Liam’s New Rain Gutter Bookshelves

You’ve heard the phrase, “Get your mind out of the gutter,” but maybe in this case, the gutter is a good place to be…

Recently, we stumbled across a blog post about rain gutter bookshelves and decided that these would be good to put on the big blue wall in Liam’s room as a clever & inexpensive (less than $15!) way to the handle some of the oversized books that won’t fit on his regular bookshelf cubbies. So we decided to turn today into “Project Saturday” and get busy.  Below is a before picture of the wall:

We spend a lot of time reading to him from the comfy recliner in his room so putting the bookshelves below the window seemed like the perfect spot.  After some measuring, leveling & drilling, here’s what we ended up with:

Here’s another couple of pictures with some books on the shelves:

We were happy with the end result and Liam was excited to see some of his favorite books prominently displayed.  Now he just has to decide which book to read first.

If you’re interested in putting up your own rain gutter bookshelves, read the tutorial at Raising Olive’s blog post. And be sure to check out the Rain Gutter Literacy Revolution for a more in-depth look at the effect of displaying childrens’ books facing forward.

What are some innovative ways you’ve handled book storage in your home?

A Week of Milestones

Seems like we’re always discovering new turning points that mark Liam’s progression and this week was kind of a biggie since we hit not just one, not two, but three milestones!

The first big event was Liam starting swim classes.  He’s had 2 lessons so far and is progressing well.  Although it doesn’t always seem like he’s listening to his to swim teacher, it’s obvious that he is hearing her because we’ve noticed changes in the way he swims outside of class.  He’s kicking and using his arms much more when he swims.

Liam's first swim class

The second big event was that Liam graduated out of his carseat to a booster seat today.  He had outgrown his old carseat in every direction, so we decided it was time to move up.  I’m finding some challenges with this already though—we had to have a talk today about not unbuckling the seat belt just because the car stopped.

Liam's new booster seat

The third big event is that Liam got a library card and checked out his first 2 books at our county library!

Liam's new library card

This has just been too many milestones in one week for me.  I feel like my little boy is growing up way too fast!

Thrifty Yet Nifty, Even After Fifty!

Green Eggs and HamIn yesterday’s New Year’s post I noted that 2010 is destined to be an eventful year, loaded with all sorts of special occasions.   One such milestone is the 50th anniversary of one our favorite books—”Green Eggs and Ham.”

After writing “The Cat in the Hat” in 1955 using only 223 words, Theodor (“Ted”) Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, bet his publisher Bennett Cerf $50 that he could write a book using only 50 words.   Seuss collected on the wager in 1960 with the publication of “Green Eggs and Ham” which did indeed use only 50 distinct words — of which, only one (“anywhere”) has more than a single syllable.   This simplistic yet infectious book has become the 4th best-selling children’s hardcover book of all time.

Liam has a number of Dr. Seuss books, but this one is definitely our favorite so far.   I especially enjoy acting out the exasperation felt by the story’s unnamed, flustered antagonist who is pestered relentlessly by the persistent Sam I Am!

Trivia: To memorialize Dr. Seuss upon his death in 1991, Reverend Jesse Jackson recited “Green Eggs and Ham” during a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update segment.

Lost Library

stack of old booksA recent blog about beautiful libraries triggered some old memories.   As a kid, I loved going to the public library — and still do.   Our library wasn’t elaborate or grandiose, yet it seemed immense.   People spoke in hushed church-like tones.   There was that nameless scent.   The obscure Dewey Decimal System held untold secrets just waiting to be decoded.   The shelves just dripped with potential.   Yes, going to the library was a rich & wondrous experience!

But it’s an experience I fear that my son may never know…

Booked-filled libraries are becoming a thing of the past. But while virtual libraries of e-books are certainly more accessible, I don’t think they’re as appreciable.   There’s not the same sense of vastness nor do they inspire the same reverence or wonderment.   Digital books seem less tangible and substantial.   You can electronically duplicate the content, but not the context or sensual aspect, the smell, feel, heft & texture, of actual books.

I’ll admit that even in spite of my love for real, physical books, I’m not immune to the hype & allure of e-book readers.   The idea that in a matter of seconds, you can download a new book rather than ordering it and waiting days or weeks for it to arrive make devices like’s Kindle really attractive.   But several factors — not the least of which is the price — have held me back.   I’ve seen a Sony e-book reader and the screen was surprisingly easy on the eyes, but deep down I’m still suspicious that the e-book reader experience just wouldn’t be as satisfying or comfortable as reading a book.

But sadly, the trend of replacing actual books with digital versions is only accelerating.   In fact, Cushing Academy near Boston is one of the first schools in the U.S. to abandon traditional books in favor of virtual ones.   In lieu of a library, the academy is instead creating a media center, spending nearly $500,000 equip it with with flat-screen TVs, e-book readers, and a coffee shop.

Is it just me and this is just nostalgia rearing its head once again?   Do you think there’s anything lost in the transition from physical to digital books?   Have you considered making the move to e-books?   Are libraries all but lost as we plunge ever deeper into the cyberworld?

Food For Thought: Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation book cover by Eric Schlosser is an in-depth look at how the fast food industry has revolutionized the landscape, culture, & health of America—and ultimately the entire world.

Not quite what you’d expect, Schlosser’s book doesn’t demonize fast food as it pertains to health—in fact, the author plainly states that his family still does eat some fast food —but rather, it’s more of an indictment of the corporate entities behind the drive-thrus.

This is a revealing look at sanitation & food safety that’s very often far from the primary concern of the big fast food chains. It’s also a disturbing investigation into some of the deplorable ways in which these companies commonly, almost criminally, (mis)treat their employees.

But as much as he slams many of the major fast food companies for their unethical practices, but I’ve got to commend Schlosser for also making a point to highlight the few that do it right, like In-N-Out Burger, for example.

This book is also packed with details and loads of interesting backstory, so it’s not an quick & easy weekend read. As broad a topic as fast food cultural is, Schlosser’s points wander appropriately across a very wide range. But “Fast Food Nation” is definitely well worth the time! Just a few of the persuasive nuggets:

  • The fast food industry has aggressively lobbied against improved health and safety practices in the meat-packing industry, while pushing for lower product costs, faster production and more uniform product.   One result of this is that any single hamburger patty may be comprised of ground bits from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cattle rather than a single cow.
  • The meatpacking industry has become totally industrialized. Cattle are fed a continuous diet of corn—something which cows would not naturally eat in volume—laced with massive amounts of antibiotics to counteract the devastating effects that solely eating grain has upon the bovine digestive system (resulting in ever more resistant pathogens). In addition to being unhealthy for the cows, corn-fed beef is comparably higher in unhealthy saturated fats than that of grass-fed.
  • To comply with international standards, the quality of meat being processed for shipment to non-American locations of the big fast food chains is several times higher than that of the meat used domestically. That means that a Big Mac in Dubai has better, safer meat than the same burger at a McDonald’s in Dallas.
  • Fast food has infiltrated every corner of American society and is now served at restaurants & drive-throughs, at stadiums, airports, zoos, public schools & universities, on cruise ships, trains, and airplanes, at retail stores, gas stations, and even in some hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion.
  • To make a strawberry milkshake at home, you’d probably use ice cream, strawberries, milk, and maybe a touch of vanilla. But the ingredients in a typical fast-food version include milkfat & nonfat milk, sweet whey, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, guar gum, monoglycerides & diglycerides, cellulose gum, sodium phosphate, carrageenan, citric acid, E129, and artificial strawberry flavor.   That elusive “strawberry flavor” isn’t even derived from actual fruit, but rather an elaborate laboratory where “flavorists” perform wizardry with chemicals such as amyl acetate, butyric acid, dipropyl ketone, methyl heptine carbonate, and undecalactone.

This book has certainly changed the way I look at the food I’m putting on my family’s table. And it’s the second of the two books I’ll be drawing a name for at the end of this Food For Thought week, so be sure to leave a comment so that you’re entered to win!

Has there been anything that’s changed your opinions about fast food? Do you still eat fast food as often? Do you ever veer away from the big chain restaurants and instead get burgers & such from “Mom & Pop” fast food places?

Food For Thought: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma book coverTo start this Food For Thought series off I’d like to highlight one of the best, most compelling books I’ve read about the food we eat & its origins.

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fascinating exploration of the origins of modern food and the implications that our choices have for the health of us—and our planet. Pollan’s account of his stay at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms was especially fascinating.

This is a bit of a dense read, because it’s so packed with information, but it’s an incredibly eye-opening & thought-provoking book. A few takeaway points that stuck with me:

  • If we are what we eat, then we are corn. Corn is in everything, from frozen vegetables to sandwich meat to yogurt to pasta sauce to bread to grape juice and even cough syrup, most often in the form of high fructose corn syrup or modified corn starch — or both.
  • Corn fields have become little more than a very inefficient means of converting petroleum (in the form of fuel, fertilizer, & pesticides) into food. And corn seems "cheap" at the consumer end because we’ve already paid for it once via tax subsidies that support the Farm Bill.
  • Industrial farms often use very sketchy loopholes to qualify for using the “organic” label on their produce. When buying produce, it’s far better to shop for locally-grown or regional items first, organic or otherwise.
  • It’s worth understanding the distinctions between organic, free range, hormone-free, etc. Some of these terms are used more loosely than others. For instance, “free range” animals are often provided only the opportunity to roam in a small open area but not necessarily given any incentive to do so. They typically live no differently than non-free range animals.
  • If farms were to switch from monoculture (only one crop grown) back to growing many different crops and raising a variety of animals as well, not only would the farmers benefit, but so would the livestock, environment, and community as a whole.

Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is one of the two books I’ll be drawing a name for at the end of this Food For Thought week, so be sure to leave a comment so you’re entered to win! I’d love to hear from others who’ve read this book or if you’ve read another book that made a real impact upon how you view food, please share that!

Glad For Gladwell

I’ve been a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan for years and had the distinct pleasure last Tuesday of getting to hear him in person for the first time, thanks to UTPB’s Shepperd Distinguished Lecturer Series (which was previously responsible for bringing the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev here to speak).

Gladwell has a real gift for unearthing, dissecting, & interpreting social concepts & emerging trends and making them digestible & entertaining for the common person. Frankly, I’m amazed that we somehow lured an author & speaker of this magnitude to our little corner of Texas—much less that the lecture was free!

I had to coax Dede to attend, but she was pleasantly surprised to discover just how engaging & thought-provoking a speaker the author is. His lecture centered around one of the topics, capitalization, that’s focused upon in his most recent book Outliers: The Story of Success. Capitalization is the ability to take advantage of peoples’ untapped potential for achievement & success. Gladwell examined several of the factors that limit success and discussed some solutions to overcome & eliminate those. Afterward, he graciously autographed each his 3 books that I had with me, including the copy of “Outliers,” which I’d just bought that evening.

Malcolm Gladwell   Autographed copy of "Outliers"
Click the above images for larger versions

Want to hear some of the author’s thoughts yourself? Check out his Human Nature lecture where he explores why we often can’t trust people’s opinions, using examples of New Coke & Herman-Miller’s Aeron chair—neither of which performed in the marketplace even remotely similar to how research suggested they would.

I also recommend you check out my Jumbo Shrimp & SUV Safety post where I cite some of Gladwell’s points on consumers’ flawed rationale behind chosing SUVs for safety.

And you’ll certainly want to watch the following TED talk where Malcolm talks about what spaghetti sauce can teach us about innovation:

A Monkee Becomes a Penguin

In the past year we’ve gathered quite a library of children’s books that we like to read to Liam but we’re especially fond of the Sandra Boynton board books.

One of her books, "Your Personal Penguin" has a companion song that’s sung by none other than my favorite Monkee, Davy Jones!   Davy is featured in the book and on the CD, singing the title song.   Reportedly, Davy & Boyton have become close friends as a result of the project.

And here’s a fun behind-the-scenes look at Davy Jones & Michael Ford composing & recording this infectious little tune:

(Note: Requires Apple’s QuickTime player.)

Visit Workman Publishing to see other behind-the-scenes videos and listen to more Boynton songs.   Rob thinks Opus would approve!

More Love For Schlosser

I’ve blogged a number of times about this in the past and there’s just no end in sight to the Schlosser love-fest over here. “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser is definitely one of my favorite books and just earlier this week, I blogged about the newly-released trailer for the upcoming movie based upon the book.

Just this morning there was a post at ParentHacks about Schlosser’s new book, “Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food” that was just released this month. Continuing on the theme of his earlier works, this is aimed at educating kids on the fast food & soda industries, the realities of meat production, junk food additives, and the poor treatment of fast food restaurant employees. His goal is to provide kids an inside look at the history of the fast food industry, and enough information to start making wiser food choices.

The arrival of this new book sharply struck a nerve with the fast food industry. More than a dozen trade groups representing producers of beef, potatoes, dairy, and snacks, along with restaurant groups, are fighting back with websites, PR campaigns, and coordinated attacks unleashed on Schlosser earlier this month. Lobbyists even protested at some of his book signings spouting baseless and absurd claims about the author such as:

“[Schlosser is] tricking young people […] to lead them away from capitalism into his failed socialist ideology.”

Oh, I’m just loving this — rather than silence the ruckus, the fast food industry’s overt attacks are more likely to concentrate attention on their bad practises. And while the fast food flacks refuted Morgan Spurlock’s great documentary “Super Size Me” as sensationalistic, Schlosser’s books are based on hard data rather than observations, so they’re not nearly so easily dismissed.

By the way, I also came across an interesting interview with Eric Schlosser over at in which the author revealed that he’s working on another investigative book — this time focusing on the federal prison system.