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— SJ

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SJ Escape 2019

Or: Three Girls and Their Mom (to Say Nothing of the Frog)

Every year, I fling off the cares of the world and take myself away for a few days. I usually don’t go too far afield, although I catch a train anytime I can. Well, this year was different. This year my escape involved, trains, planes, and automobiles. I traveled hundreds of miles, saw old friends and family, and hung out with three of the four most intelligent, funny, and comfortable women I know: my mom and two sisters. (I’m the fourth.)

For my mother’s 75th birthday, my sisters and I dared to dream of something we’d never done before. We thought of taking an epic road trip together, seeing the country and having adventures, probably to some peppy music while wearing sunglasses. After we laughed about that, we got down to serious discussion. How about if I flew down to Mississippi, and then we drove to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for few days? It was a few hours away, but it’s among hills and river and far away from everyday life. Since L and R and I would be leaving behind a total of fourteen children, plus taking Mom — the usual babysitter — it depended a lot on what our husbands said.

They all said, “Sure. That’ll work.”

I left on a Friday morning. As is customary on these trips, I took along a friend. This is Felix:

He was my semi-constant companion. As in, I lost him in my suitcase half the time.

At the airport, my longtime best friend picked me up. D and I became friends in sixth grade when we discovered we liked the same boy (ah, Keith! You have no idea the lasting impact you had on our lives!). We hadn’t seen one another for about five years; I hadn’t even met her two-year-old son yet. She pulled up at the curb, I threw my suitcase into her minivan and leaped into the passenger seat. We were instantly back to our teenage years when she was the one with the car and drove us everywhere we wanted to go around town. Considering the size of the town we grew up in, that never took very long, but we did it a lot.

D bought me boiled peanuts, a Southern delicacy that I simply cannot find in Virginia.

And Felix and I met Samson the Gentle, whom the two-year-old refers to as “Big Dog.”

My visit with D was full of mundania like running errands and brushing Samson. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Note: Felix did meet the toddler as well. But Toddler and I disagreed over who actually owned Felix until I put the frog out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

It was good to be together again.

The next stage of my journey was to head to my mom’s house, where she and my sister and a niece or three were making supper for me. I slept at my other sister’s house, where even more nieces and nephews were on hand to inform me that I looked and sounded just like their mom. And early the next morning… but not too early, because we didn’t have to be anywhere at any certain time… Mom, L, R, and I set off for Tennessee.

“Rooooaad Triiiip!” we’d screech, making Mom wince. That’s why we did it.

Tennessee is simply beautiful, and we had all the time we wanted to see it. We stayed in an old-but-updated farmhouse down a very quiet lane. We ate out at Chick-Fil-A (my sisters live 45 minutes from the nearest one), a Chinese place, and surprisingly good Indian at a truck stop. We slept late, stayed up late, and talked for hours mostly about nothing in particular. Following are a few of the random moments I happened to remember to capture.

Our wanderings along back roads took us past this lookout. We loved it so much we came back to it again! Well, actually, we missed a turn and the GPS took us in a big circle back to the turn, and insisted we take it.

Here’s my mother holding a tablecloth crocheted by my grandmother.

Felix was very impressed by the tablecloth. He’s quite the handwork connoisseur, not bad for a creature with no hands.

This terrible selfie of R and me is, I think, my favorite picture I took the whole trip.

But this one is better. L doesn’t like any of her pictures, so that’s her ear.

I mean, Tennessee, wow.

R really wanted to find a creek. It’s in our blood, loving creeks. We found this one, which like Virginia creeks was mostly rocks (Mississippi creeks are mostly sand). But Tennessee creeks have a glass-green color to them that I don’t see in other places.

On the drive home, we turned off onto my old friend Rt. 11 and got lunch at this two-level cram-packed general store.

It’s 135 years old, and I’m pretty sure some of the merchandise was left over from its grand opening.

I stayed one more night “back home.” Here, Felix gets to experience a glimpse of a Mississippi creek. It’s not actually a creek, but a small tributary we always called “the Branch.” It flows past the house where I grew up, and where R now lives with her family.

And then, early the next morning, L drove me to the train station. Felix’s expression captures my feelings perfectly.

Yes, my grand escape ended with a two-day train trip back to Virginia. I had my own tiny compartment (complete with a fold-out bed, a teensy sink, and a small toilet that took a lot of courage to use). I saw a rainbow from the dining car, slept on the rails, and watched the scenery change gradually from the home I grew up in, to the home where my heart now is.

I got back home to a clean house and a family happy to see me. (Entertainingly, while we were gone, all of our children reported that “Dad is making us clean a lot.”) It was all pretty fantastic, but my sisters and Mom and I agreed that was nice to be home.

Until, you know, next year…

Sparkler is 13!

Sparkler with her new plushie, and the clay creation she made and painted.

“You’re a teenager,” Ranger pointed out yesterday.

“True,” Sparkler agreed, “but the only real change is that I don’t have to lie about my age to use online accounts now.”

Sparkler did indeed turn 13 yesterday. We weren’t home enough for me to write her annual post. She was fine with it being a day late. Sparkler has mellowed considerably since her earlier days.

She’s been a functional teenager since she was 11, mostly because she promoted herself to her older siblings’ level. She always did that, even when she was 2 and insisted on joining in all of the conversations. She still has the big emotions and love of society that earned her blog name, but at 13 that’s tempered by self-consciousness — and the fact that she’d rather keep quiet if it gives her time to think of something clever.

Sparkler is friends with everybody in the family. She pesters Bookgirl just for the reaction — and is sometimes surprised when her more reserved sister dishes it back out. At home, she spends a lot of her day socializing with Gamerboy. The two of them share memes and pictures, chat with online friends, and shout out stupid song lyrics in unison. And while the age difference is showing between her and Ranger at the moment, they still have a lot of overlap. It’s Ranger who will sit outside in the sand pit with Sparkler, creating worlds and discussing story ideas.

She carefully grieves the loss of her best friend — seven months gone and still an odd, unreal reality — putting thoughts of him at a very safe distance away. We mention him in passing, lightly, keeping his memory close but in small ways that won’t come in like a flood.

She collects pithy sayings from the internet and trots them out at opportune times. Her sense of humor covers all the ground between witty and surreal. When I mentioned that something was traditional, she yelled, “Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people!” But I’m just as likely to get a response like, “Beetroot! Ingredience!” (Yes, spelled that way. It’s a meme, apparently.) She almost always has a pencil and notebook in hand, drawing. This summer she created and painted several characters from the Kirby video games, and rumor has it that she’s writing a story although not all eyes are privileged to see it.

Yesterday, she spent her birthday evening at her first rehearsal for a stage show of Willy Wonka — her first involvement in a real drama production. She’s one of the ensemble cast, and also a squirrel. She’s wildly excited about the whole thing. Funny that DJ and I nudged her to audition, almost as if we suspected this would be her reaction.

This past year has been one of loss, achievement, growth, travel (she and Gamerboy spent several days with my family in Mississippi), and constant gathering of information and making sense of the world. She’s good company and a lot of fun. Happy birthday to Sparkler! We love you!

Annoying Assumptions

I rant about things every once in a while.

Or, you know, every once in a day.

Today, for no particular reason, I feel the need to take All of Society to task for a few assumptions that annoy me.

Exercise makes you feel good. It might make you feel good. It makes me feel like dying. And you know what I hate feeling like? Dying, that’s what. You know what makes me feel good? Writing, that’s what. How about if it was a generally-accepted “truth” that everybody should spent at least thirty minutes a day journaling, writing a letter, working on a novel, or writing a blog post? It releases endorphins! It makes you feel good! It doesn’t make you feel good? Something is wrong with you. So there.

Everybody wants to go to the beach to relax. It’s what everyone dreams of — white sand, saltwater, and hot sun! Nobody ever dreams of wading in a cold creek, the water chattering over rocks, dragonflies flitting along the shore, the sun through the trees casting glass-green shadows on the rippling surface. And nobody loves finding interesting rocks to take home; everybody prefers having to shower sand and salt off sunburned skin… seriously, people. Try a creek.

Jazz is romantic and relaxing. Jazz is like listening to a kid tell a story, in which he keeps forgetting what he was saying, and in which he feels it necessary to explain exactly how the currency system in a video game works, and you can’t hurry him through it because he gets lost in what he’s saying and then starts over. That’s the mood that jazz gets me into. Unlikely to result in activities that would produce either more kids or more jazz.

Ignoring someone when you’re reading is virtuous, but looking at your phone is anti-social. Never mind that you’re probably reading something on your phone. Or, even more possibly, socializing with someone you actually know and care about. No, if you want to avoid interacting with strangers but still want their respect, you have to be reading a book. Note: They judge you by your book cover.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I don’t like eating breakfast and I’m not fond of most traditional breakfast foods. I don’t like smoothies either. I love oatmeal and granola, but they betray me; two hours after I eat them, I become so sleepy I can hardly function.

But as much as this “truth” annoys me, just hang on. I can see my way to compromise on this one. Yes, breakfast is the most important meal of the day… assuming we define “breakfast” as “around 11 a.m.” and “meal” as “leftover beef stew.” Yummmm, I love breakfast!

But I love all or some of those things! you might be saying to me. Do you usually talk like that? It’s weird. Still, I get what you’re saying. Of course you might love eating breakfast while working out during a romantic jazz fest on the beach while reading a book to avoid strangers… wow, you live a very complicated life. But hey, it’s all fine with me. Just stop assuming I like all that too.

Misogynists R Us: Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt

It seems like a cheap shot to accuse a 1970s action thriller of misogyny. But Clive Cussler’s Pacific Vortex! takes even cheaper shots—cheap like a woman who sleeps around—so I feel I’m still on the higher moral ground here.

(For my review of the novel in general, click here.)

I don’t throw around the term “misogyny” carelessly. I don’t mean this book is misogynistic because it doesn’t feature women in major roles; it is, after all, a genre that caters to men, so it features men. I also don’t mean that some women are portrayed as silly or helpless—nearly every other character gets shown up by the incomparable Dirk Pitt. I don’t even mean that women show up just as sex objects, although that’s edging closer to the line.

When I say that Dirk (who is, of course, just a fantasy version of Cussler) is misogynistic, I mean that he honestly dislikes women as a class of people. He lusts after women who are young and beautiful and available to him. But otherwise he finds them tedious, useless, or even dangerous.

We get a hefty dose of this Dirk (which rhymes with jerk!) very early on in the novel. He’s in a bar, scanning the crowd for “a young secretary on vacation who left her sexual inhibitions back in Omaha.” Instead, he’s accosted by Adrian, a “sex machine” who makes no secret of how many men she’s slept with—Dirk included. But “no matter how relentless his attack, nor how expert his technique, he could never satisfy her.”

So what is Dirk’s opinion of this woman who behaves exactly as he does? Over the course of half a page, Dirk’s banter includes:

“At the rate you indulge your fantasies, I’m surprised you haven’t been sold for scrap by now.”

“No father wants to see his daughter dressed like a back-alley hooker.”

“A drink for the … ah, lady.”

Adrian, showing herself as a true unrepentant tramp, shrugs off his nastiness and still invites him to bed. Dirk absolutely turns her down, because a woman who behaves like this is revolting. It has nothing to do with the fact that she doesn’t find him satisfying in bed.

But in case the reader wants more—apparently those people exist—Cussler throws on another shovelful. While Adrian is trying to entice Dirk into her spider’s web, another beautiful woman appears, introduces herself as Summer, and stakes her claim to Dirk. The women indulge in catty exchanges, including:

“Your rudeness is only surpassed by your reputation as a tramp.”

[Loudly so everyone around could hear] “Fifty dollars? Considering your amateur status and less than mediocre skills, you’re vastly overpriced.”

(My siblings and I used to follow up a burn by licking a finger and “touching” the air with a hissing sound. This is about that same level of wit.)

Then Summer and Adrian excuse themselves for a private chat. All the other men gaze enviously at Dirk since two women are fighting over him. Everyone—including the book—assumes that the second woman wants Dirk for sex. Nobody entertains the possibility that she works over at the post office and needs Dirk to come pick up three letters that arrived for him last Tuesday.

And sure enough, Summer reappears shortly afterward with a busted lip and black eye, and assures Dirk that she won. Hey, stop laughing. This is quality entertainment, and it’s certainly not a hastily-updated version of Cussler’s favorite fantasy when he was sixteen.

So Dirk heads off with Summer, and it’s obvious he’s going to bed this one. She’s special — she’s affecting his heart like no other! Dirk isn’t good at anatomy, if you ask me.

Anyway, according to the rules of misogyny, if a woman is beautiful but not helpless, then she is dangerous. She lures him into a kiss, and then knees him in the groin while attempting to stick a hypodermic needle into his back. Dirk lashes out instinctively, punching her and knocking her out. (For the record, I didn’t consider this misogynistic; she attacked a stronger person and got what was coming.) She crumples onto the sand, unconscious.

And then, in what is perhaps the most incredible two paragraphs of the book—a book which features various gruesome deaths, somebody’s little finger being blown off, and has Dirk dismissing broken bones as “a couple of bent ribs”—we are treated to a loving description of Dirk’s agony in the aftermath of being hit between the legs by a woman. He can barely keep from passing out from the pain. I understand that it’s painful, but honey, really? I’m sure you’d do just fine in labor and childbirth.

Despite the excruciating pain in his very manhood, Dirk carries Summer back to his apartment. She wakes up in his bed, where Dirk—that roguish clown!—pops out this laugh-out-loud joke:

“And now that I’ve got you on home ground, I think I’ll rape you.”

When she says he wouldn’t dare, he shoots back, “How do you know I haven’t already?” But she knows he’s not that kind of pervert. She’s a lot more confident of this after talking to him for fifteen minutes than I was after being in his head for 30 pages.

The scene drags on as Dirk humiliates her further. She does end up escaping, though, by tying towels together and climbing out his bathroom window. He’s on like the 10th story, so I’m left wondering just how many knottable towels he keeps in that bathroom.

It’s typical that she escaped, because Cussler doesn’t know what to do with women when sex isn’t the topic of conversation. They aren’t people that Dirk can talk to, you know, like men. Cussler always has to find some way to get rid of them.

In a later scene, Adrian is in bed with yet another man, that tramp, when intruders burst into her house and murder her lover. She runs to Dirk’s apartment. He takes time to notice that she’s wearing nothing under her scant dress. “First things first,” he said gently. “Get in the bathroom and fix your face. Your eye makeup is halfway down your chin.” (Women just care about how they look, am I right?!) She tells Dirk what happened, at which point she’s no longer useful to the scene. Now what to do with her?

So she falls asleep on the couch. You know, as you would after you witnessed a murder and had to flee for safety. She stays asleep while bad guys burst into the room, monologue a bit, and then drug her by “unceremoniously jabbing the needle into one well-rounded buttock cheek.” She stirs a little before the drug takes effect, but never wakes up. If nothing else, I guess she’d do okay during childbirth.

Subsequent Dirk Pitt books toned down this sneering attitude toward women; twenty-first century Dirk would never say a woman should be sold for scrap. But women are never consequential to him, except how attractive they are. (Whether they’re attracted to him is a moot point. All women and most men find Dirk absolutely irresistible, just like in Cussler’s teenage fantasies about what he would be like when he was grown up.)

The fact is, all Cussler stories improve when women aren’t anywhere around. Dirk doesn’t need women. He’s got Al.

Al Giordino, created probably as an afterthought in Pacific Vortex!, brings out what best there is in Dirk. He’s funny, talks the most like a real human, and always has Dirk’s back. They are true soulmates—although of course it’s a strictly manly friendship (except for some perhaps unintended homoeroticism here and there). It’s really too bad that Cussler’s rigid code of masculinity requires Dirk to pick up women. Everybody can see he’s way better off with Al.

Even Al knows that. He never feels threatened by Dirk’s conquests. “I get the check, you get the girl. That’s how it always is.” (Oh wait, that’s what Al says in the only Dirk Pitt movie, Sahara, which I’ve seen twice and enjoyed thoroughly. Cussler hated it.)

The thing is, I don’t think Cussler was really aware of what he was writing, at least not in these early books. He’d probably admit that he exaggerated a bit, since the whole genre is exaggeration (an underwater lair, anyone?). But his treatment of women is based on a perception of reality that he didn’t seem to question: Real men are powerful and dominant, and women are either helpless or dangerous. A man who loves sex is respected, while a woman who loves sex is soiled.

I mean, Adrian is taken hostage to force her father, an Admiral, to give up his attempt to recover a lost submarine. The Admiral never even hesitates—he orders plans to continue. And all the other men look at him with grudging respect that he is that ruthless and committed. Besides, Cussler went to great pains to explain that Adrian and her father don’t have a good relationship and she’s a slut anyway.

Don’t worry, though; Dirk rescues her in the end. He also defeats the bad guy and saves Summer—the one who, you remember, literally knocked Adrian out of the competition and kneed Dirk in the balls. But she’s in love with Dirk now and is no longer dangerous, as evidenced by the fact that she is utterly useless and dependent on Dirk for the most basic decisions. Oh, and she didn’t sleep around and she adored her father with a misguided but pure love. She is worthy of Dirk.

And because Cussler had to get rid of her somehow, she dies.

It’s not like Cussler is the only writer to endorse this way of seeing the world, then or now, and it sure hasn’t hurt his sales any. It’s a caveman’s creed that’s simple and works well for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Some woman blogger might object forty years later, since these same attitudes still exist and it’s high time we stop excusing them. But she’s not even particularly beautiful, is she? She really she just needs some strong man to dump her on his bed and joke about raping her. Come on, Al. Let’s go fly a plane or shoot some guns while she sleeps it off.

Dirk Pitt’s Debut!

I recently read a story that was pretty okay. It was an action/adventure about ships that mysteriously disappeared in a certain area of the Pacific, apparently from supernatural causes; but the actual cause turned out to be both less ghostly and more fantastical. The story featured car chases, shootouts, underwater lairs, golden-eyed villains, and risky plans for escape. So yeah, although I’m not really the target audience, it was fine, it was a good 100-page story.

The only problem was that the book was actually 266 pages long, and those extra pages of Pacific Vortex! by Clive Cussler absolutely reeked.

Yes, indeed. Not only was this a Dirk Pitt adventure, it was the first Dirk Pitt adventure. Need I say more? Well, just strap yourself into your top-of-the-line helicopter and hang on. This post is just taking off.

This book was sent to me by a friend (three guesses which friend yes you’re right it was Swanson the Second). I know, I know, I could have just used it for kindling in our back yard fire pit. But the Second said it was a particularly terrible book, and I couldn’t resist the fact that it was the debut. You know, that handsome, charismatic, magnetic… but here, Clive really says it better:

“…six foot three inches, deeply suntanned man… hairy barrel chest… the arm, muscular but without the exaggerated bulges generally associated with iron pumpers… The hair was black and thick and shaggy, and it fell halfway down a forehead that merged into a hard-featured but friendly face. Dirk Pitt… stared from deep green glistening eyes…”

If you listen closely, you can hear Clive panting as he’s transcribing his character notes.

The book was published in the 80s, but probably written in the 70s. I knew Dirk wouldn’t be quite as polished as he is in later books when Cussler started getting old and his editors curbed his dirty-old-man fantasies a bit. In fact, I was pretty sure that this Dirk would be horrid. The 70s were a beautiful time for men who lusted after guns, pursued casual sex, disliked actual women, fantasized about fast cars, and dreamed of brutally killing their enemies and being hailed a hero for it. And I have to hand this to Cussler—he did not disappoint any of these expectations. He piles it on and spreads it thick, so to say.

I went through the book with pen in hand, writing comments in the margins. The fun started right from the Foreword on the first page. Cussler said that he set out to create “a hero who cut a different mold.” So even though Dirk thinks and acts just like your standard action/adventure hero, he’s not a PI or cop and his territory is the sea instead of the streets of New York. Therefore, he’s totally a whole new type of hero. And I get that. Girls accessorize Barbie dolls according to the same principle.

As I plowed through the story, I began to notice some themes among my notes. They include, but are not limited to:

Dirk Is Experter Than the Experts. Dirk can always figure out the plot before anybody else can. For instance, he studies a handwritten document and knows how to tell if it’s forged—something that the Navy’s handwriting experts had not been able to figure out after months.

Later, some kind of biologist expert exclaims that it’s impossible for a human to have yellow eyes—“The iris of the eye simply does not contain the pigments for such a hue.” But only Dirk realizes that the villain might be wearing contact lenses. Come to think of it, the Navy might want to review their hiring process; as far as I can tell, the only real requirement is that if you’re female, you have to be young and attractive.

Hip Quips. You can’t ruffle Dirk, oh no. He’s quippy.

“Thirty minutes sleep out of twenty-four isn’t good for my girlish complexion.”

“She didn’t call the police. As far as I know, the victim is still bloodying up her carpet.”

“If the choice was up to me, I’d take the old-fashioned needle in a haystack any day.”

Unfortunately, Dirk gets all his quips at Hackney’s Discount Banter Shop, and none of them are very good.

Randomly Adverbing. Cussler apparently splurged in the Adverbs section of the shop, then wasn’t exactly sure how to use everything he got. At one point, Dirk is explaining the plot to one character (because Dirk is experter) and references some unexplained events that his underwater scientist colleagues encountered. The colleague responds: “Could you give me an example?” Denver asked softly.

Okay, just stop and imagine that conversation in person. Imagine that you say, “I’ve heard of some pretty odd things happening.” The person you’re talking to suddenly drops his voice and whispers, “Can you give me an example?” Isn’t that a little creepy? Yes, yes it is. That’s how adverbs are used in this book—randomly and creepily.

Gun Porn. I know, I know. It’s the genre; the target (haha) audience wants to read a full description of a gun and its deadly capabilities. So this category mainly just amused me. My favorite line was, “Pitt pointed the gun and fanned the trigger with one gentle kiss of the finger.”

Cussler also indulges in some good old lampshading: excusing the use of a cliché by having somebody pointing it out. (“I’m sorry, Mr. Pitt. This isn’t a play where the arch-villain tells all before he does away with the hero.”). Another recurring note of mine was Dirk is Horrid, as the story highlights what it thinks is Dirk’s heroic and dashing qualities, not realizing that it just shows him up as an awful person.

The book is chock full of stilted dialogue—for instance, explaining how fog forms over the ocean with all the finesse of the World Book Encyclopedia—because somebody told Cussler once, “Don’t just tell the reader things. Use dialogue to let the characters explain it.”

Cussler and Dirk’s true colors shine through most brilliantly in the category Misogynists R Us. It turned out that I had so much to say about this theme that I wrote another whole blog post. Click here for a discussion of how Dirk can shrug off broken ribs but just about passed out when a woman hit him in the balls. I’m not making that up.

Anyway, the core story of Pacific Vortex! is interesting, even if it doesn’t exactly earn that exclamation point. It takes a decided upswing when, on page 181, Cussler decided to create Dirk’s best friend and one true soulmate, Al Giordino. The ending veers into Jules Verne (or maybe James Bond) territory and finishes with a massive underwater explosion.

And as irrefutable proof that this was a very early Dirk who had yet to reach his full potential—he flew a brand new top-of-the-line helicopter and didn’t wreck it. So cute.

I did make it through the whole book, scrawling notes the whole way.

Too bad I didn’t realize that the book is out of print; my friend the Second didn’t exactly pick it up for a dollar. My apology went something like, “I’m sorry I wrote in it but I think I improved it.” *

* He agreed the book deserved it.

Gallery of Infamy (some of my favorite horriblenesses from this book)

Because of Pitt’s decision, a young naval lieutenant was killed. He felt sad for a bit, then moved on with life and never thought of him again. But on a later dive when he detours into a shipwreck (wasting full minutes of oxygen), the sight of the sunken ship causes him a good two paragraphs of grief.

*

Dirk figures out the villain’s whole plan by the end. Most of his processing, though, takes place on an external drive and is never referenced in the internal memory storage where the reader is. That way the reader can’t guess anything before Dirk says it, thus preserving the important principle of Dirk is Experter than the Experts.

*

Dirk says at one point, “Spare me the old trite phrases about communism and imperialism. You’re nothing but an anachronism.” There is no way he could say this out loud without sounding like he’s about to break into a music-and-dance number.

*

People always have room to be more impressed by Dirk, whether it’s his knowledge, skill, or grim bravery. I noted at least four moments of “Impressed Rating Up 1 Point!”

*

People in this book have weird bodies.

One person gave Dirk an “obsolete glance.” One man has “a protruding face,” while another has a “deep-set face.” Eyes are disturbing—one woman has “Eyes so gray, they defied reality.” (How amazing can gray eyes be, really?) Later, someone shows emotion through“eyes like round chunks of ice.”

One woman with “soft, feminine breasts” (not those hard masculine ones) put her “hands around Dirk’s waist.” Either she’s got substantial (and decidedly unfeminine) hands, or Dirk has quite the hourglass figure.

Runner-up physical description:

“Pitt stared in rapt fascination at both pairs of rounded hips as they rotated in a fluidlike motion that was, or so Pitt imagined, suggestive of two beachballs caught in the same swirling whirlpool.”

And the first-place winner:

“…her waist gently tapered to a firm, flat stomach which then exploded into a brace of pneumatic hips that fought to escape the tight seams of their green prison.”

*

As the villain’s lair collapses around them, Al gets his finger blown off saving Dirk’s life. Yes, indeed, blown off “at the base.” As the beautiful woman dithers off to the side, Dirk asks Al, “Any other bones broken besides your missing pinkie?” Al assured him not, grimacing from the pain of his hand. So Dirk strips off his swimming shorts and tears them into strips to wrap Al’s hand; the sidekick quips, “I’ve heard of giving a friend the shirt off your back, but this is a new twist.” This paragraph pretty much sums up a Dirk Pitt novel.

Mundania: Quips and Quotes

Conversations in and around the Jones Home.

*

I walked into the house while talking to DJ on the phone. I nearly tripped over a rabbit running around my feet demanding snacks. “Ugh,” I said. “Bunny acts so entitled!”

“Well, you came in from outside,” DJ replied. “He thinks the Feeding Feet must have clover for him!”

“Um,” I said, dropping flowers on the carpet for the bunny to eat, “I do.”

*

At the teen writers’ group I lead, I let Sparkler use my laptop. “But be very careful with it. That thing’s got my novel in it.”

One of the other girls added, “Yeah, treat it like royalty.”

Sparkler shot back, “Oh, so you mean I should overthrow it and behead it?”

*

I would like to pause here to indulge in a minor rant. Adults tend to judge kids on how well they make eye contact and carry on a conversation. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of conversations go like this:

Kid: [opens conversation]

Adult: blah blah blah doesn’t listen to kid’s contributions just wants to talk blah blah blah

Some adults really need to be socialized better.

*

Sparkler observed the other day: “Oh yeah and Ah yes are technically the same words, but mean very different things.”

*

DJ and I got into bed and turned off the light, only to see my Kindle glowing from its charging station. I got up saying, “Oh, sorry. I put it down face up. I’ll put it up face down.”

*

I asked Ranger how far he’d gotten in the Harry Potter 4 audiobook. He said, “I just got to the Baykey.”

“The… what?”

“You know, that thing they hold onto to travel…”

“Oh, the Portkey!”

“Yeah. I knew it had to do with the ocean.”

*

Well, I thought these conversational gems were amusing. This bemused building does not seem to agree:

Bookgirl is (gasp) 18!

It’s a cliche to say that “the days are long, but the years are short,” but it’s an apt observation for today. I know it was a long time ago that they handed me that newborn baby with a smashed-sideways nose and a disgruntled expression; but it doesn’t feel quite that long ago. It’s as if the baby became a toddler, attained about age six, sailed past 10, stopped briefly at 15, and has now reached adulthood — all in about, oh, seventeen days or so.

But if our feelings on this day are cliched, Bookgirl herself certainly isn’t.

At 18, Bookgirl doesn’t care a lot about fashion, boys, school, or money. She loves books and imaginary worlds. She spends a lot of time writing, and constructs elaborate ideas that may or may not have direct bearing on the world as we know it.

She likes being alone, but she’s most content when she’s sitting among people she loves, her ever-present laptop open, and no one talks to her a lot. Conversation doesn’t come easily to her (“My brain can’t word!”), but if you want somebody who will sit in comfortable, undemanding silence with you, Bookgirl is your companion of choice.

She’s an idealist, passionately concerned about justice and accepting others. But she doesn’t naturally leap to new situations; over the years, the adults in her life have had to nudge her into trying things that look different and daunting. Whether it’s leading the 4H club as president for four years, or going through airport security by herself, she panics, freezes up — but then takes a deep breath and gives it a try.

Her great love is — possibly obviously — books. It’s what she always asks for as gifts. One of DJ’s great joys in life is the fact that Bookgirl loves many of the same books he does; he frequently arrives home from work with “this book I picked up at the library for you.” She reads lightning-fast so can get through almost anything, but she prefers fantasy stories with honorable yet snarky heroes, especially women.

(She’s also a big Marvel fan, and DJ’s movie buddy. )

To her siblings, Bookgirl is the accepting older sister who will listen to their stories and laugh at their jokes (even the bad ones). She’s not very bossy, preferring everyone to do what they’re supposed to so she doesn’t have to deal with conflict. Occasionally her quiet stubbornness will set off sparks, as her siblings insist she needs to change her mind and she won’t. But in general, her sister and brothers all enjoy being around her.

She graduated this year, but in keeping with her more cautious approach to life, she’s taking a year to figure out adulthood. While DJ and I will make sure that she’s got a plan in place for her future, I have to admit that I’m not disappointed that she’s not going anywhere right now. Life, we’ve discovered, goes by really fast when you’re in the middle of it. I’m glad for every bit that we get.

Bookgirl and her faithful companions: her laptop and Julius the Bear. Julius was actually a gift from DJ to me when we were engaged, but baby Bookgirl adopted him.
Making chicken & dumplings, as her Southern grandmother taught her, for her grandparents in Canada.

Happy birthday, Bookgirl! We love you!

The Grand Birthday Quest

We’re not much for party planning, DJ and me. Those pictures you see of elaborate decorations, spectacular cakes, and fabulous favors — those aren’t ours. Our usual birthday celebration for our kids is that they get to choose where we eat out.

But a 10th birthday is a big milestone… and it’s a little disappointing if your special day is a bit overshadowed by your older sister’s graduation. So DJ and I exerted ourselves and planned a special party for Ranger.

Obviously the best kind of party for Ranger is one where he gets to play a game. And obviously the best party game is — Dungeons & Dragons! I mean, this is common knowledge, right? Right.

But we leveled it up. Instead of inviting kids over to sit in our living room and roll dice on our carpet, we invited them to gather at the park and roll dice on the dirt. WAY better.

DJ did most of the planning, figuring out mechanics and numbers. Gamerboy and I were the guides for the two adventuring parties, leading them into adventure. We went with minimalist costuming — more of an impression than, you know, the full effect. Said impression was created by table runners, an old purse, a belt, and a curtain rod all from Goodwill.

(Note this guide’s hand. “Got ’em!” Eyeroll. Kids these days.)

We were assisted by a mysterious wizard who moved in and among the adventurers, capturing magical images of the quest. (Photos courtesy of Bookgirl.) (Cloak courtesy of my mom and sister who made it years ago; it’s a good bit older than all of the kids who have worn it for dress-up.)

We weren’t able to reserve the nearby shelter or gazebo for the morning. So we just set up in the parking lot. The guests spent most of the time of tramping around under the trees anyway.

DJ welcomed the group and explained how it would work, because apparently Live Action Roleplaying (LARPing) in the park for a birthday party is not a universal experience. Huh.

He also ran Fizbotz’s Magical Shop, for all your questing needs!

And hardly any party of ours would come off without my longtime friend who always shows up ready to help out. Her youngest son is about Ranger’s age, so obviously he was invited; but DJ was kind of basing his schedule decisions on the hope that she’d be able to hang out and help out. She was and she did.

Gamerboy and I whisked our adventuring parties off on, well, adventures. The setup was this: we’d lead the group around the park, choose a likely spot, and then pull out a little paper with a pre-planned short encounter (DJ and I each came up with several). The players would decide what action to take, roll, and see what their fate was.

The groups fought spiders, helped a king decide who would succeed him, found a fairy’s lost golden ball, and fought off a shark attack.

And spotted actual wildlife — which they left alone.

Then the adventurers returned to the marketplace, tired and hungry… only to discover that it was being guarded by a fierce green dragon. (See it? It’s in DJ’s hand. It’s… not as big as you’d expect a dragon to be. Small budget, small dragon.)

The whole party battled the dragon and ended triumphantly. They liberated the dragon’s hoard, which turned out to be pepperoni pizza, Doritos, and cupcakes with birthday candles.

The kids went home with the dice they’d chosen, some of the gold beads we used as money, a little bottle of bubble soap, a pencil that could totally be a magic wand, and a magic ring. Of course it was magic. It sparkled.

Actually, though, the “going home” part was delayed for some guests — a few of the boys begged Gamerboy to run one more encounter for them before they left. He was happy to oblige.

Here’s a collection of mementos from the Grand Birthday Quest: a “health bar” for keeping track of hit points; Fizbotz’s ruby ring of persuasion; the special dice; the, ahem, magic wand; and some of the “money” they used to buy items like the health potion.


It was, indeed, a grand birthday. Definitely one that a 10th birthday deserved. No elaborate decorations, spectacular cakes, or fabulous favors required.

And She Graduated!

Bookgirl was part of the graduation ceremony hosted by a state homeschool organization. She enjoyed it thoroughly, and so did DJ and I. And the three younger kids at least didn’t expire of boredom.

Actually, they were sitting at the very back of the room where the graduates processed in. So Gamerboy and Sparkler made sure to catch her eye and then “got” her (held their fingers in an OK symbol which, since she saw it, allowed them to punch her arm or… something… Kids these days.)

I say that the organization “hosted” the graduation because the parents and graduates met onstage, and the parents presented the diploma to their graduate. Various families accomplished the handover in various ways: hugs all around, high-fives, kisses… one young man even dabbed. Since Bookgirl deplores being the center of attention, I wasn’t going to offer to do any of that. But after we gave her the diploma, she held out both arms wide and hugged both of us at once. It was a fine moment for all of us.

One of Bookgirl’s hometown buddies graduated with her.

And her siblings were proud of her.

As this picture more accurately depicts. (Note that Sparkler “got” the camera.)

Congratulations on successfully completing high school, Bookgirl. I’m glad I have pictures because otherwise it’s very hard to believe that we’ve come to the end of this stage of life.

Ranger is 10!

Yesterday the Jones Family observed two milestones: we graduated our oldest child, and our youngest child left single digits behind.

In honor of Ranger’s 10th birthday, here are:

Ten Things Ranger Likes

(with commentary by me)

1. Color: Light blue (He looks good in summer/winter colors)

2. Food: Pasta with olive oil, salt, and Italian seasoning (Which he’s been able to cook himself since he was 8)

3. Game: Plants vs Zombies heroes (computer); Jenga; Dungeons & Dragons (or, to be honest, pretty much any game — board, card, electronic, imaginary — that he can get within a ten-foot radius of)

4. Thing to Do: Run around and pretend (usually with some mundane object repurposed as a weapon. He and his cousin apparently staged battles with socks full of rice.)

5. Book: The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy; The Phantom Tollbooth (Listen to the boy. He knows good books when we read them. We’re also working on Harry Potter 3 via audiobook.)

6. Subject in school: Botany (this isn’t one of his core subjects, by the way; it was just the book he enjoyed most in school this year)

7. Something about yourself: I like that I’m creative. (He is — especially when it comes to making up games or creating D&D scenarios)

8. Chore: Clean up the playroom (because it’s not very messy)

9. Place to go: Subway restaurant (ALSO VERY EDUCATIONAL ENRICHING AND HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT PLACES TOO I’M SURE HE JUST FORGOT TO SAY THAT PART)

10. Plans for the future: Become a YouTuber. I’d do gameplay and maybe a one-off cooking video. (Folks, welcome to the current generation)

Although not a big baby or a particularly large toddler, Ranger began growing around age 4 and as far as we can tell hasn’t stopped yet. Our newly-minted 10-year-old is taller than me and edging up on DJ. But he’s also the best-humored kid of our four, easygoing and proud of himself for being “a kind person.” He’s always had a very quiet streak of independence, sure that he can cook, handle problems, or find his way anywhere by himself. Fortunately, by age 10 he’s finally gaining the wisdom to back up this confidence.

Happy birthday, Ranger! You completed our family when you arrived, and we’re very happy to welcome you into double-digits. We love you!