Making a Small Town Proud

As I sat on my couch last night, tuned in to my first (and probably last) NFL draft, I couldn’t help but wax nostalgic about my years in Marsing. I started teaching there in 2000, just out of college, twenty-one years old and greener than Al Gore. I will forever be grateful to that interview committee that thought giving me a shot at a classroom of my own was a risk worth taking. I’m not sure I would look at someone barely legal to drink and think, “Heck yes, let’s put her in charge of thirty fourteen year olds at a time, several times a day!” But, they did, and I had a great run in that small town middle school. (And I’m forever grateful that those 8th graders didn’t realize just how easy total anarchy would have been!)

I have a rather indifferent relationship with football. I play Fantasy Football with friends from Idaho, but usually am bored with the whole thing, managing my guys as loosely as possible, by halfway through the season. My initial picks center around players with awesome names and those that play for teams with the best uniforms- meaning there has never been, nor will there ever be, a Brown on my team, Playing in Stilettos.  (Although, earlier this week, I did call eternal dibs on the defense of whichever team picked Shea up during the draft. If it had been the Browns, we’d now be facing the crisis of the century.) Watching Shea get drafted #19 on Thursday was awesome! There were high fives and cheers throughout the mo-partment.  (Having been his English teacher, I would have preferred he went to the Ravens, as then I could claim a bit of Poe-influence in his football career, but I doubt he was pondering the brilliancy of “The Raven” or “The Cask of Amontillado” as he sat, waiting for that fateful call.) Shea is a great kid, humble and loyal and a hard-worker. He deserves the attention he is getting and the rewards that are coming for his years of dedication as a student and an athlete. I will proudly wear my McClellin jersey (as soon as it comes out and can be delivered to China!) in Chengdu on game days and root him on for the length of his career.

But, with Shea’s success and the sudden spotlight that has focused on our rural Idaho town, I can’t help but think of all the other great students who came out of Marsing High School over the decade that I worked in the district. There are so many students that I am proud of, whose accomplishments aren’t being splashed on the front page of newspapers or on primetime ESPN, but that are fabulous and achieving great things on their own. These awesome kids aren’t making headlines in Chicago, but they are making their families and teachers proud.

There is Jose, a young man I had in my English class for three years straight. (I had one class that I taught the year I muddled my way, painfully, through sixth graders, and then I moved with them to both seventh and eighth grade. I was their sole middle school English teacher- for better or for worse!) Jose went from a middle schooler who relied solely on his charismatic personality to get ahead in life to a fabulous young man who has worked hard to reach his dreams. (Although, I am sure he still plasters on that charming smile when he needs to get his way!) He is headed to St. Francis College in New York this fall to play basketball and finish his college degree.

Or how about Tyson, who was accepted into medical school last year? He worked his way through NNU’s undergraduate program with the support of his wonderful wife (also a former student) and two beautiful daughters and is now focused on this next phase of his education. He will be a fabulous and caring doctor- an asset to whichever community is lucky enough to have him.

And don’t forget Nicole, the artist-extraordinaire who is chasing her dreams near Seattle, Washington. Her creativity and design abilities always blew me out of the water and now she is putting those skills into action as she explores a variety of genres in the world of art and design, including a great blog about photography. (Check it out here.)

The thing is, this list could go on and on as I tell you about how proud I am of Mayra and Ethan and Taryn and Jessica and Sean and Dixie and Peyton and Rose and Brian and Kacie and Miguel and Jacob and…the list goes on!  (And don’t even get me started on the ones that are still in school. It has been a rough year, to say the least, in Marsing, but watching the kids come together and support and love each other through the tragedies of the past few months has made me as proud of them for their hearts and their compassion as I am of their brains and their academic achievements.)

Marsing has been the foundation for so many wonderful kids who are now adults (as old as that makes me feel!), out in the world following their passions, making their small sections of this planet a better place.

So, congratulations to the newest Chicago Bear- Shea McClellin. You have earned your place in the spotlight and all of Marsing is proud of you! But also, a job well done to all of the other students coming out of Marsing who are succeeding in their chosen fields, who are shooting for the stars and who are also making our little community proud as can be!

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From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry

What do you get when you mix the New York fashion scene with alQaeda? You get a darkly humorous novel that delves into the paranoia that gripped the US in the months and years following 9/11. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is just that, as it follows Boyet Hernandez, a Filipino designer who has come to New York to make a name for himself and his clothing line (B)oy.

Boy runs into problems immediately upon arrival in the US. He has big dreams and talent to back them up, but not the funding. Just as he imagines he may never have the backing he needs to make the clothing line he has envisioned, a chance encounter with a neighbor changes his world. What Boy is too naïve to realize is that this new benefactor, with an apartment full of fertilizer, may not be funding his clothing line out of sheer love for his design aesthetic. Boy doesn’t see that he is being used as a front for much more sinister works.

We learn of Boy’s New York exploits as he writes about them from his tiny cell in No Man’s Land, (ie: Guantanamo Bay) where he is being held and interrogated, without having been arrested and without access to a lawyer. On yellow legal pad after yellow legal pad, Boy walks his interrogator (and us) through those early days in the United States. We see how much he loves the US, how entirely focused he is on clothing design and how he was too self-absorbed to realize what was going on around him.

Boyet is a likeable protagonist. He is embroiled in a mess well-beyond his understanding, and yet he tries to make sense of it by pulling forth his own renderings of history, philosophy and literature, usually butchering these references beyond belief. (The footnotes throughout the tale help sort out the points he is trying to make.) My favorite of these ill-guided attempts at allusion is when he tries to make a connection to the works of 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, saying he particularly liked the one about the idiot, if only he could remember the title!  This just puts a stamp on Boyet’s incredible nativity and innocence as he is being accused of the heinous and horrible acts.

I really like that this book breaks out of the conventional novel box. I like that it is Boyet’s own “confession,” written while held captive, bookended by a prologue and afterward by a reporter wishing to make the story known. This organization pushes the reader to imagine how such unwarranted detentions were (and still are) possible in a country where we say we prize freedom and the rule of law, but we are so afraid of terrorists getting the upper hand that those sentiments can be easily swept under the carpet in the name of protecting the homeland.  Boy’s story is a fictional one, but it does force the reader to stop and consider how close to reality certain aspects may be treading.

A unique style, coupled with a tale that weaves fashion and ethics together earns Alex Gilvarry’s novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant:

Preparing to Level-Up in Errands

Errands. We sure seem to have a lot of them lately. Perchance it has to do with that little move to the other side of the globe that is just a month away now. Possibly. Maybe. Conceivably.  Regardless, there has been a lot of little things that need taken care of over the last few weeks- phone calls, emails, runs to this store and that shop, dropping off paperwork here and picking up passports there. Lots and lots of stuff to do.

The dress I ordered to take to Chengdu (see the whole story in “From Coloring Books to Formals”) finally arrived. The shop both called and sent an email last week, so I was feeling the pressure to go out and pick it up. Since I am currently (again) in the midst of a vacuum when it comes to a daily routine, it was no problem to find the time to go to Rockville. It was mostly a matter of finding the effort required to put my book away, close the book review that was in progress and put on clothes worthy of the public and make the hour (each way) trek to the boutique. It was while on this errand last week, mid-grumble to myself, when I realized that in the course of a year, my errand running has gotten (and will get) progressively more difficult.  (If I had been a better math student, I would create a lovely line graph with the X axis being difficulty level and the Y axis showing time and the points indicating where they intersect with a pretty pink line connecting them in a steep upward trajectory. But alas, math and science weren’t my strong points, so instead, a narrative it is!)

I should be grateful for the relative ease of going to pick up this dress. (Heck, picking it out too!)

A year ago, when we were still living in the lovely house in south Nampa (the one that is still for sale at a rock-bottom price if anyone is interested!), if I needed to run some errands, it was as easy as getting an 8th grader to giggle at a fart joke. Say we needed light bulbs. (It always seems like we needed light bulbs and we always put it off until we needed a whole stack of them.) In Idaho, I would just grab my keys (in the figurative sense of getting stuff ready to go, as I always left the keys in the ignition in the car in the garage. Oh, how I loved having a garage!) hop in my cute little Celica and head to the store. Which store? The choices were endless, from the Walgreens and Albertson’s just down to the road, to the Shopko (always a good place to find things- like husbands!) or Target just up the road the other direction. I could get the light bulbs, pick up a few other random goodies and be home before Mabel, the resident basset hound, even awoke from her nap. Light bulbs in a flash.

Now, in Arlington, if I need light bulbs, it takes a bit more planning, but not excessively so. I can always run down to the labyrinth below the mo-partment, in hopes that Rite-Aid has some, but that is always a bit of a gamble. Rite-Aid has an odd and unreliable selection of household items. The more likely scenario holds that I will check the Metro website, pulling up the Adobe document with the schedule for the near-by 9A bus. Once determining the time of the next arrival, I’ll grab my bag and skitter down to wait at the stop that is in front of a creepy, abandoned post office. All the while, I will be crossing my fingers, hopng that the bus actually stops for me. (To be fair, if I am running this errand on my own, which is usually the case, the bus is going to stop. Three times in our year here I have had the bus blow by me at that stop. All three times I have had Thad with me. Something about him just must look sketchy to the drivers!) On the bus, I’ll scan my card and find a spot to enjoy the couple miles ride to the shopping center that is home to our local Target. At Target, I will get my light bulbs and anything else that strikes my fancy, being sure, of course, that whatever I purchase is easily cartable, as it is going home with me again on the bus.  Now, this is where it gets tricky and/or frustrating. Going to Target, I can check the schedule and arrive at the stop just prior to the bus, but coming home, I am at the mercy of the bus. More times that I care to count, as I walk out those automatic doors of Target, I have glimpsed the taillights and smog spewing back end of the bus I wanted to be on. That means, it will be twenty to thirty minutes until the next one. There is no good people watching available from the Target bus stop, but I do get to enjoy a symphony of horns, honking for reasons unknown. All this, for want of a light bulb.

It was while on the Metro train on my way to Rockville to pick up the dress last week though that I realized I should be quite content with my current errand running system, for in just a few weeks, that difficulty is going to step it up a few notches. It is like playing a video game. (This is possibly the worst simile I could come up with, as I never play video games, but I’ve watched a lot, so I think I have a bit of wiggle room here.) Once you reach a certain point in the game, you level up, making each task harder and more complicated to accomplish. Well, soon, we are leveling-up.

I can’t speak for Chengdu, as we’ve only spent limited time there during Peace Corps trainings, but in Chengxian, buying a light bulb or two could become an all-morning process. The first matter was to figure out what exactly we needed. Things never seemed to work in quite the same way as they did the US, so it didn’t take us long to learn to take whatever it was we wanted replaced with us to the store. With light bulb in hand, the next step was to identify the area of town in which the desired item could be found. In Chengxian, there was the clothing shop section of town, the plumbing supply section of town, the live fish/eels/turtles section of town, etc. Once arriving in the electricity-related section of town, it was just a matter of finding a store with the same light bulb, negotiating a price and hoping that the bulb worked when we got it home.

I am sure Chengdu will not be quite as complicated as Chengxian, as there are mega-stores that probably have all these odds and ends items in a single location, but even getting there will be more work than it is here.  Language will always be a bit of a barrier, as will the blonde hair and blue eyes. (Not because it makes me ditzy, but because it stands out and it different from the norm, making me a great topic of conversation that must be concluded before purchasing can occur.)

So, as the difficulty of daily errands is getting close to leveling-up (I can almost see the colored bar hovering over my head as I complete each task here in DC), I am reminding myself to be thrilled with the ease of each chore accomplished, since that simplicity is to be short-lived.

With that in mind, I’m off to buy mosquito repellant and milk. What an odd, and hideous, combination!


When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke falls firmly in the young adult literature genre, but within that realm, its home is on the older end of young adults. The writing style and vocabulary are by no means out of reach of middle school students, but the themes and content definitely require a bit more mature reader.  I was drawn into the novel from the very start, loving the obvious references to The Scarlet Letter. (The allusions, both apparent and those that are a bit more concealed, were strong enough to make me want to go reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s magnum opus.)

The problem became, while I was intrigued and captivated by the first half of the novel, that level of enthusiasm wasn’t sustained throughout the second half.  While the beginning of the book introduces a series of ethical and moral dilemmas, ranging from tangled relationships and a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body  to how criminals should be punished, the second half devolves into a mere love-story.

In the not so distant from now future, Hannah Payne is raised within the boundaries of a strict, religious family. The only world she knows of is the one her parents allow her to see. That is, until she falls in love with the preacher of the mega-church her family attends- the married preacher of the mega-church her family attends. When he returns her affections (and more!) and she becomes pregnant, she knows she can’t reveal the identity of the baby’s father, so rather than having the child, she decides it is best for all involved to have an abortion. In this future, abortion is illegal, punishable by a many years long sentence. (Prisons had become too pricey for the government to run, so other than the very worst of criminals, the punished are injected a virus that turns their skin a bright color- red for murderers- that identifies them as a felon. They are then released back into the public, where they must find a way to survive the ongoing hatred meted out to them by the state’s citizens.)

Hannah, now a “red,” must find a way to survive her term of coloration. After a failed attempt through a halfway-type house, she decides to make a run for the Canadian border, where she will be protected. It is at the point that the higher-minded discussion of women’s rights and unduly harsh punishment drop by the wayside and the story becomes a mere romance.

Maybe Jordan decided that the issues were just too big and too overwhelming to tackle in a young adult book. (Although, if she felt that way, I am not sure why she started down the path to begin with. Why not make it an adult novel and see those subjects through? Or if it was YA that she really wanted to create, why not choose a single subject and do it justice?) Whatever happened, I was sorely disappointed when Hannah’s storyline became more about seeing the man who would have been the father of her child rather than the societal problems that were the foundations of the novel.

I really struggled with how many shells to award this book, but because I would give the first half a solid four and the second half a generous two, I am going to split the difference. Hillary Jordan’s book When She Woke earns:

The Obsidian Blade (The Klaatu Diskos #1) by Pete Hautman

The Obsidian Blade (The Klaatu Diskos #1) by Pete Hautman

I’ve never been a huge science fiction fan, leaning more towards dystopian literature when I’m in the mood for something outside mainstream fiction, but over the years I’ve run across a few that I really love. Anything by Ray Bradbury is a winner in my book, as is the Ender’s Game series.  When I got my hands on the first book of Pete Hautman’s new series, I thought maybe I’d be discovering another standout in the genre.

It wasn’t.

The Obsidian Blade starts out in what seems to be a fairly current time period in a small Midwestern town called Hopewell. Tucker is the son of a local preacher who, while fixing the roof one day, disappears, only to reappear later, with a young girl, obviously not familiar with their time period,  in tow. Reverend Feye (interesting name choice, as “fe” means faith in Spanish) returns changed, saying he no longer believes in God. Soon after this odd occurrence, Tucker’s mother starts to behave strangely, exhibiting symptoms that doctors diagnose as Autism, but she’d never struggled with the disease before. Things quickly spiral out of control and soon Tucker’s parents disappear (presumably into the same time-warping disko on their roof that his father entered previously). From here, the book goes all over the place.

Tucker’s uncle, whom he has never met, comes to take care of him, but soon they have both entered a different disko that is atop Uncle Kosh’s barn roof in a town several hours away. They are transported to the top of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (What?!) Anyway, after making their escape, Tucker returns to his home to enter the disko on top of his roof, thinking he will find his parents. And so the rest of the book goes…jumps from disko to disko take Tucker to the top of a pyramid where he is stabbed through the heart with an obsidian blade, to a strange hospital place where he discovers he has lost years of his life, and then it is off to Golgotha to see the crucifixion of a prophet. (Yup, you read that right. He witnesses Christ on the cross.)

It really is just too much.

Science fiction is unique in that it tends to require much more setup than a novel set in modern times. The author has to create the new world(s), a litany of characters with unique traits and what often times turns out to be a rather complicated and twisting plot line. I think it is fairly common for books of this genre to be long because of the intricate foundations that need to be set. It is understandable. The problem I have with The Obsidian Blade is that the entire novel feels like the setup. If I didn’t know that this book was the first in a trilogy, I would have been confused by the lack of cohesion. Even after 200 pages, I felt like nothing had been done other than creating a backstory for the rest of the series. I would much rather have had the book be longer and get into the actual story more. Maybe this should have been two longer books, rather than three short ones?  While this book left me with no idea what is going on in Hopewell and who the different groups of players are, I have no desire to read the second to find out. All the extended framework did was kill my interest in the book.  Maybe the second and third installments will sort out the issues and seemingly incompatible occurrences from the first book, but I just wasn’t drawn in enough to give them the chance. Because it is Saturday and a beautiful day outside, I’m in a great mood, meaning Pete Hautman’s book The Obsidian Blade generously earns: (Barely.)


Brangelina, Meet My Luggage

As the move to China edges ever nearer, my OCD-like need for organization and control is kicking in to overdrive.  The fact that the last week has been filled with *huge* forward progress is only serving to add fuel to the crazy-lady fire. (Chinese visas have come back, pack-out has been scheduled and tickets to LA and on to Chengdu have been issued!)  It doesn’t help that I’m done with ConGen, that all of our visitors have come and gone and now I have all day to sit and fret about minor details.

One particular point has recently embedded itself in my brain, much like a grain of sand would do in an oyster. (Clam? Mussel? You know, the sea-dwelling, hinged-shelled creature that inadvertently makes lovely jewelry for my fingers and wrists and neck.) Well, the hours of irritating my mind finally paid off with a jewel (or a plan as the case may be) while I was in the shower this morning. (Why is it that the shower is the home to so many brilliant ideas? I used to come up with the best lesson plan ideas while I was in the shower- ways to make kids enjoy writing sonnets or a great new expository essay idea or the perfect activity to help solidify Greek and Latin word parts in the minds of 8th graders.) Anyway, what is this latest tiny nuisance? Luggage. Baggage. Suitcases. Call it what you will, but when moving to the middle of China for two years (and then to lands unknown) the specifics become quite important.

The issue, percolating in my brain, has been about how to get the maximum use out of the luggage allowances we are given, especially providing that the rest of our belongings will arrive anywhere from a month to two months after we set foot in Chengdu. This means planning both casual and work-wear. (Yes, I said work!  I’ve had two job interviews in the past week, which look promising. An added bonus to interviewing via phone from the opposite side of the globe is that pajamas are a perfectly acceptable outfit to wear while discussing your background in education and your enthusiasm for taking on a variety of projects at the same time.) But clothing isn’t the only thing that has to go in those bags. With the rest of our shipment weeks, or months out, daily use items like dishwasher soap, mosquito spray and alarm clocks need to be considered as well.

The State Department allows each family member to check two bags as part of the travel process. Thad and I each bought a large, hard-shelled suitcase last spring as we prepared to move out here. (While I love the color and size of these cases, I do have regrets. They are too heavy!  When nearly ten of my allotted fifty pounds are spent on the container itself, I end up having empty space inside because I am over on weight before I run out of room! Lesson learned.)  So that is two bags, both in good condition. I own another roller-bag, (this one sporting an adorable 70s floral pattern) that is a perfect size for carry-on.  Last week, I ordered Thad a nice shoulder-strapped garment bag for his suits. The one we brought to DC with us is not only too small to fit his growing suit collection, but it is definitely not high quality. I’ve seen what China can do to luggage (on our first move there, my bag came off the carousal in Chengdu looking like it had been used as a buffer in an epic battle between kung-fu pandas.)  Figuring we’ve both got two arms (okay, mine may be weak and lacking in the strength department, but they can pull a suitcase or two), so we each have two rolling bags. That means we’ve currently got an empty hand!

Luggage shopping, here I come!

I knew just what we needed to take that final, coveted spot in our baggage family. I’d seen this bag several months ago, have visited it at the store several times and finally, today, adopted it into our diverse luggage home. (My baggage collection is a bit like Angelina Jolie’s family. I see it. I like it. I add it. It doesn’t matter if it matches what I already have.)  This newest bag is a bit of dark maroon, paisley-pattered perfection. This little guy (okay, not so little, especially once expanded) fills out our last spot. Now, I can roll my hard-shell and one other case. Thad can roll his hard-shell and one other case. (I told him I would carry his garment bag, since I am the one who wants the extra bag to begin with, but we all know when the time comes, I’ll be much to wimpy to actually roll two bags, have my own carry-on and haul the suit bag. But, it sounds good for now.)

So, with that bit of sand successfully coated in slime until it became a beautiful sphere of pearl, my mind is free to conjure up the next unnecessarily worrisome detail. 5 weeks and counting…

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

“Mickey Cray had been out of work ever since a dead iguana fell from a palm tree and hit him on the head.” If that opening line doesn’t catch your attention and leave you with dozens of questions, I can’t begin to imagine what is going on in your brain.  As it turns out, the iguana froze to death during a cold snap in southern Florida, turning it into a giant reptilian ice club, effectively giving Mickey one heck of a concussion.

Hiaasen’s latest young adult book takes us on an adventure into the Florida Everglades, where the Cray family lives and works as animal wranglers. Mickey, the father, relates better to his beasts than he does to human beings, while Wahoo (much like Sodapop and Ponyboy of The Outsiders fame,  that is his real name) does a much better job bridging those worlds. When Expedition Wild!, a hit reality TV series based on wilderness survival shows up and wants the wrangling expertise of the Crays, the alligators, parrots, snakes, monkeys and raccoons are the least harmful of the creatures involved.

When it comes to TV, reality isn’t quite real. The star of the series, Derek Badger, appears on the show to be a rugged outdoorsman who can survive any situation Mother Nature can throw at him. As it turns out, he is a rather pudgy, dessert-loving whiner who doesn’t do his own stunts, doesn’t have the sense of an empty coin purse and is only saved through the graces of the editing studio.

When Derek decides he is going to “go wild”  for this episode of his show, things quickly spiral out of control. From encounters with angry snakes and scared bats to a drunk man with a gun (which is a whole separate plot of its own), Badger soon realizes that he isn’t Mr. Outdoors, but clings to his desire to be the star of the series, thus earning him a huge pay raise in his next salary negotiations.  Clinging to that hope, he attempts some crazy stunts, but will it be enough?

Fans of Hiaasen’s previous young adult novels, such as Flush and Hoot, will love this one as well. There is action and adventure as they characters wade through the Everglades, but unlike Expedition Wild, there is also a good dose of reality, as the subplots deal with an alcoholic and abusive father, a family on the brink of losing their home and a look at what constitutes “reality.” The book comes in at just under 200 pages, so it is just the right length for young readers.  I’d give this book an instant two thumbs up, but in honor of Wahoo and his run-in with Alice, the resident alligator, I’ll stick with one thumb and one nub up, which translates to Carl Hiaasen’s Chomp earning: