Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book #4: A Paradise Called Texas by Janice Jordan Shefelman

I read this book because our fourth graders read it in Texas history with Mr. Parr. I remember last year's fourth graders talking about it, and since I have a fourth grader of my own this year I heard A LOT about it. I had to see what all the excitement was about.

The story is about Mina, a little girl (I think she's 11) who immigrates to the Texas from Germany in the 1800s. Her family purchases passage and land from a company that is starting a German settlement in Texas. The settlement turns out to be New Braunfels and then also Fredricksburg. Mina is the narrator, so this adventure is narrated by a child about the age of the kids who read the book at my school. Her family suffers great hardships and tragedy, and Mina is a brave girl who appreciates what is truly important.

I can see why the kids love it. It's a great book with adventure and such an excellent tie-in to the history of our state. If you haven't read it, you should.

(If you have read it, I'll answer your question. Yes, I cried.)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book #3: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

This was a good one!

In The 19th Wife, two stories are told concurrently. The first introduced is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young (yes, THE Brigham Young who helped establish Utah as a territory, was an early leader of the Mormon church, and has a university named for him). The reader knows from the beginning that Ann Eliza is famous because of her apostasy from the LDS church and divorce from Brigham, but the story begins with that of her parents and how they came to follow Joseph Smith after knowing him personally. There is much background information regarding the beginnings of the Mormon church and Joseph's establishing himself as the church's prophet. The beginnings include the church doctrine of polygamy, including its origination in the church as a supposed holy calling from God. Clearly the author thinks polygamy is a bad idea (I'm with him on that - just ask Trey), so even the well-intentioned bright spots of the doctrine are tinged with bitterness. I felt as if I watched people being indoctrinated into a religious cult, and I totally understood why they accepted many things as fact even though they seemed far-fetched and against everything they had ever known.

Ann Eliza is a rebel whom I cheered for, but she is neither without fault nor of perfect character, which is what makes her story so compelling.

(Sidebar/Disclaimer: I love a lot of Mormons. I do not believe in their religion, but some of the most special people in the world to me (students, mostly) are Mormon. I have visited a Mormon church as a guest of my students. Nothing in this review should be considered in any way as Mormon-bashing. The church has publicly denounced polygamy, and all religions have skeletons in their closets, so please don't leave here thinking I hate Mormons. I try to make a point not to trash other people's religions, as I find it kind of rude and also ineffective in converting others to my own religion if I choose to try.)

The second story is that of Jordan Scott, a modern day young man who was cast out of a polygamous compound when he was fourteen. Jordan is the anti-Mormon: a gay, cursing, angry man who hates the church for all it has done to him. Even though the modern day compound is actually run by a religious sect known as the Firsts (it, too, is decidedly un-Mormon), Jordan is violently against all religions and finds them to be downright offensive.

Early on in the novel, he sees a news report that his mother, the 19th wife of a Firsts prophet, has been arrested for killing her husband. Even though she allowed Jordan to be thrown out like trash years before, he must go to his mother and see her one last time. That is, of course, where his adventure begins.

I thought that the two stories told together would be confusing and difficult to read, but I was wrong. It was actually refreshing because just when one story began to lull, the next chapter would switch to the other story. The connections between the two were obvious, but the stories didn't seem to be stretched just so they could be connected.

This is my favorite kind of fiction because of its historical nature, and I found myself right away wanting to research Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young, and the Firsts. I put it off as long as possible (I didn't want to spoil the mystery of it), but finally looked it up. I found this conversation with the author to be particularly enlightening. Ann Eliza's story in the book is his fictional account of her life, but much of what he includes is from his research. To add to the non-fiction/fiction feel of the book, the author actually includes Wikipedia articles, requests for access to the LDS church's archives, and other relevant historical documents at appropriate times during the story. I found this element of Ebershoff's novel to be terribly interesting and liked it much more than I thought I would.

The only real negative is that the details after Ann Eliza's apostasy seem to drag out. While I appreciate their relevance to the novel, they could have been condensed. Her life before her escape is more exciting, and because of the chronological nature of the novel her not-as-exciting activities after she left the church made the end of the novel sort of fizzle out. Jordan's story, on the other hand, ends as a novel should, with the denouement near enough to the end that the reader is left with some level of excitement about the story. (Yes, I could have said "final outcome" instead of "denouement," but sometimes being pretentious is fun.)

The two stories in the novel certainly have a common theme. Today is the same as 100 years ago and 100 years before in that people are searching for love, acceptance, and assurance about their future after our small time on earth is over. Sadly, there are also those ready and willing to take advantage of the most desperate of us.

Overall, this book was great. I definitely recommend it!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

First World Problem - Grocery Bagging

I would like to be part of a focus group that creates the curriculum for grocery bagging training. That exists, right?  

I know this is totally a first world problem, but I CANNOT stand the way my groceries are bagged. I feel my blood pressure raise with every item placed haphazardly in my environmentally friendly reusable shopping bags. Should I get this worked up about grocery bagging?  Of course not. Do I? Every. Single. Week.

First, let's establish one fact. I bring a veritable crap-ton of reusuable grocery bags with me to the store because - wait for it - I like my groceries in bags. All of them. Yes, I want the milk in a bag. Yes, I want the Gatorade in a bag. Yes, I want the 2 liter of Dr. Pepper in a bag. Even the two pack of paper towels - bag 'em up!  

See, everything that is not in a bag must be carried into my house using all of the fingers available on one hand. A gallon of milk and a six pack of Gatorade not in bags equals one trip from the car to the house. Paper towels in one hand and toilet paper in the other - one trip. Dr. Pepper...throw some Gatorade in the other hand and that's one trip, too, and probably a trip that involved me dropping the Dr. Pepper so that it will later explode all over my kitchen. 

Bottom line...just put the groceries in bags. That's why I brought them. It doesn't even cost you anything because I bring my own. Work with me here. 

Second, all of the groceries were previously living harmoniously together in my shopping cart, so there is really no need to segregate them when bagging. I know that a gallon of fat free milk and a 2 liter of Dr. Pepper seem to be on opposite ends of the food spectrum, but if you put them together into a reusable shopping bag I'm certain they won't get into a fist fight in the car on the way home, disturbing all of the other groceries. I realize that the milk is cold and the Dr. Pepper isn't, and I understand that grocery baggers have probably been trained that these two don't mix because of some long-standing family feud between the Hotties and the Coldies, but I promise it will be okay. 

In addition, I know of no purchases in the grocery store that need their own bags simply because of the department they came from. Today I brought home one large reusable bag carrying only a bottle of gummy vitamins and a bottle of hand lotion. Alone. Another bag had only one package of whole wheat pitas. The pitas could have lived harmoniously with the chips in another bag and successfully avoided smushing, while the vitamins and lotion would have gotten along nicely with the cereal. Those items did not need their own private bag for transportation from store to car to home. All of the items I buy in the store are in packages of some kind, so it's not like they're naked and touching each other anyway. 

Speaking of smushing, chips, bread, tomatoes, and pretzels should not be smushed. Period. I can see that most grocery baggers take this into consideration when bagging them by themselves or together, but when you then place that bag at the bottom of the cart and your coworker puts bags on top of it, your effort is then in vain. Another word of advice, do not put bananas and onions on top of tomatoes. Tomatoes are decidedly smushable, and onions and sweet potatoes are often the aggressors in tomato-smushing incidents.  This is common sense, people.

In closing, I often think that all prospective baggers and those who train them should follow customers home and unload their cars and put away their groceries for at least an hour or two of training. Obviously the bigger picture of the grocery bagging process is lost in their attempts to remove my groceries from their stores. 

How do I sign up for a focus group? 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Book #2: Seriously...I'm Kidding by Ellen Degeneres

Book #2 was also a $1.99 Kindle download one day last week. It was decently entertaining, and all in all probably took less than two hours to read.

This is a good book to read when you want to read but really can't focus on what you're reading (say, when you're whole family is yelling at a football game that you don't care at all about but start to care about because of all of the can check the score, look up on replays that are monumental, and continue right where you left off).

Overall, it was fine. My life wasn't changed. I didn't laugh out loud more than once or twice. I was entertained for the most part. I'm glad I only paid $1.99 for it.

(Is it weird that some secret part of me is afraid Ellen will read this post and be offended and then we'll never be friends who hang out and I'll never be invited on her show to dance and play games and talk about my life? I hope not because I really do love Ellen.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The iPad Contract

I mentioned in a previous post that I was putting together an ipad contract for the boys. Here's the link to it if you're interested.

(I'm certain some of you have been sitting at home just wondering, "Why hasn't Stormy put up that iPad contract yet? I can't wait to see it!")

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Get a job, already!

I feel like one of my main jobs as a parent is to help my kids turn into responsible people. I want them to be socially conscious, informed, and I want them to understand that if they want something, they have to work hard for it.

I know this probably happens to no one else, but frequently my children will ask me for money. Sometimes they will ask for things, but even then they are really just asking for cash to spend as they please (it just happens to be my cash they want to use). In recent months, they've learned to ask if they can do something to earn X amount of dollars so they can buy whatever the thing is they need that week.

I'm okay with this. Heck, I've even been known to bribe them to get what I want ("Company is coming tomorrow. Clean your room without whining or complaining and I'll give you ten bucks"). I can usually find something for them to do to earn a few dollars and then we inevitably head to Academy.

When a friend needed someone to care for her dogs while she went to the Cotton Bowl, I volunteered the boys. I did this knowing a few things as absolute fact.

1) Keaton is the dog whisperer. And goat whisperer. And cow whisperer. And people whisperer. He's a likable person, and even animals are very drawn to him. He's also generally not intimidated by new situations or, well, pets.
2) Keaton likes jobs and hard work. Those things you don't want to do because they seem monotonous and difficult? Come get Keaton and he'll get you going. He'll laugh and speculate on the best way to do something and be awfully proud when the job is done. He's a worker.
3) Tucker really likes to be waited on. I would never call him lazy because that's not it, he's just not a lazy person. But he would definitely prefer to have someone else do the stuff that doesn't sound fun to him. Case in point: He asked me today to make him a hot pocket. I told him he knew how to do that and could make his own. He told me he wasn't that hungry.

So this job seemed like a good way to let the boys show some responsibility and make a little spending money. A little part of me thought Keaton might carry the bulk of the load, but I had high hopes. A good life lesson was to come. I was sure of it.

Earlier this week the boys and I went over to meet the dogs, Stella and Bazzle. Keaton warmed up to them right away, as expected, and Tucker stood timidly over to the side looking like he wasn't entirely sure what he'd agreed to. The dogs aren't too big, but they're not small either, and they were so excited to see guests that they were jumping and licking and barking. Stella even knocked Tucker over when he wasn't paying attention. I was kind of excited about Tucker's discomfort with the situation. It's good for him to leave his comfort zone sometimes, and he doesn't often choose to do it on his own. (To be fair, I think it's a pretty wide comfort zone, but still he enjoys staying right there in what he knows.) On the way home from the meeting, Keaton said the dogs' names over and over so he wouldn't forget them, and Tucker stared out the window with a look of concern.

On our first trip to care for the dogs, Tucker read over the instructions again and again. When we arrived at the house, he and Keaton followed the directions to the letter. While Keaton rolled around in the floor with the dogs, Tucker attempted to play with Stella by throwing her tennis ball to her. He was still a little timid, but I was impressed.

On our next visit he asked to walk the dogs, but it was raining and almost dark, and I really wasn't sure if he could handle either of them on a leash, so I didn't let him. But he made me promise to let him walk the dogs the next morning because then he could be sure they got enough exercise. He was taking this job very seriously, and I liked it.

Trip three: Keaton walked Bazzle, the calmer and smaller of the two, and then Tucker took off with Stella. They were gone for what seemed like a little too long for me, so I went outside to check on them. I called Tucker's name, but got no answer. I called again, and a teeny knot of panic started to form in my throat. Calmly I started walking up the driveway, and through the dark I could hear running feet. I knew something was terribly wrong.

I advanced faster, and just past the darkness I saw Tucker running toward me. In the split second before the teeny panic became real panic, I saw Stella running beside him. Tucker grinned, "We decided to run! I thought she could use the exercise. We keep up with each other pretty well!"

Trip four including more walks, more petting and playing, and just an all around good time for all, dogs and boys included.

I don't know if Tucker got the full gravity of this little life lesson, but it was still a good one. He was really uncomfortable, but he put in the effort and ended up having a great time and earning a little money to boot. Of course I'm proud of Keaton, too, because he did everything Tucker did, but I expected it from him. This job was right up Keaton's alley, and he did not disappoint.

And so the boys had their first job and did it incredibly well. They never complained when they had to get up early during Christmas break to care for the dogs, and they made sure to follow the instructions to the letter. Pretty impressive stuff, guys!

Book #1: Let's Pretend This Never Happened

I've decided I'd like to keep track of the books I read this year, both for quantity and to remember whether or not I like them.  The ol' blog seems like a good place to do it, so here goes.

I thought about setting a goal, like trying to read 30 books this year, but that seems silly since I could read 30 short, easy books and it wouldn't really be that impressive. So no goals here, just reviews and counting. Sounds exciting, huh?

Book #1: Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

I downloaded this book because it was a $1.99 Kindle download one day over Christmas break, and I was looking for something light and funny. Amazon billed the books as something that fans of Tina Fey and David Sedaris would enjoy, and while I've never read anything by either of them (no Sedaris. for real.  I may have to remedy that this year.) they both seem like people who would entertain me.

The book is a "mostly true memoir" of Lawson's life in rural Texas. She grew up in Wall, Texas, which is probably a little larger than my hometown from what I can tell. Her father is a taxidermist, so there are many tales of dead animals and their carcasses, and I must admit I found these pretty darn hilarious.

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter that had me rolling (it's not about dead animals, and it may be rated PG-13):
...I'd just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn't even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that's something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn't recognize me without my vagina. Either way, it's very disconcerting when people who've been inside your vagina don't acknowledge your existence. Also, I want to clarify that I don't mean "without my vagina" like I didn't have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn't, you know...displaying it while I was at Starbucks. That's probably understood, but I thought I should clarify, since it's the first chapter and you don't know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It's like my American Express card. (In that I don't leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)

So now you have an idea about the voice of the book, very colloquial and with no topic off limits.

My favorite chapter is probably "If You Need an Arm Condom, It Might Be Time to Reevaluate Some of  Your Life Choices." It's about artificially inseminating a cow, and Trey can attest that I laughed out loud a lot during that one. She also writes about annoying her husband, being a terrible housewife, and her time working in human resources, all topics addressed with wit and humor.

The low point of the book is a chapter called "Draw Me a F@#@$ Dog" which discusses the author doing illicit drugs. She writes a note at the beginning of the chapter that her editor encouraged her to leave that chapter out and the reader can just skip it, and I have to say she should have listened to him. Not only do I not find illicit drugs funny, it also just doesn't fit with the rest of the book. It's sort of like that chapter that says, "Look!  I'm cool because I did drugs before!"  It just isn't necessary.

Overall, the book is a lovingly sarcastic retelling of life in small town Texas. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that most of the reason I liked it is because I "got it." It definitely made me a little nostalgic for my own small town upbringing. There's lots of profanity and no subject is off limits, but if you're not easily offended and want a quick, silly read (and/or if you're from Rice, Blooming Grove, or someplace similar) this will do the trick.

Friday, January 4, 2013

We are "those people"

Our kids got ipads for Christmas. From Santa.

Let me explain how we rationalized this.

First, Santa got a deal on them Thanksgiving night at Walmart. About 25% off. Second, we compared ipads to other, similar electronic devices kids might like, such as the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS. While I don't know a lot about these, they seem to me like just gaming devices. They would need games to go with them in order to be of maximum use. The ipad, on the other hand, allows them to use YouTube to learn how to make things with duck tape (or is it duct tape? the interwebs use both), listen to their music, play on First in Math, read on Raz Kids and Kindle, look up random information, watch sports highlights, watch movies both rented from Amazon and itunes and streamed through HBO Go (which does have parental controls). When you consider that the price isn't that much different (with the deal) and that no game purchases are required, the ipads seemed the logical choice for us, so we allowed Santa to go ahead and let the boys have them.

Tucker still can't believe it. He keeps saying with wonder, "Sometimes I randomly remember that I have an ipad, and I'm like 'I have an ipad' and I can't even believe it's true." They've both taken very good care of them, not leaving them sitting out in weird places and making sure they are plugged in to charge every night. (Yes, I realize it's only a week in, but they really don't want them broken any more than I do.) I have also really enjoyed the ability to take them away when appropriate. When I say, "Your ipad is mine for the rest of the day" no one argues and suddenly everyone is being nice to each other.

We set both boys up with their own itunes accounts, which you can now do without establishing a payment method so they can't buy things accidentally. You can deposit money into their accounts via gift cards, but other than that they are tied to free only downloads. No more asking if they can download games on my phone!!!!  Maybe Santa brought them ipads for my benefit?  I have been very good this year.

My niece Tiffany told us that you can actually text from an ipad, and while I've had an ipad for quite a while I never realized this. The text can go to people who have some version of iphone, and it comes from the sender's email address. The ipad also has an icon for email, so it's easy to check and send messages. Keaton has absolutely loved this!  In fact, I think he's used his ipad more for messaging than anything, sending emails and texts to grandparents and cousins (and sometimes to me in the other room).

I was happy to find this ipad contract via Twitter, and I'm working on our own version to have the boys sign. There's a rule in there about no headphones, and there are times when I would INSIST on there being headphones!

I recognize that the other reason we may seem a little crazy to some people is that our kids have access to the big ol' scary internet and email, and they are only seven and (almost) ten. My theory on that is that it won't ever be "novel" to them as they get older. I have all the passwords and they know I check what they're looking at on their devices. If they want to keep them, they will be responsible. We had a little life lesson about what "explicit lyrics" means and how they should always search for the clean version or radio edit of any songs they want to download. (Tucker loves Bruno Mars and Kanye West, so this was a very relevant conversation.) If I find music with explicit lyrics on their ipads, I'll delete it and they'll be out the cash. I may be proved wrong in years to come, but for now I feel like it's my job to teach them how to use technology appropriately, and I can't do that if I keep them away from the scary internet. I suppose we shall see.

In the mean time, feel free to whisper about how we indulge our children and refer to the kids as "spoiled" (they are). It's all true. But it doesn't make us bad people.

It just makes us "those people." hehehe  :)