Saturday, August 28, 2010

The importance of "chicken scratch"

That Book WomanMy kids are growing up and for the most part are getting past the stage where they read picture-books. But I wanted to mention one that we really liked and that Maddie still reads occasionally. That Book Woman by Heather Henson tells of the Pack Horse Librarians during the Depression. They carried books to families who otherwise didn't have access.

It tells the story through Cal, who lives with his family high up in the Appalachian Mountains. He's old enough to help out and kind of thinks his sister Lark's habit of reading is a waste of time. So he's surprised when a woman stranger starts showing up and lending books. He thinks her horse must be pretty brave when she continues to come regardless of the weather. But when she shows up in the bitterest cold, stopping only to slip books through the doorway to keep the family from getting cold, Cal decides she's pretty brave, too. And it makes him wonder what's so important about that "chicken scratch" that would make her risk going out on such a cold night.

We received this book from Amazon Vine a couple of years ago. When it arrived Jamie read it to Maddie (who was 6 at the time) and it left her in tears while Maddie stood by patting her on the shoulder. The language is kind of "hillbilly" and we had to explain what some words meant, but it's the story that really touches you. The artwork is beautiful; just simple watercolors and charcoal, I think, and really adds to the story. I finally had to get it from Jamie's bag to read it myself because she liked it so much she wanted to show it to the librarian and teachers at the elementary school.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back to school (sort of) and Maddie's baptism

Even though temperatures here have been over 100, summer's definitely coming to an end. Braiden started 11th grade on the 16th but the rest of the kids don't go back until mid September (don't even get me started on the LA school district...). He's got a pretty heavy load, too, with Honors and AP classes - plus the pressure of Mom & Dad reminding him how important it is to get good grades. The other kids say they're not ready to go back yet, but they're a little bored without him around during the day.

Maddie on her 8th birthday

Also, Maddie turned 8 this month and we went out to lunch on her birthday. Some kids would probably choose McDonalds but not mine - Maddie chose King's Fish House (which is a whole lot better than fast food!).

Our family (+ Scott) at the restaurant

But the great thing about turning 8 is getting baptized and Maddie was pretty excited. Grandma was able to fly down for the weekend and brought McKelsie with her (one of the cousins) and of course I had to stop at Tito's and pick up some tacos and burritos on the way home - everyone just expects it. After the baptism we spent the rest of the day at the beach (where else?).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Missing but not missed

In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its SurvivorsIn the final days of World War II, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the US Navy occurred: the U.S.S. Indianapolis and its crew of 1,196 men went missing... and the few who noticed did nothing about it. On July 26, 1945, the Indianapolis delivered - unbeknownst to its crew - the uranium that would be used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan less than two weeks later. In a cruel twist of irony, while it steamed on to the Philippines three nights later (July 29), the Indy was hit by torpedoes launched from one of the few Japanese submarines left patrolling the sea. It was estimated that 300 men died instantly and 900 went into the ocean in the short 20 minutes it took the ship to sink. The men who survived the sinking were in terrible shape, many of them wounded and burned, with few rafts and floatation vests available to them as they floated in the fuel oil released by their dead ship.

Drawing on the testimonies of the survivors, particularly Private Giles McCoy, ship's doctor Lewis Haynes, and ship's captain Charles McVay, In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton tells the story of the crew's ordeal. Covered in oil - many of them having swallowed some of it - and floating in harsh saltwater for days, the men had few options as they drifted further apart. Many who were injured were the first to die. Others went crazy and drowned themselves or turned on one another. And then there were the sharks, circling all day long and attacking at dusk and dawn. It was estimated that 200 men were killed by the hungry predators. In the end, only 317 survived.

But the real tragedy was the missed opportunities when they might have been rescued. The last minute SOS message sent as the ship sank was ignored and search ships called back. The Indy's failure to show up at the expected time didn't provoke any response from the Navy in the Philippines, either. Even after their rescue, additional indignity was heaped upon them as the Navy court-martialed Captain McVay, despite evidence that he had acted prudently (even the Japanese submarine commander testified that there was nothing the Indy could have done to avoid being sunk!). None of those who neglected to act upon reports of the missing ship received so much as a meaningful reprimand.

This is the kind of story you read, not because it has a happy ending or displays American perseverance in the face of adversity, but because of the sacrifice that has been made to preserve the liberties we take for granted.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Everything but a poet

Benjamin Franklin: An American LifeEveryone knows good ol' Ben Franklin, the guy who flew a kite in a storm and 'discovered' electricity. Unfortunately, we don't often know much else of what he did, except that he was one of the "Founding Fathers." More than once, while reading this book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson, someone said to me, "oh yeah, didn't he write the Declaration of Independence?" Um, no.

Benjamin Franklin was a printer, and he made such a good living that he was able to retire from it when he was 40 years old. He published "Poor Richard's Almanac" which included so many aphorisms and popular sayings that a great many of them are still in use today. He started volunteer fire departments and lending libraries and service clubs, and pushed for improvements such as paved streets. He was the postmaster for the colonies and greatly improved the system of mail delivery. He served in many government positions and argued for preserving the freedoms of the citizens. He was an old man by the time war was declared but influenced Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence and signed it. In fact, he was the only one to sign (and profoundly influence) the four most important documents that began this nation: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France for their support of the colonies (while he served as ambassador there), the treaty with England to end the war, and the Constitution. In addition, his scientific contributions over his lifetime made him the foremost American thinker and earned the admiration and friendship of the greatest European minds of the time.

I used to work for the Franklin Day Planner company (long before the merger with Stephen Covey) and they practically idolized his philosophies for self-improvement, turning them into a successful business to help people gain better control over their time and lives (I still consider it one of the best companies I've ever worked for). But as Walter Isaacson points out so well, Franklin was so much more than just one character trait. He consciously worked on improving himself in many ways. He may not have had much success with humility (he couldn't help but take pride in his accomplishments) and he certainly wasn't a decent husband and father to his own family (preferring the surrogate families he surrounded himself with in England and France on his excessively long stays there) but his other accomplishments were many. Although initially reluctant to break ties with England, once he made up his mind there was no turning back and he was as essential to independence as any of the founding fathers.

Isaacson numbers his shortcomings along with his successes and presents a fairly well-balanced portrait of this giant of a man, and makes it all very readable and even entertaining. He addresses the critics of Franklin through the years, such as the "Romantics" of the early 19th century who complained about his folksy image and championship of middle class values (Herman Melville grudgingly called Franklin "everything but a poet"), and since his day Franklin and his thinking has drifted in and out of style. We may not always recognize the pervasive ways he's influenced society today, but he's always there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Joker One

Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and BrotherhoodI generally don't read books about current events, preferring histories that are truly in the past where the facts are mostly settled and the emotions aren't so raw. But a friend had recommended Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood by Marine Lieutenant Donovan Campbell and - needing something a little different - I decided to give it a try. I half expected a story full of excessively gory violence and taking a stand one way or the other on the Iraq War, but was surprised with the restraint shown.

Donovan Campbell and his platoon known as Joker One served in Ramadi in 2004 during one of the worst insurgent uprisings. He discusses his desires as a commander to honorably serve both his country and his men, and as they replaced the US Army they went in with the purpose of trying to befriend the Iraqi people. In their foot patrols they made an effort to smile and wave at the locals, and continually put their own safety second to prove they weren't there to dominate the citizens. Unfortunately, their kindness was perceived as weakness and they increasingly came under attack by insurgents. Added to their problems were a lack of support from the local government and the people as well as necessary intelligence. By the time they were rotated out nearly all had received combat injuries but surprisingly only one man had been killed. They had also dropped their naive hopefulness and had become battle-hardened and efficient in doing their duty.

This isn't written in beautiful and flowery prose but rather the language you expect from a soldier. At times he overuses certain words and occasionally sounds rather awkward. The men in his platoon aren't angels - they have a penchant for profanity, pornography, and tattoos - but they're the kind of guys you'd be proud to have defending your freedom. Campbell is straightforward and honest in his own mistakes and regularly second-guesses his decisions, but tries to present the qualities of leadership he's learned in urgent life-and-death situations. But the part that most shines through is the love and respect he has for his men, for their willingness to risk their lives for others, whether it's their fellow Marines or the Iraqi people. He doesn't moralize or try to analyze the war, he's not trying to influence any opinions, he's just describing the experiences of his men as he saw them. And it sounds like a pretty honest and sincere reflection to me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Try not to land in the brocolli"

I had always imagined that I grew up in the suburbs. Several years ago my cousin Robert said the same thing but that he'd since realized our neighborhood - which was only a couple of miles from downtown Salt Lake City - was really a city neighborhood (and now that I live in the suburbs of Los Angeles I have a very different perspective on what "suburbs" are). But it certainly didn't feel like the "city" back then - I related more to the Brady Bunch kids than I did with Bill Cosby's Fat Albert and his gang. So, for a kid like me who grew up in the wide open kid-friendly neighborhoods of a small western city, big cities like New York always seemed like strange and almost exotic places to live. Instead of having a backyard to play in, kids had vacant lots. Instead of living in houses, they lived in apartments which they sometimes called "flats." Instead of riding bikes everywhere for miles, they rode buses. And I imagine riding bikes or even buses to the "edge" or "outskirts" of town (like we did) wasn't much of an option.

When You Reach MeAt least that was my impression of life in a big East coast city - an impression I got from the books I read as a kid. And there seemed to be plenty of books about kids living in New York because... well, I guess there are a lot of writers living in New York. So when I started When You Reach Me I was initially put off by the world-wise perspective of Miranda, which seems so typical of kids in books that take place in New York City. But the mystery of who is sending her notes and *why* drew me in completely.

Miranda and her friend Sal walk to and from school together, just as they always have. But everything changes when the big kid in the green army jacket steps out in front of them and punches Sal. After that, he doesn't seem to want to spend time with her anymore. But that's when the notes start showing up - anonymous notes telling Miranda to write down a story of everything that happens, with as much detail as possible. With any luck, the note writer says, lives will be saved.

I thought the darkly-tinged urban setting with a background of late-70s TV game shows and Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time was very clever, and the characters are engaging if not always entirely likeable. It's the kind of mystery story that kids and their parents will enjoy, although parents may want to know that there are a few mild profanities scattered throughout. I listened to the audio book read by Cynthia Holloway, who does a very good job, but I enjoyed it so much I bought it for my kids (Kate's already read it, which didn't take long). It'll probably appeal most to kids 4th grade thru 8th.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I'm getting too old for this!

Well, the much-anticipated backpacking trip has come and gone. And as I got out on the trail for the first few days I had to keep asking myself: 'did I really want to do this?' and 'what was I thinking?' and sometimes even 'am I going to make it?'

Our group consisted of Mike H. and his boys Scott and Brady; David C. and his son Mike; me and my boys Braiden and Taylor; David H. (Mike's brother-in-law from Northern California) and his son Walker; and Nick O. who grew up in the area but is now going to school in Boston. Mike H. planned the trip to start from Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. We were to hike southward into the Golden Trout Wilderness and make a westward loop back around to Mineral King. It was a good plan but things didn't go accordingly.

We arrived late Friday night and camped in the campground by some giant sequoia trees (not shown here, though). If you point a camera at Taylor he'll either look away or strike a goofy pose.

Since Nick was blessing his new baby in church on Sunday, he and Brady planned to catch up to us on Monday so 9 of us set off Saturday morning. The trailhead parking lot was really crowded so we started hiking from closer to the ranger station, which is about 7,600 ft in elevation. Our plan was to hike up over Farewell Gap (10,600 ft) and camp on the other side. And it turned out to be a grueling hike - possibly even worse than last year when we went over Big Sam in the Emigrant Wilderness (11,000 ft). I found it especially rough because I was using my brother-in-law's pack from last year, which turned out to be very ill-fitting and sat too high on my back. (I suspect the pack may be the reason he got so many blisters on his feet last year.) It's a problem because you can't take the weight off when you sit down (my pack was about 60 lbs), plus it's top-heavy and feels like you're going to topple over backward, making it hard on the shoulders. But with some help from my sons I made it and we camped just on the other side (in the Golden Trout Wilderness) at about 9,600 ft. We had travelled about 11.2 miles according to Mike's gps.

It was very windy and cold at the top of Farewell Gap, but we were sweating from the climb.

Sunday we planned a short hike so Nick and Brady wouldn't have too much distance to cover when they started the next day, but there's not much traffic on the trails (I only saw 5 other hikers all week) and they're not very well-maintained. We planned on camping at a site in the valley below called Broder's Cabin but had trouble finding the trail junction so instead we camped on a small ridge top about 2.5 miles from our previous site (elevation was about 9,100 ft). It turned out to be a great spot except water was over a half-mile away. While we were playing cards an old tree fell about 100 feet from us. You see a lot of old trees up there that have fallen, but even those who'd been backpacking for years said they'd never actually seen it happen.

Early Monday afternoon Nick and Brady caught up to us - very tired (but they're young) - and it was pretty much a lay-over day for the rest of us. Mike H. readjusted my pack on the frame and made it a little better. Several of us had developed blisters on our feet, so it was nice to have some rest.

Although I spent most of the time watching the ground in front of my feet, there were lots of beautiful wildflowers.

Tuesday morning we set off hoping to make it as far as Parole Creek, but the trails weren't very clear and we took a couple of wrong turns. By the time we stopped short of our destination a few miles west of Lion Meadows we'd gone 13.6 miles and were very tired. The blister on the bottom of my right foot had grown to about 1.25" by 1" and was pretty painful.

There was no crossing over the river so we had to make our own.

Wednesday we had planned to go as far as Maggie Lake (about 13 miles) in the hope that we could gain another lay-over day there, but things didn't work out so well. We had several rivers to cross and a few of us even fell in, and the trails seemed to be getting even worse. By lunch David H. was really having problems with his feet and Mike cut openings in his boots over the toes to try to relieve some of the pressure. But the real problem came later in the afternoon when Brady twisted his ankle badly going up Mountaineer Creek, and although we were only a mile or so from the top we had to turn around and go back down a short distance. We found a suitable campsite along the river and Mike and Nick set off to find help at a ranger's station. I think the rest of us ended up going a little over 9 miles that day.

It was a pretty spot but it marked a turning point in our backpacking trip (notice all the downed trees across the trail - if you can even see the trail, that is).

Thursday we pretty much stayed put and waited. The boys had a great time in the river where there was a natural slide. The water was really cold (and there was a large rattlesnake nearby) but I think it was probably the highlight of the trip for them. Shortly after lunch Mike returned on a horse with one of the volunteer rangers, who helped Brady ride to the ranger cabin. We moved our camp further down the canyon about a half mile to a better campsite.

Funny how teenagers can stand such cold water (I'd guess it was around 40 F).  All I could stand was to soak my aching feet.

The light day had done wonders for my feet, but not so for David H. I think my blisters popped and formed a sort of hard callous leaving them tender but not painful like before, but David's continued to get worse. On Friday we hiked out to the ranger cabin (about 6,000 ft) and met Nick there (around 6 or 7 miles), but Brady had already ridden out to the pack station where there was road access. The volunteer rangers at the Grey Meadow Station (who were very nice) had left but offered access to the food stored in the cabin and the teenagers were in heaven (I preferred Mike's excellent meals, though!).

Saturday morning we hiked another 6 or 7 miles to a pack station (7,800 ft). It was pretty cool on the way to look back and be able to see Farewell Gap in the distance. We waited at the pack station while Lisa and Carrie drove up to "rescue" us (which was really nice because they put in a LOT of driving that day and we smelled terrible!).

Braiden, me, and Taylor with Farewell Gap WAY off in the distance (it's a 'smiley'-shaped crescent of snow straight above my left shoulder - I couldn't figure out how to insert an arrow on the photo).

In the end... was it worth it? Yeah. Will I do it again? Probably. Did I lose as much weight as I wanted? No, but Mike's a really good trail cook! Plus, it's just a good group of friends to spend a week with.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

New bookshelves

The boys and I got home from backpacking late last night (once I have a day or so to recover I'll post something about that) and Jamie had a great surprise waiting.  We've talked about building out a wall of bookshelves in our "red room" (so called because that's the color it's painted) but we'd disagreed about a few minor details so... it kind of got put on the back burner.  But while we were away she decided to finish it up.  I think it looks fantastic!  (And I'm glad I didn't have to move the piano.)