Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Most Disturbing Family Picture Ever

First of all, I do not know that this is actually a family picture. I rather hope not. But when one is perusing an old box of random pictures of one's family through the ages and one comes across this loose, unidentified gem, it gives one (okay, enough with this "one" stuff, let's just say me) pause:

I mean, seriously. What. The. Heck.

Foreground: Innocent baby on a blanket. Birds chirping. Peaceful winds blowing. 

Immediate background: A maniacally ruthless, hungry, mouth-frothing, possibly bedeviled or otherwise malevolently empowered likely undead alligator looking at said infant. 

Babies are some of my favorite things. I was once one myself, actually, and my little sister (also once an infant) is having her own this year, a much-anticipated event here in Jennybeeland. 

Alligators, though, are something else entirely. In my subconscious, they are the embodiment of all evil, dread, threat, and general badness. When I have nightmares, I almost always find an alligator (or crocodile, same difference when their big snapping jaws and infamous death rolls are upon you in your sleep) in there somewhere. Sometimes the nightmare has an actual alligator, sometimes it's a sign with something about an alligator, sometimes it something as simple as Dream Me realizing the shoes I'm wearing are alligator skin just before everything starts going wrong. They're insidious, I tell you. Creepy, creepy, creepy. 

At any rate, alligators are not on my friends list. So, to find this picture inexplicably mixed in with the photos of my ninth-grade piano recital and my family riding carousel horses at Libertyland and my once-toddler brother gnawing on a remote control was a little startling. 

I suppose I should ask my parents for an explanation. Maybe there's glass in front of the child? Maybe it's a stuffed alligator at a natural science museum? Maybe it's the sacrificial first child that came before me? (I haven't read the entire United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, so no telling what's actually in there.) 

Any theories? Explanations? I'm a little afraid to ask. 

Today I Went A-Tutoring

A few weeks ago, I was writing a bunch of profiles of women in the community for a special advertising section--Today's Woman--in the Times Record, the local newspaper. I wrote six profiles, but my favorite was of a woman who directs the county Juvenile Detention Center here, an ex-police officer. I didn't know what to expect, but I ended up being bowled over by how much good she and her team were doing for these kids, kids who society usually just gives up on. She realized that having these delinquents in juvie for several weeks or months was a golden opportunity to turn their punishment time into a time for growth, change and empowerment. I won't go into all of the creative ways she has managed to involve the community in becoming catalysts for their rehabilitation, but there were plenty and the state Department of Education had named the school there the best non-traditional classroom in the state. 

As soon as I got home from the interview, I went home and gathered up three bags of books to donate because she had mentioned how spare their library was and how the kids gobble down anything they have to read, since they have few other diversions outside of the classroom. Then when the director called to thank me for the article yesterday, I decided to mention that I'd be happy to volunteer there sometime. A few hours later, one of the teachers called me about tutoring some of the girls. By the end of the phone call, I had committed to coming in this morning to work on 10th- and 11th-grade math skills with two girls studying for their GED. 

Now, first of all, I've never worked with incarcerated people before, and second, it's been at least 15 years, really longer, since I did much in the way of math, which was always my weakest subject. I was a bit wary this morning, but eager to see if I could help. 

It's kind of intimidating down there. Before I did the interview and got the tour, I didn't quite realize that the kids would be in prison stripes, live in cells in a genuine jail and when going to and from court or anywhere else they may be taken, wear handcuffs and leg irons. I guess juvie's always so dismissively mentioned in those crime shows that I didn't realize just how much it really is prison. 

The kids adapt to their environment, though, and for many it's an extreme improvement over their home life, cell blocks and armed guards and all. The girls I worked with today seemed like just normal 17 girls in prison garb, concerned that they weren't grasping the math skills they needed for their GEDs and trying hard to learn. 

We worked through a few pages of their GED math workbook, mainly on fractions, which thankfully I still mostly remembered. A couple of times I kind of faltered when they'd ask me questions ("Do we need to multiply the bigger denominator or divide the smaller one to get the common denominator in this first step?"), but we managed to muddle through, and when in doubt, I let them each try a different method on their own to see which one would work. By the end, I think we all understood fraction problem-solving better. 

I was going to commit to maybe an hour every Tuesday, but one of my girls has a GED pre-test Thursday afternoon and still has trouble with a lot of sections, so I told her I'd come back tomorrow and help her with geometry. 

Now, all I remember about geometry is that I was good at it and I like the colored pencils and a couple of random Pythagorean theorem type things. So, I'm going to go buy a GED math book this afternoon and brush up on my skills to help them tomorrow. 

It feels good to be able to help someone so directly. It's gratifying. And, actually, it's great practice for me because I've been trying to study for the GRE and was astounded at how rusty my basic math skills had gotten. I think teaching a concept to someone else is one of the best ways to make sure you really understand it yourself, so I had the girls go over the lessons they had just learned by teaching it to each other. 

Towards the end, when I was about to leave, one of them said she was worried because she still had so much to learn and said she tended to forget what she had learned after she went to sleep. The other girl told her, "Don't worry. I'm here all day every day for the next seven weeks, and I'm always happy to help you if you'll help me. I'm not going anywhere. We can beat that GED together." 

I never thought I would have so much fun working out math problems in a correctional facility. Life sure is something. 

Monday, October 27, 2008

Habit of the Month: Clean Bathroom

It's been too long since I've posted anything; regular posting is a habit I'll have to develop. It's not the only one.

I tend to be a wee bit self-critical. OK, not a wee bit. Better stated, there's a wee bit of the time I'm not self-critical. Lately, I've been feeling even more so, especially as the economy slumps, our savings trickles away and the number of job postings (to which I've been applying unsuccessfully for years) dwindles more by the week. I've been basically hanging out at the house in my jammies living online in a kind of haze of politics and news and movies and DVD.

But now it's fall. I can tell, because I'm watching two squirrels scamper amidst the falling orange oak leaves in my yard right now and everyone has mums and pumpkins on their front porches to show how festive and stable they are and because I'm beginning to need a sweater or a coat when I go out at night or in the early morning.

That's a good thing. I love fall. Autumn is my favorite of the seasons, with spring a close second. It has a sense of purposefulness about it and yet a letting go of all the concerns of summer. The world is a different color, overnight. It's a new start.

And so, I've decided to embark on a gradual self-improvement plan. Discipline has always been a weakness of mine (see the rambly and unfinished reading list of a couple of posts ago, exhibit a), but I think it's correctible.

I've read somewhere different stats on how often or long you have to repeat something before it becomes a habit. The lower estimates are something like seven times (for the highly disciplined, I assume) and 51 times for the utterly unfocused or more difficult tasks. I figured I'd assign myself a habit a month, one thing that I want to do more consistently. It's something of an experiment, but I don't see how it could hurt.

Last week I cleaned my bathroom. We only have one and it's small and has only small amounts of storage, so it gets dirty and/or cluttered quick. Plus, my cat likes to go in there and hunt for the ants that randomly show up every eight weeks or so, and the dog likes to chase the cat out of the bathroom because either he doesn't think he should be there or he's worried Ashes may be walking into a bath-trap, so we end up getting more pet fur in the corners and crevices than Martha Stewart recommends.

It had gotten worse than usual, so I gave the bathroom the works: Pinesol, Swiffering (wet and dry), washing the window and mirrors, scrubbing and Tilexing the tub, cleaning the toilet, getting the Q-tip into the icky parts you can't really see behind the faucet, everything I could think of. It was a lot of work, sorely needed, but it looks great. Plus, the whole house smelled like cleaning products for about 48 hours, a rarity here.

"Can we just hang out in here tonight?" Ben said, taking it all in when he got home that day.

This past week, I've made a point to keep the counters clean, pick up my towels and clothes, put the meds back in the cabinet, rinse out the sink, all those things. So a week later, it still looks nice.

This, for me, is revolutionary.

"I could make this a habit!" I actually said to myself aloud in the bathroom. And thus, an idea was born. I usually try to improve too many things at once (I'll diet! I'll exercise! I'll organize my socks! I'll bake fresh bread every week! I'll cut back on TV! I'll stop embezzling millions!) and of course, they all end up flopping in on each other. This time, baby steps. One good habit a month. With the hope I can build on the previous success, rather than just being good at one thing at a time.

So while the rest of the house is still a cluttered den of somewhat interesting things mixed with junk mail and magazines, the bathroom--the place, other than the kitchen, it's arguably most important to have clean--is a haven of cleanliness, order and serenity. Sure, the wallpaper the landlord picked out is all kinds of awful and the storage is still an issue, and the map of the world shower curtain is getting pretty old, but it's clean. And it's staying that way, for at least the next 30 days.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My Itty Bitty Baby Brother

Today, you'll be happy to know, is my 24th anniversary. No, not of being married to Ben (that's three years next month), but of having another fella in my life, my itty bitty baby brother Michael. Yes, 24 years ago, I was sitting in Mrs. Parkinson's class in the middle of a spelling test with a couple dozen other sixth graders when the school secretary's voice came over the loudspeaker to our classroom. 

"Mrs. Parkinson, is Jennifer Armstrong in your class right now?"
"Yes, she is."
"Please inform her that she now has a baby brother and to come to the office to find out all about him."

That's how I heard about my brother. I had a two-year-old sister already, so she was old news. This was something else, though, especially since my whole class squealed with glee (I think they just liked the interruption in the spelling test) and congratulated me. I think there was clapping. At any rate, I was a celebrity. I had both a new brother and a hall pass.

Mrs. Parkinson made me wait until after the test--I was bouncing in my seat, ready to pop--before I could excitedly fast-walk my way to the office to find out more. The secretary happily told me that my mom and my new brother Michael David were fine (my sister had been an intensive-care case, so this was actually something of a relief to me), that he was born at 2:03 p.m. , that he weighed something liek 8 pounds, 3 ounces and that I was to go home with some friends and Daddy would pick me up later. 

I think I actually skipped back to the classroom. I'm glad he was born late afternoon because the rest of the day was a blur. I'd never had a brother before. I wasn't sure what to expect. I met him the next day. It was neat. 

Here's me with my new brother:

I couldn't have known. Being a big sister to Michael has been one of the great joys of my life, even when I was a cranky teenager who didn't want to babysit or a self-absorbed college student or a thirtysomething who lives too far away to see him very often. He's far from done yet, but so far, and despite my best efforts (convincing him that a ghost lived down the drain, reading him bedtime stories about gangrene from a medical book I found, that sort of thing), he's turned out great.

My little brother is smarter and better looking than he likes to admit, hard-working, amiable and uncomplaining, funny as heck, one of the most relentlessly imaginative people I know and probably the single kindest person I've ever met. 

He's completely deserving of a roomful of sixth-grader cheers, then and every year. Whether he deserves to have to put up with a bothersome big sister like me is a much tougher question. 


Look, if he only had a birthday every three years, it would be the 8th anniversary of this picture:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Just What the Doctor Ordered

After a couple of weeks of almost non-stop work and deadlines and all kinds of harriedness, Ben and I got to enjoy a wonderful, lazy weekend with absolutely nothing on the agenda.

It was great. 

We did a little shopping and scoping out the big new shopping center in Fort Smith--complete with our city's first-ever and much-anticipated (going on about 10 years now) Target store and highly improved spaces for Books-a-Million, Best Buy and some others. Watched a couple of movies at home (a Dutch WWII Jewish drama called Black Book that came out last year and a documentary, Up the Yangtze, about the personal consequences to the Chinese farmers affected by the flooding of their homes by the Three Gorges Dam project--which was better than it probably sounds), spent several hours reading books at a cafe (including some of those listed in the previous posting), took Marlowe the Wonderdog to the huge dog park here, and just hung out at home doing this and that and enjoying each other's company. No social engagements, though we ran into a few people around town. It was utterly low-key, unstructured, and wonderful. At last, a weekend that felt like a weekend! 

Plus, to make it all better--on Friday I finally bought new pillows for the bed. Nothing fancy, just the best quality pillows K-mart carried. Wow, what a difference that has made! Normally, I build what Ben calls Fort Jenny out of many carefully arranged pillows, which must then all be rearranged in my sleep and restructured any time I turn over (and I'm a turner, practically on a slow rotisserie) during the night. Since getting the new pillows, I've needed only one tiny pillow for my legs and the new one, and I've been sleeping like a log. If logs sleep. Anyway, soundly. A good night's sleep, like a good, lazy weekend, cannot be underestimated. Yay for new pillows! 

Now, off to savor them again...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Book Me.

As I wrote before, I was always quite a reader. Still am, and I read at least a little bit (bookwise) most days. The problem I have is that I am an incredibly undisciplined reader. If a book catches my imagination in that way the right book at the right time, I'll plow right through it in a matter of hours, barely stopping for food or bathroom breaks, often staying up all night if that's what it takes to get to the last page.

Otherwise, though, I'm a bit of a scattershot, with at least a dozen books at any time that I am in some stage of reading. I pick them up as the mood strikes, put them aside when one of the aforementioned types strikes page-turning gold, and return to them or not as they catch my attention. I do finish many books, but I have to admit to starting many more before leaving them to fend for themselves. When someone asks me what I'm reading, I'm likely to give a deer in headlights look as I try to recall exactly what books I've been picking at most recently. 

We have several large bookcases in our home, filled to capacity and starting to spill over onto the surrounding floor. Besides these, though, my main book repository is my nightstand and the few feet of wall next to it. Ben and I bought new nightstands a couple of years ago specifically because they were for readers--dark wood with several levels of horizontal shelves perfect for reading materials, from novels to newspapers. Although it looked like a lovely organizational, simplifying kind of piece at the time, both of ours are of course completely cluttered. Mine, hidden away in the corner, is the worst. 

Sometime back I happened across a little book by author Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, A Long Way Down), who had a similar problem as I have in that he was always buying more books than he was reading each month. I do that. Bad. But Hornby's idea was to write a chronicle of his book-reading for a year, with lists of what he'd bought, what he'd read, and what he thought of those books. Of course, being me, I didn't actually finish his book--reading about somebody else's endless pile of reading while ignoring your own has some inherent flaws, I think--but I do think of it from time to time. 

Besides any reading we do during the day, Ben and I often read for a time before going to sleep. It usually takes me a couple of minutes at least to choose what book is next as I peruse my growing Mount To Be Read in my nightstand. Sometimes as I look through the piles, I find books I didn't even remember abandoning months before. 

So here, just because, is a list of what I'm currently "reading" or at least that I keep meaning to read. From my nightstand (not counting the many unread books still in my bookcases):
  1. In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson--I always enjoy Bryson's books and usually speed through them. This one, though I actually like immensely, I've been reading off and on since May. Lately, I've been reading a few pages a night, determined to finish the dang thing. 
  2. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson--In exchange for reading a book of mine I recommended (A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier), Ben gave me this one of his to read. So far it's kind of a high-octane humorous sci-fi romp, pretty different from my typical fare, but good. It does funny things to my brain.
  3. The Sandman; the Doll's House by Neil Gaiman--After years of hearing that I'd love the Sandman graphic novels about the king of Dreams, I received in the mail the first three in the series from an online pal I've never met who wanted to share their goodness with me. The first one, though supposedly before Gaiman hit his stride, was great. I loved it, but made myself finish a couple of other books before going ahead with the second installment. I'm a couple of pages into it now. That online friend is quite the mensch, I gotta say.
  4. Death and Nightengales by Eugene McCabe--I haven't opened this one since I bought it in the bargain bin at Hastings a while back. It's supposed to be good, but I've read too many Irish books lately, so it's on hold. 
  5. Breakfast at the Victory by James P. Carse--Another one Ben recommended. It's a nonfiction, anecdotal philosophy sort of book about the mystical that can be found in the ordinary, so I supposed it fits right in with the title of this blog. 
  6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte--one of my all-time favorites. I've read it so many times, I can just open in the middle at random and read a few pages here and there. I read it in its entirety every couple of years or so.
  7. Several New Yorkers--The problem with having a New Yorker subscription is that it comes every week and there's always more I want to read than time to read it. I get through what I can and hoard the rest for a future date.
  8. Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe--Ben recommended this book of short stories. I've read a couple. They're pretty good.
  9. High Profile by Robert B. Parker--My mother-in-law is a big Parker mystery fan and sent this one over, but I haven't been able to get into it. His dialogue is so terse. I may give it another try, though.
  10. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link--This is not actually a magic book, but a collection of short stories. I read the first story in the library one day (about a tiny kingdom in a magic purse) and loved her whimsy and writing so much, I immediately went out and bought a copy. So far, the other stories aren't as good. I haven't given up on it, though. 
  11. Several issues of Allstory--Ben likes to buy me these, director Francis Ford Coppola's monthly magazine of short stories. I read something in every issue, though never the whole issue. 
  12. My Brother Bill by John Faulkner--I like Faulkner a lot, so when I happened across this bio by his brother in a used book store, I grabbed it. It's one of those old 70s-era paperbacks. 
  13. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--A classic I started reading last year, loved, put down halfway through, and somehow managed to forget about until I started writing this this morning. Will have to pick it up again. Yay!
  14. Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson--Same story as #13, nonfiction version. Temple Grandin is the autistic Ph.D. animal behaviorist whose findings have revolutionized much of animal science and husbandry. Fascinating book. Must finish one of these days.
  15. The Secrets of a Fire King by Kim Edwards--A book of short stories by the author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Haven't started yet. 
  16. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino--In Little Rock author Kevin Brockmeier's latest book, The View from the Seventh Layer, one of the stories in it is a choose-your-own-adventure story, the kind I loved as a kid, but a grown-up, literary version. In one of the story's many paths, the protagonist stays home and reads The Baron in the Trees, which he expounds upon at length as being perhaps a perfect book with romance and mystery and magic and drama and completely satisfying in every way. I figured that wasn't a random choice, so I had to buy the book for myself. I've put off starting it, though, so it sits in a stack on the floor.
  17. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera--This was good, but the momentum of it changed in Part II and I didn't get back into it. Maybe the title is a little too accurate?
  18. A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel--Something light to read sometime, supposed to be good. 
  19. Like Being Killed by Ellen Miller--Another one Ben recommended for me, a novel, but I haven't started it yet. 
  20. The Goldbug Variations by Richard Powers--I vaguely remember buying this large book at a used book store a while back. It has many impressive blurbs on the back, but so far has only taken up space in my floor-stack.
  21. March by Geraldine Brooks--I'm reading this one, an imagined chronicle of the Civil War as experienced by Mr. March, the much-absent father in Little Women. It won the Pulitzer, and it's very good so far. I try to always read the Pulitzer fiction winner.
  22. Silence by Shusaku Endo--This novel about 15th-century Portugese monks being persecuted in Buddhist Japan is the source material for a future Martin Scorsese movie, thus, its presence by my nightstand. Otherwise, it wouldn't be. Curse you, Marty!
  23. The Night of the Gun by David Carr--One of my favorite Oscar bloggers is David Carr, The Carpetbagger at The New York Times. Carr, a seriously talented writer who covers the media for The Times, this year published an autobiography of his years as an out-of-control junkie and abusive alcoholic, piecing together his many absent memories by interviewing hundreds of people who knew him at his worst in a painfully honest telling of his story and subsequent recovery. Haven't started it yet.
  24. Aloft by Chang-rae Lee--I heard good things about this novel, but I really just bought it because a) the cover was a pretty sky blue color, b) it was in the bargain bin, and c) being about small-engine planes, it reminds me of my friend Ken who just built a runway on his property. 
  25. The Courage Consort by Michel Farber--a novella by an author I like. It's just sitting there waiting for me to start.
  26. Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks--A historical novel by an author I like. It's just sitting there waiting for me to start.
  27. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini--A best-selling Afghani novel by an author I like (The Kite Runner author). It, too, is just waiting for me to start.
  28. Stardust by Neil Gaiman--After I liked the Stardust movie, my friend Donna let me borrow the even-better graphic novel. Good stuff, what I've read of it. I still have it. Guess I need to finish it or give it back soon. 
  29. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud--A library book I checked out last week, since I obviously have nothing else to read. I've read two pages. 
  30. The Stand by Stephen King--A second library book I checked out last week, since obviously I have nothing else to read. Of course it's huge. Been meaning to read it for years.
  31. The Captain's Wife by Doug Kelley--A third library book I checked out last week, since obviously I have a problem. This one, though, was written by a guy I know in Fort Smith, and I really ought to read it. Actually, I ought to own it to accompany my growing collection of X's Wife books--The Pilot's Wife, The Zookeeper's Wife, The Time Traveler's Wive (love that one!), The Nazi Officer's Wife, Ahab's Wife
So as you see, I'm a reader. Or at least a hoarder. I think I need help. 

Thursday, October 9, 2008

7 Things

My sister tagged me in this 7 Things game, where you're supposed to list seven things that most people may not know about you. I'm trying to build a blog habit here, so why not? Here are my seven, prepare to be shocked. Your life will never be the same, once you know these things about me.

  1. I don't like to be touched, kissed, or really even looked at underneath my chin. I'm likely to involuntarily squeal loudly in the ear of the person trying to touch me there. Be warned.
  2. Sarah Palin brings out the worst in me, more so than anyone else I know. I have a slowly simmering rage whenever I think about her. I recognize that many people will not understand this because she is inspiring to them (including a number of people I love and respect), but not me. Now let's all get along and move to the much less controversial item #3. 
  3. I have an active presence online on a few key film and Oscar blogs and websites, where I'm very much part of the virtual community. On most days, I check them as often as I can, often hourly. Through that film community, last year I became one of about 20 selected "lay Oscar prognosticators" (i.e., not paid film critics or Hollywood folk) to be "Sultans of Bling" on one of the larger film sites (competing with the more well-established pros on "Gurus of Gold"). The Sultans were mentioned in the New York Times', LA Times' and Variety film sites. It's no big deal, and we collectively didn't prognosticate that well, but something a little different about me, I suppose. 
  4. I was an English major, but I failed Shakespeare. It was a depression/not-going-to-class thing. I really do love the old bard and regret that's on my transcript, though I took the class again and did much better. 
  5. Even though I have little or no experience with them, I am inordinately fascinated by ships, boats and especially submarines and nonfiction accounts about adventures on them. Similarly, I am also super-excited about accounts of adventures in snowy and icy conditions (Everest, Antarctica, etc.). If you combine the two, to say tell a true account of a submarine that gets lost in the Arctic sea ice never to be heard from again, I'm golden. Don't know why I love that stuff, but I do.
  6. I married a direct descendant of Geoffrey Chaucer. He's Ben's 19th great-grandfather. Which is pretty darn cool. 
  7. My favorite all-time movie food is chocolate-covered almonds and cherry coke. I'm also a big fan of the pickles. 
I'm supposed to tag seven other people, but since I don't know who will read this, and I feel a little rebellious about following the rules here, we'll just say that if you're reading this and you have a hankering, consider yourself tagged. You can blog your 7 things or just e-mail them to me. 

Of Princesses, Queens, and Other Quite Ordinary Things

When I was a girl, like many little girls, I was captivated by princesses. 

I read voraciously, anything I could, but if the book had a princess in it, I'd read it at least a dozen times. I read the George MacDonald princess series--The Princess and the Curdie, The Princess and the Goblin, etc.--, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson tales, but my favorites were from the fairy books. 

In the late 19th century, a fellow named Andrew Lang started editing books of fairy tales, starting with The Blue Fairy Book and continuing the volumes across a spectrum of rainbow colors. My mother had several of these as a girl, and two of hers--The Crimson Fairy Book and The Violet Fairy Book, hardback with a cover in that color--survived her childhood and made it into mine. The fact that these books had been Mommy's when she had (astoundingly) been a little girl like me, was special enough to ensure my interest, but the books would have caught my fancy on their own. Each book was filled with twisting fairy tales I'd never heard or read--many of which I still have not found anywhere else. They were full of majesty and beauty, with pages of exquisite pen-and-ink or full-color plate drawings of the lovely princesses, handsome princes, magic goats, sprightly mischief-makers and crooked old hags from the woods that populated the tales. 

Not all, but most of these tales had princesses in them, and who wouldn't want to be them? To be a princess was to have been born into wealth and inevitable beauty, kindness and charm, grace and the ability to dance all night in magic slippers with the handsome princes who came from faraway lands to bid for your hand in marriage after only seeing your reflection once in an enchanted forest pond. There was a certain pattern to these tales. Younger princes and princesses were always the most clever, most handsome or beautiful, the ones who never missed an opportunity to succeed or to get a cryptic riddle right. The youngest princess, the loveliest of them all, was always the one the protagonist picked. 

Feeding into my princess obsession, was a) Princess Diana, who married Prince Charles in a giant ceremony I got to stay home from school and watch when I was about 8 and b) around the same time, my dad and uncles wrote and produced a small musical about a kingdom in a faraway land where the enticing lead actress with the beautiful voice played a princess! Needless to say, I needed no encouragement, and for the next few years I happily sang the catchy tunes from their play off key to anyone who would humor me and made up countless tales set in that realm with many more happy endings of my own. 

That Halloween, I got to use some of the leftover costume remnants from the production to make a bona fide princess costume--a ruffly pink dressing gown of my mother's hemmed and pinned to fit me plus a genuine, conical PRINCESS HAT, made of gauze-covered poster board with a translucent pink flourish of fabric trailing from its peak. I felt prettier that night than I've probable ever felt, before or since.

Then one day, when I was about 11 and starting to outgrow my enchantment with princesses (having by that time a new baby sister who I was sure was destined to be prettier, kinder, and altogether more wonderful than me in every way probably deflated some of the mythology's appeal, as well), my mother bought me a new book, The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye. 

From the start, this book was different. It made me laugh out loud by subverting all the preposterous princess premises I'd read all my life. This Princess Amelia Somethingorother Somethingorother Somethingorotherevengrander, had been cursed shortly after birth by an old 3rd-cousin crone from the woods who felt slighted by not being invited to her christening and cursed the beautiful baby princess to be (gasp) ordinary! Instantly, the roses fade from the child's cheeks, the sparkle disappears from her eyes, her golden locks start becoming a sort of mousy brown color and her cherubic temperament erupts into a prolonged wail of angry baby noises.

I friggin' loved it.

As she grows older, Princess Amy (she needed an ordinary name, after all) is unremarkable in every way. Her sisters are older, beautiful, serene embodiments of royal blood, whereas she is more of a curious tomboy, running through the forests, making friends with the citizenry and displaying something heretofore unseen in my stories--a personality of her own. Of course, she goes on to have a compelling tale and narrative arc, a life lived to the fullest; it is just outside of the bounds of traditional fairy telling. 

As I grew up, I thought about that book often. It still holds a place of honor in my home, nestled amongst my Narnia books, Fairy books, and other childhood favorites atop a bookcase in my office. Of all of them, it's probably the one I would not want to replace, though it's less valuable than some. 

Then when I was in college, a friend who I did not yet know very well flattered me by calling me, out of the blue, The Queen of All That is Good. He probably called many a girl that in his day, but it worked on me. It was such a ludicrous thing to call me, with all of my overwhelming self-esteem issues. I beamed at him, laughed it off, and secretly treasured it in my heart. Over the years as we became better and better friends, it remained his pet name for me, and I never grew tired of it.

I was trying to think up a catchy title for this blog my sister (who, true to form, grew up to be prettier, wittier, kinder and more wonderful than me in every way--and I love her for it) has been badgering me to start. Part of me balks at the very idea of a blog--who would want to read what I would write? What do I have to write about? Who do I think I am? But immediately, I thought about calling it The Ordinary Princess. 

That wouldn't work. First of all, that name was taken, and second, it didn't fit. "Princess" still connotes a certain girly, rhinestony pinkness that just isn't me, even with the qualifying modifier attached. 

No, I'm all grown up now, or at least twenty-five years further down that path than when I was 10. I would have to be a queen. Queens have a certain imperiousness I'm not sure I feel, but my sister and brother tell me I'm quite bossy, so maybe that works. I hope I can be one of the wise queens, not the evil queens who try to have the pretty young princesses beheaded or turned into soup.

But what to be queen of? All That is Good sounds just a bit too much responsibility, and a bit conceited as well. That's not me. I'm just queen of my own small little life, such as it is. 

When I was a child, my parents told me over and over that I was special, that I could do anything I wanted, that I was sure to do great things in life. Maybe I will. Maybe I won't. One of the harder realizations I had growing up was that my life was actually only as extraordinary as I made it; the magic isn't built in, the citizenry doesn't automatically recognize my eminence (there's a design flaw there, I think). Honestly, there have been times a-plenty that I've been ashamed not to have done more with my life, not to have gone on to the academic heights, fame, wealth, and international success some of my high school and college friends have found (including, notably, the one who dubbed me Queen of All That is Good). There have been other times that I have felt proud of what I have been able to accomplish, becoming the person I am, overcoming a few hurdles and outsmarting a few tricky old crones from the woods along the way. 

I'm not done yet, though, so we'll just have to see where my story goes next. 

Meanwhile, I started thinking about those fairy tales. I live in a small, usually messy rent house in the second-largest town in Arkansas. It's no castle, but it's cozy. My treasures aren't golden balls or enchanted talking fish or a cave full of gems. They are the simple, ordinary joys that make up my days: my deeply colorful and entertaining family, my supportive friends who make me laugh, work that pays a few bills and is occasionally if not always fascinating, pets that are as companionable as any pets that ever were, my relative health and the prospect of spending many long years ahead with the love of my life, my sometimes-jolly and sometimes curmudgeonly husband, who is my best friend day in and day out and the sweet king of my heart. 

So I guess I'm the queen of these few things, these quiet pleasures that are unique only the extraordinary happiness they bring me. It's of them that I'll try to write here in this blog, those ordinary things that make up my days. And maybe as I write about my unremarkable life, I'll find a bit of magic along the way. 

Perhaps someday I'll discover there really is no difference between All That is Ordinary and All That is Good. Perhaps it's all just life, and that in itself, is all the good any princess could desire.