WHAT’S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT A SHOVEL? WE HAD MORE TO SAY: A BOOK REVIEW OF SORTS

July 30, 2012 in Book Reviews


On the day before my grandmother’s funeral, I sat on the living room floor in my cousin’s home in New Mexico attaching photographs of my grandmother to a bulletin board. It was quiet, save for my cousin’s voice on the phone in the adjoining room, making arrangements and asking for Tata’s shovel.

My brow furrowed, perplexed, and I stopped pushing the photographs around for a moment.

Tata’s shovel? What on earth did he need that for at a time like this?

I didn’t know Tata; my grandfather died when I was very young. I knew nothing about his shovel either, but Ray was insistent that whomever he was talking to on the other end of the line find that particular shovel.

I went back to attaching the photographs and thought no more about the shovel, for there were far more pressing things on my mind: holding my grandmother’s ashes carefully in my lap as my mother drove us to the little town where my grandmother lived her entire life, greeting relatives I hadn’t seen in years, and walking down the dirt lane from the old church to the old cemetery where she would be laid to rest next to Tata.

This wasn’t your usual funeral, where a polished casket adorned with massive bouquets of flowers was lowered into the ground and surreptitiously covered with earth by a crew long after the mourners had gone.

This was old school: a simple wooden box of ashes passed from uncle to uncle and finally handed down to one of my cousins standing in the grave, who laid them gently on the earthen floor.

Hands reached down to help him out, and then the shovel appeared. My grandmother’s children took turns with it, scooping a ceremonial shovelful of dirt over the wooden box.

I started to get an inkling of why my cousin was so insistent on having that shovel there.

Two by twos, three by threes, the mourners left the gravesite to meet at the reception. I stayed, for my mother stayed, and I witnessed something I didn’t expect to see.

No magical grounds crew came along to finish filling in the grave. After the ceremonial shovelfuls of earth were done, the jackets came off. The shovel was put to use in earnest by my grandmother’s sons and grandsons. Brows grew sweaty and faces grew flushed. Thighs braced to help lift heavy loads of dirt, and arms flexed to throw them in.

My relatives filled her grave, and they did it with Tata’s shovel.

That was the moment I thought I fully understood the meaning behind it.

It wasn’t until I read Raymond Z. Ortiz’s poem “Ode to My Shovel” in his published collection of poetry We Had More To Say that I realized my experience of that shovel was only a thin slice of the history that worn, weathered handle and its blade had witnessed through generations:

“I left my grandfather

for manhood

in his grave

cut by this shovel…”

 

“In field of dawn,

digging for new crops…”

 

“In deep mines of darkness,

digging for the blackness of coal.

In ditches begging hills for water…”

 

“In countless graves

dredging sorrow and remembrance…”

 

A long and storied history lives in that shovel, and in the memories of those who came in contact with it.

History, love, loss, sorrow, and joy live in that shovel, just as they live within the pages of We Had More To Say. To read this collection is to go on a journey of a life intertwined with the lives of ancestors, mothers, fathers, soul mates, and children, soaring with wonder, digging through layers of meaning and history, succumbing temporarily to the depths of sorrow and loss…but always moving forward, until even the last poem in the collection promises We Had More To Say.

Join me in an interview with the author, Raymond Z. Ortiz, about his published poetry collection We Had More To Say: Poems from Pilgrimage Road here. One lucky winner will receive a copy of his book!

I LOVE QUIZZES! OR HOW TO ACCIDENTALLY SIGN UP FOR A DATING SERVICE

July 27, 2012 in Quizzes

 

I love quizzes, and always have. Why? I have no idea. There is just something fun about a question posed in a multiple choice or fill-in-the-bank format. Do I know the answer? Can I figure it out through the process of elimination? If I get them all right can give myself a double fist pump in the air?

I’ll take any kind of quiz (trivia, 80s music, books, movie quotes) but some of my favorites are the ones that claim to be able to tell me something about myself. Quibblo has a Which Jane Austen Character Are You? quiz. Of course, I didn’t need to take that one to know I’m about as close to Elinor from Sense and Sensibility as you can get. Naturally, the Which Jane Austen Man Is For You? was next up on my list. Imagine my surprise when the answer turned out to be Mr. Edward Ferrars! I always did like Hugh Grant…

But I’ll tell you what. If Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy asked me to marry him, I wouldn’t say no. I think I could deal with a little misplaced pride if it meant looking into those eyes for the rest of my life.

I had a field day with the Who Do You Write Like? quiz at Cheryl Reif Writes. I  pasted in different writing samples…some humorous, some not…until it turns out that I write like Rudyard Kipling and James Joyce. This frightens me because (a) I was expecting a “Sophie Kinsella” response, and (b) I could never understand James Joyce. Perhaps I need to work on clarity in my writing?

Bolton Carley’s Blog has an amusing exercise in trying to figure out your “ladies-of-a-certain age” name. It’s not a quiz per se, but scrolling down the list of personality traits associated with old-fashioned names (think Esther, Hattie, and Maude) was a hoot. I found about five that suited me in some way, so I might have to be a Southern old lady with multiple names, like Billy Joe Bob, except, you know, the feminine version.

Want to find out your old man name? She has that too!

I loved the purportedly scientific What Does Your Favorite Ice Cream Flavor Say About You? at Ice Cream Flavorology. My favorite, hands down, is mint chocolate chip ice cream, which means I am

“…ambitious and confident…yet a little skeptical about life. You are a realist who prepares for the future, needing a solid plan to feel secure. While your stubbornness is a business asset, it can add a challenging element to your relationships. Nonetheless, your loyalty, honesty, and dependability create lasting friendships and close family ties.”

Wow…mint chocolate chip ice cream lovers sound great!

Jennifer Chow sent up a wonderful quiz on her blogpost The Animal Inside You. I clicked right on over to The Animal Personality Test, where I read with interest that this quiz could be

“…used to find out how people relate to each other, how they respond to their environment, or how to resolve issues.”

This was right up my alley. I couldn’t wait to take the quiz, so I started right on my iPhone, which I’d like to point out has a tiny screen that doesn’t always show everything there is to see unless I manually scroll around.

I zipped through the quiz and clicked the “Submit” button, anxious to see which of the four animals (lion, otter, beaver, or golden retriever) I was most like. Except…you had to sign up to get your results. (Actually, this is not true. There is a microscopic button that says something like “No, I don’t want to sign up. Just give me my results!” but I didn’t see it because my iPhone screen is tiny.) So, I signed up. Why not? I thought the author of the quiz had some interesting things to say, and perhaps there were more quizzes to be found. Besides, I’ve been signing up for everything lately (Goodreads, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) so what was one more? I did wonder why they needed to know my sexual orientation, but hey, maybe that would help guide me to the appropriate self-assessment quizzes. (Plus, I was on vacation, so I really wasn’t paying that much attention to what I was doing.) Finally, I got my results: Lion, with a hefty dose of Beaver & Golden Retriever thrown in. It sounded about right. And then, I went on my merry way…

Until I started getting emails from strangers that wanted to know more about me. Huh? What was going on?

As it turned out, I had signed up for a dating service, not a quiz site. How embarrassing! I immediately deleted my account and breathed a sigh of relief…until I started getting emails from Match.com.

The lessons I learned are:

  • Before you sign up for something, make sure you know what it is you are signing up for.
  • Don’t sign up for anything on your iPhone.
  • Don’t sign up for anything while sipping cocktails.

Happy Quiz Taking! Feel free to share any of your results in the comments!

CAKE POPS AND PUSH-UP POPS: 2 COOKBOOK REVIEWS

July 25, 2012 in Book Reviews, Chocolate! (and other less exalted food experiences)

I love to bake, and I especially love baking desserts that are not only delicious, but whimsical. Between birthday parties, school parties, holidays, and cupcake walks, I have plenty of opportunities to play with flour, sugar, eggs, and chocolate.

There are two new dessert crazes out right now that are so darling and so delicious that I had to run out and purchase both cookbooks and start baking immediately.

The first is Cake Pops by Bakerella, also known as Angie Dudley. It only took me five seconds of glancing through her cookbook before three things became apparent:

1)    She is a beautiful photographer.

2)    She is wildly creative.

3)    There is no way my cake pops are ever going to look as good as hers.

The ones I made for Halloween looked like this:

 

But…they were so good. And the 5th graders I served these to hadn’t seen Bakerella’s beautiful creations, so they had nothing to compare mine to. I was hailed as a genius, and I owe it all to Bakerella.

Her cookbook is filled with cake pops for all occasions: all the major holidays, animals, pirates (the cutest cake pops ever!), weddings, graduations…it’s all in there. And she keeps inventing more! Check out these darling beach balls on her blog.

There’s a great resource page for the candy coatings and colorings she uses, plus tips on displaying, storing, and shipping the cake pops. If that’s not enough, her story is pretty inspiring too. You can read more about it here.

Another craze sweeping my crafts store (Ben Franklins for you locals) is Courtney Dial Whitmore’s Push-up Pops.

Using that oh-so-simple push-up pop container, she has created a myriad of delicious, single serving dessert treats that are too cute to be believed.

For the 4th of July, I tried the Dreamy Chocoholic cake treats. I made the cake in a jelly roll pan, cut out circles of cake using the push-up pop container as a cookie cutter, and layered the cake rounds with chocolate frosting in the container.

The kids loved them, even those that weren’t my own. They found me specifically to tell me how good they were. I was hailed as a genius, and I owe it all to Courtney.

If you’re serving these at a party, my one suggestion is to leave a container/bag for people to dispose of the push-up pop containers in because they are reusable.

Courtney has developed recipes for cake, cookie, brownie, and frozen treats, including a Frozen Lime Margarita Push-up Pop with real tequila and triple sec…wow! I’ll definitely be hiding these from the kids!

I recently tried her Watermelon Surprise frozen treat: layered ice creams in colors that resemble watermelon slices. Softened ice cream is messy, and her push-up pops turned out much prettier than mine (where did she find lime sherbet that color?), but they were delicious.

The Campfire S’mores were pretty darn good too, and easy!

Courtney has loads of entertaining tips at her website Pizzazzerie. I can spend some serious time on her site…and I do! Check out these Pie Favors in a Jar. They are next on my list to try!

Looking for a fun dessert? There’s no need to look anywhere else but inside the pages of these 2 cookbooks!

IN THE OPRAH MAGAZINE: WHAT KIND OF DIET IS THIS?

July 23, 2012 in Chocolate! (and other less exalted food experiences)

In O, Oprah Winfrey’s August 2012 magazine, I came across a fascinating article called “Got Cake?” by Gina Roberts-Grey. According to Israeli researchers, Roberts-Grey reports, eating dessert with breakfast may not only help people lose weight, but keep it off.

What? What?

I’ve been doling out special treats in minute quantities after dinner all this time only to discover I could have been chowing down on a big ol’ doughnut every morning and still lose weight?

Here’s the study that was done:

Two groups of overweight-to-obese adults ate the same number of calories every day. The difference was, one group ate a healthy breakfast, while the second group ate a high calorie, high protein, high carb breakfast plus a dessert treat. The sample breakfast given was

  • Egg and cottage cheese scramble on whole grain toast
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Fudge brownie (What the heck?)

At the 4 month mark, both groups had lost the same amount of weight.

At the 8 month mark, the dessert-for-breakfast group had lost an average of 38 more pounds per person because they continued to lose weight, while the normal breakfast group gained back ¾ of their weight.

What was happening?

The dessert breakfast eaters had satisfied their cravings and felt satiated longer. Eating dessert in the morning may cause the release of serotonin, a neurochemical that makes you feel happier and reduces your cravings throughout the day.

Maybe the farmers have had the right idea all these years. They load up on a giant breakfast of pancakes with syrup, eggs, and bacon…a high calorie, high protein, and high carb breakfast to get them through a whole day of wrangling cattle.

Except I don’t wrangle cattle. I sit on my butt in front of the computer, or I sit on my bed and fold laundry, or I sit in the car and drive children to wherever they need to go.

So…is this really the diet for me?

And exactly how big of a serving is this fudge brownie? Would it be the equivalent of a Krispy Kreme doughnut or a Hershey Bar?

I’m afraid to try it, because when it comes to sweets, once I start, I have trouble stopping. This is why I have desserts after dinner, because the number of hours left in the day are few, so I can do less damage. Beginning my sweet intake at breakfast…I don’t know. That sounds dangerous.

Would anyone out there be willing to try this and let me know if it actually works? Or maybe I could try it for one day. It’s not enough for weight loss, but I am curious to see if my cravings would be satisfied throughout the day. That would be valuable knowledge indeed.

Next time I am around a doughnut at breakfast-time, maybe I won’t just run away screaming. Maybe I’ll just eat it, along with a scrambled egg…and see what happens.

HOW TO TAKE A COMPLIMENT

July 20, 2012 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

 

I recently wrote a post about the magic of giving a compliment here. Now it’s time to address how to receive one!

In an ideal world, the compliment exchange between the giver and the receiver should go like this:

GIVER: I like your (insert compliment here).

RECEIVER: (smiling) Thank you!

I’ve noticed, however, that this does not always happen, and I’m afraid I’m one of the worst offenders.

Take this exchange I recently had with my son’s former teacher:

TEACHER: I saw you running this morning and you were carrying quite a pace.

ME: (snorting disbelievingly) I must have been running downhill.

TEACHER: You weren’t.

ME: Are you sure it was me?

TEACHER: I’m sure.

ME: You must have caught me in a rare moment.

This kind soul offered me a lovely compliment and what did I do? I took it from him, flung it to the floor, and proceeded to squash it to pieces. In retrospect, I’m worried I hurt his feelings, or worse: he may never want to compliment me again.

Another day, I was at our local copy center photocopying some material for my sons to work on during the summer. A gentleman walked by and said “That’s sweet!” I literally turned around to see who he was talking to, but the only one there was me. I concluded that either the man was talking to himself or he was insane.

Instead, he stopped in his tracks, looked me in the eye, and repeated “That’s sweet, what you’re doing for your kids.”

I think my articulate response was something along the lines of “Ugh.” Again, not my best moment, but I still have serious questions about what he was complimenting me on. I was creating work for my children to do over their summer vacation. I don’t think they would classify that as “sweet.” I didn’t feel “sweet” either: dedicated, maybe, or overzealous, or even heartless made the list that sweet wasn’t even on.

Still…he stopped in his tracks to deliver what he thought was a kind remark.

And I said “Ugh.”

Who cares if I didn’t understand it, or wanted to get into a semantics discussion just to understand what it was he was trying to express? Would it have been so hard to smile and say thank you?

Half the fun of giving a compliment is seeing the pleasure spread across the person’s face receiving it. It’s not nearly as fun to go up to someone and say “Wow! You look great!” when the person responds with “Are you high or is something wrong with your eyesight?”

From now on, I’m going to make an effort to smile and say thank you when someone offers me a compliment, even if

a)    I don’t believe it.

b)    I don’t understand it.

c)    I think the person has lost temporary control of their senses.

Why? Because if someone goes to the trouble of giving me the gift of a compliment, then the least I can do is give them the gift of receiving it graciously in return.

A BOOK CLUB CHALLENGE

July 18, 2012 in On Writing, Reflections on Pop Culture


I recently wrote about my experiences with book clubs (read about that here), specifically the all-female one I’m in now where I complained about the husband of one of our members, whom I’ll refer to as Joe Book Club, selecting our book for us. My exact comment was:

“Do you think he’d want to read what I thought was the best book I’d ever read?”

Well, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and Joe Book Club has picked it up. He has agreed to read whatever book I throw at him. (cue evil laugh) The question is, which one of my favorite books should I have him read?

Should I be really mean and have him read a Sophie Kinsella novel, like Confessions of a Shopaholic or Can you Keep A Secret? I love her because she’s funny and writes chick lit, but how would a man feel about reading something like that? Perhaps I could suggest my favorite Marian Keyes’ novel Rachel’s Holiday (also known Rachel’s stint in rehab). Only Marian Keyes could turn in a novel that’s poignant, honest, heartbreaking, and laugh out loud funny.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is one of my all-time favorites. Set in the 1940s and told entirely through letters, it comes complete with quirky characters residing on a whimsical island. It’s told from a woman’s point of view, and yes, there is romance, but the fact that it’s set against the hard edge of World War II might make it more appealing to a man.

I could be nice and recommend Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, which is so much richer than the movie in depicting Jason Bourne’s struggle to discover who he really is. Or Stephen King’s The Stand, about the battle of good vs evil in a post virally-infected world. Or N.D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards, which I absolutely love. (read more about that here)

But I think I’m going to go with Watership Down, by Richard Adams. From the back cover:

Watership Down is a remarkable tale of exile and survival, of heroism and leadership…the epic novel of a group of adventurers who desert their doomed city, and venture forth against all odds on a quest for a new home, a sturdier future.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? There’s just one little thing: the characters are rabbits, not people.

Just set that aside and dive into this new world of four-legged, furry creatures who have personalities, emotions, temperaments, and loyalties. Surround yourself with their language and history, and journey with them as they seek freedom and safety at all costs. I’ve read this book many, many times and I’ve never been able to put it down during the last 100 pages.

So, Joe Book Club, your assignment is Watership Down by Richard Adams. If by chance you’ve already read it, then it’s 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson (Your sons would love this too.). Oh, and you can thank me later!

Anyone else who hasn’t read this gem of a book, please join us!

If you are a woman, what book would you recommend for a man? And vice versa?

Happy Reading!

CHANGE: WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

July 16, 2012 in Random Thoughts

 

I’m not a huge fan of change. When I find something I like, I want it to stay that way forever. Great restaurants shouldn’t go out of business, great teachers shouldn’t retire or transfer schools, and the very nice woman who does my pedicures should not be allowed to switch to hair styling.

It was so hard to find her! I go for the spa pedicures so I can tune out the world for one hour in a room artificially darkened by the eye pillow she places over my eyes. She leans me back in the oversized chair, invites me to breathe in the soothing properties in the aromatherapy, and then…the time is mine. My mind drifts from topic to topic until it slows down, settles, and finally, relaxes completely. It’s like meditation, except I get pretty toenails in the end. And she lets me! She doesn’t talk the entire time or explain every step she’s doing. She doesn’t talk at all. She understands that for one hour, it’s my time.

But now she’s gone.

So is my good friend who moved to Texas this weekend. My book club leader that made me read books I didn’t want to but ended up loving, the social queen who organized breakfasts, game nights, and drinking wine in her cul-de-sac, the big-hearted soul who never met a stranger, and the friend who could make me laugh like no other: consistently, constantly, and with abandon…and now she’s gone.

Who said she was allowed to move?

There have been a lot of changes on the home front too. My formerly small child now wears the same size shoe I do and is practically up to my chin in height. Entering junior high this fall, he is turning into an adolescent before my eyes: sleeping in, iPod Touch constantly in hand, and a sense of humor well beyond his years.

My middle son is growing too, and what he lacks in height he makes up for in swagger: baseball cap turned backwards, a Phiten necklace around his neck, his athletic shorts pulled down as low as he can get away with, and his big, brown eyes still oozing a kindness of heart that can’t be hidden behind his tough guy exterior.

My youngest will be in first grade in the fall: his first year in all-day school. He’s figured out that he’s excessively fond of the letter “l” and doesn’t say things like “blueblerries” or “clopying” anymore.

Actually, I don’t mind watching the changes in my kids. They’re growing up, certainly, but they’re not yet growing away, so I can sit back and watch, wondering about the kind of men they will grow up to be.

And I’ve always liked the beginning of the school years and the new years for the fresh starts they promise. A time to begin anew, steer my course in a new direction, a chance for…well, change.

Maybe the kind of change I like is the one I initiate.

As for everyone else, if you want to change something that affects me, maybe you’d better check with me first. Because if you change something, then I have to as well. Change is hard enough when it’s my choice; it’s worse when I am forced to change but don’t want to.

I know change is life and life is change, but is it too much to ask that a few things stay the same? I’d welcome some constants that I could anchor myself to through any kind of turbulence that comes my way.

I think I’ll start with my friend moving back home and the pedicurist returning to pedicuring…both forever.

That would be really nice.

ALLERGIC TO NUTS? NO PROBLEM! THERE IS STILL SAFE CHOCOLATE TO BE FOUND! (PLUS A RECIPE!)

July 13, 2012 in Chocolate! (and other less exalted food experiences), Nut Allergies and Then Some

My oldest son is allergic to all nuts known to man and soy protein. The soy protein allergy is a topic for another day,  but the “all nuts” is easy: he can’t eat nuts, period. If it has nuts, might have nuts, or is made in a plant where nuts might come in contact with it, it’s strictly off limits.

For example, he’s not allergic to anything in Plain M&M’s, but because they’re made in the same facility as Peanut M&M’s, the possibility of cross-contamination precludes him from having them.

I find this annoying. The M&M/Mars company is huge. Couldn’t they have two factories, one for manufacturing the nut-containing varieties of M&M’s, like Peanut, Dark Chocolate Peanut, Peanut Butter and Almond, and one for the nut-free varieties such as Plain, Dark Chocolate, Pretzel, and Coconut? Because I’m sure I…I mean, he…would love to dive into some of those.

It’s not just an M&M problem. Most chocolate candies are made in plants that also process nuts, so finding safe chocolate options for him is a challenge. Since we maintain a nut-free household, it is a challenge for me too.

However, I, as a good mother and chocolate addict, have found three wonderful online companies that offer delicious nut-free products that we all can enjoy.

VERMONT NUT-FREE CHOCOLATES 

Based in Vermont, this company was born out of the very challenges we face: a mother with a peanut-allergic son trying to find a safe way to enjoy chocolate. Both their products and their production lines are completely nut-free. In addition to chocolate-covered caramels, truffles, pretzels, holiday-themed chocolates, and baking chocolates, they make a product they call Skippers: miniature drops of chocolate covered in a hard candy shell in bright colors…like M&M’s! And they’re safe! Not to mention delicious…

PEANUT FREE PLANET

This web store offers a whole range of products, but the ones I find interesting are the Kit Kats and Mars Bars. We can’t eat the ones sold here in the US because they’re made in a facility that also processes nuts, but these particular ones are made in a nut-free plant in Canada, complete with a giant right on the package! (So, M&M/Mars, it can be done!) They have everything: granola bars, baking ingredients, donuts, cookies, crackers, candy, trail mix…and it’s all nut free made in nut-free facilities! They also sell pea butter, a fabulous substitute for baking. I’m sharing a recipe below that we couldn’t make because of the peanut butter, but now that we have pea butter, they’re back in our rotation.

 

 CHOCOLEY
Of course, we can’t get every candy we’d like from these two sources, so I’ve been driven to make my own as the occasion arises. Enter Chocoley, nut-free dipping and enrobing chocolates and candy melts! Not everything on their site is nut-free: the pre-made cream centers and caramels are not, so if I want to get into truffle making, I’m on my own. But for my basic dipping needs, like chocolate-covered Oreos, Chocoley has got me covered. Plus, they send you lots of delicious recipes via email, and this is the company that gave me the free pancake pen! (Read about that here.)

If you’re not allergic to nuts, I’d still keep these websites in mind in case you run across someone who is. Say you might want to get them a little gift and they love chocolate. See’s candies, Godiva chocolates, and almost every other specialty chocolate available is out. But Vermont Nut Free has gourmet chocolates that are yummy, Peanut Free Planet has chocolate bars, and Chocoley will have the supplies you need in case you’d like to make your friend a gift yourself.

I’d like to extend each of these companies a heartfelt thank you for recognizing the need and the value of providing nut-free chocolates to these kids and adults who might not otherwise get to experience the lovely chocolate high!

BOILED COOKIES (Ok, it’s not the most appetizing title, but these are good; trust me!)

2 cups sugar

3 tbsp cocoa powder

1/3 cup milk

1/2 cup pea butter

1 tsp vanilla

1 stick butter

3 cups rolled oats

Mix sugar, cocoa powder, and milk together in a heavy pot. Boil for 1 minute. Stir in pea butter, vanilla, and butter. Remove from heat and add rolled oats, mixing well. Using a teaspoon, drop the still warm mixture by the spoonful onto waxed paper. Let cool.

Enjoy!

ED SHEERAN’S THE A TEAM: AN EXERCISE IN POETRY

July 11, 2012 in On Writing, Reflections on Pop Culture

I’m not a poetry expert, but I know enough to pretend that I am, and it’s all my mother’s fault.

When my sister and I were young, my mother took a poetry class that so enthralled her that she decided to torture us…I mean, broaden our horizons by passing along her knowledge to us. And so began our summer of poetry.

Every week, my sister and I were assigned a poem to learn. At the end of the week, we had to recite it, verbatim from memory, on top of the hearth in front of the fireplace that, roughly four inches off the ground, served as our stage. Then she would grade us on our performance.

I was at a considerable disadvantage here. My sister was the drama queen. Stages thrilled her; monologues, even in poetry form, were her best friends. She could emote, inflect, and breathe life into even the most mundane of poems, using the fireplace poker as her microphone for added flair.

I was shy and reserved. I didn’t do stages, even ones four inches off the ground with only my mother and my sister in the audience. I wasn’t about to emote, even if I knew how.

As I recall, I got a lot of C’s. (My mother is no pushover.)

On the plus side, I was exposed to a lot of the poetry greats: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll, and Ogden Nash.

My poetry education continued with my cousin, who introduced me to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner via the heavy metal band Iron Maiden, and my  English teacher, who taught me to dissect the meaning out of every word in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence. Thanks to all of these experiences, I feel that I’m almost a decent judge of what makes good poetry, either in the written form or in song lyrics.

Every once in awhile I come across a song that is so well written it’s poetic, and my latest discovery is Ed Sheeran’s The A Team. I love the cadence of his lines. They’re succinct, and the words flow over one another with rhymes that seem to arise organically:

White lips, pale face

Breathing in snowflakes

Burnt lungs, sour taste

Light’s gone, day’s end

Struggling to pay rent

Long nights, strange men

It’s stunning how he can tell an entire story in roughly four-syllable rhyming lines. It’s too bad the subject matter is so depressing. Class A refers to the top-of-the-line kind of drug, like crack cocaine or heroin. I’m not exactly sure what the girl in this song is into, but it’s definitely Class A and it’s about to kill her.

Ripped gloves, raincoat

Tried to swim, stay afloat

Dry house, wet clothes

Loose change, bank notes

Weary-eyed, dry throat

Call girl, no phone

Even the chorus, especially the chorus, is a cascading sequence of rhymes that keep coming and coming, and I wondered as I listened to it the first time, how long can he keep up this rhyme scheme without forcing it? Any time any children’s book author tries to rhyme the word “seven” in a counting book, the shoe horn comes out, prying in a word that doesn’t quite rhyme unless you completely mispronounce it, or forcing in an image with a word that does rhyme but makes no sense to anything else in the story.

But Ed Sheeran doesn’t do that at all. The rhymes keep flowing, the story keeps making sense, and he does what any great writer does: he makes it seem effortless.

And they say

She’s stuck in the Class A Team

Stuck in her daydream

Been this way since eighteen

But lately her face seems

Slowly sinking, wasting

Crumbling like pastries

And they scream…”

It’s hard to imagine him sitting around his computer or legal pad or guitar with a heavy thesaurus trying to come up with another word that rhymes with “team.” Maybe he did, but the final product is so polished, you can’t see the seams. (Hey…that rhymes!)

If you haven’t heard the song yet, I urge you to hop onto iTunes and take a listen. As with a lot of writing, the poetry is even more pronounced when you hear it out loud. Accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar playing a beautiful melody doesn’t hurt either.

Is there a poem or a song lyric that is especially poetic to you?

THE JOY OF MOVIES

July 9, 2012 in Reflections on Pop Culture

I can’t remember exactly when I became a movie lover, but I knew it had already taken root by the time I was in high school. I spent almost every free moment at our small shopping center that began with only a grocery store, a drug store, and a movie theater. My friends and I turned loitering in front of the theater into an art form: waiting for our friends to finish their shift behind the concession stand, casually walking back and forth in front of the entrance to see who else might be loitering, and sometimes legitimately waiting for movie tickets.

In the summers, I’d take the kids I babysat to the children’s summer movie program: once a week at 10:00am for $1 per ticket (one dollar!), they would show kids’ movies with accompanying shorts instead of previews. The theater was always packed with hordes of screaming kids not too particular about spilling their popcorn. Some of the movies were great, some not so much, but all of the shorts they showed beforehand were awful. They were filmed in black and white and were usually about robots or astronauts with costumes and/or props built out of aluminum foil. (Now I know why those tickets were only $1).

But I didn’t care because it was a movie. (And since I was also getting paid as the babysitter: a win-win!)

For years I enjoyed a love affair with the darkened theater, a giant screen so wide I had to move my head from side to side to see everything, a sound system as loud as any rock concert, and the smell of popcorn filling every inhalation I took. I’d become so engrossed with the previews that I’d forget which movie it was I came to see in the first place, and then I’d become so engrossed in the movie I’d sometimes forget I was in a theater.

But all that changed when I had kids. My movie-going came to an abrupt end because my sons were the kind that needed to bounce the whole time they were awake or they would cry…loudly. I’d heard stories about couples who could take their infants with them to the theater because they’d sleep through the whole movie. I heard stories about crying rooms built-in to certain theaters in case you had an infant that did cry.  I couldn’t do either of those: one, because no baby of mine would ever consent to my sitting down for two minutes, let alone two hours, and two, because I actually liked to hear the movie, not the cacophony of my and my fellow movie goers’ kids’ crying together in the crying room.

When my kids got a little older, I tried going back to the movie theater, except they couldn’t sit still. They were up, they were down, they squirmed in their seats, crawled on the sticky floor picking up who knows what kind of germs, and begged to go to the bathroom, but never at the same time. After a couple of times of paying upwards of $25 to spend the whole movie in the bathroom, I gave up.

Still my kids grew, and last winter, I thought I’d try again. Laden with popcorn, candy, our 3D glasses, and no liquids, we found our seats and began watching the movie. Or rather, they watched the movie and I watched them. Were they fidgeting, squirming, or invading each other’s personal space? Not really. Were they frightened of the dark or the loudness of the speakers? Not at all. Were they actually paying attention to the movie? They were!

I began to relax and lose myself in a delightful little movie called Arthur Christmas: a funny, animated tale with a character named Grandsanta voiced by Bill Nighy that had me laughing so hard I was almost the one that had to leave the theater to get a hold of myself.

Since then, I have been overjoyed to watch the movie bug slowly infiltrate their little systems. We’ve seen The Adventures of Tintin, and my oldest and I went to see Hugo, just the two of us: a magical experience on so many levels. Last week we saw Brave, which was accompanied by a short from Pixar called La Luna told entirely without words. It was so lovely, so simple, and so without any shred of aluminum foil that I felt tears rolling down my cheeks before the movie we came to see even started…whatever it was.

Now as I peruse my Entertainment Weekly and see what movies are coming out, I can say to myself , as I always do, “Hey! I want to see that movie!” Except now, I’ve reached a time in my life when I can actually follow through with my wish.