Sunday, November 23, 2014

We Day - Celebrating Empowerment

Sophia and I (along with Sophia's friend, Amelia) went to We Day earlier this month. It was an inspiring, thought-provoking event just as it had been the prior year. 

The focus this year was on empowerment; and the speakers and projects that We Day/Free the Children were promoting all revolved around that topic.

We arrived early and were seated in the third row from the floor.
Music played while the 18,000 youth and adults 
made their way to their seats.

One of the first speakers was Marilyn Carlson from The Carlson Companies and an author. she talked about the power of one person to make a difference. She shared that Ghandi was only one person who lived a very simple, yet made a tremendous difference throughout the world. He had only five possessions: a staff, glasses, two yards of fabric, sandals, and a pocket watch.

She said that each person should remind her/himself that s/he is on a journey and can make a difference. The ability to impact others' lives is her definition of "powerful."

The Carlson credo is:

Whatever you do, do with integrity.
Wherever you go, go as a leader.
Whomever you serve, serve with caring.
Whenever you dream, dream with your all.
And never, ever give up.

Sophia and Amelia listening to music and 
watching as everyone finds their seats.

Another speaker was Magic Johnson. After sharing an inspirational message, he told everyone that he was donating $1 million to build schools in Africa.

Magic Johnson sharing that he is donating $1 million
to build schools in Africa.

Just thinking about how many schools and lives will be positively impacted by his generosity was inspiring!

There was a speaker named Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when the genocide began in Rwanda.

She and her sister Claire fled across the border to Burundi. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, "They found themselves among a sea of refugees—with no immediate access to shelter, food, or other supplies. While international aid soon improved conditions, they constantly struggled to survive. Because of rumors of continued troubles inside Rwanda, they wandered from refugee camp to refugee camp for six years.

"In 2000, Wamariya and her sister gained asylum in the United States, and they settled in Chicago. A year later, Wamariya learned that her parents had survived the genocide. In 2006, Wamariya won Oprah Winfrey's National High School Essay Contest that asked, "Why is Elie Wiesel's book Night relevant today?" The Oprah Winfrey Show surprised Wamariya and her sister Claire by reuniting them with their family on the show. Wamariya has become an eloquent advocate against genocide today."

There's another more detailed story about Wamariya's life that includes the story she shared at We Day. She spoke about a turning point in her life that was when a relief worker gave her ice water and banana, and how she no longer felt invisible.

"One year of empowerment can make a lifetime of change."

One of the speakers was Spencer West. He does not have legs, yet has done some very remarkable things during his lifetime. He spoke about the power of technology and how it can make a tremendous an positive difference. He shared examples about how technology has enabled him to do things that he didn't think were possible - like driving a car.

Spencer introduced Colonel Eileen Collins who was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle. She said that when you volunteer, not only do you help your community, but you become stronger and more confident. You become a leader.

Colonel Eileen Collins talking about volunteering and leadership.

One of the We Day/Free the Children staff talked about how seven in every ten children or teens are bullied. That figure was staggering. Even more sobering was when they asked people to stand up if they or someone they knew had been bullied. Almost every person in the audience stood up.

KDWB shared a bit about their Christmas Wish program that has been happening for 15 years. Dave Ryan said that it is "ordinary people helping others out." He talked about social empowerment, and encouraged people to nominate someone who needs help.

The next speakers was the grandson of Nelson Mandala. His name is Kweku Mandela, and he said that the best way to live up to his grandfather's legacy is to give a voice to others. He talked about how many people in Africa are still struggling for the basics - including education. With education, comes empowerment.

Kweku Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, 
speaking about how education is the route to empowerment.

He shared a quote from his grandfather: "Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom. Of course the task will not be easy. But not to do this would be a crime against humanity, against which I ask all humanity now to rise up."

The Chairman, President, and CEO of Allstate spoke at We Day. Something that stood out that he said was the "The willingness to get involved is the strongest power we have."

A representative from the Bush Foundation and Springboard for the Arts said that " believe you can make things happen...and that makes you all artists." She said that the "...arts give us the tools to communicate."

Ashley Murphy was a young speaker who is HIV+. She was born HIV+, and knows all too well how access to health care can change lives. "We all face challenges...our weaknesses can turn into strengths...and you can overcome them to help others." She encouraged the youth (and adults) to "own your differences and be you."

Another interesting speaker was J.R. Martinez who was injured in Iraq when he was 19 years old. He spent three months in a hospital recovering from his injuries. He said, "I wear my scars proudly and those who love me will accept me as I am."

He continued, "Life with throw adversity at you. Stand up. Surround yourself by positive people and they'll help you realize that you're not a victim."

One of the speakers asked the attendees: "What do you care about? Is it an issue that was presented at We Day or is it one that you feel motivated to address and change?" Each person has "a gift to make this world a better place" whether it's through writing, baking, or being a good listener. The list could go on.

A surprise came in the early afternoon when Colbie Caillat singing "Try." It is such a beautiful song with an important message. After she sang the song she spoke briefly to attendees telling them, "Don't change yourself for anybody!" A very good reminder.

Colbie Caillat singing "Try" at We Day.

We Day/Free the Children focused heavily on empowering women in Kenya by raising $50 which would buy a woman a goat. This, in turn, would not only provide food for her family, but give her the ability to expand her herd, trade livestock for poultry with other farmers, and give her income as she sells some products (e.g., goat milk, eggs) to others in her community. 

A local woman who is from South Africa spoke about looking at challenges as stepping stones. "You can achieve anything you set your mind to," she said.

Martin Sheen gave a powerful presentation about how he viewed his life and activism. He said acting is what he does for a living, and activism is what he does to stay alive. What was interesting - and gave us pause for thought - was a statement he made about how food and shelter separate us, but the need for justice, healing, and mercy unite us.

He said that he learned early on that you serve yourself best when you serve others first.

Sheen continued, "Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all responsible for each other and the world, which is exactly the way it is, because consciously or unconsciously, we have made it so. And while none of us made any of the rules that govern the universe or the human heart, we are all beneficiaries of a divine promise, that the world is still a safe place despite our fears and we in it, are not asked to do great things; we are asked to do all things with great love."

Later in his talk he said, "The Irish tell the story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and he asks to be let in and St. Peter says, 'Of course. Show us your scars.' The man said, 'I have no scars.' St. Peter says, 'What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?'"

Sheen concluded, "However we perceive the purpose of our journey or the route we pursue, at the final twilight, when we must confront the reality of that undiscovered realm from which no traveler returns, the only things we can take with us, are the things which we cherished and gave away with love, including our precious time and talent."

The power of We Day is in the activities leading up to our ability to attend (we volunteer many ways both at the local and global level); having the privilege of listening to powerful and inspiring leaders because of volunteerism and how integrated it is in our lives; and taking the messages back home and turning them into actions that will make a difference.

The X in Sex - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 48

Last week I read a book for the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge that I didn't enjoy. Perhaps it's titles that begin with "X" in them because the same was true for this week's book: The X in Sex - How the X Chromosome Controls Our Lives by David Bainbridge.

If someone is very interested in human biology and gender, this would be a great book for her/him. However, within a few pages I could tell this book was not one that I would find fascinating.

To the author's credit, he went into great detail about the X chromosome. This would be perfect for someone who enjoys research and an excessive amount of detail.

Like last week's book, I found my mind wandering as I flipped through the pages. I skimmed the first part of the book by page, the middle of the book by chapter, and then simply closed the book after that. The X in Sex was not a valuable use of my time. Other things were needing my attention that I felt were a better use of the limited time I have on earth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fra Angelico - Artist/Picture Study

The first artist that we focused on for the 2014-15 homeschool year was Fra Angelico (1395-1455) who was part of the Italian Renaissance period. The girls looked at six paintings by this artist for a period of time; and shared what they remembered about them when they no longer were looking at the paintings.

The Last Judgment

This painting (circa 1431) represents the Last Judgment, executed by Jesus. On the right side, are those condemned to Hell and on the left side it represents the saved ones and the saints. In the center, the opened tombs symbolize the resurrection of the dead.

Sophia Remembered:
=> The picture is split into three different aspects. The top part is the top half. In that part, the background is all white and it looks like it is in water.
=> In the center of that half of the picture there is a big, round oval-like area and the inside has lots of people surrounding it, and surrounding that there is an egg-shape center part which has Jesus sitting in the center almost looking like he's hovering.
=> Still in the white area there is a left and right wing with two rows on each side with people - like saints and kings and angels, and they have sort of a halo around them.
=> On the lower part of the inner egg-shaped part there are two angels that are leaning down holding trumpets.
=> Jesus has a sort of golden glow around him. You can't see his face that well, but he's not smiling or  grimacing - he's sort of neutral.
=> On the bottom half, on the left-hand side there people who are dancing and wearing bright clothes. They look like they are praying to Jesus.
=> In the background you can see a bit of what might be a castle, but you can't see too much of it.
=> On the right hand side the people are cowering away from Jesus and have weapons - guns and knives - and are pointing it at the upper section. The area around them is brown, dead, and generally unappealing.
=> Behind them and to the right there are circles in the ground with people inside of them - sort of like tombs. There are also dead people on the ground. Generally everything is dark and gloomy on that side.
=> But on the other side, everything is green, flowers are blooming, and everything is bright and happy.
=> In the center, in between the left and right bottom part of the picture, leading up to the white section, is a white walkway and cut into the walkway are many square-shaped holes that run up and down the walkway.
=> At the very front of the picture on the walkway is a box that appears to be a coffin with its lid slightly cracked.

Olivia Remembered:
=> At the top there are these wings. On the two wings there are people on both sides, and in the center there is a person.
=> To the right of the picture, there looks like a battle going on.
=> To the left, there are happy people who are dancing. They look like they are celebrating something.
=> The main colors of the picture are red, blue, and white.
=> To the left, there looks like there is a castle.
=> To the far right, there looks like people who are dead.
=> In the middle of the picture, there is a stone walkway and on it is a box that is open.
=> There are lots of people in the picture.
=> The mood is both happy and sad.


Transfiguration of Christ, 1437-1446 Museo di San Marco, Florence

Sophia Remembered:
=> The picture is shaped like an egg with a flat side (the flat side is the bottom).
=> There is an outcropping of rocks and they're white and jagged.
=> The background is all golden and warm and glowy.
=> On the rock is an egg-shaped glow that is taller than a man. In front of that is a man wearing a white robe with arms out-stretched. He has a beard and shoulder-length hair that is a tannish-brown color.
=> There are seven people below him on the rock.  Three of the six men are in front of Jesus, and are cowering down on the ground away from his bright light.
=> Then there are two other men with beards and they are back to the side of the picture. You can only see their heads so they look like headless things floating besides Jesus.
=> Between the men who are cowering and the men who are body-less, there are two more people. On the right there is a man and he appears to be a Friar because the top of his head is bald, but he has a ring of hair around his head. He has his hands clasped in prayer.
=> On the other side of the picture is a woman with a shawl over her head and she's looking at Jesus Christ solemnly.
=> Jesus is looking down on the men who are cowering with a look like he's giving them a test - like, can you withstand my brightness or glory?
=> The colors that she used in the picture are sort of pastel and around Jesus' head there is a halo except there is a red streak going up and to the sides.

Olivia Remembered:
=> There are people in it: Jesus and Mary (I think). One is a saint, I think. I don't know the other people.
=> Jesus is standing on a big, flat, grayish-yellowish-whiteish rock.
=> There is a big sun - but it looks like a big yellowish-whiteish egg.
=> The colors in the picture: brown, dark brown that looks like red, brown, white, gray, yellow, gold, and dark gold.
=> Two people are kneeling on the ground and wearing the brownish-reddish robes.
=> The people have these weird gold thingies on their head. Not halos. People don't wear them these days.
=> The background is a yellowish-goldish color with a gray trim around it.
=> Jesus is wearing a white robe and has a brown beard and hair. He has long hair - a little past his shoulders, but not much.


The Madonna with Saints, 1438-1443 San Marco Museum, Florence

Sophia Remembered:
=> The backgorund of the picture is a sky which appears to be dark blue. Below the dark blue sky is what appears to be a setting sun because it's a pale pink. But you can't see the sun because there are evergreens in front of where the sun.
=> On either side of the picture, there appears to be drapes that protrude a little bit into the picture.
=> Attached to the drapes are two garlands of what looks like apples that are strung up behind the throne.
=> A little bit in front of and on the ground is a platform that has a chair built into it...a throne, really.
=> You have to step down from the throne to get to the platform; and if you step down one more step there's a picture that's leaning against the top step. In the picture, Jesus is hanging from the cross with two people on either side.
=> On the left hand side of the throne, there are people who are more brightly dressed. On the right hand side, they aren't dressed as brightly. They appear to be priests and holy men.
=> At the moment, there are two people in front of the throne. One man has what appears to be cloth in front of his hands like a gift. The other man has his back to us, but he is appearing to be holding a cap in his hands as he faces the throne. Those two are the most brightly-dressed people.
=> Sitting on the throne is a woman and a baby. The woman who appears to be Mary is holding who appears to be baby Jesus.
=> The colors in the picture are subdued. They still are bright, but not as bright in real life.
=> No one is really smiling in this picture. They seem to be paying homage to the Lord's son because they have gifts in their hands.

Olivia Remembered:
=> In the picture there is a big group people wearing robes
=> In the background there is a bunch of pine trees and the setting sun in the night sky
=> There is a wall in front of the pine trees that looks very nicely done with black decorations and black stones.
=> On the stone wall, there are two torches that are spitting out fire.
=> There's a big chair wall thing that is hollow on the inside - it's a stone chair.
=> There are two people sitting on the chair - a mother and a baby. The baby does not have any clothes on. The mother has a red dress on with a blue cape or cloak.
=> The ground appears to be covered in a carpet or rug with scenes on it - like pictures.
=> On the right side there are a bunch of people with brightly-colored outfits, like red and blue. On the other side, there are two people wearing brightly-colored clothes and the other half are wearing black robes with white.
=> There are two people who are kind of in front of the throne. One of them is facing the front of the picture and is holding a silk piece of cloth and the other person is facing it (so you can see the person's back) and appears to be holding a box.
=> The people are the halo things. One of the people in the picture that is looking sideways is wearing black and what appears to be a bubble on his head.
=> In front of it, there is a picture on the ground with Jesus on the cross.


The Deposition from the Cross, 1443

This painting portrays Christ supported by several people, with Mary Magdalene keeping his feet, as a symbol of human repention. (Repention is to change mind or attitude against God.) A figure on the right, with a red hat, is showing the cross' nails and the horns crown, symbols of passion and sacrifice. Mary, wearing a dark dress, is showed in the traditional gesture of keeping hands joined.

Sophia Remembered:
=> In the picture, it looks almost like you could close it in on itself  and wear it - like a locket.
=> There are bunch of people and they are drawn around a man who is being taken down from a cross, and some of the people are praying and some of them have halos around their heads.
=> There is a priest whose is kind of standing over Jesus. He has a black hat.
=> In the background there are trees of a dull olive green color.
=> At the front of the picture on the side where you would close the locket there are two golden pillars.
=> The background has the countryside and at the top it has been cut out to look like the three tines of a crown.
=> All of the picture has a little bit of gold in it. The back part, the columns, the edges.
=> The picture doesn't have a lot of very bright colors, but there is some red.
=> The picture has sort of a matte's not glossy or shiny. However, the gold in the picture does have some gloss.
=> The women are wearing dresses with head coverings and are a variety of colors.

Olivia Remembered:
=> The picture sort of resembles the death of Jesus and the rebirth of him.
=> At the bottom or the main section of the picture, you can see a bunch of people. Four of them are putting Jesus on the cross.
=> The three triangles at the top of the picture kind of reminds me of top of a throne.
=> The colors in the picture are red, blue, brown, gold, black, and a darkish-brownish-greenish color for the trees.
=> In the sky there are six angels. They seem to be talking with the angel in the middle of them.
=> The ground appears to made from black stones or flowers or coals. I'm thinking it's coals, though.
=> To the left, there is a city or town.
=> To the right, there is a big mountain or hill.
=> The people were wearing robes which were blue and red and maybe white and black.
=> Jesus was wearing a white thing around his waist - whatever that is - and that is about it. His hair is brown and you can't really see his face because he's dead.
=> To the right there were white clouds and to the left towards the city there were gray clouds - like smoke.



I found Fra Angelico's The Annunciation and Life of the Virgin. It was painted in 1426 and is tempera on wood. It is at the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

As Sophia began describing the picture to me, I realized she was looking at a different picture. She showed it to me, and sure enough...the painting was a different one. The one that Sophia and Olivia was looking at was Fra Angelico's The Annunciation that was done between 1438-47 as a fresco at the Convent of San Marco in Florence.

So, we stuck with the fresco that the girls had been looking at, and they shared what they remembered about it.

Sophia Remembered:
=> In the picture there are two females. One of them is sitting on a brown stool and she is bent slightly forward. She has a delicate face with a slight tinge of pink to her cheeks. The lady has blondish-orangeish hair with a red band around the top of her head. Her hair is short and doesn't fall past her shoulders. She has a golden halo around her head and is wearing a white dress with a red neckline, and blue shawl/blanket around her shoulders and on part of her lap. The blanket is a dark blue and the underside is golden. Her arms are crossed in front of her - almost like she's holding a baby, but she's not.
=> She's facing another lady who has blonde hair with a bit of gold in it and a halo. Her hair is slightly more curly around the edges, and she's wearing a pink dress with sleeves almost down to her wrist and gold embroidery at the neck of her dress and across the chest. The dress is about the shade of a pink rose, and the waist is like a Greek tunic style. The dress falls all the way to the floor. There's also gold embroidery at the floor - a few inches above the hem.
=> She also has a pair of wings...not angel wings... more like falcon/fast-flying wings. The wings are thin but sharp looking.
=> There are lots of different colors and patterns on her wings. There is red, gold, dark blue, blue...a wide variety.
=> The colors go from red and gold and yellow to darker colors at the end.
=> She has one foot forward and is slightly leaning on it, almost in a bow.
=> They are in a room that opens out onto a lawn and the entire room has archways that lead out. So, it is almost like being in a courtyard, but with a roof.
=> At the far end of the room, there is a door cut into the stone. Through the door you can see a a really tiny square window.
=> The outer walls are white but with a distinctive pinkish hue. The inside and part of the roof are more of a golden hue.
=> The walls, roofs, and column seem to be made out of something made from marble or granite. It's not new because there are cracks in it.
=> You can only see a little bit outside, but the part you can see there's a green lawn, a tall wooden fence, and beyond the fence are lots of tall, green trees.
=> There is plenty of light in the picture. It's not dull and dreary.
=> The pillars aren't very tall...probably a person's height and then it goes into the door.
=> At the top of the columns where they connect with the arch, there's a black line running around the inside of the columns. It's low enough that if one of the ladies stood up, they could touch it with the top of their heads. It's very weird.
=> The grass is a dark green. But it doesn't look like grass. It looks like carpet, partially because it looks like it is flat and has a pattern in it.

Olivia Remembered:
=> In the picture, there is a building with lots of arches and columns. It kind of looks like the Coliseum.
=> There are two people in the building. One of them is sitting on a stool and her arms are kind of folded.
=> She is wearing a white dress with a dark navy blue cloak.
=> She has a halo, so she is probably an angel, but she doesn't have wings.
=> The other woman has a pinkish-reddish dress with gold designs on it. She has a pair of wings that look like the wings of a falcon.  They are pointy at the end and are sharp looking at the top.
=> The colors in the wings are a very dark blue, with a sky blue (maybe slightly darker). There is kind of an orange and yellow in the picture.
=> Outside of the building there is a fence.
=> The ground looks like it is made out of flowers.
=> The building looks like it is made out of marble with cracks in it.
=> The picture was set during nighttime so there is a candle on the ground by the door.
=> Through the door you can see a little square window.
=> There are lots of shadows - especially around the ceiling.
=> The columns are fancy at the top (not like the Greek columns that you see in temples - like the Temple of Athena...the Parthenon).
=> Behind the fence you can see trees that don't look like trees and big, tall shrubs.


Adoration of the Magi, 1445

Sophia Remembered:
=> In the round picture, there is a bunch of people who are coming from both sides of the picture. They are all coming down to see one person.
=> The person that they are coming to see is a naked baby who has blonde hair and is sitting in Mary's lap.
=> Mary has strawberry-blonde hair, but it looks like she has a boy-cut, and she has a halo around her head.
=> Mary is wearing a pink dress with a little bit of white around the collar.
=> She has purplish-blue robe over her dress with gold at the edge.
=> Next to her is Joseph. He has a brownish beard and a blue cloth over his head.  It is covering his hair.
=> He has a shirt that is the same color as his head piece, and orange fabric around his shoulders and waist.
=> He has his left hand holding onto his orange wrap and his right hand up in a stop sign, but his fingers are curved in a bit.
=> His head is slightly turned down and he appears to be looking at the ground.
=> Behind him is a long line of people who are coming down from higher ground to see his son.
=> In front of Jesus there are people who are kneeling who are looking at him with awe and adoration.
=> There are many types of people who are coming to see him. Some have fancy dresses and jewelry. Others have merchants clothes, and others have clothes that have holes and patches in them.
=> There was a lot of orange and red in this picture. It's very distracting to the eyes.
=> Behind Mary and Jesus there is a barn. Because the barn is set on part of a hill, it is higher than where Mary and Jesus are sitting.
=> The barn has crumbling stone walls and a thatched roof. Because it is three-sided, it doesn't look very warm.
=> The front of the barn is slightly slanted because it is set on the hill.
=> Inside the barn there is a donkey that is eating out of a trough. Next to the donkey is a brownish-reddish cow that is laying down.
=> Further inside the barn are horses that appear to be being saddled by their riders.
=> To the right of the barn are the ruins of a big white structure. On the ruins are people who are wearing nothing but white cloths that are looking down upon the people who are coming to see Jesus.
=> Connected to the ruins of the white house is an archway that is above some of the people traveling to see Jesus.
=> On the side of the roof of the barn there is a peacock. It seems large next to the barn, but it is very pretty.
=> There is another bird that is flying down, but it is not a peacock. I think it is a pheasant or a quail.
=> On the left hand side of the picture, there appears to be a little patch of dark trees and shrubs. It seems dark and ominous compared to the rest of the picture.
=> Behind the white structure and barn, there is a couple of big rocks that are laying on the hill.
=> The atmosphere of the photo is cheerful and bright. But at the same time, not a lot of people are smiling.
=> Some of the people who are coming to see Jesus are riding horses.

Olivia Remembered:
=> There is a big giant mountain-like hill. Below it there is a barn, and behind the barn are buildings.
=> There are thousands of people in the picture coming from the top of the hill and beside it.
=> In the barn there is a donkey that is eating from a manger. Beside the manger, there is a cow that looks like a flaming cow because it is a reddish orange color.
=> Behind the donkey there are horses which have or are getting their saddles on; and there are horseshoes.
=> The colors in the picture are green, blue, red, brown, white, and a light tan - like the color of a person's skin.
=> Mary is holding a baby which is naked.
=> Besides Mary is Joseph who has a halo around his head. His is gold. Mary and Jesus have halos too. Jesus' halo is gold and's not like a normal halo which is gold.
=> There are people surrounding Mary, Joseph, and Mary. They have very nice clothes and are giving gifts.
=> On the side of the people who are giving gifts is a dog. The dog is a dark brown and is staring at nothing.
=> On top of the barn there is a peacock. It doesn't look like a peacock, though, because it isn't a bright blue.
=> Also, there is another bird that I'm 100 percent sure is a pheasant.
=> To the left of the barn there are the ruins of a big, white building.
=> On these two big stone marble blocks there are five people who don't have normal clothes. They just have white cloths around their waists.
=> The ground appears to be black stones with little stones too.
=> There are a couple of trees in the picture, but not many.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Xanadu Adventure - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 47

Going through the alphabet this year as a way to do the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge has yielded some interesting books. This week, The Xanadu Adventure by Lloyd Alexander, was not one of them.

There are very few books that begin with the letter "X" (minus the words "a," "an," and "the"). Needless to say, I picked what I thought was a book that looked somewhat interesting. I was wrong. This was surprising because Lloyd Alexander is a Newbery Medal winner, so I expected a more engaging story. 

Basically, the main character (Vesper Holly) and her friends are excited to be sailing off to the newly-discovered archaeological site of Troy. Before they reach Troy, she and her friends are tricked and imprisoned in a palace called Xanadu.

Xanadu's master is Dr. Helvitius - Vesper's arch-enemy. His goal is to dominate the world, and the first step to doing that is destroying Vesper. She has thwarted him often, and each time he ramps up his efforts to get rid of her. 

Perhaps part of the challenge in reaching this book is that these characters have been introduced in other books, so this one builds upon other experiences that they have had. Reading The Xanadu Adventure was liking walking into an event where everyone knew what was going on - except for one person. In this case, the reader who had not read any books with Vesper Holly in them.

I ended up skimming most of the book and then giving up towards the end. I just could not identify or be interested in the characters or plot line. It was better to end the book prematurely than dragging out something that was miserable to read. There were other things that were deserving of my time.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Water for Elephants - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 46

During the past week I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen for the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge. Water for Elephants was another book that I had on my list that was one Oprah's Book Club books.

As with the other book, I was not disappointed with this one. Once I read the prologue, I was hooked. There was no way that I could not finish reading this book.

The story revolves around Jacob Jankowski, a 93 year old man who is residing in an assisted living facility, who once worked on circuses for almost seven years. He never discussed his life in the circus for 70 years until a circus came to town to set up across the street from the facility. One of  the residents claimed he had worked in the circus and brought water to the elephants. This set Jacob off because he knew it wasn't true, and it began the unfolding of a story that took place during his youth.

Jacob, an Ivy League dropout who had been studying to become a veterinarian, was orphaned and penniless when he jumped a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, he transformed his future. By morning, he was working as a veterinarian with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By evening, he fell in love with one of the performers who was married to one of the show's animal trainer who was a paranoid schizophrenic.

The story takes place during the uncertainty and chaotic time of the Depression and Prohibition. It's a time when the circus is a refuge of sequins and a dream world for children and adults alike. Behind the glamour and excitement, though, lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable.

Conceptually I have an understanding about Prohibition. However, I did not realize that there was a risk when drinking homemade alcohol. One of the workers named Camel was having trouble standing and walking. Eventually, he realized he was becoming paralyzed. One of the other workers, Walter, explained to Jacob that Camel had "jake leg." It was also called jake walk or limber leg.

Basically, someone made a big batch of Jamaica ginger extract (or jake) and put plasticizers (cresol compound) in it. They did it "to get around the regulations that require that Jamaica ginger extract be rendered unpalatable so it won't be used as an alcoholic beverage."

The Jamaica ginger extract went out all over the country and when someone drank it they would be paralyzed. It started anytime within two weeks of drinking the alcohol. Apparently tens of thousands of people were paralyzed as a result of drinking it.

Jacob realizes how fortunate - and close - he was to ending up like Camel: Camel had offered him some "brackish liquid...on the first day on the show" but he had refused.

The most difficult part of this book for me was how the animals were treated - especially the elephant. Hearing how they were fed and punished made my stomach turn in some parts of the book. I cannot even begin to imagine the cruelty the animals that became part of the circus had to endure. What a miserable life.

The other part was how the workers and some of the performers were thought of by those in the circus' management and upper-level workers. I had never heard of "red-lighting" before - how workers were thrown off the circus trains while they were moving in the night if it was determined that the person was of no value to the circus any longer.

Water for Elephants gave a glimpse into a world that no longer exists in terms of the human oddities show. I do remember when I was younger seeing one of these types of shows at the Minnesota State Fair. This would have been in the 1970s and early 1980s. Apparently back in the Depression, there was a wider variety of people who had unusual physical characteristics.

The narrator’s transition from the young circus veterinarian, to the elderly, cantankerous nursing home resident is a well-crafted, bi-lateral view. Whether in his twenties admiring beautiful, equestrian performer, Marlena and caring for the animals he loved so dearly or in his nineties mulling over where to have breakfast and the indignities of old age, the quick wit comes through loud and clear.

One thing that Jacob said in the nursing home was something that reminded me of my mother and thoughts that she has echoed at different times during recent years. "My platitudes don't hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik - that's all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That's the reality of getting old, and i guess that's really the crux of the matter. I'm not ready to be old yet. But I shouldn't complain..."

He also said that he no longer liked looking in a mirror. One day, as he was brushing his hair, he said he froze " the sight of my old hand on my old head. I lean close and open my eyes very wide, trying to see beyond the sagging flesh. It's not good. Even when I look straight into the milky blue eyes, I can't find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?

It's interesting because I've often had similar thoughts as I've aged - about not recognizing the person looking at me in the mirror. Often times, like Jacob, I avoid looking in the mirror. My reflection is not the person I remember I am.

Water for Elephants had such a range of every conceivable emotion. It was beautifully written and very engrossing. It is a story that pulls ones into a captivating world, where fact and fiction combine. The characters are so clearly described that they can easily be pictured. This book was an honest, moving glimpse into a world filled with excitement, cruelty, adventure, and challenges...and one that I will remember for a very long time.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Where the Heart Is - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 45

This week for the Read 52 books in 52 Weeks challenge, I read Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. This book is on Oprah's Book Club list, so I was interested in reading it for that reason.

Like many of the books this year that I've read, this would not have been one that I would have thought about reading unless I was doing the challenge. However, I'm happy I did. The story - although filled with some very sobering and difficult situations - somehow keeps the focus on the positive elements of life. Many of the characters face struggles - either ones due to poor choices they have made or ones that have been thrust upon them - yet plod forward and persevere.

As the main character, Novalee Nation, says, "...Our lives can change with every breath we take...Let go of what's gone....and hold what [you've] got....We've all got meanness in us...but...we have some good in us, too. And the only thing worth living for is the good. That's why we've got to make sure we pass it on."

Where the Heart Is begins with the story about Novalee, a seventeen-year-old girl who is seven months pregnant who was heading for California with her boyfriend, Willy Jack. He drops her off at the Wal-Mart in Oklahoma to use the restroom, and continues on the journey without her.

So, Novalee finds herself stranded at the Wal-Mart with just $7.77 in change. Somehow she manages to live in the store and not be discovered for a couple months.

It is during this time that people come into Novalee's life; and they become her true friends and new family. These people support Novalee and her already strong spirit. They are down-to-earth, deeply caring people who are willing to help a homeless, jobless girl.

From a kind, generous older lady named Sister Thelma Husband to eccentric librarian named Forney Hull who loves Novalee more than she loves herself, they are all there to support Novalee.

About two months after her arrival in Oklahoma, she has her baby one night at the store. Her friend, Forney, happens to see her there, breaks the window of the store, and helps deliver the baby. Needless to say, she receives much publicity and financial support.

When she's in the hospital, her mother (who abandoned her when she was a young girl), shows up and convinces Novalee that they will begin their life over. Novalee trusts her mother, and gives her all the money she received hoping that her mother follows through on the promise to get a home where they all can live...a place that Novalee has dreamed of her whole life.

Novalee has dreamed her whole life of living in a house since she has always lived on a home on wheels. She keeps a journal full of magazine pictures of houses; and she looks through them, she imagines her dream house and how it is furnished. Truly, she wants to make sure that her baby grows up in the best environment that she can create.

Of course, the mother simply takes the money and disappears again, leaving Novalee with no money and no place to live. Sister Thelma just happens to show up and offers to let Novalee and her baby live with her husband and her in their trailer home.

Soon, Novalee takes charge of her future by working and bringing in money to support herself and daughter. Through her friendship with Moses Whitecotton, she develops skills in photography. She builds on the information he shares with her by reading many books and magazines from the library where Forney works. She visits photography exhibitions and takes many photographs to build her skills.

Although she is not educated when she arrives in Oklahoma, by the end of the story she is enrolled in college and is supporting herself through her photography skills.

Where the Heart Is also follows Willy Jack's life and the string of bad decisions he makes. His journey is a sharp and negative contrast to Novalee's life, filled with alcohol, prison time, failed singing career, and an encounter with a train that amputates both his legs.  In the end, his journey tries to lead him back to Novalee to apologize to her and let her know that he lied about something that meant a lot to her.

She ends up finding out about Willy Jack by reading a newspaper article; and - in her compassionate and quiet, unassuming manner - meets him at a hospital where he was transported to after being a victim of a robbery. He talks about lies and their impact one one's life.

As Willy Jack said, "Why does anyone lie? 'Cause we're scared or crazy, maybe just 'cause we're mean. I guess there's a million reasons to lie, and I might've told that many....but none like that. I guess there's always that one lie we never get over....Maybe you never told a lie so big it can eat away a part of you. But if you ever do...and if you get might get a a chance to set it right. Just one chance to change it. Then it's gone. And it never comes again."

His apology to her - and what he said about lying - makes Novalee reconsider what she said to a dear friend who she loved, but said she didn't care for him.

Towards the end of the story, Novalee follows through on where her heart is; and the book finishes on a positive note which I liked. After all the early poor decisions, hard work, and determination to build a respectable life - Novalee succeeds. She may not be the richest and most powerful person in her mid-20s, but within her world she attained much more than she expected, positively impacted the lives of many people, and realized dreams that she would never have imagined when she was 17 years old.

Home gives you something no other place can...
your history...
home is where your history begins.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Countdown to Halloween 2014

We have been doing a Countdown to Halloween now for a few years. This year, however, we did as many activities each day as we have in past. It seems like as the years go by with homeschooling, there are more things that need to get  done academically, leaving less room for fun activities like we did when the girls were younger.

Nonetheless, we did so several things and had theme days (on some of the days leading up to Halloween from October 21st to October 31st).

The first day we focused on mummies. We've done the mummy dogs a couple times now and the girls really like them.

They're just hot dogs wrapped in crescent roll dough and baked until the crescent roll is golden brown.

The next day we focused on spiders since the girls were eyeing the miniature chocolate donuts I had bought earlier in the week.

For the spiders, we used one donut, some vanilla frosting for the eyes, and then broke pretzels into curved shapes to put into the sides of the donut.

It was easier to put little holes where the ends of the pretzels needed to go into the donut. In that way, the pretzel wouldn't break.

I think the donut spiders have to be one of the girls' favorite breakfasts during the Halloween season.

On another day, we focused on monsters. We made monster tacos again this year since we all like tacos.

A hard shell taco, taco meat, fixings, two olives, and a sliver of tomato is all we needed for each taco monster.

We're not huge hard-shell taco fans, so after we ate one taco - anyone who wanted another one just crumbled the taco shells into bits and put the meat and toppings on top. It's easier to eat that way.

On October 24th, we spent some time at the nursing home where we volunteer. We helped the seniors decorate bags for treats that they were going to fill and give to a group of preschoolers who would be visiting them in costume on Halloween.

The ladies enjoyed being creative and attaching stickers to the fronts of the bags.

Afterwards, we helped with a root beer social in the dining room while the seniors listened to music.  It was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

Another day, we focused on ghosts. The girls were asking when "ghost day" would be because they knew we would have Boo-nilla shakes.

Sophia found a delicious recipes for a vanilla shake online, so we used that this year. Before pouring the shake into the glass, we "painted" eyes and a mouth onto the side of the glasses. When the shake is carefully poured into the glass, the eyes and mouth stay in place.

We enjoyed the shakes and look forward to having them again next year.

On Saturday, the humane society where we adopted Cooper and Aspen from, had a Pet Fest. After looking for ideas for costumes, we decided on The Big Bad Wolf dressed as Grandma for Cooper, and Little Red Riding Hood for Aspen.

We spent several days before the event putting the costumes on them. They were always so excited to wear the much so that we were worried that they wouldn't be able to wear them at the Pet Fest.

At the event, we managed to get Cooper into his nightgown. The bonnet with the black fur ears to hold it in place stayed on his head for probably a good five minutes and then we just gave up. It kept falling off, and honestly was more trouble than it was worth. Oh well...

Aspen tolerated her costume, but she was pretty nervous at the event. There was a lot of activity, people, and pets there. Her cape stayed on, but kept going to the side. The hood did not stay on because her ears are upright.

Inside at Pet Fest there were games. A Golden Retriever did the tennis ball game before Cooper and loved it. Cooper, on the other hand, couldn't focus or wasn't motivated to retrieve the balls from the water.

Same thing with Aspen. Even though they like toys at home and like to play fetch, the tennis balls in the water confused them.

Sophia ended up playing a few games. The rubber-band gun was one of her favorite games.

We had a bit to eat and some pop to drink; did the costume contest; and looked at the vendors' tables. Chuck & Don's gave us a big bag of treats and a tennis ball which was nice.

The next evening, the girls made witches' hats with crackers, cheese in a can, and Bugles.

The only time I will buy cheese-in-a-can is for the witch theme day. Otherwise, it doesn't come into the house. Oh...unless one of the girls sneaks it into the grocery cart and I don't see it. But, other than that...this is a treat for them.

Sophia and Olivia each had about a half dozen of the witch hats.

They're simple to make, and the girls both enjoy them.

For the owl theme day, we made a fruit owl. The owl's body is half a pineapple. The wings are apple slices, the feet are limes, the eyes and beak are oranges with blueberry centers, and the outline is strawberries and cherries.

The girls were happy with how the owl turned out. The fruit was delicious too.

On vampire day, we made homemade pizzas. Sophia and Olivia were hungry, so they just wanted to make pizza the normal way. Olivia made hers with pepperoni and cheese.

Sophia had some pepperoni, vegetables, and cheese.

Because it was vampire day, I took a bit of time and made a vampire-shaped pizza.

We weren't sure what the pizza would look like after it was baked, so we took a before and after picture.

After we ate pizza, we made caramel apples for dessert.

I had sliced apples, and the girls added melted caramel, chocolate chips, and chopped peanuts on top.

The more caramel, the better. 

We even added sprinkles for some color and Halloween spirit.

On the candy corn theme day, we made a healthy snack. The bottom layer of the fruit salad is pineapple. The next layer is mandarin oranges; and then whipped cream covers the fruit salad.

On the pumpkin theme day, which we've done quite a bit in the past on, we simply went to a local pumpkin patch. Our pumpkins didn't produce anything this year which was frustrating.

The pumpkin patch we went to was picked over, but the owner said if we could find anything in the field we could have it for free.

The girls ran throughout the field looking for pumpkins.

We ended up finding about a half dozen pumpkins which surprised us.

Although we didn't carve them this year (neither of the girls wanted to do that), we did put them out by the gate so that is the first thing we see.

On Halloween, we volunteered to help at the nursing home. When we arrived, we saw Annabelle and her daughter dressed as the Good Witch (Glenda) from the Wizard of Oz and her daughter as the Wicked Witch of the West.

There was a costume contest which the girl participated in.

I sat with John and tabulated all the voting sheets that the seniors filled out. They were supposed to vote for one person whose costume they liked. Some of the seniors understood this, while others voted for lots of different people. Apparently they really liked the costumes.

Everyone who was in costume had their picture taken together.

Around dinner time, the girls got into their costumes again. Olivia was a princess.

She found a dress that fit her perfectly at a fraction of the cost of a costume which was great! She and Sophia thought it looked like a shorter version of Belle's dress from Beauty and the Beast.

Sophia went as a vampire complete with the makeup and pointy teeth.

It seems like such a long time since Sophia dressed as princesses and Olivia dressed as a lion and giraffe. Time goes by so quickly.

We went to the fire station which sponsored - along with Lions and a local church - dinner. There were hot dogs, chips, cookies, and hot chocolate.

There were games that the girls played before we headed out.

Our first stop was the cafe which was transformed into a haunted house.

Some of the decorations danced and sang.

After that we went to the senior cottages, another nearby town, and then back to homes in our neighborhood.

All in all, we had a great Halloween season.