Battles with nature

Ever have something happen that is so...bizarre–you can't quite explain it in a way that makes sense to someone else?

I often wake at the crack of dawn to the sound of pattering feet. Probably most people do, but this is different because I don't have kids or pets. Part of the roof above my bedroom is flat. There are huge trees on both sides of my house. I will often hear squirrels chattering and scampering across it. While it took some getting used to, there are worse ways to wake up.

But this morning, I heard some loud banging. I first thought that someone was at my door. Bleary- eyed, I stumbled out of bed to explore. Nope. I stumbled back to my room and took refuge under my warm covers, muttering about the mystery. No sooner did my head touch the pillow when the racket began again. I sat up, feeling like the noise was coming from the roof. What in the world? Frustrated, I rapped on my bedroom window. The knocking stopped. I opened the window and poked my head out, brandishing a Fisher Price flashlight shaped like a cow. (It moos when you press the button and the light shines out of the cow's mouth. A gift from my father.) 

Three huge black birds flew off the roof, squawking. Were they crows? Ravens? I have no idea. I don't know what was happening out there, but that didn't stop my speculation. I started by imagining that the squirrels have sent out their CSI unit to investigate a multiple homicide. Are there miscellaneous bones scattered on my roof? Then, a second unsettling thought occurred to me. Could the birds be mating? How do birds procreate? I should have paid more attention in biology. In the brief moment before I can Google "How do birds have sex?" and after I laughed about the idea of birds being delivered by storks, the most horrifying thought crossed my mind. Were the neighbors watching the crazy woman in sweatpants and a messy ponytail hanging out of the window pointing a toy at the roof?

No one told me being an adult would be like this. 


Cover art

Do you have Facebook? Would you like a perfectly sized cover photo? I've created some cover photos that feature some favorite Bible passages. Feel free to download and use. (Photos were taken by me, so there is no copyright infringement.) To download, right-click on the image and select Save Image As (or Save Picture As). Save it to your computer and upload it to Facebook.



Speaking of family celebrations, my sisters and I have one that has taken on a life of its own: Craft Night. It started about 10 years ago when my sister invited us over to her house to make gel candles. (These are the ones that supposedly explode. Wait. What? As if a candle wasn't incendiary anyway.) We had a blast. (HA!)

So recently, when my cousin Beth and my great-aunt Betty came to visit, it seemed a perfect opportunity to have Craft Night. After all, scissors + wine = good ideas! Not everything from Craft Night turns out as we hoped (see evidence below), but we always have fun anyway. Here's a snapshot of the aftermath.

Now that Beth is back home, she's decided to share the thrill and start her own Craft Night. Welcome to the dark side, Beth!


Introducing new family celebrations

My sister wrote about her obsession with crayons, which stems from an experience in our childhood. I can relate. It's funny how little things in one's formative years shape a person. If you are a vegetarian or a health nut, I strongly discourage you from reading this post.

>>> Side note: I feel a teeny bit bad for my parents. With eight adult children, their parenting goes under the microscope of the aforementioned children. Even now, at family gatherings, there is good-natured ribbing of my parents and their approach. But I digress. <<<

Here's the story of how an ugly scar on my psyche turned into a new family celebration. Growing up, my mother would occasionally make bacon and craft a BLT for my dad. However, my mother hated the way the greasy smell lingered, plus bacon was expensive, so she didn't usually cook enough for the Mongolian Horde (a term of endearment my father had for his passel of children). My siblings and I would salivate at the very smell of frying bacon. It's one of those things that cannot be cooked "undercover."  While Dad was eating his BLT, the rest of us were eating a sandwich also known by its initials, but decidedly less thrilling: PB&J.

Fast forward 25 years. I fried up three pounds of bacon and took it to a family brunch. My brother Paul, upon surveying the table laden with fruit, scrambled eggs, donuts, pastries and muffins, made this comment: "The proportion of bacon to donuts should be reversed." With the size of our family, it didn't take long for the bacon to disappear.

And so an idea was born: Baconfest. The official motto of this auspicious event is "Bacon for everyone." (Clever, right?) One Sunday in February, I invited my parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews over to my house after church for brunch. We had all the fixings (eggs, juice, fruit, etc.), but at the center of the table was a huge platter of bacon. Everyone, adults and children alike, helped themselves. No rationing for pint-size people! And because I have a huge family, the final total consumed was nine pounds of bacon.

It has become a popular (although infrequent) family tradition. Mom was right about one thing: the worst part of Baconfest is the smell afterwards. It takes about a week before my house smells normal.


Summer blockbusters

There were four movies that were on my summer 2013 must-see list. Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, and Iron Man 3. As of last week, I've crossed three of them off my list.

I am a sci-fi fan and a Zachary Quinto fan. His portrayal of the intellectual Spock's deep emotional turmoil just below the surface gets me every time. (Yes, I have a little crush on him. I am partial to smart men.) Plus, I loved the 2009 reboot from J.J. Abrams, so I corralled a friend and went to see Star Trek Into Darkness first. I enjoyed it, but walked away wishing it would have made a little more sense.

Next on my list was Man of Steel. I have a soft spot for Superman and what he stands for (truth, justice, and the American way). I think he's my favorite superhero. I adored Christopher Reeve in the original Superman movie as a kid. I watched all ten seasons of Smallville. Now, I admire director Zack Snyder and have grown to appreciate his gritty interpretation of the Watchmen, but that didn't seem like Superman to me. Still, I was cautiously optimistic. I ended up disappointed. It felt a little too much like Transformers to me. Henry Cavill did a credible job in the title role, but it just wasn't what I expected.

You know how sometimes, you are hoping against hope that a review will be completely off the mark? I crossed my fingers and went to see The Lone Ranger. However, this movie was, to quote my father, "silly."  (I think that's a generous assessment.) Johnny Depp played Tonto with shades of Jack Sparrow, and the other characters were completely one-dimensional. You know it's a bad sign when you're looking for your watch to check the time during a movie. (Still, props to Gioachino Rossini, the composer of The William Tell Overture. Gives me chills, every time, even if the movie stinks.)

Oh, Iron Man 3, please don't disappoint me!


Thoughts about naps

I'm going to share a secret with you. If you try to call me on Sunday afternoon, Odds are, I won't answer the phone. I am probably sleeping. Sunday's supposed to be a day of rest. I take this literally.

My eight-year-old self would be horridly disappointed with me. My mother has long been a legendary believer in the power of a good nap. But growing up, I viewed taking naps to be much less desirable than taking a spoonful of medicine (and I HATED NyQuil, so that's saying something).

I went to extreme lengths to avoid having to nap. I got busted more times than I can count for not behaving during nap time (pulling out the trundle bed and using it as a stage to reenact the Donny and Marie Show with my sisters, for example). Plainly speaking, I was a nap delinquent.

My mother said, "Someday, you'll be glad when you can take a nap." Of all the things my mother said when I was a child, this was the one I found most unbelievable. Was she serious? I could only think of all the time that was WASTED as I SLEPT. As in--gone forever! For example, I could have been using my chemistry set to conduct experiments in my laboratory. (Oh, wait, I didn't have a laboratory. I tried, but my parents put the kibosh on that too. Some nonsense about blowing up the house. Too bad; instead of becoming a Nobel prize winning scientist, I am now a writer. I ask you...who got the last laugh?)

I'm not sure when naps became an indulgence rather than a dreaded chore. But here I am and there's no going back.  

And now, I think I could run for office on the sole strength of this platform: Vote for naps! I bet I'd get elected too. I'm Jill Tiefel, and I approved this message.


I've got mail

I love getting mail. The anticipation of going to the mailbox and wondering what might be in the mailbox is, to me, one of life's little pleasures. Who knows what will arrive? I might have a new magazine, the latest Entertainment Weekly or Psychology Today. Maybe it will be a new movie from Netfix or a peel-off coupon from Kohl's department store (Did I get 30% off? Time to go shopping!).

My favorite kind of mail is an envelope that's been hand-addressed. That usually signals something fun, like a card from a friend or an invitation.
Bills are decidedly less exciting, but I'm still willing to take a chance and pull the black door open.

Knowing the thrill that I receive when I retrieve my mail, I like to mail things to other people. Oh, I know there are other more immediate and less expensive ways to communicate: E-mail, texting, Facebook, phone calls. And I use all of those too.

It's possible that I've romanticized the idea, but I believe there is a gravitas to receiving something in the mail. In my mind, nothing can replace a handwritten card or letter which arrives in an envelope that bears my address in a familiar scrawl. The sender thought enough about me to personally see to those little details.

When I'm addressing a letter, I'm thinking about its recipient with each swirl of cursive that my ink pen presses into the paper. I don't care that it costs 46¢. It's completely worth it. Less than two quarters to make my family and friends feel like a million bucks? It's a bargain.  


What About Now?

I've never been an audiophile. I am not one of those people who can give you good recommendations for cutting-edge, new music. {I wish I were, because it sounds swell.} I've dated music purists who've scoffed at my taste and made me mix tapes and CDs in an effort to broaden my horizons. This was not a complete exercise in futility, but I still love bubble-gum rock.

It's only fitting that I love Bon Jovi, a commercially-successful, yet critically-disparaged band. Bon Jovi's trademark upbeat lyrics nearly always feature a down-on-your-luck, never-say-die, pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps-with-a-bit-of-sass feeling. Cross reference Living on a Prayer.

I've seen the band in concert five times. I own every album. So when they released their newest one What About Now last week, of course I had to go buy it.

At Best Buy, I am stuck in a quandary. Do I buy the standard or extended version? I choose the extended version, but as I'm rushing out of the store, I begin to doubt the decision. Is it worth it?

So, I decide to call the expert, the person who loves music more than anyone else I know: Ryan. Here's his take: "The extended version almost always contains a few extra songs, which are usually turds because they didn't make the original album cut. They weren't good enough to make the album, but then they add them to the CD and call it the extended version. Turdlettes."  (My inner editor says, "I don't think that's a word," but I take his meaning.)

However, when I ask Ryan if he buys the extended version of an album from his favorite band, he immediately and unapologetically says yes. He loves the Smashing Pumpkins and he wants to hear any songs that they write, including the turdlettes. {Ahh. Validation. This was basically the conclusion I drew while in Best Buy.} 

So I'm listening to the CD. It's full of quintessential Bon Jovi. I am ready to line up on behalf of the working man and all star-crossed lovers. Then I get to track 8. The name of the song Army of One evokes the old National Guard recruiting slogan, but I'll give it a listen. Then...I get to the chorus: "Never give up, Never give up, Never, Never give up, Never let up, Ever, Never give in, You’re an army of one." And now, all I can think about is Galaxy Quest, the spoof on Star Trek, where the kitschy tag line is "Never give up, never surrender." Don't get me wrong. I like Galaxy Quest. But I hate this song. I don't know if that's ever happened. So here's my question. Jon Bon Jovi, how did a turdlette make it on to the actual album?

P.S. I'm still a fan.


Baked in the oven of your heart

This has been a fun year in literature class so far. Besides reading Flowers for Algernon, which caused my students to blink back tears as they stared at their desks when we reached the end of the story, and The Lady. Or The Tiger, which resulted in indignant expressions about the outcome, we have read lots of poetry.

There are few things more rewarding than seeing a student engaged with an idea. We read A Loaf of Poetry (which gave me chills. No lie.) by Noami Kiroyata, which compares the creative process to making a loaf of bread. Yet weeks later, the students still refer to the "yeast of inspiration" and "baked in the oven of your heart". One student was astounded to learn that the author was male.

When we finished Southbound on the Freeway by May Swenson, the class was absorbed in the riddle she presents. We discovered the answer while we talked about it.

We also read this Gwendolyn Brooks poem. After a vigorous class discussion, one student said, "I didn't know what this meant, but after we talked about it, I really liked it."  A-ha! I gotcha!

Changing perceptions and seeing their surprised delight is truly one of the best things about teaching.


Being creative

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the necessity of sitting down every day and devoting time to writing, whether or not you "feel" like it. This is a piece of advice that often comes to mind when I'm in the tall grass and don't feel like I can string two coherent sentences together.

I had an interesting conversation with my sister Deb a few months ago about how much writing feels like work sometimes. If your goal is to be a writer and you want to enjoy what you do, why does the process feel so excruciating? I mean, really...between teaching, other jobs, and just trying to keep it together, how can I set aside a time to write? 

Here's what I decided: I have no choice. I have to be creative in some way (writing, design, whatever). It's a moral imperative for me. I'm going to be thinking about it anyway. (Deb says the words bounce around in her head and they're going to keep doing that until she gets them out on paper.) I know what she means.

Here's the world's worst analogy: My mind's like a bathroom sink. I've got all this detritus clogging my pipes. Being creative and allowing my mind to wander and ponder, before refocusing and organizing is like taking a snake tool and removing the nasty hairballs and bits of decaying debris. Occasionally, one might come up with a diamond ring in the process, but it's fairly unlikely. The important thing is that the water can flow through the pipes again.

The upside is that I don't worry so much about the outcome of a project. I might have a great creative brainstorm that turns out to be an ugly disaster, but there will be some that are worthwhile.