Planner Paradise

A new year is always exciting. It is filled with hope, opportunities and unseen adventures.  I’ve never really been one for New Year’s resolutions, as I’m self-aware enough to realize that I am not going to stick with something just because the calendar says it is January 1. I tend to just do something once I decide that is what I want to do rather than wait for a seemingly arbitrary date to commence the undertaking.  (If we are going to set capricious dates though, we should make every February 29 Outrageous Resolution Day!  Rather than going with the yearly normal like “lose ten pounds” or “go to the gym four times a week” or “volunteer more,” every Leap Year Day can be for crazy, over-the-top resolutions like “I will wear polka-dots and stripes in some combination every day for a month” or “I will only eat blue food until Easter Outrageous Resolutions Day could become an instant hit!) Although I don’t do the resolutions thing, there are other parts of rolling from the old to the new that I do love.

One of my favorite things about saying goodbye to the outgoing year and welcoming the new one is that the turning of the last calendar page means it is time to chuck the calendar I’ve been staring at for the last twelve months and replace it with a fresh, fabulous new one. I love calendars of all types- wall calendars (especially the ones with organizational pockets and stickers), daily desk calendars, and planners.

While I have transferred many of my daily activities to be technologically based (everything from keeping in touch via Skype/Face Time to reading nearly all of my books on my Nook), this organizational tidbit of my life is still firmly in the land of paper/pencil.  I love perusing the stores right after the new year, when everything is 50% off, picking out just the perfect planner to see me through the next twelve months. Color and pattern are at the top of the priority list, but design and construction are not to be forgotten. This year, the winner has a dark brown background on which are embossed pink and orange butterflies surrounded by spring green flowers. Both the elastic band to close the book as well as the font inside are a pretty raspberry pink color. This is the planner that will see me through the fanatical list-making that is sure to happen in the next few months; it will be packed and hauled to just about the opposite side of the Earth; hopefully it will utilized as my close companion in the transition to a new job once we get to Chengdu; and it will serve as a way to keep track of when all of our guests are coming and going from their trips to the Middle Kingdom. (Hint. Hint.)

After getting my colorful, sparkling new planner home, I immediately want to begin organizing life for the upcoming year. This means finding some pretty colored pens and filling the book with relevant birthdays, anniversaries and appointments that have already been set.  As many planners these days are 18-month ones, it also means that January doesn’t fall on the first page, but rather several months in, the booklet having started in July. This means I need to dig through my assortment of color-coordinated school supplies and find a matching butterfly clip (the winner is spring green) to hold the already used pages out of the way, clipping them to the front cover.  (I’ve been doing this for years, but only within the last couple did I realize that this wonderful technique is not one I dreamed up myself.  It took a bit to realize where I got it from, but once I did, I can’t believe I didn’t see it all along. I have vivid memories of sitting, after school, in my dad’s counselor’s office at Jefferson Junior High School.  When it was time to pack up to go home at the end of the day, as he gathered his things to go, one think that always got packed up was his dark blue Lifetouch daily planner.  I can clearly see the giant black and silver butterfly clip holding the used pages to the front of the planner itself.  While my planner and clip are definitely more fashionable than my dad’s ever were, apparently his sense of organization unconsciously rubbed off on my all those years ago!)

My love of calendars stems from two roots: first, my obsessive need to be organized (I call it prepared, Thad calls it bossy) and second, my love of all things fluffy and florally and girly.  There is little that combines those two wonderful concepts like a calendar, fresh out of its plastic wrap and ready to help me put a whole new year in its place!

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

As with many of the books I read, I was first drawn to this novel by an online review I happened to stumble across. The premise of a lab-bound doctor venturing into the unknowns of the Amazon basin on behalf of a huge pharmaceutical company was one that contained the potential to go in so many directions, I just had to find out which overgrown jungle trail Patchett would follow.

State of Wonder is an interesting mix of a fictional adventure/travel genre and a more literary discussion of a large drug companies’ ethical responsibilities vs. its bottom line. The main character, Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil on a double mission: first, to find the reclusive Dr. Swenson, who is supposed to be working on a game changing fertility drug, but refuses to enlighten her employers on its development and second, to find out just exactly how her predecessor, Anders Eckman,  in the previously mentioned mission died and what has become of his remains.

Once she arrives in Brazil and wheedles her way past the gatekeepers Dr. Swenson has employed to keep any and all curious outsiders from finding her and her research station, Dr. Singh discovers that nothing is quite the way it was presented to her back in Minnesota. The drug research, while happening and making huge progress, is not what her employing pharmaceutical company thinks it is, Dr. Swenson is pushing natural boundaries to a breaking point and there is more mystery to the demise of Eckman than anyone in the States knows.

I am always excited to open a new book. Sometimes the start of a new novel takes time to develop, slowly going through the machinations of time and place and character. Occasionally, I’ll happen upon a novel that, from the first paragraph, winds me tightly into its coils like a monstrous anaconda in the Amazon. For me, Patchett went all in and showed her hand on page six with when Eckman, an avid birder, is preparing for his trip to the wilds of South America by pouring over field guides of rainforest aviary. As he describes the reclusive Amazonian dwelling guira cuckoo and the plumage that bedecks its head, Patchett writes, “A person could wash out the inside of a pickle jar with such a bird.” After wiping away the tears that stemmed from laughing so hard at that line, there was no way I was going to be able to put down the book down until I had seen it through to the end.

For the thoughtful mixture of a travel adventure and the philosophical discussion of humanity’s ethical responsibilities towards one another earns Ann Patchett’s Sense of Wonder earns:

Eleven Times Three

While the day is just now arriving, my birthday celebration officially began several weeks ago, on New Year’s Eve, when while home for Christmas break I had the chance to share the festivities with my older sister, Melyssa, and my niece, Audrey, both of whom have end of December birthdays. Being the “big kids” out of the bunch, Melyssa and I deferred to the desires of the sprite-like Audrey, whose wishes included a very pink, very princess birthday party.

In grand fashion, we enjoyed the house swathed in Pepto-pink.  (While I am a total pink girl myself, my tastes run in the direction of raspberry more than cotton candy.) From balloons bedazzled with Disney princesses to a sparkly, pink-pearl embossed cake, it was as if we had fallen into monochromatic land. Colors no longer existed, just shades.

As the big 3-3 has finally arrived (years that are multiples of eleven seem a bit more grand than the others),  in honor of it here are, in a totally random order,  thirty-three things I’ve learned over the last three and a third decades:

  1. There is no appropriate place on a resume to put elementary school perfect attendance awards, but I am sure that the lack of missed days contributed to future job offers is some way, shape or form.
  2.  Not only is it okay, but it is brilliant to buy that cute pair of shoes (or perfect fitting pants or adorable top or cute necklace) in every color offered.
  3. Studying abroad in the Caribbean is definitely a good choice when the options are either northern Utah or Dominican beach in January.  Learning experiences aside, snow-capped mountains always lose to white sandy seashore.
  4. Icy Hot and sunburns should not be mixed. (A small fact I picked up on during the sojourn mentioned in #3.)
  5. Sometimes checking the “no preference” box is the best option. That little box is what landed Thad and me in rural China with Peace Corps for two years and we couldn’t have chosen a better site on our own.
  6. Being a picky eater is fine, as long as you can justify why you don’t eat certain foods.  Reasonable explanations may include “too pointy” (usually in reference to the ends of bananas), “too knobby” (mostly used for chicken strips that are strangely bumpy) and “looks too much like a trashcan” (always for tater tots!).
  7. Just because you already own three copies of a single book does not mean you shouldn’t buy another one when you find it on clearance table for a dollar at a library sale.  You can either shelve it with its compatriots or give it away to someone in need of a great read. There is no such thing as too many books.
  8. 8th graders are the world’s most fascinating species. On one hand, they are still kids, willing to do nearly anything for a sticker, and then on the other hand, in the exact same moment, they are sending texts that would make a madam blush.  (Just don’t combine the two halves or you will face a whole different terrifying predicament!)
  9. Soda pop out of a fountain machine is always the best. I think it has to do with the straw. The fizzy drink hierarchy goes: fountain, bottle, can.
  10. My experience tells me that old people can get away with nearly anything. With little repercussion they can speak their minds (or what is left of them.) They act with near impunity. No one corrects the geezers.  As I inch closer to those grand days myself, I am taking this opportunity to wield the old-folks’ license and do what I want.  No one, myself included, wants to read a list of thirty-three anything, so…enough!

Age has brought wisdom. It may not be not conventional wisdom, and is definitely not street smarts, but an acumen all of its own. The princess party is nothing more than a memory and another year of wisdom has been added to my mental file cabinet. Thirty and three has arrived.

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

As I continue to expand “In Search of the End of the Sidewalk,” I’ve decided to add another category to my musings. As a self-described uber-bibliophile, I readily admit to my love of reading, talking about and recommending books. When I was teaching, my 8th graders and colleagues were a perfect outlet for my need to share fabulous reading material, but now that I am without a classroom and have an ever-changing set of fellow students, I hope to use my blog to continue sharing and discussing great (and, at times, not so great) literature. These “Book Musings” will be short reviews (less summary oriented and more my thoughts)  of the books that are currently cycling through my Nook, along with a “Shell Rating.” Five shells will be awarded to the best of the best, with one shell being given to books that I was able to survive, but am utterly incapable of suggesting anyone else endure. With that introduction soundly delivered, here is my first Book Musing!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This novel made it onto my Nook as my book club’s January selection. As end of the year lists were compiled by any and all media outlets with any slight leaning towards literary aspirations, The Sense of an Ending made frequent appearances.  If others loved it, might we as well?

I have to admit, I finished this book well over a week ago, but put off writing this musing because I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. My first impression of this novel was one of bleakness.  This vibe isn’t only because suicide plays a hefty role in the storyline, but because the main character, Tony, as he looks back over his life and ponders the choices he has made and their subsequent consequences, doesn’t seem to have many positive times to cling to. While he isn’t overly downtrodden by these events, as an outsider, I had to feel a sense of defeat for him.  Our vision for life is that the good times ultimately outweigh the bad times, but for Tony, the best of the best and the worst of the worst hardly seemed to register on his radar. He seems content with utter mediocrity in his life.

The heart of the novel lies beyond the tangled web of Tony, his first real girlfriend, her mother and his best friend. Questioning the accuracy of our memories and the light in which we choose to recall events throughout our lives is really what the novel forces the reader to consider.  Tony is far from a reliable narrator, and yet, can we say that we are reliable narrators of our own lives? After telling the same story over and over to friends, to colleagues, at parties, are we really telling the reality of what happened or has it become warped and twisted into a new version of itself?  The short but dense novel coerces the reader into reminiscing about his/her own recollections and how dependable they may be.

While I was on the fence initially about this book, after some great discussion with the ladies at book club and thinking back over some of the really intriguing one-liners in the book, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is awarded:



Wii-ning Advice

Much like the poultry population of southern China, our Oakwood population is experiencing its own culling process. Friends that we’ve made through Thad’s A-100 training class and language training are beginning to pack-out and leave for their respective assignments.  On one hand, this is great because the commencement of their tours means ours isn’t far behind, but on the other hand, it is a bit odd to not have the same people on the shuttle each morning and evening and to not have the same people chatting around the table at lunch each afternoon.

This week was the last week at FSI for two such people.  Ian and David both just dominated their end of course language tests and are now headed west to visit family before heading far, far east where Ian will begin his assignment in the Guangzhou consulate. Thad and Ian started Chinese classes together last July and have spent a large portion of each day together since then. David and I joined the party a bit later, but have also had our share of time on the fake-coyote ridden campus of FSI.

A bit of an impromptu going-away party convened last night to celebrate their impending departure and to wish them well in their new adventures. While I usually am not up for anything big on a Friday night, riding up the elevator five floors for a get-together is definitely doable! The evening’s docket included pizza, soda, chips and a bit of Wii.

This being my third Wii-experience (Wii-sperience?) in as many months, I have a few tidbits for my fellow players who also lack technological aptitude:

  1. Apparently, calling yourself a “video game player” is not appropriate lingo for those who are serious about their games. If you refer to yourself this way, it is equivalent to donning a sandwich board sign advertising your lack of video game skillz. (Spelling and pronouncing skills with a “z” may lead to a similar assumption, but I’m sticking with it!)
  2. Just because you are a decent driver in real life (no pullovers or tickets for this motor vehicle operator) does not mean those abilities will in any way translate to video game driving abilities. After coming in 11th and 12th consecutively, David jumped in to be my back seat driver.  In addition to giving me hints about upcoming turns and obstacles, his squeals when I careened into various gorges and ravines kept me on my feet. With him riding shotgun, I soon propelled my standing from the bottom of the pack to 2nd place!
  3. Don’t listen to your competitors-ever. Their advice should not be heeded. Towards the end of an intense Mario Party clashing, as I was about to purchase my third star, thereby putting me in the lead, I was debating whether or not it was in my best interest to allow Donkey Kong to shoot me out of his cannon (really, who wouldn’t want a ride in a cannon?!?), I hear something say “Yes!”  Thinking this advice was coming from someone in-the-know, I chose to take the cannon ride, which catapulted me not to the star as I thought it would, but rather to the Never-Neverland of Mario’s prehistoric jungle. There would be no star in my future, at least in that round.

As a thrice-experienced “gamer”(this, I am told, is the correct way to label yourself if you have wasted away hours of time on your sofa, moving your pixilated men and creatures in hopes of achieving virtual success), I feel that my past mistakes can be learning opportunities for those who follow in my technological footsteps.  While these tips may not allow you to be the ultimate winner of Mario Party (which I was last night, by the way!) but they will give you a leg-up on your fellow uninitiated video game players.

The coming months will see many more goodbyes, but mostly great ones, as it means everyone is finally heading out to their multitude of awesome posts, as well as the possibility of a few more virtual game nights. I doubt I will ever be good at goodbyes, but I will continue in my quest to achieve the gaming skills of a six year old!

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The Lure of Sky Mall

It was with the best of intentions that I loaded my Chinese reader into my carry-on bag, determined to schlep it through multiple airports so that I could dutifully work the homework that I have neglected for the last week and a half. Carrying the rather large paperback meant my fruit snacks and Thad’s Combos had to be rearranged to save them from becoming balls of chewy goo and pizza-flavored crumbs, but if I were to get caught up on some of my classwork, the new packing arrangement would be well worth it.

I started the trip sticking with my study plan.  No sooner had I eaten my ritual pre-flight pancakes at the Boise Airport, than I dug my Chinese reader out of my paisley clad shoulder bag and picked up on chapter seven, where I left off yesterday. (I would have made it farther in the book yesterday, during my bonus-vacation day, but my focus was diverted by one tiny three-year old dancing around the living room singing “No king, no king, lalalalalala!” as she watched her newly acquired Lion King DVD yet again. It is pretty hard to concentrate on passages about percentages of Chinese people in the American workforce when a pack of laughing hyenas and a sprite of a child are available entertainment.)

So now, seated in the second row of a Southwest Airlines flight from Salt Lake City to Baltimore, enjoying my more than ample legroom and Plane Cookies (seriously, they are shaped like tiny airplanes!), I should once again pull out that never-ending mass of semi-decipherable characters and try to get through another chapter or two. I have the will-power to resist peering out the window, watching the fly-over states drift beneath us. I have the will-power to resist watching an episode or two of Sheldon’s antics and Penny’s marvelous outfits on The Big Bang Theory. I even have the will-power to resist the new book I recently downloaded to my Nook from the Arlington Public Library about women entrepreneurs trying to make their way under the banner of the Taliban in Afghanistan. What do I not have the will-power to resist? Sky Mall!

That’s right. Flying through the air in what is essentially a tin can filled with my fellow humanity, I have put off studying the mother tongue of the country that I will soon, once again, call home for two years, all in the name of browsing what has to be the world’s most eclectic, most random catalog to ever grace the seat-pockets of any form of transportation.

Just as my easily diverted attention span’s luck would have it, during our westward flight home for the holidays and the eastward one post-New Year’s, the Sky Mall magazines transitioned from the Late Winter 2011 edition to the Early Spring 2012 one, providing not only all the same useless fare in an updated format, but also some new and improved accompanying rubbish.

Rather than add to my dismally small reserve of recognizable Chinese characters, I have spent the last hour of my flight perusing such fabulous finds as the toilet seat that automatically raises and lowers. The accompanying blurb states that “Some men have a hard time remembering to put the toilet seat down after use.” Apparently, thirty seconds after a bathroom user walks away from the commode, the seat self-closes, “preventing germs and diseases from spreading.” While wanting to slow the spread of nasty germs is a valid undertaking, for me, the issue has less to do with microorganisms than it does with not wanting to wander in to the bathroom in the middle of the night, half awake, and end up not on the seat, but rather stuck in the bowl! Sadly, my Wi-Fi-less flight does not allow me access to where I would find a video of this lovely product in action.

Sky Mall magazine contains solutions to such age-old problems as early balding (via a head covering that looks as though it could double as a means of contacting aliens) and bunions (via a plastic contraption that might possibly double as a means of torture). Through the 111 pages that make up the Early Spring 2012 edition of my favorite in-flight catalog, I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to Tuddles the dog and his special bedding needs; I’ve been offered the chance to own my very own video screen microscope; and I’ve discovered my life just may not be complete without an eight foot tall pop-up banner for all my advertising needs.

Not to be alone in my time wasting, Thad also took a break from his even larger and heavier Chinese reader to explore the wonders of the Sky Mall world. He seemed to gravitate towards a strange looking plastic contraption that claims to use UV rays to disinfect shoes. This ground-breaking device avoids chemicals in its quest to kill 95% of foot bacteria. Again, if only I had internet access, I could be sitting here, enjoying a video view of the workings of the Sh-UV-ee Shoe Deodorizer. Oh, for want of the internet…

In just a few more hours, I’ll be back on terra firma, shuttling towards the mo-partment, contemplating tomorrow’s return to the Chinese classroom and seriously wishing I had used my flight time more wisely. I can already picture it, and yet, Sky Mall is still persuasively calling my name. It seems I will have to just consider the consequences of unfinished homework a problem for Future Michelle to tackle.

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