Don’t forget the Saint’s Name Generator if you want a saint chosen at random to be your patron for the new year! Leave a comment and let me know who was picked for you. (Note that you have to click twice to get the name — I’ll fix it to make it one click as soon as I have time.) Last year my saint was St. Francis de Sales, and he’s been a great source of inspiration for me in 2011. Also, check out the comments to this post for neat stories about the significance of some of the saint’s names folks drew.
For 2012, my patron is St. Ferdinand III of Castile. He’s the patron of large families, poor people, and prisoners. So, umm, I’m kind of wondering what, exactly, God has in store for us this year — especially since my husband drew St. Justin Martyr.
My husband got me a Kindle for Christmas. “I guess I might use it for the occasional fiction book,” I thought. “But I’ll never do regular reading on an electronic device.” To put it bluntly: I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG. This thing has become like an appendage of my body. It’s my favorite gadget I’ve ever owned. Here’s what’s great about it:
- You can create highlights and make notes — and they’re available online. First of all, I was delighted to discover that you can highlight sections and make notes with e-readers. Then, when I logged into my Kindle account on Amazon and saw all my highlights and notes right there, I almost passed out from the awesomeness. (It has been pointed out to me that you can only do this with books you buy through the Kindle store. Which is definitely a downside. But whatever! Because then there’s this:)
- It lies flat. The other day the baby was unusually fussy and insisted on being held all day, and in the moments when she’d finally doze off I was able to get a lot of reading done. I had to use both hands for the ninja techniques required to keep her happy, and so it would have been hard to hold a paper book open. Being able to just glance down at my Kindle, then press a button to turn the page, made hands-free reading a breeze.
- It doesn’t require a monthly data plan. I was under the mistaken impression that you had to buy a monthly data plan in order to download books on e-readers. I was delighted to find that I can use my Kindle on my home wireless network to get my purchases.
- The screen is like reading on paper. I’m amazed at how similar the look of the screen is to a regular book: It doesn’t glow, it’s not glossy, and it’s easier to read the more light you shine on it.
I will still buy some books in paper form, but count me in as e-reading’s newest convert.
So now you’re convinced. You’re sitting in front of your computer saying, “Jen, you’re right. I thought my life was complete, but now I see that it is a mere shell of an existence compared to what it could be if I owned an e-reader. I am going to purchase a Kindle as soon as I finish reading your astoundingly insightful Quick Takes. However, I am going to go all out and get a Kindle Fire!” No. Do not do this. Go with the low-end version. Here’s why:
One of the reasons I thought I wasn’t an e-reader kind of gal is because my mom has an iPad, and I could never get into reading books on it when I’d borrow it. First of all, I don’t like reading a lot of text on glowing screens. Second, there were too many distractions: I’d sit down with the intention of getting into Scott Hahn’s latest title, but would somehow end up in a heated debate about nuts in desserts on Twitter. It was just too tempting to do something interactive like surf the web or check my email and social media accounts. What’s wonderful about the basic-model Kindle (and presumably the basic models of other e-readers as well) is that there’s no temptation to do anything other than read a book.
So, I think I was right that I don’t like reading on electronic devices; what I was missing is that the basic Kindle is more like a book than an electronic device.
What are your New Year’s resolutions? To keep it simple and doable, I’m going to choose just one thing to work on this year. But I haven’t decided what that one thing should be, so I’m looking for inspiration.
Winter Solstice was December 22 and, as usual, it bummed me out that the days will now start getting longer. I think I have some kind of summer version of Seasonal Affective Disorder: I always feel happy and excited when sunset comes earlier and everything is dark and cold, and I’m sad when I see the first signs of Spring at the end of each Winter. It could have something to do with the fact that I live in a climate that’s inhospitable to human life during the summers, but I do recall feeling the same way when I lived in places like Denver or Bismark too.
To kick off the new year, here are Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin singing Auld Lang Syne:
Last week we had a moment that made us realize that Yaya is fully settled in to her new house in our neighborhood: The other day she was talking to a neighbor she recently met, and the neighbor commented about how busy she must be with her job. Yaya is retired, so she was confused by the question. She asked the neighbor what she meant, and the neighbor replied, “You own a daycare, don’t you?”
Ah, yes. You know you’re fully integrated with the Fulwiler family when people start asking you if you run an in-home daycare.
As I mentioned, the tree is decorated. There were some naysayers who were skeptical that we could figure out a way to get the star on top, seeing as how the top of the tree is only half an inch below the ceiling.
There was talk of saws and clippers and all sorts of work to reshape the top of the tree that made me tired just thinking about it. So I stepped in and solved the problem, Jen-style:
Nobody has even noticed that our star is tacked to the ceiling, just kind of hanging in front of the tree. I win.
Fellow writing nerds, listen up! I’ve stumbled upon something really interesting that you’re going to enjoy pondering: The critical importance of theme. The way I’ve come to see it, the theme of a story is the underlying element of it that transcends the individual events and touches on the universal human experience. Especially in memoir, it’s what takes your story from forgettable navel-gazing to an expansive story with wide appeal. For example:
- Scene 1 (no theme): Dude writes about eating a tomato.
- Scene 2 (with theme): Dude writes about eating a tomato. He explains that he grew it in his farm’s garden, and that this is an heirloom variety that would have been eaten by the farm’s original owners back in 1812. It is the evening of his 40th birthday, and he reflects on the fact that all the people who enjoyed these same tastes back in the nineteenth century are now gone, and that his own life won’t last forever. As he savors the textures and flavors and aromas of the tomato, he resolves to make the most of each day from here forward.
That’s an example from the memoir The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. Scene 1 is how he could have written it, which would have been uninteresting; Scene 2 is how he did write it. The themes of “man reflecting on his mortality” and “the importance of savoring simple moments” animated the chapter, and elevated it from a self-centered journal entry to a moving glimpse of the universal human experience.
Fellow writers, heed my example and save yourself a lot of work: A large part of the reason that I am re-writing my book for the third time is that I had not nailed the theme the first two times around. I had not chosen one universal aspect of my experience that I would use to drive the main storyline, and the result was that I could never figure out why it kept feeling kind of flat.
Understanding theme has helped me enjoy reading as well. I’ve realized that there are certain themes that I enjoy more than others, and I now select new reads in part based on what the theme is. Here are some examples from popular books:
- BOOK: The Kite Runner | THEME: Redemption
- BOOK: The Help | THEMES: Finding empowerment in oppression; speaking the truth despite personal risk
- BOOK: Eat, Pray, Love | THEMES: Living life to the fullest; the search for spiritual enlightenment
- BOOK: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years | THEME: Living life to the fullest
- BOOK: Three Cups of Tea | THEMES: Living life to the fullest; finding fulfillment in giving back to others
I may not have perfectly articulated these themes, but you get the idea. Also, each author has his or her own take on the theme. E.g. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on the theme of “living life to the fullest” seemed to be something like, “In order to live life to the fullest, a person must have complete autonomy to do whatever she wants” (or something like that). Interestingly, whenever I read a book that I just can’t seem to connect with, it almost always comes down to the author not seeming to have a clear theme.
Was all this talk of theme making you wonder if there could perhaps be any Christian themes in the classic children’s tale The Princess and the Pea? If so, you’re in luck. That’s exactly what Anna Mitchell and I were talking about on the SonRise Morning Show last week:
Remember how I gave up coffee a while back? The problem was that I often felt like a rage-filled madwoman about an hour after I’d drink a cup, probably due to blood sugar issues. Anyway, I’ve found that if I drink coffee on an empty stomach, it’s fine. As long as I have a cup before breakfast, I don’t experience any of the ill effects that used to hit me from my after-breakfast cup. Especially now that cold weather is here, I’m ridiculously excited about having coffee back in my life.
I’ll leave the linky list open until Tuesday for those of you who might want to do Quick Takes a little later this week due to holiday craziness. Merry Christmas, everyone!
We finally got the tree decorated. Which is good. Because it really needed to happen. For a couple of weeks it looked like this:
What happened there was that Yaya kindly bought us a Christmas tree this year, a little before I was ready to decorate it. (Translation: She was so appalled that we didn’t get around to buying a tree last year that she took matters into her own hands this time. One day in late November I heard a some banging noises and squealing tires outside. I opened the front door to glimpse Yaya’s car speeding around the corner, and looked down to see a large Douglas Fir at my feet.)
Anyway, in between the time when we had the tree and when we were actually ready to decorate the tree, I just started throwing things in its general direction as I walked by. So when the kids talked me into getting this fancy garland at the grocery store, and I had no idea where to store it since all our places where we can put things so that they won’t be destroyed by little hands are already taken, I just threw it in the general direction of the tree and forgot about it. (And, sadly, it was kind of an improvement over The Great Can’t-Deal Christmas of 2010.)
If I keep playing my cards right, I just might be up for a spread in House Horrible magazine one of these days.
I realize that a lot of Catholic families don’t have a tree quite this early. They make sure that Advent is…Advent-ish (I am obviously tired while writing this), so that the Christmas season can be completely…Christmas-like (or maybe I just don’t have a brain anymore). Anyway, you know what I mean: the season of Advent is about preparing for the Lord, and the season of Christmas is about celebrating his coming. I love this. But we are just not able to go there yet.
Our families have been shockingly supportive of all the upheaval that’s taken place since my husband and I became Catholic. They are baffled but understanding about my husband’s choice to get on a career path that means less money but more time with family. They nod uncomfortably when they offer to serve us something that we’ve given up for Lent. They try not to think about the fact that we don’t use contraception. Heck, Yaya even goes to church with us! But there are some lines you can’t cross, and I think that if we tried to change the family Christmas traditions, we’d have big problems.
In our families, you start celebrating Christmas the day after Thanksgiving and have a tree no later than the first weekend of December. Any deviation from this is taken as a clear indicator that you are a joyless person who cares neither about the season nor about living any kind of quality life. And so, we have stuck with the traditional American Christmas schedule. Submitting to the authority of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ is one thing; not playing Jingle Bells until December 25 is another thing entirely.
All that talk in #1 about throwing things into trees that you don’t know what to do with reminded me of a story I’ve never shared, for reasons you will understand shortly:
A few years ago I had a new friend come over to the house. She is an actual classy person who has a lovely home that is always inviting to visitors, and I was hoping that we’d become friends, so before she and her kids arrived I just about worked myself to death to fix up the house to give a completely inaccurate impression of what kind of people live here. At one point she was sipping on the cup of tea I’d brewed for her, and she took a moment to gaze out the porch door and compliment our bird feeder. I stood next to her, talking about how the kids helped set up the feeder, when a horrible sight caught my eye: Out in the back yard there was a pair of horribly soiled children’s underwear, which we’d thrown out there desperately the day before while dealing with the kind of potty accident that just about called for a hazmat suit. I’d planned to do something about the underwear languishing in the middle of my back yard at some point, but, hey, you can’t remember everything.
Unfortunately my friend saw the atrocity at the same time I did, and I ran out to deal with it before she had a chance to flee. Gingerly picking up the now-retired pair of underwear with a stick, I walked it over to the side of the house, then promptly returned. As we sipped our tea back in the kitchen, I went out of my way to dissociate myself with the decision to have something like that in our back yard in the first place.
“My husband put them out there,” I explained with a casual laugh, glossing over the part about me shrieking JUST THROW THEM OUT THERE!!! beforehand. “Aren’t men so funny?” I said with a wink. “Dirty underwear in the yard. Imagine!”
And then she asked a question that caught me completely off guard: “So what did you do with them?”
There was no way to spin this. The truth was that as soon as I’d had the muddy-looking item on the end of that stick, I’d done what I always do in these situations: I got completely overwhelmed and threw my hands up in despair, defaulting to whatever course of action would involve the least amount of effort for me. So, as I explained to my friend, who would now have a much better impression of the type of person she was dealing with here: “I, uhh, threw them in the bushes on the side of the house.”
We had the kids’ pictures taken with Santa the other day (“we” meaning “my mom, dad, and Yaya wrangled five kids under the age of eight to the mall while I stayed home and relaxed” — just keeping it real here, folks). After the pictures were finished, my dad noticed that this particular Santa must have been from the western part of the North Pole:
Speaking of Texas stories, last weekend my husband and I went out to dinner with some friends who have an 11,000 acre ranch (that’s about 44.5 sq. km.) way out in the western part of the state. We had a lot of interesting conversations with them about what it’s like to live on that amount of land. Then we went to the next party, hosted by another friend who is also from west Texas, and told her about our other friends’ amazing ranch. She seemed kind of amused by this quaint little plot of land, which was surprising…until we remembered that she’s part of the King Ranch family. Her ranch is about 825,000 acres (about 3,300 sq. km.) — or, about the size of Rhode Island. I’m pretty sure that that kind of exchange would only happen in Texas, or perhaps the outer regions of Mongolia.
I have good news for you, internet: Now that my husband is done with his JD, MBA, and CPA certifications, he has turned all his intelligence and analytical ability to crafting the perfect winter drink. After a couple of weeks of experimentation on a basic rum cream, I do believe that he has achieved this lofty goal. So, as a special gift from me to you, I present you with our super secret recipe:
1 cup of ice
4 oz. sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup half & half (or heavy cream)
2 Tbsp chocolate syrup
2 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp coconut cream
2 Tbsp cherry juice from a jar of marischino cherries
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 to 3 shots dark rum (light rum is an acceptable alternative)
1/2 shot coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua)
Merry Christmas from the Fulwilers!
As you make your Christmas plans, don’t forget about people you know who have lost someone special through death or divorce this year. I’ve often heard people who’ve experienced loss, especially if it happened early in the year, talk about feeling especially sorrowful on their first Christmas without their loved ones. They experience an initial outpouring of support at the time of the loss, but then feel alone by the time the holiday season rolls around. So if you know folks who have been through something difficult this year, consider taking their contact with you on Christmas, and give them a call to let them know you care.
UPDATE: Robin has a powerful post about those who mourn in the Christmas season. She writes: “If you have a friend who is longing for someone else this Advent, especially someone who died in the last year or two, sit down this week-end and write a note, or send an email. It might be the most important thing you do this month.” Read the third comment too.
For the first time ever, I did all my Christmas shopping online. (Well, almost all: I note that I did go out of my way to buy a few things at a locally owned toy store that sells hand-crafted wooden toys whose earthy charm makes up for the fact that they’re kinda boring, mainly so that I could talk about how I patronize locally owned toy stores that sell hand-crafted wooden toys whose earthy charm makes up for the fact that they’re kinda boring.)
Anyway, the onslaught of packages has begun. With five kids, four parents, godchildren, a babysitter, and two preschool teachers on the list, the flow of brown boxes into this house has been endless. I mean, the brown delivery van is out in front of our house more often than it’s not. We thought about including the UPS guy in our family Christmas photo. We’re adding another room on to the house using solely the packing materials from all these orders. On the plus side, Amazon’s universal wish list functionality simplified everything, since I was able to collect all my ideas in one place over the year, and shopping at only a few online stores made it easier to stay within budget. For the first time ever, I think I can honestly say that I’m done with all my Christmas shopping before Gaudete Sunday.
You know what made Christmas shopping a lot easier this year? Realizing that I have issues with decision making. I actually do fine with choices like which car or house to buy; but ask me to select between the fried shrimp or the cheeseburger at a restaurant, and I’m borderline catatonic. (Earlier this year I thought about getting a book about it, but in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up moment, I couldn’t decide which one to get.) So anyway, I realized that in previous years, the reason I didn’t do my Christmas shopping until December 20 (okay, December 24) was because I was afraid to make the decision: What if I chose the wrong thing? What if I found something better right after hitting Confirm Purchase? Waiting until the last second made things easier, in that it removed the opportunity for regret: i.e., even if I did find the perfect item for my husband after settling for a mere banana suit, I could console myself with the fact that there simply would not have been time to get anything else.
The fact that all my Christmas shopping is already done is mainly due to making it my goal to get over my weirdness about decisions. Once I assured myself that it’s fine if what I’m buying is just my best shot at getting something the recipient will like, and perhaps not THE PERFECT ITEM THAT SHE SHALL TREASURE FOREVER AND EVER, getting the shopping taken care of was actually a breeze. (And, yes, pretty much everything in my life requires this much analysis.)
Since there are quite a few new folks here after Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat discussed my conversion story, I though I’d mention that I threw my $0.02 into the debate over at the Register.
I just love this catchy little song, which I originally heard on the MAD Christian Radio Show, which has an amazingly eclectic collection of music:
It’s by a ska Christian band called Buck. Who knew there were ska Christian bands?!
I stumbled across something with book writing that has been tremendously helpful, even if it is bizarre and nerdy: I’ve spent some time thinking of who a perfect “audience” would be, and I’ve written those people’s names on index cards. Each time I sit down to write, I pull an index card at random, and write as if I’m speaking to that person. The criteria for choosing these imaginary listeners was:
- It can’t be anyone I know well, since I’d be too likely to cut corners and not explain things they already know — thus all the names are those of celebrities, people whose blogs I follow, or friends I’ve recently met.
- They have to be people I’d speak to in a similar manner. E.g. It wouldn’t work if I had both Howard Stern and Queen Elizabeth on the list, since I’d speak to the two of them in different tones.
- I have to have some reason to think they’d at least be mildly interested in the subject matter. E.g. If I were writing a book examining the work of Henry David Thoreau, I probably wouldn’t include Snooki in my audience cards.
As crazy as it sounds, it’s been really helpful. There’s something motivating about having a specific visual for whom I’m speaking to, and switching out the names brings a fresh perspective to each writing session.
I just remembered that there is one person I don’t have a gift for. My dear cousin is coming to visit for Christmas, which is a big deal to me — we’re both only children, and we’re the two oldest grandchildren of our grandparents, and so he’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a brother. I’d like to get him something meaningful, but what? He’s a super smart, super creative, atheist hip-hop DJ who lives in Brooklyn. Any suggestions for something I could get him would be welcome! (And I am going to go out on a limb and guess that he doesn’t read his cousin’s Catholic blog, and therefore I’m not risking spoiling the surprise here.)
In case you missed yesterday’s post, Simcha Fisher had baby number nine this week! You can get your gratuitous baby picture fix here, or read a Best of Simcha collection and/or contribute to a virtual baby shower gift here.