Week 205: Christmas, Presents, and Treats

The big even this last week was the whirlwind of Christmas. Being almost 4, Sam was at a great age to really get into things this year. She kept talking about everything we were going to be doing, practically building out a itinerary for everyone with the clockwork precision of a monkey running a train station. It’s a good thing, too, because it was a pretty busy couple of days. We went to a big family party on Christmas Eve, where Sam and Mandy met Santa. As this picture shows, however, they were not quite sure what to make of the big man in red, and had to look for each other for guidance on what the HELL do we do now?

On Christmas morning we all rolled out of bed about the usual time, but Sam and Mandy went down to the living room to find the tree engorged with presents. Seriously, some people –AND YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE– went overboard this year on the girls. But they liked it. There was a Fisher Price barn, a Doodle Pro, clothes, a talking clock, a scooter (which Sam has taken to riding in tight circles on the kitchen floor since it’s so cold out), a walker for Mandy, and more. Ger and I had decided not to exchange gifts with each other, but we still got tons of great stuff from others.

Early that evening we got all dressed up and Ger’s godparents took us to a fancy –and very, very good– dinner at a club where old, rich people come to gather. I went in planning to loudly bring up gay marriage just to see how many monocles I could get to pop out from those seated around us, but I quickly got lost in the experience and the appetizer table. Everyone else enjoyed it, too, including Mandy who sat perched up on her high chair like royalty, cramming mashed potatoes and cranberry jelly into her maw and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Good times.

Besides the fact that my mom was in town for another nice, long visit, that’s about it. I took the rest of Christmas week off from work, so I was ready to go back to the office so I could get some rest. Seriously, who decided to make children so tiring? I’d like a word with Him.

On a final note, I’d like to trot out this figure: 1 year, 2 weeks. That’s how long I was able to keep Mandy from finding some cat vomit on the floor and taking a tentative bite. It wasn’t easy, and I think I deserve some kind of medal than you very much.

Books I Read in 2007: A Review

As I did in 2006 and 2005 I thought I’d do a roundup piece on the books I read/heard in 2007. You can always see a list of what I’ve read since starting tracking in mid-2003, but the 2007 list is:

Looks like I forgot to write reviews for a couple, but that’s 34 books –11 paper and 23 audiobooks. Disappointingly that’s down from 49 in 2006 and almost half the 61 books I read in 2005. I plan to correct this trend next year, which I’ll talk about later. In the meantime here’s the breakout:

  • Non-fiction books: 11
    • Science: 2
    • History: 2
    • Biography: 4
    • Business: 1
    • Other: 2
  • Fiction books: 23
    • Sci-Fi: 2
    • Fantasy: 5
    • Horror: 8
    • Literature/Other Fiction: 8

And here’s this year’s winners/losers:

Best Book I read in 2007

East of Eden

Actually 2007 didn’t have many books that really blew me away. Steinbeck’s East of Eden (see my original review here) was one of them, though. Sure, Steinbeck was about as subtle with his allegory as a ton of bricks (we GET IT, it’s ADAM AND EVE and the GARDEN OF EDEN, over and over again), but there’s still a ton of stuff in here that’s subtle and it should speak directly to just about everyone. It’s about redemption, choosing good over evil, free will, and mercy. And while the character of Cathy seems more like a walking caricature of evil drawn with simple, flat lines, she’s still one of the most memorable villains that I’ve read. Just a great book.

Honorable mentions:

Worst Book that I read in 2007

Moby Dick

There were a few books I started and hated so much I decided to quit them (Erikson’s The Gardens of the Moon and Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice come to mind), but I decided to limit this award to a book that I actually suffered all the way through. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (see my original review here) harpoons that prize easily. I swear, there’s some kind of conspiracy among high school English teachers that has placed this book so high in the pantheon of literature. I hated it. Just blah, blah, blah, whales, blah, whales, blubber, blah, harpoons, whales, blah, whales, whales, whales. There was a story and a masterfully crafted novel in there for sure, but I just couldn’t get past all the stuff about whales. I think I can’t say it any better than I did in my initial review:

Melville strikes me as one of those people who would corner you at a party and talk incessantly about whaling, whaling ships, whales, whale diet, whale etymology, whale zoology, whale blubber, whale delacies, whale migration, whale oil, whale biology, whale ecology, whale meat, whale skinning, and every other possible topic about whales so that you’d finally have to pretend to have to go to the bathroom just to get away from the crazy old man. Only he’d FOLLOW YOU INTO THE BATHROOM and keep talking to you about whales while peering over the side of the stall and trying to make eye contact with you the whole time.

Honorable mentions:

Miscellaneous Awards:

Not as much this year. James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong wins the award for being the most disappointing book, since it set up a premise about various factual errors in textbooks and then largely failed to deliver. Julian Dibbell’s Play Money, a book about how the author quit his day job and made a living selling virtual items in massively multiplayer online games, gets the award for being way more interesting than it had any right to be. Max Brook’s World War Z gets the award for being the best concept gone awry given how the author took the idea of a zombie apocalypse and handled it in a way that made it devoid of any suspense, horror, or drama.

So that’s it for 2007, but I’ve already got a stack of books for 2008. What about you? What were your best reads in 2007?

Week 204: Sickness, Pagents, and Language

Sam had a couple of bad days this week. The other night we heard her crying about midnight, and Ger went in to find that Sam hadn’t quite made it to the bathroom before throwing up. She spent the rest of the might barfing (no pictures, sorry), drinking some water because she was so dehydrated, then barfing it back up. At about 2:00 a.m. she was kneeling over the toilet while her best friend in the whole world (me) knelt beside her and held her hair back so she wouldn’t get vomit in it. I told her that in sixteen years when she’s a freshman in college she’s going to have an inexplicable case of deja vu, but she didn’t get it.

Earlier in the week Sam had starred (literally, as she was dressed as a Christmas tree with a star topper) in her preschool production of …some Christmas thing. I didn’t get to go to it since this one was on a weekday, but my mom and Geralyn went and reported vigorous singing on Sam’s part. She had, in fact, been rehearsing her songs in the bathtub all week. Nothing like a kid yelling “JINGLE BELLS! JINGLE BELLS! JINGLE BELLS!” at the top of her voice for half an hour at a time. But when she hit the stage she sang with the best of them and there was so much cute in the room you had to bail it out with buckets.

Mandy, the newly crowned one year old, is really starting to develop quickly. She’s so close to walking on her own that she may actually be doing it by the time I finish writing this sentence. Let me check. Nope, not yet. But soon. Her verbal prowess is developing quickly, though. She’ll constantly try to imitate our speech, and though she’s still not quite good at it (half the time we can’t even tell what she’s saying and we’ve known her her whole life), but it IS clearly speech. The sounds are often consistent, with her favorite words being “tree” (thanks to the Christmas tree, I’m sure), “light,” and “cat.” These also happen to be her favorite things to grab and manhandle, much to our frustration and the cat’s terror.

Mandy’s also getting good at the comprehension part of the language equation. In fact, she really surprised me the other day. She was crawling around our office floor near the trash can when she found some little piece of crinkly plastic that she liked the sound of. She held it up for my inspection, and when I judged it to be a delightful but deadly choking hazard I said, “Yes, plastic! Mandy, put the plastic in the trash can.” And …she did! She looked at the plastic, looked at me, and then crawled over to the trash can to plunk it in.

What’s even more shocking than the idea of obedience from a child was that she actually seemed to understand what I was asking her to do. She had labels for both “plastic” and “trash can.” Then she understood the verb “put.” That’s awesome. That’s the kind of first time developmental breakthroughs that I just love seeing and that make it so much fun to be a parent.

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms

I guess it’s official: I don’t like Hemmingway. I mean I don’t have anything personal against the guy and I kind of liked The Old Man and the Sea. But a lot like his other supposed classic For Whom the Bell Tolls I just didn’t get what’s so great about A Farewell to Arms.

The story kind of reminds me of For Whom the Bell Tolls, in that it features the typical, stoic, Hemmingway male hero in the role of a soldier fighting in a foreign war (here Italy in WWI instead of Spain’s Civil War). Fredrick Henry is an American fighting in the Italian army for some reason, and he falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine. He gets injured, they go all ga-ga over each other then escape trouble by running off to Switzerland to have a baby. That’s pretty much the plot.

Of course, the plot is often not the real point of a novel, but for the life of me I can’t find much to appreciate in Hemmingway’s pared down, minimalist style. I get that it’s good writing and REALLY difficult for most of us to do –writing 1000 words is easy, writing 500 to say the same thing is hard, and writing 250 is damn near impossible. And sometimes the simple writing serves to say something about a scene, like Henry’s stoic nature or the simple pleasures of a small Swiss village after the turmoil of war. And I get that there’s a lot going on here under the surface about redemption, love, war, masculinity, and the like.

It’s just that I didn’t really care about any of it. Neither Frank nor Catherine nor any of the other characters felt real to me the way other characters have, even in lesser books. The pared down simplicity of Hemmingway’s style was at odds with the epic nature of the conflict around him, and even if that was part of the point it was still distracting and didn’t make the characters seem alive or important or personal. Maybe that’s why I liked The Old Man and the Sea better: It was itself a much simpler story, just the struggle between a man and a fish set against the plain backdrop of the sea, almost like a stage play. In A Farewell to Arms (and in For Whom the Bell Tolls for that matter) it’s not like that. It’s like it wants to feel complex and nuanced, but it doesn’t. Not to me, anyway.

I have one more Hemmingway book in my queue (The Sun Also Rises) and I’ll probably get to it eventually, but I’m not exactly looking forward to it.

Got an Xbox 360?

Do you? If so, feel free to add me to your friend’s list:

Gamertag: hjmadigan

In general, I’m really impressed with how well the Xbox Live service works. It’s smooth, seamless, and ever present without being obtrusive. I just need some more friends who have the same games I do. Or I need more games. Or both.

Week 203: Birthday, Walking, and Snow

The big even this week was Mandy’s birthday –one year old. That’s just …inconceivable. I don’t know when this happened. The event was largely low key, with just Geralyn’s parents and godparents coming over. And we invited Samantha, who actually did a fairly good job of not inserting herself into the middle of everything. Mandy got gifts, though she was more enamored with the tissue paper and wrappings and did her best to try and choke on them.

Mandy also got cake –delicious cake– placed on her high chair. After a few experimental prodding and smushings, she figured out what it was for and actually did a pretty good job of moving it from tray to hand to mouth. Better than her sister did at that age, and also unlike Sammy the next morning there was no gigantic puddle of pink vomit for her to wallow in before we ran in to the nursery to see what all the retching sounds were about. I think that had something to do with the fact that we only gave Mandy one small piece instead of the like half a cake that we let Sam maul. See? We’re getting better at this!

Mandy is also getting better at things, come to think of it. The other night I stood her in front of one of those walker things and after a brief outburst that I took for “What the HELL, man?” it clicked for her and she started walking forwards. This utterly delighted both of us, and we both giggled like the little girls one of us really was. I know it’s not a competition between me and Ger, but I’m glad that I got to be the one to see her do this for the first time. She gets most of the other good ones, and seeing a kid hit a milestone like this creates a bond that I’m glad to have. It will serve our relationship well when she tries to walk over me later. After, no doubt, receiving thorough coaching from Sam.

Speaking of Sam, she had a great weekend. Or at least so she claims and I’m inclined to believe her. We got a ton of snow on Friday and Saturday, but we nonetheless wanted to get out of Ger’s hair while she prepped for Mandy’s party. So Sam and I went to the store where I procured a snow shovel and Sam’s first sled. Then we went to the mall and saw a movie, and I’m guessing that the combination of a 10:00 a.m. showing and the blizzard was the reason we had the entire theater to ourselves. So I encouraged Sam to try out as many chairs as she liked and talk as loudly as she could. This is probably not good practice for the next movie we attend, but who cares?

When we got home Sam tried out the new sled. You know one of the great things about being three with a sled and six inches of snow on the ground? Even the smallest incline is a death-defying hill and the most exhilarating ride imaginable. Sam also helped me shovel the driveway, and by “helped” I mean “threw snowballs at me and giggled while I did all the work.” I finally retaliated by dumping a huge snow shovel’s worth of powder on her head, which caused her to somehow shriek and laugh at the same time as it worked its way down into her clothes. After that we went inside, changed into dry clothes, and had hot coffee/chocolate. It was, you see, a totally awesome day.

Book Review: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I’ve never read much of Mark Twain’s stuff. I vaguely remember reading A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in college and I think I was probably SUPPOSED to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at some point in school, but this was the first time I had ever picked up what’s supposed to be his greatest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I wish I had done so sooner, because it was great.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the basic premise, Huckleberry Finn follows the adventures of the eponymous country boy from Missouri as he encounters trouble at home and then decides to run away via the mighty Mississippi River. Along the way he pairs up with an escaped slave named Jim and encounters all kinds of murderers, thieves, aristocrats, and swindlers. The plot summary sounds kind of like a pulp adventure story, and I admit there is a lot of that. I can see why kids –especially boys– would be attracted to this book.

But the mark of a really good book is that it has so much literary machinery whirring and grinding below the surface that you’re constantly thinking back on it, days or weeks or months after you’ve finished reading it. The most striking thing to me after the authentic representation of dialects was what a master of irony Twain was. It’s everywhere in this book: from Tom Sawyer telling Huck that he had to let his foster parents civilize him before he could join Tom’s (imaginary) band of cutthroat robbers, to Huck’s saying that he’s sorely disappointed in the quality of Tom’s morals after the other boy agrees to help Huck free the captured runaway slave Jim. It’s the same kind of juxtaposition and stinging irony that modern writers of shows like The Daily Show employ. The book is rarely laugh out loud funny, but I sure grinned a lot.

I also really love the character of Huck Finn, and I can see why he’s so timeless. Huck is undoubtedly a thirteen year old country boy –he’s uncouth, he’s uneducated, and he’s lazy. But he’s also really intelligent, kind, clever, independent, and has no problem following his own moral compass even when it leads him against the grain of society and those supposedly better than him. Well, eventually. Like any thirteen year old boy he gets swept up among the actions of his elders, but he rarely hesitates for long before correcting his own course.

I also loved how Twain contrasted the characters of Huck and Tom Sawyer. Both are young boys who are smart and clever, but beyond that Tom is everything Huck is not. Tom needlessly complicates everything while Huck is much more pragmatic and direct. Tom adheres zealously to the rules governing any situation –gleaned in his case from adventure stories about pirates, robbers, and prison escapees– while Huck is willing to question authority and come around to his own decisions about what’s right. Tom lets his adherence to the rules and his desire to do things “right” lead him into inadvertent cruelty, while Huck will actually endanger himself and break the rules in order to help other people directly. It’s great stuff.

So, you probably don’t need me to tell you that this is an example of some of the best American literature to date given its status and how ingrained it has become in our culture. But don’t let that dissuade you from checking it out.

Week 202: Witches, Computers, and Offerings

Talking about death with kids has always been awkward. In one aspect, it’s unavoidable, so it has to come up sometime. Sam still sometimes asks about my dad who passed away last year, and we’re straight forward with her about him. And it’s everywhere else. Sure, Elmo may not meet his grisly end no matter how hard you wish it, but it didn’t take Sam long at all to pick up on the concept of “killing the bad guys.” I’m still not sure where she first picked it up, but she’ll often ask about killing things and sometimes make specific requests, like her own little private hit jobs. I try not to comply, but she’s just so cute when she asks.

Things got a little weirder over the weekend when Sam and I watched Disney’s Little Mermaid together. Here’s a fun fact: Ursula the Sea Witch scares the bajeezus out of Sam. Whenever this villain come on screen, Sam would squirm and climb into my lap until the scene was over. At the climax when Ursula met her end (um, spoiler alert, I guess?) Sam seemed almost palpably relieved. Later she asked, “Prince Eric killed Ursula, right?”

“Well, he got rid of her,” I said, trying to avoid the subject of assault with a deadly sailing ship. “She’s gone.”

“No, but he KILLED her, right? She’s dead, right?”


“She’s dead and not coming back. He KILLED HER DEAD.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“That’s good. Can I have a cheese stick?”

So I’m left wondering if Sam has either done a superb job of absorbing a troublesome new fact of life into her burgeoning world view in such a way as to maintain her mental health and development, or if she’s taken another baby step towards becoming some kind of psychopath. This seems to be becoming more and more the norm, as kids seem to get more and more complex as time goes by and none of the books I read warned me about this.

Besides witch slaying, Sam has been developing more innocuous skills. I took her to the library on Saturday to get her out of the house and she made a bee line for the computers that they have set up near the kids’ books. These machines have cute little headphones shaped like ladybugs and are loaded with all kinds of kiddie games from all your favorite corporatized, hypermarketed brands. I mentioned last week that I had introduced Sam to the computer, but I was really surprised at how quickly she’s picked it up and how adept she was at pointing, clicking, and dragging with the mouse. I’m pretty sure I could still crush her in one-on-one deathmatches if we were to load up some of my favorite first person shooters, but she’s getting better at it. We only ran into a few problems since she was wearing the headphones and when she got stuck even I couldn’t figure out what the hell Tigger wanted without hearing him. So I just started clicking on random stuff until the computer crashed. But after it came back up she was back to using a net to fill jars with the right number of fireflies and completing patterns by dragging the right shapes on to some dorky looking dragon’s bookshelf. She’s my girl.

My other girl Mandy is also coming along quite nicely. She’s self feeding now, which means that it’s a lot easier for Geralyn to just dump some steamed peas and diced carrots onto her tray and let her go to town instead of feeding her every spoon full. Of course, Mandy still throws half her food in whatever direction strikes her fancy. She has, however, developed this curious habit of picking something up in her little fist and then trying to hand it to whomever happens to be nearby. This is good for when she picks up a clump of cat hair or anything else we don’t want in her mouth, but it’s odd otherwise. I have a strong suspicion that this developed after weeks and weeks of Samantha immediately deciding that she wants whatever Mandy has just picked up, and so Mandy just thinks this is the way things ARE. When I get something, I have to offer it up. If Those Who Are Larger decline it, only then may she keep it.

So, kids are not only complex, they apparently are each complex in their own way, starting out early. Fantastic.

Book Review: Black Holes and Baby Universes

Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays

Here’s my one-word review of Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays by Stephen Hawking:


That shouldn’t be too surprising if you consider that a) I’m not a stupidly smart theoretical physisist, and b) Hawking doesn’t really try to make the material in this collection of essays accessible to anyone else. Actually, there’s some stuff near the beginning that’s autobiographical, which I found interesting (fun fact: despite being stricken with the crippling Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Hawking got married and had children, not to mention that incredible career). And there was some general stuff about public attitudes about science that I followed fine, even if it did veer off into babbling on about nuclear proliferation.

But then things got wonky and Hawking was talking about subatomic thingamabobs and celestial-sized thingamajiggers. I’d try to pay attention and follow along, but usually my mind wandered off and I got good and lost. And going back to try to find out where I got lost felt too little like reading and too much like studying. The problem is that this seems to be a quick cash grab of a book comprised of various essays and speeches that Hawking gave to various professional societies and conventions. He’s not really trying too hard to speak to me, even in that suave robotic voice of his. So I’m out of my element and he’s just standing there (well, sitting) and not really trying to show me around. So a good read it was not.

My guess is that something like his A Brief History of Time or The Universe in a Nutshell may be less problematic in this way, since they were written from the ground up to be mainstream. But given what I see here I kind of wonder.

Week 200: Computers, Games, and Jawas

Okay it’s going to be a super short update this week, because I don’t have time to do anything more but if I don’t do something I’m going to miss the whole week. Wah. So here’s some pictures:

Let’s see, stories? I’ve started encouraging Sam to play on the computer, because if she’s going to grow up to be a geek I’ve got to get cracking. Of course, by the time she gets older computers will be the size of a pea and inserted right into our brain next to the pituitary gland and who knows what she’ll be using it for. But for now, she’s making Clifford the Big Red Dog greeting cards.

I’ve also been letting her watch me play Super Mario Galaxy on the Nintendo Wii (a near perfect game, by the way), since it’s cartoony and kind of kid friendly. She liked it, but the other day she threatened to kill her stuffed frog, who she called Bowser. Ger and I tried talking her into talking with the frog about how he’s been behaving and point out how he can improve himself, maybe with some basic job training. But no, Sam wanted to stomp him. So, yay Nintendo. My kid wants to murder every turtle she sees now.

Mandy is getting more and more chatty, though she still seems to have a language devoid of an actual vocabulary and reliant entirely on inflection and screeching. Most of the time she just shouts “Utini!” like one of those droid zapping midgets from Star Wars.