An ode to books

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I love a good beat-up book. A book with frayed edges, a broken spine, one that looks like it’s been through a million hands before it rests gently in mine. Or, better yet, in my children’s.

But I especially love it when that book was new just a short while ago and the abuse it has suffered has been at the hands of my family. I know, I know. My kids would be completely confused to know that I thought this as I’m constantly reminding them to be gentle with their books. But in all honesty, I love it when I find new creases in their favorite titles, new bends in their bestsellers. It means that they’ve been using them.

Each tear in a page represents a fight over a chance to read through the book “just one last time.” Each dog-eared corner shows that they found a page they want to refer back to again, like the platypus that they seem to be obsessed with knowing more and more about (they are kind of a cool and odd animal). Each crease and fold represents a caress, however rough, and a need for more knowledge and – better yet – more time spent on my lap.

So the more I read about people downloading their titles, and the more ads I see about how surprisingly easy a Kindle is to pack on trips and how clever we all look reading them on the beach, the more in love I become with my broken books, the ones with the creased edges and the duct-taped spines.

Sure, essentially they’re the same thing: words formed into sentences, formed into paragraphs, shaped into a story. But I’m a bookseller. And I like books. I like the way they feel in my hands, the way they bend over my belly when I read in bed.

And I like the way the pages sometimes rip when my children fight over them.

 

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Tackling the Family Picture

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I just wanted a family picture.

No. I wanted THE family picture.

You know the one. The shot where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling. Genuinely smiling and happy to be with one another. No twins fighting. No daughter screaming. No blur of a husband running into the shot after improperly setting the camera timer. And especially no double-chin shot of me, reaching down trying to break up the aforementioned twin scuffle.

And the kids wanted a vacation.

Lucky for us, they have yet to discover the wonderful world of Disney. Thanks to the power of DVR and their father’s amazingly quick fast-forwarding reflexes, they have mercifully never seen an ad for Disneyworld. We do hope to take them, of course. Just not today.

So, since they don’t know the difference between a 2,400-mile flight and a 24-mile drive on North Idaho backroads, we took them to Calder.

Along the way we found a spot to pull over. We picked the one with the fewest mud puddles and the most scenery and started to set up our shot. The usual bickering and fidgeting started. There were a few snow piles tempting the twins, and Joey, who thought it was incredibly unjust that her brothers were allowed to roam free while she was confined in a death-grip type of hold in my arms, began screaming.

This chain of events got me thinking about the SuperBowl, oddly enough. And how it’s over. And that our string of holidays (yes, the SuperBowl counts) is over. And how both the SuperBowl and our family picture had some striking similarities: Both showcase stunning displays of equal parts sportsmanship and grit; there are many instant-replay worthy tackles in each; and all players usually walk away dripping in sweat.

I suppose it was then that I realized both also represent events that I rely on as filler in my life. Holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays and the big game are all events that I use to fill the winter months. We aren’t exactly snow-worshipers, so holidays are the ways I get our household through until Spring breathes new life into our world. In much the same way, family pictures are used to fill the white space on our walls, providing evidence that, yes, the boys do stand still and Joey’s hair does get combed.

Both provide structure, give meaning, lay a foundation. And that’s good – necessary even – but it’s not life.

Much like the photos snapped in between the perfectly posed portraits, the spontaneous times in our lives are usually the most blessed … and always the most memorable.

I know it’s really hard to see since I’m covered in kiddos in these photos, but if you like my shirt, you have to check out Poor Pitiful Pearl. She’s fellow blogger, mother of two and a true fashion inspiration as well as someone who uses her gift for a worthwhile cause, donating a percentage of her profits to charities such as Casa Hogar Orphanage in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

Book Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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I remember learning about the literary canon in college, the all-important collection of books that everyone should read if they want to be especially smart and profoundly educated. To this day, I can’t remember what that list consists of. And in an effort for full disclosure, I should mention I hadn’t read all of the books on the list nor have I bothered to since.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great books mentioned; I’m simply being stubborn. For something to be worthy of a list that is so widely known among literary types and the well educated, shouldn’t the titles evolve as our art does? Here is an institution costing a small fortune to attend – a place that is supposed to expand our minds as well as our experiences – handing out a piece of paper with a list of books to read. And not just a list, The List. A list that says “we know you’re here to learn as much as you can about art and literature and to add a few more life-experience notches to your belt, but these are the only books that are worth a damn.” That’s not progressive. That’s not forward-thinking. It’s backward, and it’s wrong.

Thankfully we have authors like Jonathan Safran Foer who continue to push boundaries with his craft, to play with style and develop characters who make us think and feel and ache the way Oskar Schell does.

I might not remember the titles of the canon printed on my syllabus from Professor Robideaux’s “Intro to the Classics,” but I will never forget this book.

Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about a lot of things, all told around the dueling stories of Oskar, a nine-year-old whose father died in the Twin Towers on September 11th and the tragic love story and history of his grandparents, German immigrants and survivors of, among many things, a deadly round of WWII bombings of their hometown.

Oskar himself is a lot of things – odd, perhaps; sad, of course – but mostly he’s genuine and feels every emotion honestly and raw. He is desperate to reconnect with his dad and preserve his memory. When he finds a mysterious key hidden in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out on a secret mission to find the lock it belongs to, setting into motion a series of events that not only affects his life but countless others.

Oskar’s grandparent’s survival is both twofold and lived twice-over, both having lost everything in the air raids that ravaged their hometown and again, more subtly, when they lose each other and pieces of themselves in their marriage. But their constant, their reason, becomes their grandson. Although each followed his own path, they are led back to each other – and in a way themselves – by Oskar.

But mostly Loud & Close is about life. And death. And how so many of us confuse the two, choosing to either slowly die while living or to wind up living only in death, echoing in the memories of those who remain. This book reminds us that even though our existence can be bleak in its vastness, that vastness can also be the thing that makes it remarkable.

Both stories remind us that life is simply about perspective. We are here to be remarkable, however we plan to do that is up to us. We as a species have the ability to become famous athletes, give to charity, heal the sick or parent our young; our only objective is to make a change. No matter what we do, big or small, our role on earth is to affect something.

Something I hope my children understand from a very young age is that education happens anywhere. Education happens everywhere. I want them to strive for the highest education necessary for the goals they wish to achieve, but I want them to always remember that schooling comes from the most unexpected places, the cracks in between, the places we don’t even notice we’re noticing – from listening to your favorite elderly neighbor as she waters her garden on a crisp spring morning or immersing yourself in a work of extremely poignant and incredibly touching fiction.

Never stop seeking. Never stop inventing. Never live within a canon.

Balance sheets and baby steps

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I don’t wanna take the tree down. Even though we’re almost two weeks past Christmas our tree is still up, still decorated and still lit. And even though she’s a fake, she is starting to look a bit past her prime. As much as I want to cling to the Christmas cheer, I have to face the fact that it’s time. The season is over.

Lucky for me, I love the season that is now upon us: the one whose recipe consists of equal parts reflection and organization. Tax season. And it comes with its own decorations. Time to wrap up the tree, the ornaments, the lights and in the space left, pile the bankers’ boxes, manila folders and alphabetized labels.

I love reflecting, but I think I do it too much. I get so wrapped up in wistful retrospection, I become distracted from the present. I’m such a romantic about it, it actually bleeds into the business to the point where I actually like the tedious end-of-year tasks that owning a business brings. Running reports, filing W2s, 1099s, balance sheets; I kind of get a kick out of it. Good or bad, those numbers are there to guide you.

In that sense running a business is a lot like raising kids. Even though kids don’t come with spreadsheets and bar graphs, there are measurable moments and the accolades that accompany them.

Growth charts, first steps, first words, potty training, the first home run, first medals – the list goes on and on and, quite frankly, can be far more encouraging than what we see on the business side of things. But when you’re running a family business, in much the same way as the moniker suggests, the two types of growth charts become fused. Even though the first “I love you” coherently articulated by your two year old is far more valuable than your first dividend payout, both chart an upswing in production.

And both should be celebrated.

So we are, and we continue to celebrate and to give thanks to those of you who make both of those graphs tick in the upward position: our customers and our friends.

Thank you for a blessed 2011. We look forward to continuing to serve you in 2012.

Okay, okay. I admit defeat. I've tried for awhile now to perfect photography (although, I obviously did not take this one). Even though it is grainy and out of focus, it does have artistic value ... the blur of children and wrapping paper is a true representation of what our living room looked like on Christmas Day.

And check it out, Joey is trying to bring back The Sprinkler. All the way from 1977.

Product Review: M&D See and Spell Puzzles

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She can’t spell yet, of course, and her vocabulary is severely limited.

Which is actually the point, and a big part of what makes Melissa & Doug educational toys so exceptional. Because when she works with their products she is able to piece letters and sounds together in a way that makes sense to her one-year-old mind.

Joey’s new obsession, the See and Spell puzzles (or “puzzies” as she refers to them) allows her to play like her big brothers but at her own pace. Perfectly crafted for developing hands as well as developing minds, the See and Spell puzzle kits come with 72 wooden letters and eight two-sided boards that spell out various vocabulary words like cat, dog, fish or boat. The words are etched into the wooden board, and the child is encouraged to fit the correct letters into the spaces provided in the board, spelling each word.

Simple, fun, educational. Totally Melissa and Doug.

Although the company recommends the product age range begin at four years old, Joey is nearly two and does very well with it. And, like most of Melissa and Doug products, it’s a toy that grows with the child. Once they have mastered spelling what is on the cutout boards, they can use the wooden letters to arrange in any way they choose, spelling any variety of words or even phrases.

My favorite word combination? I love mommy. The one that usually appears as a “surprise” from the twins for mommy? Fart burp. Hey, they’re spelling.

The PaperHOME: Tebow Time Extends Long After Fourth Quarter

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I’ve kind of been wondering – and worrying about – when this day would come. I’ve rehearsed what I would say and how to delicately word my position on the subject. I even practiced my stern posture. I just never thought it would be something I’d approve of. I guess I never gave much thought to the fact that I might actually be proud that my children were copying something they saw a celebrity doing, which makes sense, considering that most celebrities do foolish things. You forget that there are the other kinds, the ones who use their celebrity to do good.

Until one of my four-year-olds reminded me.

Jack wanted to show me his “new move.” And like all new moves, this one had a finale. It was elaborate, this move, so it took a few minutes and came with some grunts, start-overs and re-dos, and then finally the finale. After the somersault-into-standing-position, Jack tilted his head skyward and pointed his fingers up into the air.

When I asked where he learned the finger pointing, he shrugged and said he saw the football player do it, “You know Mom, the guy who beat the Bears.”

Tim Tebow.

Tebow is the Denver Broncos’ quarterback who has garnered a lot of attention for his unconventional take on the position as well as his very earnest and public displays of faith.

Considering the bevy of badboys to choose from, the fact that I was surprised my son gravitated toward someone with a sincere appreciation of his faith and the humility to show it saddened me. It did so because, much in the same way football analysts underestimate Tebow’s ability, we as a culture are underestimating our own goodness, just as I did. We get so bogged down in the reality-show subculture, that we don’t just become desensitized to the bad, but the good becomes foreign to us as well.

Take, for example, the former Giants’ wide receiver who brandished a handgun in a crowded New York nightclub and – after shooting himself in the leg – would up going to prison. And we all know about Michael Vick, the dog beater who was convicted on animal cruelty and racketeering charges. But there’s the lesser-known story of Leonard Little, the St. Louis defensive player who was responsible for a woman’s death in 1998. She was a daughter. A wife. A mother. And she died because Little was too drunk to drive, and too stubborn to turn his keys over to someone else. He received four years probation, and he was just recently arrested again for another DWI.

And all the sports pundits and political analysts are in a dither over the fact that Tebow mentions God in post-game interviews.

Do a quick Internet search on Little, and you get links to statistics and fun pictures of the defensive end. Not one mention of the manslaughter charge until the second page of search results. Do the same for Tebow, the same statistic pages pop up, but they are surrounded by discussion pages – including sometimes downright vicious remarks – of the religious controversy.

Of course Jack channeling Tebow in his “move” had less to do with politics and spirituality than it did with the fact that he happens to be a topic of conversation in our house after the Broncos made yet another fourth-quarter comeback to beat our Bears. But it’s still refreshing that there are positive role models out there, filtering through our TV sets and newspapers. And that’s something that this mother is more than happy to encourage, even at the expense of her own football team.

Although we'll always be a Bears' family, Denver's Tim Tebow is one player we are excited to watch both on and off the field.

This column was originally published in the December 21, 2011 edition of the St. Maries Gazette Record.

Book Review: What Do You Do With A Tail Like This?

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On the list of the most wonderful things to hear your kids saying, it ranks right up there with “This is the best dinner ever, Mommy” or “You look so pretty today, Mommy” and, of course, the show-stopper: “I love you, Mommy.”

But whenever I hear my boys say “This is our most favorite book. Thank you for getting it for us,” my heart skips a beat, almost as if they complimented me on my cooking, recent weight loss and told me they loved me, all at once. To hear them take such joy in reading – and to actually be sincere about it – makes me feel like we’re doing something right. All of the hours I guiltily throw them in front of the TV are magically offset when that one little sentence is joyfully uttered.

And when it’s a book that I enjoy as much as they do … well, that’s just icing on the proverbial cake.

What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page is simple yet enthralling, even for the adult reader. Beautifully illustrated and cleverly written, the 30-page book teaches children – and their parents – about animals, all sorts of animals, from Joey’s favorite, the elephant, to the creature the boys always ask me to turn to, the bush baby (they like its big eyes).

The book is split up into categories, based on the body parts of each animal being described with a close-up illustration of the eyes, ears, mouth or tail on the first page of that section. The close-up view allows for the child to then guess which animal the eyes, ears, mouth or tail belong to on the next page. The description that follows is simple, practical and to the point, perfect when you’re reading to an audience with attention spans you can measure in nanoseconds.

Some of the best children’s books for preschool ages are the ones that combine attention-grabbing content with interaction. Tail Like This does both beautifully, cultivating communication and curiosity. If you’re looking to change up your story time routine, to perhaps add more of an interactive element to your reading, consider this book as part of your holiday shopping. Believe me, it’ll be a present for you both.

Because I Said So

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It wasn’t too long ago that Fridays were the days I dreaded. The day that most people longed for and celebrated was the one that I loathed. I suppose it was because I was tired, exhausted really, and it wasn’t even the last day of my week. I still had one more to go before my “day off,” the day when Sunday mercifully arrived and we were all together again, huddled around the TV agonizing over another Chicago Bears’ football season, or nestled in the nothingness that is truly the best day of the week.

Instead, Friday is my Humpday, another reminder that there are errands to run and chores to be done and the “oh my goodness there’s no way I’m going to get it all done because someone just smeared peanut butter all over the carpet” reminders that things don’t always go as scheduled. Now, add on the long, slushy winters and the fact that we have a one-year-old who isn’t exactly North Idaho weather-ready, and you have a string of very long months spent cooped up indoors. Talk about a double-dose of feeling down and out.

Until I realized I didn’t work for anyone.

So I officially declared Fridays (ahem, and most Saturdays) pajama and movie day. Simple as that. No managers to confer with, no pesky HR forms to fill out. I simply said it, and it was done. Mom’s in charge, and I am Mom. The all-knowing, all-powerful Mom. Ruler of the roost, head honcho of the home, boss of the abode, commander of la casa.

Now that’s powerful stuff.

I remember when it finally hit me that, as the parent, I was in charge of my children. That what I said goes. It seems like such a silly thought now, but there was a time – especially in the first few months of the boys’ lives – that it wasn’t so. Instead, it was the twins who dictated the order of our lives. Of course, any parent knows that doesn’t go on for too long. Regardless of the different styles we choose to use, we parents eventually smarten up and take charge.

And this moment of clarity had the same feeling. The “ah-ha” moment that had hit me when I realized that I was indeed calling the shots took over when I simply decided Fridays were going to be fun. I realized that I was also in charge of my own household, that the tasks and busy-ness of the day didn’t have to rule our schedules.

Even Joey knows how important it is to relax ... regardless of where you are.

The best part is, it doesn’t take being a mom to determine this. In some form or another, we all reach this juncture. Whether we’re just starting out, heading off to college, newly married or newly single, our lives are ours for the taking, and take we should. If we don’t someone else – or a series of events – are going to dictate the direction of our lives for us. And one or three or even seven years later we’ll end up somewhere unfamiliar, bewildered and without a clue as to how we arrived. Fortunately, the only thing we’ll need to get back is a change of mind.

Certainly gives new meaning to the expression “because I said so.”

This column was originally published in the December 7, 2011 edition of the St. Maries Gazette Record.

Book review: The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

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In the little amount of time I’ve spent with Kate, I feel as though I’ve known her forever. So much so, that I feel like we’re on a first-name basis. Nevermind the fact that I, of course, don’t know her and that we have never met; quite likely, we never will. She is, after all, a bestselling author and lives on another continent.

But dangit, if I don’t actually feel like she and I are now friends. Each time I set her book down after a nice, luxurious afternoon of reading it feels like I’ve been chatting with her in a cozy café on the corner of a cobblestone street over a cup of coffee (of course Kate would have probably ordered tea – see, I do know her) for hours, not wrapped up in a blanket on my own couch, anxiously hoping nap time will extend itself a few minutes longer so I could finish just one more page.

Kate Morton, author of The Distant Hours, is such a masterful storyteller that not only does she – quite simply – tell a good story, she reveals pieces of herself throughout the novel.

Or, at least, the characteristics divulged give clues to what I’m imagining she’s like. She has to be, though; the passion with which she writes about her characters’ love of books, the art behind the written word, and even the intricacies of the publishing process is so powerful, those are sure to be attributes of her own self spilling into the world of the Blythe sisters and playing out in the mother-daughter dynamics of our heroines, Edie and Meredith.

But enough about my new best friend Kate. Because as fantastic as she surely is, the book is even better.

The story of The Distant Hours is fueled primarily by a letter, one received 50 years too late. A lot happens in five decades … hearts are hardened, dreams extinguished, lives lost. But words live on. And Morton depicts that beautifully, ingeniously leading her readers through a maze of characters, back stories and subtext delicately interwoven into a truly beautiful narrative. There’s some mystery along the way, betrayal even, but mostly the book is about the beauty of words, both written and unwritten, said and unsaid.

As seamlessly as the book takes us back and forth in time, transporting us from present-day to WWII, Morton’s transitions between her characters is just as effortless.

The letter sent to Edie’s mother Meredith and the subsequent history it produces does more than strengthen their mother-daughter bond, it sets other secrets free, unraveling them from a half-century’s white-knuckled grasp. Juniper, Percy and Saffy Blythe make up what Edie refers to as the Sisters Blythe, a trio of spinsters, willed (quite literally by stipulations put forth in his last will and testament) by their mentally ill father to a life confined to their castle.

The letter takes Edie into her to her mother’s childhood when Meredith was evacuated during the war and sent to live with the Sisters Blythe. Edie’s investigation offers her a new appreciation for her mom, and the letter helps to fill in the gaps, not just for the two of them, but for, among other things, the sisters themselves, the mysterious disappearance of a young man and – some could even say – the castle itself. It speaks of – and ultimately for – the distant hours of all of their lives. Simply put, for a true character-driven reader, this novel is an absolute treat.

So the next time you’re looking for a good book, pick up a copy of this or either of her other two titles, carve out a few hours for yourself and settle in.

And be sure to tell Kate hello for me.

Tidings of thanksgiving

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I’ve been working on this post for awhile now. I want to make sure I nail it. I want to get the wording right, but – even more than that – I want to be sure the emotion is just-so. I want all of my readers to know exactly how I feel … all ten of you.

Which is actually my point. That sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest differences.

This means something to me, this time of year, and it seems I am almost always in a state of reflection. Maybe it’s the constant baking or decorating, the fun yet tedious tasks of the holidays that allow our minds to wander. Whatever it is, I’m glad for it because it helps me to look around at all we have, to reflect on how far we’ve come and to truly be thankful that we’re here in the now. And I want to be here in this now, soaking it all in.

Even though it feels like we’ve only just blinked and suddenly wound up with two four year olds and a very vocal and bossy 20-month-old, the truth is we’ve covered a lot of ground getting here. Some winding roads, a couple detours perhaps, but all of them pointing straight to this moment, this setting … of thanksgiving.

Sometimes it’s the small things that can bring us the most joy … A photo album filled with memories, a roar of laughter spilling out of the living room, the smell of pumpkin bread filtering throughout the house or our small family-owned store chugging along in these uncertain times. And what’s truly special about those things is the fact that they are all fueled in large part by you, our customers and our friends.

Handwritten place settings are about as crafty as I get ...

.... but - even if Jack's expression doesn't show it - the boys loved being a part of the preparations.

And that’s worth being thankful for. All of those little things, the small ways in which we are supported by our customers and our community, equal one big and very happy family. When you shop at our store – or any small business – you are doing more than supporting a locally owned operation, you are supporting a family. You are allowing us to raise our children here, in a community that we have always longed to be a part of. The business the town of St. Maries provides us allows me to stay at home with my children, something I’ve always hoped to be able to do.

Thank you for your continued business and your support. We hope to serve you through the Christmas season and into the new year. We hope that you stay with us as our children grow, and perhaps we can watch as another limb to The Paperhouse family tree sprouts.

Yes, it is most certainly the simplest things that bring us the most joy, which is fitting, considering the simple message I am hoping to convey: Thank you.

And as we’re all reflecting tonight on the things that make us happy, here are a few of my favorites …

The way that a string of Christmas lights and a row of stockings can transform a room and create that tingle of electric magic throughout our home for an entire season …

Recording hilarious moments like these (Jack has no idea what’s about to hit him…)

And this. Catching Joey in a place she most certainly should not be … but seeing her there, sitting in the office chair with that perfect posture, hands resting attentively on the keyboard, flashed me forward 15 years. I realized that this, this moment, does not always need to be scolded. Because pretty soon I’ll wish that she was still looking this way, wide eyes peering at me over her ever-present binkie, and I’ll wish that I had preserved this memory more vividly. So I let her tap at the keys a bit longer while I clicked away with the camera. Except I think my plan might have backfired because now she wants an iPad for Christmas …