Fall 2014 book search for Timmy and Nora (Part 1 – books for Nora)

I’ve spent the last few months listening to audio books in search of gems to put on Timmy and Nora’s Christmas wish lists. Here is what I came up with for Nora.

The Dragonet Prophecy – Wings of Fire Book 1

This is a wonderful book about a group of five young dragons, a Mudwing, a Seawing, a Sandwing, a Nightwing, and a Rainwing, all raised together in captivity and rigorously trained by the Talons of Peace to fulfill a prophecy and end the dragon war.

This series is unique in that the main characters are dragons, and while humans exist in the world, the dragons don’t interact with them much except to hunt and eat them. It can be a bit gruesome in this respect, but if I read the foreshadowing correctly, I believe that the dragonets may team up with the humans (called scavengers) in a future book.

The Mysterious Howling – The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 1

This book is reminiscent of the classic, Jane Eyre, but geared for children. Miss Penelope Lumley, age 15, has just been hired as the new governess at Ashton Place. Her charges are three young children who were found in the woods, apparently raised by wolves. Miss Lumley has her work cut out for her, since the children are completely uncivilized, and she’s expected to get them presentable in time for the upcoming Christmas party. Fun, mysterious, exciting, and shocking. I heartily recommend this one.

The Frog Princess

This was a fun read. It’s similar in concept to the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog in that the princess kisses a frog who claims to be a prince, but instead of changing him back, she changes into a frog as well. Now they must learn to live with each other (and to stay alive) while they try to figure out how to reverse the enchantment. My opinion on this book: mostly harmless.

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

I have many problems with this book. My biggest complaint being that the adults are terrible. They constantly threaten the children, but never make good on their threats, and generally let the kids get away with whatever they want to do, which includes blatant disobedience, lying, stealing, vandalism, bullying, and performing horrifyingly dangerous stunts.

This might (maybe) be acceptable if it was done humorously. Instead, this book tries to position itself as a coming-of-age story in which the protagonists learn nothing, and everything works out beautifully for them in the end. I recommend you avoid this one.

Sophie Simon Solves Them All

This book has a lot going for it. It’s witty, charming, humorous, and short. Admittedly, the characters are rather flat, and don’t learn much. Also, the adults in the story are complete imbeciles, but in a cute, funny way. The book teaches just a little bit about diverse topics such as calculus, lemurs, and French culture, never sounding like it’s lecturing, even when it is.

The best aspect of Sophie Simon Solves Them All is its phraseology. It uses clever language, and strategic repetition to excellent effect, making even the most mundane of happenings incredibly enjoyable to read.

Aliens on Vacation – The Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast Book 1

Scrub (David) is spending summer vacation with his eccentric grandmother in a tiny hick town in Washington state. She is apparently some strange combination between new-age hippy and 60s sci-fi nerd. Scrub is convinced she’s crazy… until he discovers that all of the customers of her bed and breakfast are actually aliens in disguise.

I’m not sure who this book is for: Timmy or Nora. I decided to put it onto Nora’s list because it’s short, and it’s sort of a silly romance, which is definitely her thing. But it certainly would work well for Timmy too. The protagonist is a teenage boy, and much of the subject matter (basketball, male bonding, girl confusion) is definitely of the teenage boy flavor. Bottom line: I think they both would enjoy it.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

This is a bizarre, whimsical story about a girl named Ophelia who meets a boy in a locked room at the museum. They can converse through the keyhole, and the boy divulges to Ophelia a wonderful and fantastical tale about kings and wizards, witches and swords. At first they are just fun and interesting stories, but soon Ophelia begins to realize that the boy’s words are all true, and that she is in terrible danger.

This book makes very little sense, nor does it need to. Things happen without much rationale, in a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland way, but it’s not obnoxious. It actually works quite well. It’s well-written, engaging, and just plain fun. I think Nora would love it.

A Snicker of Magic

This book is spectacular. Absolutely fabulous! I can’t say enough good about it. There is magic in it, but only a little. For the most part, it’s a pretty mundane type of magic. One person can make incredible ice cream. Another person is a very good musician. Felicity Pickle sees words. Words are everywhere for her: hovering around people and objects. She collects these words and writes them in her notebook, or on her shoe if her notebook isn’t handy.

The story in A Snicker of Magic is engaging, but it’s certainly not the star of the show. Even the wonderful characters (and they are very good) take back stage to the writing. Natalie Lloyd paints with words the way artists use pigments. Just about every single paragraph in the entire book is a work of art. For some, the writing may seem over-flowery and annoying, but I found it a pure joy, from start to finish. Highly recommended.

Half a Chance

This is a very challenging book. It’s not the vocabulary that is so challenging, though, but the situations. The protagonist, Lucy, is faced with some very difficult social and moral dilemmas that she must work through.

Lucy is an amateur photographer, and her most profound problem comes in the form of a photograph. Her best friend (Nate)’s grandmother is suffering from the early stages of dementia, and Lucy accidentally captures a photo of the poor lady in a moment of complete fear and misery, over a teacup of all things.

After seeing the picture, Lucy knows that it’s the best photo she has ever taken, and she is sure that it would win a prize if she were to send it in to a photography contest. Nate doesn’t want her to, though. He hates the picture. What should Lucy do?

While I think this is a well-written and interesting book, I don’t think it’s a good match for my family at this time.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Ummm… Wow. Seriously, wow. What did I just read? Ulysses was a squirrel who accidentally got sucked into a vacuum cleaner, and when he came out he had super powers. He could understand human speech, he had super strength, he could fly… and he could type. In fact, he typed poetry, of all things.

This book is silly, ridiculous, and totally unbelievable. I often found myself wondering, did I just read what I think I read? And yet, it is frequently surprising in its depth and empathy. Take a look at some quotes from the book to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

“All things are possible. When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, the miraculous happened every day. Or every other day. Or every third day. Actually, sometimes it did not happen at all, even on the third day. But still, we expected it. You see what I’m saying? Even when it didn’t happen, we were expecting it. We knew the miraculous would come.”

Sky Jumpers – Book 1

Hope lives in the small village of White Rock, nestled among mountains, protected from the rest of the world. It has been a couple generations since the end of World War III, and the entire planet is in the process of recovering from the fallout.

Life is hard. There is very little technology to speak of, and everyone must pull their own weight. The survival of the entire community depends on it. Yet, life is peaceful for Hope and her friends, until the bandits arrive.

They take the entire village hostage, and it’s up to Hope and her comrades to hike over the mountains to the neighboring town and recruit help. This story and the characters in it, are likeable and fun. I think Sky Jumpers is right up Nora’s alley.

– danBhentschel

Supernatural me: The search for a soul

Do you believe in the supernatural human soul? I believe that all people are supernatural beings, and so do you. In this article, I aim to convince you of that fact.

Defining supernatural

  1. (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature
    – Oxford Dictionary

Anything that can’t be described by our understanding of nature can be labeled as supernatural. This definition is somewhat incomplete, though, in that it doesn’t make allowance for the limitation of human knowledge.

There are events that transpire every day that can’t be fully explained by our current understanding of the laws of nature, and yet we don’t consider them to be supernatural because we can conceive of natural laws to describe the behaviors. We just don’t currently understand the workings of those laws in detail. For something to be considered truly supernatural, it must be unquestionably beyond the scope of what can be described by the laws of nature.

Defining the soul

Dictionary definitions of the human soul are vague and convoluted, which is not surprising. The word “soul” can be used in many contexts, and the boundaries between them are blurry. Since I am unable to find a dictionary definition that exactly matches the concept I desire to address, I propose my own definition:

soul – The immaterial part of you that comprises the core of what you think of as “self”, consisting of your thoughts, your emotions, and your resolve.

Throughout this article, when I refer to the soul, consider the word a placeholder for the concept expressed in this sentence.

Building blocks of the soul

As a father, I think about this topic frequently. What makes a person who they are? Where do behavioral traits come from? Historically, the debate has been nature vs. nurture. Are our behaviors inherited from our ancestors, or are they influenced by our environment?

While this is certainly a fascinating topic, I think it is irrelevant to the topic at hand. Both our innate character and our experiences are ultimately encoded in the physical structure of our brain. Distilled to its basic essence, you could say that our soul is comprised of the network of neural connections in our brain, and the impulses that travel along those connections.

To put it another way, in theory every single thought or emotion that you have ever experienced can be traced to a neurochemical reaction in your brain.

There. Simple, right? There’s nothing supernatural about it. Your soul can be completely explained by the laws of nature.

Beyond neurochemistry

There is a problem with this explanation, though. This model of the human soul is not very unlike a computer. You have your hardware, the raw cerebral material that you are born with, and the encoding of your experiences into that material is analogous to programming a computer.

If every behavior that you manifest can be explained by the physical makeup of your mind, then who is accountable for your actions? Is a computer accountable for its behavior? It just does what it is programmed to do, given the physical limitations of its hardware.

How is your mind any different? If you break a law, why should you be held accountable? You can’t go against what your brain is telling you to do, and your brain is simply a conglomerate of the neural connections you were born with, modified by the experiences that you have gone through.

And yet we all believe that each individual is ultimately accountable for their actions, don’t we? If someone were to walk up to you and punch you in the face, would you bemoan the combination of hardware and software that ultimately led to that inevitable injurious event? You might, on a good day, sympathize slightly with your assailant if you knew that they had a rough childhood, but I’m sure that you would consider the person to be responsible for attacking you.

I am not an automaton

I am more than a computer. My soul, the part of me that I think of as “me”, exists beyond the tangle of impulses and neurons in my head. I can rise above my nature and my history. There is something within me that is able to override my programming, to surpass the limitations of my hardware.

I must believe this, because if I don’t then I give in to fatalism. Such thinking leads to a life without accountability, without accomplishment, and without hope. I refuse to live a life bereft of hope. It is the supernatural within me that provides that hope.

– danBhentschel

On losing weight (Part 7 – Dinners and restaurants)

My previous post in this series focused on reducing my caloric intake while at work. This time, I’m going to examine controlling what I eat at dinner time and when eating out.

Dinners at home

For the most part, I have left my dinners unchanged. Remember, according to my calorie budget, I should be eating between 800 – 1200 calories at dinner time. I set up my diet this way so that I can eat whatever the rest of the family is eating, but I still have found ways to tweak my meals:

  • Prepare frozen veggies without oil or butter.
  • Buy only fat free milk, and only drink a half glass of it at dinner.
  • No salad dressing on my salads, only salt and pepper.
  • When eating a 3-course meal (meat, grain, veggies — common in our house) load up on vegetables, and go lighter on the meat and grain. If I’m still hungry, get mostly vegetables on subsequent helpings.
  • Use whole-wheat pasta.
  • Use brown rice. Wegmans has these excellent “Steamables” microwaveable brown rice that cook in just 90 seconds, and are delicious!
  • Substitute 99% lean ground turkey for ground beef in various recipes.
  • When I do use ground beef, use the 95% lean variant.
  • Use whole wheat breads. For example, Wegmans sells whole wheat hot dog rolls, hamburger buns, and tortilla wraps.
  • Our family does frozen pizza on occasion. Wegmans sells a delicious Kashi frozen pizza that is very healthy.
  • Our family occasionally does frozen dinners as well. There’s actually a huge selection of quite low-calorie frozen meals. The Travels of India Chicken Curry is probably my favorite. Delicious, and only about 400 calories.
  • On leftover nights, if there is a choice between multiple meals, I try to put together a plate that will minimize the calorie density of my meal.
  • I have a “fill me up” strategy: pickles. If I’ve eaten what I consider to be a reasonable meal, but still feel hungry, then I heap some pickles onto my plate. They’re filling, but have a negligible calorie count.

Eating at restaurants

In general, you will eat much more healthy meals when you cook for yourself. That being said, here are some strategies that I use when eating out.

Plan ahead

If you have a plan in place, then you are much more likely to make a healthy decision when ordering at a restaurant. Most establishments have an online menu, and many restaurant web sites offer nutritional information that’s not available in the printed version of the menu.

Decide where you will be eating ahead of time and pre-read the menu. Many menus have some kind of symbol to denote a “low calorie” choice. I usually start with these. If one of them catches my eye, then I don’t even need to look at other options.


Most restaurants are perfectly happy to customize your meal for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Ask if they have a whole-grain bread option. Get sandwiches without cheese or mayo. Order the salad without bacon and croutons.

Some restaurants even have an online application that will help you customize your meal. My favorite of these is Red Robin. They allow you to modify everything on your burger from the bun to the patty, and they will even show you a comparison of nutritional information before and after modification. With some creative modifications, I was able to reduce their Fiery Ghost Style Big Tavern Burger from 791 down to 482 calories. Once you’re done customizing, you can click the Print My Meal link, and print out instructions that you can just hand to the waiter.

Water, water, water

I don’t tend to have soda available at home, but for some reason I’m always tempted to drink sugary beverages when I eat out. Not only are they full of calories, but at some places, the attentive staff just keep bringing you more! I’d much rather skimp on the drink and consider adding an appetizer or dessert!

Fast food picks

I don’t recommend frequenting fast food joints, but they are definitely convenient at times. Here’s some recommendations:

  • Check nutritional information. Don’t just assume. Almost all fast food restaurants have info available online, and many have helpful apps that you can install on your phone. Did you know that a BK Whopper (w/o mayo or cheese) is only 510 calories? In comparison, their 5 piece chicken strips are 570!
  • Skip the fries. Most places have several alternatives these days. My favorite: Wendy’s has a large cup of chili that’s only 250 calories. In comparison, a large fries is 500.
  • Consider healthy alternatives. McDonald’s has a Premium McWrap Grilled Chicken & Ranch. Make sure to get the grilled variety. It saves you 160 calories over the crispy. Order without the ranch sauce to shave off 60 more and get you down to only 390 calories in the sandwich.

A few meal selections

Here is a short list of specific meals that I tend to order:

  • Applebee’s – Napa Chicken and Portobellos: 490 calories
  • The Distillery – Seared Sesame Ahi Tuna: “under 600 calories”
  • Moe’s – Pork Homewrecker Jr. loaded with veggies and guac: 500 calories
  • Friendly’s – Turkey Tips: 630 calories
  • Bob’s Diner – 4 egg veggie omelette, no cheese w/ “dry” wheat toast: 550 calories
  • Papa John’s – Garden Fresh pizza, thin crust, light cheese: ~200 calories / slice (estimated)

Ice cream

I love going to get ice cream with my family. When I started counting calories, my excursions to the ice cream shop always stuck out like a sore thumb. Here’s some strategies that I use:

  • Shop around for a fat-free and / or sugar-free ice cream or frozen yogurt that tastes good. Some places have low-fat varieties that have horrible consistency and flavor. I like the Fat-free, no-sugar-added frozen yogurt at Read’s Ice Cream a lot. It makes a great Irish Cream milk shake!
  • Frequent places that let you load up on fruits. Yolickity has a good selection of fresh fruits available. I recommend a lower crust of granola, followed by a reasonable serving of the no-sugar-added vanilla, then a healthy portion of pineapple, strawberries, and blueberries.

– danBhentschel