Smell the Soup, Cool the Soup

I used to sleep like a log every night. I could drink a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and turn out my lamp and fall asleep before I was finished with my prayers. I would wake up whenever forced to, many hours later, often in the exact same position I was in when I fell asleep. No more. Those days are long gone, and not just gone, but a distant memory that I can hardly believe is true.

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I’m not sure what it is and then, again, I’m absolutely certain what it is. First, age. Martha Stewart loves to brag about how she only sleeps four or five hours a night and wakes up totally fresh, energized, and ready to make millions. I’m beginning to think I’m channeling Martha Stewart’s sleep habits; alas, I’m not channeling her energy or millions.

Second, the ugly cousin of aging (for women at least), menopause. It changes you. It changes a lot of things that doctors and books don’t tell you about: your hair, your skin, your metabolism, your energy levels. I think part of my current sleep pattern is the after-effects of menopause. I may be finished with it, but it doesn’t seem to be finished with me.

Third, stress. Let’s see, now, just what does Michelle have to be stressed about? I’m so lucky, truly blessed in so many ways. I’m happily married to my best friend for 31 years and counting, I have two beautiful, talented, intelligent daughters, I am (relatively) healthy, and I have food, clothing, and shelter when so many are much less fortunate. I have, most importantly of all, my faith, which has kept me steady and strong through life’s challenges, disappointments, and losses.

But, right now, stress has the better of me, mostly over this pandemic, which has kept me out of my classroom this year, doing something I truly loved. I toss and turn all night, awake more than asleep, but during the brief periods of sleep I find myself dreaming of school, and finally, at 2:30, I am wide awake and unable to settle back to sleep until around 5:30 or so, when very uncharacteristically, I wake up again.

Last night, rather than fight it, I decided to read for a bit. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I had left off in my current novel, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, who also wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Now, there are times when books are put into your hands for a reason. This book was not recommended to me, however. I chose this Maria Semple book simply because it was immediately available for loan on Libby. I enjoyed my first Maria Semple book about Bernadette, and I enjoyed the movie adaptation starring Cate Blanchett. I expected to enjoy this second book of hers as well. What I didn’t expect was advice–just what I needed exactly when I needed it–via one of the characters, an eight-year-old boy no less, coming less than a quarter of my way into the book.

The main character, Eleanor Flood, is about to have a meltdown when her eight-year-old son Timby gives her advice:

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.”

As I read it, of course, I had to try it. And, it worked. I smelled the soup and cooled the soup about three times and I felt myself relax a little. I read for a while and then slept for a while, alas, waking at 5:30 as my new normal. Yes, I smelled the soup and cooled the soup once, had a sip of water, and drifted off to sleep once again.

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It’s too early in Semple’s book to know if I’ll enjoy it as much as Bernadette, but if the only thing I gained was this delightful metaphor for taking a deep breath and letting it out, then, it was time well spent. It’s not the first time I’ve learned a life lesson from a book!

Goodreads = Good Reading Habits

I’ve been tracking my reading on Goodreads since August of 2008, so this month marks twelve years of books I’ve read, books I want to read (my “TBR” list), and sometimes, my thoughts on them. I wish I were better at writing reviews of all the books I read, but maybe this is something I can work on now that I’m home all day.

Users of Goodreads rate the books they read using a five-star rating system. This system isn’t perfect, no allowances for half-stars or a way to indicate you have abandoned a book you started but didn’t like, but overall it’s a great way to keep track of your reading life. Lots of people use bullet journals and artsy-looking notebooks to track their reading, but I’m much better at keeping track of things on my phone with a few clicks.

Back in the day when libraries were open, you know, in PC (pre-COVID), I would stand in front of the new arrivals bookshelves and add things to my TBR list in Goodreads. It’s easy to do, just by hovering your phone over the barcode of the book (if the library hasn’t pasted its own barcode on top of it) and it automatically adds it to your list! When you start a book, you scan the barcode, and then you can update it as you read, either by number of pages read or percentage of book read if on an e-reader. Now that Amazon has purchased Goodreads, my Kindle automatically connects my e-books purchased through Amazon or downloaded through Libby (library e-book and audio-book loaning app).

One of the things I love most about Goodreads is the Reading Challenge option. Each year you set your own Reading Challenge–how many books you want to read, and as the year goes by, the Reading Challenge tells you if you are on track to meet your goal. If only I paid as much attention to the number of calories I consume each day as I do to the number of books I read each year!

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At the beginning of the pandemic, library due dates were deleted from all accounts, and all fines were erased. I had a stack of library books, as I always do, but for weeks and weeks, I could not focus to read them. I was spending so much energy converting my in-class lesson plans to virtual lesson plans, I just could not pick up a book to read for “fun.” There was so much uncertainty, so many disturbing news reports, so many deaths, who could read for fun?

At some point, my love of reading kicked back in, and the first thing I picked up from my stack was the last book I checked out before the pandemic, in fact, my local branch of MCPL was the last public place I visited before the lockdown. Luckily, it was a very compelling story and I whizzed right through it. I was back! From there, I plowed through my stack and then started in on my Kindle, books I had purchased from special deals via BookBub or Modern Mrs. Darcy, or books I checked out from MCPL via Libby.

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One of the silver linings of not teaching this year has been extra time to read, and I am reading for myself, not necessarily pre-reading for things I want to teach or recommend to students. Now, if I could just get my little furry friend out of my reading chair…

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Scrabbling for a Win

words in a wordWhen I was a little girl my mother would write a long word on a piece of paper (thanksgiving, disappointment, neighbors, etc.) and challenge me to try to write down as many words as I could by using just the letters from that word. She would do this to pass the time or when we were waiting for a doctor’s appointment. We would race to write down our words and shield our paper from each other. After a certain period of time, we would stop and I would call out my words to her. If she had the word on her list, we both scratched our word out. We would then count up our points (1 point for two letter words, 2 points for three-letter words, etc.). The interesting thing is that she didn’t “let” me win. She beat me a lot of the time. She did, however, give me strategies for getting better. “Start with one letter and make all the words you can by using that letter as the first letter. Then move on to another letter. If the base word has an “s”, list all of your words in the plural form after you write them down in the singular form. Look for other suffixes you can add to your base words.” Today this game, as with many paper and pencil games of the past, can be played online. Interested? Here’s the link: http://www.wordplays.com/help/words-in-a-word-game/

JumbleAnother of her favorites was the Jumble puzzle that was in the newspaper everyday. She would challenge me to see how many of the words I could do without using a pencil and paper. Again, she never let me win. I date these little games with my mother as the genesis of my love of letters, and perhaps for my very competitive spirit when it comes to board games.

boggleWe went from that to Boggle, a game I dearly love. Boggle was the reverse of Words in a Word, as the letters were there and had to touch one another to be used in the words being created.

Fast forward to an older me asking for a Scrabble board game for Christmas. I received it but no one in my family would play with me. It turns out that my mother only really liked doing the little word game on paper, or playing Boggle, but not fitting the words she created into a crossword pattern on a board. My brothers, younger than me, were outdoorsy types and had no interest in sitting inside playing a board game. So, years went by without me actually playing the game–until I met Tom.

In 1987, my husband and I started dating while we were both in the cast of the local community theatre’s summer production of the musical Annie. We started playing Scrabble then, and he was quite good. He regularly beat me, badly. At the end of that summer, sadly, he had to return to Virginia for his second year of grad school. a love letter to my sweetieOne night, lonely and missing him, I got out my Scrabble board and “wrote” him a love letter of sorts. I mailed him the photo along with newspaper clippings about his beloved New Orleans Saints.

I have to admit, I am not a good sport when it comes to losing. In fact, back then, I wasn’t much of a good sport at winning either. Finally I had found someone who loved Scrabble as much as me, and it was just more evidence that he was “the one”. We played frequently, however, in spite of my poor sportsmanship, so much so that for our wedding reception, I made a “groom’s cake” for my husband, using the letters from my old Scrabble board to decorate it.groom's cake at our wedding

Once we had married and were living in Maryland, we would fly home for Christmas to visit our families, spending half of the trip with my parents, and half of the trip with his parents. After his dad came home from their family business, we would play Scrabble, sometimes just the three of us, sometimes one of Tom’s other brothers would play as well. They were all good Scrabble players, and my skills improved with each game. two letter word listI began to study the two-letter word list, because in my increased attention to strategy, I realized the two-letter word list was the key to being able to maximize points as well as finding a place to play the elusive “bingo”, the seven-letter word.

Initially my husband and I played on the original old Scrabble board that I had received many years ago. Shortly after we were married, a co-worker gave us a new Scrabble board, a much fancier version that had the board covered in a plastic grid that kept the letters from sliding about, with the whole thing sitting atop a lazy Susan. The new board with its advancements made the game much better for us and we played even more. And, that “new board” saw a lot of use, both here in Maryland, as well as in Belgium, where we lived from 2002-2004. The “old board” also made the trip across the pond, however, as we packed it in our suitcase so we would have something to do while waiting for our sea freight to arrive. The old board now resides in my middle school classroom, where I occasionally, on an indoor recess day, challenge a team of my 8th graders to try to beat me (hasn’t happened yet).

In 2010 I bought a Kindle, with gift cards I had received for Christmas from my students. It was a tough decision, given my love for the look, smell, and feel of a real book, whether hardback or paperback. Two things, however, swayed me. One was running out of reading material halfway through a vacation regardless of how many books I had crammed into my suitcase. For further enlightenment on this, read my essay published on the Nerdy Book Club website, https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/my-kingdom-for-a-lamp-by-michelle-blanchard-ardillo/.

scrabble on kindleThe second thing that made me love-love-love my Kindle: the Scrabble app. Boy, did my game improve once I discovered that. Playing against the computer made me a better player and helped me learn many new and obscure words that were of high point value, especially those using the big-letter tiles like “q”, “k”, “j”, and “z”. The Scrabble app for Kindle doesn’t allow for “phonies”, words that are illegal in the game of Scrabble but go unchallenged by your opponent, so by trial and error you are allowed to play words, have them declared illegal, and remove them at no penalty, thus increasing your vocabulary of viable words you can play in future games. The very popular app Words with Friends has different rules and the bonus tiles are in different locations but it is still useful to improve your Scrabble skills. And, I can play it anywhere, anytime, on my phone. I also love that it keeps historical data on my stats. Occasionally, I have to take a break from Words with Friends, however, because as with other things, my competitive streak takes over and I max out on the number of games I have open at a given time. I will be up to all hours of the night trying to catch up on all of my open games.words with friends statswords with friends stats two

Early on we tried to get our daughters interested in the game of Scrabble, without much success. starting youngBoth of them hated to lose, and they didn’t want us to help them with their letters. When they played a word in a spot that opened up a triple word score space for either Tom or me, they were not happy if we played there. If we told them to hold the “x” until they could play it on a double or triple letter space, they didn’t like that either. And, while Tom eased off on his own level of play for them, I didn’t. Maybe it was because of the way my mom played that word game with me, never letting me win. Maybe it is because I am just too competitive. But, I never thought letting them win was going to help them play Scrabble any better, or help them in any other area of life.the four of us

Tom and I continued playing, though, and my game kept improving. The tables turned and good-natured Tom was not a fan of losing to me. He began to keep track of our scores in a series of notebooks that were kept in the Scrabble box. historical dataThe games were dated and occasionally he would do statistical analysis of the results. What percentage of the time did I win if I played first? What percentage of the time did I win if he played first? How many times did I win if we played informally and allowed the use of the Scrabble dictionary during play to check for phonies rather than following the rules and issuing challenges? How often did bingos affect the outcome?Tom's stats

We recently celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. Our daughters gave us the Wood Scrabble Deluxe Classic Edition. It is beautiful! new Scrabble boardWhen I called my older daughter to thank her, she said she had been thinking about getting a Scrabble board of her own. We were going to visit her for her birthday in a few weeks so I offered her our old Scrabble board (previously the “new” board), if she wanted it. So we brought it to her last weekend. I hope she has as much fun with it as we have for the last 25 years.old Scrabble game

We don’t play Scrabble as often as we used to, primarily because since I started teaching eight years ago, I simply have too much school work to do each night. But, now that it is summer, and we have this beautiful new board, we have been playing more frequently. Our younger daughter has been playing with us, and on our inaugural game on our new board, she beat both Tom and me! What can I say, apple and the tree. I couldn’t be more proud.

 

 

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