Ready, Steady…

readysteady

Ready

In the mid-1990s our little family moved to Prague, Czech Republic. While Dad worked in his office with a team of translators, Mom (me) foraged for food and took care of our two children. One needs to learn the skills of a domestic engineer quickly in a foreign country and I did so with the help of ex-pats who paved the way. The International Women’s Association of Prague was a fabulous way to get started, and by the looks of their website, they are still going strong. They showed me how to navigate the shopping, bill paying, child care, schools and the afternoon glass of wine.

Grocery shopping had its own unique challenges for Americans. In addition to learning the Czech words for things, amounts in grams or liters had to be reckoned with. In no time, I could ask for a deset deka, point to the deli ham and get 100 grams of sliced ham (about a quarter of a pound).

The experience felt like a scavenger hunt with the list in a code that didn’t match the items in the store. The unpredictability of the inventory often made a list useless anyway. Stores would be out of things that Americans take for granted, like chicken. Or eggs. If you were lucky, you happened upon cans of Ninja Turtle Spaghetti-Os and you snapped up as many as you decently could because you may never see them again, because how did they even get there in the first place.

I managed to scrounge up the most basic of meals which was fine for my kiddos, and frankly, even for my husband. Since cooking really isn’t my jam, I doubt they even noticed a difference. Did I mention there were several McDonald’s locations?

After a year or so of life in Prague, we got our hands on a pirated Sky TV box (a European satellite system). The kids got to enjoy Cartoon Network in English and I discovered a British game show called Ready, Steady, Cook. Under typical circumstances, I don’t watch cooking shows, but this one gave me a way to cope with living in a strange land.

The show had two contestants who supplied chefs with a mystery bag of ingredients. The chefs then had 20 minutes to whip up several courses aided with supplies of basic ingredients. The contestant got to do the tasting, and then the studio audience voted for their favorite by holding up a red tomato paddle or a green pepper paddle.

Steady

The kids and I adapted the game show to work for us and it helped me unleash what little cooking creativity I had. Winning meant we had a reasonably edible meal on the table, quickly. The bar was set pretty low. We would stand in front of the pantry and yell “ready, steady, cook” and then start pulling out random things that might possibly, if we were lucky, go together. I say “we” but the reality is that it was just me doing the selecting and the cooking. The kids hightailed it out of the kitchen after the yelling of the catchphrase.

Cook

After choosing the ingredients, I would skim cookbooks I had brought with me and, in the words of reality TV guru Tim Gunn, “make it work.”

Dinner was served! While I still didn’t enjoy the whole grocery shopping, cooking experience, playing this little game with myself did take some drudgery out of the process. I still do this today, even though we live 5 minutes from a supermarket and suffer from the First World problem of too many choices. Shopping and cooking from my pantry can be satisfying. And I am almost always reminded of the lesson that we don’t have to continually buy more here in the land of the plenty. We often have just what we need right in front of our noses.

Ready? Steady. Cook!

Texas and the Challenged Book

I just finished reading 2 more challenged books for #bannedbooksweek which is officially this week. Coincidentally, both seemed to have only been challenged in Texas. Those Texans sure can be difficult, can’t they? (I say that as a Texan who hasn’t lived there since 1984.)

I’ll be nice here… **NO SPOILERS** IN THIS POST.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

This book, by Mark Haddon, is wonderful! It has been around since 2003, so it’s not exactly new, but it was new to me. Haddon’s debut novel, The Curious Incident, is a mystery novel. Christopher Boone, a 15 year old mathematician with some behavioral issues, finds a murdered dog (not a spoiler, have you seen the cover?) and sets off doing some “detecting” to find out whodunit. Challenges and revelations abound for Christopher.

Challenges for the book itself? Well, some folks in Galveston and Bryan, Texas (on separate occasions) did not like that there was some use (limited) of the F-word and Christopher does not believe in God or the afterlife.

I find people confusing.

~Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I have nothing to say about this as I found nothing objectionable and plenty to talk about in this book ranging from Christopher’s schooling, his parents, lying, and of course the dog. I highly recommend reading it.

The Curious Incident has also been adapted into a play which has appeared in London and on Broadway.

Drama

Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, is a graphic novel that was published in 2012. I am new to the world of graphic novels and I really enjoyed this one. One perk of the graphic novel is how fast you can read one. Set in a middle school drama department about 7th and 8th grade students putting on a musical, this is a sweet coming-of-age story about girls and boys figuring out who they are and what is important to them.

The Texans were back at it in the challenge department, claiming that Drama is sexually explicit. Yes, there are homosexual themes, and one kiss, but I would hardly call it explicit. Yet this book was banned in an elementary school in Mt. Pleasant, Texas and one in New Braunfels.

Go figure.

The Rescue

Catch up on the first installments of the story here, here and here.

The restaurant, with its dark, old-fashioned decor, gave off a gangster feel that left both Jenny and Maggie skittish. Gramps, Kitty and Diego sat on one side of the semi-circle booth, heads huddled together whispering. Finally the girls realized the gravity of the situation they were in and they held hands under the table to keep calm.

Out of the darkness of the dining room, a couple stormed up and plunked a package down on the table. The woman snarled, “Kitty, you can have these drugs if they mean that much to you. We have found our own source that is better than yours. And we flew down here in Richard’s plane, so getting in and out of the country will be a snap for us. Good luck with those little girls doing the smuggling for you. How can you use your own grandchildren?! Diego, I see that gun you’re hiding and I am not impressed. Amateurs!”

As the woman and her husband turned to walk away,  Kitty grabbed Diego’s gun and pointed it at her.

“Shirley!”

Shirley turned back around just as Kitty fired. Screams erupted through the restaurant, and in the ensuing chaos, Jenny and Maggie slipped out of the booth and ran for the door. Once outside, they sprinted for a side street then hiding in the dark between two buildings.

“Jesus, Maggie! We are in so much trouble! What are we going to do?,” Jenny cried.

Breathing hard, Maggie whispered, “I. Don’t. Know! Let’s just walk away from this place as quiet as we can, staying out of the light. We have to think of something! We need to find a phone or a police station or… or…  I don’t know! Something!”

**************

Across town, Matthew and John drove through the checkpoint from the U.S. into Mexico in John’s Ford Bronco. They had realized that something was off when their daughters, Jenny and Maggie, had not called home as instructed two days earlier. They had suspicions that their parents were up to something and were afraid that the girls might be in danger.

The brothers had been to Matamoros many times and knew all their parents’ favorite restaurants and bars. They struck out at the first three establishments and on the way to the next one, they encountered a large commotion outside Kitty’s favorite chophouse. An ambulance and police cars blocked their way, so they parked and walked over to the nearest officer.

John asked, “Hey! ¿Qué está pasando? ¿Habla usted Inglés?”

“Si, a little,” the policeman answered. “A woman was shot in the restaurant. The woman who shot her, and her husband tried to get away, but we have them both. Americanos.”

“Were there two girls with them?”, Matthew asked, looking around frantically.

“No, no. No girls. Just the old couple.”

John announced that he would look for their parents, almost certain they were old couple involved. Matthew jumped into the SUV and headed toward the hotel, hoping that Maggie and Jenny were still there. Because the emergency vehicles were blocking the front of the restaurant, he drove around the back and took the side streets.

About a block from the hotel, he looked in the rearview mirror and saw the girls running toward him. The sounds of “Uncle Matt!” and “Dad!” got louder, and he stopped and jumped out just as the girls reached the SUV.

Swooping them both up in his arms, he said, “Oh, thank God you’re both ok! Get in. We’ll stop by the hotel and get your stuff. It looks like Gramps and Kitty are in some kind of trouble.”

“Dad?” Jenny squeaked out. “Kitty shot some lady. Is she dead?”

Taking a couple of deep breaths, Matt answered, “Damn! No. Well, I don’t really know about that woman. Maggie, your dad came down with me, and he’s trying to find out what happened. He’s meeting us at the hotel. Then we’re heading home and y’all can tell us everything that happened. For now, your adventure is over.”

Challenged Books: Looking for Alaska

***SPOILER ALERT… THERE WILL BE SPOILERS HERE. DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ***

John Green is a very popular author of Young Adult books, and apparently a very popular vlogger. I just found that out after a quick google. He seems like a downright nice guy that (holy moly) wrote a book that some called pornographic.

looking-for-alaska-aLooking for Alaska is Green’s first novel. He based the fictional story on an incident that happened at the boarding school that he attended in Alabama. It is hardly pornographic. There is a sex scene, talk about sex and bad language spoken by the high school students in the story. The drink and smoke a LOT of cigarettes. If that stuff bothers you or might bother your children, then please don’t read it, but you will miss out on a much deeper story about diversity, life, death, acceptance and more.

SPOILERS ARE COMING UP. I’LL WAIT WHILE YOU GO BUY THE BOOK, BORROW IT OR CHECK IT OUT FROM THE LIBRARY. OTHERWISE, DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.

So, here we go. Forget about the challenge nonsense because that’s not what this book is about. It is divided into “Before” and “After” and the “Before” part is pretty standard. Five juniors in a boarding high school become friends and do stuff that teenagers do. Mostly, they try to stay one step in front of the Dean of Students “the Eagle” and not get expelled. They do not go on a field trip or run away to Alaska. Alaska Young is one of the 2 girls in the group and the fantasy girlfriend of all the boys in the school.

We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.

~John Green, Looking for Alaska

Two of the 5 friends, Lara, the girl from Romania and Takumi, the boy from Japan, are more peripheral. Besides Alaska, there is the Colonel and Pudge (both nicknames). The story is told from Pudge’s point of view and he is the new kid at the school.

It is the “After” part of the book that is the most interesting and intriguing (and the saddest). Alaska dies in a horrible single car accident. This happens in the wee hours of the morning. Alaska, the Colonel and Pudge have been drinking. Alaska gets a phone call (or makes one to) her boyfriend during which she remembers something that sends her spiraling into a hysterical state and she insists that the boys must help her leave by distracting the Eagle so she can drive away. She escapes, gets to the interstate, and drives straight into a stopped police car with sirens and lights blaring, stopped because it was at the scene of a jack-knifed semi.

We know that Alaska has these hysterical episodes which she never explains to her friends, she blames herself for her mother’s death that happened when she was a child, she is generally self-destructive and a risk taker, and to the question that Simon Bolivar allegedly posed when he was dying, “how will I ever get out of this labyrinth”, Alaska answered “straight and fast.”

Was her death an accident or a suicide?

In the aftermath of Alaska’s death, the Colonel and Pudge need to know the answer to that question and they go about “investigating” each in his own way. John Green does an excellent job taking us along with each boy as they go through different phases of grief.

They cry, drink, get angry with themselves and with Alaska, and they isolate themselves. They talk to the policeman whose car she ran into and find out her blood alcohol level was .24. The Colonel drinks until he hits .24 to see if he could have even driven and he could barely walk. They drove through the location of the accident to see what Alaska saw last and they decided to pull the prank Alaska had come up with as a memorial to her.

So does it even matter which it was? Pudge calls it the suident at one point.  I have never had anyone I loved die by accident, but I am a survivor of suicide loss and I suspect the grief process is similar (just without the stigma of mental illness, suicide or failure). The after section illustrates the anguish and angst that such a survivor goes through not knowing the answers. It is a natural inclination of humans to want to know why an unexpected death happens, and if we know why, then perhaps we can piece together if any of it was our own fault. If it is an accident, then at least you can have the feeling that your friend did not want to die because if they choose to die does that mean your relationship meant nothing to them?

John Green does a great job documenting the emotions these teens are going through, and what they do to come to some kind of reconciliation with this tragedy. I’ve spoiled enough. I won’t tell you what they figure out in the end.

 

 

Spinning

A father and his young daughter play her favorite game in their front yard. Dad holds the girl’s hands and spins, her feet flying in the air as they go round and round. The world became a blur.

father-and-child-1b-sculpture
Source

The game never ended for the dad, my dad, as his life continued to spin and spiral out of control until it ended in the early morning hours of January 17, 1991 with a self-inflicted gunshot. Had he spiraled so far down that he had no other choice? No other solution to his pain? Could this horrible event have been prevented?

Intervention, prevention and the belief that suicide is preventable rules the day now. If one can learn and notice the warning signs, and be willing to get involved, a tragedy might be prevented, a life might be saved. Not always, but trying is better than not trying.

This sentiment can be hard to swallow if you tried to intervene and still a suicide happens. A survivor of suicide loss already feels so much guilt, are we piling on more, implying that they should have/could have done more? A survivor does feel an inordinate amount of guilt, and it is possible.

 

When the spinning game stops, the child flops  on the ground laughing, feeling the dizziness subside as the minutes pass.

 

My dad’s dizziness never subsided. Posthumously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it is suspected that he suffered most of his adult life.

If I could find a time machine to go back to the 1970s, I think my father would have been a good candidate for intervention. It would have involved staring down the shame and stigma of mental illness and alcoholism by not just my dad, but by my entire family. Skeletons loosed from their cozy closets and into the world.

Sure there was talking, or rather yelling, shaming, blaming, accusing and rejection. But real intervention? No. Dad fought his demons alone and the best he knew how, but they only got bigger and louder until they drowned out all reason, taking over the mind of a man who once seemed to have all the answers.

 

The idea of and methods for suicide intervention and prevention came around too late for my dad. The stigma of mental illness and suicide is not gone, but it is fading away. Surging forward is the thought that it is part of the human condition and should be treated as such.

If you know someone who is struggling, I hope that you have the courage, compassion and caring to speak directly to them, ask if they need help, listen and help them get help if they need it.

If you are struggling, I hope that somewhere in your darkness you can find a sliver of light and reach out for help from someone you know, a crisis line in your area, or the National Suicide Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).

Banned Books: The Perks of Being A Wallflower

Depending on your definition of spoiler, there may be spoilers here (if you go with a very broad definition).

I loved this book. It is exactly the kind of book that would have been passed from teen to teen back in the pre-internet days when teenagers were exposed to so much less, ahem, like when I was a teenager. Someone with an older sibling, perhaps, would have this book, and would read it, dog-earring the pages where the “good stuff” was. In the case of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky that would be most of the pages. It’s the kind of book that controlling parents who don’t want their kids exposed to the good stuff would want to be completely banning, not just banning it from the classroom provided it even got that far.

It was made into a movie in 2012. From IMDB: “An introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world.”

Without looking at web page that explains what kinds of challenges books have garnered, let me bullet some things that stood out to me as things parents might not want their kids to read about point them for you and see if I get them all (some are definitely more controversial than others):

  • suicide and mental illness
  • drug and alcohol use
  • cigarette smoking
  • explicit sex scenes including but not limited to a date rape, homosexuality and masturbation
  • physical abuse of a girlfriend by her boyfriend
  • bullying
  • body shaming
  • teen pregnancy and abortion
  •  reckless driving
  • going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a recurrent activity
  • high school girls dating college age men
  • racism
  • sexual abuse of children

There may be more things parents wouldn’t want their precious teenagers exposed to, but that’s enough. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was #10 on the list of top 100 books challenged from 2000-2009.

Banned Books: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexi is a coming of age story about Arnold Spirit, Junior who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is advised by the math teacher on the rez that he deserves better than what the rez school can offer him and he transfers to the nearest off-reservation white school in Rearden. Published in 2007, this book has been on the top 10 list of most challenged books every year from 2010-2014.

Subjects challenged in this book include offensive language, drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, violence, gambling, depictions of bullying and racism.

Alexi responded to the complaints in 2011 in a Wall Street Journal post by arguing that it is way too late to prevent school aged children from learning about the harsher aspects of life. And he notes:

I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.

~Sherman Alexi, Wall Street Journal, 2011 

In fact, I can’t make the argument that young adults should be able to read dark novels about controversial subjects better than Sherman Alexi does so click on the link to the WSJ article and read it.

And to his impassioned response, I can only say, “Amen.”