Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Picking Cotton

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson
answer questions at Miami University.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped in the middle of the night in her own off-campus apartment. She woke to find a man in her room. Once she realized that he intended to rape her, she decided to focus on her assailant and memorize every detail about him that she could in order to help the police catch and convict him. She narrowly escaped her assailant that night and underwent a rape kit at the hospital and worked with the police to make a composite sketch based on her description of the man. She later picked Ronald Cotton as her rapist from a batch of photos, and identified him again in a line-up. Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before DNA evidence proved he was innocent in Jennifer’s attack and he was exonerated of the crime.

Thompson and Cotton have since collaborated on a book that tells their stories, and now make public appearances together to bring awareness to the fallibility of eye witness identification and the number of people wrongly convicted based on that testimony.

I was fortunate enough to hear them speak last night as part of Miami University’s Criminal Justice Week. The room was packed to standing room only, and yet, as Jennifer spoke, you could have heard a pin drop. No one moved. No one rustled or made any sound at all. We were riveted.

I know that Jennifer has told her story hundreds, if not thousands of times now, and yet, she mustered up all the fear, anger, rage, and hate that she went through. Her performance made us feel as though the rape and trial had happened just months ago. We were right there with her, hating Ronald Cotton, too. Except that Ronald Cotton was the wrong man.

Once she finished, he rose from his seat and walked up to the podium to tell his account of the story. Soft-spoken and much less emotional than Jennifer, Ronald described the confusion he felt when he heard that the police were looking for him. He went to the police station to clear up the matter and was instead handcuffed, arrested, and placed on $150,000 bail that his family could not pay. Later, in court, Jennifer identified him again as her attacker and the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

He told us all of this matter-of-factly. Then the judge asked him if he had anything to say and instead of words, he broke into song; a song he had written to God while he was incarcerated awaiting trial. He sang it for us, just as he had in court, and we sat spellbound.

Despite the fact that Ronald has shared the platform with Jennifer during all their speaking engagements, his speech was not as polished and practiced. Instead, his quiet demeanor came through and we could feel what a gentle man he is.

Both Jennifer and Ronald described what life was like once he was released from prison. He wanted to meet her, but she was scared to death that he would hate (and possibly hurt) her for what her testimony had done to him. Family members finally convinced her to meet him so the two met at a church. She immediately apologized to him, telling him that she could never apologize enough, but hoped that someday he could forgive her.

“I forgave you years ago,” he said. And that changed everything for her.

I read Picking Cotton a couple years ago, so was already familiar with the story, but hearing them speak together was more powerful than I ever could have expected. They intend to keep traveling around the country, encouraging people to work toward justice reform. If you ever have the opportunity to hear them speak, do. Their story will change you, too.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Our House Got TP'ed!

We woke up this morning to find that our house had been TP'ed during the night. Halfheartedly toilet-papered; they only used two rolls, but still. It came as quite a surprise. And that's exactly how we reacted: surprised.

When I think about toilet-papering a house, I think of juvenile pranks intended to either irritate the person who lives there, or elevate them, like athletes who dump a cooler full of Gatorade on their teammates. I'm not sure how this episode was intended. It was pretty harmless, and we found it amusing, so I'll go with it being fun-spirited.

We're trying to figure out who might have done it. I wondered if my husband was the target? He's a teacher. One of his students could have figured out where he lives. Or it could have been aimed toward my daughter's attention. Maybe a neighborhood boy likes her? Of course, our house could have been chosen at random. Or it could have been the antics of one of the neighborhood kids who knew that we wouldn't get upset about it.

Whatever it was about, it amused us. We've never had this happen, and felt oddly special to have been singled out.

I'm sure we would have felt differently if it had rained.

Now I'm wondering what will happen to our house on Halloween?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Summer Ends with a Snowball Fight

My husband knows how to create magical moments. One of which was the snowball fight that my kids and their cousins partook in as summer ended.

He grabbed the Tupperware container that has been filling our freezer for eight months. Inside, were a dozen snowballs that he and my daughter collected during their snowball fight last winter. He had the foresight to save some so that we could have a snowball fight with my son when he came to visit from Georgia -- where he rarely sees snow.

So we summoned the kids from the pool and went from this:

To this:

Summer passed so quickly that I didn't even blog. And now we're zooming forward to winter, which means more snowballs, and then another epic snowball fight next summer. One of the more joyous cycles of seasons and life.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

love anthony

from Amazon

My nephew is autistic.

Ever since he was diagnosed, I've read anything I come across that has to do with the subject. The back blurb of Lisa Genova's novel love anthony caught my attention immediately. She tells the tale of a woman who is grieving the loss of her autistic son, and trying to make sense of his short life.

Not surprisingly, I flipped immediately to the Author page to see whether she was dealing with autism in her own family, but the brief bio on her gave nothing away. I bought the book and began reading instead, and knew I'd made the right choice on page 15, when Genova writes this about her character:

     When Anthony turned three and they were told with certainty what they were dealing with, she believed she'd find somebody somewhere who could help them, an expert who could transform their lives.
     She scoured every self-help book, then every medical journal, every memoir, every blog, every online parent support network. She read Jenny McCarthy and the Bible. She read and hoped and prayed and believed in anything claiming help, rescue, reversal, salvation. Somebody somewhere must know something. Somebody must have the key that would unlock her son.

When Wyatt was diagnosed, I, too, read Jenny McCarthy's book, and blogs, and memoirs, trying to see if there was something we could do to pull Wyatt through "the window" as Jenny described it. We inundated my brother and his ex-wife with information and they processed their own information, and we all moved toward acceptance at different speeds.

I'm not Wyatt's parent. I'm his aunt. And as such, I know I can't cure him. I can't experiment with the multitude of approaches that seem almost limitless in their scope. It's not up to me - or any of us, really, to try to "save" Wyatt. This book helped me see that. My brother and his ex-wife already seem to know that. This is Wyatt. He is autistic, and that's okay.

But there's still that niggling to figure out how to connect with Wyatt in some way. The boy in Genova's book is so much like Wyatt that I was both excited and nearly compelled to write to the author and tell her how much her book validated everything we've experienced with Wyatt. He is so like the boy in the book that I was astounded. And I came away from the reading with one little take-away that I feel like I just have to try.

The boy in the book likes musical birthday cards. I know Wyatt isn't Anthony, but I'm going to go buy a card anyway, because what if Wyatt likes it, too? I'm not sure I can ever stop trying to reach him.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hollywood Comes to Mansfield

When the producers of The Shawshank Redemption began scouting locations, they wanted an empty prison to use. With its imposing structure and stone walls, the Ohio State Reformatory (OSR) was the perfect choice.


Much of the movie features the cell blocks where Andy and Red reside, and the outside yard where their friendship was formed. I had hoped to see the cell blocks featured in the movie, but learned that they had to build that set somewhere else since prison cell blocks don’t face each other. Some of the administrative offices were in good enough condition to be used as movie scenes. The Warden’s office was intact, and the safe we see him enter his ill-gotten gains into was set into the wall here.

I shared the shots of Brooks’ apartment in my last post. That was on location, as well as the room where Red approached the parole board each decade.

What I don’t have pictures of are scenes from other movies filmed at the Ohio Reformatory. Movies like Air Force One, Tango & Cash, Fallen Angels and Harry & Walter Go To New York. Plus, Marilyn Manson once used the site as a backdrop for a fashion layout.

Haunted Mansfield

Not surprisingly, the Ohio Reformatory is also the site of many paranormal investigations. On several occasions throughout the year, the prison hosts Ghost Walks, overnight Ghost Hunts, and Haunted Prison Halloween Tours in October.
Zac Bagans of Ghost Adventures filmed an episode here. Apparently, his partner Nick felt burning sensation in one of the cells. (But then again, doesn’t someone from Ghost Adventures always feel some sort of attack?)

The TAPS crew of Ghost Hunters filmed here, too.

My husband is dying to go on an overnight ghost hunt, but I’m not as eager. The building is creepy enough during the day, with lead-based paint peeling from the walls and ceilings and rusted iron bars disintegrating onto my body and clothes. I peered into many of the cells and then scurried down the rusty plank toward the slightly-more sturdy rusted stairs.


Though I’m sure I’ll give in eventually and hunt for ghosts all night, I was satisfied wandering through the prison during the day. In addition to our regular self-guided tour, we took a “Behind the Scenes” guided tour of the nooks and crannies of the prison. For $5.00, it was quite a value! We spent an hour and a half with our guide, exploring the basement, solitary confinement, the attic, the armory, both cell wings, and learned the history of the prison and the changes it underwent throughout the years.

It’s actually a beautiful building. Even the decrepit parts were majestic, in their way. But I felt no need to wander around there at night with a flashlight and EVP device, crouching in musty, cramped cells looking for ghosts. After all, Ohioan Jeffrey Dahmer’s picture is hanging among the Ohio Penal System artifacts at OSR, and I have no desire to meet him, dead or alive! Nor any of his prison pals, either.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

We Got Shawshanked!

The Shawshank Redemption

…voted 2nd best movie of all-time (second to The Godfather) on imdb
…nominated for 7 Academy Awards in 1994
…deemed best film never to have won Best Picture in a 2005 BBC poll
…earned 3 and 1/2 stars from Roger Ebert

If you haven’t seen the film based on a short novella by Stephen King, rent it. If you’ve seen it and loved it, head to Mansfield.


Mansfield, Ohio is a small city in the middle of Ohio with a big claim to fame. It’s where most of the filming of The Shawshank Redemption occurred, and this August the town will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its success.

We were graciously invited by the Mansfield & Richland County Visitors Bureau to explore The Shawshank Trail. It began with a complimentary Shawshank package at the Quality Inn. I wondered if I should worry about a prison-movie package at a hotel, but curiosity got the best of me. What could a Shawshank package mean? A room behind bars with bread & water for breakfast? A rock hammer and a poster so that I could eventually work my way out?

goodie bag
Not quite. We entered the room to find a bevy of goodies relating to the movie: two tickets for the Ohio Reformatory tour, chocolate “prison” bars from The Squirrel’s Den, Jail House Java from the Blueberry Patch, a Shawshank tote bag, Andy’s Diet Root Beer, Red’s Strawberry Soda and a driving map to explore the rest of the Shawshank movie sites around town.

Brooks Was Here. So Was Red.

Our first stop was The Squirrel’s Den, where we wanted to see the chocolate replica of Brooks’ apartment. Brooks, as you may recall, was the old man released from prison, who had trouble adjusting to life outside bars.

A block from there, we stopped at the park bench where Brooks sat and fed the pigeons, hoping his jailbird crow Jake would return. Then two blocks down, we saw the Bissman Building, which was used as the external façade of the apartment building Brooks moved to.


Later when we toured the prison (which I’ll feature in a separate post), we learned that the actual room featured in the film was a small room near the chapel inside the prison. Here we saw the famous “Brooks Was Here. So Was Red” etching in the wood.


Other Shawshank Sites:

You may recognize the background in this scene. This is the outside of the prison where Red and Andy often sat and talked in ‘the yard.’ It’s also the imposing stone wall that Andy first sees when he arrives in shackles at prison and enters the gate.


DSCN1301A few miles away, on private property across from Malabar Farm is the oak tree that Red goes searching for at the end of the movie. There is no stone wall, and the tree looks a little different now that a tornado took down half of it, but trust me. This is the tree.

In addition, other Mansfield businesses have created Shawshank paraphernalia.
— The Ed Pickens Café has a Shawshankwich sandwich.
— Cypress Wine Cellars has bottled a Reformatory Red wine.
— Two Cousins Pizza offers a Redemption Pie.
— The Olivesburg General Store has a Shawshank Sundae, and is where you’ll find the original ceiling lights from the movie.
— Relax, It’s Just Coffee revs up with Shawshank coffee.
— Eatmor Bundt Cake has cooked up a Shawshank bundt cake
— And, of course, the Quality Inn & Suites Mansfield has put together a Shawshank Trail package, a Shawshank Reunion package, and offers Haunted Mansfield packages, too.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town embrace their Hollywood claim to fame in the way Mansfield has. But maybe it’s because few films are as legendary as this one.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

May 18 & 19 - Greed and Gluttony at the Book Sale

Few things bring me as much joy as a "Fill a bag with Books for $5.00" sale. I look forward to these every year. They typically mark the last day of a used book sale, when the sellers are eager to get rid of their inventory rather than having to pack it all up and haul it away again. Can you blame them?

Knowing how fast the premier titles can go, I always go to the book sale the day before to buy the books I think I can't live without and to scope out the rest. It's good to know where to start.

So yesterday was relaxed and leisurely. I took my time browsing through books, reading inside jacket covers and getting a lay of the land. It was a nice way to spend an hour or so.

Today's bag sale was more brutal. It's hard to believe that a library's used book sale could bring out the worst in people, but it does. Year after year after year. It never fails to amaze me.

I got there early. I always do. It's part of the experience to be lined up at the door. I didn't have the wheeled carts that many people bring, nor the milk crates that they sometimes tether to their walkers and wheelchairs. Used books are a serious business.

I stood there in line; the fourth person. I saw school librarians I knew from my days working at Scholastic Book Fairs, and I saw my own childhood school librarian. Not surprisingly, I was the youngest one in line.

And yet, when the doors opened, the old men and women standing behind me rushed the doors with their carts and milk crates. I ended up being about the 20th person through the gate. They stampeded over to the used CDs, DVDs, and audio books and grabbed up hands full at a time without even bothering to look at the titles. Within minutes, six long 12-foot tables stocked with electronic media were completely emptied. Then they turned and chewed their way through the books like termites.

I managed to fill my bag with individually-selected books that I intend to read. By the time I left, the tables were emptying, too. Most of the patrons bought far more bags than they could carry. But I guess that's the nature of the bag sale, isn't it? Gobbling us as much as you can until next year -- when I'm sure to see the same characters again.

Friday, May 17, 2013

America's Next Non-Model

Today's activity was fun. We had a photo shoot at work. A stylist and professional photographer came in and took quality business image head shots.

I was a little dismayed that the stylist took one look at my hair and decided to straighten it. My hair is naturally wavy and I never wear it straight, or even want to. Still, I was game to play model and hoped that she knew what she was doing. I know the pictures will turn out looking very professional, even if they don't really look like me.

Now, if I can just get a book published, I'll be all ready with a picture for my "About the Author" page.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Terror! The Craft Box!

My daughter had a school project to work on tonight, so dragged out the craft supplies. I'm ashamed to admit this, but here goes: I hate arts & crafts. With a passion. As a mother, crafts were my Achilles heel.

Most people cannot understand this, but I get absolutely no joy from taking clay or paint or popsicle sticks and turning them into something else. Looking at a box full of craft supplies does nothing but fill me with a sense of dread. You want me to make something? Do I have to?

My son managed. He was left to do arts & crafts on his own, but preferred building things out of blocks and sticks and Legoes instead. Whew!

But my daughter. My poor, poor daughter. She LOVES arts & crafts, but got stuck with me for a mother.

I tried my best. When she was little, I pawned her off on her grandmother as much as I could. My mother loves crafts and is very artistic. It just skipped a generation, I think. Plus, I diligently took my daughter to the library for Storytime every week because they always did a craft at the end. I hoped it gave her her fix.

Some of the children's shows she watched explained how to make simple crafts, too. I reluctantly sat down and did some with her, but truth be told, I would have rather been doing anything else.

It gets worse.

In my lowest of low-mother moments, I convinced my daughter to do imaginary arts & crafts.
Yes, you read that correctly. I had her pretend to make something.

I am going to pay for years of therapy someday. I just know it. But thankfully, she has matured into a self-sufficient young woman who can get out the craft supply box and make things all by herself now. So, see? She survived.

If she wants to really get even one day, she'll send the grandkids to my house for "craft time." But only time will tell if I test their imaginations as well...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Another Day that Revolved Around China

I really did very little today other than work. And most of that work revolved around getting ready for China.

Remember - it's Asian Heritage Month, so find some type of Asian festivity to attend! I know I will.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Academic Awards Night

It brought tears to my eyes. My daughter's name was called and she moved forward to shake her Principal's hand. She accepted her GPA award with poise and grace, then returned to sit among her friends.

"Parents, these are the academic leaders of the class of 2018."

We applauded, and sighed with relief. These are our children, and our childrens' friends. Their futures are bright. The whole world is before them. It made me feel like all is right with the world.

We should all feel good. These kids are our future.

Monday, May 13, 2013

This Day Was Made for Walkin'

With temps in the 60's and sunshine (finally!), this was the perfect day to walk. I took a two-mile walk during lunch, then came home and walked again. Bliss.

Fun facts about walking:
  • Given that the world is about 25,000 miles in circumference and that the average walking rate is 3 miles per hour, it would take a person walking nonstop approximately 347 days to walk around the world

  • A typical pair of tennis shoes will last 500 miles of walking

  • It would take, on average, 1 hour and 43 minutes of walking to burn off a 540-calorie Big Mac

  • An average city block is equivalent to 200 steps

  • To burn off one plain M&M candy, a person would need to walk the entire length of a football field (I'd go for the Big Mac instead)

  • Chickens, pigeons, cranes, quails, and at least eight of the 27 families of birds bob their head when they walk

  • In 1970, 66% of children walked to school. Today, only 13% walk.

  • Every minute you walk can extend your life by 1.5 to 2 minutes

  • Walking sideways burns 78 percent more calories than walking forward.

  • In your lifetime you will walk about 65,000 miles — that's three times around the earth!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

Another glorious Mother's Day. I got a phone call from my son, as well as a basket full of Bath & Body Works goodies from him and his wife. I got an espresso maker from my husband (which we immediately used). I got movies from my daughter. A memory foam bathmat and JC Penney gift card from my mom, and phone calls from family.

We enjoyed pizza with my aunt and 93-year-old grandmother, then watched an exciting game of soccer.

But best of all, I received this pinch pot my daughter made in art. It is sitting on my mantel next to the other artwork that my children have bestowed upon me. I look at their beautiful creations and think about mine. I am the luckiest mother in the world.

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Crew Game

Pre-game warm-up exercises

On almost any given day I can say that we're at soccer. We're at the fields for practices or games five days a week. But tonight was a little different. After my daughter's game, we headed up to Columbus to watch the Columbus Crew play the Colorado Rapids.

It was fun to watch the quick-moving game, but even more fun to watch the girls study the players' moves. Pre-game, they were allowed to stand along the sidelines and watch the pro teams warm up. They noticed immediately that the warm-up stretches and exercise drills are the same ones they do. I think that had a huge impact on them and made them realize how well-trained they are, too.

After the Crew's crushing loss, all kids under the age of 13 were allowed down on the pitch to take a penalty shot at the goal. That was certainly another highlight for my daughter and her friends, despite the fact that it was pouring rain and COLD. Par for the course, as far as I'm concerned. Most of this season's games have involved playing in the rain.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Movie Night

Finally -  a night where we didn't run around with a million things to do! Instead, we had movie night. A double feature, in fact.

We started with So Undercover starring Miley Cyrus. Very predictable. Basically a teen version of Miss Congeniality, if you ask me.

Then we watched Argo. I was a child during the Iranian hostage situation and knew nothing about it. The movie was riveting. High praise from me, since history usually bores me to tears. It deserved the awards it won.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Playing with the Foster Puppies

My mom once fostered two dogs for an organization called Hart. She ended up adopting them and didn't foster any more -- until her friend called her with a desperate situation.

"Can you take a mother dog and her seven puppies? The mother's been abused. They were dropped at the shelter and they're going to be euthanized today."

A mother and 7 puppies... in addition to my mom's three dogs. But what else could she do? She said yes.

The mother and her seven tiny babies were brought over, along with a large cage and all the equipment necessary for their care. The puppies looked to be about 3 weeks old. The mother was as sweet as could be and immediately formed an attachment to my mom. In fact, she didn't want to leave her side. She was probably so grateful to be treated tenderly and taken care of, after the horrible torture she'd been through. Here's what we learned:

Two guys in Kentucky had hung her from a tree and were taking a blowtorch to her nipples. Somehow, a cop came by and rescued her and her babies. I don't know whether the men suffered any consequences, but we all like to think there's a special place in hell for them.

The mother, now named Caroline, couldn't nurse due to mastitis that I can only surmise was brought on by her mistreatment. So my mom and aunt had to take over, feeding the babies formula on a schedule much like an infant's. Needless to say, they've been exhausted.

Now the puppies are a little older and are eating solid foods and playing outdoors. We went over to take a turn holding them, playing with them, and socializing with them. Not a chore for us by any means! I just wish we had more time to help.

The puppies and Caroline are thriving, thanks to their rescuers. And just as I hope there's a special place in hell for those two men, I KNOW there's a special place in heaven for my mom.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

49 Minutes - Again

Today, I walked a 5K race. The last time I did this, my time was 49 minutes and I was determined to beat it. So I huffed and I puffed, and I dragged my butt around the course, panting in the 85-degree sunshine until I finally crossed the finish. At 49 minutes. Again.

And no, I didn't win one of these trophies. Not even close.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kids & The Crew

Today's activity (like most days in our household) revolved around soccer. But this event was a little different than the norm. This time, the Columbus Crew came down to our school district to run practice drills with the kids coming to their game this weekend. It was an incredible opportunity and the fields were swarming with kids of all ages.

Making it even better was the fact that they raffled off a Crew jersey and my daughter won! All the players there signed it. You can bet she'll be wearing it to the game. :)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Tow-Day's Activity

Not much activity around me today other than having my car towed for repairs. An activity I would have rather skipped. :(

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Good Laugh

My day was full of activities today, capped off by Open Mic night at Wiley's in Dayton, Ohio. I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought a lot of these fledgling comics might not be that funny or prepared, but I was pleasantly surprised. They all had good material, good delivery, and seemed atune to the audience and what was working and what wasn't.

Bottom line: I laughed. They did their jobs and I had a great time. I'll have to go again.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The New and Improved Pampered Chef Party

It's been a long time since I've been to a Pampered Chef (PC) party. I don't remember it being such a production, or maybe the one I went to last night was just more elaborate than the one I went to a decade ago.

To begin with, there were about 30 women there. I was surprised at the turnout and really just went because I felt obligated to since my boss Lisa was hosting the party. I do like Pampered Chef products, so wasn't too put out. What I didn't expect was the sales pitch showcase that followed.

The PC representative told us she's been doing this for 22 years. She had products laid out on Lisa's kitchen island. That was nice. I like being able to see and touch items before I buy them. I actually got to do more than that; the rep demonstrated how easily and efficiently she could cook a meal for us using all those products. And we were welcome to help and try out any item we wanted.

She whipped together a Mediterranean chicken pasta in a heavy piece of Pampered Chef bake ware. She used the chopper and the manual food processor to prepare the ingredients, along with the garlic press, measuring spoons, measuring cups, bowl scraper, rubber (?) hot pan grabbers, knives, prep bowls, and olive oil spritzer. Then she made another dish using some kind of rubber item atop a pot of boiling water and a baking stone. I have to say, the demonstration was very effective. I'll bet most of us bought the items she used.

But she didn't stop there.

On the table behind us were beautiful displays of appetizers -- which were recipes that could be found in the Pampered Chef cookbooks. Plus, they were served in Pampered Chef dishware, using PC tongs and other accoutrement. Not surprisingly, everything was delicious and we eagerly filled out our order forms in between the appetizer course, main dish, and dessert.

But even more than the actual products, I was impressed with the presentation. I know my boss and the Pampered Chef rep made a fortune off of us last night, but they definitely earned it. It was the best sales pitch I've seen in a long time.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bye, Bye Laundromat!

My weeks of hauling laundry to the laundromat are over! Our new washing machine was delivered today. We've already started washing the massive pile-up. But truth be told, I liked going to the laundromat. I could do several loads at the same time and had the luxury of reading while the clothes were spinning. Not so at home. Here I pop a load in and then turn around and see all the rest of the chores that need done.

I think I miss the laundromat already.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia

My activity today (besides work, and all the regular stuff) was going to the library to return Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight.

The book was compelling, I'll give it that. I could barely put it down. It starts with a mother getting the terrible news that her daughter has committed suicide at school. She is consumed with guilt and grief, but then starts to question whether Amelia really killed herself or not.

She begins searching for answers and reconstructs Amelia's last few months of school through texts, the school gossip rag, notes, and emails. A much different Amelia than the one she knew starts to emerge and she begins to question how well she knew her daughter after all.

As a writer, I couldn't help but pay attention to the structure of this book. I don't mind books that use different formats to show us a character, or tell us a story. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was an excellent example of this approach. It worked well in Reconstructing Amelia, too -- to a point.

The plot was full of twists and the writing was paced well. As I said, I could hardly put it down. My one criticism would be the chapters that were told from Amelia's point-of-view. While it was helpful to have her first-person account of things that were going on, it also created some confusion in the very non-linear structure. We got present day emails, then backtracking to Amelia's telling of her story, then texts, then her mother's perspective. I'm not a fan of this approach, but McCreight pulled it off well enough that I could piece it together. But I can't help but wonder how different our reconstruction of Amelia would have been if we didn't have her to fill in the blanks?

I'll definitely look for more by Kimberly McCreight in the future. Meanwhile, I took this book back to the library and had the hardest time figuring out what to read next. Good books always do that to me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Travel Agents 'R Us

My inaugural May "activity" exercise turned out to be a little more sedate than those to come. I spent a good part of my day playing travel agent.

I have two upcoming business trips: one to China, and one to Dallas. Not surprisingly, I'm adding vacation days to both trips, so the first order of business was researching all the possible things I might do in each place. By "all," I mean ALL. Guidebooks and Internet sites have been exhausted.

Next, I had to build an outlined itinerary. (I really missed my calling. I should have been a travel agent.) The trip to Dallas is pretty easy. I only have one day to myself and I picked 4 sights to see. I've already been there once, so don't need to go back to the Book Depository. Plus, my hotel was chosen for me. I spent a fair amount of time looking at flight schedules that will give me more free time, and found the ones I want. Dallas is pretty much done.

China is another matter. This is where things get tricky. I'm going on business, so the week of business - hotel, schedule, dates -- are taken care of. My co-worker is going with me and she's never been, so we padded two days beforehand to explore. Then, after my business has wrapped up, my family is flying out for a week of vacation. So, I have sight-seeing to plan before AND after my business there. And both parties want to see basically the same things. Which I've already seen on my last trip to China.

It sounds like all this repetitious excursion planning should be easy, but it's not. There are some things I don't mind doing for a second or third time, some that I just don't want to do again at all, and some things that could be explored differently. I actually started a spreadsheet to figure it all out. I have to finalize itineraries soon because I need to choose hotels for the vacation parts of the trip before I can book tours (which will pick us up at said hotels). Plus, I need to have hotel reservations in place before I can apply for the trip visas we'll need.

Choosing hotels isn't easy! I want to optimize hotel reward programs, plus get a good deal, plus be centrally located. I've got maps out and reward program numbers all over the place. I want us to be able to walk and sightsee from our hotel but don't want to pay a fortune for rooms or cabs. I really need to finalize the list of things to see.

So far, I've reserved flights, made a spreadsheet of the best tours and sights I want to see in China, and figured out my extracurricular itinerary for Dallas. It sounds like I've accomplished very little despite the number of hours I've been working on this. But I consider this my researching and outlining stage. As with writing, once I do this legwork, fleshing out the details will fall into place quickly. Or so I hope.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Month of May

Life is like a miniature three-ring circus sometimes.

I've missed this blog. It was never my intention to leave it for so long; to wait for an elusive muse to strike before I write. It was better when I forced myself to post something every day, if only to help me stay connected to writing. I've lost that lately.

Life is still a little too hectic to go back to writing a post each day. But I did read an idea posted by another blogger that I think I may try this May. Asha Marie suggests choosing one theme every month and then taking one photo per day for the month that represents that theme. As soon as I read the idea, I was excited. I think I can manage this.

The hard part is choosing a theme for May. Work will settle down a smidgen for the month, before it gears into overdrive in June. My daughter's soccer season is well underway, and means we're at the soccer field four days a week. The school year is wrapping up. I'm hoping against hope that I may see my son for Mother's Day. I'm already trying to cram too much into Memorial Day weekend.

So, theme...theme... what can I use as my theme?

I think for May, which is sure to be busy, my photo theme will be: ACTIVITY.

Hopefully, activities won't get in the way of this project!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Yay for Earth Day!

These are trees we planted from free saplings we got at
Earth Day events 4 years ago.
I love Earth Day. Now that it's stretched to a week, and there are community programs going on everywhere, it's even better. I usually try to get out and pick up cans and bottles along the road to recycle, but didn't do that this weekend. Instead, we loaded up the car with broken-down electronics and headed to an e-cycling event.

We've been stepping over old computer hard drives, monitors, and televisions for years. They just pile up in our garage because we never knew what to do with them. Best Buy will recycle them for $10 each, but I just never got around to it. Then a local bank sponsored a program this weekend. You could bring a carload of electronics for a $10 donation (that turned into $30, once they saw all our stuff). Still, it was probably the best $30 we've spent in a long time. It made me feel good to get rid of all that junk and know that it wouldn't just be piling up in a landfill.

Earth Week 2013 is off to a good start, but there are more festivities to come.

Look for these Earth Day activities in your area:

Free Coffee at Caribou Coffee

Here's an Earth Day freebie to get you up and going. Bring in a reusable mug or tumbler to your nearest Caribou Coffee on Earth Day, April 22, and you'll get filled up with a free coffee.
For every new like Caribou Coffee gets on Facebook, their sponsors will plant a fruit tree in Central or South America.

Free Reusable Bag From the Disney Store

Bring in 5 plastic shopping bags into your local Disney Store on April 22nd and you'll get an Earth Day freebie of a free reusable bag. Looks like you'll get to choose between a Brave or Cars 2 bag.

Free Packet of Seeds From Pottery Barn Kids

Stop into a nearby Pottery Barn Kids store on April 20-22 and pick up a free packet of seeds from PBK.

Free Ball Jar Planters and Reusable Bags at Jo-Anns

Stop by your local Jo-Ann fabric and craft store on Sunday, April 21 and participate in a free make-and-take where you create a free Ball jar planter.
In addition, the first 50 customers on Monday, April 22, will get a free reusable tote bag.

Free Milkshake at EVOS

EVOS has a tasty Earth Day freebie. Stop into an EVOS on Earth Day, April 22, to get a free organic milkshake.

Free Entrance Into National Parks All Week

This Earth Day freebie will really help you celebrate the Earth! Go out to almost 400 national parks this week (April 22-26) and you don't have to pay an entrance fee.
Check with each national park as well because there are many free events happening this week.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Immediate Reactions to Boston

Naturally, the news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon came as a shock. More than that, it just didn't make sense. I couldn't, and still can't quite wrap my mind around it. I don't understand what a terrorist was trying to accomplish by setting off bombs at a marathon, other than to instill fear. If that was the mission, then mission accomplished. At least, for those who have anything to do with marathons.

My husband and son are marathon runners. My daughter and I usually sit in the spectator stands, just like the families did there. So my husband's immediate reaction was that we couldn't go watch anymore. And that he needs to start running faster (or slower, I pointed out) since he would have been crossing the finish line just as the bombs went off. The bomber certainly timed that right to hit the majority of runners and spectators.

But these were knee-jerk reactions. There's no reason to think that this will happen again, or that precautions won't be taken. There's really no reason to be alarmed. Especially because that plays into the objective that the terrorist(s) had in the first place: to instill fear. And I'm not going to give him/them the satisfaction.

After 9/11, I vowed not to let terrorism affect my actions. I don't want to let fear prevent me from living and enjoying the things I do. So I'll go to my husband's next marathon and sit in the stands, terrorists be damned!

But at the back of my mind, there is that tiny niggling; that slight hesitation in wondering whether or not it will be safe.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fool-proof Eggs

I am not a crafty person. Most of my artwork and projects look like a toddler did them. I don't even care, because doing crafts doesn't give me any sort of pleasure. But tie-dying eggs was an exception. Not only did I have fun picking out the materials and prepping my eggs, but I was tickled pink with how they turned out. I want to dye all of my eggs from now on!

My daughter-in-law sent me instructions she found on Pinterest. She'd dyed eggs at her house and they were beautiful. I told her I was going to try it, but she probably didn't believe me. But, surprise! I ended up sending her pictures of our masterpiece eggs, too.

The process is simple: buy 100% silk ties at the thrift store. There were more there than I'd thought!

Cut them apart so that you only have the silk, not the backing. Then, wrap pieces of silk around the eggs tightly, with the front of the tie against the egg. Use a twist-tie to secure it closed. Then wrap the egg in a piece of white cloth. (We cut up one of my husband's old t-shirts.) Twist that shut, too.

Boil the eggs in water with 1/4 cup white vinegar for 20 minutes.

Another craft project gone wrong?

Here's where I thought we went wrong. I removed the eggs from the pot with tongs and was skeptical that they would turn out as anything but purple eggs. I thought maybe we hadn't tied them tightly enough to stop the red and blue dyes from swirling into a pot of purple.

After they cooled, we unwrapped them, and were excited to find pretty patterns and swirls inside. They were gorgeous!

I want to dye more eggs now for the heck of it. I may start bringing a lot of hard-boiled eggs to work for lunch, now that I've finally found a craft I enjoy. Who cares if I don't really like eggs? I like dyeing them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Deathbed Regrets of Writers

I just got an email advertisement from Writer's Digest, in which they tried to hook me into buying a book, or taking a course, or something. I didn't really pay attention to anything except the headline:

Deathbed Regrets of Writers

It made me open the email long enough to see what their Top 5 were, because I was curious to see whether it would match the thoughts that immediately came to my mind.

Their five most common answers:
“I’d never know if I could have made it.”
“I’d never find my voice.”
“I’d never get to show others what I’m capable of.”
“I’d hate not having the freedom to do what I want.”

Mine are a little more immediate and practical, I think:
"I should have parked my butt in a chair and written more often."
"I didn't get around to finishing my novel(s)!"
"I want to write down everything I'm thinking on my deathbed, but don't have enough time."

The sales pitch was silly, but it did get me thinking. I don't want to have writerly deathbed regrets. I need to put my butt in a chair, finish my novel(s), and leave time to describe my deathbed when the time comes.

What would be your deathbed regret?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jazz 'n Cakes

I live where I live because of the schools. We live in the same district I did as a teenager and my children are going to my alma mater. I wanted this for them because I felt so privileged here. It was here that I earned a scholarship to study in Germany. Twenty-two years later, my son participated in the same program and headed for Germany as exchange student like I did long ago.

I also enjoyed the music program at my old high school and feel like it set me up for musical success that I might not have enjoyed at other schools. We had a very strong music program with excellent, dedicated teachers and a community of parents that supported the arts. My son played in that band, too, and now my daughter plays his old trumpet and participates in not only concert band, but jazz band as well. This is her first year.

The band program got off to a rocky start for her class. School levies failed and band was cut for two years. She finally started playing this year as a 7th grader. I didn't know how they could possibly catch up to where they should be. What would happen to all those talented musicians who wanted to go on to study music at college? What had happened to the school music program I loved? Why wasn't she enjoying the privilege of a nationally-recognized music program as I had? It upset me.

But the community rallied. They reinstated the band program and the music directors reformatted the class so that these beginner 7th graders have band every day instead of a couple times a week. They introduced the jazz band at my daughter's junior high and those who made it through try-outs now practice after school. Their hard work paid off. They had their first concert and I couldn't believe how wonderful they sounded with only six months of instruction under their belts.

One of the lessons they try to impart in jazz band is the ability to play impromptu solos; jamming with the band like real jazz musicians do. At the first school concert, a half-dozen brass players volunteered to come up front during a song and play a rif. They were incredible! I'm not sure I would have had the nerve. My sometimes-shy daughter didn't volunteer. She was happy enough to play in the background.

Then, this weekend, the school held their annual "Jazz 'n Cakes," a pancake breakfast fundraiser during which all the district jazz bands play as entertainment. The place was packed! The student volunteers seated us and waited on us as we listened to high school jazz ensembles and junior high jazz bands play. It was standing room only in the large cafeteria. I think we all lingered because the music was so good. I felt a warm glow being surrounded by all the great music. It brought back many pleasant memories and I felt lucky and privileged that my children attended a school with a music program like this.

And then it got even better.

My daughter's jazz band played the songs I'd heard them play at their school concert a month ago. They sounded even more polished and not so very different than the more experienced high schoolers. The same half-dozen brass players took their turns at the microphone, playing trombone, saxophone and trumpet solos. Then all of a sudden, a little blond-haired girl took her place at the mic. My daughter was up there! In front of hundreds of parents and students, she raised her trumpet to her mouth and played a spontaneous solo. It was  magnificent! So perfect, and completely unpracticed. I couldn't believe it was her!

I beamed through the whole concert and hugged her to me afterward. I was so proud of her! Not just because she'd played so well, but because she'd had the courage to voluntarily stand up in front of a huge crowd and do it. I know part of her confidence came from that same sense of privilege that brought us to this school district in the first place. Their music program is so strong that she knew she could do it; she knew she could play and play well.

But I'll bet she never knew this: that she could bring tears to my eyes by doing it.