Monday, January 28, 2008

The North Star

I went to bed on Sunday night before I heard about President Hinckley's death. At about 11, AJ came in, and said my name in a loud whisper a couple of times. When I woke up a little bit, he told me the news. I pretty much went right back to sleep, but every time I woke up that night to turn over or go to the bathroom, I thought, "President Hinckley is dead." And I couldn't help but feel a little glad for him.
I was grateful that he did not have to endure a long period of illness and disability where he could not lead the church actively like he has been. Just recently, he spoke to churchwide audiences at both General Conference in October and at the Christmas devotional in December. And, according to people who attended, he spoke at a regional stake conference just a few weeks ago. This contrasts with the long health declines leading up to death of our previous three prophets with whom he was working closely.

I also felt grateful that he could be reunited with his beloved Marjorie. It has been almost 4 years since she died, and whenever he talked about her, you could tell how acutely he missed her. He said this about her in General Conference, October 2004:

My children and I were at her bedside as she slipped peacefully into eternity. As I held her hand and saw mortal life drain from her fingers, I confess I was overcome. Before I married her, she had been the girl of my dreams, to use the words of a song then popular. She was my dear companion for more than two-thirds of a century, my equal before the Lord, really my superior. And now in my old age, she has again become the girl of my dreams.

I don't remember many specifics from President Hinckley's talks. To me, he was more of a on-the-ground prophet, travelling to meet with members throughout the world, and advancing the cause of Zion through specific projects. I remember the electrifying moment when he announced the small temples initiative, which would make the blessings of the temple so much more accessible to the members of the church. Our area here was a recipient of one of these temples. We also lived in New York City when, shortly after 9/11, he announced that he was determined to see a temple built there before he died. In 2004, the New York City temple near Lincoln Center was dedicated. When he became church president in 1995, there were 47 temples. Today there are 124. Those temples stand as a memorial to the life of Gordon B. Hinckley.

A few years back in our New Jersey ward, the primary children performed a song about President Hinckley which was based on various experiences throughout his life. The first verse describes how when camping as a young boy, he noticed that Polaris didn't move through the sky during the course of the night. The chorus continues this theme:

Be constant as the North Star, that shines for you and me
Anchored in the Gospel with pure integrity
Steadfast in your service to God and fellowman
President Hinckley has shown us that we can.

I think that this analogy is a great one for President Hinckley's life of devotion to Lord and to Zion.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008


When I took the kids to the library last week, they had a cute bulletin board up showing a big bear (in a scarf and hat...) with the word HIBERNATE defined and emphasized.

HIBERNATE: \ˈhī-bər-ˌnāt\ to pass the winter in a resting state

Then, they had a lot of book suggestions for kids.

That's my kind of winter activity. Even though the NYTimes just reported that exercising in the cold is not detrimental to your health, I don't like going out in the cold. I prefer the gym. And I love to snuggle up with a book.

Last weekend, the weather forecasters said that the temperature wouldn't go above zero for the whole weekend. We decided to make an adventure of it with the kids and planned to stay inside almost the entire weekend. We picked up some pizza for dinner on Friday, and then ate, played games, read books, had some ice cream, and then AJ and the kids camped out in the front room in the tent. Because of my Advanced State, I got a reprieve from sleeping on the floor and spent the rest of the evening blogging and reading. AJ, I think, fell asleep before the kids.

On Saturday, after breakfast, we went to the gym for some exercise, and then just enjoyed the rest of the afternoon at home. We did a few chores, played some more games, and then watched the worst movie ever: Shirley Temple's Stand Up and Cheer. I happily had a book to distract me from giving it my complete attention, but the plot was weird, the characters were weird. The only good thing about it was a few songs with Shirley. We had sushi and dumplings for dinner and the kids went to bed early because they hadn't quite gotten their full allotment of sleep the night before on the floor.

We might make this a tradition every year when it's super cold. It reminded me a little bit of the August before MJ was born when AJ and I decided to take a vacation at home. We turned off the phone and spent the weekend doing fun things at home and around our area. We went to a different ward (and only to sacrament meeting at that). I am trying to remember specific things we did, and I can only recall playing Myst. We probably got take out at the awesome Indian place right by our house. Wow, it's hard to remember what it was like before we had kids.

Oh, and today on the way home from church, the van registered the outside temperature as 37 degrees. The kids threw off their coats, and MJ changed into capris and a t-shirt as soon as we got home. Then, AJ took them outside to play ball. MJ insisted that he put on "spring wear" since it's so warm.
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People of the Book

In December, I read a New Yorker article about the rescue of a centuries old, beautifully illuminated Haggadah from the Nazis during WWII. Known as the Sarajevo Haggadah (that's where it turned up in the late 1800's, and that's where it has been since then), specialists believe that it dates from the mid-1300's, with an origen in convivencia Spain, when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative harmony.

The author of the New Yorker article, Geraldine Brooks, has also written a fictionalized account of how the Haggadah came from Spain (to Catalonia to Venice to Vienna) to Sarajevo. Her novel centers around a rare book expert--Hanna Heath--who is commissioned to repair the Haggadah's damaged binding. During her work, she discovers clues in the manuscript that have long lingered there and give her brief glimpses of the travels of the book throughout its long life. Brooks intersperes Hanna's work on the Haggadah with the stories of the book in its other locales, linking the physical remants Hanna finds--a wine stain, an insect's wing, and others--to the individuals who were instrumental in making and preserving the Haggadah over time.

Brooks has taken a mysterious sacred manuscript and given it a whole life. Historically, very little is known about this Haggadah--the skeleton facts are that is was rescued from destruction 3 times: during the Inquisition in the 1500's, WWII, and then in the Bosnian war in the 1990's. Brooks has conjured up a whole centuries long life for this book, making its present day existence seem nothing short of miraculous. She makes the Haggadah the star of her novel.

This makes for a fascinating read. Embedded in her story are the rough outlines of the tortured history of the Jews; the idea of a book travelling with them, as a group of people, through one expulsion after another is compelling. I was particularly interested in span of time that the Haggadah was in Venice since we walked through the old Jewish ghetto on our recent trip there.

On a tangent, I think that somehow I got a brand new library copy of this book, with the binding tight, the pages crisp and clean, and the new book smell evident. When I see advertisements for Amazon's new electronic reading tool, the Kindle, I am uninterested. To me, one of the pleasures of reading is the tactile sense of holding a book in my hands, feeling its heft, turning the pages over one by one. It's not hard to see why a book about a book would captivate me.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

By Anthony Doerr. Ehh. The author recounts the year he and his wife spent in Rome with their two small sons. I thought the setting would make it interesting. Not really though. Nothing really resonated with me in it. Didn't really learn much about Rome, didn't really learn much about parenting twins, didn't really learn much about Pope John.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book of a Thousand Days

I think this is one of Shannon Hale's best books. I enjoyed it much more than her last two Bayern books. The story--based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale Maid Maleen that I have never heard of--held together well. The characters were developed nicely, despite the diary format. And she captured me in the world of the book. There were no jarring reminders that this was a story written in the 21st century. The characters, their actions, and their language felt authentic. The world of Dashti and Saren felt consistent. And Shannon Hale's writing is beautiful and lyrical.

Some others have commented that this book feels more like historical fiction than fantasy. And I agree. The setting and time Hale creates felt like it was a real historical location in the Asian Steepes. Indeed, Hale's setting was inspired by medieval Mongolia. I was a bit surprised when one truly fantastical element emerged in the story since it felt so centered in earth world.

And although the ending is somewhat predictable, the pathway there isn't, driving the plot all the way to the last page.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The New Kings of Non-Fiction

My sister M gave me this book for my birthday, with the description that it was like This American Life in print. After all, it's edited by Ira Glass and it does have a similar feel to his radio show.

After reading the first few essays, I would also describe it as the New Yorker in book format. Indeed, several of the essays were originally published in the New Yorker.

Ira Glass has picked out what he considers to be some of the best non-fiction writing around. For the most part, I agree. The majority of the essays were fascinating. I loved the story of the New Jersey teen who was day trading, got into manipulating stock prices for profit and got called up by the SEC.

And the profile of a regular 10-year old boy (also from New Jersey) was so full of funny and endearing details. My favorite was Susan Orlean's description of what it would be like to be married to him:

If Collin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Collin would be better than me...

And on it goes. I need to send it to my sister who has an almost 10 year old son to see if she thinks it describes him at all.

The essay on the Manchester United soccer fans was frightening. And so packed with details. The author of the essay, Bill Buford, was right there the whole time with them, as a participant observer, and so you get the insider view. The whole mob mentality and the craziness of their devotion was shocking.

There were a few essays I didn't like as much, but all in all, it was a fun read.

I would have like an updated version of some of the essays. The one on Saddam Hussein ended abruptly towards the beginning of the Iraq war started, so we don't get any extra information about how his ego and vanity suffered in the wake of the prolonged US occupation and his eventual capture and execution. Some of the essays seemed a little dated.
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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandries

I heard Neil de Grasse Tyson on MPR several months ago discussing his general audience astrophysics/astronomy book and finally read it.

General thoughts:

  1. Not quite general audience enough for me
  2. It seems the book is a compilation of essay that he wrote for Natural History magazine, and so there is a lot of repetition
  3. Because of the above, the sections aren't really cohesive, but come together only in a loosely connected way

There were a few sections of the book that I liked: some bits about the intersection of science and culture, some interesting bits about our solar system's planets, a discussion of asteroid impact on earth and throughout the solar system. The final section on God and science was weak. (There are a lot of interesting questions that arise, though, in the intersection of religion and astrophysics. I wonder how all these questions will ultimately be resolved.)

I didn't love this book. I scanned quite a bit of it. But, I felt a compulsion to finish it. I wanted to get it over with so that I could read some other things. I didn't skip around it it, but read it from front to back. Why couldn't I just set it aside, half-finished? I don't know, but, I couldn't. (I also wonder how that personality trait influenced my finishing what I started in getting an undergrad physics degree. Even in finishing my dissertation.)

It was a little bit satisfying to find that I still some familiarity with his topics, but mostly I wondered why I had spent my undergrad years studying physics--precious little has stuck with me, and that which has is more specific topics (like spectography) rather than any real understanding of large themes and ideas (like the nature of light). I was never cut out to be a physics major. My complete lack of spatial intelligence and my difficulties in big, theoretical thinking are two weaknesses that should have clued me in during those first couple of years.

I have been thinking a little bit about the decision to major in physics. When I was young--in late elementary school--I learned about Sally Ride, the first female astronaut to go to space. I did a report on her and then began aspiring to a career as an astronaut myself. This was until I realized that my physical inner ear weakness and extreme suseceptibility to dizziness would probably disqualify me physically to be an astronaut. But, I remained intrigued with some kind of space-based career. And I was really good at math. I think that perhaps as an idealistic freshman, physics became a substitute for astronaut. I didn't know what I was getting into, and I really should have dropped the major after my 100 level electricity and magnetism class.

Space, and in particular the stars, have always fascinated and mesmerized me. But, I came to realize that I am more interested in their romance, in their mystery, and in the questions they stir in me rather than in understanding how stars are created or what a pulsar is, for example.

Why couldn't I have learned my lesson the first time I read one of Whitman's Leaves of Grass poems and before I spent all that time as an undergraduate studying physics?

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Republican Craziness

It wasn't until 9 pm our time that I remembered to check for the Michigan returns. I turned on CNN and was first stunned, and then so amused, that Romney had won the primary there. We watched their coverage with the "best political team on television" for a while, but my main reaction was laughter in disbelief. I thought that Mitt was going to be done after Michigan. Now, we have had three races, and three winners. The Republican field is still wide open. No front runner, no coalescing around any candidate. Really, anything can happen.

I would love to see the craziness continue for a while longer. Let's have Huckabee win in S Carolina with a good showing from Thompson. And how about Guiliani in Florida? Then, every card is up in the air on Feb 5.

I would prefer not to see McCain win the Republican nomination, because I think he would be the hardest to beat. And I am ready to have the Dems back in the White House.

And I am really interested in seeing Obama as the D nominee because I like him as a candidate, but also because I think he will be more electable than HRC. I don't want all the vitriol against her to fuel voting for a Republican. And I am leery of extending political legacy for another 4 to 8 years. Plus, I just don't have an emotional connection with her like I do with Obama.

I listened to part of Mitt's speech last night and yuck. I didn't like it at all. And the change in his message for the Michiganites? It sounded like he was running for state legislature. "We'll protect the auto industry" and "we'll save your jobs from getting exported". Really?? Who believes that?

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Vivian Bearing and the Life of the Mind

Vivian Bearing is the starring character in the play W;t, written by Margaret Edson. She is a professor of English literature who specializes in the Holy Sonnets of the 17th century poet John Donne. As a character, she is tough, arrogant, very smart, driven, methodical--a woman of the mind. In the first scene of the play, she is diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. Her first reaction upon hearing the news is a determination to compile a bibliography and study through the relevant medical research. Throughout the play, she shows her mastery of the specific vocabulary surrounding her cancer and its treatment. "My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary." Even when she comes to the hospital in the middle of the night, shaking, delirious, and with a high fever, she is able to tell the nurse, “Fever and neutropenia."

During the course of her illness and treatment, Vivian experiences a transformation. She begins to see that she has neglected kindness and compassion, personal relationships and love in her life, and that in the end, these things seem to be what is truly important in life. In one of the most powerful scenes of the play, towards the end of her life, she says "I thought being extremely smart would take care of it... But, I see that I have been found out."

I have been thinking of Vivian a lot. I like her character. I can relate to her character. I see a lot of my primary characteristics in her. I have always been more of a thinker than a feeler, more in my head than in my heart. I spent the first few hours after we got the "maybe your baby has Down's Syndrome" combing the internet for research, trying to quantify my exact situation with concrete numbers. I face most questions that I deal with in an analytical way. So, when breastfeeding was difficult with MJ and when we needed to come up with a sleep plan for her when she was little, I checked out lots of book from the library, did a lot of research to see what the experts said, and then came up with a plan. Just the fact that I needed a sleep plan for her says a lot about it.

Mental stimulation, the life of my mind, ideas and thoughts are important lifeblood to me. I love going alone to the gym with my book. I love spending time alone at home and will most often read or write or listen to something on NPR. I am definitely an introvert--I always feel somewhat strung out after spending time with a large group of people, compared to AJ who finds energy in larger, noisier group settings. I am not asocial. I just prefer quieter time with friends, talking about interesting things.

At book group, I found it interesting that no one else could really relate to Vivian, at least no one said they did when I asked the question. I have been wondering about why I am this way. My dad is stoic and more a thinker--my mom has always the emotional force in their marriage, while one of the things I found most difficult about my dad is that he didn't connect with me (with all the kids?) in an emotional way. I think that I have inherited some of his stoicism. But, at the same time, being female, I have been socialized much more into emotional kinds of behaviors than my dad. Just supposition here. My mission helped me a lot with empathy and being married and having kids too. But, this is not my default perspective.

In W;t, Vivian has a mentor in graduate school, Evelyn Ashford, who seems to have balanced the life of the mind and the life of the heart. She is a top-notch scholar, able to dissect Donne's poems, but also to see that the clever verbal swordplay and the intellectual brilliance are not the ultimate end. I love the scene early in the play when Vivian recalls a meeting with Dr Ashford about a paper she is writing. It introduces so well the themes of the play. The conversation revolves around the punctuation of Donne's Death Be Not Proud.

Ashford: Nothing but a breath--a comma--separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause.
This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.

Vivian: Life, death...I see. It's a metaphysical conceit. It's wit! I'll go back to the library and rewrite the paper--

Ashford: It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. The paper's not the point.

Vivian: It isn't?

Ashford: Vivian. You're a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don't go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?

Vivian walks around campus, mulling over this conversation and its implications, but then she returns to the library.

I think part of the reason I was so moved by the play, and by watching the film with Emma Thompson, is that I don't want to exist only with the life of my mind. I see Vivian at the end, dying, understanding what she missed out on in her life, and the strongest feeling I have is that I want to be kinder to my children, that I need to try to understand them and AJ better, that I desire more compassion and empathy.
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Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I've been riding on some emotional waves lately. The Obama win last week in Iowa and his victory speech following it were thrilling and electrifying. I've been dreaming a lot about the caucuses and primaries lately. And then my mind has been all wrapped up in Wit. I read it a couple of times and watched it and have been thinking so much about it. It's also been in my dreams a lot and I've been waking up with the lines in my mind and thinking about the themes.

Last night all that emotional energy dissipated. Our book group met to discuss Wit--everything I had been thinking about we talked about--and Obama lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary. To top it off, I didn't get enough sleep last night.

I feel depressed today...
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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Dragon Slippers

This is a young young adult book, or an older children's book I suppose, by a woman, Jessica Day George, I know from our time in New Jersey. I had heard about it before it was published, and then when I saw Shannon Hale's interview with her, I decided it was time to read it.

It was a fun, light read. This is Jessica's first published book, so that's great news for her. She has always been a fantasy freak, and this is one big fairy tale. I thought that her voice as author was a little inconsistent at times, and the writing wasn't as good as some other YA books I've read, but kudos to her for getting it published. There were a lot of fun things about it--I loved the dragon stained glass collection and the way Creel (not my favorite name for a character) used them in her embroidery. And there is a character named Tobin! I have a secret theory that Jessica subconsciously pocketed the name when she got T's birth announcement and then pulled it out to use in her book.

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New Church Time!

One of the best things of turning the calendar over to 2008 is that we now have church at 9:00 rather than 1. I left church to come home around 12:20 today, and reflected on how just last week at this same time, we were hurrying to finish lunch and get the kids into the car. Right now it's 2:10, the same time when last week I was sitting in a just ending sacrament meeting. Now, I am sitting in my comfy clothes, having just eaten nachos for lunch, with a lot of the day still spread out before me. The kids do so much better at this time. It makes for much more pleasant Sunday. I feel a little giddy about it. This contrasts with how bitter and cranky I felt about getting to and attending church for about the first 6 months of last year.
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Saturday, January 05, 2008

This made my day

A few days ago, T decided all on his own that he wanted to write a thank you note to Santa. He has been very interested in practicing his letters and has just about gotten to where he can write all of them by himself. He asked me how to spell everything, and save for the 3 s's and the g, he wrote it all himself.
In case you can't tell, it says, "Dear Santa, Thank you for all those wonderful things. Toby." As happy as I am that he is interested in writing letters and is doing a good job of it, I was more excited that he wanted to tell Santa thanks.

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