Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Wednesday Review: Faith's Checkbook

Since it's the last Wednesday Review of the year, I thought it might be a good idea to review something that I've been reading all year long:

Introduction: Faith's Checkbook is a daily devotional book by Charles Spurgeon. It opens with a note from the author, and contains 366 short meditations on Bible verses, all centered around the many, many promises of God. Once I underlined a bit in the Preface that says a lot about the spirit of the book: "He has been so faithful to me in countless instances that I must encourage you to trust Him. I would be ungrateful to God and unkind to you if I did not do so."

Each day's mediation is contained on a single page. The date is given, followed by a title for the devotion. The verse of the day is given in the King James Version, and the rest of the page is given to commentary by the "Prince of Preachers."

My Review: I've used this devotional for a couple years running now, and I used it back when I first got it in college (the first time 'round). My copy is dog-eared and highlighted and underlined. I even wrote the date next to one highlighted section, although I don't know what I thought I would get out of it later with no contextual notes. At any rate, the point is that I've marked it up a bit. This is significant because I very rarely ever make a mark in a book. I will dog-ear these types of books, but the only other ones I've really marked up are Mind of the Maker, and the Bible. I recently read The Weight of Glory and I'm pretty sure that when I re-read it I will have to mark it up, as well. And that's it. So if I mark up a book, it means I really, really got a lot out of it. This is one of those.

Spurgeon's commentary of God's promises is full of insights - some really good stuff in here, not just encouragements but challenges, as well. It's a really nice balance, a devotional to get you smiling and thinking. I didn't grow up reading devotionals,  I highly recommend it.

Copyright: 1992 (my copy)
Publisher: Whitaker House (there are others - the text is public domain)
Length: 374 pages

My Rating: 5 Stars

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From the Vaults: Arts and Crafts

When we were kids, my brothers and I used to make things for each other's birthdays. Ben made a couple great birthday cards that I still have:

The front of the card...

Inside the card!*

Here's the other one:



Ah, good times...

*Yes, we are apparently giraffes.

**Apparently he was worried I wouldn't know which 'Ben' had given me the card...?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Memory Lane: Sandwich Nostalgia

In honor of Veteran's Day, here's another story from Afghanistan.

I will be the first to tell you that I had a cushy deployment.

Don't get me wrong: it was no luxury vacation. But I wasn't lugging my weight in supplies on foot patrols. I never fired my weapon. Being aircrew while I was there, there were restrictions on how many flight hours I could log in a 30-day period, so I had occasional days off.

I'm happy to tell all the fun stories about roughing it, like the slimey feel of the heavily bleached shower water, but at least we had showers. In a combat zone, all this adds up to 'cushy.'

But since stories of minor deprivation are fun to hear...

I hope you enjoy this one.

It’s the little things.

I didn’t have anything to take with me for lunch one day last spring, so before my first class I stopped at the coffee shop and got a tuna fish sandwich. I put it in my little soft-shell cooler with the ice pack I brought from home for this exact purpose, and stuck it in my backpack. Two hours later, during the ten-minute break before my next class, I took the sandwich out to eat it. It had smushed itself to one side a little, but that’s ok. I picked up one half. The bottom piece of bread was soggy. Not completely, but enough.

When I was in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field – everyone called it BAF – the main cafeteria was called Dragon Chow. They served four meals a day and had a sandwich bar between meals so everyone had access to food of some kind 24/7. I was filling in for an aircrew position over there. Between the flights themselves, the pre-mission briefs and pre-flight, checking gear in and out, the trip to and from the flight line, and post-mission paperwork, you ended up missing a meal or two each time you flew.

We had the licky-chewy,* of course, but you can only eat so many Poptarts. At some point, you need some semblance of real food. And that was what the sandwich bar provided: a semblance of real food.

At the sandwich bar you could get white or wheat bread (the cheap stuff), and your choice of three cold cuts: turkey, ham, or roast beef. Since turkey isn’t supposed to be that shade of gray with rainbow shimmers, and ham isn’t supposed to smell like that, I always got the roast beef. Every single time.**

In addition to meat, there was cheese and some vegetables. I remember iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato, specifically. The cheese and vegetables were fine, so they weren’t as memorable. It does make me wonder in hindsight why I never opted for a vegetarian sandwich.

At any rate, you told the guys working there what kind of bread you wanted, and they put two slices in a white Styrofoam to-go box – the standard square kind with partitions for different dishes. One slice went on the flat surface of the top of the open box, the other on the partitioned base. They put the heavy cold cuts on the top piece and the lighter vegetables on the bottom one, and handed you the box, still open.

Off to the side there were condiments and you fixed it up the way you wanted or grabbed the little packages to go. Then, if you were smart, you put the bottom portion of the sandwich on top of the top portion and carried the closed box upside down, so your sandwich didn’t get completely dented and smushed by the partitions.

There was another table with small bags of chips and some drinks – water, canned soda, maybe Gatorade. A pretty decent selection, really.

The problem was the cold cuts. Beyond their questionable edibleness, they sat in a tub of their own juices. Or water – whatever they’re packaged in. When the guys behind the counter grabbed a chunk of cold cuts with their tongs, they just reached in, grabbed it, and slopped it onto the bread, juices and all. They never tried to shake or squeeze or drip any of the fluid off. They may as well have scooped it out with a ladle.

In the 45 seconds it took them to make your sandwich and hand you the box, that top slice of bread under the cold cuts was getting wet. The best you could do to salvage the sandwich was immediately dump the cold cuts in the box and relocate that slice of bread to a drier area before it was completely soaked through.^ But the damage was more or less done – I never had a dry sandwich.^*

I don’t know how many of those soggy, disgusting things I ate over there, but it was too many. When I picked up that tuna sandwich at college two and a half years later – two and a half years later – I was right back at the sandwich bar.

I’m shuddering at the thought of it, even now.

*What we called the snack bar in our operations center (there was also one out on the flight line). Basically an assortment of energy bars and junk food pretending to be real food, like single-serving sugary cereal bowls.

**After the first two times, when I made the mistake of trying the turkey and ham.

^And absorb the loose liquid in the box with a paper napkin. It only took a few drenched sandwiches to figure all that out.

^*Or a fresh one. I think, on average, these got eaten about four hours later. And they weren't refrigerated during that time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday Review: Floodplain

Today I'll be talking about my favorite artist's brand new album:

If you're my friend on Facebook, you already know about this album. In fact, you're probably sick of hearing me talk about it, so I won't be offended if you choose not to read on. :)

Introduction: I did a review of Sara Groves' music in general some time ago. Her last album of all-new music, Invisible Empires, was released back in 2011. Her 2013 release had four new songs but was otherwise a compilation of material from her previous albums.* So it's been quite a while since we had a full set of new music from her. According to behind-the-scenes information via song commentaries, interviews and her profile on Fair Trade Services, the reasons were various, and included a period of artistic paralysis. The overarching themes, imagery, and tone of this album reflect that reality.

My Review: Floodplain is a relatively quiet album. I happen to be a fan of Sara Groves' quieter songs: They tend to be really impactful. Sometimes that impact is not apparent on the first listen or two, but I know that if I give them a chance, not only will I grow to respect, appreciate, and love them, but some of them will end up blowing my mind.**

I said one time that there's something healing about Sara Groves' music, and this album is a great example of that.

My first listen to Floodplain was like that; the impact of certain songs wasn't immediately apparent. So I listened to it again. And again. I listened to it on the bus ride to school and I listened to it on the bus ride back. I listened to it when I went for a long walk. I listened to it a couple of times at home while sitting still in a chair, concentrating on listening.

I listened to Floodplain and nothing else for over a week.^ It started out as an exercise, but I was right: Those more contemplative songs that Sara Groves writes? They're amazing, and this record is full of them. As a result, the entire album is amazing. I mean, I didn't think it was actually possible for her to create a record I'd like as much as Invisible Empires, but Floodplain is pretty darn good.

Let's take a look at the tracks,^* shall we?

1. This Cup. This is a lovely song; relaxing and well-written. Content-wise, it's an apt introduction to the various themes that crop up throughout the record.

2. Expedition. If you study this song and are not floored by the lyrics, you're doing it wrong.

This is one of my two favorite tracks on the album. Musically I like it a lot. It's one of those rare songs Groves does that's a little darker in sound. I also like the production, especially the slightly grainy quality of the verses.

As for the lyrics...

This song is poetry of the finest sort. The verses are excellent, and the way they interact with each other makes me giddy. The chorus is great and I love the bridge, usually my least favorite part of any given song. This is just superb writing. Hashtag ProfessionalJealousy.

3. Second Guess Girl. This is one of the more uptempo songs. It's got a nice rhythm and the lyrics invite the listener to consider their own responses to the issues of our day - it's thematically quite timely. There are some great turns of phrase in here, too.

4. Floodplain. This is a more melancholy song. Once I actually took in the lyrics, I liked it a lot. It might be my second-favorite song on the album (after tracks 2 and 7). It's really quite beautiful, and again, this one has a bridge I absolutely love.

5. Enough. Another quiet one, this song's not a favorite, but it's pretty and I like it. I find myself particularly drawn to the music and imagery in the chorus.

6. Native Tongue. This one's lyrically a bit more obtuse to me, even having listened to Groves' commentary about it. I enjoy the song, though, especially the chorus, and I trust it'll make more sense to me later.

7. I've Been Here Before. Another uptempo number, and my other favorite song on the record (sharing the honor with track 2).

I really enjoy the rhythm, I like the production, the tune is great, and I just absolutely love the content and the lyrics that convey it. So good!

There's a subtle ironic, self-deprecating humor in the first and final verses that I'm personally drawn to. The middle verses carry their emotions beautifully. Each verse is poetically tight and contributes to a nice thematic and emotional arc, and the chorus is excellent.

As a bonus, it's also just really fun to sing along with.

8. On Your Mark. This one's quiet and lyrically a bit mysterious. The style is a little different, too; a little jazzier. The extended metaphor of the verses is awesome, and I like the chorus.

9. I Feel the Love Between Us. Groves sometimes writes songs about her marriage, and this is one of those.

It's a nice song, with that darker musical quality that she so rarely delves into (and here it is, twice in one album!). It's also a simple song: Two short verses and an oft-repeated, one-line chorus.

Not being married, there's a thematic-emotional barrier for me, but man, I love the bridge, anyway. Again with the stellar bridge work on this album, Groves. #WhatsUpWithThat #MajorProps

10. Signal. Ever the mom, this one's about her kids. Again, bit of a barrier for non-mom me, but it's a nice song, and I love the creativity of the signal metaphor.

11. Your Reality. This is an interesting, understated, pretty song with some weighty content and nice turns of phrase. Beautiful verses.

12. My Dream. This song retells a story from Groves' grandfather. Like What Do I Know and Prayers for This Child, it deals with uncertainties and peace in a life of faith. Thematically it's a nice close to the album.

13. Expedition (Reprise). Basically a partial remix of the second track, it's a second close to the album that leaves you thinking about the themes from that beautiful song. That gives the record a nice aftertaste, if you will.

Put all these songs together and you have what I think is the most sonically and thematically cohesive of Groves' albums to date. It's also the most consistent in terms of stellar writing - each verse, chorus and bridge is extremely well-crafted, and I like all the melodies, too.

And I suppose I'd better stop gushing at some point...

Release Date: 6 November 2015
Music Tracks: 13
Run Time: 51 minutes
Record Label: Fair Trade Services

My Rating: 5 Gold Stars

*Hence its title: The Collection.

**Case in point: The Long Defeat, one of my all-time favorite Sara Groves songs. Before I "got it," I used to skip past it!

^I'm still listening to it almost exclusively. It's just so good!

^*Which you can preview in their entirety at New Release Today.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reports as Ordered: 3rd Time an Aunt

Guess what? I now have two nephews AND a brand new niece!

That's my brother Steven, holding his new daughter, Elizabeth. Pretty spectacular.

In other news, Sara Groves' new album Floodplain is available for pre-order, Willamette Valley fall is in full swing with blazing colors, billowy gray clouds and Portland rain, and my brother Ben is finishing up his first orchestral tour of Europe with the Cleveland Orchestra. Also: Doctor Who, season nine, is shaping up really, really nicely.

And did I mention I have a niece?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Off the Shelf: The Jackal

I recently recounted the story of being stalked by a jackal in Afghanistan, and as fate would have it, I subsequently unpacked this from a box:

My very first acrylic painting. I clearly didn't know what I was doing.


It was very early, well before dawn. I was stationed at Mazar e Sharif Airbase in northern Afghanistan, and I was hungry. Nobody else was up and available to go with me to get food, so I embarked on a solo mission to the German chow hall. It was not, I reasoned, very far to walk, the streets were well-lit, and I was, after all, armed. I went by myself.

There I was, walking down a (well-lit) deserted street in the middle of the night. It was quiet and cool. I was enjoying myself.

What was that?

A shifting of gravel in a parking area to my eight o'clock. I paused.

Although the street was lit, beyond was pitch black, and I couldn't see anything. I couldn't hear anything either, so I proceeded. But this time I was on the alert. I looked around as I walked, and then I glanced behind me.

I almost didn't see it at first. I literally did a double-take. But there it was: a wild dog, just about five feet behind me, following in absolute, eerie silence. Had I not looked, I never would have known he was there.

The dog wasn't very big, similar to a coyote but quite yellow in the street light. I looked him up on google later and decided it must have been a jackal.*

I stopped; so did he. Having encountered strange domesticated dogs on evening walks with my dad in the past, I knew most responded to firmness, so I told the jackal, loudly and in no uncertain terms, to go away. He backed up a single step and I could no longer see him at all. It was dark and he blended in perfectly. That added to the creep factor considerably.

I hesitated for a moment, but there was nothing else to do but start walking again. I took a few steps and looked over my shoulder. There he was again, same distance, same perfect silence. Again: Creepy.

I told him again to go away. I may have clapped at him in the absence of an errant stone to kick in his direction.** He disappeared again.

I proceeded to the chow hall, looking behind me every few steps, but the jackal did not reappear.^

It was a rather creepy incident. I never traipsed around base in the dark by myself again (because that kind of behavior is stupid, even if you are armed), and when I received some tiny canvasses and a small array of acrylic paints and brushes from my brother, I decided to paint the jackal. The results, as you can see, are rather dubious. It doesn't quite convey the ghostly, barely visible quality of the animal, but then, I'm not a painter.

*I later saw a couple of jackals on the flight line when it was dark, jogging alongside the plane as we taxied.

**Mazar e Sharif was a German-run base. It was very tidy. (You can't make this stuff up.)

^Incidentally, on my way back from the chow hall as the sun was rising, I crossed paths (from a slightly more comfortable distance) with a very large cat. After I googled the jackal, I googled the cat, which I subsequently believe was an Asiatic Wildcat.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Memory Lane: Wildlife

Today I'm giving you a childhood memory of mine in the form of a poem I wrote a few months ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Accidental Cruelty

We caught two scorpions
Under the rocks –
Into the jar
With dirt and twig:
An inch long each
And reddish-black.

We learned scorpions
Are territorial
Circling in their space
Deaf to our cheers
Turned to pleas
And admonishments.

One killed the other
And morosely we fed
The dead one to the ants
With their foot-tall hill
In our backyard,
And we pondered the champion.

A great idea!
He was strong –
He had killed a fellow scorpion.
We set him at the far edge
Of the red antropolis
And waited for the massacre

And we learned the power
Of overwhelming numbers
As our poor champion
Was carried off alive,
Accessories to arachnid murder
Twice in the space of an hour.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Conversations with Myself About Art

Because I lack an immediate, present artistic community (a perpetual sore point for me), I have no other recourse sometimes than to talk to myself. If I am in public, this is done in my head (although I can't help making occasional facial expressions), and if I am in private, this is sometimes done aloud. I had one such conversation tonight, sitting in my studio.

I had just read the most recent Slice of Infinity post on the RZIM website. Apparently I was thinking about the nature of that blog, the new RZIM Institute facility they're building, what Sara Groves said about the "space" to create art in her recent video, and who knows what else.

At any rate, I imagined I was seated at a table with the RZIM team - a big, oval conference table - having a discussion about something or other, and I ended up talking about the artistic process.

It was great to have someone to discuss it with.

Seriously, though.

For my part, the artistic process is synthesis. It's an osmosis of Stuff that gets synthesized into ideas and concepts and feelings and moods, and it gets solidified and defined on paper as a piece of writing. The osmosis comes naturally from living life, reading, and listening. The synthesis takes time and quiet and as much osmosis material as possible. The actual creation takes time and energy. Lots and lots of time and energy.*

It takes "space."

That space can be hard to find - I've got a lot of irons in the fire.

When I do find it, I often don't know what to do with it. Because I don't currently support myself through my writing, taking that kind of time feels wasteful. It feels like luxury; it feels lazy. Surely I should be doing something - anything - else. So I do.**

Because sitting at a table and just ... thinking ... is ridiculous. Going for an hour-long walk around the neighborhood not for the sake of exercise is a waste of time. Listening to that new Sara Groves album multiple times - really listening to it, no multi-tasking - is lazy.

But it's not. Those things are springboards for inspiration. Those things are necessary.

*This process usually involves or results in a lot of conversations with God, another activity we tend to mistake for a waste of time.

**When I find space and realize it, life is very, very, good. And I tend to not get any sleep.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wednesday Review: Crazy Smart or Just Plain Crazy?

Welcome! Today I will be reviewing Hamlet (the play). Sorry this is a day late...

Introduction: Hamlet is one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays. A tragedy, it is the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark. When the play opens, Hamlet's father, the king, has recently died, and the queen has married Hamlet's uncle, the deceased king's brother. Hamlet is grieving and resentful. (Spoilers) We meet the king's ghost, who claims to have been murdered by his brother and charges Hamlet with seeking his revenge. The rest of the play follows Hamlet trying to grapple with that charge. He appears to become insane (or possibly actually does go mad), which is one of the central elements of the plot, and which different productions have presented differently - is he pretending to be mad, or is he actually out of his mind?

My Review: Undoubtedly, my perception of the play is influenced by the recent production by the Royal Shakespeare Company with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart (which is excellent and very accessible). I read the play because I saw the film and liked it. Nonetheless, reading the play is a different experience, in part because the production does cut out some pieces for the sake of time.

Overall, I really, really enjoyed the play. I think Hamlet himself is a fascinating character. He seems to be sane, to me - he thinks circles around his peers when he's behaving madly, he actually says in the beginning that he will be putting on this behavior, and in his darker, more self-critical moments, he seems quite sane, if not quite stable. Not to mention the good sense of trying to verify the ghost's story before taking action.

The thing that used to bother me is the question of why he would pretend to be mad - what's the motive for that? But I think it makes perfect sense if you look at the insanity plea in courts of law. Hamlet can't just kill his uncle, however popular he may be with the people - he'd be committing murder and treason at the same time. But if he's considered mad at the time that he takes his revenge, his popularity and status may see him through - he can't really be held responsible for doing something while not in possession of his wits. All he has to do is play mad, kill the king, be excused, and make a recovery.

But of course, that's not what happens. He never quite manages to find an opportunity to do the deed. The one time he thinks he has, he ends up killing a more-or-less innocent bystander by mistake. It's easy to scoff at his ineffectiveness, and before I read the play I did. But he really is in a difficult position, and as much as he wants to avenge his father and as much as he despises his uncle, Hamlet doesn't seem to be the murderous type - I can't really fault him for that.

It's also easy to roll my eyes at his emotional state through much of the play - Hamlet is a fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve. But reading the play gave me a different opinion on this, as well. He's overcome with grief at the beginning, but his father, who he was obviously close to, recently died, and along with that life-changing event, his mother's gone and married his uncle, which distresses him greatly. The only thing I didn't really understand was his scene with Ophelia. But then, again, I've only read it once.

Probably whole books have been written about the character Hamlet. For my part, I'll stop there. The actual plot of the play is pretty good. There were some things that didn't make sense to me in the Tennant/Stewart production that made sense after I read the script, due to some things that the production cut out. I definitely thought the last act of the play was more choppy and confusing than it actually is. In the complete written play,* things tied together more.

Anyway! I could ramble on forever about this piece - it's pretty complex. Basically, you can follow it just fine, but you can really sink your literary teeth into it. Good stuff.

Author: William Shakespeare
Copyright Date: End of the 1500s/beginning of the 1600s - A long time ago.**
Length: Depends on the version. Generally split into 5 acts.

My Rating: 5 stars.

*Actually, there are multiple versions...
**Now public domain.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wednesday Review: Pixar is Brilliant

Just barely in time to NOT be the Thursday Review (local time), here it is:

It is now official: Disney did not ruin Pixar.

Summary: (Concept SPOILERS) Inside Out is the story of 11-year-old Riley. Or rather, the five primary emotions in her head. These emotions are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, and their job is to guide Riley through life as smoothly as possible, helping her make memories and develop her personality. The memories are represented by spheres color-coded by whichever emotion they're each associated with. Special memories become "core memories," which form the pillars of Riley's personality, represented by islands branching off from headquarters. At the end of each day, all the normal memories are sent to long-term memory storage. That's what we learn at the beginning of the film. That's the equilibrium, which gets thrown off when Sadness's touch starts turning otherwise joyful memories sad, setting off a chain of events that plunge everything into chaos.

My Review: This film is absolutely brilliant. Go see it NOW.

Seriously, though, if you want an actual review:

Inside Out is quintessential Pixar: Delightfully creative, satisfyingly well-crafted, with a wonderful emotional depth. It's hard to explain how much emotional depth without spoilers, so you're just gonna have to trust me on this one.

One of the best aspects is how Joy grows as a character. It's set up early, but doesn't really come to the fore until the story approaches the inciting incident with Sadness and the core memories. It becomes more and more obvious what's going on there and what needs to happen, but it's no less enjoyable to watch; the characters' actions remain believable in the circumstances through all of that.

It's a pretty sophisticated story about the roles and value of our various emotions and how they reflect us, all wrapped up in a visually beautiful, fun and creative package. Genius.*

Release Date: 2015
Rating: PG
Run Time: 94 Minutes

My Rating: 5-Stars**

*Seriously, you should all go see it. I'm pre-ordering the DVD.
**Easiest 5-star review ever.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wednesday Review: The Lady Vanishes

Welcome back to the Wednesday Review! I thought this day would never arrive.

Today's topic:

The 2013 remake of the 1938 Hitchcock film.

Introduction: The Lady Vanishes is a riveting mystery on a train. A young English woman named Iris is taken ill during a journey in the Balkans, and Miss Froy, an older English woman, looks after her until she falls asleep. When Iris awakens, Miss Froy is no where to be found. Iris become worried, but when her fellow passengers insist that no such woman existed, Iris' sanity comes into question.

My Review: I shall review the movie as a stand-alone film, rather than as a remake, for the simple reason that I have not yet seen the original.

The 2013 The Lady Vanishes is an excellent film, full of uncertainty and suspense. It has a languid start with quite a few details that may or may not come into play later (I wouldn't want to give anything away!), that very clearly sets the scene and introduces the main players quite effectively. The real action begins when Iris falls asleep on the train, but the slow build has its own suspense, as the audience cannot help but try to guess what may be part of the mystery later.

The mystery itself is very well-woven. Although I noticed several key markers in the plot and dialogue, I had no idea how everything would fit together, or what end it would eventually lead to. I also wasn't sure at first whether Iris was mad or not - whether this was a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or more of a Spanish Prisoner. Once it became clear, the suspense was shifted, but by no means diminished, to what would actually happen.

I thought it was a great movie. It had a nice level of suspense and was well-filmed. It felt very Hitchcockian, and I like that they held on to that atmosphere with the style of filming and music, etc. The acting was very strong, as well. All in all, a really entertaining film.

Release Date: 2013
Rating: N/A (British)
Run Time: 90 minutes

My Rating: 4 Stars

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Report - Welcome Back

Dear Readers,

Although you are undeniably few in number, I feel a certain responsibility toward you. I have been absent of late, and issue I would like to redress.

Some time ago, I mentioned that I was creating a profession editing website, and that I would not be blogging as often in the future, but my lack of presence was already being felt here, even then. The reasons are as follows:

     1. I was a full time student.

     2. I was a freelance developmental editor.

     3. I started a part time job.

Since I launched my website, I've barely updated my blog at all. Here are the reasons for that:

     1. I was still a full time student.

     2. I was still working part time.

     3. I was still a freelance developmental editor.

     4. I allowed myself to be distracted by YouTube videos of Rhett and Link eating peppers (which are entertaining), the Doctor Who series 9 trailer (which is exciting), and interviews with J. K. Rowling (which were helpful and inspiring).*

But now I'm back! I have reasons for that, too:**

     1. School's done until late September.

     2. I miss my blog.

     3. I like to pretend that one or two of you miss my blog. (I feel imagination must be nurtured.)

     4. My break has provided me time to gather new things to blog about.

     5. Recent literary events have energized me.

     6. I was running out of decent YouTube videos to watch.

     7.^ I was starting to feel lazy.

So here I am, back again..

*Tell you all about it soon.

**Because lists.

^The number of reasons I'm back equals the sum of the number of reasons I was gone before and after my new website launch. Just sayin'...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Blackberry Fever

I’ve been living in Oregon again since October, but only now, with scratches and puncture wounds and purple fingers, do I feel like I’m really home. That may not sound very appealing, but that combination of wounds can only mean one glorious thing: I have been picking blackberries.

Not the cultivated, thornless kind. No. The wild, thorny, hard-to-get-to kind. The delicious, adventurous, free ones. The ones growing in tall brambles along the sides of roads, walkways and railroad tracks. The ones creeping on the ground at the coast and in the coast range after the loggers have been through. Let me tell you, there are only two things for which I will willingly, nay, enthusiastically! risk close encounters with spiders, bees, and who knows what other bugs and insects: strawberries and blackberries.

Coastal blackberries, growing on the ground and tasting like my childhood.

On Saturday, I went picking with Dad along the railroad tracks. It was easy – nobody had gone through and stripped the bushes yet, and there were tons and tons of berries. We picked enough for a whole pie, a small personal-sized pie, some eating berries for Mom and Dad, and 9 and a half quart-sized Ziploc bags in my freezer for winter pies, and we barely made a dent.

It was fun picking that day – some guy riding by on his bike stopped and called to us across the road, asking if we were naturalists! I said no, just blackberry pickers, and he bounded over to us. He said he’d been seeing them all over the place, wondering if they were edible. Almost before we’d confirmed that they are, he’d reached out and eaten one off the vine. I told him how to pick for the nice ripe ones and gave him one as an example, which he declared as ‘Delicious!’ He was obviously not from the Pacific Northwest (turns out he was from Maryland) - poor kid didn’t know what a blackberry was!

Later, when we’d filled our containers and gotten back in the car to go home, we saw a couple picking at a bramble down the road from us. They must’ve taken their cue from us, too – all they had to hold the fruit was a couple of Ziploc bags she was fishing out of her purse!

All that was a blast, but not exactly the reckless hunt I remember from my childhood.

Fast-forward to today. There are blackberries growing all up and down the walking path behind my apartment complex, and I often walk by, picking a berry or two as I go. A lot of these bushes are evergreens, which ripen later than the rest;* most of them are still green, some just starting to get red. And the regular blackberries get picked over by passersby and kids in the apartments. Still, as I picked and ate a handful as I walked by this evening, I decided that one measly hour of picking was not enough to last me to next year.

I didn’t figure I’d get very many berries for my efforts, but I went home, got a good-sized container, and went blackberry hunting.

I walked and picked and walked and picked, even finding a few really good, untouched patches. I was having such a good time, I picked until I couldn’t see the berries anymore.  It was great, and I came home with 2 pies’ worth, plus enough extras to make it an even 10 quarts in the freezer.**

Tonight's haul: About nine cups of city berries.

So I may have been stabbed in the thumb a couple times, and perhaps my legs got poked through my jeans, and of course my arms look like I got into a tussle with a cat, but this here’s a very happy berry-picking Oregon girl.

*You think I won't be out there picking when they get ripe?

**How to freeze fresh blackberries: put some on a cookie sheet; put the sheet into the freezer; let them freeze up enough that they won’t smoosh; transfer berries to a freezer bag and return to the freezer. Use for pies, scones, what-have-you. Note: if you leave the cookie sheet of berries in the freezer long enough, they feel like hard candies when you handle them to transfer them to the bags. Pretty fun!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wednesday Review: Into the Woods

I finally watched Into the Woods with some friends (which is exactly how Into the Woods ought to be watched).*

Introduction: Into the Woods is a musical/operetta that takes several old folktales (Cinderella, Jack the Giant Killer, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood) and combines them.  A new tale about a childless baker is added, which provides the means of bringing all the other tales together.  But this isn't a simple amalgamation - the story turns the fairy tales on their heads a little, as Cinderella doesn't seem too thrilled with the idea of marrying the prince, Jack's pretty much a budding kleptomaniac, and Red Riding Hood is a bit obnoxious.

My Review: This musical is a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy tongue-in-cheek humor. The basic story of the baker and his wife and the witch is pretty great, and I love how they run across the folktale characters. It's a lark.

The music is well-performed, but that's about all I can say about it. Other than the few notes of the main "Into the Woods" theme, it is utterly forgettable.

The casting for this film was great. Meryl Streep is good in everything, but she makes an awesome witch. She handles the more absurd aspects of her character's story very well, indeed. Emily Blunt makes a lovely and fun baker's wife. James Corden plays the baker and was a great choice - he's as lovable here as he is in Doctor Who, and he avoids re-playing Craig. Anna Kendrick is a surprising Cinderella. She's a bit of an annoying character at first, but Kendrick plays her likably and makes a successful transition after the wedding scene to a more interesting character. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are brilliant princes. Their duet was the funniest part of the movie. Completing the main fairytale cast are Mackenzie Mauzy as a believable Rapunzel, Johnny Depp as a very disturbing Wolf, Lilla Crawford as a delightfully irritating Red Riding Hood, and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. I mean, Jack. Seriously, though, he did a great job in both movies.

It's easy to see why high schools tend to end their performances at the 'happily ever after' scene - it's a great place to stop and would've made a fun movie right there. But no, Sondheim and Lapine had to push it. What follows is a sometimes fun, sometimes strange after-story, dealing with the consequences of infidelity in a delightfully fairytale manner, the futility of playing the blame game, and ending with the morally questionable song about the nature of what is right.

It's an odd film, to be sure. You absolutely cannot take it seriously. The story has a few elements to it that I didn't particularly care for, and the music is forgettable, but the story is very creative, and I think they did a great job making an entertaining movie.

Release date: 2014
Rating: PG
Run time: 125 minutes
Director: Rob Marshall

My Rating: 3.5 stars

*Seriously, it'll be way more fun than watching it by yourself.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Upcoming Changes and Early Blackberries


I'm working on building a website - an actual, dedicated website.  As opposed to a "blog site."  I even bought a domain name - this is not a drill.

Once that website is up and running (not sure exactly when that will be because I just started working on it and have very little idea of what I am doing at this point), this blog site will be phasing out.  I plan to transfer all my attention and blogging activity to the new site.  That also means I'll be blogging less often,* but I will be posting mini-articles about the arts, arts and faith, and writing stuff, more often.**

But Rachel, why would you do this to us?

Well, this whole editing and writing thing is what I would like to do as a profession.  A website is a nice, professional platform for someone offering editing services, but I don't really want to maintain a separate website and blog.  Right now I have my "website" stuff rolled into my blog site - after the transition, the blog site will be rolled into the website.  Easy.

But Rachel, how will we find the new site?

I'll post it here, of course!  I'll have a transitional period to give you plenty of time to switch over - all ten of you.  ;)

But Rachel, professional sounds like a synonym for boring...

Ok.  The editing services part of the site (and possibly the home page) will carry a professional tone, as will the mini-articles, but everything else is up for grabs.  I still like to have fun, so I don't anticipate that going away.

But Rachel, what about The Wednesday Review that we love so much?

Yes, I've thought about that.  I will still do book/movie/music/whatever reviews.  I probably won't do them every week (I don't even do that now!), but I will still do them, and they will still fall on a Wednesday.  I will also occasionally add to my Off the Shelf and From the Vaults features.


Anyway!  A couple of days ago, I was outside taking a walk, when I found them: Early blackberries.  There aren't very many and they're easy to miss because they're wrapped up in some non-blackberry bushes, but they're there.

When I first saw them, I was walking pretty briskly, talking on the phone with Mom.  I glanced at the bushes for some reason, and noticed a few little red berries.  Raspberries? I thought to myself.  I stopped and stepped closer to see. Not raspberries!  Blackberries!  I caught sight of a darker berry.  RIPE Blackberries!!

I could hardly believe it.  Naturally I ate the ripe berry (delicious) and scoured the bush for more.^  I must have found upward of a dozen little blackberries ready to be eaten.

I cannot tell you how happy this made me.  I'm an Oregon girl, born and bred, and blackberries are huge.  They were an integral part of my childhood.  Those ubiquitous spiny bushes grow all over the place in the rainier parts of the state - I don't remember once paying for blackberries as a kid.  You just go for a walk or hop in the car with a bunch of containers and find a good bramble to start picking on the side of the road somewhere.  When I was really little we used to go pick Wild Mountain Blackberries - the kind you need inside information from the loggers to find.

Having lived in other parts of the country, I know that blackberries are a very western (perhaps even Pacific Northwestern) thing.  Berries in general, and particularly blackberries, just aren't a very big deal most other places.  So it's exciting to be back in Oregon for berry season.

You may remember that I recently went strawberry picking:

Twelve pounds of washed strawberries.

And now, Unexpected Blackberries!?  It made my day.  No, it made my whole week.

Look at those beauties!
So pretty!  So delicious...

The Pacific Northwest is berry heaven.  We've got several varieties of blackberries and strawberries.  We've got raspberries and blueberries.  You can find black huckleberries,*^ red huckleberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, and more.  I learned to identify them as a kid, just by going for walks in the woods.

All this to say, finding a little trove of ripe and ripening blackberries when the rest are still in the flowering and green berry stage was very exciting.

But Rachel, where are these lovely, early berries located?

Nice try.

*Which, let's face it, I'm already doing because of generally being so busy this term.

**Right now, all I have in that vein is what's on my arts and faith blog, which has been sorely neglected for quite a while now.

^And ate a few nearly ripe ones, as well - yum!

*^Which are actually blue and look a lot like blueberries.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Desk Chronicles, Part Three: The Library

Welcome to the final installment of The Desk Chronicles!

This is the bookcase to the right of my writing desk (you can see a corner of the desk in the picture).  I have several bookcases, each holding a different assortment of books, and sometimes DVDs.  The bookcase at the end of the hall, for instance, houses mainly middle grade children's books.

This one by my writing desk houses the bulk of my academic library.  These are books that get my brain working on tropes and metaphors and the like, and make me feel smart and writerly.  They're also pretty neat!

The first shelf houses folklore, mythology and legends:

This is some really interesting stuff, I'm telling you.  I've mostly read the thinner volumes that you see, but I'm working on The Faerie Queene, and occasionally I'll read from the anthology tomes, like The Mabinogion and The Poetic Edda.  After I finish The Faerie Queene* I'll probably start in on Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.

The next shelf down holds my poetry collection:

Aside from The Word Exchange, each of the books on the left side of the shelf is comprised of a single poet.  The works on the right are miscellaneous.  There's Paradise Lost, some German poets, and a couple of anthologies.

Next we have the drama shelf:

Here we have a few anthologies, some TV and movie scripts, and a bunch of individual plays.  The ones on the right are in German, the rest are in English.  Someday I hope to have read all of them.  So far, I've made pretty good progress.

Next is the reference shelf.  These books are all more or less academic in nature.  Some are actually textbooks from past studies!

And finally, the bottom shelf.  This is a jumble of miscellaneous Stuff, but the books on the left are the important ones:

That concordance is great, and the I love my Matthew Henry's Commentary.  Good stuff.  They're on the bottom shelf because they're so big and heavy.

And there you have it, folks!  That's my home office, right there.  What does your home office look like?

*I intend to read the whole thing over the summer.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Adventures in Strawberry Picking

I have not been strawberry picking in years - decades, even.  It's been a very, very long time.  So when my friend Erica suggested we go picking this year, I jumped at the opportunity.  An early spring, conflicting schedules and recent rainy weather all threatened to derail our plans, but they could not defeat us.  We went today, and it was a perfect day for picking: overcast, cool, with only a few sprinkles of rain, and it was dry enough yesterday that the field wasn't all muddy.  Perfect.

We went to Lee Farms to get our berries this year.  The field was just a small one, but there weren't many people out picking and Erica and I soon discovered that the Terrible Spiny Weeds* growing amongst the strawberries were the key to finding hidden treasure: All the other pickers must have been avoiding the areas with more of those stickery weeds.  As a result, they hid tons of lovely ripe berries.**

Three big, juicy, flavorful Oregon Strawberries.

We had a great time picking, but as soon as we stopped, our backs, legs and arms became suddenly and extremely tired.  I'm happy to say I picked 12 pounds of berries in an hour and 15 minutes.  The flat was buckling under the weight.  It was awesome.

12 pounds of freshly picked strawberries.

You may be wondering what I'm going to do with all those berries.  Well, I'll take some to Mom and Dad.  And I'll keep some for eating.  Maybe have some strawberry shortcake.  I may slice and freeze some.  I don't know yet - I need to look at the freezer jam recipe and see how many I'll need for a batch.  Maybe I'll go picking again...once my muscles recover.

I think I'll look into raspberry picking, as well.  And I can't wait for blackberry season!

Oregon is berry country.

*These things were killer.  Surprise stabs while reaching for berries were very unpleasant.

**Ripe, delicious berries.  I was a little concerned they wouldn't be very good because of the recent rain, but they're great.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Desk Chronicles, Part Two: Beneath the Surface

Welcome to another attempt to justify my deskical messiness.  I give you: The Desk.

You may remember this from last week.

The saga continues.

Today I shall be walking you through the interior contents of my beloved (yet unnamed)* writing desk.

I call it: The Stationary Drawer.

There are three shallow drawers in my writing desk: A narrow drawer on the left, a wide drawer in the middle, and a narrow drawer on the right.  What you see above is a picture of the drawer on the left.  This contains a veritable miscellany of mail-related items.

On the left is a stack of post cards, which will in the future be sent either to my friends in Georgia or my Compassion sponsored kids.  There's some random stuff underneath the stack of post cards, but they are the main item here. To the right of the post cards is my little address book and a bunch of post card and letter stamps.  To the right of those items are some cards with envelops (not pictured).

And that is how I keep up on most of my correspondence.

Next, the middle drawer:

Clockwise from the bottom left: An assortment of permanent markers, yellow highlighters, extra pens and pencils, and tubes of pencil erasers; Stacks of letters from my Compassion kids;** the welcome packets and other information about my sponsored kids, a piece of stationary for a letter to one of them, and some spare Compassion envelops; my old, blunt, scratched up pocket knife from Crater Lake, my good scissors, and a ruler; a little wooden tray that came with the desk and holds mechanical pencil lead, my red colored pencil, and a red, blue and black ink pen.  Somewhere in this drawer is also a cord that can be plugged into a wall outlet.  It's connected to a little power strip in the back of the desk, so I can plug things in right there if I need to.  I've never used it.

And finally, the drawer on the right:

This drawer has a variety of small office supplies, from the 3x5 lined note cards that I have loved ever since 9th grade German, to the colored tabs I use to mark pages and 3x5 lined note cards, to some address label things and a container of clear tacks I used to hang my Doctor Who exploding TARDIS poster in my children's book publishing classroom; there are note cards with Bible verses written on them and scotch tape; more thank you cards, an awesome Awesome Citation notepad, some sticky notes, and a thumb drive that's currently in my backpack.

Well... That appears to be it.  That's what's in the drawers.  Lots of Stuff.

*I once had a lovely Ikea desk named Alfie. It was a derivative of the desk's Ikea name, which I no longer remember.  Interestingly, that's the only desk I've ever named.

**That's one of the best things about sponsoring a kid through Compassion International - you get to exchange letters with them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another Conference?

This last weekend marked my third consecutive Oregon Christian Writers one-day conference!

It was a great day, aside from getting up just after 5:00 in the morning to drive to Eugene, where it was being held.  I car-pooled with Linda, an OCW friend, and we arrived early enough to not have to hunt for a parking spot.

The theme was bridge-building, and Bob Welch was an engaging keynote speaker. Good stuff!

I gave away a copy of my book in the drawing, and Linda and I were the poetry experts at the conference, so I sat at a table with a "Poetry" sign on it, and at lunchtime people could come talk to us about poetry. We had a great time.

After lunch we had workshops.  I went to one about self-discipline as a writer (and time management, and organization) that was a lot of fun.  I ended up spending a bunch of time in the bookstore talking with my friend Hillary and generally having a good time.

Worth the drive.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Struggle is Real

Oh, look at that - a stack of middle grade children's books!*  Just sitting there, resting quietly on top of one of the shelves in one of my bookcases.  And what's this?

The Faerie Queen!  Also nestled peacefully amidst its fellow books.  There's just one problem.

As a lover-of-books, I always have a multitude of volumes on my shelves that I have yet to read, but there is always hope that one day, I'll get around to picking up King Lear, digging into that biography of King Hussein of Jordan, ploughing through The Faerie Queen,** and reading the History of the Kings of Britain.  But the children's books always take precedence - I never have a pile of unread middle grade novels sitting on my shelves.

Until now.

For the first time in my life, my children's books purchases have outpaced me.  I simply haven't had the time to read them.  Which is absolutely heartbreaking.  Every day, several times a day, I walk past that stack of children's books.

My hands itch.  My steps falter.  My gaze lingers.  My brain runs through a catalog of all the books on my shelves that I'm dying to read and don't have time to right now.

I suppose it's a good problem to have.  Much better than having time to read but no books nearby.

But still.  It's a little disheartening to turn away from such bounty, day after day, to go do homework.^

*Actually, two stacks.

**Which I actually have started.  And haven't had time to continue...

^Even though my homework this term is fantastic.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Waiting for the Paint to Dry

It's Mother's Day weekend, and my Mom just got back in town from visiting my brother and his family, so we're hanging out today.  It's kind of funny, because we're both tired.  So we've just been relaxing.  Here's what we've done so far:

1. Had lunch.  Mom made curry pea soup and quinoa - delicious.

2. Talked about painting - set stuff up.

3. I practiced guitar for a bit.

4. We went for a stroll along the river.

5.  We came home and took a nap.

6.  We did some painting - Mom's doing a big canvas acrylic of Niagra Falls, and I'm basically doodling; I have no idea what I'm doing.  I did a couple of trees.  Now I'm going to do a landscape of some sort.  Hopefully.

7.  Right now we're waiting for the paint to dry before continuing.  Mom watched some painting videos on YouTube and I started this blog post.

8.  Mom's prepping an early dinner and I'm finishing this blog post.

We are just a couple of balls of energy today, aren't we?  But it's nice to be relaxing together.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wednesday Review: Fun 4 Hire

Hello, everybody!  Welcome to another edition of The Wednesday Review.  Today's topic is:

Book One in the Fun 4 Hire Series
Introduction: The Water Fight Professional is book one in a new series of middle grade books* about well-meaning trouble-maker Joey Michaels.  It's summer time, and Joey is trying to make money by getting people to pay him to throw water balloons at their enemies.  It's a risky business, especially when Joey makes a bet with his best friend about how much money he can make.  Can he win the bet, or will his annoying little sister and the obnoxious neighbor girl ruin everything?

My Review:  I read a lot of middle grade fiction, but on the surface, The Water Fight Professional doesn't look like the kind of book I'd be much interested in.  It's not terribly long, there's nothing life-or-death at stake, it's in first person, and the writing is fairly breezy.  Nothing wrong with any of those things, but they do tend to go against my personal tastes.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I absolutely loved this little gem of a book.

That breezy, first person writing is deceptively simple.  Author Angela Ruth Strong does a fantastic job of getting inside Joey's head and portraying him as a fun, regular guy.  You can't not like this kid.  This is important because, although the stakes may not be the fate of the wizarding world, they are very high to Joey.

The book is published by Ashberry Lane,** which is a Christian small press, but Strong doesn't hit readers over the head with the spiritual aspect of things - it's never really center stage, but is very naturally integrated into the story.  So here we have a pretty normal boy living a pretty normal life and dealing with his faith in a corresponding manner.  Very well-done.

There are a couple more books already in the series:

Book 2

Book 3

I don't know how many books will be in the series when it's all said and done, but I've read these first three and have been happy to see that the series incorporates the passage of time very well.  We get to see Joey learn and grow over time, so it's not a cookie-cutter series with all the same plot and character arcs repeated over and over again; it's theme and variation.

I think this is a particularly good series for boys, especially if they aren't huge readers yet - it's very approachable and easy to read.  And it's a lot of fun.

Copyright: 2014
Publisher: Ashberry Lane
Length: 168 pages
Genre/Age: Middle Grade

My rating: 4.5 stars

*Middle Grade books typically appeal to kids aged 8-12.  And me.

**That's how I found out about these books.  I do some editing for Ashberry Lane, and when I first started I went on their website to see what else they had published.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

I Have A Tattoo! Adventures at the Dentist

Sort of.

Apparently if you've had silver fillings (even if they've re-done them as composites or those teeth were pulled or what-have-you), some of the material can get into your gum tissue and eventually leak, staining the gum.  Also, if you happen to be missing a tooth in the middle of your left jaw, you can hurt the gum a bit while eating, resulting in some tenderness for a few days.  I did that, and had a sore gum, and when I looked in the mirror on Thursday night to see if it was inflamed, lo and behold: It was gray.

In case you're not aware, gray is not a normal color for your gums to be.  And the gray wasn't just localized where the gums were sore, oh no.  No, it was also spread in front of a couple of neighboring teeth, which were also feeling a bit tender.

Naturally, I immediately looked up my dentist information to see how to go about making an appointment.  It was night time, so I'd have to wait until the next day to call, but given that my face might be rotting off, I was pretty sure they'd fit me in quickly.

Feeling daring, I did a quick google search to see what I could find out about gray gums.  There's trench mouth, which was clearly not what I had, and a couple other things that I thought I *could* have, and that were either not a big deal or easy to treat.  Then I found a page with disaster information all over it, so I got off the internet - you can't base your self-diagnosis on what you read online anyway, so why get worried about a doom and gloom site that's probably completely wrong, anyway?

Yesterday morning I called the dentist and got an appointment for that afternoon.  When the dentists looked at the affected area and poked at it with one of those fierce metal dental tools, and then got a complete set of x-rays to examine, the verdict was delivered: The discoloration is an amalgam tattoo (silver filling leakage), and is totally unrelated to the tenderness, which was probably solely from eating whatever it was that hurt the gum.  Completely harmless.

So, I'm pretty happy about that.  Of course, my entire mouth was sore for the rest of the day from all the brushing and flossing I had been doing, and from the dentist poking around for my complete check-up (I was past due anyway), and from the stupid unwieldy and slightly painful mouth x-ray apparatus.  But hey, I'm just glad it wasn't something that had to be fixed.  As it was, I had no cavities and all my gum tissue numbers were good.

A day without the need of a dental or orthodontic procedure is a good day.