Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years

Weekend Assignment # 351: What Are You Doing New Year's?

Where do you typically spend New Year's Eve? What are you usually doing when the big moment arrives? Will this year be as usual, or are you doing something different?

Extra Credit: To the best of your recollection, have you ever managed to keep a New Year's resolution for more than a week?

Here's my resolution: quit waiting until the last minute to do my Assignment!

When I was younger, I made a point to be out of town on New's Years.  It started with 1999, when my friends wanted to do something special.  But we had to pick a destination that did not involve airplanes.  Just in case.  We went to Galena, Illinois - a popular weekend spot for Chicagoans.

In the years that followed, there was a cruise, a trip to Lake Tahoe and one to Disney.  Eventually, though, it seemed like a lot of trouble to coordinate and rather expensive to take a short trip over a holiday.  

These days, my friends Jenny and Noah host the party on New Years Eve.  It is not a fancy, dress up affair.  We all just head over at whatever time in the afternoon and play games and catch up and eat all of the food that we want to get out of our houses before Monday.

I generally spend New Years Day with my family, laying around like slugs and watching Bowl games.  

I don't make New Years Resolutions in the traditional sense.  For a couple of years, I set goals for reading books, school and volunteering.  I seem to have forgotten to do that in 2010.  I ought to give that some thought.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

BTT: Annual Review

Booking Through Thursday asked:

What’s the best book you read this year?

Links are to the thoughts I wrote out at the time I read them.  I am eliminating re-reads from contention, and can still only narrow it down to three Bests:

The Worst was While they Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family, by Kathryn Harrison – a true crime book.

My Favorite reads were two books written by old friends:

I would like to add a category – Most Disappointing. My award goes to Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan.

Incidentally, here is my complete list:

1. Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott

2. Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

3. Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

4. Persuasion, by Jane Austen (re-read)

5. Paradise Lost, by John Milton

6. Living Dead in Dallas, by Charlaine Harris

7. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, by Lili’uokalani

8. Just a Geek, by Wil Wheaton

9. Clapton, The Autobiography, by Eric Clapton

10. Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

11. Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

12. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough

13. Downtown Owl, by Chuck Klosterman

14. Die a Little, by Megan Abbott

15. Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow

16. An Insider’s Tour of the Pike Place Public Market, by Michael Yeager

17. Ophelia, by Lisa Klein

18. Taft, by Ann Patchett

19. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (re-read)

20. A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

21. Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

22. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

23. Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

24. The Dahlia Connection, by Michael Dovell

25. Chance Occurrence, by Kristin Shaver

26. Chicago, by Studs Terkel

27. While they Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family, by Kathryn Harrison

28. The Unreachable Star: My Unauthorized Travels with Patti LuPone, by Maile Hernandez

29. Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History Through America’s Gateway, by Loretto Dennis Szucs

30. Forgetfulness, by Ward Just

31. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (re-read)

32. The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

33. Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris

34. Falling Out of Fashion, by Karen Yampolsky

35. Niagara: A History of the Falls, by Pierre Berton

36. The Year She Left, by Kerry Kelly

37. Mr. Pip, by Lloyd Jones

38. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

39. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

40. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

41. MacIntosh..The Naked Truth, by Scott Kelby

42. A Christmas Memory, One Christmas and The Thanksgiving Visitor, by Truman Capote

43. Hercule Poirots Christmas: A Holiday Mystery, by Agatha Christie

44. The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

45. The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

46. Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder, by Robert Lee Hall

47. A Different Kind of Christmas, by Alex Haley

48. Christmas Classics, compiled by The Modern Library

49. Memories of John Lennon, edited by Yoko Ono

50. Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth


Book Lists

The new Book a Day Calendar made me think about the list I made from the on in 2009.  Let's do a little status check:
  1. Dec 21 - The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (Saw the movie, anyway)
  2. Dec 9 - The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Daniel Mendelsohn (Bought it, haven't read)
  3. Sept 10 - The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright (No)
  4. Aug 2 - Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, by Maureen Corrigan (No)
  5. June 16 - Ulysses, by James Joyce (Yeah, right)
  6. April 19 - The Friendship: Wordswortth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman (No)
  7. April 3 - The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate (No)
  8. Feb 24 - Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (Bought it, haven't read)
  9. Feb 16 - The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows, by Gabor Boritt (No)
  10. Feb 6 - Sliver of Truth, by Lisa Unger (Umm... One of her books is in my shelf.  Might be that one.)
  11. Jan 17 - Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, by Allen Shawn (No)
  12. Jan 16 - Forgetfulness, by Ward Just  (Aha!  Read that one!)
  13. Jan 7 - Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Austistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet (No)
Well, that was pathetic.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Gift Ever

Weekend Assignment # 350: Best. Gift. Ever.
What is the best gift you've ever gotten from anyone?

Extra Credit: To the best of your recollection, what is the best gift you ever gave someone else?

Funny enough that I literally just used this question for a poll in my employee newsletter. One Christmas, my parents gave me a car. They didn't wrap it in a bow in the driveway or anything. They wrapped a new key chain in a box and included a note the box that said, "we'll start looking in January". I didn't get the message.

I had lost my keys several months before and they had been on a gorgeous Gucci key chain. Did they mean they would help me find a great new key chain? Random. And there was so much commotion that neither of my parents had seen me open the gift.

So the gift-madness had ended when my mother realized that she hadn't seen me open (or heard me scream) that particular box. So she told me. New car.

I said, "Yeah, right." And turned back to my book or whatever.

"No, really."

Yeah. Good times. I kept that Blazer for ten years and still miss it.

The best gift I ever gave was another goofy tale. My mother had made Christmas stockings for my brother and me when we were kids. The Snoopy ones made from felt. Later on, when we were older, she cross-stitched new stockings. My Snoopy stocking survived and Scott's was lost. It was a tragedy. But the Internet is a wonderful thing and a couple of years ago I found a kit to make his old stocking on Ebay. So I spent the required bloody fortune and made it for him. 

Scott, who tears all his packages open like a five year old, opened that gift. Didn't look at the tag. He got all excited and started thanking our mother. She corrected him, but there is steam coming out of my ears even now.

Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth

Book 50

I had to purge my books again because my TBR bookcase is overflowing.  I have it down to a full seven shelves and four additional piles.  During that mini-project, it occurred to me that I haven't read any Philip Roth this year.  Roth is one of the authors that I like enough to try everything that he has written, so I buy anything with his name on it when I can find it for a dollar.  This is why I have so many unread books.

Goodbye, Columbus was his first book.  It is a novella and five short stories.  The novella was a coming-of-age romance across the social classes.  Neil was a Rutgers graduate from Newark that worked in the library and Brenda was a Radcliffe student spending the summer at the country club.  They had a lovely summer that ended with his spending two weeks with her family, at the end of which is a wedding.  Her brother married his pregnant girlfriend.  Then Brenda goes back to school.

In between there were several Battle of the Sexes conversations, challenging conventions and some of what it meant to be Jewish in an upwardly mobile post-war America.  I was particularly interested in one character's comment (it might have been Neil) that African American families moved into neighborhoods in Newark that the Jewish immigrants vacated once they had made some money.  I have heard that more recently as a sociological commentary.  The theory, if I remember correctly, was that the Jewish community might have been a bridge to build better "race relations" because they came from the same place - neighborhoods and economics - as many African Americans, but it never materialized.

I found it all very interesting until the end.  SPOILERS:

They break up because Brenda left her diaphragm in her house and her mother found it.  Her parents demanded that she break up with that evil boy.

Really?  It didn't once occur to her to say, "Hey, Mom.  At least he didn't knock me up like my brother and what's-her-name that got married five minutes ago in your own backyard."

So I guess that part is just dated.   And not in a way that gives us any new insight into anything.

The rest of the stories were good.  I particularly liked one where a boy is challenging his rabbi to explain why, if God can do anything, he couldn't have made Mary produce the baby Jesus without having intercourse.  I remember my friend Noah telling me that Judaism encourages people to study the Torah and ask questions without relying solely on faith.  The rabbi didn't have a good answer for the kid, and drama ensues.

I am in the middle of two other books right now, with a third for my book club that I need to start.  So I doubt that I will finish anything else before the end of the year.  I might just start working on a 2010 Books and Reading Recap.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rabbit Rescue

People find the idea of a parrot rescue odd, so in the interest of solidarity I'd like to point you to an article in USA Today about a lady who wrote a book to educate people about rabbits and adoption:

"Georgiana G. Hall (who goes by G.G.), a lifelong animal lover, took on her first rabbit nine years ago and found it (and the other rabbits that followed into her home and heart) so enchanting, and so misunderstood (they're regularly dumped by the thousands weeks after Easter by know-nothing owners who find growing rabbits less charming than tiny bunnies) that she felt compelled to spread the word. The result: Hershey: A Tale of a Curious House Rabbit(Peppertree Press, $16.95) released last autumn."

I believe I mentioned that I babysat for a rabbit earlier this year when a friend was on vacation.  Joker is a charming creature, but he needs time and space to run around and fresh produce in addition to his pellets and hay and a clean cage (boy, was that a pain) and he chews on things and hides and generally requires just as much maintenance as my cat.

And you know what a pain my cat is.

So if you think you want a rabbit, please do your homework.  The commitment is in time, attention, space in your home and of course, cash.  And if you are then satisfied that a rabbit is the pet for you, please consider adopting from a rescue. is a great resource.

Box Calendars

365 Little Ways to Save Our Planet sucked.  I was so bored that I quit at September 6.  I just now tried to run through the rest of the year to see if there were any good tips and I gave up at November 9.  Here was a gem:

"Air transportation is now the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.  Instead of flying to a vacation destination, why not explore your local area?"

Shut.  Up.  And anyway, if you people were really serious about your tree-hugging, you wouldn't have produced a daily box calendar.

Luckily, I found the 2011 version of the Book Lovers Calendar that Joy gave me a couple of years ago.  Not that I got around to reading the books from that list.  But it was fun to look at every day.

Now to go recycle this junk.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Giving Credit Where Due

This story starts with me being an ungrateful brat:

There was only one thing of the tangible, go-to-the-store-and-buy-it-for-me variety that I put on my Christmas list.  Didn't get it.  Got lots of good stuff.  My mother in particular was listening to me talk about new laptops and charitable contributions and stuff.  But no one picked up Season Two of Mad Men on DVD.

Happily, Target has it on sale for $14.99 (and so, it seems, does Amazon), which is a way better deal than anyone could have gotten for me, anyway.  So I went in to get it. It wasn't there, but Target is so kind as to leave Raincheck tickets, so that you can have the sale price when the product is back in stock.  So I picked up a ticket and a few other things and got into the checkout line.

(Note: On the grand List of Places You Should Not Take Your Children:  The toy aisle in the week after Christmas.  You know you aren't going to buy the kid anything, so why are you torturing him?  The next parent I hear say, "You just got a whole pile of toys for Christmas" while standing in the toy aisle is going to get my Laser Stare of Death.)

The Raincheck ticket is supposed to be scanned, and a printout with a date is given to the customer.  The cashier couldn't make it work, so she sent me to the Customer Service desk.  The one where people are returning things.  The queue was a dozen people deep.  I nearly walked out of the store, but I figured I could read a book and give it a minute to see if the line moves. 

I didn't even manage to take the book out.  That line moved.  After all the aggravation in all of the stores I visited today, Target wins my Official Approval and Thanks.  (Except for the part where the cashier couldn't make it work.)

The First Blanket

I finished my first blanket for Project Linus.  No - I am not a crocheting prodigy.  I have had the thing mostly done in a cubby since before Ainslie was born.  I had only three skeins of yarn to go.

I only do one stitch and I only used one color of yarn, so it was ridiculously simple.  But it was large enough and the color was such that it will be good for an older kid, which seems to be what they need.  (Note:  Toys for Tots has the same problem.  They receive way more donations for toddlers than they do for the older kids.)  So I am making the older kids my mission.  Anyway here it is:

For my own notes - the color was Garnet and the yarn was TLC Amore, which I can't seem to find at Michael's or Joann anymore.  Too bad, because it was soft, had an interesting texture, wasn't too stringy, but just enough to hide my newbie mistakes.

I left it at a local drop off point this morning, which was a big mistake because I figured that as long as I was out, I might as well hit the sales.

Bad idea.

Anyway, for the next project, I am refusing to learn a new stitch.  However, when I was a kid, my mother made a blanket by crocheting long strips of different colors and then stitching them together.  I always liked that and I think I can pull it off.  It is also convenient because I can have more than one going at the same time, so I don't have to run it up and down the stairs. 

I started watching a new course on Academic Earth, so that I am not tuning in to garbage on TV while working on this stuff.  And of course, there is always some sporting event to watch.  This might get me through the winter.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Boxing Day Haul

Because of various plans and in-laws and other conflicts, my family gathers for The Gift Exchange each year at my house on Boxing Day.  We order pizza.  Some highlights:
  1. My niece, Ainslie, aged two, received a small etch-a-sketch thingy in her stocking.  She started playing with it and didn't want anything else.  I tried to give her a great big box to open and she said, "No thank you."
  2. My nephew, Alex is nearly six and he opens every gift like it is the best thing ever.  "They're Pajamas!  With Mario on them!  And not just Mario!  Mario Kart!" 
  3. My mother won the gift-giving prize this year.  She commissioned (read as: got an artist friend to practice) mini-portraits of the three kids for my brother and sister-in-law.  They made Becky cry.
  4. The handmade gifts were for our friend Janis, who actively volunteers with her church and a homeless shelter in her neighborhood.  We filled a big box of hats and gloves and scarves for her to contribute to her group.  We made the scarves and picked up the other things at random stores throughout the holiday shopping season.  It looked something like this:

And then I received the best gift of all - the Bears won.  And because I am finished with the furious scarf-making project, I am working on blankets for Project Linus.

I am on vacation this week and have no plans for anything in particular.  So I will finish 50 Book Challenge, make blankets, watch movies and Academic Earth.  And take naps.

That's a good holiday.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas - I've Been Looking for This Metric

As e-readers become more popular, many people have been wondering about the impact of the devices on the environment.  Obviously, if you read alot and exclusively use the e-reader, you are doing some good.  But how many books do you have to read on the device in order for it to be the "green" choice?  USA Today had an article that looks for an answer:

"The Sierra Club's "Mr. Green" has concluded that unless you're a fast and furious reader, the energy to manufacture and dispose of an e-reader is probably greater than that of a traditional book. If you read at least 40 books a year, the Sierra Club says, the e-reader may be greener, but if you read a lot less, stick to a regular book."

I do read more than 40 books a year.  I don't think more than five of those have been on the Kindle.  My mother downloaded two or three more.  Apparently, we do the environment better with paper.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Memories of John Lennon, edited by Yoko Ono

Book 49

I first listed Memories of John Lennon on my LibraryThing page in 2007.  That means I started reading it in 2007.  I put it down because I was (sorry) bored.  It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for three years.

I picked it back up after the anniversary of Lennon's murder, and some of it is really good.  Yoko Ono pulled together a whole ton of stories - vignettes might be a better word - with photographs and sketches from John's friends, colleagues (none of the Beatles, of course) and otherwise famous fans.

Some were really short.  Norman Mailer contributed this:

"We have lost a genius of the spirit."

Bono contributed a sketch of Lennon.  And some people wrote on for days.  The trouble is, so many were saying the same things:  how admired, genius, clever, warm, loving, blahblahblah.  You know what I really liked?  Yoko offered up a story at the end involving an art gallery showing her work and being snubbed in a junior high sort of way and how John Lennon held her hand and kept his chin up and got her through it.  I could have read a whole book full of stories like that.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Classics from the Modern Library

Book 48 for the 50 Book Challenge
Book 5 for The Holiday Reading Challenge

I forget when I picked up Christmas Classics, but it has been on my shelf for awhile.  And I don't know what I was thinking, because I had already read most of what was in there and believe me, except for the Linus speech from the Bible, these exerpts are better taken in their entirety from the original source.

There were pieces from A Christmas Carol and Little Women (gag) and The Pickwick Papers.  I hadn't read O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" before, and I enjoyed that.   But "The Fir", by Hans Christian Anderson is (don't laugh) part of the reason that I can't have a real Christmas Tree!

The most enjoyable piece was a Sherlock Holmes tale set over the Christmas Holiday, that has little to do with Christmas other than the proverbial goose.

Overall, if you have a family that likes to sit around the fire and read these things, Christmas Classics is a great book.  I'd rather taken my Dickens straight up.

This was my last book for the Holiday Reading Challenge.  Thanks to Nely for setting it up.  I wouldn't have read five holiday books otherwise!

BTT- Life-Changing

Which Book Changed Your Life?

Hm. My gut reaction to this one is, “No one book changed my life. Books in general changed my life.” But in an attempt to get in the spirit of the question, I am going with Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. (I could also say The Outsiders, but I’ve already written about that.)

We read it in the 8th grade and it is the first book that I recall where I could see the message and it made me really think. You might remember:

In a scientific sense, humans are pack animals. Social creatures that need companionship and sometimes validation from other humans. George knew that, even if Lenny was the only person’s company that he could stand (or could stand him) for very long.

In a spiritual sense, people need something to work for. Something to hope for, something to look forward to. A reason not to blow every paycheck on booze.

I don’t guess it counts as a SPOILER since the book is over 50 years old. But in the end, it is not Lenny’s fate that is so tragic. I understood, even at 13, that Lenny had a rather happy life. George gave him that. George’s choice – to end Lenny’s totally inevitable suffering before it really even started – was heartbreaking. In the end, it is George’s fate that makes us anxious.

If George is not one of two, then who is he? Is he still working for a farm of his own? Will he ever really stay in one place? But most importantly, will he ever again make that kind of connection with another human being?

Of Mice and Men was when I learned that classics are classics for a reason.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Living Philanthropic

This afternoon, I wrote about that MSN article on microphilanthropy.  There was a guy featured named Carlo Garcia, who donates his Starbucks money every day to something.  What I hadn't realized, until I saw the MSN headline again, is that he is blogging about it.

As Mr. Garcia is from Chicago, there were plenty of organizations that I recognized in his archives.  But even if you don't live here, this is a great ongoing project and an example of what the Internet is (or should be) all about:

Holiday Parties

Weekend Assignment # 349: Party Hardy or Party Hardly?

This is the time of year for office parties, family reunions, New Year's Eve parties and holiday parties in general. Are you a party animal or a party avoider? Do you go to parties because you want to, or out of obligation, or not at all?

Extra Credit: How many parties are you likely to attend between now and New Year's Day?

I generally enjoy a party. Sometimes, at this time of year, I just want to hole up and do nothing. It is dark so early, and cold and often the streets are terrible and the traffic is worse. In fact, that is the secret to getting me to a party: starting it as early in the day as possible. The later people start gathering, the less likely I am to show up. But I always enjoy myself.

At the places where I volunteer, the holiday parties are a lot of “putting the name with the face”. I meet people that I have heard about all year long, but never see because we are on different days.

At the office party, it is about meeting the spouses (and other partners) of my colleagues. You learn a lot about people by meeting their spouses.

New Years Eve I am generally with friends. (Did I RSVP yet? I’ll be there, Jen!) Schedules being what they are, I see these people only a few times a year (outside of Facebook), so there is plenty of catching up.

Because both the rescue and my office are having January parties this year, New Years is the only party I have remaining for the season. My family gathers at my house on Boxing Day, but I don’t count that. It doesn’t involve any booze.


MSN had an interesting article talking about “microphilanthropists” – people that make small donations to charitable causes on a regular basis.

Acknowledging that most causes still rely primarily on the Bill Gateses of the world, we are seeing more people giving a bit of support here and there. Social media is responsible for a lot of it, most notably after the earthquake in Haiti where a huge amount of money was raised through text message giving.

And interesting observation was:

“Since most of the money charities receive is from an older population, and the strongest demographic of Web users is a significantly younger one, asking for micro-donations online has bridged the gap.”

Yeah. Historically, my contributions have been:

1. At the holidays.
2. In the aftermath of a natural disaster.
3. When a friend (or a friend’s kid) is doing something to actively support a cause.

I guess that third one is where the social media comes in. Although I want to say that the word “actively” is operative in my sentence. I don’t support causes because my friends “Like” them. I will support a friend participating in a walk/run, or shaving his head. And a colleague’s kid was in a jump rope marathon. I am totally behind a kid in a jump rope marathon. The point is it is the doing that impresses me.

Where I could do better is incorporating it into my everyday life, as opposed to “event” giving. But something really rubs me the wrong way about direct depositing (or whatever) gifts to causes. And I rather figured that concentrating my efforts would do the most good.

I don’t have the answer here, but I am glad to know that organizations are finding more ways to reach out to people, and that people are responding to those efforts.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Carol, Again

I have seen an awful lot of versions of A Christmas Carol, so I wasn't in a hurry to see the CG Jim Carrey version.  But my mother picked it up on DVD so I watched it tonight.

Pretty standard, I have to say.  I have only one thing to complain about - the Alice-in-Wonderland-shrinking-of-Scrooge by The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Complete with helium voice.  That was lame.

Otherwise, it was pretty faithful and the animated effects added rather than detracted from the story.  In my opinion, though, (if you really want a kid friendly version) Michael Caine did it better with the Muppets.

And of course, the definitive was George C. Scott.

Monday, December 20, 2010

BTT - Character

The question was:

If you could be a character from any book, who would you be? And why? 

I am so sorry to say that since Sherlock Holmes had a drug habit, and Indiana Jones went to the Temple of Doom, and Princess Leia had her home planet destroyed, I have a really boring answer.  I'm going with Elizabeth Bennet.

She has a fabulous family.  OK - two or three of her sisters are ridiculous creatures and her mother is the most annoying woman ever invented.  But they aren't bad people.  Her sister is her best friend and her father is wonderful.

She seems intelligent, educated and well-read.  Well liked by her neighborhood.  And nothing really, really bad ever happens to her.  Then there is that guy.

Mr. Darcy is no Rhett Butler, but he is all sincerity.  Pemberly seems like a nice enough place to live.  So if he actually looks like Colin Firth, I am sold.

I could do that life.

New Favorite Causes

I was at my local salon and saw they have a "Giving Tree".  Once of those that have paper ornaments with a child's name and a few things one might buy him or her for the holidays.  I was told that it was in support of Alliance for the Children, a group based in Northbrook that supports schools and children in multiple states.  I grabbed two on my way out and it was really fun to buy a Star Wars toy again.  I "happened" to grab the list of a ten year old boy that likes Star Wars.  You got something to say?

So I was participating, anyway, but then I went to their website and found they have several really interesting programs, including a "Rewards Program" that has been piloted at a school in Virginia:

"Qualifying schools receive numerous toys and other items which can be earned by students. This program is not based on a student's academic achievement but rather on students who exemplify positive character traits and appropriate behaviors both during the school day and within the community. School administrators will share with students, staff, and parents, clear expectations and guidelines as to how the Rewards Program will be implemented in their buildings."

Points for trying something.

The second group is Project Linus.  I had heard of them before and in fact, I think my mother may have contributed some work to them.  Project Linus provides handmade blankets to kids that are ill, traumatized or otherwise in distress.  According to their website, they have delivered more than 3.5 million blankets as of September 30.

Project Linus is a good example of the different ways that people can find to volunteer. Some opportunities are for a day, or an event, or a drive. Some, like the Library and the Refuge, are weekly assignments. Project Linus allows us to contribute to the cause on our own time, at our own pace as schedules allow.

They are headquartered downstate and there is a local chapter in the neighborhood.  I am not a particularly crafty person, but since I seem to be watching sports more than I am reading books these days, (Hey - Chicago has contenders in three sports.  Before you even count the semi-pros!)  I ought to be able to participate.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Different Kind of Christmas, by Alex Haley

Book 47 of 50 Book Challenge
Book 4 of the Holiday Reading Challenge

1855.  Fletcher Randall is the North Carolinian son of a plantation owning state senator, studying at Princeton.  One day, he is befriended by three Quaker brothers, who take him home to Philadelphia, introduce him to a successful black businessman, and bring him to a meeting of local abolishionists supporting the Underground Railroad.  And his mind is blown

He goes back to school feeling angry and imposed upon.  Then he starts to do some research.  Later, he goes back to Philadelphia and volunteers his services.  The rest of the story is about how he sets up the escape of a group of slaves - some of whom work at his own home - over his Christmas vacation.

This book is all of 101 pages long.

I did not believe for one minute that this kid spent one weekend in Philadelphia, half a semester reading up on slavery and abolition in the library and suddenly has that kind of a change of heart.  Having said that, it was a compelling tale.  The glimpses of how the Railroad worked.  How each person along the line might have contributed.  The likely and unlikely supporters.  The human consequences of doing the right thing.  This could have been an epic. 

The short description given of the Quakers, for example.  They don't accuse, or argue or get visibly angry.  They use their calm and patience and persistence to win others over to their side.  There's a lesson for this lovely holiday season.  (Although admittedly, the Quakers were awfully manipulative.  And presumptuous.)  I would have loved to see those characters fleshed out further.

It seems that Haley just meant to deliver a short holiday tale to remind us that once there was A Different Kind of Christmas.  For that, it works.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Big Bookstores

MSNBC had an article about the state of affairs with Borders and Barnes and Noble.  I am, of course, on the side of BN.  When I was younger, my friends would hang out at Borders.  The video/music section was better.  It didn't take too long, however, before I figured out that Barnes and Noble had a better selection of actual books.

Then I discovered  And while I still hung out at the store a lot, I would figure out what I wanted and then go home and buy it online.  Sorry, gang, but it was less expensive.  At one point I believe I calculated a $100 a month BN habit.

It happened that right around the time when I got serious about my finances, I discovered used book stores.  The first was a short-run store that went in to the Randhurst Shopping Mall the year before it was demolished.  The Half Price Books expanded in my area.  And of course, my library opened its own used book store.  And every library in Cook County has been having used book sales.

Then my brother gifted me with a Kindle. 

I still spend very little money on e-books.  I mostly have the classics - freebies and 99 cent purchases.  The last thing I downloaded was A Tale of Two Cities.  Not because I don't have it, but because my copy is from one of those fancy sets that my parents had and I am hardly going to carry that around with me.  (Sidenote:  Please explain why someone would dowload the Oprah Edition of a book for ten bucks when the original is literally one click over for free?)  All the same, it is one more thing that keeps me from spending money at BN.

Once upon a time, I did half of my holiday shopping at  Now, spending ten bucks on a book seems extravagant.  So I am reading this article and it suggests that Borders is about done,  And the last, best hope for BN is the Nook:

"E-books now make up about 5 percent of all book sales. The figure is expected to triple within five years. E-reader devices don't offer great margins, but they do spur e-book sales."

And the numbers from this holiday season are going to tell the story.

I might have to get one now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder, by Robert Lee Hall

Book 46 on 50 Book Challenge
Book 3 on The Holiday Reading Challenge

I don't remember what whim made me pick up Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder, but it looks to have been from the Little City Book Sale last June. 

It is a charming, rather Holmesian novel that has Dr. Franklin in London over Christmas in 1757, and this seems to be the second in a series of mysteries.  He is there to talk with the Penns about their damnable taxes, and he also solves mysteries.  His sidekick/narrator is a twelve year old boy that is a servant of sorts and also his unacknowledged son.  Got that?

The premise is that Franklin and the boy, Nick, are at a party on Christmas night when the host very publicly falls dead.  Franklin suspects murder and puts himself on the case.

This book does a better job than the Poirot novel of using the Christmas season to set and enhance the mystery.  I find that odd since I understood historically, we didn't start to get really crazy about Christmas until the 1800s.  Oh, and that lead to the moment when I wanted to smack Franklin:

He and Nick go into a toy store.  Nick has never been in a toy store and thinks it is the best thing he has ever seen.  Franklin buys toys for the murder victim's children, speak to the clerk in the store and then they leave.


There is a shady brother and mistaken identity and a wife that is clearly hiding something - the usual.  But the boy narrator is observant and clever and brave and has just enough wide-eyed wonder to make it charming. 

I could read more of these.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Assorted Chocolate

Boxes of Assorted Chocolates should be required to come with a decoder ring. Or something.

There are several boxes of these floating around my office this week and I find myself staring at them, trying to figure out which one has the caramel and which one has the icky creams and coconut fillings. I am told there is some way to tell from looking at the pattern on top of the chocolate piece, what type of filling is inside. But I am no such expert.

Back when we were gaming, our friend Rosalia worked at Godiva and would bring extra boxes of candy for us. Godiva always had a chart to tell you what you were getting.

At home, I use a knife, cut the thing open and don’t eat it if I don’t like what is inside. That still gives the next person a good twelve hours to eat the piece before it dries out.

Sometimes I miss living with my brother.

So today, I am just noshing on the chocolate cake.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Influence with a Capital O

Weekend Assignment # 348: Trendsetters

Musicians, writers and other artists frequently have an impact on their fans that goes beyond simple enjoyment of their work. Many rock stars have had an influence on fashion or politics or both, and fictional characters sometimes inspire real people in their opinions and career choices. [I'm not going to try to prove these assertions here; just go with them, okay?] Has an artist or artistic work ever inspired you to do or believe something that might never have occurred to you otherwise?

Extra Credit: Do you think it's appropriate for artists to be political activists? Does such activism have a positive or negative impact on your respect for that artist?
I've been sitting on this question for three days, wondering if Oprah counts. I wouldn't exactly call her an artist, but...screw it.
I live in Chicago.  Besides sports, we have Malkovich and Sinise.  We have Second City.  And we have Oprah.  For a few more minutes. 
Oprah seems to have outgrown Chicago.  She seems to have grown into that stratosphere of celebrity where she no longer seems to live in the same world as the rest of us.  Like Michael Jackson.  But if you can remember back to the days when she hosted a talk show and tried her hand at acting, she was great.
She taught us that a woman can be a great success with or without a man.  She can be happy without being married and have cocker spaniels instead of children.  She doesn't have to be a size four (although she ought to try to be healthy).  She can cover real stories of adversity and survival and heroism and then do the celebrity gossip with the best of them. 
Even today, she reminds me that I can have my intellectual pursuits and my brain candy, too. 
Say what you will about the content of her Book Club, but she gets people to read.  (Anne's Note:  You do not need to spend $15 for those Dickens novels.  They are in used book stores everywhere and you can probably get them on an e-reader for 99 cents.  Yes, you could borrow them from your library, but it is Dickens so I suggest having your own copies.)

So let's get to that Extra Credit, since it is probably why I thought of her: most of the time I am not really listening to celebrities and their causes.  I might take note of which are supporting ASPCA and other animal adoption stuff.  Who showed up when New Orleans was underwater.  And I sometimes listen to Bono.  But even with Oprah, I know that she was a big supporter of President Obama.  And I know she built a school in Africa.  That's about it.  I remember the latter because I wished she would build such a school in Chicago.

If I were a celebrity, I would absolutely use the platform to talk to people about issues that I support.  So I can't blame them.  However, I would also take very seriously the responsibility of getting my facts straight.  I am not sure that everyone holding a microphone could say the same.

Oprah doesn't pretend that she is infallible.  Or she didn't.  She was duly embarrassed by the James Frey thing.  Although she has not, to my knowledge, apologized for launching the Dr. Phil machine.  All the same, she seemed very human to me.  So I hope that when she leaves town, safe in her cocoon of handlers, that she remembers why many of us liked her in the first place.

This Story Made my Heart Grow Three Sizes Today

Jon Hilkevitch at the Chicago Tribune wrote a great article about a CTA bus driver that makes people's days.  Her name is Darlene Coleman and she drives one of those routes that shuttles people from the train station to their offices in the city.  She has been there for 2 1/2 years and loves her job:

"Where else can you work and get paid to tour our wonderful city and meet new people?"

I love people that love their jobs.  Several passengers were quoted complimenting her attitude and extra efforts to make sure people made their scheduled trains.  So while I have never met Darlene Coleman, she just made my day, too.

The interesting thing Hilkevitch did, however, was to use Ms. Coleman's example to higlight the problems the CTA is having in other areas.  Check this out:

"It's a shame the CTA cannot clone her. Especially now, when relations between CTA management and the transit agency's labor unions are at what may be an all-time low. Poor morale at the CTA is reflected by many employees who misdirect their anger through indifference and rudeness toward passengers.

The CTA received 1,241 complaints about rude bus operators in the first 10 months of the year. Over the same period, 826 complaints were filed about bus drivers failing to assist customers — more than the number of such complaints in all of 2009, according to records."

See what he did there?

I live in the suburbs, so I don't use the CTA very often at all.  But I read all the time about the costs associated with commuting and how many cities have rapid transit systems in the red.  And I hear about it from friends and colleagues.  In fact, the last time I was in Washington DC, I was shocked to hear a colleague tell me that Metro had purchased old trains from Chicago to run in its subway system.  So I was happy to see someone writing about the commuter experience.  And God Bless the lady trying every day to make it better for people.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'll Let the Numbers Speak for Themselves

Regarding airline fees, from USA Today:

The Airline Biz blog of The Dallas Morning News reports US Airways expects to net $500 million this year in fees on items such as bag fees, change fees and on-board sales, according to comments US Airways president Scott Kirby made Wednesday at a securities conference in New York.

And US Airways expected profit for this year? Between $450 million and $475 million, according to Wall Street analysts.

BTT - Brain Candy

The question was:

Do you ever crave reading crappy books?

I presume that "crappy books" means "guilty pleasures" or "brain candy" and so the answer is:

Not for very long, because I will just go ahead and read them. 

My guiltiest pleasure is Dominick Dunne, who was so much fun.  But his novels are speculative gossip crafted into fiction and that just isn't good for you.  I have two of his novels left on my shelf aong with a book of his early Vanity Fair essays.

Kennedy family biographies.  Luckily, I have Schlesinger's A Thousand Days on my shelf for the next time that craving hits, so I won't have to read crap.  Which leads to several other books that I rather consider guilty pleasures, but theoretically have some redeeming value.  Like Star Wars novels.  And Bob Greene, which I would call schmaltz, rather than crap.

I haven't read any of these in an awfully long time.  Although I did read that last Dan Brown book not too long ago.  I must still be doing penance for that.

And don't get me started, because I am on the Christmas novels now!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ways I Torture Myself Every Season

Are you familiar with Ovation TV?  Artsy-fartsy cable channel.  Every year, they do a "Battle of the Nutcrackers", where they play the performances of a bunch of different companies and viewers vote on which they like the best.  I often have it on as background TV during the holiday season. 

Every year, the post-modern goofy stuff wins: 

This was the Americans, gang.  So I've taken to calling it "Battle of the Goofy-Ass Nutcrackers".  This year, the U.S. isn't represented.  The French have taken up the goofy-ass mantle.  And this year, Sarah Jessica is hosting. 

I'm sorry to be a purist, but I don't believe that as long as I live, I will ever see The Nutcracker done better than the one Baryshnikov did in 1977.  So excuse me for posting this rather long video, because I am going to need easy access to it for a bit.

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Book 45

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman, was a random pick, except that I it was another war history.  It is the story of the family that owned and operated the Warsaw Zoo during World War II.  Once the zoo was bombed to pieces, and the animals either run off, killed, or shipped to German zoos, the Zabinskis used their property to hide Jews and other fugitives with the Underground movements in Poland.

Besides the fact the it was a story of courage and survival, I also appreciated that this book reminds me that:

  1. The War started long before Pearl Harbor.
  2. The Russians were not The Good Guys.
  3. In fact, about the worst place on Earth you could be is between the Nazis and the Red Army.
Ackerman did some fine research, between the journals and interviews and public records.  I am grateful, because this was a story that needed to be told.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bookshelf of Shame

Tribune columnist Mary Schmich was inspired by Oprah (don’t roll your eyes) to talk about a concept she called the “bookshelf of shame”:

“All of us, at least all of us who like to read, have a bookshelf of shame: that psychic space, or bedside table, crammed with Important Books and Important Authors that we think we should have read, but haven't.

The works of Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand. "Exodus." "Animal Farm." "Middlemarch."

Oh, hell.

Just looking at my actual TBR bookcase, there are Ayn Rand and an awful lot of Mailer. There is Middlesex, the last book I bought not from the Clearance Section only to not read it. Truckload of Phillip Roth. I don’t think I have read a single Roth all year. And soooo many history books. The point of Mary’s article was to shut up and read, already. Good advice, except I have scarves to make now!

I have, at least, read Oprah’s two picks – Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

And Middlemarch.

Monday, December 6, 2010

About Cars

Weekend Assignment # 347: Car Crazy

Some people are car connoisseurs, able to discuss the finer points of 1960 Corvette engines, find or build replacement Model T parts, or argue the merits of the latest high-end Italian sports car. (Okay, maybe it's not the same person in each of these scenarios, but you get the idea.) Other people know a lot about their own beloved car and its automotive brethren, but not much about other cars. Still others are mostly just concerned whether their car still gets them to work and back safely. How about you? Do you pay attention to automotive trends, or quickly identify the unusual car sitting next to you at the light? What is the extent of your knowledge and interest in cars?

Extra Credit: If a long lost rich uncle insisted on buying you any car you wanted, as long as you promised to keep it and drive it around, what kind would you get?
I love driving.  I have always loved driving.  Before I could drive, I dreamed about driving.  In fact, the last couple of years, as my commute has been really aggravating, I have worried that I might actually lose my love for driving. 
That would make me mad.
I am not, however, a connoisseur.  I fancied that I could be.  I once had posters of Italian sports cars in my bedroom.  (Next to Walter Payton and James Dean.)  But in reality, my love is more of an open-road, wind-in-my-hair, independent Americana kind of love.  In fact, all of my cars have been SUVs - Ford or GM. 
I love a good road trip.  But I don't even do that like a normal person. I keep saying that I am going to stop to see the World's Largest Ball of Twine or whatever, but I never do.  Because driving for twelve hours straight is fun.  I remember a couple of years ago when I drove by myself to South Dakota.  I said I was going to see Mt. Rushmore and not talk to anyone for five days except to say, "Yes, I would like fries with that."
It. Was. Awesome.
I went to Hawaii earlier this year.  The volcano was on the other side of the island from my hotel and it was a good 2.5 hour drive to get there.  I got to drive for two and a half hours in Hawaii.  And at the end, there was a volcano!  It was great! 
And I am doing it again next year.
The truth is that if I had a rich uncle that wanted to buy me a car, it wouldn't be the biggest deal.  My fantasy doesn't involve zero to sixty in .04 seconds.  It is to have more than one car - one for summer and one for winter.  Of course, that would require a bigger garage...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

Book 44

The Swan Thieves is the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, author of The HistorianThe Historian, which was often called "The Da Vinci Code for Dracula people", was a lot of fun, so when The Swan Thieves popped up at the Library's Used Book Store, I snatched it right up.

I wasn't expecting Dickens here, but I was still disappointed.

The premise was great.  A psychiatrist takes on the case of a mad artist that tried to slash a painting in the National Gallery.  Art and crazy people.  Awesome.

The artist won't talk, so the doctor starts to play detective.  Interviews the ex-wife.  And the ex-lover.  And some colleagues.  Reads some letters views some paintings.  Kostova is very careful to dance around the fact that the doctor doesn't do anything illegal in his research.  The artist authorized him to talk with his family.  And the ex-lover.  And read the letters.  I started to feel icky.  And that was before he started sleeping with the ex-lover.

I seem to be reading a lot of these novels that go back and forth in time and solve the mystery.  This, like many, is much less interesting in "the present" than in the flashbacks.  And the story really dragged in the middle.  The ending was satisfying, but not surprising.

Moving on now.

Regarding the First Snowfall of the Season

Dear Cook County:

Thank you for making this first "storm" of the season a non-event.

I was out the door at 8:30 Saturday morning.  The streets were passable, the drivers reasonable and even the shoppers made an effort to not double park all day long.  Obviously, it helped that the snow fell over a Friday night and Saturday morning.

The kids had a great time, I didn't see any car accidents and there were only a few traffic lights out.  Well done.

However.  Please note that "passable" streets are not the same as "clean" streets.  What works over a weekend will not work over a Monday morning commute.  There is still plenty of slush and ice covering the roads and I have not seen any trucks out today.  (Although admittedly, I haven't left the house since kickoff at noon.)

I appreciate that the drivers needed a rest and it is their weekend, too.  (And you are trying not to spend my tax dollars on overtime pay.)  But it has been a full 24 hours since the snow stopped.  Please get this done before morning.

Thanks for your attention.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thoughts on Airport Security

I was asked recently for my thoughts regarding the new security scanners and pat downs at the airport, so here goes:

First, I believe I mentioned a few months ago that I wore a new bra to the airport that set off the metal detector.  The pat down that I received that day was serious.  I remember thinking it was pretty embarrassing, not just because I was being molested, but because I was being molested in full view of a few hundred other people in broad daylight.  Obviously, I don't wear that to the airport anymore.

Nothing remotely that dramatic happened during the two pat downs I went through this past month.  But I have to say I understand the people saying they felt violated by the process. 

I have only been through the new scanners once or twice.  I didn't have much of a problem with them.  However, they were not monitored in a private room, as we were told they would.  I could see the man looking at the scanner shots when I picked up my bag.  To be fair, it has been a few months since I was sent through the scanner, so this may have been corrected for the holiday travel season.

One new thing popped up when I came home from Washington. I walked through the metal detector and some sort of light flashed at the TSA agent.  He asked me to step aside and another agent swabbed my hands and sent the sample through another machine.  I remember the swab thingy being used on one of my bags on an earlier trip.  After a few seconds, I was waived through.  I don't know what they were looking for, or what may have triggered the extra analysis.  Although I had just put on some hand cream before getting into the line.

An article was going around Facebook that the reason for the new scanners was that someone that had a lot to gain pushed it through Congress.  That would tick me off.  But I can't say that the new procedures, on average, take much longer than they did six months ago.  And I am sorry to tell you that I am more worried about my time than my privacy in this case.  If I am going to get cranky about something in the security line, it is more likely to be the family of six that  doesn't know the rules and tries to push through a stroller with apple juice strapped to the back. 

Someone should deal with them.

I don't see a bunch of outraged people at the airport.  Mostly, we all just shut up and go through the motions.  We seem to understand that in the line on the day we plan to travel is not the time to make a statement.  Does that mean the terrorists have won? 

Mobile Boarding Passes

United Airlines has been using mobile phone boarding passes for several months now.  Passengers can check in to a flight online and have an electronic boarding pass e-mailed to their phones.  The e-mail has a code - sort of like a UPC code - that is scanned at both the security line and at the boarding gate.  This is a totally paperless process.

I used it once over the summer.  I didn't trust the process yet, so I printed a boarding pass at home just in case.  It worked just fine but I didn't like having to have my phone out, on, lit up and open to that document, so I didn't use it again.  However, I can be bribed.  So when United sent me an e-mail offering me a thousand miles for each time I used a mobile boarding pass for the rest of the year, I tried it again.  After six flights in four different airports, here is my analysis:

  1. It works.  Once you have the box code on the phone, it scans very nicely at both security and at the gate.  I didn't have any trouble with that.  However:
  2. It is not available for all flights because not all airports have the scanner equipment.   For two of my six flights, I didn't have the option.
  3. Even at O'Hare, not all security lines are equipped with the scanners.  Do you know how annoying it is to wait in a security line only to find that you can't use that line and have to go stand in another queue?  Totally unacceptable.
  4. For one flight, I checked in on the phone and received the email boarding pass, but the code box did not appear.  You know that little symbol when there is supposed to be a picture but you can't see it?  I got that.  It only happened once, so I don't think it was my phone.
  5. My trips were either one night or two nights, so I didn't bring the charger to my phone.  All three times, I worried about burning out my battery from keeping my phone screen continually active and lit in the queues.  And when my phone goes dark, it locks up and I have to punch in a password to open it again, so you don't want to lose that while you are in line.
  6. You can't carry your boarding pass through the metal detector.  So if the TSA agent wants to see your information again, you have to wait for it to come out of the x-ray machine.  I didn't have that happen, but I worried about it.
  7. I couldn't do anything else with my phone while the boarding pass was open and available.  Like check my email.
Bottom line:

In the Pro Column:  Being green and paperless, and not having to worry about how and where one might print off a boarding pass before heading to the airport.

In the Con Column:  Paper is a lot more handy than managing the process with a cell phone.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Checking In

So this is my schedule this week:

Monday morning:       Fly to Washington
Monday afternoon:     Work in Washington
Tuesday:                    Meetings in Washington
Wednesday morning:   Work in Washington
Wednesday afternoon: Fly home
Thursday morning:       Meetings at the office
Thursday afternoon:     Fly to Ohio
Friday morning:           Meetings in Ohio
Friday morning:           Fly home

I will be eating at Auntie Anne's Pretzels at least three times this week.  And right now, I am looking at my computer and thinking, "I don't feel like lugging you through O'Hare again."

I have taken big steps in the holiday shopping and am right now working overtime on the handmade gifts.    Which means I am not getting any reading done.  I am sure I will still make the 50 Book Challenge, but I might be marathon reading that last week.  Again.  This is particularly bad because I went into Half Price Books in Palatine and found four things in the Clearance Section that I just had to have.

And speaking of that Half Price Books, the Wings Program relocated its Palatine store to that shopping center - between the book store and the TJ Maxx.  That would be the shopping center with the nearest Sonic Drive In to my house.  As if I needed one more reason to go there.

And now I need to finish packing.