Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Things I Love Thursdays: Orange is the New Black

I know, I know, two TV shows in a row. You probably wonder what the heck else I do besides watch television. But Orange is the New Black is not something I'm ashamed to admit I love. This Netflix exclusive is freaking brilliant, even if I totally didn't believe John when he first told me about it.

Here's the premise via Wikipedia:

Orange Is the New Black revolves around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a woman from Connecticut, living in New York City, who is sent to the women's federal prison in Litchfield, NY, for 15 months after being convicted of transporting a suitcase full of drug money for Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), an international drug smuggler and Chapman's former lover.

I didn't love Schilling in The Lucky One. I thought she was kind of annoying, actually. But I have to eat my words about her now, because she does an amazing job as Piper. You can't help rooting for her character, even when she does some pretty stupid things. And while the other inmates see her as a rich, snobby white chick, I feel like a lot of people will identify with her character (minus the whole drug mule thing).

Piper's relationship with her fiance, played by Jason Biggs, and Alex, her ex-girlfriend, are interesting, but the best part of the show, hands down, is the other inmates. There are some amazing performances in there, characters who will make you laugh and cry. I love Red, the Russian cook, and Crazy Eyes, a somewhat insane but sympathetic character who wants to make Piper her wife when she first gets to prison.

See if you can spot "Red" and "Crazy Eyes."

The best performance, however, is probably Taryn Manning as Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett, a former meth addict who murders a nurse at an abortion clinic after the nurse makes a snide comment. A Christian lawyer ends up taking on her case, and Tiffany becomes a born-again Christian who leads the other meth heads in prison. She is a truly despicable character, and I love her.

The show aired in July and the beauty of it is, the entire show is available at once. Sadly, we finished all 13 episodes, but I'm excited for Season Two. If you have Netflix (or a nice friend who does), it's definitely worth checking out.


In some ways, marriage and writing are a lot alike. They are both a process, both things we choose out of love. They are also often the very definition of a labor of love (we should take vows when we decide to become writers; for better or worse seems like a big one). And mostly, they both require a whole lot of dedication, compromise, and commitment.

Today, John and I celebrate two anniversaries. The big one: nine years of marriage. The smaller but perhaps more impressive one: one year in Russia. I'll tell you what - if you ever want to test the strength of your marriage, join the Foreign Service.

In all seriousness, I am so grateful for the past nine years with the love of my life. We have seen our share of challenges: moves to Florida, Texas, California, DC, and Russia; two deployments; one plane crash; depression (mine); extreme endurance sports (his); career changes; loss of loved ones, etc. It isn't always easy to stay committed during those rough patches.

But we have had more than our share of joy as well: a beautiful, healthy child; amazing friends all over the world; supportive family; getting to travel more than I ever dreamed; and doing all of it with my best friend. I am truly blessed.

Happy 9th anniversary, sweetie! I love you!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Foreign Service Fridays: Hooray for Summer Turnovers

I'm happy to report a new-old friend has come to Yekaterinburg. I wrote a little about her on Most Eligible Family. Happy Friday y'all!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Things I Love Thursdays: Lost Girl

Here in Russia, we have limited access to American television. Without a VPN, it's impossible to watch Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc. Unfortunately, even with the VPN, our somewhat crappy Internet makes it difficult to use these services, even though we pay for them (boo). The one thing that generally works, for reasons unknown, is Netflix. (Hulu, for the record, sucks. The shows pause to load every two or three minutes and sometimes you never get past the ads. Amazon Prime is a total disaster and iTunes can't be trusted. It's enough to drive an insane girl insaner.)

If you have kids you already know that Netflix is awesome. Jack gets into these movie ruts where he wants to watch the same thing over and over ("A Turtle's Tale II" just came out - I clearly have some negative karma to burn off), and Netflix works great for that. They have "Thomas," random Disney movies (Mer-lan aka "Mulan" is a big hit at the mo), "Dinosaur Train," etc. However, for adults, Netflix is not great at updating their programming. I go to the "new releases" page and it's the same thing week after week. But every now and then, John and I stumble across a series we've never watched before, and we find something we can watch for a few weeks on a daily basis. This is helpful in avoiding those "what do you want to watch?" back and forth debates which never end happily.

I came across "Lost Girl" in my "recommended for you" section a couple of weeks ago. It's a Canadian paranormal show about a succubus named Bo who doesn't know where she came from and has only just discovered there's a whole world of light and dark fae out there. Bo refuses to choose a side, however, and with the help of her trusty human sidekick, Kenzi, and a werewolf-cop named Dyson, she becomes a private investigator for faes who can't get human cops to take their cases.

Kenzi (Ksenia Solo) and Bo (Anna Silk)

I'm not gonna lie, it can be cheesy (a la "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time"). The special effects are pretty lame and there are some awful one-liners. Still, I'm kind of hooked. I like Bo, but I love Kenzi. She's cute, spunky, and she's got some great lines (While speed dating: Oh, my favorite literary quote about regret? Wow. Fun! Ummm. Well, I think it was the great poet, uh… Ludacris, who said “regret is fo suckas, fo suckas, fo suckas. Regret is fo suckas. Bitch.”). Dyson is oddly appealing and the acting is pretty good. It's possible my standards have just been lowered considerably in the past year, and it ain't no "Game of Thrones," but it has kept me occupied the past three nights while John was in Moscow.

And lately, that's good enough for me.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mommy Mondays: My Baby Can't Read! (And I'm Okay With That)

Jack's never exactly been what you'd call an ambitious child. He crawled around 8 months, walked around 14 months, and as far as potty training goes...well, you know that story.

Fortunately, I'm not totally obsessed with numbers. Of course I would worry if Jack was seriously behind on things, but I was secretly grateful that he was on the slower end with crawling and walking. I never understood why some people get so competitive about that stuff. Frankly, I preferred it when my baby had the mobility of a butternut squash. It's when they start wandering that you're really in trouble.

On the speaking front, I always figured Jack was about average. Compared to a lot of Russian kids his age, he's positively verbose. But now I'm starting to think ahead to next year, when Jack will be in American preschool once again. And I have a feeling there's going to be a new milestone all the moms are buzzing about: reading.

When Jack was around a year old, my grandma and her boyfriend watched a Your Baby Can Read! infomercial and were immediately sold. Not much later we received the entire set, complete with flashcards, books, and DVDs. I didn't really care one way or the other if Jack could read at 18 months, but I knew my grandma had spent a lot of her meager income on the set, so nearly every day for six months or so, Jack and I "practiced" reading.

Okay, so what I really did was show Jack the flashcards occasionally (he spent most of his time chewing on them) and turn on the DVD player in the afternoon. I figured it was a good excuse to let Jack watch a little TV and get some me-time in while I was at it. Jack enjoyed the obnoxious kids singing Old McDonald, and for what its worth, he did actually learn to wave when the word came up on screen. But was he reading War and Peace at age two? Not exactly.

Lately, Jack is really interested in letters and phonics. He's known his letters for a while now (although that was mostly thanks to an iPhone app, and he only knew capital letters; whoops) and we read several stories at bedtime every day, but reading wasn't even close to being on my radar. Then he discovered the Leap Frog videos on Netflix, and before I knew it, he was telling me that "M" makes the "mmm" sound. (Thank you Scout and your annoying animal friends!). He broke out his old baby words book the other night and spent ages going through it, word by word.

"What word starts with cat?" he asks, clearly a little confused by my "What word begins with C?" type questions. But in just the past few days, he's learned all of his lower case letters and seems almost as interested in the words as the stories themselves. Yesterday we were in a parking lot and he began "reading" a sign: "What's this letter? I. What's this letter? K. What's this letter? E. What's this letter? A." (I guess I need to teach him that he doesn't need to ask himself which letter it is out loud every time).

What's the upshot of all this? My kid can't even come close to reading. But he's trying, and that's what I love. As we watch him struggle to equate a capital G with a lower case g, John and I stare at each other with something like awe. It's amazing to me that a kid (ANY kid) can not only grasp such a concept, but that he even wants to. Having made a half-assed attempt to learn another language in the past year (one with a really wonky alphabet), I know how daunting it can be. I tend to think of English as being "easy," but then I wonder how the hell I'm supposed to explain that cat and celery both begin with C and sound completely different. Thank goodness for actual teachers.

My mom likes to tell me how my brother started reading before Kindergarten; apparently I was the slowest to learn (I was also the last one to be potty trained and tie my shoe laces; being a triplet was not always good for my self-esteem). But guess what? I read the most of all three of us now, by far. And I'm also perfectly capable of tying my shoes and using a toilet. So there! In the end, there's only one thing that matters to me: that Jack enjoys reading. I don't have a timeline, just a goal.

Potty training, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Foreign Service Fridays: The Thing About Stereotypes

I considered telling you all about my visit to the Russian dentist today, but it was too traumatic to relive just yet. So instead, here's a little post about stereotypes. Happy, happy Friday all!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Writing Wednesdays: Music and Writing

I'm not one of those people who listens to music when they write. I can handle some background noise, and even music that I don't know, but if there's a song on where I know the words, I get all caught up and start singing.  Fun, but not so productive for the writing.

However, music definitely inspires my writing. In fact, I got the idea for my current novel from a song while running on the treadmill. (And no, I won't tell you which song yet, because it's too embarrassing.)

I've never had a playlist for any of my books before, but this time, I do! Well, sort of. It's not really in any kind of order, but here are some of the songs that either go with specific scenes or just helped inspire my novel in general:

Alex Clare "Too Close"

Ellie Goulding "Your Biggest Mistake"

Of Monsters and Men "King and Lionheart"

Kesha "Animal"

Imagine Dragons "Radioactive"

Florence and the Machine "Shake it Out"

The Killers "Flesh and Bone"

So, what about you? Do you write to music or have a book playlist? And by the way, if you haven't seen the video for Radioactive, go watch it! Puppet cage fighting? Awesome.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Mommy Mondays: A Trip to Binghi

This weekend, we took a little trip out to the countryside - to the village of Binghi, to be exact. We needed a mini getaway and this ended up being the perfect solution. You see, I had been wanting to visit the nearby town of Kunary to see a famous house belonging to a blacksmith for a while now (you'll see why in a second). Then I found out about Stefan, a German man who runs a "bed and breakfast" in nearby Binghi.

Stefan has three yurts on his property, where you can sleep for the night in relative comfort. He also has a beautiful garden and a lovely wife who cooks up delicacies from said garden. We went with our friends who work at IKEA (they have a 5-year-old daughter) and another couple from the German Consulate, along with the wife's brother and his girlfriend. We had a wonderful time exploring Binghi, hanging out in the garden, eating, and watching the kids play. There's even a banya, which John was happy to take advantage of (I think I'm good on the banya front). I am so happy my friend told me about this place, because we will definitely be going back!

Now I'm going to show you a million photos. Enjoy!

The yurts!

Stefan's front yard.

The backyard (complete with geese).

A view of Binghi.

A tractor. Duh.

This man makes walls. You have to build your own doors.

I'm pretty sure you know who these people are.

John chillin' next to the giant pumpkin (which Jack broke. Sigh.).

Sergey Kirillov's house (sadly under renovation).

Still gorgeous, though!

Just another brightly colored house.

This little babushka sold us some lovely blueberries.

Flowers near a yurt.

John strolling with some neighborhood sheep.

The greenhouse.
No idea what these are called,  but they are gorgeous.

We got a private saxophone concert!

"Dancing Queen." Naturally.

Our German friend playing with Jack by the banya.

Jack climbing the stairs (despite me telling him not to 8,000 times).

Jack and Anna at an icon studio and museum.

One of the icons painted at the studio.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Remembering My Grandfather: Warren Herzog

Some of you may know that both of my maternal grandparents passed away in the last few months. I was lucky to have grandparents for as long as I did (my grandma was 89; my grandpa 91), but saying goodbye is never easy, especially to people who have always been a part of your life. It took me a little while to gather my thoughts for this post - trying to describe someone like my grandpa in a few paragraphs isn't easy. But I'll try my best.

I don't know a lot about my grandpa's early life. What I do know is that he was born in New Jersey on May 18, 1922, and that he had one brother, whom I never met. He didn't go to college, but he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. (When my mom told him we were moving to Yekaterinburg, he knew immediately that it was the place where the Romanovs were murdered.) My grandpa was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and he had some great stories about his time in the service. He and my grandma were divorced, but they were always very close, checking in on each other every week with a phone call.

They had two children: my uncle, Monte Herzog, and my mom, Nancy. For many years my grandpa worked as a wine distributor, until he retired and got a job at Trader Joe's, which is how I like to think of him. He was their oldest employee and very proud of that fact. He was also very proud of the fact that he used to give all the young employees a hard time. He called himself a curmudgeon and would make a fake angry old man face, but in reality he loved to joke and talk to people about his hobbies, in particular New Orleans jazz. He amassed a huge collection of jazz records over the years, which were eventually contributed to a German jazz museum. He loved to cook and would often brag to my sister and me (both vegetarians) about how little meat he ate. He still lifted weights at 90 and was eventually told he was no longer allowed on the loading dock at work, although if it had been up to him I'm sure he would have kept at it forever.

My grandpa was the crossword puzzle king. I swear it was what kept his mind so sharp for all those years. When we were kids he would occasionally ask for our help, and it was always such a great feeling when we were able to come up with the right answer. But probably my favorite thing about my grandpa was that he loved to sing. Actually, as a kid it drove me insane, because he would want to sing his old ragtime jazz songs to us and try to get us to sing along. The songs were all ridiculous, but I still remember the words to many of them. Some notable favorites:

"I've Got a Bimbo Down on a Bamboo Aisle"
"Minnie the Mermaid"
"Don't Bring Lulu" (a funny song about a girl who drives everyone crazy: "You can bring Kate 'cause she's a nice date but don't bring Lulu. You can bring Tess with a no or yes but don't bring Lulu." And the last line: "She's a certain smarty who breaks up every party. Hullabalooloo, don't bring Lulu. I'll bring her myself!")

And a great little ditty about a woman after a ball. I don't know what the actual name of the woman was, but he usually inserted "Grandma." Here are the words to his version:

"After the ball was over, Grandma took out her glass eye.
Put her false teeth in water, hung up her wig to dry.
Then she unscrewed her wooden leg, hung it up on the wall.
Took off her fake eyelashes, after the ball."

A real charmer. He made us all a mixed tape of some of these classics when we went off to college. I've got it stored away somewhere. He also wrote us letters, which generally started with a date and time in the upper right-hand corner, followed by the words "Craven Manor" (what he named his house, no matter where he lived). Then he'd usually go into some line about the wolves or the vultures circling, but he wasn't ready to go just yet. And then some general stuff about his life, followed by a handful of politically incorrect jokes. Here's a rather tame (and lame) one that he told me:

A funeral procession was winding it's way to the cemetery on top of the hill outside town, when the hearse hit a bump.The coffin was bumped loose, fell out onto the road and began sliding back toward town. It slid faster and faster. Finally, it reached the town and was skidding its way down Main St. Suddenly, at one intersection, the coffin hit a curb, flew onto the sidewalk, smashed through the front glass window of the pharmacy, and slammed up against the prescription counter.The lid popped off, the corpse sat up and said.. "You got anything to stop this coffin?"

For as long as I can remember, my grandpa was hard of hearing. Of course, he was in complete denial about the fact and refused to turn his hearing aid up. It drove my mom insane, but my siblings and I kind of enjoyed it. Having a conversation with him was like a game of telephone: you never knew what he would come up with. Personally, I think he just liked being able to tune everyone out. You couldn't really rattle him either, no matter how frustrated you got. I traveled with him twice: once to visit Sarah in Australia (he was taken aside by TSA for traveling with a corkscrew - you never know when you'll need to open a bottle of wine! - and a dental pick), and when he and my mom came to visit me in London during grad school. He made my mom crazy, walking at a snail's pace, but he was always so good-natured about it that you couldn't really get mad.

Whew boy, this post is getting long. Actually, that's another thing he said. All. The. Time. "Whew, boy." Also drove my mom crazy. Also bizarrely endearing, don't you think?

I could go on and on about my grandpa. He was larger than life, the kind of character who deserves to be immortalized in more than a blog post. But for now, I'll leave you with one of his very favorite songs:

A Mock Ballad
Words by George Whiting, Music by Roland E. Llab (Ernest R. Ball)
Verse 1: I've been looking through the dictionary
For a word that's always running through my mind.
Though I love the name of brother, I was looking for another
And I must confess that word I cannot find
Can it be that all its glories are forgotten,
And it's buried with the language of the Greek?
If it is 'twill ever linger in my memory
As the first word that I heard my daddy Speak...
Chorus 1: Saloon, Saloon, Saloon. It runs through my brain like a tune.
I don't like café, And I hate cabaret, But just mention saloon and my cares fade away.
For it brings back a fond recollection of a little old low ceiling room.
With a bar, and a rail, and a dime, and a pail. Saloon, saloon, saloon.
Verse 2: I can picture swinging doors wide open.
I can almost see the sawdust on the floor.
And I dream of pals and cronies drinking highballs, steins and ponies,
I can see the name of "Ehret" on the door;
But the free lunch counter now is but a memory,
It has vanished with the joys we used to know,
Never more we'll hear that old familiar parting -
Just one drink, boys, just one more before we go.
Chorus 2: Saloon, Saloon, Saloon. Have you been forgotten so soon.
You nestled so sweet in that little side street, so respected, protected by cops on the beat.
Since you've left us the world seems in darkness, like a cloud passing over the moon.
No more joys in my life, no more lies to my wife. Saloon, saloon, saloon.

Warren Herzog: May 18, 1922 - June 29, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Writing Wednesdays: Mirror, Mirror

This morning in the shower (why is it that some of our best thinking is done in the shower?), I started thinking about my writing "career" and the ups and downs it's taken. I realized something, too; that while I may have just finished writing my seventh novel, it's only the second young adult novel I will attempt to query. The first disaster was aimed at middle grade and the next three were all women's fiction. Friday was seriously stymied by the whole "paranormal is dead" thing, and I didn't query the one I wrote last November.

And the most important thing I realized was that this book, the one I just finished, the one I'm about to query, is exactly the kind of book I've always wanted to write but never thought I was capable of.

My whole life, I had this idea that I was meant to be a cheerleader, that the other people in my life (my sister and husband, mainly) were the smart, successful ones and it was my role to be their support system. You've probably heard this Edith Wharton quote before:

"There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."

See, I always thought I was the mirror.

I never thought I was very creative or original or capable of writing the kinds of books I love - high concept fantasy novels, particularly ones where the main character is an ordinary person flung into extraordinary circumstances. When I was young, I was desperate to find something about myself that was special, or at least an opportunity to prove that I was. And I've always been drawn to characters who think they're just average and end up finding out that isn't the case at all (Harry Potter and Bella from Twilight are two very obvious examples). Because who doesn't want to become the hero of their own story, to prove to everyone that there is more to you than meets the eye?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that I think I'm remarkable in any way or that this is the novel that's going to get me published. I'm just saying that I finally wrote the kind of book I'd want to read, and that feels like a big accomplishment. It also feels like maybe I won't always be the mirror. I guess we'll see...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mommy Mondays: Brave

"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."
                                                                                                   --Nelson Mandela

Yesterday I took Jack to a ropes course in the nearby scary amusement park. The climbing section of the park is called Mowgli Park (after the Jungle Book character). It has courses for people of all ages, from a low course for little kids to what look like fairly challenging adult courses. Jack went once before with our nanny and our Swedish friend and his two little girls, but after getting suited up in his harness and making it across one obstacle, Jack planted his feet and decided he would go no further.

This time, I wasn't going to push him. We waited for the other kids (three very brave six-year-olds) to do the course and then, just as we were getting ready to leave, Jack asked to be fitted in his "roper doper," which I took to mean "harness." The other kids all decided they wanted to do the low course too, so Jack was inserted into the roper doper and away we went. Fortunately, one of my other friends' husband, who happens to be ridiculously tall, agreed to help me get Jackie across.

Jack gamely walked across the first obstacle, took one look at the second obstacle (hanging loops of rope), and started to cry.

Side note: Jack has always had a mild fear of heights. He's never been the kid to go running up to the slide at the playground. He generally requires a little help and then once he's done it a time or two, he's fine. But when we were in Switzerland, we found a jungle gym that Jack was absolutely terrified of. I ended up having to climb up it with him, then take him across a rope net, which I'll be honest didn't make me feel too fabulous either (he definitely inherited his fear of heights from me). But eventually we made it across, together.

Yesterday, I was ready to give up on the ropes course. I could feel the eyes of other parents on me, wondering why I was pushing my terrified child into doing something he clearly didn't want to do. But then, a few minutes later, a fly buzzed past Jack's ear while I was holding him. "I don't like bugs!" he cried, flapping madly at the fly. Holy crap, I thought. This kid sure has a lot of phobias for a three-year-old. And I know from personal experience that the only way to conquer a fear is to face it head on.

So we took Jack on a little tour from obstacle to obstacle, looking for one Jack would try. We finally found a suitable obstacle in a rope bridge, and my friend's husband took Jack across twice. It was so great to watch his confidence grow each time, until eventually he was able to do it by himself.

After that, Jack tried three more obstacles, gaining confidence as he went. I should note that he was the youngest kid on the course, and even though the obstacles were no more than five feet off the ground, it took a lot of guts (and a bribe of ice cream) to get through the experience. It reminded me of my own struggle to get across the balance beam as a little kid, when I had to recite "I think I can, I think I can," over and over to get across. I couldn't have been more than six, but I still remember the pride I felt when I finally made it. That was the look Jack had on his face yesterday.

I often worry that Jack didn't just inherit my fear of heights: I worry he got my insecurity, my lack of self-confidence, which held me back so much when I was younger. I fully expect him to have his own fears and insecurities over the years, but my hope is that he has the confidence to overcome those fears, that his brave little spirit continues to thrive, and that no matter what, he knows I'll always be there for him. Every step of the way.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Foreign Service Fridays: One Year Down

Well folks, we're halfway done! Over at Most Eligible Family I muse at where we are mentally at this point in our journey. Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Things I Love Thursdays: Brilliant Bookends

Today's BuzzFeed post on bookends really got me inspired. These brick bookends are my particular favorite:

I love that these are totally DIY, and for cheap, too! If there's one thing Yekat has plenty of, it's bricks. I could probably pick up two or three lying around on my way home from work...

Feeling inspired, I decided to see what else I could scrounge up online (preferably of the DIY variety, since who wants to order a pair of heavy bookends in the mail?).

These repurposed Breyer horse bookends on Etsy from Equine by Lauren are brilliant (and if I don't have a daughter, I'm gonna have a whole lot of plastic horses on my hands).

I love the look of these simple diorama-style bookends from Yuppie Love. All you would need is a square wooden frame and something cute to fill it with.

Terrariums are adorable in any context, but using them as bookends is a brilliant idea I saw in a few places. These terrarium kits from Doodle Birdie on Etsy are extra cute.

Now I'm off to see if I can find any bricks to paint!