With a Grateful Heart

Today, I reach the end of my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ series, but by no means have I reached the end of my blessings.  I barely scratched the surface of all the people, places and things I’m grateful for.  Each morning when I wake up, I’m thankful for my life, my family, my friends, … the list is never ending.

I had grand ideas to post an appeal for world peace in this final entry, beseeching each of us to ‘Just Love’ each other.  And I don’t mean the people who are easy to love, like your family, your spouse, your kids, your friends.  I mean the people who make you boiling mad, who make you foam at the mouth, the stranger (or country or ethnicity or religion or political party … you fill in the blank) that you verbally abuse or berate via status updates.  It’s not enough to wait for them to change or extend the olive branch.  It must start with us.  It must start with you and it must start with me first.

As much as I detest admitting it, the Beatles (and John Lennon in particular) got something right with ‘All You Need is Love.’  Jesus, though, is a hard act to follow:

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence – and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

Luke 10:27 (The Message)

To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.

Luke 6:27 (The Message)

I never said it would be easy (and neither did He).  I can do my small bit to bring about peace and hope in my small corner of the world.

And as we approach the season where we celebrate the Greatest Gift ever given to such unworthy recipients, I would like to share two final quotes.  The first I consider my ‘life verse’ and refer to it frequently when I need a reminder of where to keep my thoughts and the second is an excerpt from the lyrics of a contemporary Christian hymn that often plays as a soundtrack of thanksgiving for my mindscape.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

Philippians 4:8 (The Message)

Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks unto the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son

And now let the weak say, “I am strong”
Let the poor say, “I am rich
Because of what the Lord has done for us”

Give thanks.

Give Thanks by Don Moen

* * *

And I wish to thank all of you who stayed with me through this month of blogging.  I assure you I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming, meaning the occasional book or movie review with an occasional odd tidbit tossed in for some added vim and vigor.  I sincerely appreciate that you took the time from your busy lives to peruse my musings.  I pray each and every one of you has a wonderful life and spreads good cheer to all you meet.

Oh, one final suggestion.  I thought I’d share our family tradition (since the mid 90s) of re-watching the Muppet Christmas Carol each year around Christmas time. How can you go wrong with Dicken‘s classic Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, and Muppets?  The music isn’t half bad (I even bought the songbook) and the narrators are always good for a few laughs.  Once Derek, Royna and Rachelle arrive (two before and one after Christmas), we’ll sit down one evening and re-live the ‘good old days’ with Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.

So I’ll close with the lyrics to my favorite Muppet Christmas Carol song, written by Paul Williams, called ‘A Thankful Heart‘:

With a thankful heart, with an endless joy
With a growing family, every girl and boy
Will be nephew and niece to me (Nephew and niece to me)
Will bring love, hope and peace to me (Love, hope and peace to me)
Yes and every night will end, and every day will start
With a grateful prayer and a thankful heart

With an open smile and with open doors
I will bid you welcome, what is mine is yours
With a glass raised to toast your health (With a glass raised to toast your health)
And a promise to share the wealth (Promise to share the wealth)
I will sail a friendly course, file a friendly chart
On A sea of love and a thankful heart

Life is like a journey, who knows when it ends?
Yes and if you need to know the measure of a man
You simply count his friends
Stop and look around you, the glory that you see
Is born again each day, don’t let is slip away
How precious life can be

With a thankful heart that is wide awake
I do make this promise, every breath I take
Will be used now to sing your praise (Used now to sing your praise)
And to beg you to share my days (Beg you to share my days)
With a loving guarantee that even if we part
I will hold you close in a thankful heart

I will hold you close in a thankful heart

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

I realized a couple of weeks ago, when we received our new refrigerator, that I had been neglecting my sourdough starter when I removed the crock from the shelf.   I remembered to feed the starter this morning so that I could bake a loaf of bread this afternoon while a roast cooked in the crockpot.  Since I’m up to my elbows in flour, I thought it fitting to focus my next-to-the-last entry in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ blog posting series on making and baking home-made bread.

I much prefer to bake my own bread.  Yes, I occasionally breakdown and purchase a loaf at the grocery store, but for the most part, I prefer to control all the ingredients and I just adore the smell of fresh baked bread.  Nothing says ‘Welcome Home’ like bread baking in the oven.  My preferred flour, graciously available via my local Dillons grocery store, comes from the King Arthur Flour company.  I live in Kansas, the wheat state, where the prized hard red winter wheat is grown specifically for King Arthur Flour, which based in Vermont since 1790 (KAF is 221 years old, 71 years older than Kansas, which is celebrating it’s 150th birthday this year).  In addition to having my flour shipped back from Vermont (albeit it conveniently by my local grocery store), I do special order yeast (by the pound), toppings and other handy gadgets a couple of times a year.  In fact, I recently took advantage of a free shipping sale to re-stock my pantry.  That’s the kind of spam e-mail I like to receive (and why I specifically opted in for their newsletter and e-mail notifications of specials).  I even ordered my sourdough starter (plus the crock shown above) from KAF, because it’s a descendant of a New England sourdough that has been bubbling away there for over two hundred and fifty years!

Once the sourdough starter bubbled up (three to four hours after feeding), I decided to take the ‘easy route’ today and make a Rustic Sourdough loaf in my bread machine.  The link above includes both a traditional recipe and a bread machine version. I will include the latter in this blog posting:

Rustic Sourdough

1 cup “fed” sourdough starter
1 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 cups King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast

Place the ingredients in the bread pan in the order suggested by the manufacturer.  Select the basic white cycle and desired crust and allow the bread machine to do the rest.

If you prefer to shape and bake the loaf in your oven, then select the dough cycle.  Remove the doug and gently shape it into an oval loaf, placing it on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover and let rise until very puffy, about 1 hour. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 425°F.  Spray the loaves with lukewarm water. Make two fairly deep horizontal slashes in each; a serrated bread knife, wielded firmly, works well here.

Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, until it’s a very deep golden brown. Remove it form the oven, and cool on a rack.

* * *

Besides sourdough, I enjoy making Italian supermarket-style bread, Honey Whole Wheat variations and White Bread (made special for my dad).  For more of my recipes, which are frequently variations on recipes posted at the King Arthur Flour web site, please visit My Bread Baking Epiphanies web page.

The I’s Have It

For my twenty-eight posting in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ blog series, I am extremely thankful for the Interstate Highway System championed by the only President hailing from Kansas (albeit as a transplant from Texas): Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Thanks to his vision and backing, construction was authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and took 35 years to complete. The network has since been extended and as of 2006 it had a total length of 46,876 miles.  About one-third of all miles driven in the country use the Interstate system (2003 figures). The cost of construction has been estimated at $425 billion (in 2006 dollars), making it the largest public works project in history (for more interesting facts and trivia about the Interstate Highway System, please click here).

Last Wednesday, my husband and I embarked on our third annual trip to North Texas via the Kansas Turnpike (consisting of I-70, I-470, I-335 and  I-35), paying for the privilege to drive from one end of it to the other for just $10.75, continuing on through Oklahoma and about forty miles of Texas to reach Denton.  Within just the past couple of months, Kansas raised the speed limit on all Interstates to 75 mph, which made the trip from Kansas City through Lawrence, Topeka, Emporia, the Flint Hills and Wichita, seem to fly by.  Oklahoma, however, still maintains a 70 mph speed limit and thanks to the ‘no delay’ Dallas interchange (between I-35 and I-40) and all the attendant reduced speed zones through the Oklahoma City metropolitan area makes the trip south seem to drag on forever.  Terry slept through the second half of Oklahoma and I listened to music via my Nook Color.  I had to switch from Heart‘s Greatest Hits (which started to put me to sleep) to Iron Maiden‘s Powerslave (nearly all the songs on this album race along at tempos that rival the Trooper). I managed to stay awake and arrived in Denton just as the sun was setting.

For the rest of the weekend, we visited Rachelle, Nic, Derek and Royna, enjoying a fabulous smoked turkey and ham with the usual Thanksgiving fixings.  I made two batches of sticky buns, which didn’t survive more than an hour or so once they came out of the oven.

We avoided any of the early bird Black Friday sales, but attended the special Black Friday show at the Abbey Underground.  Saturday we spent more time visiting and watching movies, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Tower Heist and Super 8.  We had some dysfunctional family comedy at the movie theater Saturday evening and drama early Sunday morning, but nothing that we couldn’t overcome and laugh about.  Sunday we did some more shopping and then spent the evening reliving my childhood by trying to tune in television stations with an indoor antenna.

Yesterday, Terry and I were up early to hit the road north, since we had a pickup time at the kennel of six o’clock to retrieve Roxy and Apollo.  We left Denton at 6:55 and pulled into the driveway in Lansing at 3:25 p.m.

We experienced an uneventful drive for the most part, except for an incident involving an Oklahoma State Trooper.  He pulled me over, not because I was speeding, but claiming I had crossed over the white line (the one between the right lane and the right shoulder) several times and was concerned that I was suffering from fatigue from driving too long (I’d only been on the road a couple of hours by then so no, I wasn’t tired, nor do I believe I was weaving erratically around the highway).  He asked for my driver’s license but not my registration or insurance.  He also asked for my husband’s driver’s license, which always makes Terry angry, but he restrained himself from sarcastic outbursts. Essentially, the only reason this trooper pulled us over is (most likely) that we had out-of-state tags and he was fishing for illegal drugs (good luck with that) or outstanding warrants (ditto on that one).  I need to poll my attorney friends and determine if when pulled over, an officer can ask for passenger identification without stating a reason.  Otherwise, it might be harassment or just a way to extend the length of the stop.  The officer did not ticket me, but gave me some kind of warning (not really a warning, just a record of our contact) for me to sign.  I signed (since I didn’t feel like making a scene) and proceeded north, finally and thankfully reaching the Kansas border at noon.

Despite the prevalence of State Troopers in Texas and Oklahoma (I only saw one Kansas State Trooper just south of Topeka), we made record time.  I purposely prefer to make the return trip on a Monday because traffic after the Thanksgiving weekend is horrendous on Sundays, but non-existent on Mondays.  I attribute the ease of our travel to the exceptional highway system we enjoy in the United States.  I’ve ridden or driven quite a few of the Interstates and someday I need to figure up which ones and how many miles.  With a nod to Eisenhower, I’ve visited his home town of Abilene, Kansas several times (and driven through it more times than I can count while traversing Kansas via I-70 east or west) and been through his birthplace of Denison, Texas via US-75 and US-69.  Roads and facilities are named for him in my unofficial home town of Leavenworth, Kansas, probably because he attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.  I’m just grateful that Eisenhower brought back something good from WWII Germany:

Eisenhower gained an appreciation of the German Autobahn network as a necessary component of a national defense system while he was serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II.[6] He recognized that the proposed system would also provide key ground transport routes for military supplies and troop deployments in case of an emergency or foreign invasion.

Interstate Highway System, Wikipedia

All my past and future road trips benefit from Ike’s foresight.  I like Ike and I love his Interstates.

Expectant Waiting

Advent Wreath

For my twenty-seventh installment of my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ series and the final (fourth) Sunday, I will focus on the season of Advent.

“Advent is a period of spiritual preparation in which many Christians make themselves ready for the coming, or birth of the Lord, Jesus Christ. During this time, Christians observe a season of prayer, fasting and repentance, followed by anticipation, hope and joy. Many Christians celebrate Advent not only by thanking God for Christ’s first coming to Earth as a baby, but also for his presence among us today through the Holy Spirit, and in preparation and anticipation of his final coming at the end of time.”  All About Advent, About.com

Being raised a Methodist, I remember with fondness the anticipation of lighting each successive candle in the Advent Wreath on each Sunday leading up to Christmas eve, when the final white Christ candle shone bright with love and hope. I even celebrated advent at home with my husband and children for a couple of years, but being empty nesters now, it’s harder to motivate myself.

For this first week of Advent 2011, I will share excerpts from the ‘2011 Advent Home Worship‘ by MaryJane Pierce Norton:


Advent is a time of waiting and of hoping. We wait for the day when we celebrate again the birth of Jesus. We hope that everyone will come to know God and to worship God.

God promised to send a Savior to the people. When we read the Scripture reading, we hear what the prophet Isaiah wrote about God. God is the potter who molds us. We know that the gospel witness is one that helps us understand that God is loving and just. God brings peace. This gives us hope. We anticipate again the birth of the baby Jesus remembering that Jesus helps us know God’s love for us.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64:8 (NRS)

Think about a potter. A potter takes clay and forms it in a way that is pleasing. That is what God is able to do with each person. We are reminded that we are all the work of God’s hand. How do we use these gifts that God has formed in us?

Dear God: Thank you for your son, Jesus. Thank you for the words of the Prophet Isaiah that remind us that you are the source of our hope. Help us to live each day allowing you to form us in a way that brings about your kingdom here on earth. AMEN.

* * *

The Advent Home Worship also provides daily meditations and actions to take to convey hope to others.  For example, today’s item:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011: Is there someone you know who needs to hear words of hope? Make or select a card for that person and mail it today.

* * *

May all your days be filled with hope and love.

Living on the Edge … of the Terminator

Sunset May Day 2011

I love sunsets and sunrises.  They can be dramatic and inspiring.  They can start my day off gloriously and finish my day with calm reflection and peace.  For my twenty-sixth installment to my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ I wish to express my admiration and anticipation for the edges of the day: dawn and dusk.

When you look at the moon, except when it’s new or full, you can clearly see the terminator that separates the day (light) side from the night (dark) side.  As inhabitants of the Earth we can’t see our own terminator without the aid of an orbiting satellite or shuttle.  But we do experience this astronomical phenomenon twice a day.

On Earth, the terminator is a circular line with a diameter that is approximately that of the Earth. The terminator passes through any point on the Earth’s surface twice a day, once at sunrise and once at sunset, apart from polar regions where this only occurs when the point is not experiencing midnight sun or polar night.

The Earth’s Terminator, Wikipedia

I try to keep my camera (or any camera including my cell phone’s crappy one) with me, either in my car or in my purse, just in case I spy a particularly interesting or beautiful sunrise or sunset.  This time of year, I’m tortured on weekdays with gorgeous dawns and dusks.  Not tortured, really, but frustrated because I’m busy driving to work and can’t take a few minutes to capture the scene. At other times of the year, I can make it home in time to stage a session to photograph the sunset from a prime location.

I only saw one sunrise during our trip to North Texas.  As we were leaving Denton, just a few miles north on I-35, for the first time in days, the skies were clear and I was awake and alert and outside to see the first kiss of the sun break over the southeastern horizon.

Sunrise over North Texas
Sunrise over North Texas (Mon 28 Nov 2011)

Black Friday Underground

I spent Black Friday attempting to avoid shopping.  Our one foray out in the late morning gleaned no deals we couldn’t walk away from.  Derek and Royna found a couple of items for her Ipad 2 and wandered around a mall for an hour while Terry and I snoozed in the Bonneville.  After all that excitement, Terry and I headed back to Denton to help Rachelle transport her new Yamaha keyboard to the Abbey Underground for that evening’s performance of “All in the Family: Putting the ‘FUN’ in Dysfunctional” by the North Texas Opera on Tap performers.

I had planned that my  twenty-fifth installment in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ would be about family vacations, but instead I feel very thankful for live music.  The Abbey Underground venue provided a fantastic atmosphere to enjoy the company of friends and family, relax with your favorite beverage and appreciate the talents of local vocal performers, including my daughter (an under-graduate at UNT), graduate students, doctoral candidates, UNT faculty and Dallas Opera regulars.  The selections consisted of arias, duets and ensembles from several operas, including Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (Rachelle sang a Dorabella aria) and the Marriage of Figaro; Hansel and Gretel by Humperdinck; Handel’s Serse (or Xerxes); Verdi’s MacBeth and La Traviata; Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

My husband noted the nice stage size and excellent sound system available for live performances.  Compared to some of the places his band, WolfGuard, has performed, the Abbey Underground facilities shined.  And even though we were in the basement, everything was well lit and clean and the patrons refrained from smoking (at the courteous request of the vocal performers) so we were spared the usual night club haze and miasma.  The only thing that keeps me from attending more local live music venues is whether or not the club hosting the concert allows smoking.  I refuse to subject my lungs to the second hand smoke.

Another aspect of live performance in a small venue that I love is the opportunity to meet performers and experience the energy often generated in the feedback from the audience to the performance.  It’s live, it’s impromptu at times, and it’s definitely not Memorex, even though I did capture a couple of the numbers with my video camera.  I’ll get those uploaded to YouTube later this weekend (the camera is in Denton and I’m currently at my son’s apartment in the Colony).

Opera on Tap finished off a great week and and put paid to Black Friday, bringing great opera performances to the masses congregating underground in Denton.

North Texas Opera on Tap (Abbey Underground, Black Friday Show, Nov 2011)

Giving Thanks

North Texas Thanksgiving II

And so I’ve reached the penultimate day in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ series.  No, it’s not the final day, since this marks the twenty-fourth posting with six more to go, but it is the traditional holiday date to give thanks for all my countless blessings.

I’m extremely thankful that I didn’t actually have to roast a turkey.  Thanks to a friend of my daughter’s, we had an exquisitely smoked turkey as well as a marvelous spiral cut ham to go with our many traditional side dishes.  We did somehow manage to leave the cranberry sauce in Denton but no one is pointing fingers as to who rushed who out of the apartment.  He did make an excellent gravy.

We’ve just cracked into the pies.  The sticky buns batch I made this morning disappeared within a few minutes of coming out of the oven, so the pies are all that’s left to fill in whatever gaps might be left in our stomachs.

Rachelle and Terry seated at Derek's Transformer-like Table

We had some lively dinner discussion topics around my son’s interesting dining room table.  Their apartment’s kitchen is a vast improvement over the one they had at the other apartment.   The chairs are very comfortable and we enjoyed the food and the debates with equal relish.  Some of us have drifted off into a food coma, others watched a movie, or played video games or, in my case, snuck off to write this quick blog post to recap the highlight of my November for the last three years.  The long drive to North Texas from Northeastern Kansas is well worth the backaches and road hypnosis to spend a few precious days with my kids.  No matter how connected we may think we are thanks to the Internet, or technology, or cell phones, or tex messages, it just can’t beat the up-close and personal reach-out-and-hug-your-loved one kind of experience.

This may be our final North Texas Thanksgiving gathering with both kids attending.  It will all depend on Rachelle’s graduate school auditions and selection process.  Next year, I may have to decide between a Colorado or Chicago Thanksgiving with Rachelle or returning to North Texas to visit Derek and Royna.

But I won’t dwell on a situation that doesn’t yet exist and may not be an issue as I just remembered that we will be in Texas next November no matter what for the inaugural Formula One race to be held at the Circuit of the Americas scheduled to occur just four days after my husband’s birthday.

Today, I’m just thankful to be here with my kids, their significant others and my husband, all together under one roof.  If only Roxy and Apollo could be here as well, then my life would be complete.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family and friends. 

Sticky Buns

I am thankful to have made it safe and sound through two states to visit my children.  So, for my twenty-third installment of ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness,’ I wish to share their (and mine) perennial favorite:  Sticky Buns (follow the link for the recipe and detailed instructions with photos).

Nearly the first thing I did upon arriving at my daughter’s apartment was to inventory her pantry and then head to the largest Kroger grocery store in the state of Texas.  As expected, since it was early evening on the day before Thanksgiving, the aisles were jam packed, especially the baking aisle.  We survived with most of our limbs intact and only forgetting one item, which we had forgotten to place on our grocery list.

Once back at the apartment, I installed my old bread machine and began mixing up a batch of the sticky buns, using the dough setting on the bread machine.  Since it was close to eight o’clock, I knew I would be up way past my bedtime.  While my husband and daughter’s boyfriend headed over to a friend’s house who had graciously agreed to smoke a turkey for us, Rach3elle and I streamed a couple of old Star Trek: Voyager episodes from the sixth season, ones I didn’t remember but were quite interesting none-the-less.

We decided to go ahead and bake the first batch of sticky buns last night, using my daughter’s large 9×13 inch glass baking dish.  I wasn’t completely satisfied with the way the dough mixed and rose, so I wanted to be able to test taste it in case I needed to re-do a batch early in the morning.  Another strange new experience for me: cooking with gas.  My daughter’s kitchen apartment includes a Hotpoint gas range.  I have only ever cooked using electric ovens.  Interesting.

The sticky buns came out of the over around 11:30 but when we flipped them over onto a large cookie sheet, several rolls around the edges stuck to the sides and came unraveled.  Prime targets for a taste test.  The results were superb but I would need to make another batch in the morning to fine-tune the recipe.  While I had purchased what I thought was non-fat dry milk at the grocery store, it was actually labelled ‘instant’ (I really should where my reading glasses while shopping), so I put an eighth to a quarter cup of half-and-half in the liquid portion of the recipe.  This morning, I decided to forgo any dairy aspect of the recipe and the dough does look like it is rising better.

I sometimes make this recipe up for friends and family, but I don’t bake it for them.  I send them a batch in a disposable aluminum foil pan with instructions on refrigeration, rising and baking so that they can enjoy this treat fresh out of the oven, sticky, gooey and hot, just like it’s meant to be enjoyed.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!


New-Age Old-Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

My Pumpkin Pies Cooling on the rack

For my twenty-second installment in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ I thought I’d share one of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions: Baking an old-fashioned pumpkin pie with a slight twist.  I have no idea why it’s called an ‘old-fashioned’ recipe; that’s just what my mother always called it.

The changes I’ve made to her recipe include eliminating egg yolks and using fat free half & half instead of condensed or evaporated milk (these two changes were to accommodate my husband’s dietary restrictions).  I’ve even used the Splenda version of brown sugar in previous years in an attempt to reduce the sugar footprint of the pie (back when my husband’s doctors were concerned about blood sugar levels).  But my favorite ingredient has to be the dark molasses; sometimes I include three tablespoons instead of just two.

So while my pies are baking in the over, I’ll provide you with the recipe for your own Thanksgiving experimentation:

New-Age Old-Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

2 pie crusts (9-inch)
2 15-oz cans pumpkin
1 1/2 c brown sugar
3/4 c egg whites
3 T butter, melted
8 oz fat free half & half
2 T dark molasses
4 t pumpkin pie spice
1 1/4 t salt (optional) … I did not add this ingredient to my pies.

Heat oven to 425 degrees.  Prepare pastry, flute.  Mix ingredients with a hand beater or on low speed in a mixer until combined.  Pour filling into pastry shells.

Bake for 15 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, and continue baking at that temperature for an additional 45 minutes.

Makes two 9-inch pies.


My husband and I hit the road tomorrow, heading south on I-35 to join our adult children and their significant others for our third annual North Texas Thanksgiving family gathering.  Since we are staying with our daughter tomorrow night, and her Internet provider screams along about as fast as early 90s dial-up, you might not hear from me until Thanksgiving, when we’ll be at my son’s apartment enjoying the fruits of our cooking, baking and smoking.

I wish all of you safe travels tomorrow and wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Book Review: Maphead by Jennings

For my twenty-first installment in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ I am grateful for my sense of direction, my spatial awareness and love of maps and geography. This post will do double duty as it also masquerades as a book review of Ken Jennings’ recently released Maphead.

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography WonksMaphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
by Ken Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(actually more like 3.5 stars, but GoodReads doesn’t allow half star ratings)

A quick read, similar in format and informality to Ken’s inaugural Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs book. All twelve chapter titles included a cartographic definition together with a quote. For example, the first chapter entitled ‘Eccentricity’ with the definition ‘the deformation of an elliptical map projection’ and the Pat Conroy quote ‘My wound is geography.’

My favorite chapter falls in the center, halfway from nowhere to somewhere, Chapter 6 ‘Legend’ with a definition of ‘an explanatory list of the symbols on a map’ and the C.S. Lewis quote ‘Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country, but for most of us it is only an imaginary country.’ I did a double-take when I read on p. 113 that Brandon Sanderson and Ken Jennings were college roommates. I heartily agree with Brandon’s assertion that ‘The hallmark of epic fantasy is immersion’ and that’s why he always includes maps in his books. Brandon goes on to relate to Ken that he ‘started to look and make sure a book had a map. That was one of the measures of whether it was going to be a good book or not.” When Brandon first read The Lord of the Rings he thought, ‘Oho, he [Tolkien] knows what he’s doing. A map and an appendix!’ Ken states a few paragraphs later that ‘Fantasy readers like that abrupt drop into the deep end and the learning curve it takes to keep up’ further affirmed by Brandon’s confirmation that ‘By the end of a big epic fantasy novel, you’ll have to become an expert in this world that doesn’t exist. It’s challenging.’

Pauline Baynes' map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books.

I felt affirmed and validated for years of pouring over maps of fictional non-existent realms. I once thought to recreate the map of Middle Earth as a tapestry to hang proudly in my living room or library. One of the first prints I purchased from a newly favorite epic fantasy author, Janny Wurts, was a large format (40×30 inches) map of Athera, solely because I wanted to be able to trace (without squinting or resorting to a magnifying glass and the loss of the center of the map to the no man’s land in the binding of the books) the routes of Arithon, Elaira, Dakar, Lysaer and other characters intrinsic to her Wars of Light and Shadow epic fantasy series. The first thing I did upon receiving the next Wheel of Time novel was to skim through for any new maps interspersed in the chapters and sections. Back in the mid80s, I purchased both the Atlas of the Land and the The Atlas of Pern by Karen Wynn Fonstad so I could pour over even more imaginary maps while waiting for the next Pern or Thomas Covenant novel to be published. But I digress, tangentially, from the book at hand.

In Chapter 9 ‘Transit’ (definition: ‘a piece of surveying equipment used by mapmakers: a theodolite with a reversible telescope’), Ken sparked my interest in road rallies (something I always wanted to do when my husband was a member of the local SCCA). I always excelled at those trick-question instruction test in school, so I might just try Jim Sinclair’s annual St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (a contest by mail where you travel a circuitous course across American from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty entirely by maps) next year. That is if I can find a way to sign up; an Internet search came up oddly sparse.

Ken introduced me to ‘geocaching’ in Chapter 10 ‘Overedge’ (definition: ‘the portion of the map that lies outside the neatline border’), which so intrigue me that I grabbed my Nook Color and signed up at Geocaching.com, even though I don’t even own a GPS unit (outside of the one in my dumbphone which doesn’t have any ‘free’ software associated with it to assist in finding or placing geocaches).

Overall, I enjoyed the few hours I spent geeking over cartography and geography with Ken Jennings as my tour guide. I learned a few things and I laughed out loud a couple of times. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend, especially if cold November rain greets you on the other side of the door.

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