Monday, August 31, 2009

Change Is Scary - Part 3

I think Health Care Reform deserves a serious discussion, not soundbites, scare tactics, lies, and ignorance. This is the third of my August Recess posts about health care reform.

Part 3 - But We're the Best! Why Fix What Isn't Broken?

Whose health care system is better? We can quibble about that, with columnists around the globe giving their opinions, analyzing wait times, predicting what will happen if this, that, or the other bill becomes law. These sorts of discussions are peppered with personal anecdotes ("I had this condition and walked right into the surgeon's office, while my friend the Canadian nurse says that up there . . . ") and much parsing of statistics (apparently comparing ANYTHING country-to-country - other than access/wait times - is apples to oranges).

What I know is this: we could do much better than currently we are doing.
  1. "According to a study by The Commonwealth Fund, Americans wait longer to see primary-care physicians than patients in Britain, Germany, Australia, or New Zealand—all countries with strong public-health systems." (Link for more stats.)
  2. "Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, says America ranks last overall in the fund's comparative studies, which consider access, equity, cost, quality, and efficiency measures across select developed countries. 'Where we do well is on …selective surgery.'" (same source)
  3. Health care is on track to consume 40% of our national economy by 2050. "Costs are rising so fast that every day more than 10,000 Americans lose their insurance coverage." The number of small businesses that can afford to provide health insurance for their employees is plummeting.
  4. Newsweek's International Editor, Zakaria, also says (sadly, without attribution) "Americans do worse on almost every health measure than most advanced industrial countries, which spend only half as much on health care per person and have proportionately more elderly people."

Ethically. Is health care a right or a privilege? Is it like education and retirement? Is every American entitled to have some affordable option available? Or is it OK with us as a society that there are simply some people (the working poor, people with pre-existing conditions) who are simply uninsurable?

Practically. It costs us ALL a ton of money when the uninsured use the ER for primary healthcare. Those expenses come from somewhere and go to somewhere - they raise the cost of healthcare for everyone else.

Real Choice? It’s Off Limits in Health Bills

"It refuses to pay for certain medical care and then doesn’t offer a clear explanation. It does pay for unhelpful care that ends up raising premiums. Its customer service can be hard to reach or unhelpful. And the people who are covered by this insurer have no choice but to remain with it — or, at best, to choose from one or two other insurers that are about as bad.

In all likelihood, I have just described your insurance plan."

We can do better.

Part 1 - Down Syndrome is a Pre-existing Condition

Part 2 - It Pays to Work for the Insurance Company
Part 3 - But We're the Best! Why Fix What Isn't Broken?
Part 4 - What Does "Reform" Really Mean?

The President's Plan for Health Care Reform

Friday, August 28, 2009

My Sailors

The girls wanted to be sea captains after watching an episode of Caillou. This proved to be no problem as my mom gave them a chest of dress-up clothes for Christmas including appropriate headgear.

But telescopes were required equipment and we only have one kaleidoscope. Ellie got that and Ada had to make do with a not-yet-recycled TP roll. Ellie requested one of the same and discovered that she could now see through her spyglass.

"This is the BEST telescope!" she insisted.

(Yes, a few decorations remain from our Harry Potter party. I'm getting to that!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Childhood Space

Ada and I have been looking at Halloween costume catalogs lately. And I'm a little concerned. Kids' clothes are sized roughly by age, and size 8/10 seems to be a breaking point. "Kids" costumes come sized up to size 8/10, but from size 8/10 on up, every costume is skintight with a micro mini skirt. (Ellie wears a size 6.) And then there's Miley Cyrus and that whole pole dance thing (choreographed with her daddy so it must be OK). And it's not just sex.

We treat little kids like big kids and big kids like adults. Kindergartners listen to pop music and love Hannah Montana and Britney Spears. Fourth graders bring cell phones to elementary school. Families watch sitcoms and movies together that are clearly meant for teens and adults rather than very young children. The advertisements during shows like American Idol are unfit for viewers at any age.

High school teachers get in trouble for critiquing when girls' low-rise jeans expose inches of thong, so one teacher I know hands students a lab coat without comment, expecting them to cover up in class but too afraid of repercussions to be more direct about the problem. Cell phones might not be allowed in class but are ubiquitous. Kids - and their parents, who call to chat during school hours - don't see why this is a problem.

It's sex and body image, it's respect, it's being unplugged long enough to experience the world around you, it's forming identity, it's values, it's education, it's childhood.

Imagine my joy when my daughter's kindergarten teacher started her curriculum night presentation with this quote:

"This time in their lives is just a whisper, a brief moment in which they can enjoy the richness of a childhood space."
-Beverly Bos

Yes. Yes. Yes!

In her classroom, children play. They learn, they follow rules. But they're allowed to be kids. Little kids. Because that's what they are and who they should be.

"Kindergarten looks different from first grade," the teacher said. "Kindergarten feels different from first grade. And kindergarten definitely sounds different from first grade."

My first baby is out on her own in a significant way this year, but she couldn't be in a better place.

I left curriculum night and headed to my friend's house for book club while listening to On Point with Tom Ashbrook. The episode was called Raising Well-Rounded Kids and the guest was Marybeth Hicks, author of Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World. Geeks is Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids, by the way.

The discussion dovetailed perfectly with curriculum night.

It's easy to get sucked along with what everyone around us is doing. And with Ellie being Ellie, we have a little extra pressure to help her conform, to want her to be accepted by her peers. But our job as parents isn't to make our kids happy all the time. Our job is to teach them the values we feel are important. To protect their childhoods by respecting them where they are and not treating them like small adults. To resist the urge to give them too much, allow them too much, push them too much.

All that takes engagement and energy. Good night!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Easily Distracted

Have you ever had one of those nights when you intend to get things done - like perhaps jotting down a short essay explaining your child-rearing philosophy - but instead you spend an hour researching the various options for solid and liquid rocket fuel? Fascinating stuff. Drew me right in. Have a few chemistry questions for my sister-in-law next time we're together.

NASA scrubbed tonight's launch attempt because of a faulty valve. (After weather prevented an attempt last night.) They hope to try again "early Friday morning" (Thursday night).

Did you know they don't use fossil fuels? Commercial/private space flight probably will.

Back tomorrow.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Love Anagrams?

Me either. But this is still fun!

Internet Anagram Server. Or, I, Rearrangement Servant.

An anagram for Paul's full name: Aroma Bull Pee

See? I told you this was fun. Here's me:

Enthralls Yearns

Who are you?

Change Is Scary - Part 2

I think Health Care Reform deserves a serious discussion, not soundbites, scare tactics, lies, and ignorance. This is the second of my August Recess posts about health care reform.

Working for the insurance company is profitable.

After college I got a job in publishing. It was a good job with solid benefits and upward sloping career path. It didn't pay well, but you can't have everything. I was happy with it.

A friend got a job with an insurance company. She too had good benefits, though she didn't particularly enjoy her work. She was compensated for his with a generous salary. By which I mean that she made more than three times what I made with similar college degrees/training/experience, working a similar number of hours per week.

For contrast, after college I shared a cheap apartment with a roommate and scrounged to be able to afford - after a promotion - to lease a basic Saturn. With standard transmission, though I splurged on automatic windows.

She could afford an Audi, a condo by herself, and Italian leather furniture.

Her job was to talk to employees whose companies purchased her company's health insurance plans, explaining the new options each year and enrolling them in the appropriate plans. (I figured I had the better deal, all things considered.)

Last Thursday President Obama sat down with conservative radio host Michael Smerconish to talk about health care.

One caller said, "And we're very concerned that most of the money will actually go, instead of taking care of people, it will go to, you know, the cost of administering a huge government bureaucracy."

Obama replied, "The track record for government administering health care actually is surprisingly good. Medicare, for example, a government program, has much lower administrative costs than private insurers do."

That didn't surprise me at all. I live near a United Healthcare building with its attractive architecture, fabulous landscaping, and cascading waterfalls. Right out of college I had a friend who made a ton of money signing up shift workers for insurance plans.

The government - and especially government bureaucracy - are far from perfect. In fact sometimes they're undeniably bad. I am not about to praise government efficiency.

But let's not pretend that the system we've got currently is any better.

What can we create that IS better?

(Note: it's incredibly difficult to find raw numbers from official sources untainted by political spin. I checked out the Congressional Budget Office and the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO).)

Part 1 - Down Syndrome is a Pre-existing Condition

Part 2 - It Pays to Work for the Insurance Company
Part 3 - But We're the Best! Why Fix What Isn't Broken?
Part 4 - What Does "Reform" Really Mean?

The President's Plan for Health Care Reform

Friday, August 21, 2009

First Week of Kindergarten

See Monday's post for this week's photos; I added pictures of Ellie's first day of school throughout the day.

In other news, here are a few of the awesome things my girls are saying this month.

Ada still has a few of her toddler-isms, which I love:
accident - assinick
bottom - bahmum
underpants - candypants
mobile - oatmeal

Ellie has started telling me a little about her day at school.

Monday: nothing

Tuesday: Mrs. C. walked me to my bus, then the bus brought me home, then I made cookies with Mommy, then we went outside to swing. (This is all true! And in order! Very exciting. Now if we can just move it back to the parts of the day I'm most curious about . . . )


"Ellie, who sat at your table at lunch?"

No answer.

"Ellie, did you eat with Raven? Or Isabella? Grace? Harper? Hope?"

"Hope! She's my best friend!"

(I immediately ran to tell her father. Best news ever.)

I think I love Kindergarten.

Ellie, however, is undecided. She was up from 2-5 am on Sunday night, anxious about the start of school (I assume). She was excited to get on the bus each day so far this week, and has been grinning when she arrives home at the end of the day.

But Wednesday night she was up from 2-5 am again, energetically (and loudly) playing or just talking to her self/dolls/beads/whatever was handy in bed. She's clearly dealing with a lot.

But she's less exhausted than I feared she would be - she had plenty of energy for gymnastics Thursday night - and I think it's going to work out fine. I hope. I hope. I pray.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blogging 101

I've read a few comments on blogs insisting that the blogger needs to "be fair." Here on this blog, a reader once told me that I couldn't "flesh out" one candidate's resume while "summarizing" another's. More recently, a commenter suggested that I should include an "equal number of articles slanted to the opposing view" to balance links to articles at the Christian Science Monitor and Georgetown University.

Is there a perception out there that blogs are legitimate news sources? They are not. Blogs are . . . internet weblogs. Live Journals. Editorial columns. Opinion pages. Bloggers aren't held to the same standards as journalists reporting hard news. Bloggers are not expected to be unbiased.

This is not to say that you can't learn something from reading blogs. I've been exposed to lots of things I might not have learned about any other way, and I've grown from the opportunity to see the world through others' lenses by reading their blogs. But when I want to learn more about something, or to state anything other than a personal experience as fact, I go looking for a legitimate news source to learn more.

I'm pretty clear about what I do here: Yeah, but Houdini didn't have these hips: Life, the universe, and motherhood according to me. I'm a feminist, a liberal, a Presbyterian, and mom to two amazing little girls, one with Down syndrome. All that is reflected here, along with whatever I might be feeling at the moment (quite often, it will be exhaustion).

And I'm a pretty straightforward, open person. What you read is what you get!

So what is the source of the crazy idea that one needs to present all sides of an issue in every conversation?

If I'm selling something, I focus on the best features of my product. And if I'm selling against a competitor, I also point out the competition's weaknesses. We all do that, every day, and not just on sales calls.

When I tell my children that they can't have chocolate milk for supper I don't point out that chocolate milk has just as much calcium as white milk, in addition to added sugar and fat. (Fortunately, this is a hypothetical situation. My children don't yet realize that chocolate milk is an option.)

When I compliment my husband's hair cut, he prefers me NOT to point out if I think parts of his hair are lighter in color or shallower in depth than once they were.

I don't believe that it's appropriate lie or to deliberately mislead. But there's a big difference between making your case and not making someone else's.

Take politics, for example. If I'm blogging about my candidate, I'm going to focus on what I like about her. If I'm blogging about her opponent, I'm going to explain why I don't support his candidacy.

Should I also list my candidate's weaknesses and her opponent's strengths? Maybe. But I have no idea what you might see as my candidate's weaknesses and your candidate's strengths. These things are opinions, not facts. I can only tell you what I feel and why.


Back in the heat of the pre-election season last fall I offended someone. I'm sure that she's a nice woman, and I know that we have some pretty significant things in common (like children with Down syndrome).

But I offended her here and she left angrily and since then a few commenters who care about her have occasionally stopped by this blog under various pseudonyms to lambaste me for it. The whole situation was unfortunate and emotions ran high on all sides, but these folks sure say some ugly things to me.

I am human. And I have my pet peeves. One of them is being told what to do. I can complain about being tired, but the easiest way to insure that I won't go to bed is to tell me to do so. If someone told me, "You have to breathe oxygen!" I'd probably puff out my cheeks, hold my breath, and start composing an essay about what's actually in the air we breathe.

I don't like to be told what to do.

So. A woman I didn't know commented on a blog post and her comment started with, "You have to be fair!"

I quoted her as I was replying to her, but I was having a really hard time getting past the "you have to" part. So I left it out. But I left in her typos/grammatical errors. Then that felt petty. So I fixed them. Then it just felt really weird to have edited her remarks as I replied to them (I left her original comment as she posted it; I edited only in my reply).

And of course she was offended. And her friend(s) were offended, and here we sit. Every few months, someone comes by and instead of disagreeing with me respectfully - a good way to have a conversation with me, for the record - they start off with hatred and derision and insults and point out that I once corrected the grammar of a really nice lady.

I'm sorry for that. I hope we can get past it. In future, I'd prefer constructive, respectful disagreement here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Grapes Don't Drink Wine

To say that I don't have a green thumb is to say that the egg carton elevator at the St. Louis Arch is not for the claustrophobic.

I currently have two dead-or-dying houseplants. This is frankly a bit of a relief. Killing them feels like crossing something off my to-do list. Their eventual demise is inevitable and now I have two fewer living things to care for.

But I decided to make one last stab at saving them. I watered the plants and set them under the florescent lights in the kitchen. A couple days later, their appearance was unimproved. But I did have an finger of leftover chardonnay sitting out on the counter.

What the heck? I thought. I'd give it a try.

Didn't work. Bye, plants! (Note that the pretty parts of the plant on the left are "silk." It was a gift.)

Actually, I do have one plant that looks great. It hangs just outside the front door and I get compliments on it from everyone who comes over and even from Ellie's bus drivers.

It's plastic.

Change Is Scary

I know change is hard. I'm not talking summer-into-fall, here, I'm talking health care reform. Even when the "system" we've got is terribly broken, there's a tremendous amount of fear that anything different might be worse. Especially if - gasp - The Government is involved.

I think this issue deserves a serious discussion, not soundbites, scare tactics, lies, and ignorance.

This is the first of my August Recess posts about health care reform.

I have a daughter with Down syndrome. I knew that she would have Down syndrome and a serious heart defect before she was born, because my employer-subsidized health insurance paid for excellent prenatal care and testing and I chose to use them.

Did you know that Down syndrome can be considered a "pre-existing condition" and that without government regulations mandating coverage of pre-existing conditions, my family might not be able to find health insurance?

Allowing insurance companies not to cover children born with disabilities encourages women to have abortions for fetuses the INSURANCE COMPANIES deem "imperfect." It also narrows society's acceptance of differences and makes us all the poorer for it.

I don't want an insurance company determining the value of my child's life. I don't want to live in an eugenics-loving Gattaca society.

Reference: Candidates’ healthcare fixes: tax credits vs. more federal spending. (The US spends twice as much on healthcare per capita than other nations but still trails in access to care.)

"Ensuring that everyone has access to care has become a full-time cause for Ms. Demko. She and her family have been without insurance since her daughter was born four years ago with ... Down syndrome. Her husband is a self-employed contractor so the family had relied on her job as a substance abuse counselor for their health insurance.

But Demko said she couldn’t keep working full time with an infant with special needs. When she quit, she didn’t realize that would result in her family’s being unable to get health insurance.

Ohio does not require insurance companies to cover children with disabilities considered to be preexisting conditions....

The Demkos’ income is nearly three times the poverty rate. That’s too much for their daughter to qualify for Ohio’s SCHIP plan and not enough to qualify for another state-sponsored program.

She’s gotten quotes for family health plans that start at $3,000 a month, which is almost as much as they earn.

For too long, she believes, insurance companies have been allowed to put profit before people, selling lower-priced plans to the healthy and at the same time charging exorbitant rates for people who have healthcare needs or just denying them coverage."

Second Reference. (There are some extremely compelling examples, here.)


This is an example of a situation in which the "free market system" must be checked by government regulation. And the proposed health care plans currently before Congress would do this.

"Government regulation" is thrown about like it's a bad word, but it isn't and shouldn't be. Drinking water should be safe. Food packaging plants should have to meet certain standards. Convicted pedophiles shouldn't work in day care centers.

And we shouldn't let profit-driven insurance companies decide whose life is worth living.

Part 1 - Down Syndrome is a Pre-existing Condition

Part 2 - It Pays to Work for the Insurance Company
Part 3 - But We're the Best! Why Fix What Isn't Broken?
Part 4 - What Does "Reform" Really Mean?

The President's Plan for Health Care Reform

Monday, August 17, 2009

First Day

Today's post delayed by the FIRST DAY OF KINDERGARTEN.

Off to a rough start because Mommy and Daddy were up until 2:00 re-reading all the (numerous!) handouts and handbooks provided by the school. And filling out scores of first-week-of-school forms - didn't we already tell them everything about us last spring at registration?!

Just as we headed to bed, anxious Ellie woke up . . . and didn't go back to sleep until 5:00 AM!!!

There aren't enough exclamation points on the keyboard to make me feel awake today. Or Paul either, presumably, though he's on a conference call at the moment. From the basement office because we both feel like we have to be close to home today.

We're excited, proud, happy, anxious . . . and scared. Yes, we did follow the bus to school.

And I went back and had lunch with her.

Then the bus was late bringing her home. (Due to a freak cloudburst, they decided to keep the children at school rather than loading them onto the buses in the downpour.)

But we made it through! And my Ellie both left and came home smiling. She didn't nap after school, either!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Seasons Change

We don't have many good pictures of the girls at the pool this summer, because when they are in the water, I am too. And my husband has requested that I NOT take the new camera in with me.

Occasionally, they play at the side of the pool - solemnly bailing away - and I snap a few shots. I did so today, as it's the last day of summer at the outdoor pool! We might go back in the evening before the pool closes on Labor Day, and we'll swim indoors this winter. But our cherished summer mornings at Water Waddlers (ages 6 and under, zero entry pool, fun little water slide) are over for the year.

My girls are the only ones at the pool who wear board shorts and rash guards. And I was the only mom wearing a hat, though a few of the lifeguards and grandmas joined me. Yay for sun safety! While I prefer the outdoor pool to the indoor pool, at least I can give up sunscreen.

But moving right along from summer into fall.

It's still hot and muggy during the day, but evenings have become downright pleasant. And I noticed the darnedest thing down at the corner: leaves. I don't know what kind of tree's right there, but it's always the first to start turning. And turn it has. The leaves are going from yellow to brown and beginning to float on down to the street.

Autumn's coming!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mystery Fest

Midwest MysteryFest 2009: Anatomy of a Mystery

Enjoy an intense and satisfying conference filled with practical advice on mystery writing for all levels. Pitch your novel in a one-on-one session with an agent (sign up during Registration Saturday morning for a specific time slot), chat with a mystery author while eating lunch, and learn forensics details that will make your work speak Authenticity. Three tracks of presentations, three outstanding featured speakers and a 4-hour workshop 1-5 p.m. Friday afternoon given by Hollywood screenwriter Esther Luttrell (Screen Writing Techniques That Enliven Your Novel) will make this day memorable. Attend the author/speaker dinner Friday evening (6 pm cocktails, 7 pm dinner - an optional, additional charge not included in the event fee) at Miss Aimee B's tearoom where you can get acquainted with the featured presenters.

Friday, September 25, 1-5 PM
Saturday, September 26, 2009, 8 AM.-5 PM
at St. Charles Community College

Sponsored by Sisters in Crime - St. Louis Chapter

Local mystery writer? Don't miss this!

Local writer, but not of mysteries? Come check out the "Craft of Writing" track or the "Business of Writing" track. And the agent pitch sessions!

Not a writer? Come anyway and check out the "Forensics" track:
  • Latent fingerprint examiner/forensic artist
  • ‘The Missouri Miracle’: The Shawn Hornbeck/Ben Ownby Kidnapping Case
  • Solution! Outsider’s View vs. Insider’s Knowledge
  • Know Your Gun Before You Write: Firearms Explained

I'll be there. I'm just figuring out how to experience all three tracks at the same time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's Getting Hot in Here

I'm a big fan of English comedian Matt Kirshen.

He recently blogged about the futility of arguing with wingnuts.

"So no more. No more rational argument, facts or reasons. My new tactic is to fight conspiracy theories with even crazier counter-conspiracy theories of my own. I invite you to join me.
Conspiracy: Drugs companies are pushing dangerous vaccines on people to make money even though they know it causes autism/fevers/duck-like symptoms.
It's all very well showing carefully researched scientific documents proving they are relatively safe* and pointing out that these theories have resulted in certain illnesses making huge come-backs. No one likes facts. Facts are duller than hedgehogs, statistically the dullest animal (fact).

My new argument:

Counter conspiracy: The companies know this is a myth, but the second everyone has the vaccine, the disease becomes extinct. This is the last thing they want. No one makes any money from smallpox any more. What if Measles, TB, Whooping Cough etc all went the same way? At the moment they get money from the vaccines AND from treating the disease. The second the illness is wiped out, that's their profits through the floor.

The people behind the anti-vaccine message ARE the drugs companies themselves. If they keep uptake at about 60%, leaving 40% carrying and perpetuating the diseases, they can carry on selling them forever. Better still, the MMR scare makes parents buy three separate vaccines rather than the cheaper 3 in 1. Bonus! If you want to really stop the evil big-pharm, then buy their products and tell everyone to do the same. It's the last thing they want."

I'm reminded of Kirshen's suggestion every time I'm in a situation where someone remarks on a cool day and scoffs at the idea of global warming.

Like while my (science teacher) father-in-law and I were at the swimming pool a couple of weeks ago. My mother-in-law was hustling the girls off to the car while I packed things into our giant pool bag.

"Almost chilly today, isn't it?" a perfectly ordinary stranger asked, toweling off after her river walking exercise class.

"It's been so lovely this summer. We're really enjoying the weather!" I replied enthusiastically, stepping right into her trap.

"Some global warming, huh?"

This didn't really seem like the time to lecture a perfect stranger on the topic of global climate change, so I just grunted noncommittally while my father-in-law smiled politely and we prepared ourselves to leave.

"I mean, really, global warming!" she said. Perhaps she thought we had water in our ears.

She continued shaking her head. "Global warming," she muttered one more time as we scuttled away.

She was obviously expecting us to agree with her. Barring that, perhaps she hoped for some sort of confrontation.

But seriously. Great job, anti-environmental lobby, politicians, and Fox news. You've managed to convince normal-looking people that global climate change(see below) is a myth.

Now that there's irrefutable scientific evidence (and consensus) about global climate change - both its existence and the fact that we're the proximate cause - such parties have moved on to arguing that either a) it's not going to be so bad, really, or b) it would cripple our robust economy to attempt to fix the problem so we'd better not try. Or both. (Looking right at you, George Will.)

Somebody should explain that to Greenland, which is already losing about 52 cubic miles per year - and the rate is accelerating. (Climate-Change Calculus: Why it's even worse than we feared by Sharon Begley) And, also, everyone who lives near water. New Orleans is toast, but what's new? And who cares about those liberals in California? New York isn't "real America," am I right? Besides, we don't care about any stinking pyramids in Egypt or canals in Venice. Floridians can look forward to seeing the ocean from their front and back doors. Win-win situation! And flooding Hawaii will free us up to annex Iraq as the 50th state.

Global sea levels are currently expected to rise at least one meter this century! And that's not even touching on droughts, storms, agriculture, or mosquitoes.

Oh, wait. Mosquitoes! Now I'm paying attention. I sure do hate mosquitoes.

Counter conspiracy: Those stupid climate change scientists are always trying to tell us what to do. In the name of freedom, let's put a lock-down on carbon emissions! Let's limit unnecessary travel, which will hinder their ability to travel to stupid climate change summits. Let's shut down the all modern industry - including the internet - so that they can't spread their nasty climate horror stories. Booyah! That'll stop their little experiments.

It's hot here now!

(This is below) See above link for "global warming" vs. "global climate change."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Special Friends

I wouldn't have a child with Down syndrome, a woman recently told me. I mean, I have other children to consider.

Every family must decide for itself what it can and cannot handle. And it's true that any additional child diverts "resources" from existing children. In some ways, a child with special needs by definition requires more "resources." But such a child is also just that - a child - and brings special gifts as well as special challenges.

Ada and I arrived early to pick up Ellie from her last day at Camp Kirkapresqua (a week-long "ECO-Justice" day camp). We stood in the doorway to Fellowship Hall, watching the Kindergartners enjoy their last music class.

"That's my sister!" Ada proclaimed proudly to any and everybody who walked by as we waited.

In the car on the way home, I didn't point out the excavators, horses, fountains, or anything else we passed. The girls were so busy talking and giggling in the back seat; I didn't want to interrupt.

A lot of the freight we associate with having special needs is our own, not our children's. Until they learn differently - generally from us - kids with special needs are just other kids to them. Ada already knows that there are ways in which Ellie is different from her. Ellie has blond hair while Ada's is brown, for example, and she needs help putting on her shoes.

"That's my sister! That's my best friend!" she tells me.

And that's really all that matters.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Fishing for Fish

My girls have taken up fishing this summer. It's one of their favorite hobbies, though they've added their own twist. They sit on Ellie's bed and "fish" the carpet for who-knows-what using . . . beads. Broken chains of shiny necklace beads.

I suggested to Ada that her Grandpa might like to take her fishing someday, and she said, "That would be very nice." Indeed.

In other news, life is good.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about The Shack: where tragedy confronts eternity by William Paul Young.

Why do we read the books we read?

For me, the answer is "it depends." I'm in two book clubs and a couple of writer's groups, so I read books selected by or written by people I know. I've read books by authors I've met and liked, chosen books based on reviews on NPR or various blogs. And sometimes . . . it's just buzz. That was the case for me with The Shack. Well, that plus the fact that someone handed it to me and said, "read this."

I'd heard of The Shack. I had no idea what the book was about, but people over at the PCUSA Blog were talking about it and I had the impression it was a sort of Christian book. But that some conservative theologians had problems with it. I didn't even know if it was fiction or nonfiction; I just knew a lot of people were talking about it. And I was mildly interested but not planning on reading it, until a friend handed it to me.

I decided against doing any research and dove right in.

A few pages later I stopped and went to Wikipedia, where I verified what I'd already figured out: it's self-published. (Also, it's fiction.)

The story goes that Young wrote the book for his kids and kept hearing that he should publish it. He tried and tried, but no publisher - not Christian, not mainstream, not literary or commercial - would take it. So, along with a couple of business partners, he self-published.

And it's obvious. As you might have guessed, my review is going to focus on the writing and the story, rather than the spiritual lessons.

Via industry blogs I hear over and over again about how hard it is to break into publishing. If you've not got a fabulous platform (fame or notoriety, strong history of past book sales, stunning academic credentials) then your book better be spit-polished and perfect when you send it to agents and editors.

This book makes some elementary mistakes.

1) Telling. A truly chilling story is set against a backdrop of a personal travel diary. They turned here, then here, then here and this road did this and that. Some of the geographical and cartographical specifics are what they surely intend to be - detail to add richness to the story - but a lot of them read like the way you might describe your trip to someone wanting to retrace your steps exactly, combined with occasional nonfiction dumps of background information about various historical areas. A few well-chosen details make a story come alive, but big chunks of minutia just slow things down.

Another sign of the telling-not-showing problem in this novel is all the passive voice. Not only does use of the passive voice distance the reader from the story, it slows the pace way down. ("The water bottle was passed," instead of "Joe took a big swig, his adam's apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed, then handed off the weeping bottle to Tim.")

In fact, the first part of this book - the thriller part - reads at times like the summary of a story rather than the story itself. This is probably intentional to some extent - the meat of the story is the time at The Shack, not the tragedy leading up to it - but we need to be really hooked on Mack and his story well before we get there to make it through part two.

2) Adverbs. I have a problem with adverbs myself and often wonder why my critique partners mark them in my manuscripts. "But that one's important!" I think. "I couldn't possibly cut it without ruining everything! That was before I read this book and choked on quite a few adverbs on every page, frequently more than one per sentence. P. 209 is half a page of text (it's a chapter opener) and has immediately, directly, hurriedly, smoothly, and precisely. This clutters up the prose and is a bit lazier than showing action through character words and gestures.

After a (short) while, I started to feel like this book kept telling me how to read it, rather than just letting me read it. Instead of telling me a story, it also told me exactly how to interpret the story. Much less fun.

3) Pedantic. I don't know how Young could have avoided this pitfall, and he didn't. Part two is - sorry if this is a bit of a spoiler; I sure saw it coming a mile away - Mack alone in The Shack with God. There's some action here - Mack and God garden and hike and eat - but mostly it's a series of conversations about the nature of the Trinity, God, religion, humanity, life, forgiveness, etc.

There's a lot to unpack here, and I found it well worth my time, but parts were forced and awkward. The conversations were necessarily Mack asking short questions and getting long answers. How else should a conversation with God go? I'd feel like I blew my chance to learn some stuff if I were in Mack's position and didn't let God do most of the talking.

There's some really good stuff in this book, but the writing feels somewhat amateurish. So why do so many people want to read it, anyway? Buzz begets buzz, and people will forgive a lot for a tense story about a lurid tragedy.

This begs the question: does good writing really matter, if millions of people are willing to overlook the lack of it? Are agents and editors using the wrong criteria to select which books to publish?

Who could have anticipated that this book would be such a huge commercial success? It's not the first or best story about something bad happening to a child. It's not the first or best book to take on the theological implications of why bad things happen to innocent people or how to develop a relationship with God. And it's not spectacularly well-written. So what does it have?

Buzz. Dozens of megachurches discussing it en masse. People passing it hand to hand (as happened to me).

And more than that. Everywhere I went with the book, people stopped me. "That book changed my life."

It didn't change my life, but I'm glad I read it.

I got something out of it, both spiritually and professionally. I learned a lot about writing from reading this book. It's one thing to hear: show, don't tell; lose the adverbs; story first, message much later. It's another to see a 248 page case study of why writing teachers say those things.

Imagine how powerful this book might have been if it had been picked up by a publishing house and lucked into a passionate and talented editor. Wow. I'd read it all over again.

Poll: is this a mixed metaphor or a lovely bit of prose: Mack inhaled the visual symphony (P. 144)?

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@Barrie Summy

Sunday, August 02, 2009

One-on-One Time

Last weekend, Paul and Ada drove 300 miles to his family reunion.

Ellie had a family picnic with her Kindergarten class, so we stayed home.

And it was all perfect! Ellie and I loved having a quiet weekend together. Paul and Ada needed and enjoyed the special time together, and Ada had a blast with her cousins and no mama to freak out about dirt and danger or make her take occasional baths.