Saturday, December 31, 2011

11 Things I Did In 2011 That I'd Love To Do Again

1. Walk along the Great Wall of China
2. Hug a dolphin
3. Stomp grapes
4. Climb to the top of Notre Dame in Paris
5. Eat Belgian waffles
6. See windmills in Amsterdam
7. Parasail
8. Watch my daughter's soccer team make it to the State Championship
9. Attend the Murder & Mayhem Writer's Conference
10. Sit and read a book all day
11. Laugh at the antics of my husband and mother. If I don't do anything else, this is the one that I want to repeat.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Oprah In The House!

According to our tour guide, Oprah lives in the white house on the left
and lets her guests use the beige house on the right.

On the ferry ride between Nassau, Bahamas and Blue Lagoon Island, our ferry guide pointed out several houses known as Millionaire's Row on Paradise Island. Most of the palatial mansions set on private beaches looked alike so I was never quite sure which one he meant. He directed our attention to the homes of Tom Cruise, Christina Aguilara, Chuck Norris, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Elvis Presley, cosmetic mogul Mary Kay, and Nicholas Cage. We oohed and ahhed over all of them, but I only got my camera out when we passed Oprah Winfrey's house. Because not only does she have one megamillion dollar house there-- she has two. A multimillion dollar guest house right next to hers.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pelican Dock

Something magical happens every time we cross the Florida state line. The air seems instantly warmer and more fragrant. The sun is brighter. Our moods are lighter. Stress falls by the wayside, staying behind in Georgia and the states before it. Vacation begins the minute we cross the border and get our fresh orange juice at the Welcome Center.

How can it be December? We're in the Sunshine state.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One-of-a-Kind Finds at the Thrift Store

I love shopping at thrift stores. You never know what you'll find there. I've come away with some treasures in the past, but am usually more amused by browsing through beauties such as these:


A framed Jesse McCartney poster!   Guess what? It sold.


Home Decor

And finally, For the Kids

Ugly, matted stuffed animal?

Or dirty, filthy chair?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


My daughter used to cry almost every night at the dinner table. She always complained that she had a stomachache. She'd pick at her food and then say she needed to go to the bathroom. We'd huff and puff and say, "Okay, but then you're going to eat all your dinner."

Almost every meal ended in tears, or threats that she'd have to go to bed early, or go to bed without anything else to eat, or miss her favorite show, or some other punishment for the nightly game of her not eating her dinner. We rarely believed her. More often, we thought this was some sort of game to get out of eating foods she didn't like. It never occurred to us that she really had a stomachache every night.

Then, on vacation, she complained again at dinner and when we made her eat her grilled cheese anyway, she threw up. We ran through the foods she'd eaten that day. It was all pretty standard kid food that shouldn't have upset her stomach: cereal, macaroni & cheese, ice cream, and grilled cheese and fries for dinner. And then it finally dawned on us: she might be lactose intolerant like her grandfather and uncle.

The next few days we experimented without telling her. We didn't let her eat any dairy, and for the first time in over a year, she didn't complain about stomachaches at all.

We were relieved, but also felt horribly guilty. All we could think of was that glass of milk we made her drink night after night at dinner. All those times we'd ignored her complaints and yelled at her for playing games and not eating her dinner. We felt like the worst parents in the world.

I was reminded yesterday when we went to dinner with my sister-in-law. Her daughter was acting the same way mine had and we mentioned what we'd gone through with Isabelle. I saw past family dinners flash through her mind. Suddenly. she was overcome with the strong suspicion that our niece was lactose intolerant, too. She nearly cried as she thought of all the times she'd reprimanded her daughter and all the stomachaches she'd ignored. I watched her gaze at her daughter who sat at the kids' end of the table. I knew she felt like the most terrible mother in the world. I'd felt the same way. We'd thought we were doing the right thing by giving our children they milk that they needed, never realizing that they couldn't break down the lactose.

We can shake our heads and groan about it all now. We've adjusted to a life of Lactaids and lactose-free milk. It's been an easy fix, but one I wish we'd realized sooner. Milk doesn't always 'do a body good.'

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pushed a Little Too Far

            The doctor pulled the curtain closed with a loud clinking of metal hoops and heavy fabric. I watched my sleeping husband disappear from view as the doctor cupped my elbow and directed me a few feet away.
            “Your husband is resting,” he said. “But I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
            I stole another quick glance toward my husband, but he was blocked from view.    “Mrs. Crawford, we set your husband’s arm. It was a clean break. But, can you tell me again how he broke it?”
            My mouth went dry. My forehead broke into a sweat.
            “He fell off the bed,” I said, as tears welled in my eyes.
            “He says he was sleeping,” the doctor said sharply.
            The events of the last few hours flashed through my mind. My husband was snoring, as usual, making it impossible to sleep. I listened to his chainsaw snores for as long as I could then I reached over and oh so lovingly, nudged him. The next thing I knew, he was lying on the floor, screaming in pain, saying that I was trying to kill him. But I couldn’t tell the doctor that.
            “Well, he was sleeping, and snoring, and I tried to roll him on his side. Gently! I tried to gently roll him on his side! But he rolled too far and fell off the bed.”
            The doctor stared at me.
            “It was an accident!”
            The doctor crossed his arms across his chest.
            “Can you explain the bruises we found along your husband’s arm? It looks like he’s been repeatedly pinched.”
            I gulped.
            “And the finger-like bruises around his neck?”
            “He was choking!” I cried.
            The doctor stared at me as though I were a criminal. I hadn’t meant my husband any harm. I was just trying to get some sleep! He snored so loudly that it shook the house. I’d tried everything, but nothing worked. He rumbled on and on, making a thunderous noise that I just couldn’t take any more. But I’d never meant to hurt him!
            “Mrs. Crawford, we found traces of cotton in your husband’s nostrils. It appears that someone placed a pillow over his face.”
            “No, you see, I just pulled the pillow out from under his head, but the force of….”
            My sentence was cut off by the high-decibel volume of a freight train screaming through the room. The bedside curtain blew in the breeze caused by the thunderous blare of my husband’s olfactory trumpet. I couldn’t even hear myself over the noise.
            The doctor leaned in with his hand cupped over his ear.
            “We’re going to keep him here overnight for observation,” the doctor said.
            I nodded my head and tried to look glum, but I was secretly gleeful. I couldn’t wait to get home and get back to bed. With my husband out of the house I was about to get the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long time.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


While researching plans for our visit to Rothenburg, Germany, I came across Rick Steves' review of things to see and do there. One thing he mentioned was Schneeballs (snowballs), a fried dough ball covered in either powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, caramel or chocolate. He described them as a use for leftover dough. He didn't like them. I didn't either. They reminded me of fried Chinese noodles, covered with sugar. But when in Rothenburg...

My companions loved them.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Road Trips

We spend a lot of time in the car, traveling to various places. I get excited to head out and stare out the window at the passing scenery, even if I have seen the same landscapes a hundred times. We find ways to amuse ourselves, though we each have individual preferences:

My Husband: He likes to have noise. We have to talk to him, or play music. He picks out CDs before we begin our journey. Then as we travel, he likes to do mental math, checking the speedometer and road signs that tell how many miles we have to our destinations. He adjusts his ETA down to the minute. It's a game to him.

My Daughter: She plays with her Nintendo DS. She reads a little. Sometimes we make up car bingo sheets and play Bingo through Kentucky. But mostly she likes to sleep.

My Son: He tunes us out. He reads, he listens to music, he texts, and then he sleeps.

Me: I look at the scenery. I read all the signs. I plan our next trips and always wonder if we should veer off on side trips to cities we haven't seen. I count the number of Waffle Houses at highway exits. I constantly check the atlas (yes, a huge road atlas) to see what other cities we're near and where we might jockey off the road someday to kill time. I scout for restaurants off the exit that we haven't been to yet. Then I start perusing the atlas to plan vacations in an entirely different direction next time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Phone Calls From Santa

My mother and my husband like to prank call each other. I know, I know. They are a little old for this, but they have so much fun doing it. They call each other and leave elaborate messages on each others' voicemail, pretending to be weird, obnoxious characters and leaving equally ridiculous and obnoxious messages. I'm just not like them. I don't do voices and would probably laugh through my whole message if I tried.

So I took a different tactic and pulled prank phone calls on my own. Cincinnati Bell offers free phone calls from Santa. So I scheduled each of them to get phone calls from Santa at the same time. I'd hoped that they would each think the other was making the call and pranking them, and that they'd be confused to learn that they'd each gotten one at the same time.

It didn't work.

My brother answered the phone at my mom's house and hung up, thinking it was a telemarketer. My husband answered his cell phone, heard, "Hello, Michael. This is Santa Claus calling from the North Pole," and immediately turned to me and said, "Why did you have Santa call me?"

But then our house phone rang and my 11-year-old daughter answered. (After all, it would be weird if I didn't have Santa call the only actual child at our houses, wouldn't it?) She's hovering right at that age where we're not sure whether she believes anymore or not. She says she does, but we can't imagine that all her friends and cousins aren't telling her otherwise. I figured that by now (6th grade) she would think it wasn't cool to believe in Santa any more.

So she answered the phone and Santa greeted her by name and started giving his spiel. She hung up with a confused expression on her face. I asked her who'd called. She looked at me and my husband and said, "Santa. But that's weird. I always thought Santa was Daddy."

So, I'm not positive. I still can't be sure. But I think, I think -- she believes!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not the Normal Nativity Scene

We were driving around looking at Christmas lights and did a double-take when we noticed this one. We circled around to see it again. Sure enough, the nativity looks normal, but its shadow is a little creepy. It almost looks like Mary is holding a scythe.

It must be the way the shadow bends her praying hands across the corner of the porch, because there's nothing sinister when you look at the nativity itself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Gone With the Wind" Movie Trivia

One of the figurines at the Atlanta Cyclorama reportedly resembles Clark Gable in his role as Rhett Butler.

1. In the last scene of the movie, where do we see Scarlett?
a) on the porch at Tara
b) in a carriage
c) on a staircase
d) at Melanie's grave

2. At the Wilkes' barbecue, Scarlett grants which suitor the right to get her dessert for her?
a) Charles Hamilton
b) Ashley Wilkes
c) Frank Templeton
d) Pierre Merriwether

3. Where are Scarlett and Melanie when Melanie goes into labor?
a) Charleston
b) Savannah
c) Montgomery
d) Atlanta

4. Who tells Scarlett that land is the only thing worth fighting for?
a) Her father
b) Rhett Butler
c) Frank Kennedy
d) Ashley Wilkes

5. Who overhears Scarlett telling Ashley she loves him?
a) Her sister Sue Ellen
b) Melanie
c) Rhett Butler
d) India Wilkes

6. What color is the hat that Rhett brings Scarlett from Paris?
a) black
b) red
c) blue
d) green

7. Just before intermission, a starving Scarlett eats and is sick from what?
a) a rabbit
b) a carrot
c) a potato
d) eggs

8. What color is the dress Scarlett wears in the opening scene of the movie?
a) white
b) green
c) red
d) gold

9. Why does Scarlett visit Rhett in jail?
a) to tell him she loves him
b) to ask for money
c) to help him escape
d) Melanie sent her

10. What does Scarlett give Ashley Wilkes for Christmas?
a) gloves
b) scarf
c) cuff links
d) sash

Answers: 1.c, 2.a, 3.d, 4.a, 5.c, 6.d, 7.b., 8.a, 9.b, 10.d

Monday, December 19, 2011

Newspaper Clippings

In her memoir Why Is My Mother Getting A Tattoo, former Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn says that her parents habitually clipped articles from newspapers and sent them to her. She categorized them under a few separate headings, all falling within the 'human interest story' umbrella, though her father's newspaper clippings were more cautionary tales of what might happen if she weren't constantly on alert. I chuckled at this chapter in her book because I come from a family of newspaper clippers, too.

My grandmother used to mail me letters with carefully cut-out news articles inside. Hers seemed to have nothing to do with my life. She sent me articles on serial killer trials and sales flyers from the mall. I was never sure why she sent these to me, but imagined that she sent just as many clippings to her daughters as she did me. Whether they were relevant to their lives is anyone's guess. I only know mine weren't.

My mother sent me clippings too, and sometimes still cuts them out and saves them for me. But hers make sense. She saves travel articles on places I might like to go, or articles on subjects that she knows I like. Sometimes she clips articles out because it has to do with a topic we were just talking about. I enjoy these snippets for several reasons. I save them in my filing cabinet.

Secretly, I've always hoped that all families do this, and that some of the newspaper articles I wrote in my three years writing for the newspaper were clipped and saved, too. I hope that someone, somewhere, read an article about a horse getting acupuncture and sent it off to a horse owner they knew. I hope that someone read about varieties of champagne and took that article with them to the store when they went shopping for New Year's Eve. I hope that someone read my article on the 1937 flood of the Ohio River and stuck it into an envelope to send to a relative that lived through it.

I've seen some of my restaurant reviews hanging in the windows and lobbies of restaurants. I've seen a clipping displayed in a dentist's office that I highlighted once. Another human interest story; this one centered around the fact that they baked bread  in the office all day long and their reasons for doing so.

Newspapers may become extinct as we move deeper and deeper into the digital age. I hope not. I get such a rare satisfaction from them. Instant gratification when the words first appear in print and then later a second kick out of seeing that people have saved my words even when they don't know that they're mine. I don't know whether I'll ever get the same thrill if/when I manage to publish a book. The newspaper clipping is so simple and clear: someone has read my words and saved them. After all, isn't that what every writer wants? To know that their words have been read?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Glad You Found Me?

I am dying to know who is so incapable of standing in an elevator
 that only goes up and down three floors that they need a chair to sit down?

It always interests me to see what search words bring people to my blog. Most are pretty straightforward, but sometimes weird combinations show up in my Traffic Sources. I jotted down a few of the ones I thought were fun and share them here with you.

Jeezle! He grew a mustache, yes. But he didn’t eat the earth!

This one was easy. Yes, there is a suicide hotline phone on the Golden Gate Bridge, and yes, I took a picture of it. I still wonder whether anyone has used it? The piece I wrote wasn’t actually about the phone. It was about a weird conversation we had during a children’s birthday party. We gave it way too much thought.

all toes amputated
Not even entering these words into a search engine on my blog brings up any results for these words. What in the world??

This surprised me. I don’t ever remember writing about Johnny Depp. I’ve never met or seen him. So I did my own search and found me “Precious Toenail Polish Massacre” story. Now it all makes sense (kinda).

This person had to be disappointed. Oddly enough, when I saw those search words, I thought 'Huh. I did write about the hospital in Nicaragua. I didn’t think I had yet.'  But when I entered the words for the search, I saw that I was correct; I haven’t written about Nicaragua yet. This piece was about my daughter watching Women’s World Cup Soccer. “Third” and “Degree” are interspersed, not together.

I knew exactly what post these words led to: a fictional story about a sociology experiment a young woman conducts. But it’s not in an elevator.

Wow! I loved these search words! They actually linked to my list of “Top 10 Signs You’re Not The Next Food Network Star.” I guess some Food Network Stars probably think they are God, so my list might apply. I thought about coming up with a list of Top 10 Signs You’re Not God, but it could get very out of hand. I was a little afraid to go there.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Online Reservations

I was going to post this picture and write a fictional piece about a family who plans a vacation (finally!) and are greatly disappointed when they arrive at their budget motel only to find that the pool looks like this.  But then I thought, wait a minute. Isn't it actually more horrific that we actually stayed at this hotel in real life?

Thank God we weren't there to swim, but what if we had been? Imagine if we'd planned this as the place to stay on a family vacation. Luckily, this pool was at a motel that we pulled into late one night during a road trip. We spent less than 8 hours at the motel and certainly weren't there to swim.  I'll just let you imagine what the rooms looked like, based on the pool. (Hold your nausea. They weren't really that bad.)

But there have been times that we've booked accommodations only to discover that they weren't what we'd pictured in our minds. For instance, the hotel I stayed at in China looked incredible online. The facade was absolutely beautiful and looked 5-star deluxe. Once I got there, I realized that the picture was taken from quite a distance away. In truth, the hotel was surrounded by construction, parking lots, and mud. There was a sewer-ish smell down one wing of the hotel that other people later told me they'd smelled, too, when they stayed there the year before.

Then there was the "mountainside cabin" in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Doesn't that sound perfect? You're imagining it right now, aren't you? Is this what you pictured: a mobile home crammed in with other mobile homes butted up against a hill where there'd been a forest fire a couple of years ago? There were blackened stumps and plenty of ticks, and yes - a mountain. Still, not quite what we'd imagined.

Luckily, we're the sort of family who finds humor in the unexpected. The South Dakota trip was incredible and the "cabin" just added to the fun. Actually, what I love about travel is the element of surprise; the experiences that we don't plan for and that provide stories later. So we stayed in motel with a brackish green pool. My fictional family's vacation might have been ruined. But I just chalked it up to part of the adventure on our road trip to Florida where we swam in the ocean instead.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deja Vu Double

Okay. I'm cheating. I couldn't pick just one post to re-post, but I did whittle it down to one fiction and one non-fiction. There were several more contenders, but I settled on these two. The Posture of Exploration was the inspiration for this blog, so it seems like an important one to me. I knew I wanted to write about the conference I went to where I decided to create a blog and make its format based on writing about a picture each day. I chose the Cinderella story because it's one of my favorite fictional pieces based on the picture I took.

So here they are - my Deja Vu Doubles. Enjoy!

The Posture of Exploration

I recently attended a conference that began with Story Musgrave (astronaut, farmer, and mechanic on the Hubble telescope) showing us a picture from his childhood in the 1930’s. In it, he was a small boy, crouched down, looking at something in the grass. He called this pose “The Posture of Exploration” and said that creativity stems from a childhood spent crouched in this position.

Later that afternoon, Dayna Baumeister (biologist and biomimicry expert) began her speech. She had a slideshow, too, and was astonished to find that she had a similar slide in her presentation deck. In it, her children are crouched near rocks in a creek, looking down at whatever treasure they’d discovered. She said she’d put that slide in to illustrate the point that we should all take time to observe and study nature for inspiration.

As soon as her slide appeared on the screen, duplicating Story’s earlier slide, I immediately wondered whether I had similar slides of my children. I went home that night and pulled out old photo albums and stacks of snapshots shoved to the back of old drawers. Sure enough, I had pictures of my own children in this same Posture of Exploration pose. Which lead me to believe two things:

First, that this pose is universal among children.  I suppose it’s only natural that children explore the ground beneath them. They often observe things that adults don’t notice, perhaps because they are closer to their subjects, or maybe because they have a more appreciative manner while they’re young. I remember when spying a caterpillar, or ant hill, or shiny quartz rock excited me. The wonder of children captures that old cliché that it’s the little things in life that matter. And as Story and Dayna both pointed out, that curiosity and appreciation of nature can lead to greater results in life.

The second realization I had as I held those two photos of my children in my hands, is that taking pictures of our children in the Posture of Exploration pose is something of a universal truth, too. Why is it that parents grab their cameras and snap a picture of their children crouched in wonder? It’s not because the pictures turn out well. In fact, you can’t tell what the children are looking at in any of the pictures I mention or show here. What we’re capturing instead is the beauty of seeing our children observe the world around them. For a moment, we are as mesmerized with the natural world as our children are, because we are seeing it anew through their eyes.


Cinderella's Stepsister Gets A New Home
Your Homely Sister is a gift shop in Hamilton, Ohio

Cinderella and Prince Charming were on their way home from their honeymoon when the prince told Cinderella that he'd nearly married her stepsister Drizella.

"Yeah, she crammed her foot into your glass slipper and wobbled around on high heels planning the wedding."

"She WHAT?!" Cinderella pulled her royal cell phone out of her purse and made a few calls. "I want her out of the royal palace right now. I don't care where she goes as long as I never have to see her ugly face again!"

The prince tried to calm down his bride, but Cinderella wasn't having it. "I've put up with her crap for years. I've scrubbed up stains that she made on purpose. I've listened to her big, fat snoring mouth every night while I slept on the floor above her. I've stayed home and played with mice while she went to fancy parties and balls. And now you want me to calm down? I don't think so."

"Cindy, Cindy. I'm not saying you have to like her, but we can't just throw her out onto the street. How would that look? She's part of the royal family now, whether we like her or not."

Cinderella considered this. She didn't want to tarnish her new golden reputation. She pulled out her cell phone again and called her fairy godmother.  "Can you make her a place to live? Someplace small. Make sure the floor needs cleaned, and make sure she has plenty of cleaning supplies around. Let her rip up her dresses for rags and let's make her new quarters open to the public so she has to keep up appearances. Put a sign over her door."

She flipped her phone closed and sat back against the plush carriage velvet with a smug smile on her face. "I've found a place for Drizella to live," she gleefully told the prince.

"That's great, Cindy," he said and patted her knee. "I knew you'd come up with something."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

While browsing through some of the blogs I follow yesterday, I learned about the Deja Vu Blogfest. Becky Povich supplied this link to Cruising Altitude 2.0 and I couldn't help but sign up. Sounds like fun.

I'm supposed to re-post my favorite blog post tomorrow, December 16th. That means I have a lot of scrolling to do tonight to figure out which one. I don't even know which genre I'm going to pick. Should I go with a fictional piece? Or an essay? Maybe a travel story? I don't know. Perhaps I should go with the post that was most inspired by the picture I chose since that's the premise of my blog. I don't have a clue.

Decisions, decisions. Until tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Learning To Drive

She's not really screaming because she's in the car with a student driver, but isn't this picture perfect?
My friend is teaching her son to drive. Oh, the memories! I think I was pretty lucky. My son was a good, if cautious, driver. In fact, his over-cautiousness was his only real fault. For instance, we’d be driving down a road and he’d see a woman start to back out of her driveway, so he’d stop to let the other car out. I told him he was being too polite and it was confusing people. He stopped doing it. 

I actually learned to drive on the highway. Oh, I’d driven around a few subdivisions, too, but my dad and I drove between Columbus and Cincinnati nearly every weekend and he thought it was a good place for me to get comfortable behind the wheel. It makes sense when you think about it: there is no opposing traffic. No one is coming toward you. There’s not much question of right-of-way, where to turn, etc.. I think I scared him once when he told me to get into the right-hand lane and I immediately jerked the wheel as if we were about to smack into a wall. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever heard him scream. J
But learning to drive and then actually having a license to drive are two different things. My son went from being cautious to thinking that he “drives better at high speeds.” The policemen who have issued him speeding tickets disagree.
And I learned to drive, but learned on an automatic. So when my parents gave me a used car with a stick shift, everything I’d learned in my driver’s training was for naught. I invariably got stuck on hills, unable to get my car to move forward in first gear without stalling – repeatedly. One thing I never learned in Driver’s Ed. or when I was learning in the car with my parents is what to do when other drivers are honking, cursing, and making crude gestures at you. I didn’t learn how to put on my hazard lights and wipe my tears as I tried and tried again to make it through stoplights as everyone else screamed at me for being a moron. I wasn't taught who was technically at fault as I tried and tried again to get the car in first but instead rolled backward into the car behind me.
Eventually I learned. We all do. And then we chuckle when our friends say that they’re teaching their teenagers how to drive. I'm sure that soon my friend will have a story to tell, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reading Nooks at the Mall

In Darmstadt, Germany there is a shopping mall called Loop5. It uses an aerospace motif in its decoration and design. What I loved most about it were these reading nook areas located on every floor. They are shaped like the interior of a jet and there are airline seats in each one. People sat and read in every one of them I saw in the mall, which I found ironic. When you're on a jet, you can't wait to get out of the seats. But at this mall, people deliberately go sit in them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Salem Witch Books

There are two periods in history that absolutely fascinate me: The Holocaust, and the Salem Witch Trials. I am drawn to fictional books about them and am amazed every time I read a new spin on the topics. I've already shared a list of some of my favorite Holocaust novels. Now here are some of my thoughts on books set during the Salem witch period.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller -
Not surprisingly, I love this play. It is the basis for everything I think of when I think of the Salem witch trials. Even when I visited Salem, Massachusetts and went to a dramatic short play of events there, an excerpt of The Crucible was what they chose to perform.

Witch Child by Celia Rees
This young adult novel was beautifully written and was hard to put down. Mary, the "granddaughter" of a woman accused and tortured for being a witch, travels to Puritan England to escape being killed next. But the locals there don't trust her. If they had any idea that Mary does possess magical skills, she would surely be killed. But we, as readers, are privy to the fact that Mary is a witch and she tells us her tale through diary entries. (I believe there's a sequel to this novel. I must investigate!)

Time of the Witches by Anna Myers
This middle grade novel introduces two new characters into families that anyone who follows the real events in Salem already knows. Drucilla and Gabe are orphans sent to live with Salem families: the Putnams. As the hysteria begins and Ann Putnam makes her accusations, Drucilla feels herself pulled into the hysteria and makes an accusation, too. 

This book explores the psychological phenomena that was likely the cause of the the witch hunts in Salem. Unless, of course, you think the hysteria was actually caused by witchcraft...

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
I bought this book after I met the author at Books by the Banks in 2010. During Katherine Howe's research, she learned that she was related to real-life accused witches Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Procter. That alone made me want to read the book, which I later decided was based largely on Howe's own research. The main character, Connie, is a graduate student at Harvard looking for new primary historical resources and discovers the physick book, or spell book, of a woman she would later learn she was related to. The book was good, but didn't have the drama and threat that I like to associate with Salem witch books.

Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry.
This book was published in 1964 and it shows. While it follows the same characters that we know from history, it did not hold my interest at all and I didn't make it past the first 30 pages. Don't waste your time when there are better witch books to read.

My top picks:  The Crucible and Witch Child

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Melanie took her turn collecting eggs from the plush chickens tucked into the make-believe chicken coop. The preschoolers were learning about farm animals, though Melanie was sure she knew everything there was to know.

"How come chickens lay eggs?" Robert asked.

"So that baby chicks can be born," his teacher replied.

"And so we can eat them!" Jessie added enthusiastically. She spent a lot of time in the kitchen wither her mother.

"Farmers who raise chickens go out and collect the eggs every morning," the teacher continued her lesson. "They put them in baskets and sometimes take them to the market to sell."

"That's not what I'm doing," Melanie said softly. "I'm collecting the eggs just like my grandpa taught me. Then he lets me take them in the big barn and put a blanket on them to keep them warm. I take care of them just like their mama does and then when they're born they'll think I'm their mama since I took such good care of them."

"Chickens don't think people are their mamas!" Alyssa exclaimed. "Only babies think people are their mamas!"

"Yeah, chickens can't think," Robert added.

"Plus, we need to eat the eggs," Jessie insisted.

"Class, settle down. All of you make very good points. But let's go back to talking about farmers and the chores they have to do on the farm. Feeding the chickens and collecting eggs are just the start."

Melanie shook her head and held her basket close to her, covering it with her arms. "It's not a chore to take care of something you love," she said. "My grandpa told me. He said if you love something, you want to take care of it and don't mind getting up early and going out in the cold. He said you do it because you care. He said there are no chores on a farm if you love being a farmer."

Mrs. Chamberlain remembered now that Melanie had recently lost her grandfather. She smiled at Melanie and nodded her head. "Your grandfather is right," she said. "Let's talk about what other animals live on the farm, class. Does anyone know?"

Several small arms shot into the air as the children began calling out pigs, cows and roosters. Only Melanie sat quiet, leaning over her basket of eggs with her body, protectively keeping them warm just like her grandfather had taught her.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Can't Go Back

Ten years ago I worked at Scholastic Book Fairs. It was a dream job; I was a Field Rep who went to the schools and talked to the librarians, teachers, parents and kids about the books on the fair. It almost didn't seem like work, except for the few hours a week I had to spend in the office, where the managers didn't even like to read and couldn't have cared less about the books. They saw no value in the Field Reps reading the books or being knowledgeable about literature. Think about this: when we ran out of Harry Potters (which we did often, because it was all new then), they suggested we replace the title with old Magic Tree House books that we had in surplus.

The management there was terrible. They were dishonest, changed the sales figures so that they got bonuses and we didn't, and had little respect for their employees. I don't usually make disparaging remarks about specific people on this blog, but I have nothing nice to say about the management there. I left when they decided that Field Reps could work from the office instead of actually going to the schools. What was the point?

I stayed in touch with many of my friends there. In fact, we formed a book club and kept our friendship and common love of books alive for years. Working at Scholastic Books Fairs was a positive experience in my life. So when I saw an email looking for volunteers to work at the Warehouse Sale, I thought, why not? I had a few vacation days and thought it would be fun to revisit the warehouse shelves and see what was new in children's literature since I've lost touch since leaving. Plus, I'd earn some free books.

I pulled into the parking lot and smiled when I saw Clifford on the side of the trucks. It always makes me happy when I happen to see a Scholastic truck on the road or in front of a school. I loved the book fairs. I was as excited as a kid walking into the fair.

I parked my car and walked in. The smell of sawdust (pallets), cardboard, and books nearly overwhelmed me. I loved that smell. I was home.

I went into the conference room to await volunteer training and saw two red (Clifford-inspired) plush chairs and a shelf full of children's books. They'd made a reading nook in the corner. I wanted to go sit in those seats so badly. I wanted to run my finger along the spines of the books and sit down to read. Then I chuckled to myself and wondered what my old managers would have thought. They would have never let us take a break to sit and read. Time was money. Books were money. Everything was money.

I kept staring at the books on the shelves. I missed that job. If they would have walked in and offered me my old job back, I would have seriously considered it, even though it paid only half what I earn now. But instead, the volunteer coordinator walked in. I recognized her right away, though we'd never really worked together before. I was surprised that she was still there. I could tell she recognized me, too, but couldn't place me.

She assigned me to be a greeter. She handed three of us a "script" and told us where to stand. I never saw her again in the four hours I talked to every single person that walked in. In fact, when my time was up, I had to hunt her down to sign out and get my voucher. I guess "volunteer coordinator" had nothing to do with working with volunteers...

While I was there I did see other people I knew. There were half a dozen warehouse workers that I know have been there now for 20 or 30 years. They were fantastic people and workers back when I worked there. They were treated badly, and I'm surprised that they've stayed, but was glad to see them. I considered them something of survivors. They'd hung in, and hopefully things were better now.

Then the warehouse manager walked out. It was the same man! And behind him were the same verbally abusive and crooked managers that had been there all those years before. I couldn't believe it! And yet, I could. They kept rewarding themselves, so why would they leave? I shook my head and all the old, negative feelings came back. I knew I'd never volunteer there again.

And then I'd change my mind. School librarians walked in. Ones I remembered fondly. I could still picture their school libraries and the way the set up and decorated their book fairs. I was overcome with remembering how we'd talked about the books and the authors and what the kids were reading. I'd loved that job. They remembered me, too. It was a strange mix of emotions, standing there reminiscing about good old times with the librarians while over their shoulders I could see the managers who turned a dream job into nothing but sales numbers.

That's when I realized: you can't go back. I spent four hours on a rollercoaster of emotion and memory. Such highs and lows. So many contradictory sensory experiences there as I directed people to the books they wanted to find and watched the managers through the break room window, sitting with cups of coffee and snacks as they watched their employees on the floor for 2 1/2 hours straight.

Picking out books after my shift was bittersweet. I flipped the books over and read the back covers, choosing my books quickly yet carefully so that I could get out of there once and for all. I continued feeling high's and low's even after I got home and was disappointed with how the day had turned out. I won't volunteer at the warehouse sale again. I'll leave the volunteering to helping with the books fairs at schools. I've learned my lesson: you can't go back.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oooo, Oooo, Ooooo, (Clap, clap clap-clap) UC!

Huddle up. Good news for UC Bearcat football fans. Despite schools such as UCLA trying to lure Coach Butch Jones away, he has said that he will stay in Cincinnati. This is huge news for those of us still sore and smarting from Brian Kelly's underhanded departure two years ago right before the UC Bearcats went to the Sugar Bowl.

Now we're headed to the Liberty Bowl and were gun-shy that the Brian Kelly debacle would happen again. But it hasn't. Butch Jones is staying. Cincinnati loves you, Butch Jones!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fish Philosophy

I have now attended seminars on the Fish philosophy twice, but have yet to incorporate what I've learned when I return to the office. For those unfamiliar with the Fish philosophy, it is based on the fish stand at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington. The employees there have taken a seemingly dirty, smelly, unappreciated job and turned it into something fun. So fun, in fact, that it's become a tourist attraction in Seattle. If you go to Pike Place Farmer's Market, you'll see them laughing, engaging with the crowds, and throwing fish. Few people leave there without wishing they could work there, too.

So how do they do it? How do they turn a thankless, malodorous, cold, wet job into a place that people come on their lunch breaks and wish they could work at? They employee these four principles:
  • Be there
  • Play
  • Make Their Day
  • Choose Your Attitude
They goof around and joke with each other and the crowds passing by. They meet the eyes of shoppers and are present when they speak with them. They invite passersby to don aprons and then throw them some fish. They choose to be outrageous. They laugh. They don't take themselves seriously. They play. It all seems so easy.

And yet, it's not that easy. Seminars are given on how to adopt the Fish philosophies in the workplace. A book has been written about it. Managers all over the world have tried to introduce the principles to their work groups. But none of them have become the world class fish throwers that the philosophy was based on.

Why is that? There are doubtless hundreds of reasons why others struggle with making work more fun. Maybe it doesn't seem like work if there's too much "playing." Maybe one person's idea of fun isn't the same as the rest of the group's. Maybe they're trying too hard to create a "fun" environment when fun really needs to be spontaneous and not something taught or enforced.

I know the most enjoyable places I've worked embraced an atmosphere of fun, but it wasn't because we took a class on the Fish philosophy or started throwing toys around in an attempt to create a more playful environment. The Fish philosophy should be nothing more than inspiration, but instead, it's become a doctrine to adopt.
Can this be right? Can fun be mandated? I'll let you know. Tomorrow at work, we're going to have fun.  I know, because it's on the agenda.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Costa Rican Coffee Tours

The tour guide "plantation workers" at Cafe Britt.
If you’re a coffee drinker lucky enough to find yourself in Costa Rica, you’ll probably want to visit a coffee plantation. Near the capital city of San Jose, you’ll find two opportunities to do so: Cafe Britt in Heredia, or the Doka Estate on the road to the Poas Volcano. Though they impart the same information, the two tours are very different. So how do you know which to choose? Decide for yourself.

The tour of the Doka Estate is much more scientific and allows visitors the chance to stand high on a mountain where Arabica beans are grown. From the tour site, visitors can wander among palm trees and down a short path into the rows of coffee bushes that cover the mountainside. This is a working plantation with a working wet mill that runs on hydraulic power. While some coffee is roasted here under the name of Cafe Tres Generaciones, most of the beans grown and processed at Doka are shipped elsewhere for roasting.

In the Heredia district outside of San Jose, visitors can tour Cafe Britt. Like Doka, the staff at Cafe Britt explain how coffee beans are grown, hand-picked and processed. They include a tour of the roasting facility as well; a much more industrialized factory than the old-fashioned mills and machinery at Doka.

What differentiates Cafe Britt from other coffee tours is their entertaining approach to teaching visitors about coffee. Costumed actors greet visitors as they arrive and then walk them through a patch of shaded coffee bushes where they impart the same basic information about coffee, though they do this by interacting in character with the crowd.

Both tours offer guests insight into the cultivation of coffee and how coffee is processed and roasted. The Doka estate is dedicated to growing coffee. Cafe Britt centers on the roasting process, which is considered an art form. Both tours include samplings of Costa Rican Arabica bean coffee and the opportunity to buy as many bags as your heart desires. 

Coffee lovers visiting the San Jose area can’t go wrong with either tour. Choosing one depends on whether you want a more campy, entertaining tour like the one offered at Cafe Britt, or a more authentic, mountainside plantation experience like that at the Doka Estate. Either way, you’ll sample some of the finest coffee Costa Rica has to offer.

Coffee beans at Doka Estates

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Man vs. Nature

I do not want to think about the upcoming battles with snow. The rain was bad enough.

My favorite short story is "To Build a Fire" by Jack London. I remember reading it in school as we learned about the different kinds of thematic conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Self, and of course my favorite, Man vs. Nature.

For those not familiar with Jack London's story, he tells the tale of a man stranded on a Yukon trail in subzero weather. London is a masterful storyteller and was able to convey the chilling, frozen scene for his readers. We felt the cold in our bones and held our breath as we waited to see whether his protagonist would be able to light a fire to survive. Ultimately, the man is no match for nature.

I think this early love of the Man vs. Nature theme spawned my fascination with natural disasters and weather in general. Little did I realize I would play my own Man vs. Nature game yesterday as my husband and I battled the constant rain flooding our downstairs area. No, it was not a mortal fight, but it was draining both emotionally and physically as we siphoned water from the floors and carpets every way we could. After hours of back-breaking work and an end to the rain, the standing water was finally gone, leaving us with soaking wet carpet and dozens of drenched towels and blankets.

Nature, we won this time. But I know how fickle that temporary victory may be.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Making the Most of Disaster

I've noticed several commercials on television lately, promoting the Gulf states as tourist attractions. Apparently tourism is at its highest in nearly a decade, which makes sense since people would have been traveling to disaster sites if they'd gone there during most of the past several years. But then, the disaster sites have actually become tourist attractions in themselves.

In New Orleans, several tour companies offer trips to the (still) ravaged parts of the Lower 9th Ward where they haven't completely demolished the damaged  houses, and haven't re-built much either. I can't help but wonder whether they even plan to? Is the tourist trade more profitable than new houses would be?

I actually enjoyed this part of my trip to New Orleans in 2008 and 2009, and wouldn't blame the city for keeping some of the damage intact. Like places in Europe that maintain the destruction from WWII, the Lower 9th Ward is a point of curiosity.

What I find most interesting about the new tourism ads for the Gulf states is that the commercials are sponsored by bp. I assume that's their way of rectifying the damage they did to the small businesses that were hurt by dwindling tourism after the massive oil spill. Which makes me wonder whether part of the damaged, oily beaches still remain, too, as another tourism attraction? It's almost worth a trip down there to see.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cincinnati Football Weekend

UC Bearcat football practice, Fall 2010

I've only been a football fan for the past three years, but now enjoy spending the weekends watching Cincinnati football with my husband. We're both UC Bearcat fans and are excited that UC will go to a bowl game this year. We don't know which one yet, but are already talking about traveling to see the game if we can.

I like NFL better than college football, so today is my day. Hopefully the Bengals can beat the Steelers. I mean -- of course the Bengals will beat the Steelers!

My husband thinks that wearing his UC shirt every week is bringing them luck. He won't wash it until they've won their bowl game.

I know that the Bengals secret weapon is my dog, Chipsy. Whenever I can get him to watch with me, they win. He's napping now so he'll be ready for the big game.

Sundays have long been my favorite day of the week, and now that I've become a Cincinnati football fan (I only watch the Bearcats and the Bengals) I've come to think that cold gray Sundays and football go together perfectly.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Marketing Books

Most writers today know that they will be heavily responsible for marketing their books. The tactics are endless for those who think outside the box. In fact, many books have been written on the subject. I was thinking about this yesterday when I opened my mailbox and found a postcard from author Starbuck O'Dwyer. Our paths have crossed a few times in the past six years, largely because he continues to market his books to me. Quite effectively, I might add, since I plan to go buy his newest books as a result of the postcard I got in the mail.

I first heard of Starbuck O'Dwyer in 2005. I was driving to work and he was doing a radio interview to promote his satirical novel Red Meat Cures Cancer. At the time, I was a book reviewer for Cox Newspapers and decided that this was a book I wanted to review. So I read it, wrote my article, and mailed O'Dwyer a clipping. He wrote back, thanking me for the review and then kept my name and address on file.

I received an email from him a few years later, keeping his name forefront in my mind. And then I received this postcard yesterday, hand-addressed to me, promoting his latest books How To Raise A Good Kid and Goliath Gets Up. I plan to read both. O'Dwyer knew what he was doing by collecting data on his target readers, of which I am one. This was an effective marketing ploy and one I'll remember once I publish my book(s).

Here's the review I wrote of Red Meat Cures Cancer:

In Red Meat Cures Cancer, we meet protagonist Sky Thorne, Chief Operating Officer of Tailburger, a bottom of the barrel burger franchise that subsists on the tastes of jail inmates, wrestling fans, and junk food junkies. In a society now dominated with low-fat, no-fat, lean and green menu options, Tailburger serves instead a “four-battered dipped, deep-fried” burger with “five generous dollops of Cajun-style mayonnaise," Enormasize fries, and their signature drink-- the Tailfrap, a beef-flavored concoction with more fat grams than several days’ recommended allowance.

Beef intake is flagging and sales are down, so Sky‘s boss Frank Fanoflincoln orders Sky to beef up market shares by 5% or lose his job. With only months to go before he is eligible for his pension, Sky is frantic.

Other fast food giants are adding healthy options to their menus, but Sky feels this route won’t gain him the 5% increase he needs. Instead, he rolls out his new “Torture Me” marketing campaign, building on the destructive tendencies of Tailburger consumers rather than trying to convert new customers.

The “Torture Me” campaign includes advertising spots on a cynical, downtrodden movie about a clown’s descent toward suicide. A basketball icon who puts away a dozen Tailburgers at a sitting endorses the product despite his heart condition. And the marketing gurus have developed tag lines to appeal to segments of their demographic market, including,

For those who’d given up on attracting a mate:
“Why Just Abuse Your Body when you can Torture it?”

Sky is pinning all his hopes on the successful outcome of the “Torture Me” campaign, but he’s facing tough opposition from an anti-red meat lobbying organization called S.E.R.M.O.N. (Stop Eating Red Meat Now) who want to make burger establishments responsible for health care costs associated with eating red meat. S.E.R.M.O.N. will eventually go after the big boys - McDonald’s and Burger King, but they’re starting small, going after Tailburger, whose political allies are small potatoes in the beef industry.

As the “Torture Me” campaign starts to fall apart and Sky’s chances for his pension and early retirement start to fade, Sky contemplates partnering Tailburger with adult entertainment, a sure-fire way to increase the market shares so he can finally get out of the business once and for all.

Meanwhile, Sky’s daughter, Sophia, demands thousands of dollars from her guilt-ridden father with each phone call home. Her requests for business school tuition and breast augmentation sink Sky deeper into debt. His son, Ethan, continually asks him to finance his fledgling enterprise, sure that at any moment he’ll be an instant millionaire, capable of retiring before the age of 30.

And Sky’s ex-wife’s widower wants his piece of the pie, too. He is suing Sky for 50% of his pension.

With characters named Plot Thickens, Muffet Meaney, and Biff Dilworth, O’Dwyer forgoes good taste in order to take a stab at our reigning pop culture.
This funny, biting commentary gives us a look at the materialism clogging our arteries in pursuit of the American dream. This rich novel sizzles with wicked portrayals of family, friends, politics and free enterprise. Even as Sky engages in unethical and illegal steps to raise market shares, he moves closer and closer to career success. Which raises the question-- “Enormasize it?” 

Friday, December 2, 2011

In and Out of Love

Miranda lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling as she agonized over every word of her conversation with Peter the night before.

I just don't love you any more, he'd said. Or had he said, I'm not in love with you anymore? Miranda's brow furrowed as she tried to remember his exact words. It seemed important somehow, though she knew the meaning was the same. But what had he actually said?

She could see his face so clearly in her mind. The distant look in his eyes and the way he kept looking off to the side of her head. He so clearly avoided eye contact. She knew he wanted to leave, and felt trapped by her presence in the room. She'd stood between him and the door. Is that what he'd been looking at? His escape?

I don't love you anymore. She heard the deep consonance of his voice repeating the line in her mind. What had she said back? What had he said next? It was already becoming a blur and it was only the night before.

Miranda remembered the first time Peter had told her he loved her. They were riding bikes and he tossed the words into the air behind him as he pedaled faster. She almost wasn't sure he'd said them; they caught her so off guard. But she'd stood on her bike pedals, careening faster toward him as she yelled for him to repeat what he'd said. Then abruptly he'd stopped and she sailed right past him before wobbling off the path and falling into a bush. He laughed and said he didn't realize she'd take the news so hard. She told him she loved him back and they kissed.

She'd replayed those words over and over, too, staring at the same ceiling she looked at now. Back then, she'd felt giddy and concentrated on remembering the feel of the wind, and the profile of his face as he'd smiled back at her and said he loved her. She'd analyzed every detail of that day, reliving it over and over all night. She hadn't been able to sleep.

She couldn't sleep tonight either. She saw the tight clench of his jawline and the hooded expression in his eyes just before he left. What had he said? I don't love you anymore or I'm not in love with you any more? It somehow seemed important.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Carols

Horrible picture, but children singing
Christmas carols always puts me
in the holiday spirit.
December 1st kicks off the Christmas season for me. When I was a child, I would have played Christmas carol records year round but my mother told me I had to wait until December 1st to listen to them. I don’t think either one of us realized that I played Christmas carols all the time because it was my favorite part of Christmas.
My love of carols actually stems from Christmas Eves spent at my Aunt Linda’s house, not from records. We used to gather together every year at Linda’s house, exchanging gifts, eating, drinking, and being merry, until the night finally culminated with round after round of Christmas carols.
At first, my great uncle Charles used to play the piano as we each took a turn choosing a carol to sing. After he died, my aunt Nancy took over, or my cousin Vance. We had plenty of piano players in the family and a nice, thick book of sheet music.
More than the tradition of singing, I came to realize that each member of the extended family had their favorite carols and I began to anticipate these each year. My aunt Linda always chose I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Her son Vance chose O Holy Night. My dad always insisted on Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, and my brother liked Away in a Manger.
It’s been more than 25 years since we gathered at Linda’s house for Christmas Eve, but I still remember the favorites. Some are fading now. I can’t remember whether my aunt Nancy picked Good King Wenceslas or Silent Night. I don’t know what my grandmother or my mother chose. Linda moved and we discontinued Christmas Eves before I ever got see which songs my children would choose.
So now it’s December and we’re playing Christmas carols at my house. Maybe this will be the year we start singing our favorites at my house. We don’t have a piano; it will have to be a cappella. But I want to learn all the favorites again, and give my children that gift of tradition that I was so lucky to have.