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Christy Catherine Marshall

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November 30, 2010

I love field trips. Whenever my kids’ school sends home a permission slip for something fun and interesting, I’m there. I ride the bus, bouncing along with other parents, enjoying an excuse to break out of my normal routine and learn something new.

Still, it came as a surprise when I recently got invited to attend an educational field trip — just for me. I was somehow selected to join a group of media attending a conference hosted by the United Egg Producers, held in sunny Tampa, Florida.

I’m not sure why they chose me — perhaps a secret computer at my local grocery store alerted them to the fact that THIS WOMAN BUYS A LOT OF EGGS. It’s true. We eat eggs every day at our house — fried, boiled, or scrambled for breakfast; deviled and sliced for after-school snacks; and baked in all sorts of muffins, cookies, pancakes, waffles, and cornbread.

Eggs fill my kids up and give them energy. They’re also an inexpensive source of protein. Yet I hadn’t given much thought as to WHY eggs are so abundant in the U.S., as well as why I can buy them so cheaply.

We tried for several years to maintain our own free-range, organic egg-laying hens. But eventually we lost every single one of them to predators — neighborhood dogs, hawks, and weasels. In a way it was a relief. Chickens don’t lay forever, and once they age out, you either keep them as feathery pets or … you know, eat them. Which I couldn’t imagine doing.

So I went to Tampa, curious about how modern egg farmers operate. I went alone — with an open mind, a camera, and a little black notebook.

Our group was eclectic: I met other mom bloggers, healthy living writers, cooking experts, and even a senior beauty editor from New York. Everyone was super friendly, and I blended right in, trying to act like I do this sort of thing all the time.

We rode on a bus, actually a van, out to a modern egg-producing farm. Along the way, we listened to speakers and watched a video about how hens create and lay their eggs. Amazing stuff! When we arrived, our van had to be hosed down, and each of us suited up from head to toe in biosecurity jumpsuits. This is why school groups usually aren’t invited to tour egg farms — absolutely everything must be 100% sanitary, free of pathogens.

Here’s our little group, trying to get used to our new outfits (I am on the far right):

And here I am holding one of these hard-working beautiful white leghorn hens:

I cannot begin to describe to you all the emotions that raced through my body as I entered a barn housing over 100,000 chickens. Mostly, I felt gratitude. I realized I’ve never fully appreciated the labor behind each and every egg I bring into my home.

We learned that this facility packages 750,000 eggs per day. It brought back memories of watching “Mr. Rogers” with my children, as I wanted to ask each person working there a million questions. It was fascinating to watch the eggs going from hens to egg cartons within a matter of minutes.

Next, we visited a cage-free farm. Here the hens can roam around freely.

This breed of bird is more docile than the white leghorn, and lays beautiful brown eggs.

After our busy morning of visiting farms, we spent the afternoon listening to professors and other health experts explain the scientific research behind modern egg farming. I learned that the United Egg Producers have created welfare guidelines to ensure that hens have “adequate space, nutritious food, clean water, proper lighting, and fresh air daily.” It’s a voluntary program, and only farms that adhere to these strict guidelines can display the UEP logo on their packaging:

So, after listening to all of these well-informed people and seeing for myself what modern egg farms look like, I came away with one main thought: as consumers, we have plenty of choices when it comes to eggs.

We can buy the inexpensive white eggs that come from caged hens, or we can buy the pricier cage-free eggs. We can buy from local organic farms, or we can fill up our carts at the supermarket. If we have the time, space, and inclination, we can raise our own chickens to feed our families. I encourage you to research all of this for yourself. You can take a virtual tour of a UEP-certified egg farm here.

My special thanks to the United Egg Producers for hosting me on this tour. I learned a lot, made new friends, and gained a greater appreciation of the network of farms and people who work to bring food into my home.

This is definitely a mom’s field trip I’ll never forget.

November 24, 2010

If you’ve got a house full of relatives staying with you over Thanksgiving break, you might find yourself needing a breather at some point. Here’s a fun movie that offers a quick escape for you and your guests.

Morning Glory stars Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, and Diane Keaton in a light-hearted romantic comedy that does exactly what it sets out to do — entertain. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially since we’ve been working our way through the old Indiana Jones trilogy at home. Seeing Ford portray a grumpy old man — as opposed to a dashing young adventure seeker — was downright hilarious.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, a 28-year-old workaholic who’s just been let go of her network job in New Jersey. Through sheer guts and a willingness to run through the streets of New York in a mini-skirt and stilettos, she lands a new job as executive producer of “Daybreak,” a fluffy morning show with low ratings.

In order to prove herself, she immediately fires the narcissistic male co-host and goes after Mike Pomeroy, played by Harrison Ford. He’s an aging former hard news anchor who spends most of his time game hunting, still collecting millions until his contract expires in two years. No longer. When Becky finds him and forces him to come back to work, Mike is furious.

And so we movie-goers get to sit back and watch the unstoppable Becky work her tail off trying to revamp Daybreak’s image and ratings. But Mike undermines her efforts by being a pill to work with, letting everyone know he’s above such a frivolous broadcast. Tension builds as the network threatens to cancel the show, and Becky runs faster and faster on her narrow pointy heels, chasing down executives on their morning jogs through Central Park.

There’s a love interest for Becky, which doesn’t add much to the story, except that he’s nice to look at (played by Patrick Wilson). Unfortunately, one scene makes this a better film for adults than for kids to see, despite the PG-13 rating. I was disappointed that our heroine was smart in every way except when it came to dating. Still, for you ladies watching, we’re glad she does take a time-out from her BlackBerry, which she stows in the freezer for a few minutes of peace.

The film offers several laugh-out-loud silly moments, as the Daybreak hosts attempt some extreme sports on live TV. Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford ham it up for the audience — and it truly seems like they’re having a blast acting in this film. If you see it, you’ll understand why I wanted to go home and try tossing together a Harrison Ford Fritatta.

I enjoyed peeking behind the scenes of a high-speed morning TV show. It made my own crazy mornings seem a little more bearable.

If you need a breather from your endless holiday chore list, I recommend Morning Glory. And I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

By: Heather Ivester in: Movies | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (2)

November 22, 2010

As a former English teacher and bonafide bookaholic, I’m always seeking like-minded souls who embrace classic literature. So you can imagine my joy when I stumbled onto The Red Blazer Girls, a brand new middle grade series, written by high school English teacher Michael D. Beil, whose characters are smart, wholesome, and literary.

I really wasn’t looking for anything new to read. My nightstand is already so full of books, I can hardly find my alarm clock. But as I breezed through the library with my kids the other day, The Ring of Rocamadour (book 1 of the series) jumped off the shelf at me. I couldn’t resist when I opened it up and read the first paragraph:

For as far back as I can remember, I have told everyone I know that I am going to be a writer. And it’s not just some idle dream. I have been a busy girl, and my hard drive is bulging with the results of this ambition: a heaping assortment of almost-but-not-quite-finished short stories and at least three this-time-I’m-really-off-to-a-great-start-and-I-mean-it novels. Unfortunately, every single thing I have written — until now, that is — is fatally flawed.

Ha! Did Mr. Beil sneak over to my house and read my diary? Or, since this is his debut novel, are we actually reading his diary?

This snappy writing continues throughout the book, and I couldn’t put it down. So, who are the Red Blazer Girls? Well, although the book cover only shows three, there are actually four girls in the group, in the seventh grade at New York City’s exclusive St. Veronica’s School: Sophie, Margaret, Rebecca, and Leigh Ann. In The Ring of Rocamadour, the girls find themselves caught up in a mystery when the quirky Mrs. Harriman asks for their help solving a 20-year-old puzzle. She’s seeks clues to a treasure hunt initiated by her father for the sake of his granddaughter, on her 14th birthday. Unfortunately, he died before giving her the card, and the birthday gift has never been found.

The Red Blazer Girls are in, and their adventures involve digging through old volumes of the Harvard Classics, quizzing their English teacher on his vast knowledge of Charles Dickens, and even math equations. In fact, several pages of the book take readers through a math problem that made the subject exciting and fun — even for me! I probably haven’t thought about the Pythagorean theorem since high school, but it comes in handy when the girls are trying to pinpoint a secret spot where the next clue may be hidden.

Sophie is an amazing narrator — I love her! I want more books narrated by her. Here’s what she says about herself:

Another confession: call me a geek if you must, but I just love books. I am absolutely obsessed with them. Go on, name any kids’ book or series of books, and I probably have it. I spend so much of my allowance at the local bookstore that Margaret thinks I have some kind of compulsive shopping disorder … Nothing against the library, but there’s something different about having the book within reach when, say, I absolutely need to go back and reread that part in Anne of Green Gables that makes me cry every time I read it. (And speaking of books, if you’re the person who borrowed my well-worn but much loved hardcover copy of The Secret Garden, please return it — no questions asked.)

Ooh… I love this writing. I can see why an acquiring editor at Knopf fell in love. As soon as I finished the first book, I had to start right away on the next one The Vanishing Violin. The clues here involve more verbal logic than math, but I also found this book a fascinating read!

I predict middle school English teachers and librarians will snap this series up — and hopefully publishers will keep up the trend of bringing out books that expand minds and build character in readers.

The Red Blazer Girls are good wholesome reading for girls — with no sleaze or vampires. Thank you, Mr. Beil! Keep ’em coming!

November 18, 2010

Have you seen this video yet of the surprised shoppers in a Philadelphia Macy’s when several hundred people, dressed normally, suddenly broke out singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, accompanied by the world’s largest pipe organ? Wow. I wish I had been there.

This took place on October 30, and over three million people have already watched the video, so sorry to be passing along old news. I just can’t resist highlighting something so joyful!

The Knight Foundation graciously provided funding for this event, using singers from the Opera Company of Philadelphia and other choral groups.

The “Random Acts of Culture” program is committed to bringing artists out of the performance halls and into the streets as a reminder of how the classical arts enrich lives.

I don’t see how anyone can hear music like this and not believe in God. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ll be on the lookout for more Random Acts of Culture, and who knows — maybe I’ll invent something of my own!

November 16, 2010

Every year, I read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of picture books, yet I rarely take the time to review them. Usually my eyes are propped open as I mumble my way through “just one more story!” to my two younger kids, who love finding another excuse to stall their bedtime.

And then a book like One More Acorn comes along, and I feel like I’m holding a little bit of magic in my hands.

The story itself is enchanting. It’s autumn in Washington DC, and a gray squirrel named Earl must scamper through town to find food for his family. He knows he’s hidden a big acorn somewhere, and he’s off to find it. His wife and children are waiting for him in their small blue house perched high on a tree limb.

As we journey with Earl, we see the beauty of our nation’s capital, lit up with the golden colors of fall. The illustrations are bright-hued and yet soft and muted at the same time. Earl happens upon a “Children’s Day Parade” in which children are encouraged to plant a tree.

And here we come to a dilemma: the children see a big acorn that would be perfect for planting — yet it’s also a potential hearty meal for our hard-working squirrel, who has hungry mouths waiting to be fed at home. What will happen to the acorn? Tee hee. I won’t tell you. Go to your library and check it out. (Or buy it if you can’t borrow it.)

Reading One More Acorn gave me a chance to talk about our nation’s capital to my children, pointing out the various monuments and scenic locations in the pictures. But what truly drew me into this book is the Author’s Note at the back of the book.

I usually read these to myself, but that night my kids begged me to read it to them, so I did. Wow. Here’s the story. You know that book, Corduroy, about the little bear who’s missing his overall button? Well, it was written by Don Freeman, who wrote and illustrated many well-known books for children.

Don Freeman died in 1978, leaving behind his sketchbooks, notebooks, and unfinished works in the care of his only son, Roy Freeman. Decades later, Roy discovered the handwritten text and rough sketches of this squirrel book, which his dad had begun in the early 1960s during a trip to Washington DC. Don Freeman apparently abandoned the project after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

So, thirty years after his father’s death, Roy Freeman found the vision to complete the second half of his dad’s book, enlisting the help of talented artist, Jody Wheeler. The resulting creation is truly a work of art.

I think this would make a wonderful read-aloud book for teachers and librarians, especially as we celebrate the colors of fall and teach children about the change of seasons. From a child’s view, acorns are fun to pick up and collect in coat pockets, but from a squirrel’s view, acorns are food.

One More Acorn is a quiet book. I’m a person who likes to read quiet books to my children. That’s a phrase I learned from author Jane Yolen at SCBWI last spring — she said it’s getting harder for writers to publish quiet books these days. There are no Disney movie tie-ins, flashy pop-outs, or over-the-top humor. Just a quiet story — of a little squirrel, and of a son, finishing up the good work begun by his father.

I’m very thankful we discovered it!

November 7, 2010

I had a hunch about Secretariat.

When I saw the previews for it, I thought the plot would be similar to SeaBiscuit, a feel-good movie about a horse overcoming odds to win races. But I still wanted to make an effort to see it because of the “housewife” story, a mother in mid-life who finds her true calling. This was the real incentive for me to add it to my must-see list.

I felt like a racehorse overcoming all odds just to GET to the movie theater. Our little entourage required days of phone calls and emails, coordinating schedules and pick-ups and meeting times — and IT WAS A COLD AND RAINY NIGHT when we finally made it to our finish line at the ticket counter.

Popcorn in hand, I listened to my daughter’s eleven-year-old friend tell me about her latest horse show experience. “I got fourth place last week riding my horse, Peter Pan,” she said. We were definitely the perfect audience for this Disney horse feature.

The movie opened with such a familiar scene: Diane Lane, playing Penny Chenery Tweedy, is serving her family supper, straight from the frying pan. A Denver housewife, she’s put her career aspirations on hold to raise her four children. Then the inciting incident: the phone rings, a startled Penny drops the bowl she’s stirring, and we learn that her mother has suddenly died.

Penny journeys with her family back home to the Virginia horse farm where she grew up. After the funeral, she decides to stay a couple of weeks to put her mother’s affairs in order and help her ailing father. He’s being taken advantage of by greedy farm managers, and she immediately fires a dishonest breeder. The farm has been losing money for years, and Penny determines to do all she can to save it.

Unfortunately, it’s a man’s world she’s stepping into, but that doesn’t stop her. After winning Secretariat in a coin toss, she approaches French-Canadian Lucien Laurin (played by the hilarious John Malkovich), to train him. He refuses at first since he’s supposedly retired, but then throws his golf clubs away and decides to join her. Definitely a wise decision.

Halfway through the film, I turned to my seven-year-old son and said, “Isn’t this amazing? It’s a true story!” His eyes got big and he said, “You mean this really happened?” And then he passed the word down our row. “This really happened!”

I remember being in sixth or seventh grade writing a report on Secretariat in my school’s “media center,” copying facts out of the encylopedia. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, running two world records that still stand today, 37 years later. He’s known as “the greatest racehorse who ever lived.” When he died in 1989, it was discovered that his heart actually weighed twice what was normal for horses.

Doesn’t Diane Lane remind you of Cinderella in this scene? (And she’s 45 years old!)

For all of us who were around in the early 1970s, the fashion and set designs bring back nostalgic memories of sun clocks and earth tones. I kept wanting to loosen up Diane Lane’s helmet hair, and it seemed like she got prettier and more relaxed as the story progressed.

At the final racing scene, our whole theater erupted in applause — this is what makes sharing a movie fun. As we were leaving, my friend who had brought her two kids said, “That was the BEST movie I’ve seen all year.” And I agreed.

Secretariat is a horse story that needed to be told on the silver screen, and this movie’s going to become a classic, one I’ll want to own, especially if the DVD includes an interview with the real Penny Chenery Tweedy, who is still alive at age 88.

Stay for the end of the credits. There is a surprising cameo you won’t want to miss!

By: Heather Ivester in: Movies | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (2)

November 4, 2010

I know I seem to be posting mostly video links lately, but this one is not only adorable, it’s also USEFUL for teaching your children how to handle an emergency.

Here’s a little five-year-old girl who had to talk to a 911 dispatcher while her dad was having a possible heart attack. (Everything turned out OK, thank goodness.)

Could your child do this for you?

Click here to listen.

November 3, 2010

As I was leaving my aerobics class the other day, I overhead some mothers talking about how hard it is to stay out of their kids’ trick-or-treat bags while they’re at school. One mom said, “I get all the Reece’s and Snickers’ bars. My kids don’t like anything with peanut butter or nuts in it.”

I’m so jealous! I wish I could have dibs on the Reece’s, but they’re everybody’s favorite. Instead, my kids give me their Almond Joys.

We ended up with a huge stash of candy this year, after nearly a week’s worth of trick-or-treating. I think since Halloween officially fell on a Sunday, everyone decided to come up with alternative events. So we attended “Fall Festivals” at our church and school, which of course landed the kids huge bags full of sweets.

For a little extra fun, we also stopped at a “Trunk or Treat” at a friend’s church and got caught up with everyone. And then, on a whim, we decided to join another friend’s family trick-or-treating in her subdivision. “My neighbors really get into it,” she warned me. “You’ll see.”

Oh my.

I’ve never seen anything like this. We had such a blast. There must have been 300 kids out trick-or-treating. No cars. Everybody was driving around in golf carts or 4-wheelers pulling wagons full of kids in costume. It was hilarious. I kept wishing I had some Japanese friends visiting us so we could take them out and let them enjoy this weird, wild American custom.

We must have visited 30 or 40 houses, and every neighbor went all out, with huge baskets of candy on the front porch, fluffy small dogs sniffing at cowboy and astronaut boots, little white-haired ladies asking, “And what have we here? A little princess and a fairy! Oh, you look so lovely, dear.”

It was wonderful. Parents got to chat while kids compared their stashes. I saw two little boys dressed like a skeleton and a Storm Trooper sit side by side on a garden bench, saying, “I’ll trade you a Hershey’s for that Kit-Kat.” Two dads strolled by discussing the size of their lawn mower engines. “I’m saving about an hour every time I cut my grass with my new mower,” confided one dad to the other.

But the real treat for me came at the end of the evening, when my kids dumped their bags in the front hall and were sorting their loot. (Don’t you remember doing this same thing?)

Here’s the beautiful question they asked me. “Mama, do you want our Almond Joys?”

“What? You don’t like Almond Joys?”

“No,” they informed me. “The coconut is squishy and nasty. And we don’t like those kind of nuts. You can have ours.”

Isn’t coconut a fruit? And aren’t almonds one of the approved snacks on the South Beach Diet? I happily relieved them of those adult-friendly candy bars and put them in the refrigerator, where I can savor them … slowly.

Too bad there’s no such thing as a calorie-free Almond Joy. I guess that’s why us moms end up at aerobics — working off our kids’ leftover candy.

November 2, 2010

I confess. I’m excited Jeff Kinney’s latest installment to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series releases next week! November 9th to be exact. If you’re the parent of an elementary school-aged boy, you get it. Right?

These books are funny, and they’re delightfully inexpensive hardback, so they can handle the wear and tear of being passed around from kid to kid.

I didn’t realize how hugely popular these books were until we were visiting friends in Portland last fall. I rode in the back of a mini-van to the Oregon seacoast with my friend’s two young sons, along with two of my own children. We passed the time by reading Dog Days out loud and playing “Cheese Touch.” This was the first book my then six-year-old son read all by himself. They’re fun for kids to read — and they appeal to the parents on a different level. (I love the mom in this series. We think alike!)

Although I wasn’t too crazy about the movie, (I thought Roderick was way too scary and mean), the books are much better. I haven’t seen a copy of the new purple one, so I’m clueless about what’s inside. But I’m sure I’ll toss one into my cart when I’m rolling through Wal-Mart.

If you’d like to meet Jeff Kinney in person, check out his website for details of his Ugly Truth bus tour. Here are the cities where he’ll be stopping:

Monday November 8–Dallas, TX

Tuesday November 9–Austin, TX LAUNCH EVENT

Wednesday November 10–Little Rock, AR

Thursday November 11–Memphis, TN

Friday November 12–Nashville, TN

Saturday November 13–Birmingham, AL

Sunday November 14–San Diego, CA

I read that he doesn’t do school visits, so if your kids want to meet him, here’s your best chance!