Sunday, May 29, 2011

Happiness is...adopted family.

If you're lucky enough to have family all around you, be grateful. I'm currently 2090.99 miles away from mine (thank you MapQuest) and sometimes I miss them so much it hurts. I miss being able to drive down the street to see my aunt or Grandpa at a moment's notice. I miss being included in the big family gatherings, the holiday barbecues, the weddings and baby blessings. I miss family dinners with all their squabbles and tensions and uncontrollable giggles. I miss having afternoons where my mom and/or sister and I hang out and do absolutely nothing together. I miss lunches with my Grandma. I miss laughing and visiting with my cousins, being buoyed up by the love and testimonies of my uncles and learning of service and motherhood from my aunts. I miss the big things and the little things but mostly I just miss the security of knowing that there is always someone there, someone I can call on at a moment's notice for help or advice or a shoulder to cry on or any number of things.

Being adrift on my own in the big, wide world I've had to learn to find substitute family. Friends and ward members have stepped into shoes otherwise filled by blood relatives and for the most part they've done a pretty decent job (though they're never quite the same.) But I've been blessed to have a few people practically adopt me and become as close to family as possible without actually being related.

When I first moved out to the East Coast I had a second cousin who was living out here with her husband and kids. We'd known each other a bit growing up but not well (her dad was in the Air Force and they spent most of their growing up years in Japan.) So, first I had the great opportunity to get to know them better and have the benefit of a family unit to spend time with. And then my cousin's husbands parents (confusing yes? but no relation to me at all) moved out here as well and we spent a lot of time together, having Sunday dinners and game nights and such. When my cousin and her family moved to Chicago I figured I would never see Phil and Meredith again. But I was so mistaken! They have taken me under their wings and accepted me into their family in a big way. They've been there to help me move, to take me to dinner, to share evenings of laughter and entertainment, introduced me to some fabulous movies, sent countless emails and made dozens of phone calls checking in to make sure everything is okay in my solitary little world. I've taken to calling them my aunt and uncle, first as a simplified version of the convoluted story about who they actually are but now as truth. They've helped to fill a void that only a select number of people can fill and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Friends, who in your life do you look to as family? Do you have someone you can count on for the ugly as well as the good? Is there someone who has blessed your life simply by being in it? I'd love to hear about them. Leave me a comment!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Happiness is...a cookie fresh from the oven.

(FYI-Blogger refused to post anything yesterday, hence the two blogs in one day.)

I’m a little addicted to Pinterest right now. For anyone who has no idea what this is, it’s basically an online bulletin board where you can post all your favorite links to things, ideas, recipes, you name it and have it all in one place.  You can follow other people to see what they pin and people can follow you (follow me!) I’ve got a board for home decorating ideas, one for craft ideas, one for beautiful places in the world, thoughts and quotes, and of course, recipes. I needed some thank yous for everyone who helped me move, something to take to a brunch and a birthday party and some treats for my VTing sisters.  So, this weekend I scanned my food board, picked a few that sounded especially tasty and set to baking.     

First up were some lime coconut cookies which I rolled in a bit of lavender sugar. They were cool and refreshing with just a hint of tart to balance the sweet.

Then I experimented with chocolate chip cookies with caramelized bacon. Yes, bacon! They were also pretty darn tasty and even better the next day. The bacon flavor wasn't very strong, more 'essence of bacon' than anything. But after sitting over night the flavor had steeped a bit and permeated the dough and gave it a nice meaty taste. I know meaty isn't what most people look for in a cookie, but trust me, it worked!

Last but not least were the chocolate chip peanut butter pretzel cookies sprinkled with sea salt. These were probably my favorite. It was akin to getting the perfect handful of trail mix, salty and sweet, soft, gooey chocolate and crunchy pretzels. Mmmm!      

What is the strangest cookie you've ever eaten? The best? Care to pass on your secret recipes? 

Would that we all could come home to a warm cookie and a tall, cold glass of milk. The world would be a much happier place!

Happiness is...a hero to cheer for.

Apparently I'm a nerd.  No, not the extremely smart kind (oh how I wish, and no comments from the peanut gallery, please) but the superhero/comic book loving kind. Who knew?

A group of friends (all girls) and I went to see Thor this weekend.  It was predictably enjoyable; explosions and muscles, good vs. evil and a happy ending with the promise of more fun to come. (*HINT* If you go, stick around to the end of the credits.)  After we'd spend ample time drooling over the beauty of the Norse god of Thunder (I myself would love to drown in the man's eyes and never surface!) we spent almost as much time out in the lobby discussing the various other superhero movies to come this summer in anticipation of The Avengers. We easily listed all the members of The Avengers and then compared them to the Justice League.  We debated over who would win in a battle between the two, the lack of female representation (Wonder Woman and her invisible plane just haven't held up to modern standards) and then launched into a lengthy conjecture over who would garner an invitation to the ultimate hero movie. To be fair we branched out from the 'super' hero to just any old hero and included the likes of Legolas and Aragorn, Captain Kirk (aka Chris Pine not William Shatner) and Han Solo. And then in true girl fashion the conversation wound its way to Jane Austen and then North and South. (There was logic behind it, trust me!)

I've always enjoyed a good cheesy adventure movie with a strong good vs. evil plot (good clearly triumphing of course) and there has been a dearth of  superhero/sci-fi/fantasy movies lately that fit the bill. However, I was amazed at the depth of my own knowledge.  I had no idea I knew which heroes were in which group nor did I realize how vehemently I rooted for some over others or just how excited I for the movies to come.  I am a closet nerd who has now officially come out of the closet.  (And as my friend Katie so astutely asked...why aren't any of us dating?! What guy wouldn't love a girl who would not only go to those kind of movies with him but would then have a (reasonably) intelligent conversation about it afterwards? If you're out there and happen to be reading this, I'm available!!!!)   :)

Hello. My name is Amy. And I am a nerd!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Happiness is...getting settled.

So, I've been a bit MIA lately but I have a really good excuse.  I'm in the process of moving.  I'd love to be moving back west to be closer to home and family but it just isn't in the cards right now so I had to settle for a change of scenery but still in the neighborhood.  I lucked out and found a great little room (little being the operative word) with some amazing girls practically around the corner from my former digs. It's even a little cheaper rent which will help cover the cost of my Antarctic sojourn next winter.

The problem is I went from having an entire apartment full of furniture and plenty of space to one room in an older house with very little storage.  I've spent hours trying to de-junk and sort through everything (some of which isn't even mine but leftovers from when my sister was out here living with me.) It's been a long process and is only about half over.

Everything is moved into the new place, my deposit's been returned on the old place. I am officially moved. But I'm no where near settled.  It's going to be a few weeks I think before there's a place for everything and everything's in its place.  But we're working on it.

Here's some evidence:
The old place: before

The old place: after

The new place: before

The new place: after

I now have an actual bed but there are still almost that many boxes. And you should see the front room, I've usurped that too! Maybe when everything is all put away I'll show you the finished product but that may be awhile still.  

In any event, it's great having a chance to have a bit of a fresh start. New beginnings are always full of possibilities and those make me happy too!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Happiness is...a good book.

I've been on a bit of a reading slump lately. Nothing I've read has really jumped out at me or wowed me or made me particularly glad that I'd spent several hours living in its world or made me care about its characters. My Goodreads ratings have been stuck in the land of 3 stars with nary a 4 or 5 in sight. I've tried to vary my reading in case it was just my mood that was stuck; realistic fiction, poetry, fantasy, classics, new releases, blind off-the-shelf picks, titles that have been languishing on my TBR list for months. Nothing seemed to work.  Until I picked up a little book appropriately titled Wither.

I'd heard some blogger buzz about it and my hopes were high. But I was also feeling a bit cynical and sure that it couldn't break my streak. I was wrong. Two more books have followed (completely unrelated to each other) that have renewed my faith in reading. (OK, it wasn't really lost, just a bit disgruntled.) These books are filled with everything a book should be; unforgettable characters and picture-perfect settings, heartbreak and humor, imaginative magic and cold-hard reality. They make me want to karate chop a hole in the brick wall of my writer's block and craft a story so incredible it will change your life, while at the same time burying me in the insecure realization that I will never be able to write a book like that, so why bother. It remains to be seen as to which side will win that argument.

But even if I don't write the next great American novel, I can at least write a paltry but gushing review of the books and hopefully encourage you to read them for yourself. So, my friends, get reading!

Book #1

Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 358
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2011
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopia
Cover Score: *****
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG-13

In the distant future, an unknown disease begins killing off the new generation of boys at age 25, girls at age 20. There are major debates about whether research for a cure should continue or if society should just accept the inevitability of everything.  Children, young girls in particular, are kidnapped and sold for reproductive and/or research purposes. Rhine is one such girl.

Taken from her home in Manhattan where she lives with her twin brother, Rowan, she finds herself drugged in a van fulled with other girls headed to Florida. There she and two others are chosen as sister wives for Linden, son of an eccentric but wealthy doctor who is obsessed with finding a cure. Throughout the ensuing months she builds a cautious friendship with Jenna and Cecily, a serving boy named Gabriel and even her naive but kind husband (who has no idea just how cruel and dangerous his father is.)  Despite the life of comfort and privilege and her tenuous relationships Rhine vows to escape, to find her brother and regain her freedom.

There are some obvious gaps in the reality of the plot, but if you can overlook the unlikelihood of an age-related virus the rest of the story is quietly gripping. There are a lot of moral issues at play and various instances of what could/would/should the characters do that add to the depth and drama of Rhine's dilemma. Her thoughts and emotions carry the brunt of the story with her anguish and frustration at being kidnapped just as apparent as the grief and fear she feels when choosing to leave her fellow captives. The relationships are realistically portrayed and the world is well-crafted. There is non-stop action from page one, though it's of a more subtle nature, and I found myself sucked in and reading as quickly as I could to find out what would happen next. It reminded me a bit of Matched by Ally Condie in style and tone and even The Giver in places with the battles thus far being fought more in the mind than with actual weapons. It's the first in a trilogy however, so we'll see if that changes as the series progresses. I highly recommend it.  (And check out that cover. Seriously. How gorgeous is that?! The design is incredible throughout the book. Kudos!)

As for the rating, there is some discussion of violence and intense/mature themes but they aren't described in great detail and most happen off-stage.

Book #2

Okay for Now
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Pages: 360
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2011
Genre: Historical fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Grade: *****
Rating: PG-13

Gary Schmidt just may be one of my favorite authors of all time.  I've only read 3 of his books so far but they've all been so consistently wonderful that I'm not sure why I haven't heard more about him or read everything his written. (I do have the Newbery committee to thank for bringing him to my attention. As part of my job in the library I am supposed to "familiarize myself with the collection", ie read it. One of my goals a few years ago was to read all of the Newbery winners and honor books and Mr. Schmidt has two on the list.  I cannot recommend Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars highly enough. Read them.  You'll thank me.) 

Okay for Now is a companion of sorts to The Wednesday Wars (though you don't need to read one to understand the other) taking place in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Doug Swieteck and his family (abusive father, bully/troublemaker older brother and slightly helpless but patient and well-meaning mother) have just moved to small town Marysville in Upstate New York.  His brother quickly muscles into the gang of local hooligans and makes a name for himself causing all the teachers and townspeople to assume that Doug is cut from the same cloth.  Doug is resentful but isn't sure what to do about it without proving them all right. In steps Lil, a girl his age who for some reason decides to take a chance on him.  That little bit of approval goes a long way to helping Doug find out who he really is.

Lil convinces her father to give Doug a job delivering groceries on Saturdays and he has a chance to interact with and help many of the townspeople he meets.  The two also spend a considerable amount of time at the local library, Lil reading and Doug ogling the John James Audubon book Birds of America, in the display case upstairs.  Mr. Powell, an astute librarian discusses the book, the birds and the artwork with Doug and slowly encourages him to try his hand at drawing the birds. This opens up floodgate of feelings Doug has never experienced before (awe, pride, passion) and when he learns the birds are being sold off a page at a time to meet the town's budget expenses, he finds himself on a quest to see them all restored to the book again. 

Doug's life is never easy. When he finds a way to escape his father's fists and insults his brother is there to take up the slack. After a series of misadventures he finds himself the butt of jokes and prejudices and the center of  fights at school from both teachers and students. But the few people who consistently believe in him are enough to keep him going and show, powerfully, that one person really can make a difference.  And sometimes that person is Doug himself. As we watch him get stronger and more confident he's able to pass a bit of that confidence on to his mother and eventually even his brother and dad.Schmidt doesn't shy away from the tough subjects and isn't afraid to hurt his characters (and make you feel their pain) but there is always an undercurrent of hope and optimism to carry you along through the rough spots.There is no magical happy ending where everything turns out right, but there is the promise of better days and that's all any of us can hope for.

Schmidt has such a beautiful way with words, though the words themselves are not beautiful they flow so easily and effortlessly that the overall effect is nothing short of perfect. I dare you to read this, or any of his books, without falling in love with them.

Book #3

If I Stay
Author: Gayle Forman
Pages: 196
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2009
Genre: Realistic fiction/sci-fi
Cover Score: ***
Overall Grade: *****
Rating: PG-13

I can probably blame some of this on PMS, but I cried throughout this entire book. This is another one where there are no words out of place. Everything is perfectly paced and spaced. The characters are realistic and likable and you are instantly drawn into their world as if you'd known them forever. It's also full of brutal situations that are neither heavy-handed nor maudlin. The touching parts aren't overly saccharine or sappy. But I warn you, you'll still probably need a tissue!

Mia and her family are enjoying a rare Oregon snow day when they decide to take a quick road trip. Mom, Dad, little brother Teddy and Mia all pile into the car only to get side-swiped 45 minutes later.  Mia finds herself standing on the side of the road in a ditch, detached from her body and stuck in some spirit world limbo. She sees the remains of her parents and hears the ambulance come for her and Teddy.  The next 24 hours we follow Mia's spirit to the hospital in Portland where she realizes she has to choose whether or not to 'stay.'

Mia relives moments from her life as people parade through the hospital.  She undergoes surgery and remains in her comatose state while she watches her grandparents, best friend and boyfriend arrive.  Each reacts differently but they all plead for her to stay while at the same time giving her permission to leave. We watch her relationships throughout her life and come to understand just how much influence one person can have on another.  Her parents, former rockers/hippies, are uber supportive even when she decides to shun her upbringing and play the cello. Her little brother idolizes her and brings out a playful side in her that no one else ever sees. Her boyfriend, though the exact opposite of her quiet and unassuming self, is just as dedicated to music as she is and loves her unconditionally despite their arguments and difficulties. She's a typical teenager with insecurities and doubts, trying to decide if love is more important than Julliard. And suddenly her decisions are much more important, literally life and death.

It sounds like a cheesy after-school special, I know. But it is so well done you don't realize it until it's over. And even then you can't find anything really cheesy about it after all.

So, do yourself a favor and track down at least one of these books to read. I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Do you agree with my assessments?  Do you think I have no idea what I'm talking about? It's possible! I find that with books it's often the same as art. You like what you like and you often can't prove the merit of a work just that it moves you in some way.  I've been moved and I hope you will be too.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Happiness is...a moment of peace.

I can't believe that April is already over. There are so many things I didn't get done and things I didn't blog about.  Easter came and went with barely a notice and I failed to mention National Poetry Month. But today I finally had a little bit of time to myself and was able to re-group a bit and relax and I wanted to do a re-cap of some of the goings on and things that have helped me find some happiness among the chaos this month.
  • Allergy meds.  I'm serious. I never had allergies until I moved to Virginia.  And even then I didn't have them for the first 2 years.  But once they hit they decided to make up for all those years I spent allergy-free and they knock me out every Spring. Itchy, watery, red crusty eyes. Seven million sneezes an hour. Headaches and runny noses. If it weren't for the miracle of modern drugs I wouldn't be able to surface until June.
  • Gratitude for somehow being on the periphery of all the extreme weather lately.  We had severe storm warnings all winter but never got a snowstorm (we more than paid our dues last year) and we've missed the worst of the flooding and rains and tornadoes this Spring. We've had some wacky temperatures but so far that's it. 
  • Spring flowers. We have had quite a bit of rain this Spring and that has made for some absolutely incredible floral fantasies in each and every yard. I spent part of the afternoon today wandering through the National Arboretum ogling all the azaleas. The hillsides are literally covered in mounds of flamboyant blooms in coral, fuchsia, violet, white, red and more.  Take a gander. 

An azalea flower close-up

NOT an azalea but isn't it lovely?  And the red background flowers are all azaleas

  • The royal wedding.  I realize it doesn't have anything to do with us here in America and won't even really politically affect Great Britain for years if at all, but there's something charming about all the pomp and circumstance and romance of a fairy tale come to life.  I gathered with a bunch of friends Friday night to re-live (at a more reasonable hour) the event.  We were dressed in our finest with hats and the whole shebang and for those few short hours I envied the stodgy, romantically-challenged Brits all their traditions and proper protocols. We could do with just a bit more formal celebrations in our neck of the woods.  (And who wouldn't kill for that exquisite dress, eh?)
  • Packing boxes. I'm in the process of moving apartments and I've had several people donate boxes to the cause.  It's made the crazy stress of it all just a tiny bit easier to handle with one less thing to have to worry about. Now all I have to do is fill them, transport them, unpack them, organize all their contents... *sigh*
  • Easter. I love Easter and Spring and the correlation between the re-birth of our world after the harsh winter and the gift of the resurrection.  There are no words to describe my gratitude for the Atonement and sacrifice and suffering that Jesus endured for each of us so that we can repent and find peace and return to live with Him and our Heavenly Father after our time on this earth is finished. Here are some fantastic messages and testimonies of Christ and His mission from His modern-day apostles. 
  • Easter candy!  Easter has the best candy of any holiday, hands-down.  My absolute favorite of all is (are?) Peeps!. I think as I've gotten older my taste for them has waned a bit (though the chocolate mousse flavored ones are pretty yummy) but I will forever love the idea of them (and will still eat them, don't get me wrong, just not as many as I used to!)  They're cute and cuddly-looking, soft and squishy in a rainbow of sugar-shimmery pastel colors that can't help but scream a silent squeal of springtime. The Washington Post also hosts a Peeps diorama contest every year that turns out some pretty hysterical results like this scene from The King's Speech and this rendition of The Muppet Show. What do you think?
  • Buying tickets for Summer excursions.  I don't get to take a vacation until late August this year.  I worked Easter weekend and I'm scheduled to work Memorial Day weekend and the 4th of July weekend too so I don't even get a day off or 3-day weekend until September.  So I decided I needed to book me some mini stay-cation type activities between now and then.  Here's what's on the docket so far.  First up is Wicked at the Kennedy Center.  And later on is a performance of Sweeney Todd under the stars at Wolf Trap. And of course, this epic midnight (is there any other way?!) experience coming to a theater near you! 
     It's not much and they all happen in July so I need to get some June activities in the works but it's a good start at least.  Anyone have any other suggestions of things to keep me busy this summer?

And last but not least, a poem to finish out the month dedicated to poetry. This is one of my favorites and very appropriate for spring.
I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Here's to you all and the promises of happiness possibilities in the coming month. Hope it's as full and rich as the last one has been.