Mama bears unite

Education nowadays is topsy-turvy.

I ran into a friend in a Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday after dropping off my youngest at kindergarten. She asked how I liked the teacher, and we ended up launching into a fiery discussion about the schools. Issue after issue arose, and we resolved to get more involved and have a say by going to school board meetings.

This isn’t the first time the education of my little ones has caused me to rise up in righteous indignation. Before we moved to California, we lived in a small town in the South in which there were a number of problems with the school system in town. One big problem was that of “white flight,” quite honestly. Even though the town was maybe half and half whites and blacks, with a very small sprinkling of other minorities thrown in (which included our family since my husband is Filipino), a huge percentage of the students in the system were black. Now I had no problem with that at all except that things basically had split along economic lines. Many whites and the more educated and better-off-economically blacks had moved to different neighboring towns or the county (which all had separate school systems: don’t get me started on the craziness of that: what a waste of resources), and most families left behind were poor. Again, not a problem in terms of how I viewed them, but it definitely had an impact on the system and how things ran. Before I end up having to write a lengthy discourse on all the issues, let me just cut it short here by saying there were many issues, and I started going to school board meetings and speaking up. I didn’t want to just join in the “white flight”; I wanted to see if I could stay and make things better.

Needless to say, I realized that it was a fight I simply couldn’t fight alone. We ended up moving to California, where we found a great neighborhood to live in and in which the school setup is a much better one, with small neighborhood elementaries that seem to work well. But that doesn’t mean that all is great.

First off, the economy is bad. Like THAT’S a piece of news for everyone. But it certainly has affected our schools. In California, the economy and the schools have been hit particularly hard. What once was a wonderful, thriving system is now scraping by.

I could write a whole doctoral thesis on each of the facets of the larger issue here, but let me just say a few things as I see them.

First, there is no question that the breakdown of the nuclear family has contributed to the difficulties we face in schools today. Divorced and single parents have it harder in terms of trying to parent their kids and be available for them when it comes to schools. The economy has made it incredibly challenging as well. When every parent out there is working and no one is able to stay home even part-time, it makes it difficult to have the parental support needed for great education (volunteering, fund-raising, time just spent teaching children at home casually). Collapse of family structures has led to children not being taught or modeled all the things they need to help them be secure, (somewhat) well-behaved citizens of society. What has happened is that schools (and teachers) are now expected to teach young people EVERYTHING they need to know to be good members of our society. And that is impossible. Historically, families have nurtured and taught children, and schools have simply focused on making sure they know how to read, write, do math, know history and science. Now the schools have to teach citizenship and get kids to learn to behave, when that should have been a priority at home. Again, simplifying here tremendously, but this is the Cliff’s Notes version. Suffice it to say I have heard so many stories from teachers about the issues they have to deal with and what they are expected to do to, basically, parent children. Teachers have never been paid enough for the work they do, and they certainly aren’t paid enough to parent 30 or 100 kids.

Second, I have had to conclude that the more the federal government has tried to get involved, the worse schools’ situations have become. It’s been well-intentioned, I’m sure. But as more and more laws and guidelines have been created and passed down (with badly needed federal dollars attached by a thousand strings), the more hamstrung districts, individual schools, and teachers have become. They’ll do anything to qualify for those federal monies. What infuriated me yesterday was learning that our school system had instituted a new teacher-inservice time that’s incredibly inconvenient for just about anyone (parents and teachers alike, as far as I can tell, and any parents, whether working or stay-at-home) just because having the meeting every Monday morning from 8 to 9 a.m. would allow fewer kids to arrive late to school. Yes, they’d had such problems with students arriving late that the district then could not count the students as present. And an absent child means no money that day from the government. So the district thought, “Hey, we’ll have this meeting at this precise time so kids won’t be late and we’ll get the money.” I can appreciate that in some way, but it just riles me up that 1) the district had to inconvenience everyone with this new stupid plan and 2) the district is in such dire straits and in such desperate need of every penny from the government that they’d have to do this. Again, the government should not have such power over the schools as to cause this kind of stuff to happen.

I could write pages here. But what makes me angry is that as a parent who cares deeply about my children’s education, I have had to put in a ton of time and effort to make sure that it’s a decent one and they’re getting all they need. I shouldn’t have to check up on every little thing or be mightily inconvenienced. Education should be something that I can trust in. But I have to figure out how to squeeze in yet another thing in my already heavily-loaded schedule (which, might I add, is not full because of trips to the spa; it’s loaded with things that benefit my four children, who range in age from high school junior down to kindergartener) to just be sure that crazy things aren’t going on.

Sure, there are definitely places and people who have it worse. Sure, I’m grateful that we have a free country and one in which it’s a priority to provide a free education to all citizens (and non-citizens…). I’m generally glad to participate in the process and do my part to volunteer. But my mama-bear instincts sometimes make my claws come out when I find out about all the problems that exist.

I don’t know for sure how to solve the problems. I know one solution would be to strengthen families. But that’s certainly a big one, isn’t it? Another is to get the federal government less involved in education and cut a lot of the strings tying funding to a ton of regulations. I’ve learned that No Child Left Behind has flopped. There are still tons of children being left behind. More testing of students, more teachers being judged by frankly meaningless numbers, and more oversight by big government isn’t going to fix anything. It’s just made things worse.

Yep, this mama bear is super-busy already. But now I’m going to figure out how to find some time to get even more involved. I wish it were possible for more people to do the same.

A soft spot in my heart for … houses

Last summer, my daughter’s friend moved out of the country and had a cat who unexpectedly gave birth to a litter of kittens right before they left. My softie heart bled for those poor little kittens, and I decided that we should take the mother cat and all six kittens so they could have a chance at life. We fed the mama, let her feed her babies, and cleaned up after them. A lot. We gave the kittens baths at the outset and treated them for fleas so they wouldn’t be “exsanguinated” by the nasty little bugs, as a vet friend warned could happen otherwise. We cleaned some more. We had fun with those kitties and got exasperated as well. About two and a half months later, after finding homes for a few and not succeeding with the others, I took them in to the SPCA, fairly confident that they could be adopted, healthy as they were and still cute but able to eat and use a litter box. I had done my best by them, by golly.

I’ve found myself experiencing the same tug at my heart as I drive by homes in my town, particularly old ones, that have been left by their owners or occupants, most likely all because of foreclosure. They look so forlorn, their windows boarded up, their lawns growing tall. It doesn’t take long at all for a house to look derelict. I just want to buy them, somehow, and refurbish them. I’m not a house flipper; I happen to own one rental house, only because we lived in it, moved across country, and then couldn’t sell it. But I’m not an “investor.” I don’t look at houses and see investments or dollar signs or income. I see history and lives and stories.

My early years set me up for this love of mine. My parents ended up buying or renting old homes when I was a child in Pennsylvania. I remember all the neat nooks and crannies of the houses and the land they sat on (we invariably lived out in the country somewhere). So many locations for hiding, for exploring, so many stages for my imagination to create wonderful sets on.

I wish I could find another picture of this house without it being so hidden behind trees. It was wonderful. Now it’s gone, only living in my memory and the memories of whoever else lived there and still is alive today.

I remember just looking at this house before we moved in and being in awe of its age, all the stories that somehow seemed to be hiding within its walls, bits of the plots or characters almost seeping out before my eyes. It had a wonderful hallway/landing at the top of the stairs around which clustered the bedrooms. If you walked all the way around the landing to the right, you’d be standing immediately above the downstairs entryway. And there was a door to the attic. The first room at the top of the stairs was originally a bedroom, but somewhere along the way it had been “modernized” to become a plumbed bathroom. So it was a good-sized room, with a clawfoot tub just sitting on one side and a sink and toilet deposited there as well. Ah, the space! The house was so old it either didn’t have closets, or they were tiny, so we had to use armoires. I did enjoy that house. It broke my heart when 20 years later I drove up to that area with my husband and first two daughters and tried to find the house, only to discover it had been replaced by a subdivision (shudder!). How dreadfully boring and unoriginal! I felt so sorry for the people who lived in those dull new houses and for those who would never get to explore the old homestead.

After that, we moved into the house “on the mountain,” only reachable via dirt and gravel roads which were nearly unnavigable in wintertime. Dirt roads covered with slick ice and snow that go up and up do not make for safe driving. The house itself wasn’t quite as cool as our previous house, but the whole mountain was our playground, and it was just as fun in snowy conditions as it was when all was green.

My husband grew up, however, in suburbia, in tract housing that was, frankly, boring and generic compared to what I had grown up with. Over time, I converted him to my way of thinking. We were very excited to be able to find a wonderful old place to rent for our first house as a married couple.

It was Tudor style and a solid 70 years old and had such neat touches: there was a milk-delivery slot on one side of the home. Useless to us nowadays, but cool! It was just a reminder of what the house had seen, what life had been like in its early days. It had hardwood floors and lovely built-ins and a very old but pretty wool carpet in the living/dining room area. I did love that house. It reminded me of my childhood homes and just the notion that something made of wood and plaster can feel like it’s a living, breathing thing, full of history and character.

We moved out of California back East, away from the land of layers of big-city suburbs and stucco, to small towns and wood/vinyl siding or brick. There we were able to buy our first house. It was modest in size but was older, with hardwood throughout and nice character. After eight years there, we just happened to drive by a house that had a little “for sale by owner” sign in the front. We weren’t planning on moving; hadn’t even thought about getting a different house. But I just couldn’t help but look. When I walked up the staircase and got a glimpse of the rooms upstairs, it just gave me the same feeling I’d had walking up the stairs of that old, long-gone house I lived in as a child. I couldn’t help but buy the place.

It was 100 years old when we bought it, with all kinds of wonderful touches. It had a porch all the way along the front and a barn in the back, even though it was “in town” on a main road. Everything else just grew up around it over the years, I suppose. We got in there and just rehabbed it. We painted all the rooms inside and then redid the two bathrooms, adding an antique clawfoot tub to the downstairs bath, which was large enough but somehow only had a toilet and sink (and just cried out for a clawfoot). We painted the outside eventually. We did so much to it and for it. It was beautiful, and it had such character.

But we left it behind. Now we live in a wonderful house that has some neat touches and isn’t a tract; it’s a 20-year-old custom home. It’s needed some work, too, which we’ve lovingly provided, a bit at a time. But as I drive around town and see some of the older houses here, I think, Oh, come to Momma, let me take care of you! I’ll give you the treatment you deserve.

But one can only take in so many kittens. I couldn’t possibly buy and make over all the wonderful old houses that sit so alone and desperately in need of TLC and good families to build memories and create new stories in them. Even so, the heart isn’t practical. That soft center inside my heart will always reach out to every boarded-up, uninhabited house, wanting so much to give it a new lease on life. No, I don’t get (too) excited about clearance signs in shopping malls. But my pulse accelerates at every “for sale” sign in the front of a classic home. Maybe, I think, I could just buy it and rent it out so someone else could enjoy it… 

The power of story

Over the past few years, it has really struck me just how strong the power of a story is.

But really, most of us just take for granted how surrounded we are by stories, how they can captivate us, ensnare us, direct us and shape us, without our even realizing that it’s happening.

Of course, as a dedicated reader (and editor and writer), I love to be willingly captured by a good story, whether it’s one that’s been spun completely out of someone’s imagination or one that’s based in reality and been tamed just enough to be put down in words. I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to extricate ourselves from a story once we’ve stepped inside of its boundaries. The story could be shared via any medium: books, film, television, or any other kind of art.

Have you ever noticed that even if you’re watching a movie or reading a book that’s even just mediocre, it’s challenging to walk away? (I can detach myself from a story that’s really poorly told, however.) Something in us yearns to know “the rest of the story.” It’s so against our nature to not find satisfaction in completion. We must know how the story plays out ’til its bitter end.

What’s even more entrancing is to find ourselves enmeshed in stories within stories. One recent example that had me absolutely mind-boggled was the movie “Inception.” There were so many stories layered inside of each other that I wasn’t even satisfied completely with one viewing; I had to go back and let my mind wander those strange passages several times so I could really follow the stories and how every detail fit together. I absolutely adore complexity. And surprises. (I’ve written about that already in my post on gothic tales.)

But books and movies don’t by any means hold a lock on story. Our minds always create stories for us. We lay down memories that are ordered in some kind of story format. We consciously and unconsciously create stories to make sense of information we run across. Yes, story-making is hardwired within us. Some people are just skilled at weaving the stories within them for others’ consumption, but they are not the only storytellers. I recently loaned some of my favorite books to a friend, and she very kindly extricated some wonderful quotes from the second in the set, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game. One goes like this: “Everything is a tale. … What we believe, what we know, what we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated.”

Yes, story is a powerful thing. It can be dangerous; it can be liberating; it can be instructive. It has the power to move people to action, for good or evil.

I just thank those people who have the gift to create and shape stories and share them with me. I think that’s why books are so beloved, and why even writers pay homage to other writers and to the written word itself. Books and the stories in them can transport us and change us, so much so that they come alive themselves. As Zafon also writes, “As long as there is one person left in the world who is capable of reading [books] and experiencing them, a small piece of God, or of life, will remain.” Thank goodness for that!

The magic of reading aloud to a child

I’ve been blessed with four amazing daughters, and I have to say that, despite my general unease and unpreparedness for being a mother when I first gave birth, one of the things I most looked forward to at that time was being able to read to my children. I wasn’t a big fan of newborns or even older babies; I was eager to teach and talk to little people. Over time I did get better at appreciating the fun parts of having babies around, but I still think that my favorite part of raising children is teaching them and interacting verbally. What fun!

As a reader myself, sharing books with them was a big part of that teaching and communicating. I admit, however, when I first started reading aloud to my now-16-year-old, I was not a fan of the ABC and 1-2-3 books that we had to read OVER AND OVER. And over. And over. And … well, you get it. And over. Gah! Richard Scarry, cute. But I can only count so many bunnies and watermelons up till 3 or 4 or even 10 until my head’s about to explode like a ripe melon hit by a sledgehammer. I was SO excited when she got past that stage and I could read actual stories to her. Then we went through the stage of the very short stories that we read over and over and over. Even Dr. Seuss started to get on my nerves a bit. No, Mom, no. Don’t say that!

At any rate, I toughed it out and read to my girls every night. Unfortunately, I will also admit that as the third and fourth came along, I ended up getting a little busy and just overwhelmed to read to every single one of them every single night. My youngest hasn’t had the privilege of me reading to her every night before she nods off. The best she’s had was me reading to her in the middle of the day just before naptime. Now that this littlest one is in kindergarten, I’m going to have to figure out a good time to read to her and with her regularly. ‘Cause for a while there a few years back, I really was going bed to bed and room to room at 8:00 at night and reading with one girl at a time. An hour later, I was definitely ready for bed myself. Alone time with the husband? Important, yes. Did we get much of it? Not really.

So the routine’s gotten shaken up, but I’ve still logged many very pleasurable hours reading with the girls, at various stages and differing ages. Even my oldest enjoys having me come in at night sometimes as she’s finishing up schoolwork and Facebook-chatting and all that kind of teen stuff and lie down next to her on her double bed and read aloud as she winds down and relaxes to the sound of my voice. With her, I’ve read some of A Tale of Two Cities or Huck Finn or All Quiet on the Western Front, all assignments for classes, or we’ve pulled out a few old favorites for some fun. Maybe I’ll even read to her the night before she gets married someday. It’ll be the best way to remember our time together as mother and daughter at home.

My third daughter is an absolutely voracious reader and has been wolfing down books this summer in particular. We’ve had fun with a few in particular: I read Freaky Friday, one of my favorites from when I was a pre-teen long ago, aloud to all of the girls who wanted to listen some months back, and we all laughed and chortled and chuckled together at all the funny things that happened (Boris and his beetloaf … funny stuff, man). This past month or so, this third girl and I have been reading the very charming and quotable books about the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. I am of the opinion that read-alouds are most fun when they provide many opportunities for giggling and lines to quote later as a shared experience. Daddy has no idea what we’re referring to, which is different from all of our shared family movie quotes.

I read Eragon aloud with my oldest when she was probably about 10, and it took us six months to get through. But we enjoyed it. The movie version came out not long after, and she and I joined together in great distress and disgust when the movie version was absolutely horrible. What a shame!

I admit that though I do have children of varying ages, picture books up through teen and adult books, and I do a ton of reading on my own, young adult books aren’t my specialty. I have lots of blogger friends who really know a LOT about the middle-grade and young adult genre. So I think my last point here is: what do you think qualifies as great read-aloud material for middle readers, in particular? I think that something of a modest length and with some silliness is extra handy. More “serious” material is fine as well, but the silly factor makes it lots of fun. Any ideas?

Favorite teen books, part 2

So since I wrote about my take on NPR’s top-100 young adult books, I realized I had a lot more to say on the topic. First, I felt that there were a fair number of books on the list that were just so-so and wouldn’t really stand up in 20 years or more to be “classics.” So then I thought, “Hm. So what books are missing from this list that should be on it?” And I realized, looking through all of the books I’ve kept and lugged around with me through thousands of miles of moves and lots of years, that I didn’t really have a lot to add to the list, for a few reasons. First, some of the books I remember loving and reading over and over were actually more like middle-grade books, rather than for older teens. Second, I’d like to see more Madeleine L’Engle books on the NPR list, but at least her teen books were represented with A Ring of Endless Light. (The wonderful series that starts with A Wrinkle in Time, of course, is really more aimed at middle readers.) Third, I just couldn’t find any other books I’ve read and enjoyed that weren’t on the list already or were really what I’d call classics. Yes, there have been some great books written in the past 25 years or so since I wasn’t a “young adult” myself, but I think most of what I have read more recently as an adult has gotten represented. Honestly, though, I think the list would be better if it were just a “top 50.”

So I’m going to write today just a bit about some of the books that I did absolutely adore as a younger reader, books I either kept from buying them way back when or that I bought later on to have copies of in my home library. They’ll fit into a few different categories, but I’ll just kind of lop them together in this post.


  1. Middle-grade books I adored and read and re-read: These are easy: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and A Wrinkle in Time and sequels by Madeleine L’Engle. I have no idea how many times I went back to savor these. I will say now as an adult that I have read some with my daughters, and I still enjoy them for various reasons but am not quite as captivated. I’m guessing that has to do a little with the age level. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is so complex in its world and how it is written that it can be read by middle readers but still is great for older readers, and it’s held up well for me as an adult. I don’t think that this means anything negative about the middle-grade books I loved so much back then, but they were, I think, really well-aimed at those ages, rather than being for a broader age group. But others may very well disagree with me on that opinion.
  2. On to L’Engle’s teen books: as I just mentioned, there is a definite difference in target audience between A Wrinkle in Time and the Austin family books, even though there are connections in characters who appear in the two major sets of books she’s written (about the Murrays and Austins). The characters are different ages, as are the target readers, and have different kinds of struggles and experiences because of their ages. I love how I was able to grow up with Madeleine L’Engle’s characters, moving from middle reader to teen.
  3. On teen books that were my absolutely most-read: thank you, Beverly Cleary. She, like L’Engle, wrote books for a variety of ages of young readers, and I grew up with her characters as well. I enjoyed Ramona and then went on to gobble up her teen romance stories. I really could have added in Cleary’s teen romances to the great clean romance list I contributed to and wrote about here. I read two books countless times: Fifteen and The Luckiest Girl. They are so well-worn they’re soft to the touch. My 16-year-old, who has kind of grown out of gobbling up books the past few years, still has read and re-read Fifteen almost as many times as I read it (at least 15). Some teens today might think that the stories are dated, and while it’s true they are most definitely set in a “simpler” time, they are still swoon-worthy and absolutely delightful. They’re clean, romantic and absolutely true. I wish more books today were as good as those.

And there you have it. I may revisit the topic and talk more about middle-grade books in the future, but for now this is how I view some of my old faves.

Make it permanent, make it right!

OK, I’ve already made clear how I feel about proper grammar and punctuation. I read and write book reviews and run a book-review website, and I work as a copy editor. I suppose I became a copy editor because I have always been so precise and persnickety about the proper use of punctuation and grammar. Then editing for a living has just cemented my punctiliousness and dedication to our lovely language and how it’s expressed, especially in writing.

So it is not an exaggeration to say it PAINS ME to see our language atrociously abused and misused. What gets my goat in our wired day and age is people’s inability to get even the most basic concepts correct when they communicate electronically. OK, I admit I’m forgiving when an iPhone or similar device is being used; they are notorious at messing up a comment or word that was written correctly in the first place. And quick emails or texts are forgivable as well. What I just cannot understand is when someone takes the time to craft a fun meme or e-card or something else “permanent” that is intended to be passed around the Web for public consumption. Is it not possible to make sure that “you’re” or “your” is used properly, or that a comma is put in the right place? One of the worst mistakes I’ve seen in indelible use is the poor, innocent apostrophe. It exists to do good. But it’s employed so wickedly wrongly. Outside of the Internet, I see it most often misused in those carved wooden signs outside people’s front doors: welcome, the signs say, to “the Smith’s”. (*Silent scream*) I’ve always said if I were to commission one of those signs, I would send it back to the artist for redo were that apostrophe so nefariously inserted into that simple plural of my last name.

Glancing on Pinterest this very morning, I saw a lovely graphic that proudly proclaims “Seven days of camping recipe’s!” There’s that naughty use of the poor apostrophe right at the top of my page. Further down is an inspiring saying that throws in a hapless comma: “You are always responsible for how you act, no matter how you feel. Remember, that.” (Remember, not, to, use, commas, needlessly!!!) And one simple green e-card is generous enough to illustrate my point about spelling by containing not one but TWO mistakes: “What I love most about our friendship is that it’s based soley on innapropriate conversations that no sane person should have. Ever.” Solely. Inappropriate.

I mean, really, folks. If you’re going to craft a cute meme or card, please use spell check before you hit “save” and ask a friend about your punctuation. Simple as that. I may enjoy your meme but simply WILL NOT re-pin or share it if it has mistakes. Simple as THAT.

And here is my own little meme. Share as you will.

Backtracking here … some official words about mental illness

I realized the other day that though I started this blog in part to share my experiences with mental illness, I haven’t necessarily given some good definitions of the term or the different kinds of illness that people may experience. As I have written about how I feel and continued to get feedback from friends, I realize that I haven’t made clear enough what exactly “official” mental illnesses do, and how they are different from the regular ups and downs that everyone experiences in normal life. So here goes.

From the National Alliance on Mental Illness comes this information about depression:

Unlike normal emotional experiences of sadness, loss or passing mood states, major depression is persistent and can significantly interfere with an individual’s thoughts, behavior, mood, activity and physical health. …

Depression occurs twice as frequently in women as in men, for reasons that are not fully understood. For more please visit NAMI’s section for Women and Depression. More than one-half of those who experience a single episode of depression will continue to have episodes that occur as frequently as once or even twice a year. Without treatment, the frequency of depressive illness as well as the severity of symptoms tends to increase over time. Left untreated, depression can lead to suicide.

Major depression, also known as clinical depression or unipolar depression, is only one type of depressive disorder. Other depressive disorders include dysthymia (chronic, less severe depression) and bipolar depression (the depressed phase of bipolar disorder). People who have bipolar disorder experience both depression and mania. Mania involves unusually and persistently elevated mood or irritability, elevated self-esteem and excessive energy, thoughts and talking.

Now for a definition of bipolar disorder, also from NAMI:

Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months. This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly. Cycles of high (manic) and low (depressive) moods may follow an irregular pattern that differs from the typical ups and downs experienced by most people. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can have a negative impact on a person’s life. Damaged relationships or a decline in job or school performance are potential effects, but positive outcomes are possible.

Two main features characterize people who live with bipolar disorder: intensity and oscillation (ups and downs). People living with bipolar disorder often experience two intense emotional states. These two states are known as mania and depression. A manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability and/or euphoria, along with several other symptoms during the same week such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure-seeking and increased risktaking behavior. On the other side, when an individual experiences symptoms of depression they feel extremely sad, hopeless and loss of energy. Not everyone’s symptoms are the same and the severity of mania and depression can vary.

More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Because of its irregular patterns, bipolar disorder is often hard to diagnose. Although the illness can occur at any point in life, more than one-half of all cases begin between ages 15 and 25. Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.

As I do believe I have mentioned, it seems apparent (as much as is possible with these complex brain issues) that I have a form of bipolar disorder. One doctor, who has written a fine book and puts information on a website as well, has a great explanation that is quite detailed showing what a broad “spectrum” of symptoms people can experience anywhere between the “unipolar” extreme of clinical depression and the other extreme of “bipolar I,” which includes manic episodes and full delusional mania. For a really detailed explanation, visit Dr. Phelps’ site on this particular topic. In other words, I’m somewhere in the “middle of the spectrum.”

I’d say I’m typically a fairly “normal” person. When I’m feeling pretty normal, I manage to weather ups and downs of life with maybe a little complaining and some irritability. I think most people understand what THAT’s like! But when I’m pushed outside of those “normal” chemical boundaries, then I find it either impossible or much more challenging to weather the regular ups and downs with my regular coping tools. I am on medication that makes it much easier for me to stay in the “normal” frame of mind most of the time. But even so, medication doesn’t put me in that “normal” place 100% of the time. I still end up in an extreme irritable state or depressive place every so often.

One point I’d like to make clear is this: as Dr. Phelps says:

Depression is Not a Moral Weakness.

It Has a Biological Basis. 

He shows there are real proofs to back up this statement.

A view of the hippocampus from

The other point to make clear is this: doing the normal things that “normal” people do who are facing some sadness or frustration won’t kick someone who has a brain chemistry problem back into healthy chemistry and normal ways of seeing things. Trying to put a smile on your face or just counting your blessings or looking at all the positives won’t do the trick entirely. I’m not saying they’re not worthwhile, but if someone has gotten into clinical depression, those “tips” won’t fix it.

That’s why I am writing about this topic. I’d like more people to understand what it feels like, what it means, to grapple with a mental illness. If you haven’t grappled with it yourself, it’s hard to grasp what it’s like. So I hope that by writing here, I can bring more understanding to those of you who know me or someone else who does have a chemical/biological issue. I’d like to feel that when I say I’m getting depressed, I’m not just complaining about how life is a little extra hard. I’m actually saying I’m struggling and I need support. I’m asking for help. (And honestly, I don’t do that very often, I think. I like to go out and help other people, but I hate feeling “weak.”) And I think this is what many others in my situation are trying to express as well. I don’t want to be seen as a whiny complainer who needs to just buck up and get a stiff upper lip and understand that life can be hard. I just want to be understood a bit more as someone who has a particular biological problem that sometimes makes life a little more challenging to deal with than usual.

I don’t know how successful I’ll be. I just hope that I can reach a few people. If I do, I suppose that’ll be success. Thanks for trying to learn more and understand!

Too depressed to think of a name for this post

Sometimes the depression end of the mental illness that I get to enjoy hits me like a nice thick fog with claws. I can hear it coming but still can’t quite escape its nasty grip. It grabs on and envelops me, surrounding me in a dark cloud no matter which way I try to turn. But pretty soon I don’t try to turn any way anymore.

This ugly depression erases companionship out of my life and surrounds me with a dark cloud, and, to add insult to injury, it zaps me of the motivation to make a nicer-looking illustration with Photoshop.

It’s sadness and frustration and hopelessness all rolled into one entity. It’s wishing all that feels wrong could just wink out of existence, that somehow I could wave a magic wand and have everything better. On extreme times, it’s wishing I could wink out of existence. The cloud allows me to see out, and I know others can see in just fine, but they can’t tell that anything’s happening. It somehow eerily makes others blind to my inward suffering. I end up feeling alone, isolated, and misunderstood.

I want to scream and cry sometimes. I want to talk it out. But talking doesn’t help because there are no solutions, and the people around me have nothing to say that can change the stark reality of the dreary fog. I want someone to have answers. I so desperately want that. I want someone to fix it. When I’m pushed into the depression it’s usually because circumstances in my life have become a bit too much for me to be able to handle anymore. This time around, it’s all the things I wrote about earlier in the week. It’s not having any time to myself to think or write or just care for my inner self for the whole summer. It’s having huge expenses and a bunch of seemingly nonstop little ones drain my bank account this year and make me nervous about spending any little sum, so I don’t even want to take all of my kids to see a full-price movie for a nice change of pace (even at matinee prices, it would cost almost 40 bucks for the five of us to see “Brave.” I mean, come ON!). It’s this darn broken foot. It’s the frustration of having no control over almost anything in my life lately. So many things have conspired to drain me of my resolve and my strength, and now I am down to the level of near-hopelessness.

Oh, I wish a miracle would happen. I wish my blog and website could be wildly successful. I wish I could get some time and inspiration to write the book I’ve been planning and researching for months now: and to feel that it’s even possible to get it published if I do manage to get that mythical time and inspiration together. I wish that I could find the motivation in myself to lose some weight. But with a broken foot, the exercise part of the equation is more than challenging: the recumbent bike sessions I’ve been doing this week aren’t going to cut it.

I wish that I could feel comfortable enough with more people to really say how I feel, but I don’t trust many people to do so. I’m pretty much afraid of how people will respond. My husband at least has learned over the years to stop saying anything that I could remotely construe as platitudes (because those make me go from 0 to 60 in angry miles almost instantaneously), but now he just says nothing. That’s only a slight improvement on the cliches and pep talks; I just wish he could say something that would really comfort me or encourage me. I wish I could find it in me not to feel at all resentful that he can’t do this for me, because it’s really not his fault. Very few people are very good at dealing with someone who’s laboring under the fog of depression and that utter hopelessness. That’s what’s so frustrating: it isolates so quickly and easily. No one knows how to respond. I know. I get that. But it still makes me feel alone, and angry, and doubly sad. I am deathly afraid of people’s judgment, of their fear, of the possibility that they’ll think I’m weak or that I am just a complainer. (I usually feel fairly strong. That’s the problem: I’m too strong. So even when I feel weak and hopeless, everyone else still thinks I’m fine and just leaves me alone.)

I’m afraid. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m actually just overflowing with “sick-and-tired”-ness. I’m at wit’s end. I’m utterly sick, sick, sick of feeling like this on a somewhat regular basis, of feeling that life has me cornered, that I have no control over my own destiny, that I’m Sisyphus pushing, pushing, pushing on that rock. I’m SICK of looking at that rock.

That’s the thing: I’m not the type of person who expects to have anything handed to me on a silver platter. I don’t think the world owes me a living. It’s the opposite, really. I work hard all the time to take care of myself and my kids and my husband. I work hard in volunteer roles to help other people. My heart goes out to everyone else I hear about who’s in need in any way and I wish I could help. I am always doing something that’s practical in some way. But when I get into this down mode, I wish that all of my efforts would finally bear fruit, that the rock on the hill I constantly am climbing would just sprout some legs already and MOVE, dammit. My arms are tired.

Again, I guess that’s why I’m writing this blog. I want to put into words what I experience, in the small hope that what I say can be of help to someone else out there climbing their own hill, pushing on their own insurmountable, immovable rock. Man, I wish I could just pick up your rock for you and toss it away, let it crumble into a million pieces as it rolls down and hits the valley floor. I wish you could do the same for my rock. And I wish that I could help everyone out there feel more comfortable talking to someone in my position right now, make you feel able to say something encouraging, able to sit it out and not run away cringing. I want to feel less alone. I want others like me to feel less alone.

It might be another thing that’s impossible, but like all the other goals in my life that seem impossible right now, I just have the tiniest hope that they might, might, MIGHT be possible, in some other universe in which I am happy and capable again.

More of my top picks: best gothic tales

There are probably some differing opinions out there on what exactly “gothic literature” entails. For my purposes, I’m just going to say it’s fiction that has a setting that’s at least in part dark and possibly supernatural (or just hints at it or seems like it), is infused with a sense of foreboding, and has a mystery or secret that is revealed by the end. I am a big fan of the surprise twist, and I LOVE to be caught off-guard at the end, completely unable to guess the twist. If I can guess, the book just isn’t fun for me.

So I have found myself to be enamored by really well-spun gothic stories. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise to me now, considering how much I devoured all of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales when I was a teen. Now, though, I enjoy stories that are a bit less macabre and more about the very well-kept secret. When these secrets are deeply buried in an old noble family somewhere in England living in a crumbling-down mansion, all the better.

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite gothic novels.

  • Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier. I read this classic book sometime in my late teens, I think, and it got me hooked on the twist.
  • The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. A friend handed this to me to read, and I feel eternally indebted to her. What an amazing story! I don’t know if Setterfield will ever write another book, but if she doesn’t, that will be fine because this is a masterpiece of gothic literature. A mysterious, reclusive writer with a strange past finally decides to tell the truth about her life, and it is full of some shocking twists. Weird old family in old house? Check. Buried secrets? Check, check, check. It just doesn’t get better than this.
  • The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I came across this a few years after reading The Thirteenth Tale, and I found this was probably came in right behind that in pure awe and satisfaction. Another masterpiece. Zafón has written two novels in a series after this, continuing and enlarging upon the story and the setting, and they’ve been pretty good, but honestly not the triumph that the first was. Again, the setting is the past, and the story is permeated with mystery hanging over it like a mist. The twist is great, I loved how it all came together, and the writing is superb.
  • The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton. Morton has now written a number of really fine gothic stories, all set in England in old estates, with buried family secrets. The first, The House at Riverton, was a good example, but her second really nailed it. I am glad that she’s managed to keep writing. I don’t think any of her books is quite as amazing as Diane Setterfield’s one great story, but they’re all quite good, and I am just grateful she’s providing more stories for me to relish.
  • The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Since this story is about Dracula, this could almost be considered a horror tale, but it really has more elements of what I consider gothic. That infamous vampire rarely appears in the book, and the story revolves around some historians who are trying to hunt him down in the mostly present day. The story takes readers on a wonderful and intense journey around the globe, into rooms filled with old books and documents, slowly revealing information and ending in a satisfying manner. I savored the journey and was sad when it was over. I was also sad when Kostova wrote another book and it wasn’t at all what I had hoped in tone or story (and THAT is probably why Diane Setterfield has turned Harper Lee on us).

What do you think? What other great gothic tales (my definition) am I missing?

Best young adult novels?

So NPR just released the results of a poll it conducted asking people to nominate and then vote on finalists in the category of teen novels. I did see the poll soon enough to vote on the finalists. I found that I was a little surprised at some of the books that were nominated enough to make it to a finalists list of 235 titles. There were some fun books on there, but quite a few weren’t ones I would consider truly excellent or memorable. I do think that this final 100 is fairly good and mostly reflects books that will stand the test of time.

Some of my favorites on the top 100 are these:

  • Harry Potter. No question. These books were popular for a very good reason. Not only was the whole series complex, detailed and full of wonderful twists and turns, but it had great characters, an unforgettable world to visit and revisit, and cleverness and wit galore.
  • The Book Thief. Yes, it got a lot of attention and word-of-mouth when it was published a few years back, and rightly so. Many books have been written about the Holocaust, but this was one that was relatable for teen readers as well as adults and was beautifully rendered, powerfully affecting and vividly evocative.
  • The Giver series. I suppose that this was almost an early entry in the now-burgeoning sub-category of dystopian novels. But each of the novels in the series got my attention and made me think about the cost of “equality” and “perfection.”

  • His Dark Materials series. When I finished the first book in this series, I was kind of scratching my head and not sure if I wanted to continue. But I’m so glad I forged on. The series was just so imaginative and deeply thought-provoking I wished I could just continue to experience it. And that is the hallmark of a great book: it creates a land you simply don’t want to leave.
  • The Dark Is Rising sequence. A never-to-be-forgotten school librarian introduced me to these books when I was only nine years old. I will forever be grateful. Even on multiple readings as an adult, I am still in awe at how well-written these books are and how complex. This is one of the best epics of good versus evil, light versus dark, EVER. Magic, Arthur and Merlin, the old hills in Wales … it’s all steeped in British legend.
  • Flowers for Algernon. Love, love, love this book. It can make me cry every time, too. What a lovely story about intelligence and humanity and gaining new skills and a new life and then losing them.

  • The Mortal Instruments and the Infernal Devices series. I absolutely adore these books by Cassandra Clare. When I found the first set a few years ago, I devoured them in no time flat. The story is good, but the characters and their dialogue and interactions are the best part. I loved how Clare could make me laugh out loud, and the romance between the two main characters is truly sizzling.
  • Anna and the French Kiss. I don’t know how much this completely compares to the others on my list here for utter staying power and memorability in, say, 20 years from now, but it absolutely delighted me. It’s a very fun teen romance.
  • If I Stay. Wow, what a great book. I loved the absolute real-ness of the whole story and its ability to make me root for the characters. The main character has such a beautiful relationship with her family members. I loved that the family unit was intact and that the parents and children loved each other so much. But at the same time, the main character has to decide if she should go with them or stay with her life and her boyfriend, who is a fine young man.
  • Feed. I really didn’t like the HUGE amount of strong language in this book. For me, it was really distracting. But the story is a really fine tale to get teens thinking, no question, about the amount of electronic interaction they have in their worlds. How far will we go as we allow electronics to become literally embedded in our lives?
  • The Hunger Games series. Yes, these are almost so ridiculously popular right now it seems silly to comment on them. But they are good books, and no doubt will become new classics.
  • A Ring of Endless Light. I read all of the Madeleine L’Engle books I could get my hands on when I was a teen. I will have to write about L’Engle in another post sometime. I just feel bad she didn’t get better represented on this list. She was amazing.
  • The Goose Girl. OK, I haven’t read this one. I must change that. I have read about five other Shannon Hale books, and I think she is an amazingly talented writer. She writes with a beautiful, lyrical style in the “serious” books, and she’s just got a great sense of humor in her lighter ones.

A few I thought were good but I don’t think will necessarily stand out from the crowd given a few years:

  • Divergent series. I did enjoy the first book, but I haven’t even felt compelled to read the second one yet. I may or may not get around to it.
  • Vampire Academy? Bloodlines? Wha? I don’t think so. I only think it’s on here because it and a bunch of other similar books are riding the popularity coattails of Twilight. If I’m wrong, please tell me I must read these and why. Same goes for House of Night series. Coattails.
  • Sarah Dessen books Just Listen, Along for the Ride, and The Truth About Forever AND This Lullaby. Wow. Four whole books. Eh. I enjoyed reading Along for the Ride, and I wrote that it was good, but apparently it wasn’t great enough for me to want to rush out and read more, and now I barely remember it.

And then there are a few others that are kind of in the middle for me. I did enjoy the Shiver series by Maggie Stiefvater, but I don’t know if I’d call it among the 100 best. Hm. Same goes for Delirium. I admit I eagerly await the third book after finishing the second installment, but we’ll have to wait and see if it should also be among the top 100. I would probably put Uglies as a single book in the top 100 for sure, but as much as I really liked that book, I liked the series less and less as it went along. I just didn’t like the direction it ended up taking. I also read Before I Fall and Unwind, which were thought-provoking in their own ways, but I don’t know if they’d get top billing. At the same time, though, I haven’t read any other Neal Shusterman, but I hear he is quite good, so he does probably merit a spot in the top list. As for the Gemma Doyle trilogy, I read the first book and was only mildly interested. Never read the rest.

I may very well need to make this into a series of reflections and think about some books I’d add onto the list if it were mine. But that is going to be for another post and another day.