inconvenience that remind us of a social contract we ultimately benefit from. It is only human choice that makes the human world function. Technology can motivate human choice, but not replace it. I had an epiphany once that I wish I could stimulate in everyone else. The plausibility of our human world - the fact that the buildings don’t all fall down, and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew - is immediate palpable evidence of an ocean of goodwill and good behavior from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what can be called love. And yet that love shows itself best through the constraints of civilization, because those constraints compensate for the flaws of human nature. We must see ourselves honestly, and engage ourselves realistically, in order to become better.”

5. Daemon by Daniel Suarez
4/5 - Finished 10/24/19
This book demonstrates why I really can't be reading fiction these days. Daemon was so engrossing that my productivity in the real world undoubtedly suffered. Unfortunately (meant tongue-in-cheek, of course) there's a sequel, so I'll be thoroughly distracted for another week while I read that. Afterward, however, I must promise to be very good, and swear off exciting fiction - at least until Christmas break. The plot of Daemon reminded me of what Jaron Lanier (in the book mentioned above) termed an "Ideology of Violation" - the idea that people who are ignorant of the power of technology to harm or destroy in some way deserve to reap the consequences of their obliviousness. But while Lanier demonstrates this ideology with several sobering and disturbing real-life examples, Suarez sets his events so firmly in fiction (and delivers these consequences to corrupt, deserving entities) that it's easy to suspend concern and enjoy the story - knowing, however, in the background of your consciousness, that the potentialities of Daemon aren't all that inconceivable! The writing is snappy, the plot well-paced, and the imagery is wonderfully evocative - I really felt like I'd been watching a film. Even those "plot twists" I saw coming felt satisfying, when they unfolded, rather than disappointing.

Funny quotes:
"Her new boss was an undead automaton from hell, true. But, no job is perfect."

"In all, his outfit required nearly two thousand man-years of research and development, eight barrels of oil, and sixteen patent and trademark infringement lawsuits. All so he could possess casual style. A style that, in logistical requirements, was comparable to fielding a nineteenth-century military brigade.
But he looked good. Casual."

6. Freedom by Daniel Suarez (Daemon series)
Spoiler alert!
3/5 - Finished 11/5/19
This sequel to Daemon makes an about-face, assuming the reader will accept that the Daemon, so convincingly established as a villain in Daemon, was actually all along intended to be a force for good. That required (what I felt was) a gracious concession on my part- yes, most revolutions involve a violent beginning, but we're not discussing centuries of history here - I just read Daemon two weeks ago! Freedom posits that the same network of hacktivists that used the darknet to brutally execute all spammers, for example, is within a year forming a utopian augmented-reality democracy flourishing with human goodwill. The book itself was as equally engaging as its frontrunner - the plot well-paced, the socio-economic commentary insightful, the characters witty and memorable (or, at least the handful that Suarez bothered to stick with for any length of time - I especially loved Laney Price). There were a few loose ends that felt like a result of Suarez cutting the story short too quickly- for example, Sebeck's quest should have gotten more page-time, and who was the Major? (I thought he might turn out to be Fossen's son, honestly - but the question was never answered.) Are we supposed to accept that Boerner is now eternally roving D-space as a symbol of persistent evil - the anti-Merritt? There was a LOT crammed into this sequel; I think the Daemon series would have been better developed as a trilogy. I know I would have read book three.

7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
5/5 - Finished 11/21/19
Life is struggle; death is inevitable- yet we all must find meaning in the face of this. That contrast is made especially vivid in this memoir by neurosurgeon/neurologist Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer on the cusp of completing his residency. His tone humble, the reader can nevertheless discern that Kalanithi was a brilliant, compassionate mind who would have undoubtedly made enormous contributions to his field, and would have been an empathetic, talented surgeon for countless patients experiencing the terror of brain cancer. The natural question to ask is, Why him? But he does not live there. Instead, he wades through his diagnosis with purpose, seeking meaning, concluding that “Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.” When he is ultimately unable to continue performing neurosurgery, he directs his final efforts to writing this book. I would recommend it to anyone who has pondered how to live and die well, or how to find meaning in the face of abject, arbitrary suffering - which is probably everyone. Secondarily, I found his firsthand account of practicing medicine extremely fascinating. This book is short and very well-written- just read it. 

A quote from his wife’s epilogue: 
“Paul’s decision not to avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death-avoidant culture. His strength was defined by ambition and effort, but also by softness, the opposite of bitterness. He spent much of his life wrestling with the question of how to live a meaningful life, and his book explores that essential territory. ‘Always the seer is a sayer,’ Emerson wrote. ‘Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy.’ Writing this book was a chance for this courageous seer to be a sayer, to teach us to face death with integrity.”

8. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson 
5/5 - Finished listening 11/21/19

This book is a scalpel! It slices deep into the psyche and, like a talented surgeon, removes the infection of excuses and delivers the antibiotic of conviction with keen philosophical and psychological insight. Where in your life - in my life - have we allowed chaos to breed, allowed unarticulated fear to thrive? We lack the courage to face the monster under the bed, and it grows- and that is no one’s fault but our own. Speak precisely- confront chaos- seek to be better- do not make excuses. Live honestly and intentionally with integrity, or you will undoubtedly find yourself living in a hell of chaos of your own making. The author claims no religious affiliation and instead employs mythology, philosophy, ancient and modern history, and biblical symbolism to convincingly establish his twelve rules. I’ve made this book sound heavy-handed, I know, but Peterson’s continual acknowledgment of struggle and suffering as an unavoidable part of the human life is oddly inspiring and reassuring. Peterson narrates his own work for the audiobook, and though I typically always prefer reading a book myself, I suspect in this case I actually would prefer listening to the audiobook. Hearing his emphasis and emotion feels essential to absorbing the material.

[I noted certain points in the recording that were particularly memorable. At this point, I haven't yet had time to transcribe them.]

9. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
3/5 - Finished 11/23/19

After a couple of weightier books, I felt like some light chick-lit while I recuperated from my laparotomy. This was a quick read. I had very high expectations for it; it came very highly recommended by everyone in Brian's family. Sitting here at my keyboard, trying to formulate an opinion about this book, my fingers are just... hovering. What I did like: it was definitely a page-turner; it contained beautiful descriptions of the marsh; its characters were vivid and multi-dimensional. What it lacked was believability. It demanded too many concessions on my part; too many details required my suspension of disbelief. A six-year-old girl is abandoned by her entire family in the backwoods, shunned collectively by an entire community, yet manages to grow into a healthy, attractive, brilliant young woman who becomes a.) involved in a love triangle with the town's two finest young men, b.) a nationally renowned biologist, and c.) enmeshed in a pretty farcical legal tangle. This would be a book, had I a copy in hand, that I'd hand to my friend and say, "Read this; let me know what you think. Am I silly for not loving this?" Even a fairytale needs to carry its own weight.

10. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
4/5 - Finished listening 12/13/19

I really enjoyed listening to this. The author heavily employed the use of anecdotes to illustrate his analysis, and I find that made the material more memorable and relatable. Besides being entertaining, however, Duhigg's book was also instructive and illuminating. It helped me understand how irritating habits of mine have hung on, despite repeated attempts to curb them. I also became aware of how simple (not easy) it can be to instill a new habit. Though this is a secular book, I appreciated how the author explained the role of faith in helping new habits stick. When he focused on habits in business culture, I found myself thinking about how these patterns relate to my family and marriage. It's so very important, I've learned, to recognize the routines you've settled into out of habit, and to proactively change them if they are not working. I realized this earlier this year, and have to some degree been in this headspace for a while, and to that end, The Power of Habit was a pleasantly clarifying and very encouraging read. 

11. Educated by Tara Westover
5/5 - Finished listening 12/17/19

I absolutely loved this book. It was positively riveting. I didn't know much about it when I put it on hold. (Sometimes I go on wild, unrestrained borrowing sprees from the library database. Click, click, click.) All I knew of Educated was that it was the memoir of a woman who grew up as the youngest of seven children in a rural, religiously extremist family and, denied any formal education, still went on to enroll in college and eventually earn her Ph.D. I didn't realize that it was as much a book about domestic abuse and the highly complex family dynamics that contribute so greatly to who we all become. Typically it takes me a couple weeks to finish an audiobook that's ten hours long, but I was glued to this one. Westover relates her vivid childhood recollections with exceptional storytelling talent, unfolding the eventual abuse with insight and compassion - for herself and for her abusers. I hoped for a satisfying resolution until I realized that this woman is my age, and her family is still very much alive and embedded in violence and manipulation. Nevertheless, the conclusion felt as resounding as possible under such circumstances. (The topics of herbalism, homebirthing, natural healing, essential oils, homeopathy, and energy healing were also of particular interest to me, as many in my circle are proponents of these approaches, and the author's family lived exclusively by these methods.) Westover’s conservative religious upbringing was also very slightly similar to mine, which added interest. 

Memorable quotes:
"Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me."

"The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones [the author's former self] would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education."

"To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s."

12. Armada by Ernest Cline
2/5 - Finished 12/20/19

I read Ready Player One some time ago and really liked it, so when I saw that Armada was available on Libby, I was excited. And I really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, it's not Ready Player One, and I spent half the time wishing I were reading that instead. This book had elements I really enjoyed - a fun premise, themes of reunification and longing, and... an ending, which I was happy to see after putting this down too many times. The story of gamers being the salvation of humanity is not particularly original, but it was interesting to think about how humanity would experience an alien invasion having seen them happen hundreds of times in pop culture. Still... there was too much pop culture in Armada. I appreciate when a story high-fives the reader every now and then with a reference, but there were several on every page. It got old. And overall, this story just did not flow well for me. Granted, I chose to pick it up during a very busy time of year, but I thought a quick, fun read would be perfect for those few minutes here and there (those five-minute breaks that get sucked up by Instagram). But guess how often I felt like opening Kindle up to read Armada? I did truly want to know what was going to happen in this end-of-the-world invasion scenario, but it was so broken up by long descriptions of locations and devices, characters performing highly complex yet uninteresting programming hacks during crucial moments, and nods to stockpiled snacks, weed, and detailed playlists compiled by the government (what?) in what I assume (as a complete non-gamer) would be a gamer's dream come true. I hope Cline keeps writing, but I hope he leaves behind the sci-fi + 80s-pop-culture formula for his next book.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

October!

Here is October! A new month, fresh start; a month of “choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.” I have good goals for this month. They will wait, though, for the end of this trip. 


Barrett’s polar bear belongs in this Montana October climate. 

October certainly looks fierce out the window today. The fields and hills are glistening sharply with frost and snow. We are slogging through our schoolwork as though it’s already January 21st. Barrett is only slightly closer to being able to say the names of all the letters; William is even less enthusiastic than his brother to tackle his work. These boys. And yet, perhaps because we are still here in Montana, a “vacation feel” pervades the atmosphere, making schoolwork both less and more tolerable. 

This has been, in many respects, almost a perfect trip. Conversation and games with Erin and TJ, beautiful places to hike and visit, evenings with friends, staying up late to read by myself or to blog indulgently, sleeping in (to some degree- Mac is still an early-ish riser), movies and ice cream every night, lots of laid-back playtime with the kids, visits to the trampoline park... and of course, being with my sister. Erin and I seem to share a brain; it is almost spooky. And she is the most wonderful aunt- she treats my kids like her own. I could not stay with anyone else for two and a half weeks without feeling like an incredible imposition, but she tells me we are not, and somehow, I believe she’s telling the truth. 

“Choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will” is easy, if you are me. I really owe it to myself to continually count my blessings. At any moment, all I need do is sit down on the floor, cast aside my concerns and anxieties, and one or more of the kids will instantly fill my lap. It might be Mac, with his pleasant little fat legs to tickle, or Neva, telling me “you’re just the best mom,” or Barrett, pointing to a photo in an encyclopedia, informing me that he’s “actually [this new random reptile]” and that I’m its caretaker, or William, ever ready with a book to read together. (Today Will laughed so hard at Amelia Bedelia that he grew teary.) I get to see the world through the eyes of four amazing children. You know, having kids is like a “life hack” to being able to access the excitement and fun of childhood again- last night we played hide and seek- do you know how giddy I felt, holding my breath, watching Barrett through the crack of the pantry door as he looked for me? Today, when we felt dreary, I can’t tell you whether it was more helpful for the kids or for ME to play some YouTube “listen and move” songs, with everyone from Mac to Will dancing around and working up a sweat, laughing together. I’ve gone carousel riding, trampoline jumping, and sidewalk-chalk drawing, which have all been incredibly fun, and which I undoubtedly wouldn’t have done sans children. 

I do not know how to strike the balance between solving problems, and ignoring them in favor of turning my attention to the positive. I do find, however unproductive this approach, that they are easily forgotten, when I focus on all of this beautiful, magical, precious good

If it be my lot to crawl, I will crawl contentedly: if to fly, I will fly with alacrity; but as long as I can possibly avoid it, I will never be unhappy.” -Sydney Smith