Thursday, June 30, 2011

What We're Reading

Read anything good lately?

I'm trying to make sure that we use these lazy days of summer (which are totally not happening; June has whizzed by in a craze of activity) to carve out some daily reading time.

And as always ... not just for the kids!

The girls and I found Art Fraud Detective: Spot the Difference, Solve the Crime! at the library the other day. In a word: LOVE. You use the enclosed magnifying class to pore over famous paintings, trying to spot the forgeries among the real deals. It's like a high-class version of Where's Waldo?  They were definitely digging it.

 Ian just finished My Side of the Mountain,  at my encouragement (Remember our survival literature unit? I also got The Cay on audiobook; thanks for the recommendations in the comments!). Yes, I do require some reading that's not either Percy Jackson or Star Wars graphic novels. Shoot me.

Shark vs. TrainShark vs. Trainis getting reading after reading at our house. Thank heavens, my daughters are not too old for the right preschool-age picture books! Bonus: this gem was written by a local homeschooling dad.

Let's see, what else ... oh, we just finished Socks. Not my favorite Beverly Cleary in the whole wide world, but still fairly amusing.

I've been prowling the British Isles, literarily speaking. Not intentionally, but between Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Novel (the latest sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie),  and Mansfield Park it's apparently my season for Angliophilia. Read any of them? I'd say Major Pettigrew's my current favorite.

That's all for now! Happy browsing.

(Affiliate links therein, folks. Just disclosing. Over and out.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday Travels: Branson, MO -- Part Two

So, to continue the unfolding adventure of my sponsored jaunt to Branson two weeks ago ...

Seatbelts buckled, armchair travelers?

Last week I mentioned outdoor activities in Dogwood Canyon, lunch and a brief tour of the Keeter Center at College of the Ozarks, and the Titanic Museum. Now, if you've ever heard of Branson, chances are, you've heard of its ubiquitous shows. Folks, if you want to sit and be entertained for any length of time, this is the place for you. In the course of four days, I attended five shows. And some of my fellow travel writers attended more. Just between you, me, and the electronic doorpost, I was maxed out by Show #4.

BUT. All crankiness aside, I'd recommend bringing the kiddos to at least one show if you're in town. Recommendations:

4a. The Dixie Stampede. Two words for you: Dolly. Parton. Yup, she's the producer. Need I say more? The dealio is, you sit and eat downhome cooking with your fingers while watching lively entertainment in the arena (complete with horses, buffalo, chickens, and racing pigs). Also, there's a friendly North vs. South  rivalry that gets the audience involved. My brain was involved in a fierce Civil War of its own, as follows:
Me as a Person: Oh my. This is hokey.
Me as a Mother: Oh my. My kids would FLIP for this.

4b. Legend of Kung Fu. These talented folks from China actually performed in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. (And they didn't lip-synch!) They put on a really impressive extravaganza of martial arts, dance and acrobatics. The kids sitting behind me were absolutely riveted, even at 10:00 p.m. Also, we got to meet the performers and snag post-show autographs in the lobby. I tried to say "thank you" in Chinese. They were probably laughing at me.

4c. The Hughes Brothers variety show. Full disclosure: Didn't attend this one. But, I met two of the five Hughes brothers at a dinner reception and they were super nice. And they homeschool their collective twenty-nine kids, all of whom are part of the show. Gotta put in the plug for nice homeschooling families!

My other recommendation:

5. Silver Dollar City.

Yes, it's a theme park, and yes, I'm generally unimpressed by theme parks -- i.e. places to lose kids and part with lots of money. What made SDC soften my curmudgeonly edges?

- The park builders deliberately kept as many trees as humanly possible. This translates into shade, baby, lots of SHADE.

- All the thrill rides are along the outside perimeter of the park. The center area belongs to the festivals and the craftspeople (leather workers, glass blowers, wood carvers, etc.) that preserve the 1880's theme. Love that.

- Included in park admission is an hour-long tour of Marvel Cave, which has a cavern so large you can fit the Statue of Liberty in at an angle (I didn't try).

- Parents, you can take cooking classes! While one of you rides roller coasters with the kids, the other can learn, as I did, how to make a killer chocolate meringue pie. I wrote down everything the instructor, Debbie Dance Uhrig, had to say. Now I have no excuse not to turn out a grrrrreat pie ... which I will be doing ... ummmmm, really soon!

- Most important, check out the name of the ice cream parlor. Can I make the joke about "good taste?" No? Okay. I won't.

(Fun fact: Five episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies were filmed in and outside of this building.)

And I can't close without tipping my hat to Branson Zipline. Yes, it's not really a budget-friendly family activity, but if you've found and harvested your family's secret cash cache, or you just want go all out with a small group, zipping along through those tall trees is quite exhilarating. And, they say, quite safe. Unless a thunderstorm begins. Then it's not safe. Then you have to wait on a platform sixty feet off the ground until the lightning stops.

But that won't happen to you. I've been there and done it for both of us.

You're welcome.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Gift of Hospitality

We entertained a few angels last week.

Some of them looked like this.

Was it always convenient to have six extra people in our house, cramming kids and dog into our own room, feeding the guests two meals a day, having very little access to my computer, and staying up late to talk when they arrived home from the church conference some were attending? 

Uh, no. 

Did the kids' rooms get massively cleaned and decluttered? Did I get to watch my daughters play with, and help care for a toddler? Was it oddly energizing to pour out the effort, learning a tiny bit more of Mary's spirit in a Martha week? Did we receive as much love and blessing as we gave, and then more? Did we mourn our guests' departure, feeling their permanent presence in our hearts and ours in theirs?

Definitely. Absolutely. Indubitably. 

244. Hospitality -- given and received.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Hebrews 13:2

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Road Trip Idea: Branson, MO

This is a Tuesday Travels post, my friends, but in case anyone's counting, it's ... not Tuesday.

But yesterday, the actual-factual Tuesday, I experienced multiple technical difficulties that prevented any blogging. So can we pretend together that it's Tuesday? Because "Wednesday Travels" just doesn't alliterate.

I'm uptight that way.

Anyway, last week I spent four days in Branson, Missouri with a whole slew of other travel writers on a press tour (like the one I went on last fall) as guests of the Branson CVB. Now, when I say, "other travel writers," I'm being generous with myself. Let me clarify.

All the other attendees = Professional travel writers who do this for a living, belong to the Society of American Travel Writers, and like to talk about that fact. (But are nice people.)

Me = Professional mom who travels with her family whenever she can and likes to write about it -- for no or very little pay.

One of these folks was not like the others.

Now, when you think of Branson, what springs to mind? A haven for baby boomers trying relive the glory days of the Beatles or the likes of Andy Williams, the Presleys and Roy Clark? The Vegas of the Midwest? I'd love to hear what your preconceived notions are. I went with an open mind, but I'd heard the following from different friends before the trip: "Oh, you don't want to go there -- it's SO honky-tonk!" and "Ooooh, Branson! I've ALWAYS wanted to go there!"

Our itinerary was chock full of activities and shows, but I'm going to give you just my personal highlights here. Remember, I lean toward lower-key, educational or nature-based travel rather than glitzy entertainment productions. That's my own personal bias, and this is my blog, and I own them, yes ma'am.

1. Horseback riding in Dogwood Canyon

We rode for about two hours through completely unspoiled Ozark countryside on land owned by the head of Bass Pro Shops. Y'all. It was gorgeous. I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder with Almanzo and little Rose, glimpsing the greenery of the rolling hills for the first time from their wagon (her homestead is only a couple hours away). Note: You can also hike, bike, ATV, and ride a "tram" through Dogwood Canyon.

2. Lunch at the College of the Ozarks' Keeter Center

Yes, we visited a college. Try this on for size: No student at this college pays tuition. They all work fifteen hours per week somewhere on campus in exchange for their schooling. How cool is that? This would be the perfect place to visit and spend a day looking around  --- at the gristmill, the dairy and hog farms, the prizewinning orchids in the greenhouse, the museum -- for very little money. Oh, and the restaurant at the Keeter Center serves fabulous food that's locally sourced: veggies from their own garden, pork from their hog farm, milk from their dairy, etc. Best meal of the trip.

3. The Titanic Museum

The folks who own and operate this museum have a huge personal collection of artifacts from the survivors of the Titanic, plus some pretty cool re-creations. (They're also friends with James Cameron, but I'm happy to report that there was no Celine Dion playing over the sound system.) I felt like the museum made the whole experience of the Titanic come alive, from the actual-size replica of the grand staircase to a re-creation of the deck in a room kept at the actual temperature of the subArctic air, to decks you could climb that sloped at increasing degrees as the ship sank. Confession: In the very first room, hearing about the passenger on my "Boarding Pass" (a mother of six), I was in tears. Those stories of people who bid their families goodbye and chose to stay aboard -- or knew they were going down and never had a chance -- always get me in the gut.

BRING KLEENEX. This is a Public Service Announcement. Thank you.

This post grows long, so I think I'll share more next week. Happy travels, everyone!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Full Steam Ahead: The Summer Fun List

Howdy, friends!

I was in Branson, Missouri for the past few days doing some travel research (more on that tomorrow). But now it's home sweet home, with floors to mop and sheets to change for a week of guests and freckled noses to kiss.

Here in Texas, we parents have this survival instinct that kicks in around Memorial Day. As the mercury climbs toward triple digits, we start desperately casting about for ways to make it through a looooong, hot summer without slipping our moorings. We can't shoo the kids outside to play when it's a hundred degrees plus humidity, and yes, we can take them swimming, but there are only so many times a week you can round up the towels, swimsuits, googles and flip-flops, make sure everyone has sunscreen, and finally, forty five minutes later, get out that door.

So the kiddos and I have been brainstorming things to put on our calendar this summer (we do a very light school schedule). Things to look forward to. Things that don't cost big bucks. Things that will help us thrive, not just survive. I thought I'd share our ideas, and maybe you'll share some of your own in the comments. A few of them are specific to our city, but most apply broadly, like we're supposed to do with that sunscreen.

Our Summer Fun List: 

1. Make homemade ice cream (Done in Eliza's ice cream ball, multiple times)
2. Find a new sprinkler park
3. Use our Six Flags Reading Program tickets
4. See Mr. Popper's Penguins (the movie)
5. Make a deluxe kid wash, using these instructions
6. Make chocolate pudding pops
7. Participate in our library's summer reading program
8. Do a community service project, such as a book drive for our children's hospital
9. Attend some of the free children's programs at our city libraries
10. Camp out in the backyard -- June 29 is the Great American Backyard Campout
11. Get a Texas Longhorns decal for our car (my kids have become virulent Longhorns)
12. Go see the Zilker Summer Musical in the Park
13. Reorganize our books (yes, I find this fun)
14. Make a "Family Favorites" playlist for our Colorado roadtrip
15. Invite friends over for a giant water gun fight
16. Decorate bikes for the neighborhood Fourth of July parade
17. Work on our scrapbooks
18. Visit a natural swimming hole
19. Perfect the art of iced coffee
20. Buy a used card table and keep a big jigsaw puzzle going
21. Patronize the farmer's market as often as possible
22. Gorge ourselves on fresh peaches
23. Tie dye shirts
24. Drive out of the city one night and watch the stars
25. Paint with rainbow ice cubes

I hope to update this list as we spawn more ideas, and note when each is done. Anyone else making a list?

P.S. Our city has at least one website with ideas for free fun daily, called Free Fun in Austin. Maybe yours does as well!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It's Been One Year

One year, that is, since our very close call. One full year since the curtain drew back a bit to show us just how thin is the line between life and death -- or a life completely changed -- that we unknowingly walk every day.

June 14, 2010:

June 14, 2011:
                                          (She's taught herself to do underwater somersaults.)

What have we learned in a year?

That the people who share intense moments of grief and hope and comfort with us are forever connected. They shared in our story, by chance or by choice, and that cannot change. Even now, there's something about those faces that were with us around the pool, in the waiting room, beside the hospital bed, that won't fade with time.

That life is unbearably fragile ... and yet resilient. How often have I rolled my eyes and sighed at childish behavior -- only to stop myself and thank God that I still have my child?

That bad things can happen even to vigilant parents, and that even in my heightened state of vigilance, I cannot keep my child cocooned from all possible harm. I cannot arrest her growth because of my fears. We rest in His mercy.

To celebrate a year of the life we received back again, our family passed out a hundred water-safety door packets with Colin's Hope, started by a family whose story ended more tragically than ours. It felt good and right -- to all of us, despite the heat -- to take some sort of action, to perhaps ward off someone else's close call. No cajoling required.

Parents, as you head to the pool this summer, please ...
                                      ... Make sure your child takes swim lessons, starting as young as possible.
                                      ... Always have an adult who's not chatting, texting, or the like but is focused on watching (or swimming with) the kids. If it's not you, know who it is and make sure they know too!
                                      ... Keep an eye out for little ones getting caught under rafts and under inflatables.
                                      ... Check out this important safety list for more tips.

Oh ... and hug your little ones today. Don't forget to say, "I love you."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Multitude Monday XXIII: Loaves and Fishes

Last week, I mentioned that our family was heavily involved in our church's Bible Camp for PreK-6th graders for the week.

What I didn't mention was that a week before the camp started, we were fifty-fifty as to whether the whole thing would actually take place. Staffing shortage, you know.

This year there was a small core of us, including my husband and another guy also named Tim, who handled all the planning and organizing (my job was planning the crafts and games). The only person who'd done this before and had any clue was Stephanie. Let's just say it's a good thing we switched to an unlimited-minutes cell phone plan, because evenings at our house were a conference call extravaganza.

The gospels tell a famous story of how Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children,  using a young boy's meager offering of five loaves and two fish. What gets me about this story is the passing mention of what Jesus did BEFORE opening the buffet. He organized the people. He thanked the Father. Then, He broke the offering into pieces. And lo, it was enough -- and then some.

The capability of our small planning group seemed like paltry loaves and fishes about ten days ago. What are these among so many? But what we had, we offered to Him. His breaking of it meant our realizing that our own strength was not fit to meet the purpose. Our natural talents could not meet the need of the hungry ones -- in this case, a crowd of orange-shirted children. We desperately needed His blessing, above what we could ask or think.

And He gave it. I asked Him not only to bless our labor, but also that we'd get through it thriving, not just surviving. That we'd be tired, of course, but not strung out or wanting to bang our heads against the wall. That there would be joy.

I believe He answered. Others -- our marvelous group of workers, many of whom materialized at the last minute -- seemed to concur. And the kids' enthusiasm sure didn't hurt!

Thankful for this miracle and so much more ...

#230. Kids singing the story of Samuel.

231. The pairs of willing hands who helped me cut hundreds of strips of colored duct tape for the kids to make wallets.

232. A voicemail on my phone from a boy telling me how much fun he had all week.

234. Smiles from the tired serving ones who know how to find joy in the labor.

235. A brother in Christ for my husband to pray with.

236. Wild media rumors indicating that Stephanie and I may have been seen indulging ourselves with a girls' day out for a pedicure when all was said and done.

237. A visit from my brother and his wife halfway through the week, en route from California to Massachusetts ... and the way they spent time with my kids.

238. The ability to sing when I feel like sighing.

239. Brainstorming a summer to-do list with the family, even as the thermometer hits 100. Summer, YOU WILL NOT WIN.

240. The smell of my daughter's hair as I lift her from the pool.

242. Newly engaged friends cropping up everywhere.

243. June trips on the horizon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ramona Quimby, Age 8. I Mean ...

... make that Eliza Diller. The Age 8 part is right on the money, though!


During the Week of Extreme Busyness and Blog Silence, we celebrated the eighth anniversary of our beautiful girl's arrival in this world. Happy birthday, Eliza!

It was her year for a party (parties on even-numbered years; special outings with a friend on the odds), and she wanted her talented improv teacher to come as Penelope Foolish. We obliged. It was our first year to hire out the entertainment, but let me tell you, it was so worth it. All this tired mama needed to do, aside from purchasing a few supplies, was provide the food.

Eliza's 8thBday Party

She requested for her birthday the following: A Bible. And an ice cream making ball. She received both. The Bible kind of speaks for itself (and my mom got it monogrammed!). But the ice cream ball? Is awesome in a totally different way. We've made three batches already in her quart-sized ball, and they. were. scrumdiddlyumptious.

Birthdays are the best, don't you think?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Multitude Monday XXII

camp collage

Friends, this is not a blog-friendly week. Let me just to the chase here. The next four days will be consumed with a) Bible Camp, b) my daughter's 8th birthday (it's her year for a party), and c) a visit from my brother -- that would be the brand-spanking-newest Dr. Bekker -- and his lovely wife. In fact, this very nanosecond I should be cutting vast quantities of colored duct tape rather than ... well, doing this.

But I'm feeling grateful for so many things that I just had to record the briefest of Multitude Mondays here today.

#223-229. Picking up our son from camp. Seeing his freckled grin again and the ease with which he's made himself at home there. Watching and listening to him sing "Blessed Be Your Name" with his buddies, arms linked. Knowing he missed us, but not enough to cause heartache. Feeling happy confidence radiating from him. Hearing him rattle off stories galore and encourage his sister to come along next year. Receiving reports from his counselors and other staff members, with words like "happy go lucky," "polite," and "awesome kid."

(Y'all, I'm gloating here, but bear with me. Remember, I've sat there when my child asked a room full of people what a virgin was. I've also sat there on numerous other uncomfortable occasions, like when his preschool teacher told me in front of him that he "has GOT to learn to keep his hands to himself." Take THAT, Mrs. Tinkham.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Be Courageous! And Maybe Sort of Crazy.

My apologies to anyone who was hoping for a WIWW post yesterday. In case that's you, here are my excuses: 1. I took no photos this past week. 2. We are fairly consumed around here with preparing for our church's Bible Camp next week. 3. My heart is aching as I follow Tsh's (and other bloggers') posts from their trip to the Philippines with Compassion International, and it's kind of hard to talk about clothes right now.
Compassion Bloggers: Philippines 2011
If you haven't read any of her posts, please do. In sum, it's nigh impossible to look the other way when kids who could be your own children's playmates live in shacks with cardboard ceilings on top of marshes that are basically giant cesspools. 

Of course, guilt we may feel about our First World perspective is only useful as far as it goads us to action. Sometimes that means committing to send money. God is infinitely wealthy, yes. But He tends to leave much of the distribution to us. 

And sometimes, being His hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth means showing compassion right here at home. 

Story #1. A few months ago I was in an outlet store browsing girls' swimsuits. I suddenly became aware that a woman standing at the counter a few feet away was sobbing into her cellphone. Then the sobbing became wailing. Y'all, I'm talking volcanic weeping here. As in, the entire store fell silent and stared at her. You could have heard an embroidered onesie drop. 

I wanted to help this woman. But the weird thing was, I worried that if I stepped forward, she might lash out at me. Might misinterpret, might blow me off. And what would the other shoppers think? (This nonsense happens when the word "me" enters the deliberations.) I hesitated. Then I walked over to her and just stood next to her until she hung up her phone. 

"What's wrong?" I whispered through her sobs, as the cashier offered to hold the woman's baby. 

"My grandfather just died," she moaned. 

Still unsure of myself, I did what my intuition seemed to dictate. I just wrapped my arms around this woman and hugged her, listening to her choke out the story, until her husband, struggling with a stroller, walked into the store with a bewildered look on his face and managed to take over. 

Story #2. Yesterday, I was in the changing room at the Y. I'd just run for half an hour on the treadmill, and frankly, I probably stank. But I couldn't ignore the frantic squalling of a baby behind the row of lockers, the chatter of two toddlers, and the tense, exhausted voice of their young mother trying to corral kids, swimsuits, towels, shoes, etc. I could pretty much hear the sweat beading on her brow. 

 I have SO been there. Have you? 

Once again, I debated. Should I offer to help? Will she think I'm meddling where I have no business? 
Then: What's the worst that could happen? Answer: She could say no. 

I popped around the locker bank. "Can I help you? I have three kids of my own and I know how it is sometimes." 

It took her all of a nanosecond to hand me the baby, who wasn't happy about the situation but just had to put up with another pair of arms and a weird singing lady in a stinky workout top for a very long two minutes. We got shoes onto the other kids. We packed her bags. "Let me help you to your car," I suggested, and she agreed. She grabbed one and I, the other. (Why is that we moms always end up bringing giant boxcars with short handles to the pool?) I asked my girls to wait inside for me, and we walked all together to her car. 

I wanted to tell her, Jesus loves you

But I kind of figured she knew that. Sometimes, words are unnecessary. 

The point? Not that I'm Mother Teresa come back to life, or indeed anyone worthy of congratulations. Goodness knows I've sat passively by, hoping for someone else to be the Good Samaritan. The point is that we all run into situations where we wonder whether helping is the right thing to do. Excuses abound. I believe they all stem from fear. Fear of being rejected. Fear of looking like a fool. Fear of getting involved. Sometimes, love in action just isn't sensible. 

Or maybe we're the one who needs help -- and it's painfully obvious.  But accepting it requires the same laying aside of pride and fragile self-sufficiency. 

One more story? 
I was a mother with a six-week-old infant, sitting interminably on an airplane, stuck on a runway. The baby -- dry-diapered, tummy-filled -- cried inconsolably. And I couldn't get up and walk her, because the Airplane Nazis had decreed that we must, at all costs, stay buckled into our seats. This time, I was the tense, exhausted, sweating one -- longing for the invisible trapdoor to open and swallow both of us. 

Then I heard a man's voice in my ear. I never saw him. He simply told me, "I just want you to know that you're doing a great job with that baby. She's just doing what we all want to do, and you're doing the best you can with her. Just hang in there." Before I could turn my head, he was gone. 

He could have stayed in his seat, worming, debating, assuring himself it was none of his business. But in that moment, that man was God to me. I've probably told this story before, because it's etched forever on my heart. 

It's not just money He needs help distributing.

It's love.