Anything for a Good Time: The Best of 2018

Tess waves to the crowd from the float, 1 January 2019.

I kicked off the new year last January by graduating from my fantastic MFA program, and all kinds of good things have happened since then. I wrote a lot. Patrick saved the day at work countless times. Christian's candidate won his election. James wrote, directed, and starred in a short student film and and wrote several Medium articles while maintaining excellent grades at UC Berkeley. Hope left on her church mission to the Boston area and loves it. (She'll come home the day before Thanksgiving!)

Tess sang at the Oregon Bach Festival, applied to a bunch of colleges, and was chosen to be one of three princesses on our town's Rose Parade float. Daniel finished middle school (just one more to run that gauntlet) and is busy writing music on his new synthesizer. Anne won her school's readathon (her prize was a Kindle fire!). Our delightful niece, Faith, moved in with us.

We took a family vacation to Hawaii. Patrick and I got to spend a blissful week with dear friends in Cabo San Lucas. Our corgi, Moneypenny, got down to her goal weight, and she's still the cutest dog in the world. Though we endured plenty of challenges, generally, we had good times all around!

This was also a great year for books, movies, music, food, and TV, as you'll see below. 

Top Ten Books Read:

10. The Marsh King's Daughter, by Karen Dionne

9. The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter

8. Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

7. The Flavia de Luce series, by Alan Bradley

6. Lost Connections, by Johann Hari 

5. The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle

4. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

3. Educated, by Tara Westover

2. An Early Resurrection, by Adam Miller

1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I don't rank books by friends, but if I did, Julie Berry's Lovely War would definitely be on this list. 

Top Ten 2018 Movies Seen:

10. Bohemian Rhapsody

9. Crazy Rich Asians

8. A Simple Favor

7. A Star is Born

6. Blindspotting

5. First Reformed

4. If Beale Street Could Talk

3. A Quiet Place

2. Shoplifters 

1. Hereditary

Most Enjoyable TV Watched:

10. Dark

9. Call My Agent!

8. Dear White People

7. Queer Eye

6. The Haunting of Hill House

5. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Season 1)

4. Vikings

3. The Great British Baking Show

2. Jack Ryan

1. The Good Place

Best Music Discovered:

Freedom Fry

The Gloaming

Best Meals:

Grilled corn, duck quesadillas, and Mexican hot chocolate at Comal in Cabo San Lucas

Soup dumplings, green beans, and sesame noodles at Wang Xing Ji in San Gabriel

Best Vacation Moments: 

Hanging out in an infinity pool overlooking the Pacific at the very tip of Baja California

Night snorkeling with manta rays in Kona

What will 2019 hold? I'll continue breaking up with Big Data. I'll write every day and hopefully find an agent. I'll renew my efforts to learn Mandarin while continuing to chase fluency in French. I'll keep teaching seminary. We'll take the family to Oxfordshire for another house exchange this summer. Tess and Faith will go off to college, and Anne will start middle school.

All in all, life just keeps getting better, and for that, I'm forever grateful. 


Loire Dire, Part II

Well, I made an error I don't feel like correcting in my first post. We went to Amboise on Day 6, so I'll backtrack and tell you about Day 5. 

The French heat wave continued, but we had things to do, so onward we forged. Forty-five minutes south of our house in Saint-Gervais was the ZooParc de Beauval, France's largest zoo. It was one of the final days of the French school year AND it was hotter than Hades, so we hoped the zoo would be less of a mob scene than usual.

We were correct. The zoo was stunning, and we had it nearly all to ourselves. We saw a black panther, a white tiger, pandas (!), and countless other wonderful creatures. We watched the sea lion show in the full, blazing sun. Anne made faces at a monkey, who then threw himself in rage against his plexiglass window so hard that we could see why it was already cracked. This was seriously like a scene out of a zombie movie right before the virus really hits humanity. Adrenaline, anyone?

Most of the zoo was shady, and we drank liters of water, so we survived the long, fun day. The drive home, like most of our drives, was along charming, winding country roads that ran through picturesque villages with colorful window shutters, hanging baskets of petunias, and Romanesque churches. 

We had special plans for Day 7. Every year, we give our kids each a birthday trip--a day with Mom or Dad (we alternate years) visiting museums, seeing concerts or shows, and eating fancy meals. Anne and Daniel have birthdays in May, so we decided their birthday trips would be in Paris. Patrick had Daniel, and I had Anne. We brought the big girls with us and planned to split up after lunch.

But first, we all went to one of my favorite places in France--the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis. Most of the kings of France are buried there, and the tombs and crypt are a wonder--to say nothing of the stained glass windows. Saint-Denis is way better than Notre Dame and right up there with Chartres, in my opinion. Glorious.

 After baguette sandwiches, the big girls went exploring in Paris on their own, and Patrick and I took Daniel and Anne to the Pompidou. Once there, we went in different directions. They had a marvelous kids' area where Anne built several abstract sculptures in collaboration with little French children. Then we spent time in the Modern collection. The Pompidou is vast, and there was no way we had time (or interest--Anne was nine, after all) to see the whole thing. So after a couple of hours, we left and went window shopping in the Marais. (It was blessedly cool in the department stores, so we went in frequently.) 

We met up with Patrick and Daniel at dinner time and went to Benoit, probably the most affordable of Alain Ducasse's Michelin-starred restaurants. Oh, the glory of a traditional French meal. The bread, the pate, the richest yet most ethereal soup. There are no words.

We met up with the big girls and made our way home. Everyone agreed that Paris is the best.

Day 8 dawned bright and hot. When we planned our trip, I'd made a list of must-see places in the Loire Valley, but I also asked for the kids' input. Hope asked if we could go to Angers, because she'd done a report on it in eighth grade. It was a little bit farther than I had wanted to go, but we decided she should see the place she'd studied. 

And I'm delighted that we did, because it was at Angers that I got the most delightful surprise of the trip. The ancient castle is huge and cool, and there are beautiful formal gardens in the moats--but what I didn't know until we got there was that Angers is the home of a massive series of tapestries depicting the events of the Book of Revelation. I love tapestries, and I love Revelation, so it was pretty much heaven.

We walked slowly down the dark aisles of the exhibit, marveling at the artistry and craftmanship and sheer number of hours that had gone into each of the 71 remaining tapestries. (There were originally 90 of them.) The curators estimate that 84 man-YEARS of effort went into creating the set.

One of the best parts was that the big girls and I had recently studied Revelation in my early morning bible study class, so they could identify many of the elements and characters. That was a mom payoff moment. The whole series of tapestries is amazing, and I was astonished that I'd never seen or heard of it before. I bought a lavish coffee table book with lovely photos and the corresponding text of l'Apocalypse (from the French Bible) on facing pages. That was my trip souvenir, and I treasure it. 

After our time with the tapestries, we walked around downtown Angers, wandering into random gorgeous churches that would be a big deal in this country, but aren't given more than a line or two in most French guidebooks. As we walked back to the car, we happened upon a fountain. It was hot. Of course the kids got as wet as possible, which made everyone a little more comfortable on the way home.

Patrick's brother, aka Uncle Bruce, joined us the next day, which was Saturday. This was the day I'd decided we'd visit a couple more out-of-the-way gems that Patrick and I had seen on our trip so many years before. But first we explored a place new to all of us--the tiny, ornate, and charmingly shabby Château Montrésor. Taxidermied wolverines! Camel saddles! Algae-filled fountains and staircases circling down to nowhere! As Chris Farley would say, "It was awesome."

Next stop was the obscure village of Nouans-les-Fontaines, where a little old church houses the Pieta de Nouans, a gorgeous painting by Jean Fouquet, France's most important 15th-century painter. As with our visit two decades before, no one was on the streets, no one was in the chapel, and the doors were unlocked. We walked in, put a euro in a slot, and lights illuminated the priceless painting while a recording told us (in French) about its history. 

Just a short drive from Nouans-les-Fontaines lie the ruins of a Carthusian monastery. Patrick and I had picnicked there before on our way from the Loire Valley to Switzerland, so I packed a lunch for us all, and we recreated the party. Fueled by our usual delicious baguette sandwiches and Prince cookies, the kids roamed around the ruins while the adults (mostly) lazed in the shade. 

I always love it when we get to have these magical places all to ourselves. 

On our way back to Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, we stopped in Loches for some ice cream and walked up the hill to the fortress where the wounded Joan of Arc met with Charles VII to report her miraculous military victory at Orléans. And that was enough medieval history for everyone but me. After our long drive home, we had a lovely dinner at a restaurant on the edge of the Loire River in Blois. Oddly, the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring was playing as we perused the menus, which got Hope all choked up, which made us all laugh hard. Chalk it up to beauty overload for the day.

The next day was Sunday, so after church services, we rested and refueled. More adventures to follow in Part III!


Loire Dire, Part I

Our house in Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt

Last summer, we were once again able to do a house exchange. Our son James was serving a mission for our church in France, and once he had finished his two years of service, we wanted to pick him up in person and have a family vacation before my VCFA exchange residency in Bath, England. On previous exchanges, we'd stayed just outside Paris, in a posh London suburb, and in southern Burgundy. This time, I had my eye on the spectacular Loire Valley

Patrick and I had done a Loire Valley road trip 24 years before, back when I was pregnant with our oldest child, so I had a few things in mind for us to do during our three weeks. We were lucky enough to exchange with a family who lives just outside Blois in Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, which was perfect for a few reasons. First, it was just two hours from Paris, so we could easily fly in and out of Charles de Gaulle airport, and picking up our son from the mission home when the day came would be relatively simple. Second, the many amazing châteaux right around Blois made exploring a cinch. 

Once again, we struck the house swap lottery, as you can see from the photo above. Here's another view:

It's so funny, when we first started doing house exchanges, I didn't care that much about what the house was like, as long as it had room for all of us and a decent kitchen. But we have been spoiled each and every time with amazing houses--so now when I'm on HomeLink, I pay a little more attention to the architecture.

Our hosts generously insisted on driving up to Roissy and picking us up at the airport. It is rare for European families to have cars big enough for our family, but this time, we were doubly fortunate and didn't have to rent a car. However, fitting all of us plus our luggage in the car proved to be quite the Tetris challenge. But every time our youngest daughter's bony bottom dug into my numb thighs in the back seat, I reminded myself how much money were were saving by not hiring a car service. And soon enough, we arrived at the house. The property--it must have been at least an acre--was surrounded by a high wall, and had a swimming pool, a huge terrace, lovely plantings, and decades-old redwoods and sycamore trees. Paradise. 

Our hosts had prepared lunch for us, which we ate after they gave us a tour of the house. They then left us; they were staying in Blois overnight before leaving the next day for Los Angeles to stay at our house. We got unpacked. The first day in Europe, it's always a challenge to stay up until the local bedtime, but if you can, jet lag is much easier to handle. So that afternoon, we drove into Blois and walked around the castle and surrounding historic district. 

Across the plaza from the château was a museum of magic. Every hour on the hour, golden dragon puppets came out of the windows and bobbed their heads around while the church bells tolled. 

After a nice walk, it was finally time to go home for dinner and then get to bed. We ate on the terrace nearly every meal, only crowding around the kitchen table on rainy days. 

The next day, which was Friday, we went grocery shopping at a nearby Auchan supermarché. Longtime readers know how much I love foreign supermarkets, and this one was no exception. We got fabulous cheeses, gorgeous produce, and other staples to last us for a few days.

In the afternoon, we had visitors. Tess had gone on a youth exchange (which we'd also arranged through HomeLink) the summer before with a girl her age who lives in Versailles. Tess stayed three weeks with their family, and then she and Léonie flew to Los Angeles and Léonie stayed with us for three weeks. Tess and Léonie had stayed in close touch, and we'd hoped that Léonie and her parents would be able to come down and visit us--which they did. Marie and Olivier were just as lovely as their daughter, and we had a fun weekend with them. 

Saturday was a quiet day. In the morning, we went to the extensive outdoor markets in Blois, then spent the afternoon visiting, swimming, cooking, and eating. (What could be better?)

Sunday after church (at a sweet branch in Blois), we went to Cheverny with our guests. It's about a 15-minute drive from our home base, and it's the castle used as a model for Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin books. The same family has lived on the estate for 600 years. They had a whole outbuilding set up as a permanent Tintin exhibit (which was terrific) as well as a neighboring building that serves as kennels for over 100 French hunting dogs. The cháteau, gorgeous inside and out, the extensive gardens, Tintin, and the hounds all made this one of our kids' favorite days. 

After our fun day, we said goodbye to our guests. It was a perfect weekend except for how HOT it was. Our 200-year-old house wasn't air conditioned, which made sleeping a bit of a challenge, even with every window wide open. There was a silver lining, though. That night, a nightingale woke me up, and I lay in bed looking out at the stars and listening to glorious birdsong for a long time. Even now, the memory chokes me up. 

The heat wave continued into the next day (and beyond). We went to Amboise, knowing that the car's air conditioner and the thick stone walls of Amboise's château would help us cope with the weather. Amboise sits high on a hill overlooking the Loire River; the views from the ramparts were spectacular.

We had a picnic by the river. Many of you will remember that our vacation meal routine is simple: yogurt and a croissant (or other viennoiserie) for breakfast; ham, cheese, and salted Normandy butter on fresh baguettes for lunch; and a home-cooked dinner like sautéed chicken or pasta and vegetables and salad, with dessert being either a little store-bought pot-de-crème or an ice cream bar. We bought the bread and croissants fresh every morning at a fabulous nearby bakery. When the food is as good as it is in France, the routine never gets old. 

Next, we visited Le Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci lived for a time (and died). The walk from downtown Amboise isn't bad, and we saw many houses that were built right out of the limestone caves that line the way. Da Vinci's house wasn't as impressive as I'd remembered, but the shady park surrounding it had fun recreations of some of the Renaissance man's designs, in which the kids could run around and play. 

The late afternoon walk back downtown was especially hot, and everyone was tired, so we treated ourselves to some excellent gelato at Amorino, right across the street from the château. Spirits restored, we made the 40-minute drive back to the house. And that was the end of Day 5! Stay tuned for further adventures. 


The Choirs Kept Singing: The Best of 2017

Here are some of the high points of the past year, in no particular order:

A book published; a scholarship won; two stories published in anthologies; a residency in Bath; a glorious day in Oxford; an idyllic house exchange in the Loire Valley; Patrick's inspiring stake conference addresses; Hope's acceptance to UC Berkeley; James's faithful mission completion; the kids singing along to Yves Montand; a critical thesis; a creative thesis; date nights galore; sous vide everything; discovering the finest tapestries ever woven; Hope's game-winning buzzer beater; Christian's heroic efforts on two campaign trails; the best book group ever; Tess's PHS all-time fourth place swim ranking; getting our Swiss passports; endless Great Dalmuti matches; Daniel's 3D element Christmas ornaments; Anne's voracious, omnivorous reading; a Hollywood movie opening with Patrick; the biggest and best Thanksgiving of all time; singing carols around the piano; Tess's two ethereal Christmas duets; having award-winning writers as mentors; and steak and symphony with my beloved.

Top Ten Books of the Year

10. Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand

9. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, by Faïza Guène

8. The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

7. Story Genius, by Lisa Cron

6. Mother's Milk, by Rachel Hunt Steenblik

5. The Game of Love and Death, by Martha Brockenbrough

4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

3. Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King

2. Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk

1. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik 

Top Five Albums of the Year

1. Northern Redemption - The Abrams Brothers

2. Coming Home - Leon Bridges

3. Winter Songs - Ola Gjeilo

2. Ola Gjeilo - Voces8

1. Freedom Road - Rhiannon Giddens

Favorite 2017 Theatrical Releases 

10. The Napping Princess

9. Logan Lucky

8. Wind River

7. My Cousin Rachel

6. Baby Driver

5. Lady Bird

4. Get Out

3. It

2. Dunkirk

1. Wonder Woman

Most Enjoyed TV Seen

10. The Young Pope

9. Stranger Things 2

8. The Good Place

7. The Handmaid's Tale

6. The Magicians

5. The Tunnel

4. Sherlock

3. Hotel Beau Séjour

2. The Crown

1. The Great British Baking Show

Best Restaurant Experiences

7. Agrodolce - Berkeley

6. Bistro de la Gare - South Pasadena

5. Lucky Noodle King - San Gabriel (Now tragically closed.)

4. Feuillette - Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt

3. Terra Gourma - Paris

2. La Boucherie on 71 - Los Angeles

1. Benoît - Paris

As far as I can tell, 2018 promises to be even better! Happy New Year!


Rounding Up: A Birthday Playlist

I'm closer to 100 than to 0, and I'm the age at which kids will ask things like, "Was music invented when you were little?" That's fine; I don't mind getting older. In fact, in honor of my birthday, I looked back over the past five decades and chose one song released each year of my life that seems the most "me." 

This was tricky; some years, I could have chosen dozens of great songs. Other years, the pickings were slim (I'm looking at you, 1996 and 2005). See what you think.

1966 - Beach Boys: "Wouldn't It Be Nice"

1967 - Van Morrison: "Brown-eyed Girl"

1968 - Simon & Garfunkel: "A Hazy Shade of Winter"

1969 - Beatles: "Here Comes the Sun"

1970 - Beatles: "Let It Be"

1971 - Led Zeppelin - "When the Levee Breaks"

1972 - Yes - "And You and I"

1973 - Elton John - "Daniel"

1974 - David Bowie - "Rebel, Rebel"

1975 - Led Zeppelin - "In My Time of Dying"

1976 - Boston - "More Than a Feeling"

1977 - Peter Gabriel - "Solsbury Hill"

1978 - Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"

1979 - The Police - "Message in a Bottle"

1980 - The Jam - "That's Entertainment"

1981 - The Police - "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"

1982 - Joe Jackson - "Steppin' Out"

1983 - U2 - "40"

1984 - Hüsker Dü - "Love Is All Around"

1985 - Sting - "Fortress Around Your Heart"

1986 - The Communards - "Don't Leave Me This Way"

1987 - Dukes of the Stratosphear - "Vanishing Girl"

1988 - The Church - "Under the Milky Way"

1989 - XTC - "The Mayor of Simpleton"

1990 - They Might Be Giants - "Birdhouse in Your Soul"

1991 - R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion"

1992 - Niamh Parsons - "The Tinkerman's Daughter"

1993 - The Cranberries - "Dreams"

1994 - Beastie Boys - "Sabotage"

1995 - Great Big Sea - "Runaway"

1996 - The Wonders - "That Thing You Do"

1997 - Foo Fighters - "Everlong"

1998 - Great Big Sea and The Chieftains - "Lukey's Boat"

1999 - Niamh Parsons - "Blackbirds and Thrushes"

2000 - Hem - "Half Acre"

2001 - Alison Krauss & Union Station - "The Lucky One"

2002 - Queens of the Stone Age - "Mosquito Song" 

2003 - Ben Harper & The Blind Boys of Alabama - "Picture of Jesus"

2004 - The Wailin' Jennys - "Arlington"

2005 - Coldplay - "Speed of Sound"

2006 - Calexico - "Cruel"

2007 - The Killers - "Read My Mind"

2008 - Adele - "Make You Feel My Love"

2009 - Fictionist - "Noisy Birds"

2010 - Justin Townes Earle - "Harlem River Blues"

2011 - The Wailin' Jennys - "Bird Song"

2012 - Gary Clark, Jr. - When My Train Pulls In"

2013 - St. Paul & the Broken Bones - "I've Been Loving You"

2014 - James Blake - "Retrograde"

2015 - Portugal. The Man - "People Say"

2016 - Eli et Papillon - "Les rêves"

2017 - Rhiannon Giddens - "Birmingham Sunday" 

A half century-plus-one of music! I can't think of a better way to celebrate.