Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ireland: Day 4

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Our planned outing with the TnCIS group was today and we headed out early to get to the Newgrange site.  (

Older than even the Egyptian pyramids at Giza and Stonehenge, the Irish passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth are some of the most impressive buildings of ancient times. These three sites are located along the River Boyne in an area that is perfect for the agricultural communities that settled there.

Ancient Irish peoples cremated their dead and placed them in great passage tombs. Unlike today, ancient people did not forget their dead and would commune with them at special times of the year.

Newgrange us one such site and has a roof box which allows the mid-winter sun to penetrate into the innermost chambers of the tomb.

One of the reasons Newgrange and its sister sites are so impressive is that much of the building materials were gathered from far away areas and floated upstream to the building site. Huge stones were dragged up from the river, had incredibly intricate designs carved into them, and were placed in their final resting spot. Many of these stones are still intact and in place today! Perhaps we should take lessons from the ancient people on how to build things that will last through the ages.


Although we cannot ask these ancient Irish people their thoughts, much can be learned from what they left behind. It is highly likely that only respected elders were allowed to enter the innermost chambers, with public rituals held outside the tombs.

Feminine symbolism is found in the egg-shaped stones and the passages within the structures while masculine symbols are seen in the various phallic objects and the stone balls.

This is especially interesting because of the connection that ancient peoples saw between death and rebirth.

As an aside to the wealth of history in the area, I found it really cool that the areas around these tombs had once again become agricultural. Farmers keep cows and sheep on the land and crow crops in the same soil of old.

On the drive from Newgrange to our surprise, the town of Bettystown, a beachfront community, I noticed something...  The major roads in Ireland are called "Motorways" instead of "Interstates." Once I'd considered it for a moment, I realize that it makes sense. In the United States we have a system of roadways that connect the states, an interstate system. However, Ireland has counties and would not need an interstate system. Instead, they have a motorway to travel across the country.

Personally, I think "Motorway" sounds quite hip, but I am definitely still attached to my "Interstates." I've traveled all my life.  :-)

At the beach, many of my classmates and I removed our shoes and played in the chilly waters of the sea. Water is the element I most identify with and whenever I get the chance to experience the nature of it, life is good.

Brianna and I stopped in a small cafe for a snack of french toast and we talked with the waitress about the trip we were on and what we had seen so far. She was quite sweet and said that most tourists passed right by the cafe, but that it was nice to hear we were having fun.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Beautiful People #19 | July Edition

Do they want to get married and/or have children? Why or why not?
     At this point in time, Quill does not see himself married with or without children.

     Ransom, coming from a large family, would like to have a large family of his own.  He imagines a house in the country, filled with at least six kids, two dogs, and a variety of fish... Sometimes, he thinks he'd like to run his own farm and get away from city life altogether.

What is their weapon of choice? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical weapon.)
     Quill's weapon of choice is words, of course.  Ransom prefers not to be in a situation that requires weapons... However, he is trained to use and owns his own firearms.

What’s the nicest thing they’ve done for someone else, and why did they do it?

Have they ever been physically violent with someone, and what instigated it?
     A fairly easygoing person, Quill has never found himself in a position where physical violence against someone else.

     A retired veteran, Ransom now works in the cyber-crime unit of a local police station. While in the military, he found himself in situations where physical violence was the only way to insure he and his fellow soldiers lived to see another day.

Are they a rule-follower or a rebel?
     Quill is a strict rule-follower, he believes that if there is a rule in place that it must have been created for a reason.

     Ransom is the rebel of their age-group and was an instigator of many "adventures" during their youth.  While he never broke any laws, Ransom is able to see when a rule is not good for a situation and react accordingly.

Are they organized or messy?
     Quill is super organized except for when Ransom comes to visit and then all bets are off.  Shoes left in the middle of the living room?  You bet.  Socks hanging from the lamp in the entry way?  Yep.  Refrigerator all out of whack?  Definitely.

What makes them feel loved, and who was the last person to make them feel that way?

What do they eat for breakfast?
     On mornings that he is scheduled to work, Quill has a breakfast of grape nuts cereal, some fruit, and a cup of fresh coffee.

     Ransom is NOT a morning person. As such, he often just grabs a granola bar to eat on his commute and a cup of coffee when he arrives at the station.

Have they ever lost someone close to them? What happened?
     Quill's grandmother died of natural causes when he was eleven years old. They had always been close and he was absolutely devastated by her death.

What’s their treat of choice? (Or, if not food, how else do they reward themselves?)
     Both men enjoy being outdoors and, whenever possible, escape from city life to hike through the woods, up a mountain, or just go camping.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Beautiful People #18 | June Edition

What are their first childhood memory?
     One of Quill's most vivid childhood memories is of the day he met Ransom. It was at Ransom's sister's wedding and both young boys were tired (and a little cranky) from being dressed up all day long. Their mothers, who had been friends since college, encouraged the boys to play together for the afternoon.

     When he remembers Ransom's first words to him, Quill always as to stifle a laugh... "My sister just got married. I had to dress up all fancy and stupid, but it was nice, I guess. She won't stop smiling. Hey! You wanna get married? We can be married and then you won't have to frown anymore 'cause you'll be happy all the time like my sister."

What were their best and worst childhood experiences?
     Quill's best childhood experience was becoming a big brother and his worst was when he broke his arm falling out of a treehouse.

What was their childhood home like?
     Quill's parents still live in his childhood home. It is an older, Victorian style house that was cozy when family came to visit, but still had enough space that people weren't stepping all over each other. He enjoys being able to visit the house he grew up in and has many good memories that were made there.

What’s something that scared them as child?
     When Quill was very little, he was scared that aliens would come and take him away in their spaceship.

     As for Ransom? He always said that he wasn't scared of anything, when he actually was a little afraid of the dark.

Who did they look up to most?
     Quill has always been enamored with Amelia Earhart and would love to get his private pilot license and fly his own plane to different locations. Of course, he needs to somehow earn enough money to pay for pilot school AND the payment on a plane, lol.

Favorite and least favorite childhood foods?
     Quill thinks that pie is the best thing in the entirety of the world and Brussels sprouts are from the devil. When he was little, Quill's favorite pie was apple pie but his tastes have changed as he's grown older and he now prefers strawberry rhubarb pie. His mother tried to feed him Brussels sprouts once and never attempted it again.

     Ransom likes his mother's chili the best. It is a recipe that's been in his family for generations and he has grown up eating Mexican food. His Abuela has been known to rant for many minutes on the tastelessness of Americanized Mexican food. While he isn't actually a picky eater, Ransom prefers a lot of meat in his diet and not so many vegetables. He has always taken a bit of convincing to eat anything green or leafy.

If they had their childhood again, would they change anything?
     The only thing Quill would change about his youth is the year in high school where he was terrified that something was wrong with him, that somehow he was broken and that his brokenness would be found out and he'd be hated for it.

What kind of child were they? Curious? Wild? Quiet? Devious?
     Quill was a quiet child, but extremely curious about the world around him. He was always getting caught in places that he wasn't supposed to be because he would let his best friend, Ransom, talk him into exploring the woods near their houses.

What was their relationship to their parents and siblings like?
     At first, Quill was jealous of all the attention his little sister was getting from the adults in his life. He had been an only child for seven years and suddenly there was this screaming, red-faced baby taking his parents away from him. It took a few months for Quill to stop feeling jealous and to understand that babies just need a lot of attention and that his parents still loved him. After 'Lizabet grew out of her colicky stage, his parents would spend one-on-one time with Quill to make sure he didn't feel left out.

     Quill loves his parents and appreciates their support of him and his little sister. Even from across the country, he feels safe and loved because he knows that his family is there for him.

What did they want to be when they grew up, and what did they actually become?
     Quill wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up and even though he went to school to become a librarian, he has considered becoming a reserve firefighter and working part-time at a local firehouse.

     When he was little, all Ransom wanted to be when he grew up was a pirate! Sadly, he learned that piracy isn't a legal way to earn one's income and chose instead to go into technology. He now works with a police cyber crime unit.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Ireland: Day 3

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Our first experience riding the Hop On, Hop Off bus wasn't particularly great. The driver, a Dublin native, rather brusquely stated that he didn't like to hear his riders' speaking. We were told, "Your talking has made me lose my track." which appears to be interchangeable with the Americanism, "You made me lose my place."
My instructor commented... "Not very nice! I didn't hear this."
I have noticed that the Irish phrasing sounds more solid, almost as if it carries the weight of age. The American way of saying things is often very impudent sounding, often quite brash. We are a young country, after all, and the older I get the more that I am able to recognize this.

Knowing the Irish are particularly proud of their breweries, I looked forward to getting a tour of one of the local facilities.

Teeling Distillery is the only working Distillery in Dublin. It is a small, family-owned business that returned to Dublin and became the producer of the first Dublin whiskey to be distilled within the city in over forty years.

Peter, a fast-talking, highly knowledgeable young man was our tour guide. He explained how the distillery tried to purchase the original land and when they couldn't, decided to locate in the historic Liberties. The Liberties were located beyond the city walls and residents felt "at liberty" to brew whiskeys and beers without having to pay taxes on what they produced.

We learned about the different ingredients and cooking processes that the Teeling Distillery has used for years. From the selection of grains to the three copper vats where the solution is cooked down to become their signature whiskeys, everything at Teelings speaks of quality.

Peter sitting in front of Natalie.
Traditions of old and new techniques come together in the three vats named after the Teeling daughters -- Alison, Natalie and Rebecca -- to create a wonderfully smooth small batch whiskey.

During the tasting portion of the tour, Peter explained the correct way to drink good Irish Whiskey...
  1. Start by swirling it in the cup. The natural oils of a good whiskey will leave a residue called peaks and tears on the glass.
  2. Second, smell the whiskey, breathing in the different scents.
  3. Third, take a small sip and swallow, breathing out immediately afterward to allow the alcohol fumes of that first taste to escape.
  4. After these steps, one may continue drinking, allowing each mouthful to sit on the tongue as the flavors and depths are revealed.
As the Teeling family says...

At the Farmer's Market next door, a kind sort of haggling over prices occurred as vendors and their customers decided the worth of vegetables, fruits, meats, and more. The people in attendance were of the community, speaking familiarly with vendors and other customers, reminding me of the small-town grocery store where I grew up. It seems that much of Ireland still has that small-town sense of community. The people truly care about each other and their country.

We traveled through Dublin by Hop On, Hop Off bus and hopped off across the River Liffey at the Story of the Irish show.

Guided through history by an actor portraying an ancient Celtic god, Crannog, we learned of the origins of the Irish people in their own words. Crannog is one of the Tuatha De Dannan, a people of magic who are honor bound to tell the truth, and is the guide who protects you as you travel through history.

The original Irish people migrated up the coast of Europe at the end of the last Ice Age. A few of these people crossed the water in skin boats to the island of Ireland, leaving the coast of a Britain still connected to the continent.

From that first landing the island was able to escape much of the war and conquering forces of the mainland. The island of Ireland was (and has been) so isolated from the world that the gene pool remained undiluted for thousands of years and a prosperous agricultural community developed. This group of people were technologically advanced and traded with lands as far away as Persia!

The most wonderful thing I was able to take away from the show is that there is currently a revival to bring back many of the ancient Irish traditions, the culture, and language.

Hearing tales of ancient Irish kings and of the steadfast, enduring soul of the people was truly inspiring.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ireland: Day 2

FRIDAY, MAY 13, 2016

Walking to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells didn't afford us the opportunity to hear much of the local language. Conversations became background noise as we entered the college grounds.

Honestly, the only draw I felt to the Book of Kells is the huge undertaking and great accomplishment that it was for the times.

One of the most interesting things about the Book of Kells is that there were a number of different monks who had a hand in its creation. While it was not unusual for scribes and artist to embellish the copies they wrote, the intricacies and dedication to detail shown in the Book of Kells is truly remarkable!

The symbols of the Four Evangelists (from Wikipedia)
Written over a thousand years ago, the Book of Kells is proof of the talented artisans living in Ireland at the time.

Not only does the Book of Kells share the gospel of Christ, it also incorporates imagery and symbology from ancient Celtic beliefs. Throughout the book, Celtic crosses, knot work, and creatures can be seen in vivid, full color detail.

I was impressed most by the use of color in the Book of Kells. From the commonly used yellow ochre to the highly expensive lapis lazuli, pigments were gathered from as far away as Southeast Asia.

Even today, the artwork contained in the Book of Kells is easily seen and enjoyed in its original, hand-written state. It remains nearly pristine on the vellum pages and can be viewed on a daily basis by visitors to Trinity College.

The Latin in which the Book of Kells, the Book of Darrow, and the Book of Armagh are written is the language used by the Catholic church. What is interesting about this is that, while it is a dead language, Latin is still widely used in Catholic church ceremonies around the world. Not so dead after all, is it?

The Long Room
Above the exhibition floor is the Long Room. Originally the main chamber of the Old Library, this room now contains over 200,000 of the oldest books in the Trinity College Library collection. These books are shelved on the original shelves and in gallery bookcases. Being able to see materials that are hundreds of years old is a priceless opportunity that I won't soon forget!
As an aside, I was allergic to Trinity College. During our entire visit to Ireland, I only had an allergic reaction at the college. Alas, I will never be an archivist if I'm allergic to the materials I am supposed to be working with!  :P
In addition to the many priceless books at the Trinity College Library, there is also a harp. The oldest surviving harp in Ireland, it is an emblem of the early bardic societies.

After a brief communication snafu, Miranda, Bree, Sara, Brianna and I found a coffee shop with WiFi. We spent almost thirty minutes getting to know each other better. Just like the coffee shops back home, students were completing work and friends were meeting to catch up with one another. Some things appear to be universal and coffee shops being a place for the community is one such thing. Yay!
My instructor made the following note in my journal. "So glad you did all become friends! --Doug B."

Though small, our next stop proved to be quite an interesting little museum. The collection of the Dublin Writers Museum is housed in an 18th century mansion. The building has suffered from water damage and parts of the exhibit had been removed for restoration.

Even with the missing pieces, the items remaining in the exhibit and the self-guided audio tour painted a memorable image of the historical significance of Irish writers and literature.

We were even able to see Samuel Beckett's infamous telephone! He had special buttons that would block or allow calls only when he desired them and only his close friends new when the accept calls button would be pressed.

The reading of an excerpt from Bram Stoker's Dracula had be grinning long after I heard it. The dramatic flare of this most famous vampire story isn't particularly poetic, but it is vivid and imaginative. I would love to read Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan La Fanu. It would be very interesting to compare the two stories that, quite possibly, started the tradition of vampire novelizations.

After the tour, I made a point of talking with the security guard. I asked him why he chose the job he now held. I was rewarded by his reply that the opportunity to meet people from all around the world is what makes his job so rewarding. We talked a little about American politics and it was most entertaining to see how his accent became more pronounced as he became more and more passionate about the topic.

The Irish do not like Donald Trump in the least.

Walking the streets of Dublin on Friday night was a wonder! The city was absolutely buzzing with activity; both locals and tourists enjoying the beautiful weather, taking to the streets with friends and family. I heard so many accents during this first evening in the city; from German and Swedish to Korean and British and, of course, the native Irish lilt.

Celeste, Christine, Brianna, and I walked for absolutely AGES trying to find something for dinner! It seemed that every place we stopped was closed and we began to wonder if we should just find a convenience store and grab something from the shelves. When we finally found a restaurant we all liked the sound of, it turned out that they were out of the menu items we wanted. *sigh*
Finally, we decided on "authentic oriental food" and ate at the Noodle House. Yay, food!

The girl in the restaurant where we ate dinner spoke with a British accent, calling the bathroom a loo instead of toilet. She was very kind and explained that chicken gougan is sliced chicken breast, breaded and cooked.

I am curious to find out if the chicken gougan recipe matches at all with that of a chichen nugget or strip.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Ireland: Day 1

I will be sharing a series of posts about a recent study abroad trip to Ireland I took with my sister, Brianna.

While in Ireland, we were required to keep a daily journal for the World Literature II class that was included in our final grade at the end of the trip... These posts will be all of what I wrote in the journal, additional thoughts (which will be indented), and pictures that weren't shared with family via my Facebook page.

THURSDAY, MAY 12, 2016

Conveniently, we flew out of Memphis International.
Meeting at the Memphis International Airport, all seven study abroad students in one place, made this trip suddenly real!

Snacks aboard our Delta flight. *nom nom nom*
I was too tired from my first international flight to notice more than the new accents in the Dublin airport. The first, and most readily noticeable, was the Irish accents and the second was that of the neighboring Brits.
Our final assignment for the World Literature class was to write about the language in Ireland. What were the differences? Nuances that we heard? Accents? Did the Irish use different words for things than Americans? It was quite a broad assignment and it was difficult to get into because of that.
I had heard Irish accents before traveling to Ireland, so it wasn't really a shock to hear the accent again. In fact, it was really nice to hear the almost musical quality of the lilting language as the locals talked with us.
One of the most different things I noticed while in Ireland was how nice everyone was. People in Ireland seemed to be genuinely kind and, in every interaction I had with them, they were interested in me as a person and making sure that I enjoyed every part of my trip.
That first evening, Brianna and I walked a classmate, Celeste, back to her hotel. Because of a scheduling snafu, our group was split between two different hotels while in Dublin. On the return trip, we stopped at a McDonald's restaurant for Street Passes. I only recently got into playing games on the Nintendo 3DS and (thanks to Corey B.) became addicted to collecting as many street passes as I possibly could... What better place to get exotic street passes than across the pond?

I was hoping that the menu (and staff) would say chips instead of fries, but it was not to be. I contented myself to eating a small order of french fries.
Interestingly, McDonald's is one of Ireland's largest employers and they started operating in the country in 1977! This is not something that I think is all that amazing, it's just interesting. I've never been a huge fan of fast food, but it was fascinating to see the different menu items they offered that I've never seen in America...
  • Fish fingers
  • Sugar donut
  • Twisty fries
  • Chocolate filled donut
  • "Toasties" for breakfast
We went to sleep that first night exhausted and excited all at once. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Beautiful People #1 | June Edition

The Beautiful People meme, created by the Paper Fury blog, is a way for writers to get to know their characters better.  When I found this meme, it looked really interesting and (though it took awhile to get started) I decided to start with the first edition.

Join me and get to know Quill and the other characters from my 398.2 novels...
June 2015 Edition

What is their full name and is there a story behind why they got it?
     Quinton Caldwell. His nickname is "Quill," which he received from classmates due to the first ad last letters of his name... Qui-ll.

How old are they, and when were they born?
     Quill is 27-years-old and was born on December 21 during the winter solstice.

Describe their physical appearance. (Bonus questions: 1. What is their race/ nationality/ ethnicity? 2. Do you have a picture of them? If so, include it!) 
     Quill is happy to claim that he is five feet and eight inches tall, just a little shorter than his best friend Ransom. He has green eyes. If he could ever decide just what he wants to do with it, Quill would get his hair dyed anything other than the mouse brown it is now. He thinks it is boring and one-note in both color and texture.
     Though they've lived in the United States for the last four generations, Quill's family is of both German and English descent.

Describe your character’s personality first in one word, and then elaborate with a few sentences. 
     Quiet. When excited, Quill does tend to speak on the too fast side, but he is normally soft-spoken and is careful to enunciate his words clearly. Quill's favored form of exercise is yoga and running. He wakes early in order to perform sun salutations each day and runs three times a week, weather permitting.

What theme song(s) fit their personality and story arc?
     For the first book in this series, Adventures in Solitude by The New Pornographers fits best with both Quill's personality and the arc of the story.

Which one of the seven deadly sins describes your character?
     If pressed, Quill might admit to being greedy about his books.

If they were an element (fire, water, earth, air), which one would they be?
     If Quill were an element, he would be air because it is able to move through and around things.

What is their favorite word? 
     Quill's favorite word? That is certainly a difficult question, since all words are just a combination of 26 letters (in the English alphabet).

Who’s one person they really miss?
     His best friend since childhood, Ransom Sanders.

What sights, sounds, and smells remind them of that person?
     Being outdoors, in the woods, always reminds Quill of his friend. In their youth, Ransom and Quill often camped in their backyards, spent time in their tree-house, and explored the nearby forest.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Beautiful People #17 | May Edition

The Beautiful People meme, created by Cait at Paper Fury and Skye at Further Up and Further In, is a way for writers to get to know their characters better. This entry is my first time actually linking to the meme, but be on the lookout as I fill out older questionnaires from the site.

Join me and get to know Quill and the other characters from my 398.2 novels...
May 2016 Edition

How often do they smile? Would they smile at a stranger?
     Quill finds himself smiling almost daily at the antics of his owl-friend, Des. He tries to be kind to strangers and hopes that by sharing a smile with someone, he can make their day a little better.

What is the cruelest thing they’ve ever been told? And what was their reaction?
     The cruelest thing Quill was ever told was that he was an abomination and that he needed to be cured of his sickness. Even with the support of his friends and family, Quill continues to struggle with the memory of these harsh words. He has never reconciled with the Uncle who said these things.

What is the kindest thing they’ve ever been told? And what was their reaction?

What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
     The most memorable event of Quill's childhood is his sister, Elizabeth's first birthday. He remembers being confused (and frustrated) that he wasn't allowed to have a piece of cake... even though 'Lizabet was too little to have any. Ransom got some and he was only a little bit older than Quill. It just wasn't fair to a seven-year-old Quill.
     The reason he remembers this so well, is because it is one of the first times he was allowed to hold his sister without one of his parents helping him.

What book (a real actual published book!) do you think your character would benefit from reading?
    "The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life" by Noble Smith.

Have they ever been seriously injured? How severely? How did they react?
     No, Quill has never been seriously injured. He was accident prone as most children can be and experienced his own fair share of scrapes and bruises, but hasn't broken anything nor has he needed any surgeries.

Do they like and get along with their neighbors?
     Back home, yes, Quill gets along with all of his neighbors. He grew up with many of them, so they are long-time friends of his family.
     Quill hasn't had the chance to get to know many of his new neighbors in the apartment complex in Montana. Some of them keep odd hours and others seem to party long into the night, so he isn't sure if they will get along when they finally meet.

On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being easy and 10 being difficult) how easy are they to get along with?
     Those who have met him would say that Quill is fairly easy to get a long with. He can be a little withdrawn and quiet until he gets to know someone, but after that first hurdle is passed things 

If they could travel anywhere in the world, where would they go?
     If he could travel anywhere, Quill would choose to go to Alaska. The landscapes are amazing and both the people and animals that call the area home are resilient. He would love the opportunity to spend time exploring and learning about the culture of the area.

Who was the last person they held hands with?
     Excluding handshakes, the last person Quill held hands with was Ransom.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Battle of the Brains

One of my favorite things about working in the Youth Services department at the library, are the opportunities outside of our walls and I was excited to be asked to attend the 2016 Battle of the Brains competition at Houston High School in Germantown, Tennessee.  Battle of the Brains is a competition where young adults in the community are tasked with creating solutions to existing problems and to help assist in the planning of the future for their community.

This year, students were instructed to use math and science to tackle issues affecting Germantown's future.  I saw projects ranging from a station to change out the batteries of electric cars to increase range, car radios that would automatically turn volume levels down, a sort of hover train transit system, and many more!

I took the chance to write a little more about two of my favorite projects, one of which one First Place!

"Classroom of the Future"

Lucas M. and Alejandro S. are two students who are passionate about learning.  These are two young men who are dissatisfied with the current education system and who have spent countless hours pursuing topics discussed in the classroom in their own time.

Their project, Classroom of the Future, is an idea for a school where students can learn life skills, have the opportunity to be hands on with technology and other resources, and (best of all) are encouraged to learn and focus on topics they are passionate about.

It is encouraging and inspiring to see that youth in our community are passionate about learning and are concerned about the education system enough to come up with a plan to make it better.

"Sprinkler Sensors"

The four students who worked on the solution for over-consumption of water for lawns are resourceful and excited about their project.  Their project considered three main areas; a rain level detector, a soil moisture sensor, and grass types working together to conserve water in Germantown.

The use of Fescue grass, a drought resistant grass that has deep roots and can help prevent erosion is just one part of the project. This grass would appeal to Germantown residents and businesses because it stays green year round.

Now, the two most important aspects of this project are the rain level detector which, unlike current models that are tripped by any rainfall, would only be activated when a certain level of rainfall has been reached.

Additionally, a smarter soil moisture sensor would monitor the level of moisture in the soil rather than the mere existence of moisture.  These three components were combined to create a feasible plan that could be implemented in the very near future.

Congratulations to the winning team; Chae-Yeon P., Sally H., Mr. Kim (whose first name I did not get, sorry), and Hameedha K.

The 2016 Winners!
And many congratulations to all of the students that participated in the 2016 Battle of the Brains competition.  I was inspired by your passion and dedication and can't wait to see what you create next.  The sky is the limit and you are already flying!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Dazzling.  I think that is the word that best describes The Force Awakens.  As I walked out of the the theater, I was left with how this newest addition to the Star Wars franchise made me feel.

While I didn't notices specific details like the star fleet stationed in the Hosnian system or that Poe has a custom X-Wing, I was so drawn into the roller coaster of a film that the details didn't matter as much as the story did.

Please note that this post will contain spoilers.
If you have not yet seen the film, you may want to skip this post.

My absolute favorite thing about The Force Awakens is the lead cast.  From Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) to the London born Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn) this cast has diversity from the opening scenes onward.

Why don't we start with the ladies?  There are many women who have strong roles in this film, all of whom have an important part to play in The Force Awakens.

From Rey's hopeful optimism that her family will return for her and her grit and drive to remain on a world where she struggles to make a living while she waits; to Leia, who no longer trusts in the Senate to remain in-corrupt and has chosen to take on the role of General, leading her own military force while hoping her estranged husband and son will return to her; to Lupita Nyong'o's Maz, who watches the world go by her and has the ability to recognize a person's character through their eyes; and finally Jessica Henwick's Jess Pava, a pilot in the Resistance who flies under the call sign of Blue Three in the X-Wing squadron led by Poe Dameron.

To have a female character be the main focus of her own story and to see how she chooses to be the author of her own tale is wonderful and heartbreaking and inspiring all at once.  This is a girl who was abandoned (possibly sold into indentured work) on the desert planet of Jakku, a sad sort of Tattooine-wannabe full of swindlers and those struggling to survive, and who has to learn how to survive on her own.

We are first introduced to Rey as she is scavenging parts from the crashed remains of ships leftover from the Battle of Jakku (which isn't mentioned in the film, but is covered in a lead-up novel).  There is an innocence in Rey's steadfast belief that her family will come back for her, as she marks each passing day on the walls the destroyed AT-AT Walker that is her home.  While she is unquestionably capable of taking care of herself, Rey also has a soft side which is seen when she rescues BB-8 from a scavenger who would have torn it apart, in the flowers and doll inside her home, and the look of sorrow and resignation that she gives the older woman she is sitting with while cleaning her scavenged finds.

Rey is a woman of both physical skill and strong morals who chooses to continue living meal-to-meal rather than give up BB-8.  Able to understand binary, Rey knows that BB-8 is looking for his master and that he is a part of the Resistance, so when they meet up with a man wearing his stolen jacket, she and BB-8 team-up to take him down.  Left with no choice but to run with BB-8 and the stranger she only just met (and who keeps holding her hand, lol), Rey takes to piloting a starship with ease, fending off Tie Fighters and escaping into the expanse of space.

Another of my favorites was General Leia Organa who, like her birth mother, is unable to stand idly by while corrupt politicians are in power.  Unlike Padmé, Leia has chosen to lead her own military group and defend the Republic from the First Order.  She has been beaten down by life, her husband and brother have left and she no longer knows where her son is, though she continues to pray that he finds the good in himself and returns home to her.  Leia has never allowed her losses to be what defines the path of her future, carrying on even when the odds are stacked against her and those she loves are in danger.  It was lovely to see how she had aged and the respect that her experience and knowledge have gained her.  Leia is the master of her own fate and continues to uphold the Organa family name and honor the parents of her heart, Bail and Breha of Alderaan.

Next on the list is Poe Dameron, a pilot in the Resistance who can fly anything and who is originally from Yavin 4.  Poe has chosen to follow in his mother's footsteps and become a pilot, but when the corruption of the senate becomes too much for him he joins the Resistance.  Poe is one of the best pilots in the universe and is one of Leia's most-trusted operatives.

What I liked about Poe was his goodness.  Instead of running with the map fragment, he entrusts it to BB-8 and returns to fight for the villagers, a decision which ultimately leads to his capture and torture by Kylo Ren of the First Order.  We don't see much of Poe after he escapes the First Order with FN-2187, who he humanizes by naming Finn, but his presence is felt in Finn's acceptance of his name, carrying his jacket, and both Finn and Rey's delivering BB-8 to the Resistance.  His mission is not abandoned, only passed to others to complete.

Something I would like to see in later films, is how Poe deals with the torture he endured at the hands of Kylo Ren and the First Order.  The person he idolizes may be the only person who can truly understand what it is like to be tortured by a force-user and I would appreciate seeing Leia counseling him as he recovers.  It would make his character more accessible to audience members.

Moving on from Poe, we go straight to FN-2187 who becomes an instant friend of Poe's when the pilot names him Finn...

Now, Finn is the character that I feel like many audience members can most identify with.  Not because he was kidnapped and brainwashed to fight for a cause he doesn't believe in, but because he's trying to find his place in the world.  Luckily for Finn, he has two people (and a droid) he can count on to keep an eye on him and to guard his back.

Like most of the current Stormtroopers, was stolen from his family at a young age and brainwashed into becoming a perfect soldier for the New Order.  However, something didn't quite stick and during his first mission Finn chooses not to join in the slaughter of the villagers on Jakku, instead lowering his blaster rifle and incurring the wrath of his superiors and the possibility of reprogramming.

It takes a certain kind of strength to go against everything you've ever known, to turn away from the only family you've ever had, and walk your own path in life.  Finn has the potential to be one of the strongest characters in all of the Star Wars films, believing himself to be a coward running from his fears while, in reality, supporting and protecting his friends and those who need his help.

There is so much more that I could talk about, lol, but this post is already super long and has all the important bits that I wanted to share.

At times, it felt like I was re-watching the original trilogy, but that isn't really a bad thing when the overall feel of the film was uniquely Star Wars. ;-)

In conclusion:  The Force Awakens is a wonderful addition to the Star Wars franchise.  It is both a spiritual successor of the original trilogy and a true continuation of the story.  If you still haven't seen this movie, what are you waiting for?  It has aerial battles, awesome characters, and action galore, so go buy a ticket!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Review of George

Written by Alex Gino, George is the story of a child who is struggling in a world that doesn't see her for who she is.  All they can see is a boy when George knows in every part of her that she is a girl.  Early on, we learn that George's greatest wish this school year is to play Charlotte in the fourth grade production of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.  She struggles against a teacher who believes that George's audition is a joke, a classmate who is vicious and cruel, and a mother who doesn't know what to do with a son who says he is a girl.

Throughout the story, George finds strength and encouragement in her best friend Kelly.  The daughter of a musician, Kelly takes the revelation that George is a girl quite well.  She still needs some time to think things through, but is ultimately both accepting and supportive of her friend going so far as to allow George to wear some of her clothes on a trip to the zoo and calling her Melissa, as George has requested.

Ultimately, George is able to take on the role of Charlotte, a performance that is surprisingly well-accepted by her peers and most of the school faculty.  A blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment is when the Principal quietly lets George know that her door is always open if George should need someone to speak to.  Support like that is hard to find in the cis world and is nigh impossible to come across in the trans world.

While I could feel my heart breaking from the first moment that George has to hide in the bathroom with her girl magazines and the way she is subtly disgusted with her own body, this story has a happy ending that will leave readers with a sense of hope in the future.

One of the things I liked most about this story is that it is told from George's point of view and George never once sees herself as a boy.  From the beginning of the book all the way to the last page, George is a girl.  Readers immediately understand that this is a girl who just happens to be in the body of a boy and, hopefully, will encourage tolerance and understanding in those who read this story.

This is a fairly short book, easy to read through in one sitting, and is perfectly relatable to the audience it was written for...  It is of note that George is the first book of its type to be written for middle grade readers.  It was an enjoyable read for me, as an adult, and was a great way to read about a child transgender character.  The author has written an amazing book that will appeal to reader's of all ages, but one that is also accessible to children and that presents the transgender topic in a way that is easy to understand.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Review of Baby Penguins Everywhere!


As a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, I grabbed this book on first glance simply because penguins and then because BABY PENGUINS!!!

What starts out as a cute story about a lonely lady penguin finding a magical hat, from which emerges an astonishing number of baby penguins, soon becomes a lesson in self-care.  Even in the midst of those we know and love, people (and penguins) sometimes need a moment to themselves... to regroup, to think, or just to catch one's breath.

Sometimes, in the struggle to be supportive and make ourselves available for friends and family, we forget all about me-time.  It is important to take some time for ourselves, to reflect on our lives and where we are headed, and it is my plan in 2016 to devote at least a morning to spending time with myself.

Parents will probably enjoy the moral of the story more than their children, but this book is a great way to let kids know that its okay to need alone time.

In the end, Ms. Penguin and her flock of baby penguins are happy as can be spending time with each other as they frolic and play in their frozen home, even while they remember that it's okay to need alone time... That there will always be people (or penguins) there for them when they come back into the craziness of family and friends.

A solid book to start the new year of with!