Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Christmas is all about...

A classic courtesy of Charles Schultz...

Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Little Drummer Mouse

I was substitute teaching at a school during their fall book fair. I found a cute little Christmas book with a slightly different take on the traditional story of The Little Drummer Boy. This story is The Little Drummer Mouse written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer.

I love the rich, detailed artwork in this book. Although it is part of the Christmas Story, all the characters - human and animal alike - are dressed in medieval-style attire, except for the three kings in their foreign garb and the "royal family", who are dressed the way the Holy Family is traditionally depicted.

The Little Drummer Mouse is the smallest mouse in his family, and his mother worries that he will lag behind and get lost, so she gives him a little acorn drum play in order to be heard. Since he is so small, he cannot play with the other, bigger, forest animals, and he is teased by both his siblings and the animals of the forest. One rabbit tells him to go play to the stars, which he does sometimes at night, out in the farmer's field.

One day, the animals hear that "the greatest king of all" would be born to man the coming winter, and the royal family would be passing through their forest. The animal decide to decorate their forest for them to see as they travel by. They wait and wait, but "only a poor man leading a donkey, and a woman wrapped in a thin blanket who rode on the donkey's back." The forest animals are greatly disappointed they went to all that work for nothing, but they decide that something important must have prevented the royal family from making their trip.

Later, when everyone else in the house is sleeping, the Little Drummer Mouse sees a new star - the loveliest star he's ever seen - out of the window. When he goes outside for a better look, he meets three kings on the way to see the new king, and they ask the Little Drummer Mouse if there is a stable nearby. After pointing them in the right direction, the Little Drummer Mouse decides he wants to see the baby king, too, and plucks up the courage to follow the three kings. He thinks he will not be noticed and watches as the people present the baby with their simple gifts to the man and woman the animals had seen in the forest. Then, he sees the three kings present their extravagant gifts and thinks that since he wasn't invited, he should leave. However, he is prevented from going by a shepherd's foot.

The shepherd start playing their instruments. The Little Drummer Mouse is so caught up with the music, he joins in on his little acorn drum and does not notice when the other players stop. The baby's mother asks the drummer to be brought forward. The scared Little Drummer Mouse is picked up. He is astonished to hear the new mother ask him to keep playing, as the baby seems to like it. Soon, not only was the Little Drummer Mouse joined by the other musicians, but everyone else began to sing. No longer was the Little Drummer Mouse being teased for playing his little acorn drum...

While the book never names the man, his wife, or the new baby, it is completely obvious they are meant to be Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, even though the setting is wrong. I think it is a clever telling of part of the Christmas Story, and it is perfect for little children. The Little Drummer Mouse is recommended for children age 4 to 8.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Belleau Wood

This song by Garth Brooks was inspired by actual events during World War I. Not released on a Christmas album (it was on the 1997 Sevens album), I long ago included it on my home-made Christmas CDs. Here, Brooks performs it live:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Finished project

I wanted to make my mom a Christmas-themed scrub top, but it was hard to do it in secret, because that meant I could only work on it when she wasn't home. I was finally able to finish it last night:

And, happily, I guessed good enough on which size to make, that it fits ;-)

Friday, December 12, 2008

I met a SEAL today

Subbing has been a little slow since my extended sub, for an opening position I had applied for and (obviously...) was not selected to fill, that ended just over a month ago. Yesterday, I was able to pick up a half-day sub for this afternoon. So, I left my other (contract office job) about 10:45 and headed to the school. It was in a first grade class, and the teacher warned me she had a class full of talkers. Yeah, that was a bit of an understatement... I managed to make it through the day, and even though one little boy quite a handful, I'd be willing to give that classroom another try if the teacher decided to invite me back for future sub jobs.

Today, unlike that extended sub job, included the responsibility to walk all the students out to be picked up. Sometimes, it's hard to keep track of 15-20 kids you've only just met when there are all the other classes out for dismissal, as well. Most of the time, kids are good about saying their parent or whoever is there to take them, or the car is there, or whatever, and sometimes the parents will come up to us instead of the kids running off to the parent. That little handful's dad came up, and was letting me know he was taking his son. He's possibly somewhere about my age, and he was nicely dressed, with a long, dark, winter overcoat. Then, I noticed the Trident on his lapel. I asked if he was a Navy SEAL. He said he was, and that most people don't know the significance of the Trident. I, of course, thanked him for his service. He told me what team he's served with, and when he'd served in Iraq (I won't post that here). After something he'd said, I mentioned I was currently reading Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor, in which BUD/S is described. His response? "Don't remind me..." He asked if I'd read any Richard Marcinko. I haven't, but I'm aware of his books. He said he's acquainted with Marcinko, and he'd bring some books to the teacher for me, just in case I subbed there again. I wasn't expecting to meet a SEAL, and I'd wished very much that I had my wallet handy (it was still back in the classroom), because I have some cards in there to give to people like this father of a first grader, thanking them for their service. Maybe I will get the chance again, if I am invited to substitute in that classroom again. But, it just goes to show you: you never know when or where you might come in contact with one of America's defenders...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Celebrating the season

A little while back, I was playing around, looking for a different blog layout. Didn't find a "regular" one that I was able to get to work out properly to my liking, but I ran across a couple for the holidays. Since I am big into Christmas, I downloaded them to try out at the right time of year. So, I'm celebrating the season with a different look for a while. Yeah, I know - I'm missing a lot of my usual stuff on the sidebar. I'll get around to adding that, maybe this weekend, but it's almost midnight, and I have to go to work in the morning, so I'll be needing to get to bed here shortly. I'll be doing a bit of cat-sitting for my little sister this weekend, so I be hanging at her new apartment, enjoying her comfy new living room furniture and her new 42" HDTV, and I'm sure I'll be dragging the laptop along, too ;-) Oh, and, happy birthday to her. She turned 24 today.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Peter Pan Prequels

A while back, I discovered a book by Dave Barry (the humorist) and Ridley Pearson called Peter and the Starcatchers. Since I am trying to build what will (hopefully) someday be my classroom library, I decided to pick it up. My familiarity with Peter Pan is from the animated Disney movie (I've seen the old live action movie just once or twice), so I thought it would be fun to read a "back story" of where Peter came from. We meet a seemingly ordinary orphan boy named Peter who, along with some fellow orphans, is on his was from St. Norbert's Home for Wayward Boys to a ship. As far as the boys know, it is destination unknown. After the boys board the Never Land, the adventure begins. There is a mysterious cargo on board, and also a mysterious young girl named Molly. Together, Peter, Molly and the orphan boys battle pirates and other ne'er-do-wells to keep that mysterious cargo safe, and in the process, help save the world. Along the way, we meet other well-known characters: Captain Hook and Tinker Bell.

Later, after the second book in the series, Peter and the Shadow Thieves, came out in paperback, I picked that one up, as well. Peter and the Lost Boys are living on an isolated island, along with the native Mollusk Tribe and Captain Hook and his stranded crew. Captain Hook has it in for Peter and the Lost Boys, as he blames Peter for being stuck on Mollusk Island. Life gets interesting - and much more dangerous - after a ship brings the shadowy Lord Ombra to Peter's island. Lord Ombra is after the starstuff left behind by the Never Land. Only the starstuff is no longer on the island. Lord Leonard Aster, a Starcatcher, has taken it back to England. Peter noticed something strange happens to people if their shadows came into contact with Lord Ombra. Peter knows Molly, Lord Aster's daughter, is in danger, so he sets off with Tinker Bell on Le Fantome, hiding on the ship on its way to England. Once the ship reaches London, Peter and Tinker Bell must find their way to the Asters' home. By the time he does, Lord Aster has already left on his mission to take the starstuff to The Return to keep it away from The Others, leaving Molly and Mrs. Aster under the protection of a pair of bodyguards. However, the bodyguards aren't prepared for Lord Ombra. Peter manages to save Molly from Lord Ombra's clutches, but Mrs. Aster is taken prisoner. Molly and Peter turns to young George Darling. Can they keep the starstuff safe from The Others until it is time for The Return? Can they rescue Mrs. Aster, and stop Lord Ombra?

In Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, Peter is back on Mollusk Island when it is invaded by the Scorpion Tribe from another island. During the invasion, Peter is scratched by a poisoned arrow, so he is unable to fight the pirates when they try to escape in a Scorpion canoe, or when the canoe is attacked by a mysterious underwater craft. Peter, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook are prisoners of Lord Ombra, on their way to the kingdom of Rundoon. Molly and George Darling discover that Peter may be the son of a Mr. Pan, a Watcher, who would give the Starcatchers warning of a Fall of starstuff. Lord Aster fears Peter is in danger. Back in Rundoon, The Others are plotting a way to get all the starstuff they need to destroy the world. Lord Aster will make his way to Mollusk Island, and Molly, Mrs. Aster and George Darling are to return from Paris to London. However, the children give Mrs. Aster the slip in the train station and follow Lord Aster, stowing away on the ship. When they get to Mollusk Island, they are warned away by the porpoise, Ammm. Tinker Bell, who was not with Peter when he was taken, informs them Peter was taken. Will the Mollusks defeat the Scorpions? Can Lord Aster, Molly and George rescue Peter? Will Peter and the Starcatchers be able to the day?

I have very much enjoyed the series, which was inspired by author Ridley Pearson's daughter asking - after a bedtime story - how Peter Pan met Captain Hook. These books are recommended for children 12 years and older. While avid younger readers are might be fully capable of reading the books independently, some aspects might be a little disturbing to younger readers (in the third book, evil King Zarboff the Third likes to feed people to his giant snake...). The only thing I found objectionable was in the third book, when we learn of the origins of the starstuff: life on earth was just an accident:

"The first thing you must understand," groaned Ombra, "is that humanity is an accident. You, who think you are the center of creation, are in fact here because of a flaw in the cosmos."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Leonard.

"No," said Ombra, "you would not. You humans are so involved with the details of your tiny lives that you never notice the immense struggle beyond this insignificant speck you call the world."

"Then perhaps you will be so kind as to enlighten me."

"I will try," groaned Ombra, "though it will be difficult for you to comprehend, given the limitations of human thought and language. To put it simply as I can: there are two conflicting sides in what you call the universe. On one side is creation, being, light; on the other side is destruction, nothingness, darkness."

"And you are on the side of darkness," said Leonard.

"I am not on the side of darkness," groaned Ombra. "I am darkness."

"And the Others?" said Bakari.

"The humans you call the Others are unimportant. They do what I wish them to so, without knowing why. Like you Starcatchers, they are pawns in a game they do not understand."

"If we're so insignificant," said Leonard, "then why are you here, interfering in our affairs?"

"I will explain," groaned Ombra. "But you must first understand some history. The struggle between light and darkness had gone on since the beginning of what you call time. It was going on before there was time, though I do not except you to know what I mean by that. What you need to know is this: for the past several billion of your years, light has been winning the struggle. The side of existence, of being, is expanding. The side of nothingness, of darkness - my side - is retreating. We have survived in pockets, in voids of darkness; one such void is...not far from here. But we are losing. We are being driven back everywhere, by a force we cannot match."

"Starstuff," said Bakari.

"Yes," said Ombra. "Starstuff. It flows outward across the universe from a point called the Beginning. Where there was nothing, it creates something. It leaves in its wake galaxies, structures bigger than galaxies, and structure bigger than those. Along the way it also leaves incalculable quantities of smaller, random clots of matter and gas - comets, asteroids, rocks, dust particles - and planets. There are untold millions of planets about the same size as your Earth, did you know that, Lord Aster? I see by your expression that you did not. You humans believe you are unique. And in a sense, you are correct. Because of all these untold millions of planets, yours alone is located near the flaw."

"What flaw?" said Leonard.

"In the starstuff conduit," said Ombra. "it passes very close to Earth. You cannot see it; it does not exist in the same way that ordinary matter exists. But it is there nonetheless, carrying starstuff from the Beginning to the remote reaches of the universe, as an aqueduct carries water. But there is a flaw, and sometimes it causes a leak in the aqueduct. This is known as a Disruption, and when it occurs, a tiny quantity of starstuff escapes and enters your reality."

"A starstuff Fall," said Bakari.

"Yes," said Ombra. "It has been falling here for quite some time. That is the reason life came to exist on this barren rock in the first place. That is the reason this life acquired intelligence. You humans, and what you call your civilization, are here because of a leak in the plumbing of the universe."

"And is that why you've come," said Leonard. "To retrieve this leaked starstuff?"

"No," said Ombra. "We have come for far more than that. But to understand it, you will need to indulge me for a bit longer."

Leonard nodded.

Ombra continued: "As humans gained in intelligence, they began to understand the power of the starstuff. Some humans wanted to use it to dominate; other humans wanted to prevent them from doing so. This led to the struggle between the Others and you Starcatchers. This struggle went on for thousands of years before it was noticed."

"Noticed by whom?" said Leonard.

"By my enemies," said Ombra. "By the powers of light. Their attention had been focused elsewhere in the universe, on their struggle against my side, against darkness. When they finally saw what their starstuff Falls on Earth had caused - the development of intelligent life and the conflict between the Starcatchers and the Others - they felt responsible and decided to intervene. Had my side been in control, we would have simply eliminated your troublesome planet. But the powers of light choose not to destroy life."

I'm okay with a battle between good and evil in a fantasy novel - I've read fantasy for years - but most of the fantasy I've read don't take place in the "real world", but in completely fictional settings. Given that these Peter Pan books happen in the "real world", and because I am a Christian, I have a bit of a problem with this discussion of how we came to be here chalking it up to a twist of fate when I believe we are here for a purpose: that God placed us here. So, if you are a parent wondering whether or not to let your child read these books, forewarned is forearmed. Maybe you can use it as an opportunity to talk to your child about why you believe the way you do, and to talk about how not everyone believes the same way? But, really, this is the only part of this series that makes me uncomfortable about making them available to my future students, knowing that some parents might object...

In addition to the Starcatchers series (recommended for children age 12 and up) - which range from between about 450 pages to about 550 pages, there are a couple smaller chapter books (130-160 pages), Never Land Books, intended for younger readers, ages 8 to 12. Escape from the Carnivale and Cave of the Dark Wind both take place on Mollusk Island, and focus on what the Lost Boys are up to when Peter is gone from the island. These are easy, quick reads with much simpler plots than the Starcatchers books, but they, too, are full of adventure.