Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Five

Three out of four of our kids are currently in college, so we often discuss the strange/odd/sad things that happen in a class. Here are five of the oddest things that have happened in classes. If you have any to add, we'd love to hear them. 

1. During a final exam, the guy seated next to me began biting small chunks out of his skin. Seriously. He left divots in his forearm. He also tried to cheat from my exam, so I ended up draping my body over my exam.

2. Once in a lecture, my husband leaned over to his friend (who was always doing other work in class) and said, “Hey, the prof asked you a question.” So his friend all of a sudden began talking randomly during the middle of the prof’s lecture.

3. In Ariel’s math exams, students have been known to wall the halls doing deep breathing or chugging Peptobismal.

4. My husband has amazing eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills. When he was in grade school, he used to catch a fly and then take a long strand of hair (donated by the girl in front of him) and tie the hair around the fly. Then he’d tape the hair onto his desk. The fly would buzz around in circles.

5. One of the oddest class stories happened at MIT with Prof August Witt. Apparently, a fencer dressed in black and carrying a saber interrupted his lecture and announced, "August Witt! For too many years you have bored the freshman with your talk of molecules and elements, and I have come to put a stop to it! Defend yourself!" At that point, a fencer dressed all in white entered and prepared to defend Prof Witt. Then, Witt announced that he’d defend himself. It turns out that Witt was the three time National Fencing Champion of Austria. You can read the full story here

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Is It Friday Yet?

This is one of those weeks where it’s only Wednesday, but it feels like Friday.

It started Sunday night when Luke complained he didn’t feel well. And I should’ve known this was a bad sign. Luke never complains. But everyone went to bed.

On Monday morning Luke woke up in pain, right lower quadrant abdominal pain. The pain was bad enough that he was very pale (Luke has dark almond-colored skin). Then he said he didn’t think he could go to class—in four years of college I don’t think he’s ever missed a class. He always goes, sick or not.

We took Luke to the doctor who thought it might be appendicitis. And he ordered a CT scan, which the insurance company denied. The hospital told us they gave no reason for the denial. So Cal began making phone calls. Interestingly enough, the insurance company hires another company to make denials, etc. No doubt this is to cover them when they get sued. After lots of phone calls, some person told Cal that Luke was denied because his doctor didn’t order enough tests. Yes, you heard that right, Luke’s doctor only ordered a CT of the pelvis and they thought he needed a CT of the abdomen too. So they denied all services. (Of course, they didn’t give the hospital or the doctor this information.)

By now, it’s after hours on Monday, and Luke’s still in a lot of pain. So Cal called the after-hours doctor, who said he’d be happy to talk to Blue Cross/Blue Shield authorization. He’d had experience with them denying the same procedure before. He said they stall you because if you have to go to ER, where they’ll cover the CT, you have to pay a higher deductible. (No wonder Mr. Incredible couldn’t stand working for an insurance company.)

To make a long story short, Luke got the CT and it turned out that he doesn’t have appendicitis. The doctor has no idea what’s wrong. We’re just hoping and praying that whatever’s wrong passes soon—the current theory is a virus with spasmodic “thingies.” Luke still has a low grade fever and stomach pains, though they’re much more bearable.

And just in time, now our internet is down. I’ve got it jerry-rigged so I can post this. It’s going to be a long week. And I have a writing deadline looming. I’m beginning to think all of October will be shorter than this week.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What I Learned about Writing from Running

I’ve been a runner for years. Not because I really like it, but it’s good for me and it doesn’t take a lot of coordination. I tried aerobics back in the day—not a pretty sight. So I went back to running. But when we moved from California to New England, I ran into a problem. Ice.

Running on snow wasn’t a problem, and I didn’t mind the cold. But ice was too dangerous, especially for a person whose coordination was sketchy. So I ended up on a treadmill and was bored silly.

I started reading while I ran the treadmill. I've read a ton of books—thrillers, mysteries, YA novels. And I discovered "the boring parts." I’m usually a very patient reader. But when I need to be distracted from the smack of my shoes, the sweat dripping down my neck, and the muscles that are yelling “we don’t want to do this,” I have no patience for the boring parts.

But boring doesn’t mean slow. I understand how pacing ebbs and flows, but when it ebbs the plot needs to continue to advance and character needs to continue being revealed. I’ve discovered that I can almost always skip the boring sections without missing any plot or character development. In particular, this usually happens when the author throws in the obligatory paragraph or three of setting where nothing happens except telling the reader the color of a particular house, how spectacular the sunset is, etc. Honestly, I skip these sections because, as a reader, I don’t care unless it’s integral to the plot or the character.

So my advice is to cut the boring parts or better yet spice them up. Use a setting description to have a character remember a similar setting where something momentous happened—their dog died, their parent died, or, even better, a meteor hit and killed both their dog and their parent.

 Remember Elmore Leonard’s famous quote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

BTW, here are some photos from our celebration of Elevensies.

We had tea, scones, apricot jam, and chocolate. Yes, I know, there's no mention of chocolate in The Hobbit. But that's only because hobbits didn't know about chocolate. If they had, they'd have guarded it as jealously as they did pipe weed.

Speaking of pipe weed...

It's an authentic Swiss clay pipe. But no pipe weed. Note Matt's disappointment.

Reading the first chapter aloud and getting caught up in the story all over again.

Here's our copy. It has gorgeous illustrations.

Friday, September 21, 2012

In a Hole in the Ground...

“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

Today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. So my son and I are going to celebrate by having a pot of tea and some goodies for Elevensies.  Though we can’t share our tea and goodies, we can share our favorite quotes:

1. "Chip the glasses and crack the plates! Blunt the knives and bend the forks! That's what Bilbo Baggins hates."  When my kids were little, they used to sing this when they did the dishes.

2. “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations…”  This has always been my problem. I forget about the dragons.

3. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."  I have always wanted to live in a hobbit-hole. Haven’t you?

4. "I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone."  This is why my husband and I had children—for people to share the adventure with us.

5. “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  (I know this is from LOTR, but it feels like it’s from The Hobbit.) When my kids were little and they left the house for some important reason, I always said, “It’s a dangerous business walking out your front door.”

If you haven't seen it yet, here's the newest trailer for the movie.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Naked Chicken

The last few months, I’ve been working hard to get my YA novel, Screwing Up Babylon, ready to be published. And normally, I plan out my responsibilities pretty well so there’s no disruption to my family.

Last night was an exception. I’d planned on baked herbed chicken thighs for dinner. I was going to rub a combination of lemon-pepper, garlic, and fresh rosemary on the chicken.

But I was a little late getting the chicken out of the freezer. Normally, I take it out first thing in the morning. Instead, I took in out right before Matt’s piano lessons—about five hours too late. Then, I didn’t have time to defrost in the microwave because I ended up getting home late from lessons—the van stalled while I was making a left turn and I was without power steering or brakes (very scary).

Anyway, when I got home and went to put the thighs in the oven, they weren’t quite defrosted enough to properly rub. So I cranked the oven, put the chicken in, and made plans to rub the chicken after it had been in for twenty minutes. 

In the meantime, I’d edit. My editing was going really well. Then college student number two asked me when dinner was going to be ready. I said, “Five o-clock.” She said, “Uh, it’s after five now.”

So we ate. Everyone sat down, and I served the thighs. Finally, someone said, “So what kind of chicken is this?”

I said, “Naked Chicken.”

Child: “What does that mean?”

Me: “It means I was busy editing and forgot to season the chicken.”

Child: “Um, we’ve never had plain chicken before.”

Me, taking BBQ sauce and sweet and sour sauce from the fridge: “Now you have.”

Child, taking a bite: “This isn’t so bad.”

Then my youngest child began squirting different condiments on his plate and said, “This is customizable chicken!”

Yep, that’s it. Customizable Chicken. Think about the marketing opportunities!

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Answer is...Food

Exam season has started at our house. Matt preps for the PSAT. And the other three are taking college exams. We have standard well wishes for the students leaving the house.

Me: “Take this bag of trail mix so you can eat it right before the exam for a quick burst of mental energy.”

Matt yells out, “Nervousness is the key to failure.”

Cal says, “The answer’s two.” (If it’s not a math/chem/physics exam, then he says the answer’s “C.”)

Generally, the response is an exaggerated eye roll. Then the other day, Ariel was on campus. And a friend told her, “Ariel, the answer is two.”

Ar said, “That’s what my dad always says.”

Ar’s friend, “That man has a great sense of humor.”

Cal thinks his coolness factor has escalated. Now I need to increase my coolness factor. I’m considering offering a mug of French-press coffee, Gatorade, beef jerky. But in either case, I don’t think I’ll escape the my-mom-who-was-raised-by-a-European-thinks-food-is-the-answer-to-everything. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Stump a Grammar Snob, Hyphens

Before I self-published a book, I was very confident in my grammar and spelling. Yep, I knew my stuff. But when it was time to put my baby out there for the world, I learned some humility. No one knows all the rules. And those who think they do, really don’t.

And, I’m sure you know this, not everyone agrees. But I’m not talking stuff like Oxford commas. I’m talking more esoteric grammar. BTW, if you are not a grammar fanatic, you should probably stop reading now. You’ll be bored silly. But if nothing gives you greater delight than learning some obscure grammar rule, read on, baby, this one’s for you.

Hyphens. This rule should be pretty straightforward. Right? Just look up any word in the dictionary and you’ll know if the word is hyphenated. Easy-peasy. But what about hyphens and compound modifiers? If they come before the noun, hyphenated them. If they come after the noun, don’t. Also easy. But what if it’s an adverb-adjective combo like “freshly cut grass.” Hyphen or no hyphen?

After exhaustive research, most (though not all) experts agree that you use a hyphen. Except, with –ly adverbs preceding adjectives that together precede nouns. In other words, “freshly cut grass,” not freshly-cut grass. BTW, the Chicago Manual of Style says the reason we don’t use a hyphen there is “ambiguity is virtually impossible.” Of course.

Now you know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It's Monday. Call the IRS.

Everyone has a routine of some kind. Get up, go to work, etc. My husband Calvin has that routine. But he has something special that most people don’t share. Part of his routine is “It’s Monday. Call the IRS.”

In case you don’t remember or missed the post back in January, someone (may a hideous pox be upon them) filed a fraudulent tax return with my husband’s social security number. Thankfully, we filed early in January so as the IRS was processing the fraudulent return the real return came up and they froze the returns.

No one notified us. We found out when our applications for college financial aid (we have three kids in college) were unable to be processed. We made phone calls and discovered the issue.

Naively, we figured that we’d get it taken care of. It’s been nearly ten months. We filed tons of documentation. Nada. Every time Cal calls, some agent gives him a “story” and a promise. The promises are empty. “Oh, Mr. Keller, when you called last…well, it looks like Mr. Jones filed the wrong paperwork.” Once, our fraud complaint was filed as a “change of address.”

Cal is now building a “folder” documenting his interactions. He used to ask for the agent’s name—they give fake names like “Miss Smith.” I’m not surprised they don’t want citizens to know who they are. Now he gets their badge number.

Our goal is to get this resolved before we file taxes this January. In the meantime, it’s Monday. It’s time to call the IRS.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Beans or Craisins

My husband and I are “at that age.” We both feel young (but aren’t). I have hopes one day of running a marathon. I’ve always wanted to and sort of have—it was a marathon walk to raise money for the March of Dimes and I ran it instead of walking. But it doesn’t really count. And my husband always wanted to do a triathlon, but spinal stenosis put a crimp in that.

So we’re feeling young and healthy—well, except for the stenosis. But there’s one aspect of age we haven’t escaped, one that exercise can’t help. Aging eyes. Both of us need reading glasses. BTW, “reading” glasses is a misnomer. I do need them for reading, but I also need them for everything else. Yesterday my daughter and I were in line together for food at our church potluck. As we were passing through the salad selection, I pointed out a salad to my daughter and asked, “Uh, I don’t have my glasses. Is that a bean salad?” My daughter laughed. “No, Mom, that’s apples and craisins.” Oh, right.

And then there’s the inevitable grocery shopping trips where I peer at labels that I can’t read. Then, I say to my husband, “Hey, you have glasses on. What does this say?” He squints and shrugs. “These are my driving glasses. You know, for distance.” Then I squint at him, “Oh, right.”

I say, “You should wear your bifocals.”
He says, “You should wear your reading glasses.”
Me: “I’ve misplaced them.” (Just so you know, I have five or six pairs scattered through the house.)

I need to get one of those glasses tethers. The kind that librarians wear. Okay, true confessions, I’ve actually bought a couple. The really cute beaded one got caught in my hair and made a rat’s nest and the base of my neck. It had to cut out. The fabric and plastic one I bought broke—I took the tether off the glasses too many times because I didn’t want the librarian look when I went out.

Oh, and by the way, those cute reading glasses, the ones that are hip (if reading glasses can be hip) and come in attractive colors and shapes, they don’t fit me. Women’s reading glasses squish my temples and give me migraines. Apparently, my head is larger than most women’s heads. (Thank you, northern European ancestry.) So I wear the extremely attractive men’s reading glasses with clunky black frames.

Here’s what I’m thinking. I’m going to buy some Dumbledore half-moon reading glasses and create a trend. Reading glasses—the new hip accessory.

So you’d better get your pair now so you can be a trendsetter, just like me. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Chaos

It’s Friday, and I almost forgot to blog. Things have been chaotic all week.

  • I finished the line edits on Screwing Up Babylon, the sequel to Screwing Up Time. I should be tossing confetti. Instead, my stomach gets queasy when I think about it. I only have one final read aloud and a final proofread. Then, I send my baby out into the world. Ack.

  •  This morning, child number three has his first exam in college (a physics/engineering class), which necessitated pancakes this morning. And I was out of pancake mix. I hate pancakes made from scratch, especially the “quick pancakes” recipe I found. Instead of pancakes, they were more like weird-paper-thin-dough-like-substances. Child three and husband ate the pancakes. I ate Cheerios.

  • I’m helping child number four with physics. Not my strongest subject. If child number one is home, I say to child four, "Go ask the resident physics expert." If he’s not, I say “Oh, honey, I’m sure you can do this. Just plug the numbers into the right equation.” Which works unless the child needs to derive an equation…then I take a deep breath, pray, and hope I know what I’m doing.

  • Last but not least, I’m surviving the heat. It’s so hot and humid that the heat index is predicted to reach 105 to 110 today. Seriously. It’s September. I want cool breezes. I want to leave the windows open at night and crawl under a down comforter. But for now, I’ll crank the air conditioner, print up my manuscript for a final read aloud, buy pancake mix, and try to figure out how to use a TI 38 plus for physics—this scientific calculator does everything. Except I still haven’t figured out how to “clear” it. And what is “syntax error” supposed to mean?

It’s going to be a long Friday.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why I Don't Need Entertainment

I don’t need sit-com entertainment in my life. I have children. Here’s what it’s like:
1.   Matt: “Hey, Mom, your horoscope says don’t make any financial decisions that would rock the boat.”

     Me: “Why do I care?”

     Matt: “So where’s your wallet?”

2.  Matt to Luke: “You’d better watch out. Or I’ll sneak up behind you with my love and kill you.”

3.  Matt and Ariel: “Movies are rated R for two reasons. Lack of clothes. Or, lack of skin (gore).”

4.  Ariel: “My prof said math proofs are like dresses. They have to be short enough to be interesting and long enough to cover the subject.” (It was a class full of girls, and they thought it was hilarious.)

5.  Ariel (scanning Netflix looking for something to watch): "So there’s this cooking show, and it’s rated R. Does it involve disembowelment?"

6.  Matthew: “I’ve decided that Jezebel (our dog) has a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome.”

7.  Matthew while eating lunch: “You are what you eat…I hope that doesn’t apply to PB&J.”

8. Matt: "Cynicism?! I don't believe in cynicism!"

Monday, September 3, 2012


Ever since I can remember, my kids have liked the idea of things blowing up.

When Jacob was two, I found him playing in the kitchen with matches, and I asked him what he was doing. He said, “Making a bomb.”

 I thought this would pass. I was wrong.

Now my kids watch Brainiac: Science Abuse. (I’ve learned that thermite is very cool.) And the Slo-Mo Guys.

I’ve learned about the Chemistry Dept. picnic where one professor’s claim to fame is a very dangerous mixture of Mentos, soda and his mouth. And I thought tying a cherry stem into a knot in my mouth was a cool party trick. (Seriously, the Mentos/soda thing is very dangerous. Do not try it.)

My son Luke who’s in his senior year of a BS in chemistry had a giddy look on his face the other day. I asked him what was up. He told me he was doing Grignard reactions. They’re exothermic and have the potential to go “boom.”

Yesterday, Luke and Jacob were discussing engineering. Jacob is a freshman in college studying engineering. The subject came around to nuclear engineering. My daughter Ariel sighed happily and said, “Nuclear engineering uses partial differential equations.” I said, “And?” Her eyes lit up. “You know, oscillations nearing infinity…well, boom!”

Even my daughter likes “Boom!”…okay, I like booms too. I get giddy in thunderstorms. And my dad’s been known to go tornado chasing. I once got a phone call from him when he was hiding under an interstate overpass, watching a tornado. So I guess the kids come by it naturally.

BTW, if you aren’t familiar with Brainiac or thermite, this is for you.