Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

I've been trying (off and on) to read through all the Newbery Award winning books. It's been fun, and I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the high quality and sentiment that I've found in many of the recent winners. But I'm going to say right up front that many of the Newbery Award winners of the 70s and 80s just don't impress me. Julie of the Wolves was the medal winner in 1973. And while I assent that the book is a fascinating story, and very well written, it's just not inspiring. But please hear me out because I do think this is a good book and worthy of a read. I just wouldn't put it on an Absolutely Must Read list. 

Now, of course, there are plenty of award-winning stories that I don't find inspiring, but as I've read more and more, I've noticed general trends over the years. (And since the Newbery Awards are given each year to books that came out the previous year, it's easy to see general shifts as styles coming in and out of vogue.) The vogue for many of the 60s, 70s, and 80s books seems to be a writing style focused on realism--the sort of realism that tries to relate to people instead of inspire them. I have nothing against being realistic per se, but a story can be both realistic and inspiring, and I think those are the ones worthy of a "most significant contribution to children's literature" award. 

Julie of the Wolves is written in this "realistic" style. Though, it hardly deals in normal everyday life, and it's impossible to say how truly realistic it truly is, since it's a story about a young Eskimo girl who gets lost in the wild and survives by insinuating herself into a small wolf pack. The survival story is fascinating, and the reader gets to see much of Miyax's ingenuity and good humor. (Miyax is her Eskimo name, while "Julie" is her assumed English name.) She watches carefully and patiently, and learns her surroundings in the vast wilderness until by a combination of wisdom, chance, and cleverness, she is able to sustain herself. The story gives a good flavor of the lifestyle of the old-school native Alaskans, and the Americanization of many of these Indians. It also briefly mentions the very prevalent problem of alcohol abuse in the northern villages. All of these I can vouch for being fairly accurate, not from personal experience, but from my own father's stories. (Who travels around and works in many of these villages.) 

In the middle of the book, we have a flashback, explaining why she ran away into the middle of this wilderness. Aside from the beautiful way that Miyax delights in the wilderness and in her own ability to survive, there is much sadness in this story. Miyax was taken away from her father to be put in a school. She was "married" at thirteen to the sun of a drunkard. Then she subsequently ran away from this arrangement...when she got lost in the wild. On the other side, when she comes out of the wild and finds her father again, the reunion is singularly disappointing. He remarried (his first wife having died) an American woman who wants her to speak English and put her in school again. 

These last circumstances are not necessarily bad, but they're sad when contrasted with how much Miyax had grown to appreciate the knowledge and wisdom that the ancient Eskimo's passed down. The reader does not see Miyax praised or congratulated for her fortitude and capabilities. All we see is that she arrives home, eager to share her new found skills, and she is merely asked to act like a "normal" American girl. First this offends her, and she leaves her father's house. But, unaccountably, she changes her mind, is somehow reconciled to the fact that "the hour of the wolf and of the Eskimo is over" and returns again. As I said, it's a fascinating book, but hardly inspiring. 

However, I can give a few good reasons for reading the book: 1) the descriptions of the Eskimo lifestyle are fascinating and full of the wonder and ingenuity involved in "living off the land." (This was one of my favorite parts about the book.) 2) The writing is excellent and succinct, and the descriptions are often poignant or full of good humor. And 3) the "real life" elements in the book, while sad, present some important questions that are good to discuss with school children.

(The book, by the way, is categorized as being for ages 10 and up, which I would certainly corroborate in light of the potential questions and discussions about the story.) 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis

I can hardly think of a culture more different from modern America than that of 1920s central China which Elizabeth Lewis presents in Young FuAnd yet, for all the differences, Young Fu is a teenage boy who faces hardship, peer pressure, and the result of his foolish decisions. He is also ambitious, works hard, and humbly accepts correction to please his superiors. 

In this other, very foreign culture, Young Fu moves with his mother from the violent and war torn countryside to the city of Chungking. There in the city, many people live in squalor, eating (with little variation) a penny's worth of rice a day. There, a "Beggar's Guild" and "Thieve's Guild" demand money from the tradespeople in exchange for a promise that they would not be molested. There, coup after military coup ravages the city as soldiers steal food and supplies from the people, and murder the citizens at a whim. And there, Young Fu plans to make his fortune. 

All of these aspects of the city and Young Fu's life are incomprehensible to the modern American reader...except for the last. Children in every culture dream of their futures and desire to make a name for themselves. Anyone could appreciate Young Fu's ingenuity and hard work. And even if they don't share it, they would recognize that Young Fu's passion for learning was significant in his success.

Of course, as the American welfare society has developed, there is less need for ambition to work hard and "rise above" a current situation. After all, why work when you can live fairly comfortably on someone else's dime? Young Fu did not have this option. But in the book, we see the rise of Communist sentiment, and Young Fu experiences firsthand the damage it can do to society and businesses. But Young Fu had no sympathy with these new and radical ideas. His ambition and hard work was unique even in his day. His character, while not exactly a "hero" figure, is not just someone to relate to, he is a figure to inspire the reader to a better and more fruitful life. 

One thing that inspired me was Young Fu's amazing humility. Make no mistake, he had plenty of pride and thought quite well of himself and his abilities. But there are several occasions when he makes foolish decisions, with serious consequences that affected not only himself but also his mother and his kind employer, Tang Coppersmith. In these circumstances, he faced a dilemma: should he cover up his mistake and try to fix it on his own; or should he confess it and lose the respect the he had worked so hard to earn? Each time, Young Fu decides that the safer option was to speak the truth, apologize, and work hard to make it up. This humility earned him extra work but he also gained much respect and the friendship of his elders. 

This would have been an excellent book for me to read as a child, and I will certainly make sure that all of our children read it! It's a quick and exciting read, with good themes of honesty, hard work, and respect for others. And what's more, it's a culturally accurate historical novel that provides a little glimpse into Chinese life in the 1920s. It's never a bad thing for children to realize that the world is full of people who live very different lives...but who are also very alike in the most essential ways. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Review: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

I remember my dad reading this book to us when my brother and I were young--young enough to share a bedroom. Suffice it to say that it was a long time ago. I fought with, and adored, my brother in those years. I was something of a tomboy, and proud of it too. So when my dad read Caddie Woodlawn, it delighted me so much that I remembered my delight years and years later, even when I couldn't remember anything of the story. 

I bought the book at a sale not long ago on the strength of that memory, and only in the last few days have I accomplished the re-reading that has been waiting the last twenty years. And I was not disappointed! 

Caddie Woodlawn is a book that will certainly delight both boys and girls. It has everything in its favor. For one, it is based off of a true story--the story of the author's grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse Watkins. And that fact alone makes many elements of the tale even more exciting, even though we don't know which parts of the story were "true" or "embellished". The exciting escapades of the children are more daring; their friendship with the Indians is more unusual; their favorite dog walking from St. Louis to the wilds of Wisconsin is more incredible; and the surprising truth about their father's past is more astonishing, simply because of the possibility that they might actually have happened to the author's grandmother. 

Then, there's the delightful character of Caddie. She's a tomboy for sure. With her, Tom and Warren, the two brothers on either side of her in age-rank, formed such an inseparable triumvirate that when Caddie (finally) started being interested in house work, the boys followed suite. They learned to quilt and cook and keep house with her, assuming that nothing Caddie did was too "girly" for them! She was quick, vivacious, and full of daring. But it's clear that she is compassionate as well, which is just as winsome as her courage. On one occasion, she has a silver dollar all to herself and spends it all on the lonely half-Indian children who lost their mother. Through the story she also gradually notices and has more sympathy with her younger sister, Hattie, whom she had always previously regarded as nothing more than a nuisance.  

Throughout the book, there are many good episodes to provoke thought or conversation about right and wrong, bravery versus disobedience, generosity versus "wisdom", and in general, what it means to be part of an American family. Without being preachy, the themes of hard work, learning, independence, sacrifice, and camaraderie are apparent in each chapter. It's a great book. I heartily recommend it, and I definitely won't be waiting another twenty years for the next re-read! 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kate Miller 47: And the two shall become...Three!

Writing happens a lot less frequently when there's a newborn to take care of! But here, at long last, is the birth episode. I have a couple more planned, so don't say goodbye to Kate Miller quite yet!

47. And the two shall become...three! (Sept 4, 2013)
By the time they reached the hospital, Kate’s contractions were coming quickly, every five minutes or less. She practiced her breathing exercises, focusing on breathing in and out, directing her thoughts away from the vice grip on her back that tightened with every contraction.
They took her into a room with another girl in curtained off section, gave her a moment to change into a hospital gown, and then asked for her information. Kate felt rushed and awkward, having to pause in the middle of giving her phone or social security numbers to lean over the on the bed and breath deeply whenever a contraction would come. Well, I’m glad they’re not going to have to induce labor! she thought to herself with only a small pittance of relief. Relief right now would look more like sleeping on her stomach for about a year.
After moving to her own room, the doctor measured her and pronounced that she was at 2 centimeters. Kate was alarmed. That’s IT?! she thought, aghast, after laboring all day I’m only at 2? Her eyes widened with worry as she realized she was only 20 percent of the way to delivery. Two hours later, the contractions were rolling one after another, like waves hitting her back on each side in an ever tightening vice grip. After being measured again (this time at 4cm), she took Mister’s hand. He was tired and distressed, seeing Kate hurting and not being able to help. Beforehand, they had talked about trying to avoid medication--especially an epidural, considering Kate’s extreme antipathy toward needles. But with each contraction, Kate felt that with one more, she must either vomit or faint. So after a moment of talking, they decided to change their plans and get the epidural. Needles were the least of Kate’s worries at the moment, and considering how much longer the labor was bound to last, getting some rest through the night would be essential for their general sanity.
In a matter of minutes, the anesthesiologist came and hooked Kate up to the medication. The pain ebbed away to a warm numbness. Not completely numb, as Kate had expected. She could still feel pressure, and the muscles contracting, but the pain was gone, and she could relax. What’s more, Mister, who she now noticed was looking haggard, could stop worrying and get some rest. It was almost surreal how relaxed she was. But she didn’t have a choice. Her legs felt too heavy to move--she could only barely slide them up and down in the bed. She couldn’t lift herself up or roll over. So, she lay in bed, relished her lack of pain, and read her book: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, which Mister had recommended to her. She didn’t usually read books of that sort, but she appreciated its unique style, and Dillard’s experiences inspired her to write with more purpose and dedication.
She read. She looked around the shadowy room, considering the subtleties of colors in dim lighting. She watched Mister sleeping in the reclining chair by her bed. And she slept herself, but fitfully, interrupted every fifteen minutes by the squeezing and beeping of a blood pressure cuff digging into her left arm. The nurse was always and ever kind, helpful, and prompt. She tried, but failed, to mute the blood pressure machine. She had two boys of her own, one just starting high school. Kate sighed at the passing of time. Her own son was only hours away from starting his life in the world and she knew that it would seem but a breath’s worth of time before he would be in high school himself.
At ten o’ clock the next morning, Theodore James Miller was born. He came out quiet, and nestled snugly on Kate’s chest for a few quiet minutes, but proved that he had a more than adequate voice when the doctor took him for poking and prodding. He had a full head of dark silky hair, and the most adorable little button nose. Mister was by her side the whole time. When the doctor handed Theo to him, his eyes glowed with pride and joy. He and Kate shared a long look and remembered the wonder of the ultrasound many months before. “We have a son.” Kate said again with a smile, and added with a small laugh at the wonder of it, “We’re three of us now!”

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Kate Miller 46: Waiting...

Would this baby ever come? Kate couldn't fathom it...what would it be like to not be pregnant?

46. Waiting…
Mrs. Laurie Wills arrived in Virginia not a moment too soon. It was August 21, a full week before Kate’s due date, though Kate would have much preferred if it was a full week after her due date and made no bones about saying so. She greeted her mother with a hug, and they laughed together as they simultaneously groaned while easing into the car. Laurie suffered from a bad back and neck, made worse by the long cross-country flights, and Kate suffered from, well...pregnancy.
What a boon it was to have some company in her misery! And, being family, they laughed over the same inane jokes and then laughed again at their laughing. Mister endured it all with abundant grace, goodnaturedly shaking his head at their giggles, running the AC nonstop, toting laundry up and down the stairs, and hauling groceries in from the car.
At home, Laurie and Kate read murder mysteries aloud, alternating chapters and often taking spontaneous naps...sometimes mid-sentence. There were no spurts of energy. But when there were spurts of being rather less tired than usual, Laurie would drag Kate to the grocery store and back again. And on such occasions, Kate would consider the state to which she had fallen and feel exceedingly sorry for herself. Only a month ago, she had been climbing mountains (granted, she climbed very slowly), but now she could barely make it to Costco and back. As a matter of fact, she could barely even get dressed by herself for the pain in her back and legs.
going to the pool with friends 
Five days before the due date, Mister left for a wedding in Atlanta. Many of their friends thought Kate was crazy to okay these travel plans, widening their eyes and shaking their heads when they heard of it. But Glen was a good friend from college, and Kate wanted Mister to be able to go if at all possible. And these plans had the benefit of helping her to desire the baby to come late…
And it was a good thing too, because Mister went and came back; and the due date came and went; and nothing happened. Kate’s friend, Lise, and her two kids came to visit and play in their community pool with her. Lise laughed as Kate submitted to (and even requested) much splashing and dumping of water from the 2-year-old, Mary. They talked about pregnancy and late babies, and finally Lise asked, “You do know...he has to come out at some point.”
Kate smiled, but shook her head. “No. I don’t think so. After all, I’ve always been pregnant, and I always will be pregnant.”
Lise gave an understanding laugh and Mary dumped another bucket of water on Kate’s head. “Don’t worry, Kate,” Lise said, “I’m pretty sure time will prove you wrong.”
Mister took Kate for long walks, being patient with her slowness and stopping when she needed to rest. Laurie liked walks, but she was accustomed to Alaska weather and wouldn’t even contemplate stepping outside for more than a few minutes at a time. She merely asked that they give her an estimate for how long they would be gone, which time and again they failed to give accurately. But how was Kate to know? Honestly, when she could barely put on her shorts in the morning, how could she have guessed she could walk three and a half miles?
A couple days later Kate woke up at 5AM having a contraction. Wow, that’s a strong one! she thought. About ten minutes later, she had another. The middle and lower part of her back felt like it was locked in a tightening vice grip. These were different. This must be the real thing. She rolled over and gently poked a mound of blankets.
“Dear?” she said.
“I’m going to get up.”
“I’m having contractions.”
“Okay,” came a suspiciously uninterested and sleepy response.
She gave the mound an indulgent smile and slid off the bed and went downstairs to sit on the heating pad. But Mister appeared only a few minutes later, vague concern in his squinting, blinking eyes. He got her some water and the doctor’s phone number and a pen to keep track of the contractions. He hovered for a little bit, and finally asked,
“Are you all right?”
Kate smiled and answered the question he was really asking. “Yes. You can go back to bed. I’ll be fine for a while.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kate Miller 45: Freezer Meals

Chicken scraps, bean cans, and dirty dishes...this late in the game, it's time to call for backup. 

45. Freezer Meals (August, 2013)
            In preparation for her son’s arrival, Kate thought it would be a good idea to make a Costco run with Aunt, and make up a batch of freezer meals to be used over the coming two or three months. Kate had not done much exploring in the realm of social media—Facebook and a blog being her two small efforts. But she had recently signed up for a Pintrest account and found it fascinatingly helpful. She had already found many knitting and crochet patterns, and now she surfed the pins again to find suggestions for freezer meals. It was easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of boards, each full of pins, and each pin with several meal suggestions. But she sorted through them and saved ten to her own board. Then she systematically went through the posts and wrote comments below them for the meals that she wanted to try. This is ALREADY time consuming, she thought, after spending an hour and a half looking at things online, and I haven’t even gone shopping yet!
            But shopping she did go, and driving home, Aunt said that she could feel all the extra weight in the car. Kate looked regretfully at the number she had written in her checkbook, but felt a warming sense of satisfaction looking at the fifty pounds of meat on her counter. They would do for a lot of meals. The first day, Kate managed to get eight meals in the freezer—two cooked and the rest for the crock pot. She checked them off her list with relish. A couple days later, she managed another four, again, two of them already cooked. She checked them off, but looked with dismay at all the other meals she had on her list.
            Let’s face it. Kate thought to herself, I’m slowing down. I’m tired. I can’t even take a step without my leg hurting (blast that silly nerve). How am I going to lean over the sink and clean another 20 lbs of chicken thighs? Besides, I’ve never made any of these meals before. What if they’re terrible? All the wasted time…Ugh…
            At this opportune moment, Mister appeared behind Kate and wrapped his arms around her. She leaned back, letting his strength seep into her, and nuzzled her cheek against his.
            “Do you know how amazing you are?” Mister asked her.
            “No, how amazing am I?” a smile cracking her strained expression. Has it been that long since I’ve smiled? Kate grimaced inwardly.
            “You’re carrying our baby around and cooking a month’s worth of meals in a few days.”
            Kate liked hearing his encouragement, but she couldn’t help but let her own worries out. She released herself from his hold and hobbled over to the refrigerator, “Look,” she demanded, pointing to many pounds of chicken, pork, cheese, and vegetables yet to be arranged into meals, “There’s too much left.” She sighed and leaned against Mister once again, feeling defeated. “I’m too tired, and there’s too much to do.”
            The next day, Mister entered the kitchen with Kate and stood at the sink for what must have been the greater part of an hour, cleaning and processing the rest of the chicken thighs. Kate made up another seven meals. She knew she couldn’t have done half as much on her own. And here he was, her ‘knight in shining armor’ slaying the most odious dragon of a task with the skillful thrust of the sword…or knife, really.
            A few more meals over the next couple days, and their small chest freezer was well stocked. Kate liked to open the shiny white lid and peer over the edge to see rows of colorful gallon bags and aluminum pans and long white packages of fish filets.
            One night during their frenzied week of cooking, Kate lay next to Mister, feeling overwhelmed with love as she realized once again how carefully and well he cared for her.
            “Do you know how much I love you?” She whispered in his ear.
            “How much?” he asked.
            Kate hadn’t thought this far ahead. She tried to think of something to say. ‘A lot’ was absolutely not going to cut it. ‘More than you can imagine’ was just patronizing. She thought and thought was at a complete loss.
            “I…I don’t know,” she finally stammered.
            Mister stared at her in disbelief. Then he started to laugh, and Kate began to giggle uncontrollably. “I don’t know!” she chortled, “That’s why I’m asking you!” 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Kate Miller 44: Last Trip to Williamsburg

Only just back from Alaska and they're off again. Who wants to stay by themselves for a week, especially being 36 weeks pregnant? 

44. Last Trip to Williamsburg (July/Aug, 2013)
            July 29 – I’m in Williamsburg again while Mister is at another conference in Philadelphia. I miss him…Kate wrote in her journal as she sat in the Mortte’s guest room. It was a lovely room, blue themed, cozy, with unique German drawings and antique furniture. Kate and Mister had been home from Alaska for two days before Mister went off for another week to a conference at Bren Mawr. Kate spent a dreary night alone in their townhome, and then drove to Williamsburg on Sunday afternoon after a delightful Thai lunch with her Vietnamese friend, Hannah. It was essential to be with other people. If she must sleep by herself, at least this cozy room at the Mortte’s made Mister’s absence less obvious.
            And each day was busy. Kate had plans: morning with Jennifer Mortte (the Mortte’s son and daughter-in-law had both attended Hillsdale with Kate and Mister), afternoon with Mrs. Mortte, a nap (probably), and evening games with Jennifer and her husband. She would be in Williamsburg for 4 nights, and each day was full up with fun visiting and necessary resting.
Kate looked down at her belly, now huge and tight against the T-shirt she favored for her pajamas. It bulged on one side, then bounced and jiggled and bulged on the other side. Kate laughed, making it shake and bounce even more. She wrote, Baby is moving a LOT these days, and I actually really enjoy feeling it—much more, now that it’s obviously the baby and nothing else! It’s such a fun unique feeling. I wish I could share it more easily.
            The next day, Kate met Jennifer and her two daughters at the James River, just a minute or two down the street from their house. It was warm and sunny, and the water was cool, a perfect day to swim—at least for someone who was nearly nine months pregnant! Her general feeling for the last couple months was cast as “in favor” of cold water dunking. She rarely got to indulge herself and had to restrain herself from instantly splashing into the water the moment they arrived. They picnicked on the sand and Kate took the two-year-old Eva into the water while Jennifer watched her baby play in the sand.
            “Let’s play crocodiles!” Kate suggested.
            Eva’s eyes grew wide, and she grinned. “You’re the daddy crocodile and I can be the mommy crocodile!” Yes. Very important to establish that.
            “Okay. Do you know what crocodiles do?”
            “What?” Eva whispered, not sure if she wanted to find out,
            Kate grinned, “They roar and show all their teeth when their hungry! And I’m hungry…” Kate showed her teeth and gave an intimidating roar and thrashed about in the water.
            Eva roared and showed her teeth. They both roared at each other. Then, naturally, they settled on a location for their crocodile house, taking special care with the kitchen and the bedrooms, roaring all the while and ignoring the obvious suggestion that such hungry crocodiles would probably have found something to eat in their kitchen.
            It was such fun, but when Kate got home, she hastily drank some water, dried off, and went to bed. Her last thought as she drifted off was, I’m sooo tired. How on earth am I going to care for a baby? But when she woke, she felt refreshed and remembered (with some measure of relief) what so many people had told her: “By the time you have a two-year-old, you’ll have two years of experience...they start out much easier.”
            Kate returned home Thursday night, spending one more night alone before Mister’s return on Friday. She called Mrs. Mortte when she arrived, and duly reassured her that she hadn’t gone into labor on the drive. “Thanks again,” she said sincerely, “it’s so wonderful having you close by. It’s a real home away from home, and especially nice for me when Mister is gone.”
            “Anytime! We love having you!” Mrs. Mortte replied with enthusiasm. “And we can’t wait to meet Baby Mueller—let us know when we can come up and see you after he’s born!”
            After they hung up, this last comment haunted Kate for some time. After he’s born...! I’m sure he’ll have to be born sometime. But for the life of me, I feel as though I’ve always been pregnant and I always will be! 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Kate Miller 43: Mister's Dream (A Guest Post)

It wasn't the first dream he'd had about their baby, but this one seemed so real! 

43. Mister’s Dream (Guest Post, July 2013)
They had just returned from Alaska and Mister was still getting over his jet lag. After going to bed at 11PM he had slept until after noon the next day. It was during this well-earned rest that Mister had his dream.
The beginning of the dream was unimportant and irrelevant Mister thought. After all, who really cares if he had a confused video chat with a friend in Michigan who showed him footage of a lightning storm so violent that it looked more like a battlefield? No, the interesting part of the dream was about Kate and Mister’s baby. The setting of the dream was a house, not any house in particular, in Colorado.
He had just come inside when he heard the baby crying (screaming really), and he ran, worried, into the room to take care of the child (thinking that his time to change a diaper for the first time had finally come). But when he entered the room, he found her standing there with a red face and red eyes. Being a dream, it did not strike mister as odd that the child was a girl, or that she was standing, even though she was less than two weeks old. But so she was.
As he went to pick her up she said clearly, “Hot! No, Thank You!” Now, this did stun Mister. His daughter had said her first words! And she was less than a month old! Amazing! Well, luckily Mister’s hands were cold (a surprising boon that Kate often appreciated) and he was able to sooth and calm the child as he picked her up. He gently danced with her to and took her into the main room.
Jubilant and proud of his daughter, Mister exclaimed to the first person he encountered, “She said her first words, plural! Can you believe it?” The fellow did not, in fact, believe it. So Mister asked his daughter to say those words again and, in typical baby rebellion, she just stared at him. But Mister was not deterred, being fully confident in what he had heard. So he started putting her on the floor, a place she most decidedly did not want to be. At first she started fussing but then she said, somewhat intelligibly “No.” “There you see?!” said Mister, “She said ‘no’! And before, she clearly said four different words! I was prepared for her not to speak for a year or even longer; but here she is a couple weeks old, standing and speaking multiple words!” His friend didn’t deny that he had heard something.
Mister, at this point, was ecstatic—not just about the fact that his daughter was talking, but that she was intelligent and could understand him. The combined relief from not having to change her diaper and the pure joy of being able to calm the child and carry her in his arms, he wondered if it was real. “Am I dreaming?” he asked rhetorically. He turned to his mother-in-law, Laurie, but she just smiled, shook her head, and faintly said “No.”
At that, Mister turned and walked to the windows with his daughter to show her what mountains were. His girl was talking and showing other signs of awareness. And she hadn’t actually been due to be born for a week and a half. Wait, he thought, this means that I can go to Glenn’s wedding without any worries. In fact, Kate and the baby could have gone with me too if we had known she was going to be born so early and develop so quickly. But then he caught Laurie’s voice drifting out of the kitchen, “I didn’t have the heart to tell him...” To tell him what?
The unreality of his surroundings and circumstances began to dawn on him. He turned to Laurie and said, “I am dreaming aren’t I?” Laurie reluctantly assented, “Yes, you are definitely dreaming.” The pieces started fitting together. Who ever heard of a two-week old baby talking? Not to mention a two week old baby who was still a week and a half from her due date! And wait a second, why was it a girl?! The sonogram had clearly shown that they were going to have a boy! Oh well, thought Mister good-naturedly, it is a dream after all. But what a wonderful dream! I don’t feel the same ecstasy as before, but I still feel joy at holding a child in my arms and knowing that soon I will hold another child in my arms in reality; even if he won’t be speaking to me any time soon.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kate Miller 42: The Baby "Reception"

Parental advice No. 1: Don't let them eat it if it is moving! (from Mrs. T, hostess of the "Baby Reception") 

42. The Baby “Reception” (July 2013)
            Almost a week after their arrival Kate and Mister went to the Wills’ church—the same church where they had married not quite four years previously. Even though it had been almost ten years since Kate had lived at home and attended regularly, many families still knew her well and were delighted to see her and Mister when they walked in the door. There were all the usual exclamations and questions relating to pregnancy, health, comfort, etc…and then the inevitable exclamation: “You have to have a baby shower while you’re here!”
            “I do?” Kate replied, not averse to the suggestion, but taken aback by the force of it.
            “Well, yes! Think of all the people that want to be able to celebrate with you!”
            Kate thought of them. It could be fun. But it was, by no means, essential to life and happiness and pregnancy. One thing was certain, she was not going to put any effort into planning such an event or asking her mother (who was not too keen on parties or mass gatherings of any sort) to do so for her.
            The next day, Kate discovered her mother on the phone.
            “I don’t understand what the issue is…” she was saying. “…So why would it have to be a church baby shower?... No, we’re not going to plan an open house at the church!”
            Kate had to laugh. An open house at church was a far cry from an intimate party at someone’s house. Not only would she not plan one, she wasn’t sure she would want to commit even if someone else did! When Laurie got off the phone, she sighed and turned to Kate.
            “Apparently,” she said, “you can’t have a baby shower.”
            “What does that mean?” Kate said, confused.
            “Well, I guess they don’t want to set a precedent for church-organized baby showers for old members or relatives of members…trying to avoid hurt feelings, I guess.”
            “Someone will get hurt feelings if someone throws me a baby shower?” Kate asked.
            “I don’t know,” Laurie shook her head. “I guess they just have this policy…”
            “Well, don’t worry about it. If it’s an issue, then I don’t want anything. And I certainly don’t want to start a fuss or hurt anyone’s feelings—however strange the cause might be.”
            But the subject of baby showers would not die easily. A couple days later, when Kate was walking with Mrs. T, they talked the subject over. Mrs. T, with her eminently practical mind, bombarded Kate with a series of questions.
            “Now,” she said, “the question is: would you like any kind of party?”
            “Well, sure,” Kate replied, “but…”
            “No buts,” she interrupted, “it’s a straightforward question. Now, what kind of party?”
            Kate had to think about this. It was true that she didn’t want the standard baby shower fare. But what did she want? “Well,” she said at last, “I think I would just like some time with the ladies that know me well, have some snacks, and sit around hearing their stories—the funny ones and the inspiring ones and learn about their early parenting experiences.”
            “Okay!” Mrs. T said with enthusiasm. “That’s something to work with! We’ll do it! We’ll have it at my house. Let’s pick a date.” And with an imperial wave of her arm, Mrs. T swept away semantics and church politics and potential hurt feelings, and created, Kate felt with almost physical forcefulness, a Baby Reception for Kate Miller.
            The reception was a fabulous success. Not a lot of people, but just the right amount, in Kate’s estimation. They were all able to fit in a circle in Mrs. T’s living room, and there was certainly no shortage of interesting stories and advice. One lady told how she and her husband were building their house when they had their daughter, and she spent the first four (or was it six?) years without running water. Kate listened, mesmerized. They all took turns telling wild, improbable tales, laughing after-the-fact at hair-raising adventures, and advising Kate, not to avoid collecting her own series of stories, but to not worry in the midst of them.
            “God is the one who keeps them safe;” one mother said, “it’s a mysterious thing how he gives us such responsibility, and no real power. But we trust in Him, and He strengthens us.”
            All the mothers nodded. 
            Kate felt this deep truth even in pregnancy. These mothers were true pioneers. They struck out on the adventure, humbly and joyfully, with a great task ahead of them and nothing but trust and hope to lead them on. And Kate would join them. But, she wondered, would she be able to do it joyfully? 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Kate Miller 41: Practice Contractions

Never pay attention when someone says you'll "just know" when something happens...

41. Practice Contractions (July 2013)
on top of the ridge
            Over the three (plus) weeks that Kate and Mister were in Alaska, they went on several hikes, and Kate got all the pregnant pictures she could want in her natural habitat. The hike at Hatcher Pass was one of her favorites. For one, she was able to go even farther than she had gone a couple years ago on the same hike. They reached the peak of the ridge, the highest point, not a huge point, but they were able to look down all around them. It was cold though, and rainy, with a fierce wind blowing at the top. Kate was wearing shorts and a tank top, and the wind chill probably put the temperature under forty degrees! Kate grinned as Mister put on her sweatshirt. “Handy that I have this extra little heater to keep me warm!” she patted her tummy.
            And even though she did feel cold on the way down, with the wind blowing and the cold misty rain clinging to her skin and clothes; it was a beautiful hike. It was just the right sort, where she could climb and work, and feel like she was conquering the mountain. To stand at the top, surveying the vast wilderness beyond the first peak and on to the next and the next, feeling so big and so small at the same time—that is what Kate had wanted. So big and so small, she wrote in her journal later, just like how a baby can feel so big, taking up all that room inside me, and yet he’s so small that he fits inside me! It all depends on your point of view…
Resurrection Bay, Seward
            After Hatcher Pass, Mister took Kate up the Mile-Hi saddle, partway up Mt. Marathon in Seward, for a long walk along Eklutna Lake, and up the diminutive but steep Mt. Baldy. Baldy was the last, and it was difficult because Kate had climbed it many times and was only too aware of her increasing awkwardness and decreasing speed. Occasionally, she would pause and feel her side or the front of her belly.
On the Mile-Hi trail
            “I think he wants to go hiking too,” she declared to Mister. “He’s pushing awfully hard!”
            At the top (as she had many times along the way), she rested for a bit, giving her aching calves a break and catching her breath. She and Mister decided to take a slightly longer but less steep route back down the side of the mountain. Kate tried to walk quickly, sometimes trotting, holding her hands under her belly to keep it from bouncing too much. At the steep parts, she clung to Mister’s hand as if it was a third leg to balance on, and they would trot down together, sometimes sliding, to the next level area where they could rest and Mister would dump surprising bursts of cold water over Kate’s head.
            After a long walk back to the car (Mister having gone ahead to pull it up to the trailhead), Kate collapsed into her seat and gratefully downed half the remaining water bottle. She gingerly lifted her aching feet. “I think that’s my last hike,” she said regretfully. “But it was a good one,” she grinned. “I’m glad we did it.”
At Eklutna Lake
            “It certainly was the perfect day to do it,” Mister agreed, “We could see clear to Mt. McKinley and beyond. Those mountains behind The Sleeping Lady are really amazing.”
            Kate nodded, but said only, “Oof. He’s really pushing a lot.”
            Mister felt her belly. “Wow. That definitely feels really hard…what do you think that is?”
            “I don’t know. Maybe a leg, or his bottom?”
            Back at the house, Mrs. Laurie Wills, listened to their adventure and shooed them off to the bathroom to get cleaned up. When Kate returned she sat next to her mother and said, “Here, feel this. Feel him pushing?”
            Mrs. Wills felt around, a delighted smile growing across her face. “I can finally feel him! Hurray!” Then she paused and felt around a little more. “Are you sure that’s just him pushing?”
            “I think so,” Kate replied, “What else would it be?”
            “I think it’s a practice contraction. You know, when it’s hard all over like that.”
            “Seriously? Why did no one ever explain that? People are always asking me if I’m having practice contractions, and I always say no… but that’s been happening for a while!” 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Kate Miller 40: The First Hike

How could they forget the camera?! What if this was Kate's only opportunity for mountain pictures? 

40. The First Hike (July, 2013)
            It took some serious effort, but Kate managed to tie her own shoes. Mister had been decisive. They were going hiking. They were going somewhere new. And they were going today. This was what Kate had wanted—one of her main goals for their stay in Alaska! Why then, was she feeling so nervous about it? Perhaps it was the fact that standing up from a sitting position often caused severe pain. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of general movement—displayed all too obviously by her difficulty getting her hiking shoes on. Perhaps it was the suspicion that she would desperately have to use the bathroom five minutes after they passed the last outhouse. (As it turned out, she did—which made tying her shoes look as easy as spitting.) But she shoved her fears aside and strode (waddled?) out to the car. After all, this is what she had wanted!
            The drive out to the trailhead was uneventful, and it turned out that they had many options for trails. It was a whole connected system of trails between several different mountains. Some skirted the sides, some plunged into the valleys and followed the river, and others climbed to the peaks. Too bad it was difficult to tell which were which… They decided to just start up and see what the trails looked like as they came to them.
            “We should get out the camera!” Kate said, eager to document this new hike.
            “I don’t think we have it.” Mister replied.
            Kate stopped and stared at him. “How can we not have the camera?” Her voice went up almost to a whine. “I looked around for it and didn’t see it. I thought you must have grabbed it.”
            Mister shook his head, only slightly moved by his wife’s violent reaction. Kate turned and walked next to him in silence toward the trailhead.
“I can’t believe we didn’t bring the camera!” she muttered with slight variation every few minutes as they started up the trail.
She looked straight ahead of her, biting back tears that she couldn’t explain. But she was undeniably in ‘the depths of despair’, as Anne of Green Gables would put it. When she really pressed herself, she didn’t just want to go hiking. She wanted to get out on top. She wanted to document it. She wanted to have pictures on top of a mountain looking her full seven months pregnant. Pride, she sighed deeply as she stalked along. I might have known it would be something horrible and ridiculous. She pressed her lips together to hold back more tears, but of a different sort.  
            Mister looked at her cautiously. “Does that ruin the entire hike?”
            Kate smiled and took his hand. “No. Of course not. It’s just a disappointed expectation. I’m still glad to be here, and I will still enjoy it. I’m sorry for making such a fuss.”
As it turned out, the hike was not worth bringing a camera. Kate and Mister never made it to the top. The views, while lovely, were not spectacular. It was just a nice climb up and down in the mountains, with lots of conversation beginning, “next time, we’ll…” It was a good first hike though, not being particularly steep or muddy, and it was a good amount of exercise, and (most importantly of all) it proved to Kate that she really could get out and go hiking. Until this point, in spite of all her desire to hike, she hadn’t been convinced of her ability. This, she realized, was another reason why she had been so distraught at leaving the camera behind.
            She was slow, yes. And often out of breath. And sometimes needed extra help going down when it was difficult to see the steepness of the rocks around her large belly. But the capability and stamina was definitely there. She expressed her relief to Mister back at the car.
            “I really thought this might be the only hike I got to do; that we’d get back and I’d be totally incapacitated, and wouldn’t be able to climb anything. But I actually feel pretty good!”
            Mister just smiled. “No, you did great. How about going to Hatcher Pass tomorrow?"
            Kate gulped, but nodded, “And let’s be sure to get the camera, shall we?” 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Kate Miller 39: The Sleep Experiment

It may sound crazy, but when you're not sleeping much anyway...why not experiment? 

39. The Sleep Experiment
            Kate had always been a terrible sleeper. Growing up, she would surreptitiously stash books under her covers to read late into the night during the brightness of the Alaskan summers. She remembered lying awake during her high school years for what seemed like hours in the dark, thinking and wondering why she wasn’t asleep. Even in college, when she got less sleep and was more tired every night, just falling asleep was a chore on par with cleaning the bathroom. And now that she was seven months pregnant and rather rotund, achy, and stiff, her sleeping issues were compounded…often waking up at 5 or earlier, after at best, a few fitful hours of sleep!
            This is how Mister convinced her to try a sleep experiment. Poly-phasic sleeping, it was called. Mister had done it for a time in college—thus earning much curiosity, censure, and ultimately lasting fame among some circles. The premise is that the body needs a certain amount of REM sleep to operate properly, so if you can train your body to enter REM sleep instantly, then you only really need 2-3 hours of sleep per every 24 hours, versus the normal 7-9 hours. These 2-3 hours are spread out through the 24 hours as 20-30 minute naps taken every four hours. Kate and Mister had decided to try it together while they were in Alaska, considering that a) they would have few commitments to hinder their 4 hour schedule limits, b) it would be light out at night to help with the general inclination to sleep with the darkness, and c) it would very likely help train Kate’s body to fall asleep more easily—something she might retain even after they were done with the experiment.
            The night before they were to leave for Alaska, they stayed up all night—very convenient because they would be gone for three and a half weeks, and Kate had done next to nothing in preparation. So except for their few 20-30 minute naps, Kate and Mister packed and cleaned and picked up the house, and took a walk around 3AM down the middle of the road. When a car approached and zoomed by, Kate had to laugh at how absurd they must have looked to the driver…taking a stroll in the middle of the night. But she also had to admit that it was pleasant; cool and quiet, a stark contrast to the daily “rat race” running around them.
            The second night was more difficult, since they were traveling to Alaska, also staying up all night. And Kate had especial difficulty with those several naps being in too many noisy, public places—one in the airport, one on the plane, and another in the car. For each, she barely dozed. And even so, when they reached the Wills’ house, she was full awake, smelling the fresh Alaskan air, wanting to run through her parents’ house, investigating and saying hello to each, dear, familiar room.
            Over the next few days, Kate enjoyed being awake more hours of the day. Maybe for the first time in her life, she was up when her dad was getting ready to go to work and going for walks or early morning grocery runs with her mother. She started falling asleep more readily, but even so, she didn’t feel like she was getting onto the schedule the way she was supposed to. Mister could fall asleep instantly and wake up feeling refreshed. For Kate, it still took her several minutes to fall asleep, and rousing her was difficult. Every time he woke her, Mister looked as sorrowful as if he had just been forced to kill a bunny.

            So the sleep experiment, which they had been hoping to continue through their long stay in Alaska, died a natural death after the first five days (feeling much longer because of the amount of wakeful time). The midnight walks were fun—delightful even. The extra time together, reading and watching their online labor and delivery class was certainly useful. But Laurie and Dave Wills had moved an incredible memory foam bed into their guest room, and Kate couldn’t help but feel that, in light of her usual sleeping troubles, if she could actually enjoy sleeping all night long, it would surely be an experience worth having…and it was! 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kate Miller 38: Father's Day

It's never "just another day" with the one you love...

38. Father’s Day (June, 2013)
            Kate sat in the airport, ready to go to Alaska. It was the beginning of July already. She opened her journal and browsed the last entries. She sighed, realizing that once again, she was woefully behind. When she was by herself in Williamsburg, she had been faithful to write a page of the day’s events and thoughts. It was nothing award-winning, just good notes to remember. But her last entry was June 16!
            Today is Father’s Day, she had written. I slept well last night! (So thankful to have power back on for the ceiling fan!) At church we had a great sermon on Psalm 1. I especially appreciated the side comments about how we spend time—“Quantity of time leads to quality time.” And, “You have time to do what you value the most.”
            Kate chuckled to herself, “Clearly that would not be keeping up with my journal!” But it was a good thing to remember, thinking about that day. She had driven to Richmond and back in order to spend the evening with Mister. That took a lot of time! Kate thought, with some sense of satisfaction. And that’s something I’ll always have time to do! It had been a fun evening, even with the hours of driving…and the maniacal drivers that had trouble sharing the road!
            After being apart for “only” three days, their reunion felt almost magical. Kate ran to meet Mister, coming out of the dorm where he was staying for the conference, and he lifted her up and swung her around. They kissed and cuddled and talked, and eventually their stomachs begged for some consideration. As with many dates and adventures, Kate and Mister just hopped in the car and chose a road. They drove down a main street, full of local shops and restaurant and pubs frequented by the many college students living in the area. They parked and walked down the street, trying to decide between Indian and Thai. It was dreadfully hot, and Kate could feel her feet actively swelling, but she held Mister’s hand and felt blissfully happy.
after dinner
            Thai won out, (mostly just because they reached it first) and as they sat waiting for their food, Kate took Mister’s hand in hers and said, “Happy Father’s Day…”
            Mister grinned.
            “So how does it feel to be a dad?”
            He thought for a moment and then nodded with his usual calm, matter of fact expression. “It feels good,” he said, smiling, “It’s intimidating, but exciting.”
            Two weeks later, Kate nodded as she reread her journal. Intimidating…but exciting. That pretty much sums it up, she had written. I just hope we can be GOOD parents…and also fun parents, at least when he’s old enough to have fun.
the train station
            The rest of Father’s Day had been uneventful but fun…not what anyone would say was overly special, but special all the same because Kate was able to spend it with her best friend, exploring the world. They drove around downtown Richmond, thinking to stop here or there and realizing that everything was closed because, after all, it was a Sunday and Father’s Day! But they drove by the capitol and looked at the monuments. And they stopped at the huge, beautiful old train station and marveled at the luxurious waiting rooms, outside balconies, and parlors. The station was still used, but hardly got enough traffic (or suitably dressed traffic) to restore the station’s atmosphere to former glory. It was a relic and a museum, still useful, but an icon of a different era. Kate had driven through Richmond a few times before and always wanted to see the inside of this ancient and imposing building.

That night she considered what had been so fun about the evening. It wasn’t just the train station…or going out for dinner…or exploring new places. It was simply being with Mister. It’s great, she wrote down in her journal, to be reminded of just how fun and natural it is to be together; that times apart are okay because they end and then we’re together again. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Kate Miller 37: Power Outage

No TV, no computers, no lights...what's left? (Food to eat, friends to talk with...old fashioned goodness.)

37. Power Outage (June 2013)
            In the middle of June, Mister had another conference to attend, only this one was in Richmond, and commuting between there and home was out of the question. And since Kate did not relish the idea of being home alone for five days, it was an easy option to drop him off in Richmond and drive the extra hour to Williamsburg to spend the time with her dear friends from Alaska, the Morttes. They always welcomed her (and Mister) with open arms, as family.
            But the drive down presented some difficulties of its own. Kate had never been one to check the weather, and as the rain began pouring, and traffic started backing up, and twigs and branches started falling on the road, she began to wonder if she was missing some vital information. Mrs. Mortte called Kate’s phone shortly after they pulled up to the university. “If you can wait a while before leaving again, you should,” she explained, “there’s a terrible storm due to hit any minute, and I hear that 64 is a crawl!”
            “Thanks for the tip!” Kate replied. “I’ll wait a while and call you when I’m leaving.”
            She and Mister strolled outside in the rain to explore the University of Richmond, a gorgeous old campus, built to be beautiful and inspire an awe of learning. They walked and talked and were almost unsure of what to do with themselves. It was like entering a strange time warp. There was a storm. And what was there to do but simply be together?
            Kate found that this was indeed the answer. When she got to Williamsburg that evening, all the lights down the main street were out. The neighborhoods and businesses alike were dark. Unmarked and unnoticed trees were down, completely blocking roads, pulling power lines down beneath them, uprooting fences, and sprawling across yards, decks, roofs, and cars.
            Wow, Kate breathed in awe. She could think of nothing else. Many of the trees and branches were impressively large and stout, not tall and thin like the birches of the north. When Kate pulled up to the Mortte’s house, everything there was dark too. But Mrs. Mortte threw open the door and said, “Welcome home!” as she always did. Kate grinned with pleasure at the familiarity and gave her a big hug.
            “Hello! This is exciting!” Kate said. “It looks like the power is out all over!”
            “Yes. You know the strangest thing is that the storm only lasted maybe twenty or thirty minutes. It just came up fast and furious and then left just as quickly!” Mrs. Mortte pointed to the trees in their backyard. “All of a sudden, all those trees were just blowing sideways! It was the strangest thing to see!”
            “It sounds incredible. But at least it’s cooled off, if the power has to be out!”
            The sky still held its rosy, after-storm glow, and for the rest of the evening, Kate and Mr. and Mrs. Mortte sat on the porch, relaxed in deck chairs, just talking. Again the thought occurred to her—what was there to do but just be together? It was pleasant, she thought, doing Williamsburg the “old fashioned way”. Sitting on the porch in the cool of the evening…all that was missing was a knitting project or a large bowl of green beans to leisurely snap as they talked.

            The power stayed off from Thursday afternoon until Saturday afternoon—but it felt longer than two days. Perhaps it was the limited options. Perhaps it was the heightened time of conversation and communion together. Kate imagined how in olden days children seemed to mature faster out of necessity. It must have been natural if two days without power can feel like five days with it! Kate thought. But the power mercifully came back with the hot weather. The temperature spiked from the low seventies to the upper eighties, and Kate, in spite of her delight in the “old time way”, was relieved to once again have an air conditioner at her disposal. After all, she thought, people can ‘just be together’ in the air conditioner too…