Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Children's Lit -- The City of Ember

One of my resolutions for winter was to read more. I had developed a habit of non-reading during my years of teaching English for two reasons: 1) I had to read the curricular novels year after year to be sharp for classroom interaction, and 2) I had to read so many essays and papers that reading for pleasure just wasn't enjoyable anymore.

So I have recently read _Giants in the Earth_ by O.E. Rolvaag (highly recommended) and this morning I finished _The City of Ember_ by Jeanne DePrau.

The City of Ember reminds me a little of The Giver without the deeply dystopian tragedy raging inside. Ember is a dying city. It has a continuously black sky, faltering generator, and flickering electrical lights. It also has a corrupt mayor and a rapidly diminishing storeroom.

The story opens with Lina and Doon, 12-year-old friends who are about to receive their adult assignments. Lina receives Pipeworks laborer, and Doon receives messenger. Doon, a thoughtful boy who fears for the future of the city, asks Lina if she will switch jobs with him because he believes the cure for the city is under the city... somewhere in Pipeworks. Down there is the generator, the source of Ember's electrical power. Lina happily agrees, since Pipeworks is damp, smelly, and dangerous. She enjoys running, and knows that "messenger" is a great job for her.

You have to wait until the end of the book to find out why Ember exists, why the sky is always black, why the city is powered by a generator, and where the people came from. During the course of the book, Lina and Doon discover things that the Builders wanted people to discover... as long as they discovered it more than 200 years after the establishment of the city.

The City of Ember has some marvelously positive qualities. Our hero and heroine are very believable: slightly flawed, but still heroic. They are basically "good kids" confronted by extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and they respond in a magnificent fashion. The story itself is fast-paced and well-written, and answers a lot of its own potential difficulties at the end.

However, it is a post-millenial novel in a lot of ways. For example, no one in the book has an intact family. Lina has two dead parents and lives with an ailing grandmother and a baby sister. Doon has only a father and, as far as I could tell, no other family. By the beginning of the sequel, Doon has become the de facto leader of Ember's citizens at the age of 12. Some adults are good but every adult in leadership is to be distrusted. In that way it has taken on contemporary America's anti-authority mindset.

Another thing that find kind of intriguing but don't know how to take is the novel's treatment of religion/spirituality. There seem to be three sources of authority or transcendence. First is the government/leadership. The mayor leads the community and has guards to protect him. However, he is corrupt and shown to be foolish. The second is a group called the Believers. They tend to approach Ember's probably by gathering regularly and singing in public. They believe that the city's Builders will return and rescue them from their current predicament. I suspect that this is Ms. DuPrau's veiled poke at Christians, since we also sing and we believe that our Builder will one day come to rescue us. The third view, not really a group at all, is represented by Lina and Doon. They too come to distrust the government, and are not Believers, but by hard work and common sense break through the difficulties and arrive in a new world, a world that Lina had always dreamed of in a vague way in her imagination.

I think I would encourage my child to read The City of Ember, but would ask worldview questions and discuss the ideas presented within. If you've read it, please leave me a comment detailing your reactions.

Monday, December 29, 2008

From the Kids' Point of View

First, a few bits of fun from my dear children, then on to the others stuff:

Avery is beginning to talk for real. She still doesn't string much together, but for the most part she can make herself understood. Here's a quick lexicon:

Suh-side. (adverb) This is where you go after you put your hat and mittens on. Avery likes to go there whenever she can, unless it's too cold.

Hotch. (adjective) This describes anything, especially food, when its temperature is too high for Avery.

Pop. (noun) This refers to any contain that can hold a drink; her attempt at "cup".

Ebba. (noun) This refers to Avery's oldest brother and is usually spoken happily.

Teechee. (noun) The refers to Avery's youngest older brother and is as close as she can get to "Toby".

Cookiecookiecookiecookie. (noun) This refers to the part of the meal that Avery and her father enjoy most.


On to Toby. An exchange with Toby this evening:

Toby: Daddy, did God make you?

Daddy: Yes, Toby. God made me.

Toby: Why?

Tara: [loud, raucous laughter]

Daddy: Did you want the textbook answer?

Toby: Yah, the textbook answer.

Daddy: God made me to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

Another moment with Toby, upon being told that he would need to turn off the movie and go to bed. Toby views bedtime as a personal insult literally every evening.

Toby: I don't like it when people tell people that they have to go to bed when there's still another episode of Diego.


Aidan asked me to play keyboard for him this evening so he could dance. On one of the songs, I started to sing and coughed a little because I was singing. Aidan quietly slipped away to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water for me. A little later he got another glass of water and set it down next to mind. He looked at me importantly and then said, "This one's mine."


Evan asked me to come upstairs and look at sports cards with him this afternoon. I don't recall that I ever had a professional athlete's trading card (or whatever they're called) in my entire life. I had very little interest in sports, though I did watch Twins games as a boy and knew the line-ups, etc. So we sat there looking at athletes from football, baseball, and hockey. Can someone please tell me what the appeal is? I love history, biography, and detail, but these seem pointless and repetitive. Maybe it's because I wish professional sports did not exist. Talk about a drain on a society.


I fired up my tractor this evening and hooked the sled on behind it. It delights me to have a 55-year-old tractor that will start pretty cooperatively in 20-degree weather. We did circles around the back yard until Evan dumped Tater off the sled one too many times and Aidan started crying. Then Evan transformed into "good big brother" and helped Aidan get himself together so they could have more trips around the yard. This is an activity we all enjoy... I love driving the tractor (and having a reason to do so) and they love riding the sled behind. We usually go in the dark to make it a little more intriguing.

Did I mention that I got to preach yesterday? From most people's accounts, it went pretty well, although Bob M tells me that I need to work on my sermon prep because it put Calvin to sleep (Calvin's four, not my fault). You can hear it on line, though I'm always afraid to listen myself because when recordings of myself I feel like I just sound slow and dumb. Tara said it was energetic enough, so that's hopeful.

My dad is requesting prayer for himself. Apparently the trials of widowerhood are getting to him. So please join me in praying for him, that God would grant him peace in the midst of the howling storms of the winter of life. He was 77 last May. Know any spunky widows?

Friday, December 26, 2008

My Peace Lilies and Other Nonsense

We received some lovely wedding gifts on the occasion of our marriage: December 26, 1998. One of the most unique ones was a large vase filled with crumbled one-dollar bills. But I would have to say that my favorite is the gift of a petite peace lily from an acquaintance named Elaine.

When Elaine presented us with the plant, she explained that it needed moderate light (surely not direct sunlight) and that when it wanted water its leaves would droop noticeably (and she demonstrated with some drama) but after it received water it would perk back up speedily (and she demonstrated with yet more drama).

I never realized the possible lifespan of a houseplant. I still have the peace lily from Elaine. It has traveled with us to four different houses, survived small children and neglect, and bloomed only when it wanted to. Upon the purchase of our second house, the mortgage agent gave us another peace lily. That one, too, has lasted to the time of this posting. A few days after my mother died, I noticed one of the peace lilies working on a single white blossom. I like to believe that it was a symbol of my mother's entry into eternal life.

By the way, is it lily or lilly? I can't remember. Mom had an aunt named Aunt Tilly. She lived to be about 95.

We went shopping this evening at the new appliance place that occupies about half the space that used to be Fleet Farm. They have an absolute boatload of appliances there. I've never seen so many refrigerators in one place in my life, everything from little bitty dorm fridges to colossal commercial ones of stainless steel. The staff said they're planning a grand opening in February or so and that the prices will be even more shockingly low for the celebration.

Our chair arrived from HOM furniture today. Never in my life have I seen such lousy customer service. That would be another blog post in itself.

And finally, Evan was in one of his warm and loving moods this evening. He came down about 9:30 and asked if I was playing piano. I said no, I hadn't been, and he asked if maybe I would play for a while while he was going to sleep, but "nothing too jumpy, if you know what I mean."

I must have the most erudite 8-year-old in the county.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How Not to Run a B&B

It was just about 10 years ago that Tara and I stood across from each other and declared our love and undying commitment to one another. We got married over the Christmas holiday because I had a nice break from Schaeffer and Tara (who was nannying at the time) also had a school-schedule break.

For this current Christmas break we went to Sioux Falls, SD to visit Tara's siblings and parents, who all live either in Sioux Falls or Sioux City. They were willing to take all of our kids overnight, which gave us a chance to spend a night at The Victorian, an 1888 Queen Anne in the historic district of Sioux Falls.

We arrive and parked out front, carrying our luggage up to the door together. Tara opened the front doors after knocking quietly and we entered the foyer. Behind us another couple was also climbing the stairs. I held the door for them, and they asked if we had labradoodles -- sorry, they meant golden doodles -- for sale. I said I didn't know, since I was just a guest, but that I'd sure find out for them.

In a moment a large golden doodle greeted us, and I figured they must be right. Then the owner came out from the kitchen. She was surprised to find all these people in her foyer, as usually the front door, she said, is locked. She then instructed us to take off our shoes so that we would not get water on the hardwood floors. We went upstairs with her and were given our choice of rooms and a little advice as to what the pluses were for each one. In all this time, there was no hello or introduction of any kind, no warmth, no friendliness. Just business. I have your $65 and now I have to provide you a room.

She also asked if we were going out again and what time we expected to be back in. Just for the sake of her children, you know. Turns out she had a four year old and an eight year old, both girls. The girls were appropriately polite and the younger had a somewhat-developed conversation with us later. But I digress...

After we had enjoyed our anniversary dinner at the Ground Round, we headed upstairs to the sitting room to read. I read _The History of God_ and Tara read _The Traveling Funeral of Whatever the Chick's Name Was_. Strangely enough, while we were reading, a cat wandered in an official sort of way, looked us over for a moment or two, and then wandered out. Watchcat? Apparently.

When we tired of reading, we went back to our room to... well, never you mind. After we were done, we could still hear the 4-year-old running around on the third floor above us. It is now 11:00 p.m. The head of the bed is good deal lower in elevation than the foot, so we take some of the throw pillows and stuff them under the mattress. This has the effect of raising the head (I don't sleep if my head is lower than my feet) and we are able to go to sleep.

The house itself was hands down the largest, finest, and best preserved Victorian I have ever stayed in. It was beautifully decorated and thoughtfully appointed. However, the human part of the B&B formula in this case was sorely lacking. Business, like everything else, needs to be invigorated by the Spirit of God for the glory of Christ, and no amount of good decorating can substitute for a loving heart.

**Tara adds here that we didn't get breakfast, so, actually it was not so much a bed and breakfast, but moreso a bed. ;)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

December Blessings

I'm going to take a moment to write about the Christmas presents I have received so far. Some great, some heart-warming, some amusing.

From the folks who sell us Latin curriculum for the elementary, a CD of Christmas carols in Latin. It's called Veni Emmanuel, and the leader singer has the vox angeli (or vocem angeli for all you purists out there).

Yesterday I got $20 to Panera from the A family. I teach Latin to two of their children.

Also the H family provided a cookie or bread mix. The mother was just in the process of declaring that I would have to take two since I teach both of her children when the daughter quietly reminded her that she (the daughter) was only in 4th grade and did not have me yet. Whereupon they scarfed back one of the cookie mixes.

The Z family gave a beautiful, Christ-centered Christmas card and a gift certificate to Applebees.

The M family gave me some pretzels with frosting on them.

The H family (yes, another H family) gave me some of "Grandma's fudge bars" or whatever. They were extremely rich.

Drs. B, E, and W gave me back my Toby in mostly one piece. Toby had his submandibular gland infection drained and bandaged under general anesthesia yesterday. All is well so far, but we have to clean and pack the wound 2-3 times per day until it heals.

The God of the Universe gave me a relationship with Himself through faith in His Son. That is the best December blessing of all.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Fit to Be Treed

I believe I'm more ready for Christmas than usual.

For starters, I've been reading the gospel of Luke to the boys, so we are already witnesses of the glory of Jesus' incarnation. I'm reading it to them in a version that is something like a dynamic equivalent for younger children, though it is not a "children's Bible story book" per se. It works pretty well for the age range that hear it.

Also, I'm preaching on December 28. This alone gets me in a reverent mood -- I typically start to prepare a message about a month in advance, and I have the luxury of doing so, since I am not a pastor. Usually I preach a max of twice a year, though I did give a Christian worldview seminar this fall as well. Busy year, you know.

Finally, the Christmas tree is up. I would like to say a word about the struggle to achieve a completely vertical Christmas tree in my home. For years we have stored our artificial tree fully assembled (in the off-seasons) in our unfinished basements. We put a sheet over it and call it good until the next Christmas season. When the move came last month, I picked up the tree to carry it to the truck. One of the feet fell out and clattered to the ground. I put it back in, and it fell out again. So I tossed it into a plastic bin and replaced the lid.

That was a sorry mistake.

At the moment of tossing, I said, "I'll remember which bin and put this back together as soon as we're settled in the new house." Not so, my friends. In all the chaos and surprises of moving, I have only the vaguest recollection of what sort of box might have received the foot. We've opened lots of boxes and no foot is there.

So we checked out freecycle. Someone offered a Christmas tree stand, I drove all the way to Country Club Manor (the west edge!) to get it, and it turned out to be a large and beautiful stand for a real tree. Our artificial would not have had the slightest chance verticality.

Then Melanie said she had a stand. Same thing. Lovely stand, for a 12-foot tall tree. The days continued to tick by.

Finally Tara needed some time A.K. (away from kids), so she went to her favorite haunts. She finally called from Walmart:

"OK, tell me what to do. They have a stand for seven-fifty, a six foot but skinny tree for $20, or a 7-foot pre-lit one for $45. The have a four-foot one, pre-lit for $18.88."

So I thought for a minute. I figured pretty much everything except the stand was, ultimately, a waste of money. So I said, "Just get the stand. I'll find a hacksaw and hack off the base on the old one. Have it done before you get home."

And that's what I did. I grabbed a hacksaw, took the tree down to the laundry room, laid it across the washer,and sawed the attached plastic base (sans foot) off, and brought the rest of the tree back upstairs. We assembled the new base, slid the tree carefully into the hole, and voila! We are properly treed.

Thanks to Mary G., one of our fourth grade teachers, who came this afternoon with her spiffy carpet-shampooing machine and cleaned our carpets. For no charge, adds Evan, who is leaning on my shoulders even though he ought to be in bed. Good night, everybody.