Yay! My book club liked my pick for this month! I liked it so much, I didn't mind that the ending was rather cheesy, if not predictable (as a Publishers Weekly review claimed).

The novel follows a 23-year-old virgin, Jacob, who drops out of Cornell's vet school with only a few exams left after learning his parents died in a car wreck during the Great Depression. He ends up jumping a train and landing in a circus, which eventually welcomes their first vet (The circus folk are comfortable with almosts; Jacob repeatedly tells them that he's not an actual vet, but they pretend otherwise.) By the novel's end, Jacob acquires a pregnant wife, an elephant who only understands Polish, a dog and 11 horses.

Obviously, he loses his virginity along the way.

That story - which contains both the wonders of human-animal bonds and the sinister, cruel side of circus life - is juxtaposed with an elderly Jacob who feels trapped in a nursing home by patronizing nurses, relatives that too seldom visit and sheer boredom. The book receives its name from another nursing home patient who claims he once carried water to the elephants in a circus. Jacob calls the man an old coot and a liar. But Jacob never explains that elephants drink so much water that they must be led to the water, not the other way around.
I was on my second or third date with my eventual ex-husband when one of the bigger stories of my 14-month tenure at The Chronicle (in Hoopeston, Ill.) flared. An entire city block in the neighboring town of Rossville caught fire, completely destroying storefronts and assorted apartments that were more than a century old. (If you've never heard of either town, they are about 45 minutes north of Danville, which sits along I-74 about 10 miles from the Indiana border.)

Firefighters from about 25 area departments collectively spent 12 hours trying to tame the fire and then babysat the rubble for another 21 hours to make sure the remaining hot spots didn't flare. When all was said and done, the fire took days to burn itself out.

The advantage to working for a weekly paper was that I had three or four days to write the story. The disadvantage was that my readers were small-town residents who surely had heard the best of the story before the paper came out. Oh, and did I mention, the "editorial staff" consisted of me, another full-time reporter, and two part-timers, one of whom was a high-school student?

So, after dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Champaign, Joe and I headed for the fire scene, which was swarming with random citizens taking photographs because this was the biggest fire the area had seen since a Hoopeston factory burned for six days in Sept. 1992. The news that Joe and I were dating also broke that night, because, you know, showing up at a fire scene with someone of the opposite gender was a clear sign of romantic involvement. (The next day, the radio DJ from Hoopeston's country station grilled me for details at the local bowling alley/bar and ended up shaking Joe's hand to congratulate him on our budding relationship, which I have to admit I did not yet consider a relationship after three or so dates.)

Anyhoo, here's the anecdotal lede I came up with for that week's paper (Wednesday, March 3, 2004, issue):

Joel Bird had the nozzle. Rich Birch had the hose. Dave Hamilton had the thermal imaging camera.

The three Hoopeston firefighters with air packs on went in the front of the pizza parlor as the Rossville firefighters attacked the fire from the back. The call had gone out a little past 7 p.m. Friday that a fire had started at the rear of 112 S. Chicago Road.

At around 7:45 p.m., there was little to see from the front.

"All we saw was smoke," Birch said. "We couldn't go forward. We couldn't turn left. We couldn't go right."

Hamilton couldn't pick up any heat with the thermal imaging camera. Bird said he could feel heat on his neck, Birch said, and then a "big ball of fire" rolled toward them. A wall fell toward Bird. Birch was thrown off his feet and out the door. The windows exploded.

"I don't know how far I flew, but everyone outside said it looked pretty cool," Birch said.

Believe it or not, that anecdotal lede led to a job offer at a start-up paper in Crawfordsville, Ind. (What?!, you say, newspapers were once starting, rather than disbanding? True story.) I turned down the offer to go be a business reporter in Anderson, Ind., where I helped cover a fire at a magnesium recycling plant that forced thousands to evacuate.
Eighteen months or so ago I was in a dark place.

I was recently divorced and felt I had lost myself so long before that I didn't know who I wanted to be. I had spent a lot of time blaming my problems (with a certain amount of justification) on my ex. I was so ashamed I had allowed someone to treat me as he sometimes did. Intermittently, I missed him and the (very unfulfilled) dreams I had for us.

So, I did what I do almost every day. I wrote a to-do list. But this was a master, six-month to-do list. You know, obvious things like: Figure out what the heck is wrong with your 401(k). Those things are supposed to increase in value. Buy a couch, because your living room looks freakishly empty without one. Somewhat depressed because you gained 20 pounds during the 2 years you were married? Lose it! Drag your behind out of the house whenever possible because you've been spending too much time moping and watching TV.

I'll admit, there were some bitter entries. Such as: Go on vacation to visit Maria in Greece because your stupid ex-husband refused to go on vacation with you unless it involved a bowling/gambling trip with his hometown friends who were at least 20 years his senior and drank beer as if American water was poisonous.

The last one goal was to successfully complete another 3-Day walk. My first 3-Day was a somewhat jilted attempt at having a life outside work and my miserable marriage. I feared it had twisted my family's collective arms pretty far into donating to the cause. I ended up puking three or four times before I learned how to properly hydrate myself while training. And I never really got the whole blister-prevention thing.

I'm not sure if that's really what it looked like to the rest of the world - I wasn't miserable all the time, or anything - but my first 3-Day offered one example after another that something was wrong even if I didn't know how to fix it.

So, I got divorced, crewed in the 2008 Chicago 3-Day and vowed to do it up for a 2009 event. I started my fundraising efforts for 2009 not long after the 2008 event was over. I knitted scarves and made notecards to sell at craft shows. I promised myself I would host an event. This was going to be another thing to cross off my master to-do list. And another sign I could resurrect myself from the half-life I had lived as an unhappily married person.

But, to tell the truth, none of that seems that important anymore. As the wine-tasting started a few weeks ago, I looked across the room and kinda of giggled on the inside. Like, wow, this looks pretty good. I think it might be successful. Here I am, barely an adult, and this all is a rather adult-like thing to do. I had ideas, implemented them and hopefully they will bear fruit. If not, I had fun anyway.

When I remembered my original goal, and the negative and insecure sentiments behind it, it just didn't fit anymore. Kinda like old bar shirts from college that you loved at the time but now kinda wonder why no one told you they were rather trashy and stretched out. Certainly nothing that made you look sophisticated.

So, don't get me wrong, I am going to be bursting with pride when I finish this walk in October, but it won't be because I believe I somehow proved to the world that I am an interesting, happy person with personality and interests and things to discuss. Strangely, when you actually believe that about yourself, you don't feel the need to prove it.
People magazine pulled me in last week. I couldn't simply read the article in line at Wal-Mart about Kate Gosselin claiming she might split with her husband who might or might not have had an affair with a much younger "friend" whose brother might or might not have made the whole thing up and spread it to tabloids. I had to purchase said magazine and bring it home for closer inspection.

And discuss it with my roommate. That discussion lasted longer than most our discussions on economics or politics.

I CANNOT wait until the season premiere Monday. Because, although raising eight kids has to be stressful, how can these people NOT be happy with their lives? They just moved into a $1 million mansion and have a successful reality show that (if it hasn't already) will surely line their pocketbooks for some time to come.

Now's the time for a little fresh air. You know, don't sweat the small stuff but let the cameras catch it because everyone knows reality TV thrives on conflict. (That's why some people are still watching Real World long after it became painfully obvious that it did little to replicate the real world.)

Apparently, Jon has become "disenchanted" with their high profile life, according to the People article. He said he needed a career. So Kate suggested a part-time job, volunteering at the kids' school, or maybe going back to school. Didn't happen. Then, he stayed home with the kids while Kate went on speaking engagements because he didn't like the public appearances. He needed time away from the kids.

He must not have found what he was seeking. (Or did he? With alcohol and a single woman?)

He even bought a car without asking her. To quote People: "Given that Kate notoriously lost her cool in one episode when Jon failed to use a coupon, one can only imagine the havoc wreaked by splurging on an automobile." Hehe. They have a point.

Instead I might suggest traveling abroad. Take some time away from the family and backpack through Europe. Get some perspective. Don't go to a bar with a 24-year-old woman and then invite her and some other friends over to sunbathe while your wife is away. Really, what did you think your wife (or the public whose adoration likely is paying for that new house) would say? When has acting like a jerk ever truly gotten a point across?

Or maybe all this is just a publicity stunt.

If it is, it worked.

I'll be tuning in Monday evening. Yes, yes, I am part of the problem that supports tabloid gossip and watching other people's conflict/human misery edited into 30- or 60-minute segments. Sorry. Sometimes I read literature, too.
So, I'm taking a week off training after spraining/straining/hurting my ankle this weekend. We went hiking in a state park Saturday and biking for 5 miles or so on Sunday. My right ankle seemed a little sore after biking, but by the time I got home, it was swollen and painful. We encountered plenty of uneven surfaces and hills Saturday, so I assumed I twisted my ankle and didn't really notice it at the time.

I was awfully gimpy at work Monday. Two gimpy (and much older) men shared their woes with me. One hypothesized that a piece of bone had chipped off his second toe on his left foot when he was shoveling snow. I didn't quite understand why this was still a problem since it's been, you know, several weeks since we last had snow, but I didn't ask.

Either way, I'm glad walking didn't bring tears to my eyes today, but I'm going to wait to formally start exercising until Monday just to be safe ...
"In some remote villages of Zimbabwe, it is believed that a solar eclipse occurs when a crocodile eats the sun. This celestial crocodile, they say, briefly consumes our life-giving star as a warning that he is much displeased with the behavior of man below. It is the very worst of omens."

Not that there's a shortage of bad omens in the time period that frames Godwin's memoir. Mugabe and his goons justify taking white farmers' lands through the guise of returning it to black "war vets" who fought for the nation. Many times, according to Godwin, they render highly productive land useless while inflicting senseless cruelty.

And then, there's the AIDS plague. Godwin's mother is a physician who has seen so much of the disease that she can "usually diagnose someone at the doorway of her examining room," he writes. It has meant that the country's average life expectancy has plummeted from 60 to 33.

"At 33, just as people should be in their prime, they suddenly sicken and die," Godwin writes. "And the managers of the mines and the factories and the farms have begun training three people to fill every job, because they know two will not live to work."

Against this backdrop, Godwin, a journalist for The New York Times and National Geographic magazines, among others, tells the tale of his father's slow death as his family of strong, interesting and brave people try to cope. His sister flees to London to produce an anti-Mugabe radio show and to bolster his opposition; his mother faces her own medical crisis in a land she knows first-hand is not well-suited for handling medical crises; and between assignments and his immediate family, Godwin is raising two boys in New York City.

His writing is thick without being heavy, punctuated both with telling details and humor, and reflective enough to show that Zimbabwe is far from the first nation to destroy much more than it create through a dictatorial, racist regime. And yet, he tries to explain the guilt he feels leaving that nation behind:

"I am soaring away from my fragile, breathless father with his tentative hold on life. I'm soaring away from my mother, who still lies in her hospital bed surrounded by wounded demonstrators - the trembling black women with broken limbs and puffy eyes and back striated with the angry whip marks of the dictatorship ... A nation is bleeding while I sit here cosseted with my baked trout and crispy bacon, my flute of Laurent-Perrier brut champagne, my choice of movies and my hot face towel. I am abandoning my post. Like my father before me, I am rejecting my own identity. I am committing cultural treason."

Yep. It's a book that shows us a world many of us cannot imagine through any sort of real-life experience. You should read it. It's 341 pages, every one of them good.
I just dropped off the last of the raffle prizes for the winners to pick up this week at Corkscrew Pointe. It was nice to see reactions of people who had won something; it was almost like they were getting unexpected presents.

(Except for the men who won brassiere purses. The gentleman who seemed a little (read: a lot) intoxicated at the wine-tasting said he was sure his wife would enjoy the purse. Another guy thanked me for not announcing his winnings on his Facebook wall where all his cool, manly friends from the South Side could see.)

But, I would be remiss if I didn't mention all those who donated to the raffle. They are:

Jasmine Capener

Brian and Jamie Knoll
JAVA & Co.,
(309) 361-3276

Designs by Maida, Inc.
105 E. Van Buren, Woodstock
(815) 337-2046

Robin Parsons, www.segparsons.etsy.com

Andi, www.rocknbauble.etsy.com

Cripple Creek Creations

Crystal Lindell and her blog

Dog In Suds, Ltd., Woodstock,
(815) 338-3647

Georgio’s Pizzeria & Pub,
75 E. Woodstock St., Crystal Lake,
(815) 459-8888

Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
8515 Redtail Drive, Lakewood
(815) 7-8100

Harmony Falls, 728 E. Calhoun St., Woodstock, (815) 334-0842

LorEnn’s Halmark
135 S. Eastwood Drive, Woodstock,
(815) 338-6000

Glamorous Bead Accessories

Kim Duchnowski
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I started planning this wine-tasting for the Breast Cancer 3-Day months ago. I asked complete strangers on Etsy.com to donate raffle items, made three brassiere purses, schemed on how to display said purses, and designed programs, raffle tickets and fliers. And for at least the last three weeks, that was all I could talk about (just ask my Facebook status updates. All about brassiere purses. And wine.)

And I was proud of the results. Several Etsy artists were supportive. My aunt drove in from Springfield and Aaron drove up from Plano to help me with the wine-tasting Friday night. I didn’t know about half of the 18 people who came, so at least some of my publicity efforts must have been successful. There was one breast-cancer survivor who thanked my aunt and me for our work, which was a nice reminder of why exactly I’m going to all this trouble in the first place.

The Corkscrew Pointe owner, John, was nice enough to offer me 10 percent of the sales of people who mention my fundraiser for the next three months.

(That’s right. If you buy wine from Corkscrew Pointe, 1402 N. Riverside Drive, McHenry, between now and Aug. 1, simply mention that you’d like part of the proceeds to go to breast cancer research, and I’ll get 10 percent of your total purchase.)

But when I got home, before I fell into bed, I counted up all the money from the evening. $465, including $50 in cash I brought as change. When I took out the change money, plus the $100 for the wine and another $100 for the food (including some excellent tarts from Tarts & Truffles on the Woodstock Square), I was left with $215. $215 after weeks of work.

And that means I’ve raised a total of $620. Only $1,680 to go until I reach the $2,300 minimum goal. Sigh.
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