Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top Ten Books About Friendship

I am more enamored with my friends right now than almost ever before. The strength and dignity of my grow-up-best-friendships astound me. In particular, my two best friends are absolutely my rock. They keep me in check, which is no small feat. Individually, we have been through some of the roughest experiences women can face, but we've held each other up, sometimes literally and always figuratively. These women are the greatest influence on my life, and I can never repay them for the support and guidance they have provided me.

But even beyond the besties, I have some pretty amazing friends. I am blessed that many of them are my co-workers. And even on days like today, when the answers aren't easy and I'm squinting my eyes to will away imaginary battle lines, I love them all. 

With an intro like that, suffice it to say that this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic was a timely one. 

Top Ten Books About Friendship 

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Like most phenomenal books, this one can't really be "categorized," I think. It almost seems a disservice to its essence to boil it down and say it is a book about friendship when it is about that and so much more. But at its core, I feel like this story of the Holocaust, narrated by Death himself, is about unlikely friendships and the heights to which they allow our hearts to soar. 

2. Looking for Alaska by John Green. I'm not trying to double-dip by using a book from last week. I tried to diversify. But the friendships depicted in this YA stunner are just too gritty and honest to overlook. 

3. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. A toddler wanders into a graveyard and is befriended by ghosts who raise him into young adulthood. The coolest friends ever. Makes me think a little of this movie The Box Trolls that I can't wait to see. 

4. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. This is one of my favorite books of all time. The protagonist helps customers in a florist shop communicate with others through the near-forgotten Victorian language of flowers. She gains friendship, love, and insight along the way. Beautiful. 

5. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I was the kid who created imaginary worlds in the woods to entertain herself and her friends. The kids in this book lived my childhood, but more poignantly and more tragically. The title itself evokes a feeling of childlike wonder. Love. 

6. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales. Though it starts out as a story of bullying and isolation, the plot and character development quickly reveal the redemptive power of friendship, particularly friendships forged through music. The accompanying playlist is pretty stellar, too. 

7. The Pact by Jodi Picoult. Gah. My first Jodi Picoult book, the one that would lead me to read every book she ever wrote. Grown-up friendship, childhood friendships, teenage friendships...it's all here friendship-wise. I vividly remember being sprawled across my bed on my belly, the thick mass-market paperback cramping my hands as I devoured the ending to see what would happen. And I would be lying if I didn't also vividly remember the tears. All the tears. 

8. The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni. Again with the unlikely friendships, I know, but the quirky relationship that develops between to polar opposite boys as they form a punk rock band is filled with ups and downs to match their amateur attempts at guitar riffs. And again, like all great books, this one also begs us to consider philosophical quandaries, like: at what point do we end our obligations to our family members and their legacies to create our own? 

9. 34 Pieces of You by Carmen Rodrigues.  This one reminds me a lot of Thirteen Reasons Why. But when these teens are left to piece together the secret life of their friend Ellie, it brings them all closer together, even while exposing the darkest parts of their individual stories. 

10. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. Okay, so there's love and supernatural elements and action and stuff, too. But don't you think Simon and Clary are pretty awesome friends? And the friendships that evolve between these two and the rest of the gang end up being just as enviable. 

And that's saying a lot, considering I've got the best friends on the non-fictional planet. :-)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Live the Y2K Life

This week, as part of their on-going Remember When... series, E! Online conjures images of mass hysteria by referencing Y2K. 

Yes, E! I remember this. I remember spending the better part of a year hearing the hype on the news and in the grocery store and at school. I also remember being fourteen years old and quietly questioning the hazy logic behind the doomsday theory, as well as my parents' reassurances that nothing was going to happen. 

We didn't stockpile or hoard water or otherwise prepare, which sorta scared me because even though I was sure we were going to wake up to business as usual on January 1, 2000...what if we didn't? Didn't it seem a little irresponsible to ignore the warnings, to scoff in the face of the slight possibility that all those experts and crazed consumers were right? 

The only difference I noticed was that, despite their apparent lack of concern, my dad's siblings and their families spent that particular New Year's Eve with us. It had never happened before, and it never happened again. Guess we were gonna starve together if the Y2Krazies were to become validated. 

For the record, I also remember the Hale-Bopp comet catastrophe a few years prior to Y2K stealing the spotlight. And in addition to various references to prophets and religious leaders on the news throughout the decade that would prove Y2K was a falsehood, I remember the debacle of December 21, 2012. (Perhaps it was the abundance of cable documentaries and books in the new age section, but I was a little more nervous about that one. I just thought Hale-Bopp was kinda cool.)

I have always suspected, and Wikipedia confirms, that humanity has been obsessed with the end of time since...well, since basically the beginning of time. Beyond the Bible or any other sacred text or set of beliefs, there seems to be something rooted in our psychology that makes us question our tenuous grasp on existence. The pragmatist in me also realizes that many individuals and groups stand to profit from doomsday predictions, through inflated sales and inflated egos. 

But whoever the prophet and whatever the motivation, the prolific amount of predictions throughout the decades do reveal one truth: we should all be mindful of how we are living, just in case one of these guys bumbles around and actually gets it right. 

That isn't to say that I'm going to raise my daughter Doomsday Preppers style, though Adam sure would like to. If only because he thinks it's cool to know that you can use discarded cooking oil from fast-food joints to create makeshift diesel, and he'd build a bunker just to prove he could do it.  But that is to say that I want to live a life that is full to the brim, whether it's a comet or old age that whisks me away to the next destination. 

So if nothing else, I guess Y2K got that one thing right. I bet, for at least that one year, some people were more open-minded, more loving, more thoughtful. I bet they hugged their children a little tighter every night. I bet they took lots of photos, or took care to create more moments worth being photographed. I bet they wrote in their journals and called their parents and sang every time they got in the car and took longer bubble baths. I bet they played baseball in the yard before they washed the dishes and drove across town for frozen yogurt for dessert. 

And I bet I just didn't notice a difference because that's how my parents raised me to live every day of every year, impending apocalypse or not.  

I pledge to raise my own child like it's Y2K every day. Who's with me? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Ten Books I Almost Put Down, But Didn't

Head over The Broke and The Bookish for this Top Ten Tuesday and more! 

It took me a long time to realize that I don't have to finish every book I start. Maybe not a good rule for grad school assignments. But in real life, in the realm of books I read simply because I want to, it's not like the author is twisting my arm and forcing me to turn the next page. I'm not sure why it took me twenty years to realize this simple fact, but I try to impart it to my students as well. I'm a firm believer in book abandoning. 

At the same time, I take abandonment very seriously. (What a weird sentence that could be if taken out of context.) I always try to read far enough to make an informed decision. While I don't want to waste precious pages on boredom when I could be on to the next title, I also don't want to find later that I put down the book just before the moment that could have redeemed it. It's a delicate balance, one only bibliophiles understand. There's no set number of pages. Sometimes you just know. 

Imagine my surprise and delight when these ten books that I almost abandoned ended up being worth the wait.

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I have this thing about dystopian stuff. Books, movies, thoughts in general...I don't like it. I have these awful visions of my dad watching those horrid Mad Max movies or whatever, and I can't deal. The YA genre is starting to win me over just a little. The Hunger Games was my first foray into reading something so uncomfortable for me. I did okay throughout the exposition, but once the games began, I was disgusted beyond belief. I think it's my abnormal ability to empathize with fictional characters. I was appalled. The world is in love with the concept of children senselessly killing other children for the amusement of those of higher social standing? WTH? But at the insistence of my colleagues, I carried on, skimming through the more gruesome scenes until I was so invested in the main characters that I had no choice but to slow down and really process what was going on. And cry. A lot. Once the intricacies of the political dynamic emerged more prominently, and I understood what Collins and her characters were trying to teach me, I became a fan. 

2. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

I wasn't being a savvy consumer when I picked up the hardcover of this book at Kroger one weekend. The hubs and I were away on one of our bed and breakfast weekends, and I wanted something to read while relaxing in the rustic cabin in northern Kentucky. I am a Jodi Picoult lover, but somehow I had missed the release of this novel and was so excited to stumble across it. However, once we got in the car and I realized I had just forked over the ridiculous hardcover price for Holocaust literature, I was pretty mad at myself. The only thing I hate more than dystopia is the Holocaust. While the middle third or so of the book was survivor testimony-style (albeit fictional, still painful), I thoroughly enjoyed the modern-day frame and the ethical and legal dilemmas faced by the main characters in true Picoult fashion. 

3. Looking for Alaska by John Green

This book did not prepare me for the John Green fangirl I would turn out to be. I actually read it in its entirety aloud to a class of mostly boys. If you've ever read it, you know how...um, awkward....that could be at times. They, like me, enjoyed portions of the plot and the voice of the narrator. But we collectively felt long lulls that led us to contemplate picking another book instead. I even checked out something different from the library and read the first few chapters one day, asking them which they preferred. They voted to finish Looking for Alaska, though I think it was only because it sounded better than starting over from scratch with something else. Whatever their motivations, I'm glad they chose as they did. By the end, we were reeling with emotion and very happy that we hung around to read about what happened "after." If you haven't yet, I recommend it. 

P.S. Same thing happened with The Fault in Our Stars. Except I didn't want to read it because I hate reading about kids with cancer almost as much as dystopia and the Holocaust. I didn't realize how finnicky a reader I am until just now. Like, literally right this second. 

4. The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks

Back when I was a book snob who didn't dare touch YA unless I was being paid to shelve, all I knew about Nicholas Sparks was that I liked to watch The Notebook. Then BFF Rach loaned me The Last Song from her classroom library. I picked it up and put it down, reading superficially and feeling sort of obligated because I knew she was going to ask if I'd liked it. Obviously, this was before we were BFFs because now I'd just tell her I couldn't stomach the darn thing. Ha ha. Honestly, I'm glad I finished it, though I remember little other than it being set near where Adam and I got married, which I thought was kind of cool at the time. However, the reason I'm thankful to have read it is that it broke the Sparks ice for me, which led me to read Safe Haven and a few others which I actually do remember and legitimately enjoyed. 

5. Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield 

I don't really remember how I happened to own this one or what caught my attention about it. Probably the title. I like metaphors, love, and mix tapes. That's probably what got me. It's a beautiful true love story, raw and honest, and the organization of the story (with mix tape track listings at the start of each chapter) was inventive. I'm happy to have read it because I'm not generally the non-fiction type, so I'm always pleased when I find something that surprises me and pushes my normal boundaries. 

6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 

Ironically, this ended up being one of my all-time faves, right up there with Gatsby. I wasn't captivated initially, but I learned to like Hemingway's signature starkness and adapted to the style after some work at sticking with it. Like most novels worth loving, this one taught me something without outright effort. And some of the most beautiful descriptions are hidden in Hemingway's prose (here's looking at you, "curves like a racing yacht"). 

7. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

This was another co-worker recommend, though it was vaguely on my radar already. I couldn't get past the narrator at first. I mean, what twenty-something woman wants to know the innermost thoughts of an adolescent boy as he watches cheerleaders at a car wash? No thanks, right? Well, after taking a break for a few years, I picked it back up when several students in my class elected to read it for literature circles, and honestly, I was only motivated because I wanted to be able to discuss it with them and didn't trust them to really read it. Turns out, they did. They liked it. And I did, too. 

8. The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold 

Kinda snarky, but I'm glad I didn't put this book down so I wouldn't make the mistake of recommending it to a student. They all love to love The Lovely Bones, and using the same logic I'm sure they would use too, I picked up The Almost Moon thinking it would be as good. Wrong. Weird. So weird. I mean, the main character kills her mother and spends the rest of the book doing awful things trying to cover it up. Awful. Hate. 

9. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan 

The parallels were almost too heavy-handed at times, but this futuristic twist on The Scarlet Letter makes for an excellent companion to the classic version. I really enjoyed the concept of chroming, and it's cool when kids see the connections and it sparks ethical debates about our own roles in the misdeeds of others. I can't imagine living in this (again, dystopian) world, but I'm glad Jordan dreamed it up for us. 

10. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Oh, how I loved this series! I didn't read it; I consumed it. It was unhealthy, seriously. Like, I'm not sure how I managed to function. But at first, I wasn't sold on the idea. It seemed...fluffy and a tad juvenile. And don't even get me started on the horrendous attempt at a movie. I was outraged. But this book, it just...ah. I'm at a loss for words. 

Seems like a good place to stop then, huh? What books are you glad you read? 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Parenting Hacks

Parenting. It's all about trial and error. Or at least it is in the Prater household. And it has been this way since Arabella graced our lives with her brilliance in 2010. Trial and error could be my middle name. But Margaret Trial and Error Prater is longer than the name my mama blessed me with in the first place, which is a tall order in and of itself. But, as usual, I digress.

I tried nursing, but ended up bottle feeding. I tried following the rules of using the crib, but ended up with a baby in my bed. I tried making homemade baby food, but ended up with good ol' Gerber. I tried to avoid television until she was two years old, but ended up singing along with Bubble Guppies anyway. And so the pattern continues today. 

I will be the first to admit that my little darling is extremely spoiled and her behavior suffers more than a little bit from my inconsistencies as a parent. She is very much accustomed to being doted on, and not even just by her parents. Extended family members, family friends, strangers...they all praise her for being so cute, and sweet, and smart. And doesn't that just automatically mean she should be rewarded by her every whim being catered? Three suckers after a haircut. Three bedtime stories. Three toys at Wal-Mart when Mamaw told her she could pick out one. Three quarters for bubble gum. And Heaven forbid I ask her to lower her voice in a public place or otherwise make her mind the rules; I mean, I'm practically Hitler incarnate. 

Can't you tell? I'm totally scary. And she's terrified. :-P

However, along the often tumultuous way, I have learned a few tricks to help our family survive hectic moments and avoid potential tantrums. (One or two may involve learning to ignore grandparents.) The biggest battles we have faced recently have involved her clothing. Arabella is very opinionated and particular, especially when it comes to fashion. I'm assuming it's still called fashion when you're talking about four-year-olds and Garanimals coordinating separates?

Now, I have a philosophical dilemma when it comes to her clothes. I realize the relative un-importance of matching clothing. I realize the great importance of empowering our children and fostering independence. However, I also feel like if I am going to spend money on clothing that looks nice, and I'm going to take time to wash and fold and put away those clothes, my child should look like all that happened before she stepped out of the house. I understand how shallow that may make me, and I accept it. It's just one of the things that my husband and I value. When we are playing outside, go crazy with that stained yellow shirt, Dora cap, and Crocs. But when we are going to dinner or school, I would prefer something a little more...conventional. 

So I've started matching up outfits when I'm doing laundry. Rather than put all the tops and bottoms in separate drawers, I pair them up as I fold them and lay them out on the shelf in her closet. Right now, she has two weeks worth of school outfits ready to go. This way, she is still expressing her autonomy in picking out what she wears to school (and, as of right now, she is still avoiding the sparkly leggings I bought a month ago that I am dying to see her wear, but I'm letting it go...slowly) and I am still smiling when she gets dressed because she doesn't look like what my mama would call a "throwed-away baby." 

We have also started picking out her clothes at night, and I have reinforced the concept that she has to put that outfit on in the morning. This seems so simple, but for a while she was picking out clothes and then changing her mind at the last second, refusing to get dressed and spending lots of time in the closet picking out something else instead of brushing her teeth. Ah, the mornings of motherhood. 

She still refuses to wear hair bows or headbands, but I did insist on a hair cut when she got her ears pierced last week. Small victories. 

Do you ever feel like you're parenting via trial and error? What parenting hacks have you discovered that work for your family?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Being Mindful in May

As long as I can remember, I have been in love with the feeling of the end of the school year. Not just the emotional feelings of anticipation and reflection, but the literal, physical feeling in the air. When I think of peace, when I go to my happy place, it isn't the beach or forest or mountain peak; no, it's Ward Elementary School, doors and windows open, a breeze so warm you could smell it coming, and classrooms bathed in sunlight. That, my friends, is my bliss. (Also, I've never admitted that to anyone since it reveals what a colossal nerd I really am.)
My end-of-the-year days as a student were obviously very different from those same days I now experience as a teacher. At the end of each of the past five years, rather than relishing in the delicious atmosphere of a school in late Spring, I have trudged through the swamp of grades and year-end tasks. I have loathed the hours wasted counting floor tiles while pacing during state assessments. I have cringed while clicking calendar invites for seemingly endless meetings and practices and professional development days. I have given in to counting down right alongside my students, if not for them. 

Yesterday, a senior told me we had twenty-four days of school left. I corrected her: Twenty-two. 

So what happened? Do I hate my job? No. Do I hate my kids? Quite the opposite. What's my deal? 


I pledged just a few short months ago to stop wishing my life away. I realized just a few short weeks ago that I'm older than I ever wanted to be, my "baby" is growing up, and I'm already nearly 25% finished with my career. Why in the universe am I counting down days? 

It's just too easy to go with the flow of the countdown. We are constantly waiting for the next day, the next week, the next phase of our lives. We can't be content with the here and now; it's why we surround ourselves with distractions and entertainment all day, rather than allowing ourselves to just be, to exist and celebrate that existence. It's why I'm planning for tomorrow before I've tucked away today. It's why I know that we now only have twenty-one days of the school year remaining. 

So today, on the first day of May, my former favorite month of the entire year, I am recommitting myself to mindfulness. For each day of Mindful May, I vow to really look my students, each one, in the eye, and know that once these twenty-one days are gone, my classroom and my life will never be the same because of them. I vow to make these days as meaningful and positive as possible, and to be as kind as I can in the short time I have left with these classes. I vow to be mindful of the sunshine, to open the windows even if it means I might get in trouble, to make for my students the memories I have of my own favorite teachers through the years. 

May your month be as mindful as I intend mine to be.