Monday, April 29, 2013


In the wee hours of Saturday morning, my phone rang. That’s never a good sign. When I answered, my mother told me their house was on fire. For a split second, I thought it was the new house that they’d just moved into. But, thankfully, it was not.

It was their old house. The one they were ready to sell. A nasty thunderstorm moved through our area during the night, and, according to the fire marshal, a lightning bolt (or perhaps two) struck my parents’ house, plunging through the two stories and hitting the propane gas line. The gas immediately caught fire. The marshal said it was like a massive blow torch burning through the house. The fire was so hot that the flames were blue.

Much of the inside of the house is gone. The entire kitchen and dining room no longer exist. Though a few of the walls are still there, suspended from the ceiling like teeth in an old crone's mouth. Eventually, their weight will pull them loose, and they'll fall to the basement. Most of the metal in the house—wrought iron railings, brass chandeliers, etc., are all melted.

Thankfully, my parents had their belongings out of the house. And even more thankfully, no one was in the house. Had my parents and my 94 year old grandmother been in the house, I doubt they would have escaped. The fire was too fast and too violent. In fact, a neighbor said that when the bolt struck, it knocked him off the couch. God was so merciful to my family. 

Thanks to Rachael Venema of Raeven Photography for taking the photo of my parents' house.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Real Reason I Had Kids

This morning, my son Luke is taking his last final exam as an undergraduate. (It’s in advanced inorganic chemistry—better him, than me). My daughter took hers yesterday. I now have two college graduates who will soon be leaving home. (Though, of course, in the intervening days, I have plans: please help Matthew study for the math section of the SAT, help me plant the new hedge plants, scrub and re-stain the deck, etc.)

And soon they’ll be moving out. Luke moves out in June—to starting working at a university lab where he plans to begin his PhD in organo-metallic chemistry in the fall. Ariel will move out in August to start her PhD work in mathematics at Emory.

A dear friend took me aside the other day to tell me that having two kids leave at the same time is extra hard. (My friend had twins.) I’m trying to prepare myself by reminding myself of a promise I made to myself sixteen years ago—that I’d be truly grateful.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I have an autistic son. And at the time he was diagnosed (and we were told he might never learn to speak), I heard several mothers complaining about how sad they were that their children were leaving home. While I understood their grief, it seemed to me that they were missing something huge. That they should be celebrating too. Our children don’t belong to us—not like some kind of possession. God merely gives them to us to raise. And if all goes well, then they begin lives of their own, which is as it should be.

Soon half of my kids will be gone. (And, yes, I’m sure I will cry.) But I will be cheering them on in their new lives. And I’ll be trying to figure out how to get them to visit—I’m guessing roast beef dinner and laundry might do it. And when they’re here, I’ll hand them a paintbush—after all, the deck needs re-staining. And one of my kids will say, “You had us just so you could have slave labor, right?” And I’ll say, “Absolutely.”

File:Paint brush.JPG
Photo by Chenspec, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

BTW, today is the last day of 99 cents sale for Screwing Up Babylon.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Romance Does Not Have a Place in Gardening

The other day while I was weeding, I turned and saw my daughter Ariel blowing on a dandelion puff ball. My vision clouded with red.

I stared, trying to find words.

Daughter, noticing the stare, said: “I guess I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Me, trying to be patient with said child whose mind has been addled by finals: “No.”

Daughter, with a shrug: “It’s not so bad though. Look at all the other weeds—what’s a few more?”

Me, considering whether daughter is intentionally provoking me: “Not funny.”

Daughter: “It’s stress-relieving.”

Me, wondering whether provoking your mother or blowing weed seeds everywhere is stress-relieving: “Go blow the dandelion puff ball into the trash can.”

Daughter, laughs and flounces away with the puff ball: “That’s not very romantic.”

I watch my daughter suspiciously all the way back into the house. And I plot that if I see that child blow a puff ball into my lawn ever again, I will teach her eventual children how romantic it is to blow puff balls into her lawn. Turnabout is fair play.

Okay, dandelion seedheads are gorgeous. But still, one does not simply blow the seeds across the lawn.

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Photo by Magnus Manske, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 22, 2013

Alpha Centauri, Portal 2, and Finals

It’s finals week at our house. (Three of our children attend a university near our house and live at home—saving lots of money. Two are graduating, without any debt, which makes me giddy.)  This is what finals week looks like.

1. Everyone stays up late and sleeps in (except in the case of 8am finals). I’ve tried suggesting that they go to bed early and get up at 5am to study—a well-rested brain retains knowledge better. I explain that it’s what I did in college. They all look at me like I clearly cannot be related to them. In fact, a rumor has begun that I’m from another planet. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Mom is from a lopsided planet that rotates around Alpha Centauri.

2. Coffee and tea are a constant. Of course, if they went to bed early and got up early…right, I’ll let it go.

3. Great breakfasts. I make really good breakfasts the week of finals. Bacon, eggs, chocolate-chip pancakes, etc. (The other day, I overheard someone asking my daughter if she was worried about the math in grad school—Ariel will be beginning a PhD program in math. Ar said, “No, I’m not concerned about the math. I’m worried about cooking for myself.”)

4. Deep breathing. This is on my part. It happens when I pass a bedroom and I hear Portal 2 instead of seeing a male person studying Advanced Inorganic Chemistry or Static Physics. Then, I take a deep breath and tell myself, “Study break. Back away from the adult student’s study area.”

5. Calculators. Everyone seems to be walking around with calculators. Not for exams. Usually, they are calculating what their current grade is and what’s the lowest they can get on an exam and still get an A in the class. I’m guessing it’s so they can decide how long they can play Portal 2 during their study break.  

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Apparently, this is Alpha Centauri, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Oddly enough, I don't see my lop-sided planet.

Friday, April 19, 2013

How to Get a New Fridge

We’re getting a new refrigerator. (It’s hand-me down, but a really nice hand-me down.) I'm excited. But don't get me wrong, I appreciate the one we currently have—it's a 1950s model and it came with the house when we bought it over seven years ago.

As the realtor walked us through the house, he said, “Well, you’ll have to get a new fridge—this one’s very old and it’s so small it’s not good for much beyond chilling soda.” And because no one has any extra money when they buy a house, we decided to wait for the fridge to die. Only it was made before planned obsolesce. And it’s still running. Of course, the internal lights don’t work. So when you open the door, you can’t really see anything. On the other hand, it’s not that deep. But you do have to move food around in order to see anything.

But I’ve learned to take an odd sort of pride in my fridge. It’s kind of like an antique. And a friend who visited said, “Hmm, if the Kellers with their six adults can live with a fridge like this, I need to stop complaining.” And we could live with it. Sure, stuff sometimes fell onto the floor when we opened the door.  But I discovered that those years of playing Tetris had real life applications—I can pack a fridge like nobody can.

Despite my old fridge love, when I was offered a new fridge, I jumped at the chance. The new fridge is stainless steel and has an ice/water dispenser—we’ll be living the high life. (Though one of the older minions pointed out that we’re getting the new fridge just months before two kids leave for grad school. Too bad.)

This experience has taught me an important lesson. Contentment. Clearly, contentment leads to very cool hand-me-downs. Now I’ve decided that I’m really content with my lawn. The only thing…I don’t think anyone will be giving me hand-me-down-weed-free grass. Oh, well, a girl can hope.

N.B. I finished the first major edit of book three in the Screwing Up Time series. In celebration, I've put Screwing Up Babylon on sale for 99 cents! It will be on sale at Amazon from today through next Friday, April 26.

Okay, our fridge is more modern than this one. But only a decade or two.

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Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Power of Coffee

I’ve been sick. It’s one of those nasty spring viruses that you catch just when you think you’ve made it through the winter. So I’ve spent some time on the couch, sneezing, feverish, etc. But I have made an observation. My family needs me. Here’s why.

1. Someone will cook dinner. Which is wonderful. That someone, however, does not care about vegetables. I make sure we have veggies.

2. Someone will fold the laundry. But they will not fold socks. Socks are viewed with great suspicion and remain in a pile on the bottom of the laundry basket. I suspect that the socks would eventually get folded, but not until everyone ran out of them. I always fold socks. And I know which socks belong to whom.

3. No one waters the plants. Okay, that might be because I have exotic plants with special needs—my laundry room has labeled water jugs, fertilizers, stakes, etc. But still, without me the plants would die and then my family wouldn’t get to enjoy the orchids, African violets, and tropical pitcher plant.

4. No one will throw out the junk mail. It simply gets moved from one place to another and grows. I throw it out as soon as it comes in the front door.

5. No one can do the morning coffee like I can. Everyone knows how to make it. But only I can get the portions just right. And only I can pour. Seriously. Only I can make the coffee come out evenly into six cups. There is nothing more critical first thing in the morning than making sure everyone gets their fair share of coffee. On Monday, one of the minions did not pour the coffee correctly. Great gnashing of teeth followed. Even encouragements to “just make another pot” do not adequately deal with the fact that the coffee wasn’t poured right. And we all know, if the morning coffee ain’t right, ain’t nothing gonna go right today.

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Photo Julius Schorzman courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 15, 2013

Guido the Enforcer

Yesterday morning just before we left for church, we got a phone call. It was fraud alert. Yes, Calvin’s identity has been stolen AGAIN. This is the fourth time. Cal’s social security number must be popular—it keeps getting sold over and over again.

We found out about the fraud because a couple of months ago we got a Capital One Visa card. And, providentially, Identity Thief Number Four chose to open a Capital One credit card. Capital One thought it was odd that Cal was applying for a second credit card from an address in Detroit, so they called us. Capital One is now denying Identity Thief Number Four a credit card.

Later today, we’ll find out if ITNF has opened other credit cards in Cal’s name. Then, we’ll call the police in Detroit and they’ll tell us that ITNF has rights and they can’t help us.

Hmmm. We still have some friends in Connecticut. I wonder if anyone there has a cousin named Guido the Enforcer who will help us. After all, this identity thief is not nearly as clever as the last one. ITNF actually gave Capital One his home address, instead of a PO Box. I’m sure Guido can convince Capital One to share ITNF’s address with him.

Anyone out there have a cousin named Guido?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Parental Exit Evaluations

Whenever our children complain about something my husband Calvin and I have done that they don’t like, Calvin always says, “Okay. So include it your exit evaluation.” In other words, just like they get to evaluate a professor at the end of a class, Cal says that they can give us a parental exit evaluation when they move out. (They don’t think it’s funny, but Cal and I think it’s hilarious.) But I’ve been thinking about it, here’s how I’d evaluate us.

1. Food. A serious lack of junk food. When my kids complain that there’s nothing to eat, I open the fridge and say, “Eggs, cheese, milk, meat—protein! Ooo, look veggies and fruit too!! ” My kids give me a fake smile. When we visit my parents’ house, my mom always has chips, cookies, pizza, etc.  When we have grandkids, I’ll buy lots of junk food.

2. Entertainment. We watch no movies that will give me nightmares. Sorry. Cope.

3. Laundry Service. Your siblings have to fold and put away laundry. This explains why your sister’s bra shows up in a pile with your manly shirts. Too bad.

4. Slave Labor. This occurs when the-house-is-too-messy-for-mom-and-she’s-losing-it. Then I yell, “Slave Labor,” and it means you are my slaves until the house is clean. My sanity is valuable to me.

5. Pest Control. When there is a gross/stinging/creepy bug, a parent (or non-freaked-out sibling) is supposed to come and kill the offending insect that has escaped from Hades. Sadly, I’ve been known to say, “I’m busy writing. If it’s not hurting you, ignore it. It’s only a wasp.”

Cal and I are hoping we're only one standard deviation away from the parental effectiveness mean. If not...oh, well.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013


A friend posted a YouTube video that showed a flash mob “performing” Rembrandt’s Nachtwacht (The Night Watch). I was enchanted by it. And as each member of my family got up in the morning, I made them watch it.

After watching it a few times, I thought about what other than the “coolness” factor captured my attention. I think part of it is the way the producer and director re-imagined The Night Watch. They imagined the fictional story behind the painting. They took a different medium, a combination of performance art, music, and film, and told the same story. They even included subplots—the audience reaction to the story, what was going on with the chicken, etc.

It occurred to me much art is new ways of imagining. In writing there are only a few major plots, and most stories are creative mixes and retelling of those plot lines. (The Greeks limited plots lines to two types—comedy, the story ends in a wedding, and tragedy, it ends in a funeral. I think you could still argue the Greek position by broadening those categories to include works that function as repudiations of the categories. But I digress. Sorry—I took too much literary criticism in college.)

In any case, I think this flash mob short film does just that. Re-imagines the story in a new way while still giving credit to its inspiration.

Or maybe, as my kids might say, “Mom, you’re overthinking it.”

Here’s the video clip. Enjoy.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Make Words Your Playground

Today, in honor of National Poetry Month,  I'm welcoming poet and author Laurel Garver (Never Gone and Muddy-Fingered Midnights) to the blog. Welcome, Laurel, and thanks so much!!

Make Words Your Playground.

I started writing poetry at ten, and it has been a life-long love for me--a way of writing that’s condensed, intense, and musical. But it’s never too late to start. Here are a few favorite tips for beginning poets.

My first, ultra-obvious piece of advice would be to READ poetry. If you’re new to the genre, there’s no need to put historical barriers in your path--start reading contemporary poets. There are loads of free e-zines with wonderful poems. Every Day Poets is a favorite of mine. They post new pieces daily that are accessible (you don’t need a PhD to understand them) and cover a variety of styles and topics. My collection Muddy-Fingered Midnights also offers diverse styles and topics.

Try a beginner’s poetry class hosted by a local writer’s group, public library, or adult education evening classes at your public school. You could also try a free online course.

Or simply read some poetry-writing books and start experimenting. Here’s a list of recommendations from a beginner poet.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me most as a poet, it would be vocabulary building. I don't mean simply picking up a thesaurus and looking for fancier ways to say things. I mean delving deep into the world of words. A poet must look not only at a word's definition, but also its connotations and connections. A poet must hear the tones and feel the textures of words.

Developing a wide and flexible vocabulary is a life-long pursuit, not something you can master in a few weeks. Most of all, it should be fun!

Here are a few journaling exercises I recommend to open your mind to words’ many possibilities.

Word clouds
Select a word and spend fifteen minutes writing down every word that pops to mind to describe it, that you associate with it, that comes from a similar setting, or has similar meanings, connotations or sounds. Here's an example:

long-eared, cottontail, velvety, fluffy, tawny, spotted, lop-eared, floppy, hop, scamper, skittish, twitchy, whiskers, nibble, hutch, hole, meadows, woodlands, thickets, briar patch, Brer Rabbit, Thumper, tree roots, Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, blackberries, MacGregor's garden, Springtime, Easter, chocolate treats, March Hare, Alice in Wonderland, Bugs Bunny, wascally wabbit, what's up doc, carrots, munching, crunching, large litters, perpetually pregnant, fertility, multiples, growth, expansion, invasion, hare, jackrabbit, habit, Babbitt, rabid, rapid, traffic.

Word studies
Select a word and delve through its many layers. Start with a basic definition. Consider what activities, settings and literature/films/music you associate with the word. What rhymes with it? What almost rhymes with it? What sounds ring loudest in the word? What do you sense(hear, feel) from those dominant sounds apart from the word’s meaning? In other words, if you didn't know what the word meant and had to guess based on how it sounds, what meaning do you hear?

Here's an example:


Definition: A stemmed cup

Associations: wine, Holy Grail, Arthurian legend, king’s tables, celebrations, banquets, church, Eucharist, weddings, toasts, drink offerings, poisoning, drinking games

Rhymes: Alice, callous, cowl-less, Dallas, malice, towel-less

Slant rhymes: ballast, foulest, Gaulish, jealous

Dominant sounds: CH, S

Sound texture: Slicing, whistling, hissing, sword swinging, wind shear

By all means, don't limit yourself to nouns in these explorations. Pick a verb or an adjective. Open the dictionary to a random page and choose a brand new term to research for its meaning and associations (Google can help there).

Let your imagination loose in the world of words, and you will never be at loss for poem ideas.

Does poetry intimidate you? How might read, study, and wordplay help you overcome your fears and set your imagination free?

Laurel Garver is a magazine editor, poet, and writer of faith-based fiction.She enjoys quirky independent films, British TV, and geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

About Muddy-Fingered Midnights
This thirty-poem collection is an eclectic mix of light and dark, playful and spiritual, lyric and narrative free verse. In an intricate dance of sound play, it explores how our perceptions shape our interactions with the world. Here child heroes emerge on playgrounds and in chicken coops, teens grapple with grief and taste first love, adults waver between isolation and engaged connection. It is a book about creative life, our capacity to wound and heal, and the unlikely places we find love, beauty, and grace.

Available now. $1.99 e-book Kindle / Nook / all other ereaders ; $6.50 paperback

Friday, April 5, 2013

Spring Cleaning

I started spring cleaning. Theoretically, it’s spring, which means I should be getting dirt under my nails and smelling like weeds and flowers. But it’s raining and raining.

So, I scrubbed the laundry room, the haven of muddy boots. I figure I’ve got 12 hours before you can’t tell that the floor’s been cleaned in months.

I oiled furniture so now the whole house smells like lemon oil.

Then, I got out the bleach. I’m a bit of a bleach fiend—my children have been known to yell, “Mom’s going crazy with the bleach again.” Yesterday, my son asked, “Did you bleach the kitchen counters?” Me (hoping he’d noticed their sparkling cleanness), “Yeah.” Son, “I thought so. I slurped milk that I spilled on the counter and now I taste bleach.” Me, “Sorry, I washed the counters with water afterwards.” Son (after spitting and rinsing his mouth), “I think my mouth is oxidizing.” Me (having no idea what that means), “Right.”

I sorted through the “computer crap,” the two boxes of weird cords and assorted disks labeled with names like Zeru. I put all the junk into a big paper bag and stuck it in the basement for a month. My thought was that if they hadn’t used something in a month, they wouldn’t need it. So I announced the eminent disposal of the computer crap that hadn’t been used in months. Talk about gnashing of teeth—you’d think I was announcing that we were getting rid of the dog.  Hands went through the bag, removing “my favorite game.” And if that weren’t bad enough, now the bag itself has been stolen and hidden. So, I’ve learned my lesson…next year, I throw things out and don’t tell anyone.

File:Woman cleaning toilets.jpg
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Autism and Black Beauty

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I try to post about autism every year on World Autism Day. Part of me really doesn’t want to write about autism. But part of me has to.

I have a sixteen year old son who’s autistic. In God’s wonderful mercy, our son has responded very well to various therapies and diet and has progressed from the pediatric neurologist’s encouragement, “Maybe he’ll learn to talk” to what our family calls, “eccentric.” But it’s been a long, long road. And I don’t always like to look back because it’s sometimes painful. But it’s marvelous too. And funny—if you don’t laugh in midst of suffering, you lose perspective.

One of the most difficult things during the first few years of Matt’s life was the lack of sleep. Matt only slept a few hours out of every 24. Sadly, many of the leftover hours were spent doing rhythmic crying.

Much of our life revolved around Matt’s sleeping. He’d be walking in the kitchen, fall asleep standing up and literally crash to the floor. Sometimes his face would smack the ground. But he was asleep. You’d think the crash would wake him, but it never did. Anything else, on the other hand, would. No one could touch him or even go in the room because if he woke up, he wouldn’t sleep again. Often not until the next day. My older kids remember me saying, “I don’t care if it’s lunchtime. No one is going into the kitchen until Matt wakes up.”

And, of course, my husband Calvin and I needed to sleep. So we’d put Matt in our bed between us (autistic kids can get into so much trouble without supervision) and turn on the VCR so Matt could watch Black Beauty—I’ve seen it 1000 times or more. He was completely fixated on the movie. And every time the fire started in the barn, Matt would wake us up. I remember Cal saying, “Matt, you know that Black Beauty is going to be okay. This is the second (or third) time you’ve watched this movie tonight. In fact, you’ve seen this movie multiple times every night for the past couple of years. I promise you, Black Beauty is not going to die in the fire.” When Matt was asleep, Cal and I would sometimes giggle and devise ways for Black Beauty to die.

But having Matt awake and watching BB was better for Cal and me than when Matt actually slept because Matt slept sideways. So the three of us would be in bed, forming the letter H. Cal and I would be huddled on the edges of the bed, trying not to fall out. We couldn’t go sleep on the couch because if we moved even a little bit, Matt would wake up. And during the winter when Matt would shove the blankets to the bottom of the bed, I’d tell myself I wasn’t cold because if I pulled the blankets up, Matt would wake up.

Thankfully, ten years later, we sleep better. Though I’ll still wake up cold and wonder why I didn’t pull up the blankets. I guess old habits are hard to break. And as for Black Beauty. Cal and I are never, ever watching that movie again.

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Monday, April 1, 2013

My Life Doesn't Need a Soundtrack

I’m a non-music person living in a house of music people. My husband and most of my children love to listen to music. Me? Not so much. When I’m cleaning the house, I listen to Pat Benatar or Aretha Franklin. But otherwise, I prefer what little quiet I can get. Maybe it’s because I’m with kids most of the day, and there’s always a buzz of noise in the background. So when the kids want to play music on the stereo, I say, “Let’s leave it off. My life doesn’t need a soundtrack.”

My family thinks that’s insane. So when I get in the car, there may be classical, country, or rock playing. Sometimes I just leave the radio on as a favor to whoever is with me in the car. Occasionally, I’ll recognize a song from the 80s, find myself humming along. And someone will say, “Uh, Mom, you do realize what that song is about, right?” And I say, “I have no idea.” My confused child says, “Don’t you understand the words?” And I say, “No. I’ve never been able to figure out music lyrics. Somehow when words and music are put together, my brain can’t suss it out.” Then, my child tells me what the words are. My face pales and I change the station.

This is why my life doesn’t need a soundtrack, I couldn’t understand it anyway.

n.b. I don’t usually post on Tuesdays, but tomorrow, April 2, is World Autism Day, I’ll be posting on our family’s experiences with autism.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.