Friday Afternoon Blues

Friday Afternoon Blues


“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
Thomas Hardy

Am I just in a bad mood, or has it been kind of an awful year so far?

Working loosely backwards, there’s Ebola, which while it hasn’t killed anywhere near as many people as more prosaic diseases like malaria and the flu, is wreaking serious havoc in West Africa, and is nowhere near containment or control.

There are the two Malaysian Airlines disasters. One plane just disappears, leaving loved ones in limbo for months as hope slowly disintegrates. The second, in an event that would seem simply bizarre if it were not so horrific, is accidentally shot down over the Ukrainian conflict zone. It’s the epitome of “senseless” violence.

And Crimea and the Ukraine conflict in the first place–déjà vu anyone? I thought we didn’t do this stuff anymore, especially on that continent.

Not that there isn’t plenty happening on other continents to go around. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again devolved into full-scale war, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured, and what can only be described as the opposite of progress on any type of diplomatic or negotiating front.

And just when I thought the situation in Syria could not possibly get worse, ISIS declared an Islamic state over large swathes of Syria and Iraq, where it currently presides over a chaotic melee of sectarian strife, in the absence of any sort of functional government.

Even on the U.S. border, we are grappling somewhat less than gracefully with a flood of unaccompanied children fleeing drug violence in Central America. Some of these kids are not much older than mine. How bad do do things have to be for you to let your children leave you for a deadly dangerous 1000 mile journey with an uncertain ending?

All in all, it’s enough to send me off to read some Thomas Hardy. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and the world will seem splendid again.

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The Red Tent, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, The Mists of Avalon, and A Song for Arbonne

Yes, more book reviews! Here are a few incisive feminist retellings from the Bible, Arthurian legend, and the Age of Chivalry. As well as a funny and heart-wrenching memoir about being single in the Mormon Church.

The Red TentThe Red Tent by Anita Diamant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The core of this book is one of those disturbing and troublesome stories in the Bible that we don’t tend to talk about much–like the time Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law got pregnant and he wanted to burn her alive, but then it turned out that he was the one who had impregnated her. Or the time Lot hospitably offered to give his virgin daughters to the mob of rapists outside his door. Or the time the nameless female actually is shoved outside to appease the mob of rapists, and ends up being raped to death and then dismembered.

Actually, none of the above stories appear in the Red Tent. It focuses on the story of Dinah, only daughter of Jacob. A Canaanite prince falls in love with her, sleeps with her, and asks her hand in marriage, offering Jacob any bride price he names. Jacob’s sons deceitfully tell the prince that if he and all his household are circumcised, he can marry Dinah. Then, as they are sore and recovering from circumcision, Simeon and Levi go in and slaughter them all, and carry Dinah away with them. One can only imagine what Dinah must have felt about the whole thing, since her point of view is, of course, not mentioned in the Bible, though it gives plenty of airtime to her brothers’ angry protestations about their honor.

Diamant does more than imagine what Dinah must have felt. She writes a novel about it, retelling the story of Jacob and his family from the point of view of the women who appear in it. The Red Tent of the title is the tent where they go to menstruate, to support each other as they give birth, and to pass on their stories to one another and their daughters. I know a lot of women for whom the idea of having a monthly girls-only slumber party and all this stuff about the bond of sisterhood really resonates. I’m not really one of them. I didn’t want a whole gaggle of women around me when I gave birth, singing me songs; I just wanted my husband, and silence.

In fact, this book gave me a lot of feelings, because let’s face it; the Old Testament is pretty horrifying if you read it from the point of view of the women. However, these women are strong and courageous, and do an amazing job of taking care of one another in a world that is extremely misogynist. There’s also some great stuff about the complex religious world the early Israelites inhabited, and especially about their worship of the Queen of Heaven. And it’s always interesting to read a familiar story from a different point of view. So yeah, worth a read if you have the fortitude. Kind of like the Old Testament, I guess.

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir by Nicole Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is everything a memoir should be–funny, poignant, and devastatingly, intensely personal. I enjoyed it on two very different levels. First of all, it’s a much-needed look at the big heartaches and little indignities of being single in a church that is very focused on marriage. I have many single Mormon (and formerly Mormon) friends who have told me stories very similar to the ones Nicole tells.

On another level, even as a happily married woman with two children, I related to Nicole’s search for identity in a church whose idea of female identity can feel so prescribed and constricting as to be almost suffocating. Her attempts to see (and live) beyond the paradigm she had grown up with ring very true to me. Most anyone who has ever struggled to live in a way that feels individually authentic will enjoy this book.


The Mists of Avalon (Avalon, #1)The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brilliant re-imagining of the Arthurian legends is a seminal masterpiece. From a literary standpoint, I’m afraid it can’t quite match T.H. White’s inimitable The Once and Future King (and Arthurian purists will certainly take exception to her liberal rearrangements of the hallowed stories; Atlantis, anyone?). Still, for sheer originality I think it takes the cake. Bradley takes the familiar stories and turns them on their heads, casting Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) as the heroine rather than the villain, and telling everything from the point of view of the women.

The Mists of Avalon portrays an early medieval Britain still in love with its fading Roman past, and torn by the conflict between the traditional Pagan religion and its usurping Christian competitor.

It’s very long and very depressing (no happy endings here, but then, the gradual decay of everything we hold dear is fairly authentically Arthurian). But you will never see Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, or Morgan le Fay the same way again. Feminist in concept, this books is enough to make you long for the good old days of matriarchal, goddess-worshiping Britain–even if they never existed.

Do be aware that if Pagan sex rituals are a no-go for you, you might not like this book.

A Song for ArbonneA Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorites of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, which is saying a lot, since he’s one of my favorite fantasy authors. Arbonne is similar to his other works in its intricate plotting and character development, vivid scenery, and masterful re-imagining of a historical time-period (in this case, Provence in the time of the troubadours).

Religion is always an interesting theme in Kay’s novels, and this was no exception. One of the major themes of the book was the stark difference between a society that worshiped both a female and male divinity, and one that completely rejects the female divine.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

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My Imaginary Well-Dressed Dog

If you can’t wait to meet My Imaginary Well-Dressed Dog, I just gave you the link, so go ahead. But if you’d like the explanation, here it is:

I think most of us have had at least some exposure to that reservoir of superlative fantasy, home of improbable D.I.Y. projects, and well of inexhaustible mommy-guilt that is Pinterest. Usually, it’s not really my thing. As you know, my style for birthday parties fits better under the “lazy parent” category than the “Pinterest perfect” one. And I’m not one to seek out unsolicited reminders of how awesome I could be if I only dedicated myself to the full-time creation and beautification of cupcakes, party invitations, and other crafty delights.

In fact, I get a little (very little) stab of guilt every time I receive an email informing me that a friend has started following my (virtually non-existent) Pinterest self. But the other day I came across a Pinterest board that I actually liked. Probably because it pokes a bit of delicate, well-deserved fun at the excesses of Pinterest, while always remaining hilariously funny.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Daughter, created by Tiffany Beveridge, an Australian mom with sons but no (real) daughter, who initially started the page because she was interested in cute little girl fashions. Soon, she realized that she couldn’t resist coming up with ironically funny captions for the fashion photos she was pinning, which featured children in ridiculously adult poses with hugely unlikely blasé expressions on their perfectly made-up faces. And My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Daughter (delightfully christened Quinoa) was born.

Quinoa's Gatsby-themed birthday party was a hit. Everybody loved the part when she ran over little Marimba with her tricycle. #MIWDTD
Quinoa’s Gatsby-themed birthday party was a hit. Everybody loved the part when she ran over little Marimba with her tricycle. #MIWDTD

I’m pretty much addicted by now, as in, I go back multiple times a day to find out what Quinoa is up to today. And eventually, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I decided to make my own Pinterest page. My Imaginary Well-Dressed Dog chronicles the pet side of the phenomenon. With apologies if you are that friend who clutters up everyone’s Facebook wall with an endless stream of cute animal pictures.

She knew they looked like the perfect couple, but Scarlett felt that lately Rhett had been acting more distant.
She knew they looked like the perfect couple, but Scarlett felt that lately Rhett had been acting more distant.

In any event, if you, like me, have yet to find your place on Pinterest, maybe this can give you some twisted inspiration of a less Pinteresty persuasion.

“It was the most beautiful, the most civilized city in the world . . . “

I spent a restless night last night, and every time I fell asleep I dreamed of Syria. I suppose it was because every time I turned on the radio yesterday, they were talking about Syria, much in the vein of this Onion article. And over and over in my head, I keep hearing the opening line of a sci fi story set in the Balkans that I read when I was a teenager:  “It was the most beautiful, the most civilized city in the world . . . ”

Damascus is neither, really. Except at certain times, and in certain lights. But maybe I wouldn’t even know it anymore now, as it slowly grinds itself into rubble and blood. As gut-wrenching as it is to watch Syria tearing itself apart from the inside, imagining missile strikes and escalation, regime change and a sectarian bloodbath is hardly more palatable.

This seems to be a story with no happy endings.

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The Working Life

Tony and the kids popped in to my work on Thursday, and Tony of course had to document the moment, like every other significant and insignificant moment of our life, for inclusion on the family website. So here is actual photographic evidence of my industrious ways:

And in fact, I’ve been at my job for a month now, and Tony and the children have been back for the past two weeks, which seems long enough to state some preliminary observations about how things are going.

The short answer is, I am happier than I’ve been in quite a while. I have way more patience for my children when I come home at six o-clock from an office full of adults than I did when I was at home with them all day. My emotional resources are magically magnified by being away from home during the work-day doing something interesting and creative, and I am much better able to deal with the inevitable complications and setbacks of life.

And it is so nice to not be living paycheck to paycheck anymore. Worrying about money all the time and freaking out when we had an unexpected car problem or other non-budgeted expense was not an easy way to live. Life is a little more hectic, and we don’t see quite as much of one another as we did, but for us right now, it is worth the trade-off.

If you’re wondering why all of this is a revelation to me, here’s the reason: I grew up in a home where SAHM-hood was the expected and ideal destination for a girl. My mom quit her job when she was pregnant with her oldest child (me), and for my entire childhood, I don’t remember her ever working, except to give piano lessons for a couple of hours a week. My parents viewed it as a religious imperative for a woman to devote all (or at least the vast majority of) her time and talents to raising her children.

I remember a long conversation with my dad out in the garden one day about how I didn’t think it was fair that I could go to college and study something I loved, but I wasn’t supposed to ever use it in a job I loved. He didn’t really have a response.

Looking back, I’m kind of amazed that I never even questioned the SAHM ideal. But at my house, getting a university degree was for personal enrichment and a backup financial plan, just in case the unthinkable (divorce, death, extended singleness, etc.) deprived me of a husband who could support me. Actually planning to have a career (and taking steps toward that goal) was verboten.

So about a year after Tony and I got married, I got pregnant with Axa. And a month or so before I was due, I quit my job, as I had always planned I would.

Nine years later, I have a somewhat different take on things. For one thing, I’ve experienced the economic reality of having only one spouse with career options during an economic downturn. It was hard, for us and for so many other people I know.

A few months after we moved to Florida, I had a conversation with a woman who had been a SAHM for the past sixteen or seventeen years. She was desperately trying to find employment to supplement her husband’s income, but couldn’t even get a job at the movie theater sweeping popcorn off the floor, because she didn’t have a college degree. We both agreed that we wished we hadn’t been taught to turn our backs on professional life when we got married and had children.

Fortunately, I’ve developed some valuable skills along the way in marketing, writing, editing, and web development. I feel incredibly lucky that in a still-difficult economy I was able to find a well-paying job that not only utilizes my skills but is a good fit for my personality and work style. Even though I never planned to have a career.

My parents were great parents, and they came out of a different time, both culturally and economically. Their choices worked well for their family, and I had a wonderful childhood, so I am not trying to denigrate how they set up their life or what they taught me. But from my experience and the experience of many other women I have met and compared stories with, here are a few things I’ve decided I will teach my daughter (and my son!)

  1. A Bachelor’s degree is NOT a backup financial plan. No matter what your degree is in, trying to get a job years later when you’ve acquired no experience in the meantime is difficult at best. In my case, I’ve developed some great skills and even put them to work on an entrepreneurial, freelance and hobby basis. It just kind of happened, even though I always planned to be and thought of myself as a SAHM. But if I had it to do over again, I would consciously and deliberately develop a career, even if it was part-time.
  2. The more you get paid per hour, the fewer hours you have to work. After Tony and I got married, I looked around for work in Provo, Utah, where Tony was going to school. It’s a town full of degreed women putting their husbands through school on secretarial jobs, and I was no exception. I had a great boss, and I enjoyed working at a firm specializing in immigration law where I could get to know people from all over the world, but I made $9.00 an hour. I’m sure I could have gotten a higher-paying job if I had done some career planning rather than just getting a BA with no plan whatsoever for a career. And maybe if I had been making more I would have felt it was worth it to continue part-time or from home after I had my baby. I am encouraging both my son and my daughter to plan and educate themselves for a reasonably lucrative career  so that whether they work part-time or full-time they can maximize time with their family.
  3. Balancing work and family is important for women AND men. Women are often encouraged to go into nursing, teaching, or other “flexible” careers that are viewed as compatible with having children. However, flex-time and working at least partially from home are commonplace now in many career fields. There’s a very important caveat, though: the more educated, experienced, and senior you are, the more likely you are to be able to negotiate a flexible arrangement. This goes for men too. Both mothers and fathers are important in the lives of their children, and there is no reason a man needs to settle for a demanding job that barely lets him see his family just because he’s a man. I encourage both my daughter and my son to plan for a future life where they and their spouses work together to find the best way to schedule their work, family time, and other responsibilities. When both spouses have at least the potential to get good jobs, there are so many more options.
  4. PLAN for a fulfilling career. Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe your spouse will be able to single-handedly support your family for the duration of your life, maybe s/he won’t.  Maybe you’ll find full-time stay-at-home-parenthood the most fulfilling way of spending your time ever, maybe you won’t. Whatever happens in your personal life (and whenever it happens), you cannot lose if you plan ahead for a good education and an enjoyable career that will give you the money to support yourself and your potential family. You can always quit your job if it makes sense, scale back, or find a better fit in your field. It is so much harder to wait until you really need the money and have to take whatever job is available for someone with little experience and an outdated education. And so sad to realize that if only you had planned better, you could have a well-paying job in a field that interests you rather than minimum wage at two jobs you hate but were the only thing you could find.

Nobody can predict the future, and although I hope my children will have happy, productive, fulfilling lives, no amount of advice I give them will guarantee that. Still, I feel like what I can do for them is to teach them to prepare and plan carefully, keeping open as many options as possible. And tell them that for both girls and boys,  a fulfilling professional life is a worthy, attainable, and incredibly important goal.

Working Mother

I think it’s time to tell you all my big news. I didn’t just happen to decide to go to the Social Security Office because it sounded like fun. The reason I needed a new Social Security card this week is that I have a new job!

Yep, I’m excited. Although I’ve done work from  home in the meantime, it has been quite a while since I worked full-time away from home, and I am definitely ready to leave SAHMhood behind.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids, and I enjoy spending time with them. If I didn’t like being with them, at the very least I would have sent them to school rather than kept them home with me all day for educational purposes. However, I am greatly looking forward to:

  • Meaningful daily interactions with adults (yes, my husband is an adult, but you know what I mean).
  • Multiple consecutive hours of work time uninterrupted by screaming, ominous silences, or emergencies involving bodily fluids.
  • Having a reason to wear something other than jeans and yoga pants on a regular basis.

My new employer is a business-to-business sales outsourcing company called Netpique. I am their new Marketing Coordinator, and will be designing their internal and external communications. The office is fairly small, with plenty of room for creativity and innovation, so I think it’s a pretty perfect fit. And I really like the people who will be working with me.

Tony is currently on paid leave from work and is rearranging his schedule to accommodate being home when I’m gone, since he will be taking a stint as a stay-at-home-dad.

Whether he will fulfill the children’s expectation that he play games with them all day every day remains to be seen. But he’s already more organized about homemaking than I ever was. He’s undertaken a complete home reorganization project and made himself a binder full of healthy recipes, along with a weekly breakfast, lunch, and dinner schedule.

In the meantime, I am working on making our homeschool curriculum as open-and-go as possible, checking out audiobooks for my commute, and trying to decide what to wear on my first day at work.

Wish me luck!

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Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Guns, Germs & Steel, and Book of Mormon Girl

I have some absolutely wonderful books to review for you today.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American FaithThe Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith by Joanna Brooks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, and I love Joanna Brooks. I related to so much of what she said, from the evident nostalgia with which she recounted her childhood experience of growing up in the warm, safe certainty of the Mormon faith to the anguish of finding a “knot of contradictions” at the heart of her faith.

My struggles and doubts and questions about my faith have been somewhat different from hers, but my feelings are very similar, as is my tightrope walk to find a way to belong to the faith I love while dealing honestly with its sometimes troubling past (and present).

Joanna asks the hard questions, but she does it with grace and compassion. I cried through several parts of her book, because the things that kept her awake at night are similar to the things that keep me awake. I have said many of the same anguished prayers she describes. I love her for saying what so many of us are thinking, for working to build bridges of understanding between Mormons and non-Mormons, orthodox and not-so-orthodox believers, and for reassuring me that there is a place at the table for me.

The Duke's ChildrenThe Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say I was pretty sad to come to the end of the Palliser Chronicles, although this was in nowise my favorite of series. I mean really! What’s with [SPOILER]killing off Lady Glencora[SPOILER] in the first chapter?

The most interesting part of the novel, for me, was watching the evolution of 19th century society. It slowly dawns on the Duke that he is living in a different world from the one he inhabited as a young man. Where his beloved wife was coerced into marrying him by interfering relatives, his own children will have their way in marriage, whether that means his daughter marrying a penniless MP, or even worse, his son and heir marrying a (gasp!) gregarious American.

Plenty of the typical Trollope hilarity, with ridiculous English noblemen and excruciating social situations. I will dearly miss the world of the Pallisers.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been going through the Development Economics course at Marginal Revolution University, and the professors recommend Diamond’s book. I really enjoyed reading it, not least because Jared Diamond is the sort of Renaissance man it is difficult to find in Academia nowadays. His book takes a broad-brush approach to history and attempts to answer some very fundamental questions about the development of civilizations and their interaction with one another.

I think anyone who has spent time in a developing country has asked themselves the question of why some peoples are on top and others are on the bottom. Diamond is passionate most of all about disproving the idea that any ethnic group of humans is genetically inferior to another. Instead, he postulates that the inequities between human societies arose largely as a result of geographical factors, among which were the availability of plants and animals for domestication and the axes of the various continents.

His arguments were fascinating and compelling, and although I’m sure they’re not the whole story, I’m equally convinced that they form a pretty significant part of it. However, my favorite parts of the book were the later chapters, where Diamond applies his theories over and over to different civilizations. I felt like I came away with a better picture of pre-history and early history, especially in places like Southeast Asia and Australia, of which I’d been previously completely ignorant. The only part I found a little bizarre was the end of the book, where Diamond (a specialist in physiology) draws a sort of road-map for how to make the disciplines of history and anthropology more scientific. Weird, but I guess you have to take eccentric geniuses as they come.

As a bonus, National Geographic did a great mini-series on Diamond’s ideas, which I am watching with my kids as we prepare to start a homeschooling unit on ancient world history.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl CultureCinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit, one of the reasons I liked this book was that it made me feel vindicated. When you are the mother of a daughter it is not easy to stem the flow of pink, pink, princesses, pink, and more pink, so it’s nice to have someone besides myself tell me that my sometimes herculean efforts really matter.

Orenstein lays out in pretty stark detail how our consumerist society’s constant insistence on pushing princesses and everything pink on girls contributes to the premature sexualization of our daughters, as well as depression, eating disorders, and drastically reduced opportunities, ambitions and abilities.

I was particularly struck by her chapter on child beauty pageants, which was predictably scathing, but also contextualized the pageants with frightening rationality as just another aspect of the girlie-girl culture that so many people see as innocent and innocuous. This quote from that chapter describing a mother getting her four-year-old daughter ready to perform at such a pageant was priceless:

“You look just like a princess!” the older woman exclaimed, and her daughter grinned. I recalled museum portraits I had seen of eighteenth-century European princesses–little girls in low-cut gowns, their hair piled high, their cheeks and lips rouged red–that were used to attract potential husbands, typically middle-aged men, who could strengthen the girls’ families’ political or financial positions. So yes, I thought, I suppose she does look like a princess.

Enchantress from the Stars (Elana, #1)Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to find a beautiful copy of this book at the library book store for $1. I remember it being one of my favorite books as a child, and it was out of print for a long time, so it’s not easy to find.

I loved this book as a child because it was so full of interesting ideas–how cultural evolution progresses, the ethical and moral dilemmas that arise when civilizations at different stages of development collide, and the essential humanity that transcends culture. It’s also told simultaneously from three different points of view, which is one of my favorite literary devices.

As well as being excellent thoughtful science fiction, this is a beautiful, nuanced retelling of The Faerie Queen. Reading it as an adult, I realize that it’s not quite as sophisticated or brilliantly written as I thought it was when I was ten years old, but I still think it’s a great book, and it’s definitely one I’d love for Axa to read in a few years.

View all my reviews

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Why I am Voting for Barack Obama

Polling for this presidential election is nearly constant, both in “key battleground states” and in the nation at large. As a bemused inhabitant of one of those key battleground states, I admit that I check the polls . . . well, we won’t say obsessively. But often.

Recently, however, a rather unique poll was brought to my attention–the UPI/CVOTER/WIN-Gallup International Poll. The poll asked 26,000 people in 30 countries outside the U.S. how they would cast their vote for President of the United States of America if they were allowed to vote in our election.

A whopping 81% went with Barack Obama. Many countries polled well over 90% for him. In Iceland it reached a nearly universal 99%. Romney, on the other hand, led the polls in just one country: Israel. And even in Israel, his 65% was anemic compared to the overwhelming popularity of his rival everywhere else.

Although Obama’s lead is also widening at home, the race is much closer here than it is for people abroad. What is it that makes them all so sure? Well, I’ll let the candidates speak for themselves.

Here’s Romney’s foreign policy in a nutshell, straight off his website:

“I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”

Do you hear what I hear? Step out of your own shoes for a moment and imagine that you’re hearing about Romney’s “conviction and passion” with the ears of an Englishman, a child in Afghanistan, or a woman in Sudan. What can you expect from this man if he becomes the most powerful man in the world?

To round out the general impression, we have what can only appear to the outside world as a systematic campaign of insults to other countries (politely described as “gaffes”), along with Romney’s blusteringly naive description of the President’s brilliant tactful diplomacy as “weak.” As Karl Inderfurth puts it, in Romney’s projected foreign policy we see a return of the “swagger” of George W. Bush. Heaven help us all.

By contrast, here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s speech to world leaders at the United Nations this week:

“So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news, and that consumes our political debates. But when you strip that all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes from faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people – and not the other way around.

The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people, and all across the world.”

The vibe’s a little different, isn’t it? In Obama’s message, and in his actions as president, I see a strong ability to listen to and communicate effectively with people of other nations and cultures. I see a skillful use of tactful diplomacy to resolve problems, avoid escalating conflicts, and calm the strident voices that scream for war. I see a real commitment to respecting the leaders and people of other countries, and working together to make the world safer, more prosperous, and better for all of us.

He lacks the hubris that puts the United States at the center of the universe. He quotes Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He appeals to the “better angels of our nature.” And so to me, it’s no surprise that people polled around the world look to him as someone they can trust to put the interest of humanity above narrow national interests.

Well, why does it matter? Those people can’t vote anyway.

No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean that the man in the Oval Office doesn’t affect their lives. Sixty-two percent of polled individuals said that American elections highly impacted their own countries. America influences the world economically, culturally, militarily, and in a myriad of other ways. The world desperately needs a U.S. President who can build on common ground, bring people together, and set an example of wisdom, restraint, and moral courage.

To put it bluntly, when I consider America’s superior military capability and the past ten long years of wars abroad, it is clear that for many people, the choice of who becomes President of the United States may be literally a matter of life and death.

I believe in God. And I believe that every person living on this earth is a child of God. Every person. Italians. Pakistanis. Colombians. Congolese. Iranians. In this election, I vote for my brothers and sisters who can do nothing but look on in awe, in suspense, in dread, as in a very real way we decide not only our own fate, but the fate of the world.

These people may speak different languages, pray in different ways, and live very different lives from mine. But like them, I long desperately for a world of hope, of understanding, and of peace. This election, I vote for them; for us; for the belief that we can stand together and choose respect, love and solidarity over superciliousness, hate and war. My vote is a vote for the voiceless.

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Inkheart, Marsupials, More Phineas, and The Handmaid’s Tale

Inkheart (Inkheart, #1)Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I adored the movie Inkheart. It was funny and quirky, with lavish sets and costumes, even if it was a little weird that the main characters are named Mo and Meggie. Maybe it’s not so weird in German.

In any case, the movie is right up there with Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, and The Princess Bride when it comes to glorious fantasy cult classics that don’t take themselves too seriously. Inkheart was also set in beautiful Northern Italy, and made me awfully homesick. In particular, Balestrino, the town on the Italian Riviera where Capricorn has his headquarters is now on my list of must-sees next time I go to Italy. So of course I couldn’t resist the book. And I think the book is as good as the movie.

This is a book that revolves around books, so people without a borderline idolatrous relationship with books might be annoyed by it. Cornelia Funke has a delightful way with quotations, and the quotes at the beginning of each chapter really add, especially if you’ve read most of the books from which they come. I think I just might take up bookbinding too.

This is a worthy addition to the children’s fantasy genre, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

Pocket Babies: And Other Amazing MarsupialsPocket Babies: And Other Amazing Marsupials by Sneed B. Collard III

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My librarian found this for me in the children’s section when I asked for books about sugar gliders. It devotes a couple of pages to sugar gliders, but the subject of the book is marsupials in general. I didn’t know that much about them, so I found it fascinating. I am now even more delighted to have a pair of adorable marsupials living in my house. But I also appreciated learning more about some of their relatives. For example, did you know that wombat droppings, once dried, are the perfect size and shape to use as bricks? I am now planning a trip to Australia, with the object of seeing as many interesting marsupials as possible.

Sugar GlidersSugar Gliders by Caroline MacPherson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was the only book at my library specifically addressing the care and nurture of sugar gliders. There is some good information (and some adorable photos), but some, like the dietary recommendations, is outdated. If you want information on taking care of sugar gliders, I recommend searching online instead. And I’d love to talk to you about them if you’re considering adding some to your family.

The Eustace DiamondsThe Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a great book, probably a four star book, but I did get tired of reading about Lizzie Eustace by the end. She is such an annoying character. In fact, most of the main characters are fairly annoying in this book. There’s Lucy Morris, who’s so cloyingly sweet and good and subservient to her lover that I couldn’t stomach her. And Frank Greystock, who I think is a cad and shouldn’t be let off the hook by blaming Lizzie’s female wiles. Lord Fawn is ridiculous, and the rest of the supporting characters are just creepy. Still, it’s a fun story, and full of wry, witty narration and insights into human nature.

Phineas ReduxPhineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, and I really love Phineas Finn. The weird thing about the Palliser novels is that the main characters in one book become minor supporting characters in the next. So I was happy Phineas got a second book all about him, even if I had to suffer through a whole book about Lizzie Eustace to get here. I’ve also always liked Madame Goesler, so it was great to see her get the limelight as well.

And I am slowly unbending in my opinion about Anthony Trollope. He’s no feminist, but he’s a good enough novelist to portray all his characters, including the women, as the complex individuals they are.

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If it is a mark of good dystopian fiction to make your heart pound and leave you plotting your escape from your society at the first glimpse of warning signs, then The Handmaid’s Tale was a success with me. This book seriously freaked me out. Not that I really need an extra excuse to plot an international escape, but still.

I like browsing the book section of thrift stores, because the books are usually under a dollar, and sometimes you can find some real treasures, even though most of the books aren’t really worth buying. I’ve noticed that there are books that consistently appear, so much so that you are almost guaranteed a copy (or multiple copies) at any thrift store you visit. In the United States, it’s usually The Da Vinci Code. In Ireland, it was The Handmaid’s Tale. I passed up at least half a dozen copies, and didn’t know what I was missing.

When I started hearing political commentary earlier this year linking The Handmaid’s Tale  to the War on Women, I finally decided to read it. And the Irish connection suddenly made sense. It wasn’t till 1985 (the year the book was published) that condoms and spermicides were even available in Ireland without a prescription. And the Republic of Ireland still prohibits abortion with fewer exceptions than even my very pro-life church (although more than the current Republican platform).

Atwood’s book is devastatingly well-written, and strangely prescient. In the near future of the United States of America, elements of the radical right stage a secret terrorist attack that blows up most of the government, and then publicly blame it on Islamists. Then they set up a “Christian” theocracy that is repressive, racist, and extremely misogynist.

Caveat: The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply disturbing, and contains a fair amount of sex and other material readers may find offensive. Accordingly, it may not make it onto my homeschool booklist for high school. Depending on what the political landscape looks like in ten years.

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I’ll confess that in some ways I’m still slightly ambivalent about whether I want Barack Obama as president. But I am in no way ambivalent about the very solid fact that I emphatically do NOT want Mitt Romney. And I live in a swing state with a lot of electoral votes. So . . . yesterday we attended an early birthday party at our local Obama For America office.

The last real political meeting I attended was a caucus in Provo, Utah that felt like a cross between a Mormon Sunday School class and a high school popularity contest. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the Obama Party turned out to be delightful, with a very fun vibe.

It started out with a Southern barbeque, complete with homemade baked beans, potato salad, and red velvet cupcakes. The buffet was manned by the same ladies who’d made the food, and they encouraged us to try everything.

Next, Tony and I walked around to different tables, deciding which political activities we’d like to engage in. We settled on registering people to vote and precinct-walking. Tony assured the coordinator that we were experienced precinct-walkers, and that last time around we’d even done it with our kids on our backs in baby carriers. He omitted to mention the reason for that particular precinct-walking experience, which just happened to be promoting Proposition 8 in California. I guess experience is experience.

Meanwhile, the kids were ushered to a kids’ corner, where they colored, ate cookies, and passed around the Obama mask.

Then we had a little assembly and watched this video. Seventeen minutes is kind of long for a political video, but it doesn’t feel so long when you’re in small-town, racially-charged America, and everyone around you is cheering their hearts out for a president who they feel really represents them. I’m having problems lately with embedding video, but here’s the link:

It’s a very nicely-done video, with lots of inspiring “noble leader making excruciatingly difficult but ultimately amazing decision” shots. If you’re for Obama, you will love it, and might possibly even cry. If you’re not, you most likely won’t.

After the video, there were some speeches by people about how excited they were and how much they loved being Democrats. But they made sure to welcome the Republicans and Independents too, so I felt included. The best speech was by a woman who participated in sit-ins during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement right here in Volusia County. She was awesome.

A good time was had by all, even me. I typically feel fairly disenfranchised by U.S. politics, and end up in the voting booth still trying to decide uncomfortably between Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, and Yoda. I’m still conflicted, and I’m still going to be off to Europe whenever I get the chance, but I felt pretty proud to be an American last night, doing my civic duty.

And if you live in West Volusia County, you might just find me on your doorstep next to my indefatigable husband this Saturday, encouraging you to get out in November and vote for Barack Obama.