No Winners Allowed

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy, that pop fiction series that is being aggressively marketed to young adults, made into movies, spawning fan clubs and Facebook sites. Before I critique any further, I will say that Suzanne Collins can write. Her style is engaging and fast paced, just what is required to sell books to the young.

The story is set in some post-apocolyptic time where North America has imploded, devastated by a civil war against its Capitol. It is now comprised of 12 outlying districts and the Capitol, which is the seat of power. To discourage any further uprising, the Capitol keeps the districts in poverty and isolation with fences around each one. Every year the districts are required to have a reaping, where one boy and girl are picked to participate in the Hunger Games in an arena set up by the Capitol. There can only be one victor, therefore all participants in the games need to learn to survive by killing ruthlessly. The games are televised to all districts, with the most likely survivor being the one who can get people to like him, thus receiving gifts in the arena. The author does a masterful job of making one like the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her sister’s place at the reaping. She starts out nobly in the games, protecting the weaker children, forming alliances with kindly intent.

You want her to live, but you start to realize that all the other kids will have to die for that to happen. It is, quite literally, kill or be killed. She pretends to fall in love with the boy from her district as a strategic measure to arouse sympathy from viewers of the games, thus receiving pricey donations in the arena that make the difference between life and death. She does manage to survive and insists on saving the boy from her district, strong-arming the designers of the games with the threat of suicide if they do not allow him to live.

This event catapults one into the second book of the series where Katniss is touring the district as the much-pampered winner, along with her “boyfriend”. They keep meeting the families of the other slain children, some of whom Katniss herself eliminated. Guilt and confusion set in. Maybe survival of the fittest wasn’t the right way to go. Someone is responsible for these actions. There has to be someone to hate, someone higher up who needs to be eliminated. Katniss herself is blacklisted by the Capitol because of her act of defiance  at the end of the games. The Capitol fears her ability to incite revolution, and decides to use only former victors of the games for the reaping of the next games. Of course, this takes her back into the arena with people she has come to know and care about. Once more she is required to kill or be killed. They all hate the Capitol, the president, the game makers. Katniss hates herself and this no-win situation. There is no way out. She has decided to try to save Peeta, the boy she pretended to love in the first games, as an act of atonement for using him. Just as she thinks she has figured out a way to do this, there is a tremendous disruption in the arena and she is airlifted by hovercraft to a district that she didn’t know existed.

Book 3 is her experiences in District 13, the underground district with nuclear weapons. It describes her coercion into being the face that inspires a raging revolution, her decision to kill the president and end this madness. She is just a shell of a person, consumed by hatred, propelled by one desire to get revenge. She sacrifices everything for this goal, with an ever growing wake of destruction behind her as her friends die defending her and her enemies fall in front of her. She emerges, victorious, alive!  The Capitol is overthrown. The last scene in the book is of her children, dancing happily on the meadow that has grown over the mass graves of the victims of war.

I know my take on the books is quite different from the reviews that call them “phenomenal” or “brilliant” or “compelling”. I think the primary adjective should be “disturbing”. This is our foremost, best-selling literature for young people, this mess of absolutely no way out.   It is hopeless. No matter how much the characters wish there were a way to live without killing, they feel that there is no choice. In fact, it is all for the greater good, this awful morass of death and destruction.

What would have happened if the mentors would have instructed the kids in the games to refuse to kill, to band together as brothers, to love instead of hate? What if the Capitol would have been disarmed by a people who refused to rise to the bait? What if returning evil for evil is not the best way to bring change in a society?

It disturbs me that this mindless do-whatever-it-takes to survive is being touted to our children as the only way to live. There is a constant dilemma of what is absolute (you shouldn’t kill) versus what makes sense (you should stay alive) and in nearly every case what makes sense hurts other people. Right does not seem to be relevant. The books are a sad overview of a society with a sagging framework of morality. There are no absolutes; it is each person looking out for his own interests in the end, with only a few fringe characters who care about other people. It is chaos.

The author is at least honest enough to describe the desolation in the soul of a person who steps on top of others to stay alive. She does not have any solutions to the problem of a shattered spirit and divided soul except the passing of time. Katniss and Peeta simply have to live with their gnawing regrets. There is no redemption other than having children who don’t have to face the same impossible odds. In fact, they are not really winners at all. I am terribly saddened when I reflect that this is, indeed, the way many post-modern people view life.

I am one of those annoying fundamentalists that believes what Jesus taught is to be taken literally. I know that I live it imperfectly, but I am willing to stake my life on it that His is the better way: the way of suffering love, the path of forgiveness, the eternal perspective of winning by losing. I don’t want to live my life on the premise that there is no higher way than to live for myself, that the only way to save my life is to keep it! I am not buying that load of empty nonsense and I am certainly not going to feed it to my 7th grader.

Another day I will do a review on a book that is the polar opposite of this one. 🙂

Of Dirty Socks, Rock Collections, and Jawbones

I wink at my boys’ room cleaning efforts, ordinarily. Every Thursday they hit the basement with the vacuum cleaner and the broom. If the surface is fairly serene upon inspection, I tell them it passes. But once every couple months I dig in there with them. It is at those times that I wonder whether small boys are not a different species altogether. We clean out from under the bed, the dressers and the bookshelves. We wash surfaces instead of dusting them. 😉

We find stuff: nuts and bolts, tools, notebooks with secret codes, old shell casings, worn-out steak knives for throwing, cards from friends who sign their names Your Buddy. We find Legos, scores of them gone AWOL, but there they are under the pile of shoes in the closet or behind the nightstand. Today I found a stash of clean hankies (so that is where they went) and wash cloths in the boys’ sock bin. And my missing tan sock. And some little girl garments as well. There were the four purple buttons that I had put carefully in my sewing cabinet just last week. Swiping under the bed with my arm, I hit against a sticky blob, Greg’s ant trap gone bad. Ewww. Terro on a corn chip, with no ants in sight. There were stacks of books, all of which they are currently reading, of course. I totally understand that, but really, we have shelves. I was quite ruthless with the trash can and they only protested mildly. That stack of counterfeit money they have been working on? Trash can. The cat jaw bone with teeth intact? YUCK. Trash. The socks with holes in the toes, being saved for some obscure future project? Trash. Sorry, boys, but we are beating back chaos here.

I love my boys and their boy-ness. I have no objection to their treasures and collections. They replaced the cute curtain I had made for their room with a dark piece of plaid fabric and I let them. Their walls are decorated entirely with original artwork tacked in no particular pattern and I do not mind. But I do remember my 10 year old self thinking boys are kind of gross, and now I know why. At that age they are. We are at the stage where they would happily live in the same clothes, day and night, all week with nary a bath or hair wash in the entire time. I have been assured that this will rapidly switch to a constant buying of Old Spice, a continual battle with too many towels in the hamper, and many lectures on conserving water. Isn’t life so interesting? 🙂

If cleanliness is next to godliness, my mother-in-law is a saint. I get to live with a man who was taught neatness and impeccable grooming, and I do appreciate it. I have asked her how she did it… teach her six boys to be thoughtful of the housewife, to think about their shoes, to fix beds without wrinkles, to run vacuum cleaners and fold laundry when necessary. She sighs and says I married the careful one and she is still working on the ones at home, but I have observed them all and none of them are slobs. 🙂 Mainly she says she just tried to teach them faithfully. What else is there for any of us to do? I have a theory that they became careful because they were required to help with the housework.

For the sake of my sons’ future wives, I will maintain my post faithfully too. “I really like when my room is organized,” Alex said today, “only it is so hard to keep it that way.” That seems to be the trick, doesn’t it? Not so long ago they insisted that they like it better messy. At least we have gotten past that point.

What do you think? Is this a matter of personality or training?

Teacher’s Left the Monkeys Out…

I have been scrambling to find creative channels for all the energy running around here now that the books are done for the term. The new books came before we were quite finished, but we hustled them off to storage. This year instead of allowing myself to sink lethargically for a week after those last lessons were done, I decided to be super productive and repaint our bedroom. It was a good time to do it, since Gabe had a five day stretch off work. It is feast or famine in this line of work. :O

I spent my birthday painting trim in our room. It was fun, although careful painting always leaves me muttering after a few too many hours of strained concentration. But that day I didn’t cook because my friend Ellen paid for our pizza supper. Wasn’t that the kindest thing anyone could have done? We ate on the dock down by the pond… Meat lover’s with stuffed crust for the small people and roasted veggie with parmesan for Gabe and me. The boys had gone out earlier and picked huge bunches of wildflowers and forsythias to put in jars down there so that it would be festive. They even stripped a bunch of blossoms to float on the water. 🙂

Gabe and I took off the entire next day, with my blessed parents doing babysitter duty. It was a spectacular May day. We loaded our bikes on the back of the Suburban, but the first business was picking out a carpet piece for our room. Then we went to a tea room and had teeny cookies and tall glasses of iced tea. The vehicle needed a top-up at the lube place and then we thought we should have some protein before biking, so it was convenient to grab some roast beef sandwiches.

We rode 16 miles of Rails to Trails. It is hard to describe the joy for this Quality Time/Outdoors Lover. There were violets blooming so thickly along the trail that you could actually smell them as you breezed past. The redbuds were in their heyday and all the birds were happy. Let’s just say Gabe hit on the perfect birthday gift, the two of us tooling along, stopping occasionally to look at the river, to eat Toblerone, to pick flowers, and maybe to rest our legs. 😉 Even with the stops, we got to the end in two hours. The end of the trail was quite close to Gabe’s sister’s house, so they picked us up, sparing us a 16 mile return trip. Chipper as we may think we are, those bike seats can come to feel a bit “gnarly” as Gabe so aptly described it.

We had supper with my sister-in-law Ruby and her husband, lingering long over dessert before we headed home. It was just a delightful day all round, and my mom and dad were exhausted instead of us. 🙂

The next day we finished painting the bedroom and replaced the carpet. Thirteen years ago we painted our bedroom a pale grey. It needed freshened, but I wanted to keep it grey since that lends itself to any other accent color. When I went to pick out paint, I bought Reflection for three walls and- wait for it- Earl Grey for the accent wall. 🙂 🙂 I suppose it could just as well be called Iron Filings, in which case I would not have bought it. (Please don’t tell me I am the only one who is swayed by the names on the paint sample chips.) I love the end result! We have teal and orange throw pillows and a glittery new curtain, but all the rest is same old, rearranged. (Oh, and I am in the process of gluing hundreds of muslin “flowers” on the lamp shade, but I ran out of glue.) That night as I cleaned up the brushes and paints, my friend Michelle stopped in with two gorgeous boxes of cupcakes. Or that could be two boxes of gorgeous cupcakes. Either way, it was so sweet. You can see why I cannot ever be really cynical. I know too many nice people.

As for the children’s activities those painting days… I think they pretty much ran loose in the outdoors and hung around wherever Gabe was working. One project we started them on is blazing a switch back trail up to the top of the ridge. Every time we want to go on a walk in the woods, I end up hauling a chunky child or two straight up the side of the ridge and carrying them back down when we come home because the grade is so precipitous that they just slide. We don’t go on as many expeditions as we would like because of this fact. So now they have a trail up half way and the little tots can climb up easily on their own. Until the trail stops, of course. One of these days they will manage to get it all the way to the top. I think they are starting to catch on that this is busywork. Gregory said today, “This could become sort of a chore.” And Alex thought that the trail could require a lot of maintenance. Tee-hee.

Oh, and it is So Hot  already. Please, please, please, may we go swimming? The first time I finally caved and let them go into the water it was still April. They lasted about 20 seconds. I thought, good, now they won’t beg for a long time. But it really has been warm lately, so they have been puddling around in life jackets around the dock. I just sit and watch. It is a little muddy yet for my taste.

Alex has graduated to driving our little tractor slowly along in our garden/orchard plot, stopping every now and then to pick up the piles of rocks the children gather. Some days they do that in the space left vacant by math. 🙂 We are building a fence around it before we do planting, hopefully rabbit-groundhog-deer-proof fence.

This morning we zoned little garden plots for the three middles. Alex has plans for popcorn and gourds later in the season and Addy is sharing my garden. 🙂 It was so funny how different they felt about what they wanted to grow. Rita was all enthused about veggies: broccoli, peas, beans, lettuce. Olivia wanted lots of flowers. Gregory has a mixture of flowers, ornamental corn and one melon plant that we hope doesn’t get frost bitten. In the end he deigned to plant some lettuce for my sake.

The boys started a little cottage industry of making cross bows out of craft sticks, hot glue and rubber bands. They ended up with about 10 orders from friends and just like that a thousand craft sticks and the new pack of glue sticks was gone. Also most of my bamboo skewers became arrows. They are learning things, like paying for supplies and being kind to nonpaying customers. And I found out exactly how far one can get on a lampshade project with one glue stick.

We are about to enter a period of feast-time, with Gabe finishing up a seven day stretch of work tonight with an entire long weekend off. Oh, glory! And a church picnic to boot!

Tell me, how are you occupying the busy little people who are done with school?


One Size Does Not Fit All, A Mother’s Day Message

Today my Facebook feed is full of beautiful tributes and happy wishes for moms. I like this holiday, the flowers and cards and attention. 😉 I enjoy thinking about the loving things, like rocking and reading stories and baking cookies. But let’s be honest: so much of what we do has a mind numbing repetition and it is good to know that it really does add up, in the end, to a nurtured child.

I mean, who knew that you would have to repeat so often those choice bits of motherly advice? I hear myself saying the exact same things to my children that my mom said to me.

  • Life isn’t fair and you might as well accept it.
  • Don’t throw balls in the house!
  • Use a tissue!
  • Shut the door!
  • You don’t ever say you hate somebody.

And all those women who got cards and flowers today… what did they have in common that caused them to be so loved that even a tough grown son would write on their Facebook wall something like this, “Mom, I know I was a pain growing up and I want to thank you today for being such a great mother anyway.”

I am hazarding a guess that she didn’t spout out wise platitudes every day, but maybe more like, “Don’t pick your nose! Who had it first? When you hurt somebody accidentally, you still say sorry,” etc. etc. And then she swatted his backside and sent him out to play, fully aware that he hadn’t really understood what she said and she would be repeating herself the next day. Maybe she sighed and prayed and made another batch of scrambled eggs and washed another load of jeans and wiped the grime off the bathroom sink.

I suppose this is why I don’t always feel very pious about my “lofty calling”. Daily life seems so ordinary and I know myself to be quite flawed and prone to messing up, even with these amazing little miracles we call our children. Don’t get me wrong, I do earnestly want to get this right, this shot I have been given at mothering. It just seems so incredible that commonplace mortals have been assigned to a task that, were we to read the “high-calling literature” just the way it is written, we would have to assume that children are too fragile to be entrusted to anyone but angels. And angels we are not!

In the early days of parenting, I used to cast about for methods, child-training gurus, books on sleep training, guides to teach children manners, you-name-it. I took my child’s failings personally, agonizing privately to my husband, “If I were a good mother, we would not be dealing with this. I must have missed it somewhere.” (My husband always assured me that this was actually a lie, and I should pitch it out.) This was a very heavy weight of responsibility and more than a little frustrating when the tried and true methods didn’t always work.

One day it dawned on me that children just are not one size fits all. Nobody else was ever given our particular children to raise. I could ask for advice and pick the brains of the wise and learn from them but in the end, they were our children. I couldn’t blame ——- ——- for our issues. Nobody is wise enough to cover all the angles of everybody else’s children. (Do This=This Good Result.) But wait, there is someone Who is really THAT WISE.

James 1:5   If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

I decided to give up the quest for a fool-proof method and quit acting like this was all up to me to figure out. This is very homespun and practical, but it gives me confidence to realize that I certainly meet the requirement of lacking wisdom, God is still a liberal giver, and all I have to do is ask in faith. I started asking God the silliest questions, like stuff about weaning away from binkies or getting my son to eat his peas, and more burdensome stuff, like the problem with lying.  Lots of times I woke in the morning with a fresh idea that I knew didn’t just come out of my own head. Sometimes God may use that book I bought or the other mom’s blog post, or maybe He will teach me something from my husband. “She is big enough to throw her binky into the trashcan by herself and understand that it is gone.” (And guess what, she was, and that was the end of it, no trauma for life or anything like that.)

I am intrigued… what do all the women who are blessed by their children (biological or otherwise) today have in common? I suppose it could be called something noble like “sacrifice” or something more simple like “do-the-next-thing.” Maybe, despite ourselves, we are all becoming a little less selfish and a little more sage about life in the process. And just maybe the everyday routine matters more than we think it does, with the end result, by the grace of God, a nurtured child.


Some Good Medicine and Other Stuff


Last night Gregory heaved a gusty sigh as it sank in that he had really, truly done the last lessons in third grade: “I cannot believe tomorrow I will be a free man!”

At five this morning Gabe kissed me good bye and went to work. I sighed, rolled over and promptly fell asleep again. At 6:30 the piping little voices started up in the girls’ room, and then a loud screeching disagreement, apparently over who would be the mom and who would be the children. I sighed, got up, sneezed violently four times and made coffee.

It is gonna be a fine day! The boys really did finish the 170th lesson in their books yesterday. All that remains is logging in their field trips and finishing up their portfolios. I should really do that today, but probably I won’t. They have never gotten done this early in the year before. This success is due to very few vacation days and a lot of Saturdays. I think the motivation comes primarily from the uncle who always beats them by starting early and doing Saturdays. 🙂 He still got done first this year, but not by such a big margin.

I have been scratching my perennial borders this past week, moving stuff around, trimming bushes. It makes me so happy! Gabe thinks one should plan the plantings with research and care, then step aside and let them grow, but I am incapable of doing that. This year I moved two bittersweet vines from the shed to the fence where they can climb all they want and not damage any roof shingles. I moved a rose bush and a hydrangea from the shady side of the house to more sunny locations then put hostas into the shady places. The peony plant that I have been babying in an obscure location is now big enough to bloom by the picket fence, and some of the Dutch irises took a fast wheelbarrow ride down to the pond where they grace the bank. So it goes; I really cannot help myself. Nearly all of my flowering plants are gifts or swaps from friends or family. One cannot plan that and must simply move with it.

Last summer my husband spent almost all of his spare days working at trenching and draining our swampy land into the pond. This spring we  have a new spot for a garden patch/orchard. The soil is hard clay, so we have a lot of work to do before we plant trees, but I am so happy for this space! The men around here have been building a fence to keep out the critters. We will finally have a garden big enough for vining things like melons and squash! Actually, it is huge, like a field. 🙂 I am quailing a bit at the thought of all the maintenance, but Gabe is the one who does all the fruit growing around here, and that will be the bigger part of the work. Unlike perennials, fruit does take a lot of research and knowledge, and he is the right one for the job.

I have been living life in my red rubber boots, only taking brief breaks in the kitchen to cook up double batches of food so that we can eat leftovers the next day. If I were to hire domestic help, it would be a cook or a maid, but definitely not a gardener. 🙂

On the rainy days I have been working on the book I bought for myself as an end-of-school treat: The Father’s Tale by Michael O’Brien.  I haven’t given the children their books yet, but I couldn’t wait, and with over a 1000 pages, it will take me a while. What I should have done is wait to crack the book until the portfolios are finished and ready to be evaluated, but I have discipline issues.

Olivia mourned, “I never win anything,” after dropping her name into a door prize drawing. And then she won a doll, which is now the Favorite Child in her little doll family. “Mama, what color are your eyes?” to which I say, “Blue.”  She concludes, “Well, since mine are brown and this doll’s eyes are blue, she must have gotten a gene from her grandma.”

And lastly there is Addy, capering around in a towel after her bath: “I am a fancy little Egyptian! A fancy little Egyptian!” I ask, “Whatever do you mean?” and she explains matter-of-factly, “Egyptians dance in just towels.”

So there you have the funnies that had me laughing in the last 24. Why don’t more mothers draw comic strips?