Friday, December 4, 2015

A Review of 'The End Of Your Life Book Club' by Will Schwalbe

"'What are you reading?'

That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less. 

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. 

Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together. The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page." 

I'm not really sure what I expected from this book before I started, but this book swooped me off my feet and didn't put me down until I'd finished.  By that point, I kind of felt like I'd lost a member of my own family.  Will's stories and retellings of his mother made me feel like I really knew her.  And she was a person you really wanted to know too.  She's really inspired me.  She was always doing something for other people.  She was working to build a library in Afghanistan; she kept in touch with people from all over the world, even just to check in and see how they were doing; she stood firmly by her beliefs, never wavering.  I aspire to be like this author's mother.

'The End of Your Life Book Club' has also reinforced my own feelings about books and the power of reading.  Will would go with his mom to chemo sessions and they would talk about books that they read and would switch and compare thoughts.  This is essentially what they did for years before, but with Will's mother's cancer, there was suddenly a sense of urgency.  Everyone knew that the prognosis was bleak, but as with any life, we never know how much time there actually is.  Novels tend to talk about things that normally we're afraid to bring up in casual conversation.  They open up the floor to talking about difficult subjects like death, pain, suffering... things a handful of us in the world won't ever have to experience.  Nevertheless, there are more people in the world than just this lucky handful.  In order to be better global citizens, we have to understand the experiences of others so that we might better help them.

I love how out of all things, it was books that brought Will and his mother though.  That's another one of my favorite things about books.  I've always been fascinated with people who aligns themselves with books because they found such a love for them.  Take fans of Harry Potter for instance: they call themselves Potterheads and they have created such a community for each other.  I don't know that I've seen anything quite the same since those books were published.  

This is a book that I would like to read again and even keep on my already overflowing bookshelves.  I read this book a year ago and finished while I was visiting England and still, this book has stuck with me.  It's so heartfelt and I haven't read too many books where the mother and the son have a strong connection as these two did.  That's very special.

I give 'The End Of Your Life Book Club':
Thanks for Reading!


A Review of 'Panic In A Suitcase' by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Audio Book)

"In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family.  Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home.  Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?

If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the family's youngest, Frida, can only look back.

In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations."

It took me a while to figure out what this book was about.  The story is centered on a Russian family who moves to the United States after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and how they manage to straddle two cultures and keep up with the rules of both.  For me, knowing pretty much nothing about Russian culture, this was a glimpse into that and a little bit of a learning experience for me.  Of course, this family probably isn't representative of all Russian immigrant families, but even so.  More importantly, this book is about what it's like to emigrate and readjust to your new and adoptive home.  The thought of this family seems to be that you need to leave absolutely everything behind when you move away from your country of origin.  But that's not the case.  I don't know if that was the case before, but it's not the case now.  You might leave your home, but your culture is part of you.  You can't just shed it like an old coat and go get a new, more in-style one.  It depends on where you've grown up, I think.  The older generations in this particular family felt the need to move forward and do things the American way, although still hanging on to what I've gathered to be "Russian-isms," since they can't be shed, for better or for worse.  There's a clinging to tradition.  They still celebrate the same holidays that they did, but then there is almost the expectation, particularly for members of the younger generation, like Frida, to take up certain lines of work (Frida attends medical school and hates it). 

Frida was the most interesting to me, particularly as she got a little older.  Even though she lives with her Russian family, she was born and raised in the U.S., surrounded by different mannerisms and traditions and values.  So it's more of a struggle for her to figure out where she belongs.  Is she American?  Is she Russian?  Do her family's values mean the same thing to her as they do to her parents and grandparents?  What does it mean to be a first generation American citizen in her family?  This book is an interesting exploration of these questions.

I don't know yet if this is a book I will pick up again, but it was an intriguing read for now.  Maybe I'll have to read a hard copy version of this as opposed to listening to an MP3 track of the book.

I give 'Panic in a Suitcase':
Thanks for Reading!


Friday, November 27, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

I am fortunate enough to have been around for twenty-two Thanksgiving celebrations and I am thankful that each time, I have been able to celebrate with people I care about and who care about me.  I think especially this year, in light of the terrible things that have been happening in the world and in my own city, it's especially important to take a step back and think about how lucky we are and about the things we are grateful for.  So here are twenty-two things that I am thankful for this year, in no particular order of importance or amount of gratitude:

  1. Understanding Professors.  I don't know why, but this semester has been particularly difficult to deal with... it's not that my classes are excruciatingly difficult, but I've been having trouble keeping track of what work I need to do and that has made me fall behind a bit.  Things have gotten better now, but it was really hard earlier in the semester.  I'm grateful that I have understanding professors to help get me through those rough patches.
  2. My family.  They put up with me for a semester and a summer this year after I came home from Europe.  It was nice to have them to lean back on when I needed help then and it's nice to know that they still have my back if I ever need help or I'm struggling.
  3. My fiance.  I've been discovering that I can be kind of annoying to live with, so I'm grateful that my fiance has been patient and supportive through this transitional time as we continue to adjust to living together and taking responsibility for ourselves.
  4. The Safety Of My Friends Abroad.  One of my French families lives near Paris.  We found out that one of my French sisters was in Paris the night of the Terrorist attacks, but she got in touch as soon as she possibly could and told everyone that she was okay.  I am grateful that all of my friends and family in and around the Paris area are okay.
  5. Having A Place Of My Own.  Getting a place of our own was almost not a possibility until jobs and other circumstances came through for us.  I am very happy to be living in a great neighborhood and living close to other parts of my life (work and school).  I am grateful to have a place that we can mold to our own needs (within reason).
  6. Artemis, My Kitten.  I wanted a cat since we moved in, but I never anticipated how much having an animal around can improve a person's mood and lower stress levels.  I am thankful for this kitten for improving my mental health and for bringing a smile to my face every single day.
  7. Having Work That Helps Me Pay My Bills And Keeps Me On My Toes.  I am lucky to have a job, and I'm even luckier to have several so that I can pay my half of the bills and still have something leftover.  Some of my jobs are mentally draining, but I am happy that they are jobs that generally involve me thinking quickly and making good decisions.  I never want to work for retail again... that was just awful...
  8. Down Time.  For the longest time, I didn't really have down time, not even on the weekends.  Now that I'm not as busy as before, I have more down time and it makes a world of difference in my mental state.
  9. Good Books To Read.  I have access to two libraries in my neighborhood and between the books I own and the ones that are my fiance's, we have a killer collection of books right here in our apartment.  That's really special.
  10. People Who Risk Their Lives To Do What Is Right.  I am grateful that there are people out there who are willing to risk their lives and fight for human rights for everyone.  It's a really important cause, but also a dangerous task.
  11. Clean Smells.  Seriously, my heart gets happier living in a place that doesn't smell funky.  And when I work in an area that doesn't smell like dirty diapers and child drool.
  12. Opportunities To Try New Things.  I had the opportunity to be a writer for my University's newspaper and to be a Commuter Senator on campus.  Even though Senate didn't end up working out (I'm not very sad, plus, it's for the best), I'm still happy that I had the opportunity to give it a try.
  13. Having Plenty To Read.  Anyone who has been in my apartment comes in and is immediately taken aback by the sheer number of books that line our walls.  This is my favorite part of my living space.  It makes me happy.
  14. Living Close To My Cousin And My Sister.  Even if I don't see either my cousin or my sister very regularly, it's nice to know that we could get together at a moment's notice should we want to.
  15. Having The Means To Travel.  I haven't traveled since I got back from the Netherlands in January, but I've revisited in my mind so often and I can't help but feel this wave of gratefulness every time I think about everything that I got to see and do in my four and a half months away.  I'm still in awe.
  16. Internet and Social Media.  The internet is how I (and millions of other people on the planet) keep connected and how I accomplish any of my work.  The internet is my lifestyle.
  17. Fieldwork.  Not every day in a high school or middle school is rainbows and unicorns, but every day is a learning experience.  Learning is what I'm in those places to do, ultimately.
  18. Scented Candles.  This goes with the clean smells point, but candles are also relaxing.  Lately I've had a heightened need for relaxation and candles are a nice way to start that process.  I also feel grateful because up until I moved into this apartment, I really didn't feel like I could light candles in my living space.  Either that or it was outright banned in my living space.  So I'm happy that I can now use these.
  19. Art Supplies.  I'm grateful that I have a stash of paint and lots of paper and projects that I can pick up or drop off whenever I'd like to.  Art is another relaxer for me, so it's nice to have it in close proximity.
  20. Planners.  My savior.  I'd be so lost without you.
  21. Chocolate Ice Cream.  I tried so hard to resist this.  I've succeeded at keeping this in my house only sometimes, but it's not gone for good.  And I'm happy that it's not gone for good.  It's a nice comfort treat every once in a while.
  22. Time Spent At Home.  I have been learning this school year that it's not so important for me to be on the go, busy all the time, but it is crucial for me to be somewhere I can charge my batteries.  Being busy for a good chunk of the semester has made me realize how much I like being in my own space, doing my own thing.  This is something that I need and will cherish in my last year of school and beyond.
What are some things, big and small, that you are thankful for this year?

Thanks for Reading!


A Review of 'Yes Please' by Amy Poehler (Audio Book)

"In Amy Poehler's highly anticipated first book, Yes Please, she offers up a big juicy stew of personal stories, funny bits on sex and love and friendship and parenthood and real life advice (some useful, some not so much), like when to be funny and when to be serious.  Powered by Amy's charming and hilarious, biting yet wise voice, Yes Please is a book full of words to live by."

This was delightful to listen to, at least most of the time.  On my mom's and my brief trip to Iowa (you can see that post HERE), we put this in the car stereo and it was excellent to sit and laugh until our bellies hurt.  I love listening to autobiographies of well-known people because then, at least in my eyes, celebrities become people.  I think it can be easy to think that if someone is funny or a comedian, they're happy people with happy lives, and that's not always the 100% truth.  So listening to Amy Poehler was a nice reminder of that.  Amy doesn't live a life filled with hardship, but she's had her experiences.  But this isn't the main thing that I will take away from Amy Poehler's "Yes Please."

She does have some good nuggets in this book.  Her advice "Good for you, not for me" resonated with me because it reminds me that we as people are not exactly the same.  She mentioned the phrase while talking about the birth of her first child, but since I'm not at that point in my life right now, I've interpreted this a little differently.  I think you can apply this phrase to anything.  For example: my career aspirations.  I know full well that many, many people are looking for those who studied and majored in some kind of science in college.  Physics, biology, chemistry... whatever it is.  But 1) I suck at science, even if I find it fascinating at times and 2) I tend to get bored while studying science of most kinds, even though I find science interesting outside of an academic setting.  Good for you, those who love and enjoy science and have prospects in one of those fields of work, but not for me.  I've got some English teaching to do.

She had some creative ways to talk about difficult parts of her life that she still wasn't totally comfortable sharing with the world.  For example, her divorce.  I think the only reason she felt she needed to mention her divorce at all was because both she and her ex-husband are public figures.  You know it happened, but you don't necessarily know the details.  And that's okay.  We shouldn't need the details.  But I think Amy handled it as maturely as possible.  She up with book titles related to her divorce if she were ever to write a book  about it (but she probably won't, because as she said, writing a book is hard).  The reason why I say she did this maturely is because the book titles she came up with reflected her feeling about going through divorce without pointing fingers or airing their dirty laundry.  Amy was in control of her story and her situation.

One of the more moving parts that I read, and unfortunately it was towards the end, was when she talked about her outreach trip to Haiti after they experienced an earthquake shattering their already fragile infrastructure.  Even when she was just observing, my heartstrings were being tugged repeatedly because she was observing with the eye of a mother.  When she visited the Haitian orphanage and saw child after child who desperately needed someone-- literally anyone-- to love and care for them.  It' devastating to listen to, although not as devastating as if we were to experience that ourselves in person.

The ending got a little bit preachy when she talked about how phones and modern technology we use daily (smart phones, laptops, etc.) are taking over the world.  In an autobiography about Amy Poehler, I would have liked to hear about another part of her life, not hear Amy get up on her soap box, if that makes sense.

Overall, this was enjoyable to listen to, but after a certain point, the order of the chapters felt strange and I think that contributed to the feeling of this book dragging on.  And this isn't a super long book to begin with.

I give 'Yes Please':
Thanks for Reading!


Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Review of 'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn (Audio Book)

"On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary.  Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.  Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife's head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge.  Under mounting pressure from the police and the media-- as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents-- the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior.  Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter-- but is he really a killer?

As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love.  With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence.  Trouble is, if Nick didn't do it, where is that beautiful wife?  And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?"

A return to gardening this summer signaled a return to audio books.  'Gone Girl' was one I had been meaning to read for a while and just never got around to reading.  But now I have!

***Note: As usual, this review will contain spoilers.  Read at your own risk.***

This book is one of the more engaging books I've ever read.  I've never considered myself much of a reader of mystery novels, but after this... I think I need to try more.  I won't say that I'm hooked just yet.  Give it time.

I am floored by how intricate this story is.  Maybe to be clearer, I should say that I'm floored by Amy's attention to detail.  It's totally ridiculous.  Once you realize just what Amy is doing, you can't help but wonder how she thought about each and every problem that had even the smallest chance of happening and, more importantly, how to avoid it or spin it to her advantage.  She had Nick so cornered that I was more impressed by her level of plotting and cunning than I was creeped out and scared that she would even think to go to these lengths.

Despite how impressed I was, I absolutely hated both Nick and Amy.  I started out only hating Nick, but then I hated Amy closer to the end.  It just turns out that they're both terrible people.  Nick does nothing but think about himself.  He does this by essentially taking Amy away from her entire support system in New York (he doesn't give her a choice in the matter).  This is a big sign of abuse in a relationship.  He also, of course, cheats on his wife with a woman half her age (who also happens to be a student of his, but that's a whole other ethical debate).  Amy has a history of overreacting and has a tendency to ruin the lives of anyone she pleases.  Both are absolutely despicable.  

It's interesting how the stories with the most hateful characters tend to be the most engaging for me (take 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' for example).  

I loved this book up until the ending.  I was at the point where I just wished Amy and Nick would kill each other or get a messy divorce, but no, they dragged a kid into it.  I thought that this had crossed a line.  Someone in my life wisely said that you should not bring a child into the world if they are going to be a punishment that you need to bear.  Nor should a baby be given an agenda from the day it is born.  Nick and Amy's child is given both of these things.  This baby had the agenda to fix this irreparable marriage.  These two 30-something adults can't even fix their marriage in a normal or healthy way, so how can this baby be expected to achieve this desired result?  More importantly, this baby is born out of revenge.  The biggest "screw you" a couple can (but shouldn't) give.  Nick felt obligated to stay and raise his child.  I worry for this (fictional, I know) child born to a selfish father and a sociopath mother.  What kind of a childhood will it have?  Will it get enough attention and love?  What happens if it does something wrong?  How will Amy react?

Despite the ending, this is an amazing book.  I don't know if it's worth rereading when you know what happens, but we'll see.

I give 'Gone Girl':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, September 14, 2015

A Short Jaunt in Iowa

The day after I moved out of my home, my mom and I got in the car and we sped off to Iowa (I'll tell you why in a bit).  Well... we sped off for maybe 30-45 minutes.  Possibly an hour.  We had to make our first pit stop at the Largest Candy Store in Minnesota!  And really, it's not just a lot of candy in this place.  It's a lot of everything.  Soda (or is it "pop"?), puzzles... it's a whole lot of everything.

As soon as we walked in, we were a little overwhelmed by just how much stuff was in this one place.  I mean, just take a look.  In the picture, I wasn't that far inside of the front door.  You can't even see the other side of the store...

Here are some of the more interesting foods that I found:

Rows and rows of differently flavored salt water taffy

A whole section of Dutch food!  The treats!

Referring to the Larvets and the Ant Candy: Ew.
As overwhelming as Minnesota's Largest Candy Store is... it's a little bit magical too.  Mom liked looking for the candies that she had when she was a kid and I just liked looking at the weird flavors of everything this place had to offer.

So after telling ourselves that we would only spend fifteen minutes in this place, finding presents for some of the people in our lives that we like, and actually spending somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes in Minnesota's Largest Candy Store... it was time to say goodbye and continue on our journey.

So the reason that we were headed to Iowa is this: my mom's best friend from high school teaches eighth grade English (and a section of history).  For a while, we had talked about how I should come down and see how she works.  She's been a teacher for twenty-seven years.  Finally, we found a time that would work for both of us.  We'd come down on a Wednesday, I'd go to school with Beth (my mom's friend) Thursday and Friday, and then we'd go home on Sunday.

I don't have pictures from the school because of permission and privacy reasons, but I have the memories.  Both Thursday and Friday were under heat advisory.  This means that students had half days (unless they had sports, in which case they still had to stay and play sports, which is just dumb).
Thursday I mainly watched and I sorted files to finish getting ready for the school year.  I was happy to be busy.  I'm discovering that I'm the kind of person that is uncomfortable sitting and not doing very much.  Friday was a lot better because I got to "teach" a bit!  I finished up a lesson on personality types and learning styles (they were paired with colors) and I gave a spelling test on the names of the teachers the eighth graders will come into contact with this year.  It's harder that it sounds, some of the names, because it's apparent that some of the teachers have Dutch heritage by their names (Mrs. De Zeeuw, Mrs. Hoogeveen, etc.).  On this day, towards the end of the day, we put on music because the students wanted to dance.  Some of those kids have skills, seriously.

After school on Friday, it was hot, but not so hot that we couldn't go out and enjoy Orange City a little bit.  The cool thing about Orange City is that it's a Dutch bubble.  And they really market on that.  Everywhere you look, there are wind mills, signs in Dutch, and if you come in the spring, there are tulips everywhere (but right now, they're a little out of season).  So here are some pictures from my wanderings...

"Welcome to the Back Garden"
"See You, Come Back"

"Bridge to Orange City"

This is a telephone booth :)

After going home for a little while, we decided to go back out again to a little place called De Zoete Winkel, which in Dutch means "The Sweet Shop."  Driving past, I thought it was a candy store, but it's actually a serve yourself fro-yo place.  It was really yummy :)

Dancing to the music :)
This was a really fun long weekend (well, Wednesday to Saturday) and I enjoyed visiting my mom's friend as well as getting a chance to teach a little bit!

Thanks for Reading!


Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Great Minnesota Get Together

Right before moving, Jack and I decided to make a visit to the Great Minnesota Get Together-- The State Fair!  It had been longer than we wanted since we had seen each other in person, so this was a much needed date day.  And actually, we went on one of the nicest days-- relatively cool, sunny, and breezy all day long.

One of the first things that I made Jack do with me was climb to the top of the ranger tower that is set up near the DNR booth.  It's just... I like climbing up tall things.  I did a lot of that in Europe.

As you can see, pretty much everyone and their mother also decided that it was a great day to visit the fair that day.  This makes for a lot of great people watching.  We didn't do this, but I heard that there was State Fair People Watching Bingo with things to find like, someone with blonde dreadlocks and someone with five kids or things like that.  The reason why I bring this up is because I saw the most stereotypical country boy and I just need to tell the world about it.  This guy was wearing jeans with a big belt buckle, a plaid shirt, and when he spoke, he had a thick Minnesota country accent complete with a "Wooo-hooo!" associated with a cowboy in the west.  Holy cow.  I can't make this stuff up and apparently neither can the writers or directors of any cowboy book or movie ever.

Next we visited the Miracle of Birth barn so that I could see baby animals and their mamas.  It's possible to watch live births with the cows and pigs and sheep there, but I've never seen more than the video footage.  Birth is such a fascinating process.  I know that a number of people think it's really gross and would not care to see it themselves, but... I just feel like you have to appreciate what the females of the world have to go through in order to perpetuate whatever species they belong to.  And to think that humans willing go to many lengths to conceive and carry their babies to term... just... wow.

Jack and I did a lot of walking and looking.  Just walking around and nearly running over or getting run over by strollers and people who are bigger than you, it's easy to get the feel for just how many people are at this place with you.  And then you get pictures like this and you think holy.... expletive.  Just look at how far the crowd of people stretch down this road.

One of our favorite things to do while we're at the fair is go on the Sky Ride.  You sit on this ski lift chair and you can ride over the fair.  It's a nice way to take a break from walking and also figure out what other things you'd like to see in other parts of the fair.

Some of the other things that we saw and did was go to the Environmental building where I immediately saw my new favorite form of camping:

I can't tell you how cute I think this trailer camper thingy is and how much I want to spend a week living out of it.  We also saw a tiny house which I absolutely loved.  I am obsessed with tiny houses.  You don't even know, because I haven't talked about it on here before.

We saw this really neat kinetic sculpture in the art building that simulates the movements of ocean waves.

I can't talk about the State Fair and not talk about the fair food.  We discovered a little trick this time around so that we could eat a lot of food in one day.  The trick is this: split your food.  For example, I wanted to try friend pickles.  I'd never had them before and I was intrigued.  But instead of Jack and I getting a small tray each, we got one and shared that food.  So we did a lot of tasting and we got to try and eat a lot of different kinds of food without feeling like crap at the end of the day.  It was really great.  The picture above was my dinner-- a wild rice cheese burger.  Minnesota is known for its wild rice and this burger, also something that I hadn't tried before, was freaking delicious.  I'd love to learn how to make this at home.  Someday I will.

Okay, I'm curious.  If you live in another state, I especially want to hear from you.  In Minnesota, part of the State Fair is selecting the winner of the Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant (?) winner and then she gets her head carved into a 20 lb block of butter.  As my mom said, "What a waste of butter."  Also, seeing that much butter, and there are several blocks in this refrigerated rotating room, is just nasty, even when you were born and raised in a state partially known for its dairy (perhaps behind Wisconsin, but who's counting?).  Is this a thing at other State Fairs too or is this a kooky Minnesota thing?

After we got our ice cream cones (a must... ice cream just tastes better at the State Fair.  I don't know why) and picked up Jack's family a bucket of Sweet Martha's cookies (what?  You can freeze them and they last all year!), we decided that this was a good end to the day.  We hopped on the bus which would take us back to where we parked our borrowed car.  It was the end to a very good day and a welcome reprieve right before our big move.

Thanks for Reading!


Friday, September 4, 2015

A Review of 'Broken Memory' by Elisabeth Combres

"Hiding behind a chair, five-year-old Emma can't see her mother being murdered, but she hears everything.  When the assassins finally leave, the terrified girl stumbles away from the scene, motivated only by the memory of her mother's last words: "You must not die, Emma!"  Eventually, Emma is taken in by an old Hutu woman who risks her own life to hide the child.  A quiet bond grows between the two, but long after the war ends, Emma is still haunted by nightmares.  When the country establishes gacaca courts to allow victims to face their tormentors, Emma is uneasy and afraid.  But through her growing friendship with a young torture victim and the encouragement of an old man charged with helping child survivors, Emma finds the courage to begin the long journey to healing.  Moments of grace and tenderness illuminate this spare, sensitive novel, which tells the story of the 1994 attacks in an age-appropriate manner."

My only knowledge of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 comes from the film Hotel Rwanda.  It's a powerful and at times difficult to watch film.  It was like taking a bath in cold water.  You wake up very suddenly, very abruptly, even though you hadn't registered that you were asleep.  No peace and a complete lack of comfort.  There is no hand-holding while introducing this part of history.

While I don't think it's a good idea to read Elisabeth Combre's book and be done with the Rwanda of 1994, I think it's a good book to read if you have a good idea of why this happened.  It sort of completes the story that I started by watching Hotel Rwanda.  The story briefly takes place as the genocide is occurring, but most of the story shows post-genocide Rwanda.  It shows how people are managing afterwards.  How people like Emma and Ndoli cope, I think, are true testaments to just how horrific this time in history was.  They still have nightmares and it pains Emma that she can't remember her family.  She never got to know her family, not really, and their deaths did not have to happen.  How do you handle this from age four into adulthood?  This is something I'll never understand and I hope never fully comprehend.

If you read this book and don't have even a little bit of background on this time in history, I suggest that you read the Author's Note first.  Combres explains, briefly, how Rwanda reached the point that it did in 1994.  I found it extremely helpful when it came to filling my gaps in knowledge.

I give 'Broken Memories':

Thanks for Reading!


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Moving Out

Written last night, the night before I move.  Please pardon the verbiage.

Over the past few weeks, I have slowly but surely been packing up my bedroom at home.  Tomorrow, 1 September, I'm moving out of my childhood home and moving into my first apartment with my fiance.  It started looking like I was serious about moving maybe a week or two ago.  At first, it was just the books on my shelves that made their way into boxes and into the corner of the dining room.  But then the closet started getting cleaned out and the wire cubes that functioned as bookshelves for me were broken down and packed away, leaving a lot of extra space.  My extra blankets were packed up and the clothes in my closet nestled into a suitcase.  The only things left to pack now are so minor that they will be thrown in on top of the contents of the already packed boxes.

Not from tonight.  The room is even emptier now.
It's weird though because I haven't felt sad about leaving like I thought I would.  I mean, this is a momentous occasion and a milestone to check off in my life.  I'm no longer going to b living with my parents (I can't mention my sister here because she's moving to college a handful of days after I move).  But I'm not feeling sad.  It's just kind of a thing in my life that is happening, although I'm an active part of it.  I did sign the lease, after all. My dad asked me if it felt weird to be permanently leaving home.  Even I was surprised when I said "Not really," or something to this tune.  It's not that I don't love my family or that I hate being home, because neither of those things are true.  But the feeling remains.

My apartment is close to home-- it's just a few minutes away from my University, and I've lived there before.  The distance is not new, just the way to get to my apartment is new.  But having to go a different direction isn't upsetting, or at least it shouldn't be.

So my only explanation for my indifferent feelings toward moving out is this: I'm ready.  I started being ready back in Amsterdam, the day my fiance proposed, although I might not have been fully aware at that point.  There were too many other things going on at once.  But by saying 'yes,' I was starting a new chapter in my life.  I'm engaged and if all goes well, we'll be married next year.  I'll have to find a real "big girl" job next year.  So in a way, life was saying "Yeah, time to get a move on (literally) whether you like it or not" and in a different way saying, "Yeah, I know," and taking life's hand and walking into the sunset together.

So while there are a number of things that need to be taken care of tomorrow, I know I'm ready and I know that it's time.  I'm not sad, but instead I'm excited for the things that lie ahead, even if I don't quite know what lies ahead.

I'm not sure just yet how much I'll miss my childhood room.  A lot has happened in here that went into my growing up, both good things and bad (although I won't talk about the bad here... it's not the time for that).  This is where I did most of my reading, this is where I did my homework.  This is where I sat on the floor and opened my high school graduation cards.  This is the room I lived in from the time I was six months to until now, at the "ripe age" of 21.  This is where my sister and I tried to co-habitate for a short period of time (it didn't work out).  This is the room where, when I was younger, I would sing myself to sleep just because I liked to sing and I loved Disney songs.  This is where I packed for my first trip to France and my semester in the Netherlands.  This is where I wrote my stories and began to grow as a writer.  This is where I stayed up and read Harry Potter long into the night even though I wasn't supposed to.

This has been a great room and I can't wait to see what my new place brings.  But only time will tell.

Thanks for Reading!


Monday, August 24, 2015

Breakthrough Summer 2015: The End (?)

My time with Breakthrough Twin Cities has come to a close this summer.  Let me tell you a little bit about the last couple weeks.

Last Week With The Kids

The last couple of weeks of Breakthrough was a weird sort of organized chaos.  At the end of the summer, students participate in an event simply called Celebration.  But the event itself is far from simple.  Normally, students have their classes and then ASM (All School Meeting), lunch, and then college, electives, and organized recess (Yo-Time) before going home.  But with Celebration looming so close, we needed extra time to prepare acts.  So instead of Yo-Time, we had Flow-Time, which is half an hour where acts have time to prepare.  My elective, video production, managed to finish their final project during this time.

Not all classes were doing an act for Celebration though.  If you're not doing an act, you definitely have to do a display.  My literature classes, in an effort to not restrain their creativity, did a display so that their final projects could be as long as they pleased.  My kids' final project was to make videos recreating one scene from Of Mice and Men.  I will put these videos below.  Warning: Spoilers.

I'm really proud of my kids for what they accomplished this summer.  They have a lot to be proud of.

Squad pose :)
Behind the scenes in the final video above.
Class A editing their video and working on parts for their display (and also trying to listen to music).
My classes' display for Celebration night!
Before Celebration night, there was a lot to do.  We had to make sure the kids had all of their work that they made, tie up loose ends in our lesson plans (some people were working on writing their lesson plans even during the last week... that must have been stressful for them), practice for Celebration, and generally prepare for the end of the summer.

My fellow Silver College Leaders and I decided that it would be a nice idea to make something for our kids so I printed out pictures and stuck them to heart shapes.  After that, we put candy on the back and stuck them to the kids' lockers where they could easily find them.  Some of them didn't like the caramel, but I think they liked the picture.

What's This?  It's Celery!  No, It's Celebration!!

Once the last day of school was over, that wasn't the end of Breakthrough.  No, Celebration night was on Saturday, so students showed up around noon so that we could do one dress rehearsal before doing the real thing.  All of the kids sat on one side of the auditorium and they not only practiced their acts, but they practiced coming down the stairs quietly and in the right order of performances.  That way everything would be seamless.

I manned one of the spotlights.  It was pretty great :)
Classes performed their short skits, their songs, their stories... what the kids were doing didn't really matter unless you were one of the teachers, one of the kids, or possibly the parents of the kids.  But I thought they did an amazing job.  These are the coolest kids I've ever met.

The show was over, the kids were settled after doing their song and dance and all of the teachers were about to sit down to watch the slide show that had been put together when...

Surprise!  The teachers and staff had been practicing their own song and dance after the kids had gone home for the day!  There were very few dry eyes among the kids by the time we were finished.

After the slideshow, everyone was supposed to go out into the cafeteria to find their families and eat cake, but most kids stayed behind and walked on the stage to say goodbye to each other and hug the teachers (the only time we can give more than hand hugs and high-fives.  I think Celebration night was the hardest for those in the Breakthrough Leaders Program-- the rising ninth graders.  There is no longer a place for them during the summer, although Breakthrough will always be there for them.  But even the rising seventh and eighth graders had a hard time that night.  The seventh graders will be returning as eighth graders, no problem.  The eighth graders are not all going to come back next summer though.  There are only a certain number of spots for rising ninth graders.  Perhaps this will change as BLP becomes more widespread in Breakthrough.  I hope that it does.

So What's Next?

I know that I would like to come back to Breakthrough next summer to teach again.  It's not guaranteed that this will happen, but I will be applying.  No matter what happens next summer though, I will be going to Saturday sessions (most of them, any way) so continue interacting with these kids and watching them grow more into the young adults that they've already started to become.  Breakthrough might be done for the summer, but I'm not done with Breakthrough.

Thanks for Reading!