Friday, December 30, 2011

Happiness is...a feeling of accomplishment.

Wow, where does the time go? It's hard to believe that 2011 is nearly gone. This past weekend I sat down with the grand intentions of getting my scrapbook all caught up before I leave on my trip. I know I'll come home and want to get the new pictures (there are sure to be millions!) printed and everything documented before I forget or get too overwhelmed with the busyness of life that things get pushed aside. Which is apparently what happened last year because I haven't scrapbooked anything since last December. I'd love to blame it on the wild and crazy life I was so busy living but looking back through the photos and trying to determine which ones to print out and have waiting for me when I get home I was disappointed in the lack of scrapbook worthy photos and events.

That's not to say I wasn't busy. There were plenty of things going on but they fell more into the category of mundane every day life than exciting excursions, events or adventures. Here's a brief and highly guestimated accounting of some of the things I've done over the past year...

~~Number of books read: Goodreads has the count being just over 600 but I would up that to at least 650 as many of the picture books and review books I read don't make it onto the list. Reading that many, sometimes several in one day, they all tend to mush together in my little brain. Most of my favorites I've already reviewed here but here are a few that still stand out and I find myself recommending to others and thinking about even months after finishing them.
In 2012 I'd like to focus on reading (or re-reading) some of the classics, for both adults and children. I'd love some recommendations!

~~Movies attended: Counting up the ticket stubs I've saved gives me 24, give or take a few. I could probably stand to see a few less in the coming year (my wallet would thank me for sure) but I saw a few winners and there are a couple coming up that I'm particularly excited about.
2011 Faves: 
2012 Hopefuls: 
  • The Hobbit. Should I insert the trailer again? Yes, I think I should!
  • The Hunger Games. I only hope this lives up to the book.
  • Big Miracle Because I'm a sucker for animal movies, and whales
  • The Avengers Because I'm a nerd, remember (and without this, the summer of the superhero would have been mostly for naught)
  • The Dark Knight Rises Again with the superheroes...and Christian Bale
~~Performances (concerts, plays etc.) attended: 16. Oh, such a sad number! There should be at least 2 each month! Bon Jovi and Josh Groban were both amazing but I think Newsies tops out as the overall winner. There was also an abundance of banjos, all of which made me happy and Trampled by Turtles probably reigns in that arena. I vow to do more of this next year, even if I have to starve to do it!

~~Trips taken: Again with the sad numbers. It didn't help that I had to work nearly every 3 day weekend this year. That really cuts down on the travel opportunities. I did get to New York a couple of times, my trip to Utah this summer included some road trips to both Yellowstone and Capitol Reef, and we roadtripped to Pittsburgh for Monsieur Bon Jovi but all in all a rather sad showing. 

Next year is already poised to beat it with my huge trip in just a few days. I'd like to do some camping this summer (preferably on the beach), and maybe get out to visit my old roommate who is living in Oregon (that'd be one more state down only 8 -I think- to go!) My sister and I have grand plans to hit eastern Europe later this year and I'd love to visit Salem, Concord and Boston in the fall. We'll see how the money/job thing cooperates with all of those plans!

~~Goals/resolutions accomplished: I'd had a couple of different sets of goals, one being to do 35 new things (1 for each year I've been on this earth) and the other to do at least one thing a month that scared me, in addition to the ever-present hopes of exercising daily, losing a few pounds, finding my soul mate, winning the lottery and the like. I've made it up to 30 new things and 10 things that scared me. I guess I have a couple of days left to see if I can get them all in.

Next year I'm going to hang on to those lose a few pounds/win the lottery goals and maybe simplify the others a bit making it 2 or 3 new things each month or something along those lines. Here are a few I hope to try and accomplish:
  • run a 5K
  • learn to make bread--the real kind, with yeast and kneading and rising and the whole deal
  • attend either the Thanksgiving Day parade or the New Year's Eve spectacular in NYC
  • take a photography class
  • attend a Civil War reenactment
  • visit Lincoln's Cottage
  • visit the Newseum
  • snowshoeing in West Virginia
Some bigger habit-type goals rather than a one shot bucket list event include:
  • finishing one of my books
  • playing the piano every day--eventually I'd like to find a trumpet teacher and take some lessons but I figure I'd better brush up on some of my basics of note reading and counting before I do
  • improving my scripture study to include actual in-depth study topics rather than just skimming a few verses before bed
  • exercising (this goes along with the 5K thing listed above)
What are some of your goals and resolutions? What have you done that you'd recommend?

Let's finish with some year-end randomness...

Favorite discoveries: 
  • fresh figs-I've spent my entire life despising figs based solely on my interactions with Fig Newtons. Who knew that fresh ones were delicious?!
  • banjo music!! I've always loved the banjo but this year has really broadened my horizons and introduced me to some fabulous bands. My life will never be the same :)
  • Pinterest! it's addicting but has kept me sane many an afternoon at work. I've used it for party planning and dream house decorating,making dinners and Christmas gifts, planning imaginary weddings and feeding my need for list making. Again, my life will never be the same.
  • Blogging. Who knew I would enjoy this so darn much? There may be some format changes to come but I'm not going anywhere.
In addition to all that I have moved, said goodbye to old friends and made and developed some amazing new friendships. I've seen friends fall in love and friends get married and I've laughed and cried, and laughed and cried some more (though I think, looking back, I've probably laughed more than cried which is a good thing.) I've seen some breathtaking sights and eaten some incredible food. I've spent time holding hands with my grandfather and being smothered by hugs and kisses from my nephews. I've taken on challenges and struggles and come out victorious (for the most part). I've made changes and breakthroughs and even gone on a few dates! (Miraculous, I know!) Sure, there's always room for improvement and more change and adventure is on the horizon but 2011 has been a good year. To quote the chairman of the board, "it was a very good year." And may 2012 be even better!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happiness is...the perfect holiday.

Happy Christmas!

I was blessed to spend the weekend with a wonderful family. They've adopted me on numerous occasions, fed me, watched out for me, entertained me and made sure that Santa knew where to find me. We spent many hours eating delicious food, watching movies, opening gifts and visiting. This morning's church services were filled with children singing, spiritual thoughts and wonderful reminders of the season. It was the best way to celebrate while being away from home and family.

Let us remember the true reason for the season. The child was born so that He could live. He lived so that He could die. And He died so that we could live. His Atonement and His death and subsequent resurrection make it possible for each of us to repent and change, to return and live with our Father in Heaven and progress eternally as families. He is our Savior, our Redeemer, our exemplar and more.

In the spirit of the day here are a few of my favorite scriptures about the birth and life of Christ:

Isaiah 9:6
6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Doctrine and Covenants 76:20-24
20 And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness;
21 And saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever.
22 And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
23 For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
24 That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.

Alma 7:10-16
10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
14 Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.
15 Yea, I say unto you come and fear not, and lay aside every sin, which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction, yea, come and go forth, and show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism.
16 And whosoever doeth this, and keepeth the commandments of God from thenceforth, the same will remember that I say unto him, yea, he will remember that I have said unto him, he shall have eternal life, according to the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which testifieth in me.

I hope you all had a beautiful day filled with peace, love and happiness. Joy to the world, the Lord IS come!

Merry Christmas!

Happiness more sleep til Christmas.

Pretend this posted yesterday, okay?

In anticipation of one of the best days of the year I whipped together this fun little video using some puppets I made out of scraps of craft stuff I had in my closet. And using my electric keyboard I composed a little ditty and then sang all the parts myself.  It's based on the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Tell me what you think!

Okay, okay, so those are the Muppets and Paul Williams wrote the music and I had nothing to do with the writing or the voices. But I've watched it a lot. And I sing along every time.  That counts for something, right?

Here's to one more sleep til Christmas.  Happy 11th day!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happiness is...the foundation of a testimony.

Today I wanted to mention something not directly related to Christmas. On December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, a boy named Joseph Smith was born. When he was just 14, in answer to a prayer, he received a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ in which he was told not to join any of the churches in the area.  He was guided to an ancient American record inscribed on gold plates, modernly known as The Book of Mormon, which he translated. Later, in 1830 he founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often referred to as Mormons.)

During his leadership and the early days of the church Joseph was tarred and feathered, jailed multiple times, hunted by mobs and beaten. His family suffered right along with him. Two of his children died after a mob attack. The early Mormons as a whole, were persecuted and driven from their homes in Kirtland, Ohio and Nauvoo, Missouri eventually settling in the Salt Lake valley. But before that happened Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith were murdered by a mob at Carthage Jail in Illinois.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints we honor and revere Joseph Smith as a leader and a prophet. His is an example of faith, strength, courage and perseverance.  In the Doctrine and Covenants it states:

Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fullness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!
I want to add my testimony to that. Without my knowledge of Joseph Smith I would not be where I am today. I am eternally grateful for his sacrifice and for all that he did to restore God's church to the earth. And without my knowledge and testimony of the church I would not love and celebrate the Christmas season the way I do. It is my love and appreciation and knowledge of my Savior, Jesus Christ and His Atonement and sacrifice that give meaning to my life and hope to my days.

The hymn "Praise to the Man" has always been one of my favorites.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, let us remember those who sacrificed so much to bring us the truth, as well as those who continue to work and sacrifice so that all can worship freely.

Happy birthday, Brother Joseph. And Happy 10th Day of Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happiness is...a holiday classic show-down.

Last Thanksgiving I spent the weekend in lovely Savannah, GA. On one of our walking tours of the city we stopped in front of one of the ubiquitous town squares and heard the story of James Lord Pierpont, an organist in his brother's Unitarian church who was commissioned to write a song for the church's children's choir.  Inspired by his youth in New England and the sleighs the boys would race up and down the streets during the winter h composed a song that was so popular at the Thanksgiving service the children were requested to sing it again for Christmas. And so, the classic Jingle Bells was born.

At least  that's how the story goes.

However, if you go to Medford, Massachusetts, they will tell you he wrote it in Simpson Tavern on what is now High Street in the center of the town square. There's even a plaque there commemorating the event.

No one really knows how it came to be, but no on can deny that it's a timeless classic. It's been redone at least a bazillion times. And even made it's way into outer space!  As the fount of all knowledge (aka Wikipedia) tells it, the Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sent this message to Mission Control on December 16, 1965: "We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit... I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit...." The astronauts then produced a smuggled harmonica and sleighbells and broadcast a rendition of the song, making it the first to be broadcast from space.

So, on this, the longest day of the year, let's brighten things up a bit with a battle of the bands-ish competition.  I've picked a few different (and I think excellent) versions of the song by various and sundry artists. Some are a bit more traditional and some are completely off the wall. Which is your favorite?

I'm sure there are a million more out there. Have I missed your favorite? Post it in the comments and I'll see what I can do to add it in! The winner will be posted after I've received all of your votes.*  (Yes, that means you...all you lurkers who read and fail to identify yourselves! Make a comment or man up and become a legit blog follower. --Maybe one of these days I'll make it into the double digits-- It'll be great. We can be friends!)  ;)

(btw, don't you love how I squeezed in not one but TWO banjo songs?! Sneaky, aren't I?)

*disclaimer--no actual prizes will be awarded, just the knowledge that your version is superior to all others should be enough for you, yes?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happiness is...a chill enducing movie trailer.

Call me a pathetic nerd, but when I heard the opening strains of music playing in the first few seconds of the new trailer for The Hobbit today, I got chills. Literally.

Take a peek!

Awesome, yes? Too bad we have to wait a whole YEAR to see the entire thing. Oh well, at least we'll have something to look forward to next Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas...

Let's listen to a fun holiday tune, shall we? 

Sorry it's not an actual video, but I figure it's great enough to stand on its own without it! Happy 8th day. Only 4 more to go!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happiness is...the cutest little version of the Christmas story you've ever seen.

Honest. I can't decide if it would be quite as cute if they didn't have darling little New Zealander accents.  Okay, they are pretty darling in their own right. Take a look and be delighted.

You're welcome!  (Now, where can I get me one of those adorable sheep?)

Happy 7th Day of Christmas!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happiness is...unexpected festiveness.

I was whipping up some dinner tonight while listening to, guess what?, Christmas music when I looked in the pan and smiled at the little bit of Christmas looking back at me.

The peppers, tomatoes, spinach and asparagus were more vivid before I got the camera, but see how lovely?
Hmm, so it looks more orange than red but trust me, it was very Christmas-y.

Followed by an Egg Nog chaser, it was the perfect meal to usher in this holiday week!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Happiness is...Christmas music! part 2

On the 5th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...5 goooold rings!

I had the wonderful opportunity of singing this (and all of the other 'days of Christmas') with the National Philharmonic Singers today. I've got a friend who sings with them and he invited me to their concert this afternoon in Maryland. So I dashed from church (after singing in the church Christmas can never have too much Christmas music) and drove like a madwoman through Sunday afternoon traffic to arrive just in the nick of time.

The choir is smallish, 28 members or so, and they combined with the Washington Symphonic Brass to put on a spectacular show. The first part of the concert they performed a set together and then a set each on their own. There was a great mix of traditional, unfamiliar, religious, secular, accompanied, a capella, lively and mellow tunes. 

The second half was much the same, a great combination of the choir and the brass ensemble. (I think I need to learn to play the trumpet.) At the end of the show though they had a short set of audience participation songs. Dividing the audience in half they had us stand up alternating on the odds/evens depending on which group we were in, for the 12 Days of Christmas. (My thighs may never forgive me.) And then the closing number was the Hallelujah chorus. 

I missed out on a full performance of The Messiah this year so I was glad to get even this little bit in. It's such an amazing work.  So, for your listening pleasure today let's listen in on this rendition by the MoTab.  Feel free to sing along!

And that is why God created choirs. Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Happiness is...Christmas treats.

Or I suppose that should read 'are'. 


I spent a good bulk of my Saturday creating lovely Christmas concoctions for my co-workers, roommates, people at church and just for fun. 

Here's a glimpse of the pumpkin bread
the 'smores popcorn
the salted caramels
and Hershey kisses

Then about 2, I decided to finally take a shower and the roommates and I ventured out to the US Botanic Gardens where we witnessed a different kind of Christmas treat. Inside the greenhouse they've got replicas of some of the best DC landmarks recreated using plant materials.  It's pretty amazing and the pictures just don't do it justice. You can't tell but there a bits of acorns and leaves and bark and moss and mushrooms.  It's crazy!

In the other wing they've got a sort of fairy land set up using the same kinds of plant materials to create houses and such with a bunch of model trains chugging in and out. It's quite delightful!

After that it was off to a delicious Thai dinner and then our ward Christmas party...all the hot chocolate, desserts, and flirting one could wish for. 

A day well spent!

Happy 4th Day of Christmas. How has your weekend been?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happiness is...a good book! *Christmas edition*

As one might expect, I also enjoy a good holiday read, though I confess most of mine are of the picture book variety. I don’t cling to these nearly as religiously and fanatically as I do my music and movies interestingly enough. When I get to the point that I have a family to subject to all of my craziness I will start a tradition that a friend of mine suggested years ago.

Each night as an advent activity of sorts you will all gather around the tree which has books wrapped as gifts piled high underneath it. A child chooses one of the gifts to unwrap and you all read the book together (ideally by the light of the Christmas tree and/or a roaring fire while sipping hot chocolate and wearing flannel jammies) before going to bed, ending with the Bible story on Christmas Eve.

Here are a few that would make it under my tree each year:
Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
A charming little story of a tree that ends up gracing the homes of many, many families. You never know how your actions might affect the lives of others.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
Because it's a practically perfect story of repentance and redemption hidden inside lines of exquisite poetry such as...

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be that his head wasn't screwed on quite right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
But,Whatever the reason, His heart or his shoes,
He stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos...
My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Because we all know I love penguins. And just look at those magical illustrations!

Christmas Trolls by Jan Brett
Because it's Christmas. And Trolls! It's a great little holiday homage to my Norwegian ancestry.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore
Again with the near perfection. It's a classic for a reason! Pick any version but this happens to be one of my favorites.

Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner
I love Snowmen at Night best but this is a delightful holiday rendition with the snowmen up to their typical, silly antics.
Toot and Puddle: I'll Be Home for Christmas by Holly Hobbie
I have a secret wish to live in Woodcock Pockect and have a friendship as deep and abiding as Toot and Puddle’s is. The illustrations are just as charming as can be and I love that there are almost always letters and notes and postcards included as part of the stories. There’s a hint of realism and a hint of magic, the perfect Christmas story.

The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Patricia M. Scarry
This was one of my favorites growing up. Each page had an item to scratch and sniff and I can still smell the hot chocolate and gingerbread!
Jingle Bells by Kathleen Daly
Another of my absolute favorites when I was little. I love J.P. Miller's illustrations, especially the ones with the reindeer and their colds and the final spread where everyone is crammed into the sleigh. Great memories!

The Little Drummer Boy (traditional) illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
This was another favorite from childhood which is ironic because, as previously mentioned, I hate, loathe and despise the song. But Keats' illustrations are earthy and timeless.

Outside the realm of picture books I'm a little more foggy. I try to re-read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and A Christmas Carol every couple of years and that's about it for my selection of ‘grownup’ favorites. This year though I decided to venture into the world of Debbie Macomber who is apparently the queen of Christmas stories. Many of her books have been made into the movies that keep the Hallmark channel busy this time of year. I oh-so-randomly grabbed The Perfect Christmas from the shelf at work. We'll see if it lives up to the reputation.

On deck next is Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor which is a little more tragic...more along the lines of the Lifetime Christmas movies, and then if there's still time I'm going to try one of the cozy mysteries that abound (though I'm not sure who decided murder and Christmas go together.)

Are there any suggestions among you?  If not, I'm going to shun sleep (it is Friday night after all), cozy under the covers and enjoy a visit or two from the Christmas spirits before succumbing to the visions of sugar plums that are sure to dance in my head.  And, as I don't have to work tomorrow, let's hope they keep on dancing til long after the Saturday sun is up.  Happy weekend!

Happiness is...a Christmas movie!

(So much for my 12 Days of Christmas posts...not sure how I skipped over yesterday completely, oops! And it was only day 2! Let's just pretend this posted yesterday, shall we?)

I love my holiday movies almost as much as I love my music, though it takes longer to watch a movie so I don’t get nearly as many in. Christmas isn’t Christmas without at least a partial viewing of A Christmas Story and the Rankin Bass Christmas specials with Frosty, Rudolph, and the gang. (I’m good with catching a half hour or so of them on tv and don’t usually feel compelled to watch the whole thing) and one or two of the ridiculously cheesy romantic comedy-esque movies that are churned out by the hundreds on Lifetime and Hallmark and ABC Family. Predictable, laughable and depending on which channel possibly filled with a death or two, they are also a requisite Christmas experience.

A few essentials that I watch at least once every year, sometimes not even at Christmas (shh!):
Some great classics that make their way into my viewing lineup once every couple of years:
A few pre/pseudo holiday movies that help get you in the spirit without technically being Christmas movies:
I know it’s probably heresy to some of you that I don’t have A Charlie Brown Christmas on here but I’ve never been a fan. Aside from the part where they are practicing for the program and they all do their little happy dance I just think they’re mean to each other (Charlie in particular) and it’s just no good. I spend way too much time feeling sorry for Charlie Brown and never quite catching the oh-so-subtle spirit of Christmas hidden at the end to enjoy it. The music, however, is brilliant.

Any of your favorites I may have missed?

Let's leave you with a short clip to get your weekend started out right. Whaddya say?

Such a fabulous movie! Go watch the rest, right now. Whatever you think you need to be doing instead will still be waiting for you when it's over.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Happiness is...Christmas music!

Today marks the beginning of the 12 Days of Christmas. Okay, so historically the 12 Days of Christmas begins the day after Christmas and ends with Epiphany or 3 Kings Day on the 6th of January but as we like to do in our modern world we've twisted tradition to fit our needs and wants. We've kind of morphed it into a pre-Christmas celebration by doing sub for Santas and anonymous gift giving and such in the days leading up to Christmas, and depending on who you ask the 12th day could be Christmas itself or the day before, so it's really sort of a fuzzy logic. But since I didn't post this yesterday I'm declaring that it starts today and ends on the 25th, and if you don't like that, well, I have a couple of names for you prefer Scrooge? Or Grinch? I'll let you pick.  :)

Now that that's over with let's celebrate with a little Christmas cheer, shall we?

I’m one of those people who starts listening to Christmas music on November 1st. I don’t put up the decorations until after Thanksgiving, but if I wait that long to start in on the music I find I don’t have time to get it all in and I’m left with a deeper feeling of post-holiday let down when it comes time to put it all away, which for me is just after my birthday on January 2nd.

There are a host of songs I feel embody the season of Christmas, many of them I only need to hear once to have had my fill (as much as I hate Feliz Navidad and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer, it just isn’t Christmas without them…once, and only once!) while there are others I need to hear a dozen or more times to truly reach my limits, if even then.

So, here, in no particular order are a few of my favorite songs (specific versions of course, for not all renditions are created equal) narrowed down to 12 in keeping with the spirit of things and making it a bit more manageable because I could go on for days, making up my ultimate Christmas far.

Barbra Streisand-Jingle Bells
Bing Crosby-White Christmas
Nat King Cole-The Christmas Song (his is the ultimate Christmas album!)
The King's Singers-Es Ist Ein Rose Entsprungen
Ella Fitzgerald-Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Julie Andrews-Wexford Carol
The Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan-God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Frank Sinatra-The Christmas Waltz
Mel Torme-Good King Wenceslas
Harry Connick, Jr.-It Must've Been 'Ol Santa Claus
Andy Williams-It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Practically any version of Let it Snow! but Michael Buble's is my current favorite (though not this live version, sorry)

Hmm, 12 songs just isn't enough. That is in no way a proper sampling and it's much more heavy in the secular music than I would have thought. I really do love the religious songs as well, I promise! I also obviously tend to stick more toward the traditional sounds as my absolute favorites. But here are a few recent discoveries that are quickly finding their way on to this list!

I'd also kill for a great version of Gesu Bambino or Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella...I find most of them are instrumental and I've yet to run across a vocal version I'm in love with enough to pay the 99 cents for on iTunes! Any suggestions?

What are your favorite holiday tunes? Bonus points to anyone who actually responds in the comments! (That means Santa will be watching and you're guaranteed to get everything on your list this year...yes, I have that kind of power.)

*Also, if favorites are going to be mentioned I suppose I should give a tiny shout out to the song I love to hate. It's found its way onto nearly every holiday album ever and is one of the most cringe-inducing songs I know. I just can't stand it! (Though some versions do rater higher on the hate scale than others.) Let's give a nice round of applause for The Little Drummer Boy...

Clap louder! I can still hear those blasted 'pa rumpa pum pums'!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happiness is...a listening ear.

I have a bit of a dilemma at the moment. It's nothing earth shattering or life-changing (I don't think!) but it's enough of a quandary that it's causing me some grief and keeping me up at night. But that's mostly because I excel at over-thinking and over-analyzing things. (Oh, that I could put that on my resume!) So, I just want to give a great shout out to all the people who have lent a listening ear and will continue to do so as I continue to obsess. Thanks for keeping me sane(ish)!

And as a little treat for your ears, let's give them something else to listen to besides me, shall we? How 'bout this?

Or if you prefer something a bit more happy-go-lucky sounding, you can try this one...

Two vastly different songs but they both make me wish I could stumble upon pianos (or any furniture really) in random outdoor settings.  Don't you just want to play a rousing number with the waves literally crashing around you? Awesome!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Happiness is...remembering.

Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

I wasn't there that day but I think the experience must have been akin to the shock my generation felt while watching the events of September 11th unfold. Even now words fail to describe the horror and disorientation as ordinary lives quickly spiraled into the realm of nightmare and disbelief. I don't know if hearing things second hand, after the fact and described over the radio would make them more or less conceivable than watching them unfold live before your eyes on a television screen, but doubtless the situation could only have been surreal. What could the future possibly hold?

Both of my grandfathers served in WWII. One served in the Army in the Pacific, primarily in Okinawa, the other was a Navy man storming the beach at Normandy and sailing the coasts of Africa. I grew up hearing stories of what life was like for my grandmothers waiting back home but since neither of my grandfathers have ever really talked about their war experiences, I've imagined and pieced together what their lives may have been like through watching countless movies and reading scores of books both fictional and non.

My father and grandfather both served missions in Germany, my grandfather in the late 30s just prior to Hitler's reign of terror and my father in the early 70s. Their love for the German people and the land in general also generated a fascination in me for that area of the world and its complex and troubled history. I've spent many hours poring over slides and photos and journal entries of their experiences at various sites and hearing them talk about the damages Hitler's rule did to so many good people. I've been blessed to see a few of those places myself in recent years and remember watching with my father as the Berlin Wall fell and thinking that finally the land could begin to heal.

I was also able to spend some time in Hawaii several years ago and visited the site of the USS Arizona. There is a definite feeling of the sacred as you stand over the remains of ship still sitting at the bottom of the harbor, the watery graves of the 1177 crew members, soldiers and civilians lost in that fateful attack. Over 2000 were lost that day and over 1000 more injured in the episode that finally entered the US in the great war that had been raging already in Europe and the Pacific for years.

My grandfathers are 88 and 92 years old, their generation has nearly come to its close and soon only their stories and memories will be left. As George Santayana so wisely observed, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." Let us not forget this Greatest Generation, their experiences and all that they've gone through or we will surely go through it again for ourselves.

Never forget!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happiness is...a fresh Christmas tree!

Okay, fresh is sort of a strong term. But anything that has once semi-recently been alive and has nothing to do with plastic or PVC, aluminum or animal bristles counts as basically fresh in my book.

My roommate and I ventured out Saturday morning where we found a formerly fresh spruce just a little taller than myself, bound and gagged with a few of its closest friends in the parking lot of our local Home Depot. The friendly sales people Saran wrapped it to the roof of our car and we proceeded to drive oh-so-hesitantly back home where we liberated it and gave it a much needed drink before bedecking it with various lights and baubles and freeing it of about half of its needles.

I wish I could take a picture of the smell, because frankly, that makes me happier than anything else. Nothing says Christmas like the scent of 'fresh' pine, though the sight of a brightly lighted tree (fake or fresh) is pretty stiff competition.

Look for more posts about holiday traditions and faves in the weeks to come. And I'd love to hear some of your favorite holiday doings.  What does Christmas mean to you? When does the holiday season truly start?  Are there things you look forward to each year? Things you dread? I'm challenging anyone who actually reads this to post something, anything in the comments. I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happiness is...a good book.

So sorry I've been absent. I'm going to blame it on the turkey coma. Three times over. (I love leftovers!) If the turkey excuse doesn't work for you we can try the hours of shopping, hanging out with my mom and sister, being hugged by my amazing grandpa or entertaining the two cutest little nephews in the entire world.  Oh yeah, and reading!

I've been on a bit of a dry spell in the reading department. Nothing's really floated my boat lately. But the last week or so I kind of hit the jackpot.  Here's a sampling:

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Pages: 473
Age Range: Adult
Published: 2010
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG-13 possibly R (there are a few instances of quoted strong language including an f-bomb or two, violence, cruelty, graphic descriptions, intense situations and so forth)

Louis Zamperini began life with a rough start full of thievery and fighting despite loving and supportive Italian immigrant parents. In his teen years his brother helped him focus his efforts on running and he became a record breaker and an Olympic hopeful. His dreams were dashed by the onset of WWII and he was forced to give up thoughts of running in exchange for gunning in a B-24 bomber.

The war time exploits are enough to make a gripping movie; near misses, miraculous escapes, a plane riddled with holes and running on empty that makes it back to base with no men lost and more. Then on a rescue mission the plane crashes.  All but 3 men are killed and after a harrowing 47-day existence at sea in an emergency raft surrounded by man-eating sharks only Zamperini and Russell Phillips remain. And then on top of that, he escapes the sea only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to inhumane cruelties and degradations that are unfathomable.

When he returns home he obviously has some demons to work through and eventually does so (after some stints with the bottle, all encompassing thoughts of revenge) with the help of a remembered promise to God.

Most of my knowledge of WWII is surrounding the events in Europe so it was an eye-opening experience to read about the goings on in the Pacific, especially since that's where my grandfather served. And Hillenbrand is an amazing writer. She weaves the narration, historical background, facts and figures together seamlessly to re-create the story and keep you riveted from page one. 

If you have any interest in history, the WWII era, biographies, Japan, running, sharks, airplanes or anything at all really, I highly recommend this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Pages: 369
Age Range: Adult
Published: 2009
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG-13 (some violence, intense and graphic descriptions and some strong language)

In the 1940s a black woman went into Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment. Before she died they harvested some of her uterin cells. Those cells had an uncanny ability to multiply and live forever, something that had never been discovered before and would prove immensely useful to science. Her cells have gone on to be studied for cancer cures, immunizations and a million other things but her family was never told about it until many years later when they found out accidentally. Being from poor black ancestry there was a lot they didn't understand, only that some part of their mother was still alive and being used for medical tests. They became wary of doctors, hospitals and anyone claming to be a scientist. 

The writer had first heard Lacks' name mentioned in passing in a science class and set out to find out the truth of who she was. The next decade was full of tennuous back and forth communications and relations with the family as she struggled to understand what had happened and more importantly to help the family understand. This was a very interesting look at the science/medical community, the changes that have come about over the years in regards to patient privacy and rights, racism and more. Your heart aches for the things the family went through and yet at the same time can understand and appreciate what the medical community has done with the help of HeLa cells.

I read this as part of my church book club this past month. It's one of those that had never been on my radar and I don't know that I would have ever read or picked upon my own. But I'm so glad I 'found' it. I've thought about it and talked about it and re-thought about it over and over. I'm amazed at Skloot's dedication to the writing process and my mind still reels at some of the things that poor family has gone through. Word on the street is Oprah has bought the rights so we may see a theatrical version sometime in the future.

A House in the Woods
Author: Inga Moore
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2011
Genre: Picture Book/Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: G (nothing offensive)

Two pigs live happily in their little shelters in the woods but when they go out for a walk they come home to find Moose and Bear living in them. The invaders are so large that they inadvertently break the huts. The animals are all friends so there are no hard feelings but now they have nowhere to live.  They decide to hire the beavers to make one large house where they can all live together. 

The illustrations are soft and old-fashioned. The animals are charmingly anthropomorphic but thankfully Moore refrains from dressing them which adds to their subtle quirkiness. Cooperation, friendship and the process of creating a happy home are the understated messages delivered without a note of preachiness. Simply delightful! It's one that will stand up to multiple readings. I read it four or five times before I reluctantly handed it back over to the library and I've put it on my list of books to add to my permanent collection. 

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous
Author: Georgia Bragg
Pages: 184
Age Range: 10-14
Published: 2011
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG (some violence, gruesome details)

Short biographies of 19 famous people, detailing particularly how they died. From King Tut to Einstein and several chronologically in between, there is a brief set up and then info on what caused them to die, with comments on what could have been different with more advanced medical knowledge and so forth.  There is also a final page (for each entrant) giving some additional information on various aspects of the story. King Tut has info about mummifcation, uses of mummies, Ceasar has info on autopsies, the calendar and words from his name, Darwin's has a list of various phobias, his experimental water treatments and more.

Written with some dark and snarky humor, perfect for a slightly older reader, particularly sarcastic and all-things-gross loving tween boys. This is a great resource for history, biography and random gruesome facts. Disgusting and interesting.

Tuesdays at the Castle
Author: Jessica Day George
Pages: 227
Age Range: 9-12
Published: 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG

Tuesday at Castle Glower is Princess Celie's favorite day because that's when the castle makes new rooms, corridors, and passageways. Some ancient power enchants the castle and Celie's family has been its ruling family for the last 10 generations. But when her parents and older brother suddenly go missing, their caravan attacked and believed dead, the royal advisors and several uninvited guests take it upon themselves to decide who should rule next, disregarding the castle's opinions and eventually going so far as to 'kill' the castle itself. But Celie doesn't believe it's dead (nor are her parents) and it's up to her, her older sister and older brother (the regent crown prince) to find out the truth and save the day. The castle loves Celie and bends its creations to fit her wishes often and it's her love for and belief in the castle that brings the family success. 

George has been a favorite since I first read her Dragon Slippers. Some I've loved more than others but she has quite the knack for creating worlds and conjuring up old-fashioned fairy tale magic.  This is one of her best. Enchanting!

Author: Norton Juster
Illustrator: G. Brian Karas
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2011
Genre: Picture Book/Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G (nothing offensive)

A boy moves into a new neighborhood, somewhere he doesn't want to be and where he doesn't know anybody. Convinced he'll never make friends his mother encourages him to walk around the block so he trudges down the street, stands on the corner and proceeds to shout "Neville" as loud as he can. A boy comes up behind him and offers to help. Together they shout for Neville and soon there's a whole crowd gathered. The kids all speculate on who Neville is and what he's like. When it's time to go home they promise they'll all come back tomorrow. The boy goes home feeling a bit lighter than before and his mom tucks him in wishing him "goodnight Neville."

This is a cute little story of friendship and making things work. Karas' illustrations are the perfect blend of childlike scrawl and whimsical sophistication. It would make a great read-aloud and kids will love figuring out who the mysterious Neville might be.

And speaking of Neville...
You're welcome!

The Name of the Star
Author: Maureen Johnson
Pages: 372
Age Range: 12 up
Published: 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery/Paranormal
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 (violence, underage drinking, some language and mild sexual references)

Rory is from deep Southern stock, a quirky family that lives in a swampy town outside of New Orleans, but finds herself transplanted to London for her senior year of High School. Not only does she have to adjust to new vernacular and cultures (boarding school and roommates, hockey, GCSEs, A levels) but the day she arrives a Jack the Ripper-esque murder is committed, sending the country into chaos. When he strikes again it’s clear a copycat is at work but none of the countless CCTV cameras have captured anything and there are no witnesses or leads. And then Rory begins to see people no one else can…

This was kind of a fun twist on the rampant paranormal genre, using plenty of facts and theories about 1880s London and the Jack the Ripper cases in a modern day school/romance/mystery story with a healthy dose of ghosts, intrigue and conspiracies. It wasn't one I would read again but it kept me entertained and I can see teens loving it.

That about covers it.  Now, any suggestions for what I should read next?

As far as NaNoWriMo goes, well it's pretty much a bust.  I'm still writing but it's pretty safe to say I'm not going to make the 50,000 mark anytime soon, definitely not by tomorrow. Current total: 11127

And that's the last you'll hear about it until it's getting published! (Well, okay, I can't actually promise that, but it will probably be months at least before I mention it again.)

Conclusion: Don't give up even if you don't reach your goals the way you'd hoped. Go read something. And happy late Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Happiness is...a great concert!

This week was one of the longest on record. It felt as least 3 weeks long, was full of work angst and busyness, long nights and early mornings, exhaustion and unaccomplisment. (yep, I just made that word up. Deal.) The weekend wasn't much better, with nary a moment to call my own, which is why you're only now getting a mention of Friday's fun. 

I convinced my roommate to join me for an amazing concert experience at the 9:30 Club. A and I had a delicious kabob meal and Crumbs cupcake excursion on our way to the club and arrived just after the opening act had started. Johnny Corndawg has a good, twangy, old country sound along with a potty mouth and penchant for dirty lyrics. As he finally finished his set the floor was steadily filling up. It's still a rather small venue but standing room only and much more packed than the other concerts I've seen lately. By the time Trampled by Turtles took the stage we were rubbing elbows (and in the case of our enthusiastic but somewhat spastic neighbor, bums) with the people around us and wishing we'd left the jackets in the car.

I'm afraid A wasn't nearly as impressed (with the venue or the performers) but I made her hang on until almost the bitter end (we left before the encores) and I enjoyed every minute of it. Their slow songs have an almost mournful quality to them filled with the haunting sounds you can only get from a mandolin or fiddle. But it's their fast stuff that sends me over the edge. Chest thumping bass, fingers and bows moving so fast they literally become nothing more than a blur sending so many notes into the air at once that your mind starts to spin. In a really good way. It's that indefinable bluegrass/rock sort of fusion that reaches across fanbases and just makes me darn happy.

I found myself cursing my camera though, which I was trying to hold steady above the pulsing crowd while all around me people were jumping up and down and holding their phones aloft getting much clearer pictures than I did. Dangit! So, no photos. But here's a video snippet for you to enjoy.

For any of you in the Utah area, they are headed your way on December 6th at The Depot. Go, I beg you. Go! And you can thank me later.

NaNoWriMo update:  Not a lot of writing is going on I'm afraid. Well, at least not the magnitude that I had hoped at any rate. The goal was 50,000 by the end of the month...I don't think I'll make that. But don't worry, I'm still plugging along!

Current word count: 7213

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happiness is...a weekend full of accomplishment and bits of unexpected pleasure.

It's been a busy couple of days.  Here's just a snippet of what filled my time:

  • A walk around the neighborhood enjoying the gorgeous weather and this view

  • Finishing this book (review to come)
  • A Twilight movie marathon with some super fun friends
  • Discovering that my shoes look perfectly at home among the fallen leaves

  • Completing a 5K with my roommates to help out a local high school
  • Making this sweet potato pie (and a pumpkin ice cream pie which tasted divine but was not beautiful) in honor of Pie Day* on Sunday

  • Listening to this album while getting started on making some Christmas gifts (details and updates of the projects to follow)
  • Breaking out the exercise books and sitting down to the keyboard after a long absence
  • Slowly working on the NaNoWriMo project....current word count 5863
All in all, a highly eventful weekend.  How was yours?

*My musically inclined friend, K, has made a yearly tradition out of Pie Day. Since by the end of Thanksgiving Dinner one's stomach is generally so full of turkey and stuffing and so forth that the requisite pumpkin pie is almost torture to squeeze in, and therefore is hardly enjoyed to its fullest, the pie is now given its own day. Generally falling on the Sunday before Thanksgiving one and all are invited to bring and/or sample the smorgasbord of pies without having previously gorged on a week's worth of food in the space of an hour or so. Last night's celebration was again a success filled with pumpkin, pecan, pear cranberry, mini key lime, chocolate, peanut butter, peach, and peanut butter raspberry with chocolate ganache, just to name a few! Delicious!