I will shortly be unveiling a new and, I hope, improved version of my website. I still like my current site, but it’s been around for ten years or so, and it’s starting to look dated. The narrow main column no longer suits the wider screens of today, and the technology I use is old and had limitations.
I’ll be moving the site into WordPress, which provides a number of advantages. It’s much easier to update and make changes across the entire site, and it also provides mobile- and tablet-friendly versions, which makes Google’s search engine ranking happy. And finally I’ll be implementing https technology, which provides end-to-end encryption of all communications between visitor and site for enhanced security.
Re-doing the site has given me a chance to redesign the graphics. I still like my dark blue and silver color scheme and will be keeping it, but I have a slick new logo and images to illustrate the different genres I write in.
I’ve also taken a look at my information architecture (a fancy term for how the menus and page relations are structured). I decided I didn’t need major changes but made some small tweaks.
I hope the new site will be interesting and inviting.
This past Christmas my daughter, her husband, and four sons all isolated themselves for two weeks so that they could visit us safely for the holiday. Thankfully, no one got sick in that time. It was still a more restrained Christmas, with fewer activities and visitors than in a normal year, but we were thrilled to be able to have them with us for a couple of weeks.
The nine-year-old is a proficient and voracious reader. The seven-year-old reads well enough, though he’d rather be building things, and the five-year-old has made a good start. Even the three-year-old enjoys looking through books. We try to have a good supply of age-appropriate literature around for them.
But, in fact, the overall favorite books for all of the boys is their Grandad’s treasured set of Calvin and Hobbes books. Their love for those books is so strong, permission to read them serves as a reward – they’re allowed to look at them only after cleaning up all the toys they’ve left scattered across the floor and every other available surface.
Even the three-year-old, who doesn’t read yet (as far as we know), seems to adore them and will look at the pictures for as long as he’s allowed. I’m not actually surprised. Some of the appeal has to be the marvelously adorable drawings, which are detailed and expressive enough to tell stories on their own.
The older boys will giggle, laugh, and frequently bring certain strips to adult attention, reading the dialogue out loud while attempting to contain their amusement long enough to get the words out.
They understand and appreciate Calvin’s wry sarcasm and wild imagination on some levels. The adventures of Spaceman Spiff and his other imaginary alter egos tend to be favorites. They ‘get’ that many of Calvin’s imaginary scrapes are mirroring real-life unpleasant situations. And they seem to understand that Calvin is using his flights of whimsy as a way of dealing with a world over which, as a child, he has very little control, though of course, they haven’t the words to explain it.
I can see aspects of each boy’s personality in Calvin. The oldest is probably the most similar. From a small child his favorite companion animal has been “Mr. Monkey.” By the time he was able to read (he taught himself to read somewhere around his third birthday) and began to expand his world, he also began to make up stories about Mr. Monkey and his adventures. Those finally expanded into “Monkeyland,” a huge and richly detailed world that occupied much of his thoughts for many years.
His next brother, the seven-year-old is more physically oriented than his brother, but still has a rich and vivid imagination. His favorite stuffed animal companion is a bear and we’ve heard many adventures in “Bearland.” But he’s also the kid who shimmies up doorways and will climb anything he can reach. Any tree that has a foothold he can get to, sometimes with the help of porch furniture, other play equipment, or even his bike, is fair game. He’s the kid who climbs on top of the playground equipment. When it comes to heights, he’s fearless. Calvin on his madcap sled-rides and in his treehouse remind me of him.
The five-year-old is the charmer of the family. He resembles Calvin in his very definite opinions, expressed with great confidence. If anyone in the family would conduct a survey on Dad’s popularity with the younger set, it would be him.
The three-year-old… I don’t know. He’s a bit too young to call. On the other hand, for the last year or more, he’s been insisting he’s a cat and will frequently meow. Yet he does it with a sly little grin as he clutches the stuffed kitty-cat that is his favorite companion animal.
As an adult I still love reading the comics, too. There’s something both gloriously innocent and wryly wise about Calvin that reminds me of just how broad the world can be. And it reminds me that as a kid I created and explored strange lands in my own imagination. In my writing, I try to continue to do so, struggling to shake off some of the limitations decades of dealing with the real world has tried to impose.
By sheer coincidence, while I was writing this post, I happened on this story in the Washington Post that makes some of the same observations, but talks more about the universal appeal in ways I hadn’t considered:
I no longer make resolutions for a new year. After many years I’ve realized they never go anywhere and are generally forgotten with a few weeks. Instead I set goals for myself, and I try to make them goals I can work with and have a decent chance of achieving. Plus I post them publicly for both accountability and motivation.
Most of my goals involve what is now my primary career: writing.
I have two novels currently in progress, a mystery, Playing at Murder, and a romance, No Time for Mistakes.(Both titles are tentative.) My goal is to finish both by the end of the year. I’m also setting a goal to write five new short stories and submit each somewhere.
On a personal level, I’ve begun a project to scan all the photos in my large stack of photo albums that are aging and falling apart. It’s a big project and I expect it to take up most of the year, but I hope to finish it by next Christmas. It’s part of an ongoing attempt to clean out and get rid of as much as possible of the ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated over the years.
And this one is neither exactly a goal nor a resolution. It’s more like a promise to myself. I plan to find a way to do something that will help others, especially those who have been less blessed in life than I’ve been. I don’t know what that means right now. Certainly the pandemic is a complicating factor. But I’m feeling a strong need to do more and give back. Stay tuned.
Christmas didn’t start well for the McCullough family, and me in particular.
In early December we began to put up the tree balls that are a characteristic decoration of our neighborhood. Tree balls are chicken wire frames crushed into a spherical shape and wrapped in strings of lights. The trick is that they work best when hung high in the bare branches of the many old oak trees in the area.
We don’t put up a lot of them for various reasons, but I had eight ready to go. We managed to get four up in the back yard and three in the front when the slingshot we use to get the cord high in the tree suddenly broke. Not the rubber bands that you pull back, but the frame itself, which simply snapped. We decided we could live with only seven balls in the trees rather than eight.
Until we had a windstorm a few days later and the cords broke on two of the balls in the back. Using a baseball and lots of duct tape we managed to get those two back up, though not as high as they’d been. Another few days and one of the balls in front came down. At that point the weather had turned bad and when it cleared we were deep into other Christmas things, so we declared the ball a yard decoration and left it on the ground.
Then there was the tree. Traditionally we’ve bought a fresh tree to perfume the living room with that lovely pine aroma. I’d been warned to shop early because trees were going fast, but it turned out that the eighth of December was too late. The lot I’ve been going to for the last twenty years was down to their last trees and they were a pretty sorry lot. I picked what I thought was the best of the group and brought it home.
After considering our age, the inconvenience of having to select, haul, water, and clean up after a live tree, we decided that next year we’re going to get an artificial tree. That decision became relevant when we discovered that the tree stand was leaking water. Since we didn’t want to invest in another tree stand, we went to work with more duct tape and a plastic garbage bag. It worked! No water leaked out once the tree was set up.
The next curveball thrown by 2020 was for me alone. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I had Covid-19 last March, and I’ve also shared that I have still have symptoms and relapses nine months later. While preparing for some family coming for Christmas (more on that later), I had another Covid relapse (headache, cough, muscle aches, and awful fatigue). And just as I was getting over that I developed painful back spasms.
A call to my doctor’s office resulted in a prescription for muscle relaxers, and suggestions to use ice, heat, and ibuprofen. Fortunately, after a couple of days those worked, and the spasms subsided.
By then my daughter and her family had arrived from Indiana. To make the visit possible, the entire family isolated themselves for two weeks before setting out to be sure they wouldn’t be bringing any germs. They minimized stops on the way here and were masked for all of them.
After that inauspicious start, we had a good, if somewhat muted Christmas. Other than a few trips to local small playgrounds, we did no trips out other than runs for last minute gifts or to the grocery store and we did miss some of the places we’d normally go. Equally we missed many of the people we’d normally see over the holiday, but we look forward to a future where we’ll be able to do those things and see our family and friends again.
In the end, the rest of the tree balls held and the neighborhood display showed its usual magnificence, the scraggly tree looked warm and friendly when decorated, disguising its bending trunk and the lack of branches from the middle of the tree to the top on one side, and having the family around was great. And, even, though we couldn’t see many of the people we normally would, warm wishes in the form of texts, emails, phone calls, Facetime, cards, letters, and even Facebook posts reminded us how fortunate we are in the network of relatives and friends we have. Even if we couldn’t be with them, we were aware of their presence and good wishes, as we did our best to provide the same for them.
After the busy day the boys had, there were a couple more payoffs.
Not long after Quidditch practice, as the boys were taking off jackets and outdoor shoes, the five-year-old noticed that the magic seeds had sprouted into a bunch of adorable succulent plants while they weren’t looking. I wish I’d had my phone ready at the time because his expression on seeing the plants was a priceless combination of wonder and amazement. He pointed at them and could barely manage to get out the word, “Look.” The astonishment and excitement spread to his brothers.*
Having finished their lessons for the day, the boys got another treat: they watched the movie, The Princess Bride for the first time. Although the younger ones found some of the scary scenes hard to take, the nine-year-old and (to some extent the seven-year-old) were deeply engrossed in it. Later the same day one of the boys was heard to threaten another with the line, “You could end up ‘unemployed in Greenland’!” I believe there were also mentions of not being left-handed. Their Mom says they’ve asked to watch it several more times and even though she loves the movie, too, she’s starting to feel like it’s too much of a good thing.
The day concluded with a festive birthday dinner in a Hogwarts-decorated dining room. They boys had their favorite meal: pizza, in a magically lit dining room. We had strung “floating” candles from the ceiling with fishing line. The candles were miniature LED candles encased in rolled up cardboard tubes. It actually worked well and was very effective.
Finally there was cake and presents. And one of the nine-year-old’s dearest birthday wishes came true. He got volume five of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He’s a voracious reader and would gobble it up over the next couple of days.
*Their mother and I bought a set of small succulent plants at a garden shop and planted them in the pots while the boys were outside for Quidditch practice. We didn’t say anything about it, just waited for one of them to notice the change.
(This story is best read from the beginning. Go here to read part one if you haven’t already)
Next class would be Herbology. Professor Snickerdoodle instructed the students in general on caring for plants, then provided each one with a pot, some dirt, and a magic seed. Owl-shaped pots were used to add extra protection for the sprouting plants.
The students planted the magic seed in the dirt, tapped the pots with their wands to promote quick growth, and the pots were put aside to allow the plants to sprout while they went on to the next class: Potions.
In Potions (Professor Snickerdoodle’s last class of the day) the students would be mixing elements to make a potion that magically changed color. Each student had a clear cup and poured liquid from several special bottles into it. The liquid stayed clear until the students tapped their cups with their magic wands and added the special magic white powder. And once they did that, the liquid in the cups turned blue!*
That class was followed by Runes, taught by Professor Fimgrubel (aka Dad). He’d actually created a code based on runic scripts and translated a quote into it. He then challenged the boys to decipher it. The boys, and Liam in particular, love this sort of thing and dove right in. They continued to wrestle with it even after class ended.
The final event of the day was Quidditch practice. They concentrated on catching the golden snitch. Professor Fimgrubel stood on the back deck and tossed practice snitches for the boys to catch. The truth is most landed on the ground, causing a short scrum for possession of each. It was the three-year-old, the youngest, who discovered that the golden covering of the snitch could be unwrapped to reveal an edible and rather delicious, chocolatey center!**
Next post: The great discover and the post-class birthday celebrations!
* The secret here is blue Kool-Aid powder. The powder itself is white until mixed with water.
**Amazing how much those Ferrero Rocher gold-wrapped chocolates look snitches, especially when paired with taped-on paper-doily wings!
On September 30th of this year, my grandson Liam, turned nine years old. He requested a Harry Potter-themed party and did he ever get one!
Normally for a birthday Liam would get to choose an outing for the whole family as a special treat. But since most of the places they would go, zoos, parks, museums, and such were closed or seriously limited due to the pandemic, his mother decided to go with the Harry Potter theme and turn it into a memorable day.
She succeeded beyond anyone’s hope, due to a lot of research, preparation, and work.
The fun started around ten in the morning when a knock on the front door led Liam and his three younger brothers to discover four small owls carrying parchment scrolls. Unfortunately I don’t have the exact wording now, but the parchment was an invitation to each boy to become a prospective student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and participate in a day of sample classes. Unfortunately, due to the Pandemic, classes could not be held at Hogwarts main campus, so their home had been granted Hogwarts extension status for the day. Classes would start soon.
A message ‘magically’ appeared on the door from the dining room out to the back yard, saying that Professor Snickerdoodle would arrive at eleven to begin classes.
The boys gathered in the “class room” (aka the dining room) at eleven. Professor Snickerdoodle (aka Mom) also arrived, with academic robes for each of the boys to ensure all would be properly clad and announced that the first class would be a start of The Defense Against the Dark Arts curriculum, namely “Wands.”
Each boy selected a wand (see below for notes on how the wands were created) and allowed to attach various “spells” (in the form of small stick-on jewels) to enhance its power. Then they studied and practiced the proper technique for waving the wand.
Next up would be a break for lunch and then Herbology!
(Wands were made from chopsticks enhanced with raised designs on one end created with a hot glue gun, then painted with an acrylic brown paint and gold highlights.)
The New York Public Library holds a special place in my heart. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent several days while at home one summer from university doing research there for an important history project. That meant taking the train from Poughkeepsie down to Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. From there it was just a few blocks’ walk to the library.
The building itself is a massive monument to scholarship through the ages. There’s something about walking between the huge lion statues on the steps up that warns you’re embarking on a serious enterprise as you approach the building.
Main Library Exterior: New York Public Library
CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
The interior continues that theme with its enormous spaces, grand, soaring staircases, huge windows, works of art throughout, and the array of resources available.
I went there to research events of a certain narrow historical time period, so I’d make my way up the stairs to the third floor reading room. First, though, I’d stop in the card catalog room that forms an anteroom to the main reading room to look up call numbers for the books I needed. This was many years ago, and I haven’t been there recently, so I’m guessing that the physical card catalog has mostly been replaced by computers.
From there I’d proceed to the Rose Reading Room, a huge space filled with rows and rows of long desks, lit by enormous windows and a series of impressive chandeliers. The main desk bisected the center of the room and it was there I’d submit the book requests. Generally it would take 20-30 minutes for the books to be delivered to the desk where I’d take them to one of the long tables and fill a notebook with notes and references. Those books couldn’t be removed from the reading room, so I’d get what I needed from them and return them to the desk when I was done.
The quiet in the room was broken only by the low mumble of voices at the desk, the swish of pages turning, and the occasional squeak of a chair or shoe. It was almost a reverential hush, respect for all of the people who’d come to seek wisdom or knowledge from the vast repository the library held. Sometimes my mind would drift and I’d look up at the awe-inspiring paintings on the ceiling.
I felt then, and continue to believe, that it says something amazing about our society that we’ve created and maintain a place like that to celebrate the collected experience and thoughts of the ages of human existence.