Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:37 AM
When I had fewer kids and more energy, I would really go all out when it came to birthday cakes. I made Thomas the Tank Engine cakes; Dalmatian cakes; Cinderella/Little Mermaid/Sleeping Beauty cakes; cakes upon which intergalactic Star Wars battles were re-enacted.

These days, I can't help but feel my children are being shortchanged somehow. It seems like it's all Chocolate Lace Cake, all the time.

Oh, well. They're great kids; they don't complain. Here's newly-nine-year-old Hope, last night, thinking up a really good wish while we sing to her.

And it's a pretty dang fantastic cake, I must say. If you are a serious baker, you must own Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible. To make Chocolate Lace Cake, use Rose's Chocolate Butter Cake and Neoclassic Chocolate Buttercream Frosting recipes. Then follow my instructions here to make the lace.

Author: Luisa Perkins
•12:16 AM

Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:01 AM
I love to sing. Rock, opera, euro-synth-pop, bluegrass, and just about everything in between. I sing in the car, the kitchen, and the shower. I sing while weeding, knitting, and rowing.

But I think I love best to sing at church. One of my favorite memories of my mother is her playing the hymns--from the LDS hymnal and Sing With Me, the children's songbook at the time--on the piano for what seemed like hours on end, night after night. Because of her love for those pieces of music, I have a lot of our congregational repertoire memorized. This makes it easy to sing along in our church meetings even without looking at a hymn book, convenient for times when I'm rocking someone, helping with a sticker book, or passing out those cheesy goldfish crackers.

For my non-LDS readers: there's no paid clergy in the LDS/Mormon church. We all take turns serving in various 'callings,' or church service positions. Patrick and I have been married for 18 years as of a few days ago; for all but three of those years, Patrick has served either as a counselor to the Bishop or as Bishop himself, as he is now. Part of the requirements of Bishopric callings is sitting up on the stand, near the pulpit, and presiding over and conducting the worship services.

So I've sat alone for 15 of the last 18 years. Well, not alone for the past 14; I've had the kids with me, which is mostly great. Teaching children to be still for a 70-minute meeting is something of a task; there were a couple of rough years in there. But we've pretty much got the drill down at this point, thanks again to sticker books, paper dolls, and goldfish crackers--and the fact that the three older kids have actually sat and listened now for several years. So I'm not complaining about the way our Sundays are structured; we've made choices that I live with happily.

But I do miss singing with Patrick on Sundays. I'm glad to live in a ward (Mormon lingo for a geographical 'congregation' or 'parish') that sings out loud and strong; this worship through music is often a high point of our services for me. But as much as I love it, twice a year it gets even better: I get to sing with Patrick at my side.

(I have a basic, serviceable, soprano voice with decent intonation; I can also 'switch-hit' and sing alto, if needed. Patrick, however, has a beautiful voice: a clear, rich tenor-to-baritone, with lovely, dark color to it. I remember the first time he sang to me when we were dating; I was pretty sure I'd never get him out of my system, and I was right.)

Twice a year, we have meetings called 'Stake Conference.' (Wards are organized in groups of seven to ten into larger groups called 'stakes.') The designated wards get together for special two-hour meetings; sometimes leaders called 'General Authorities' fly out from Church headquarters in Utah to speak. At Stake Conference, the 'Stake President' presides and conducts, and the Bishoprics of the wards get to sit with their families.

This past weekend was Stake Conference. Joy! His arm around my shoulders, Patrick sat with me and we sang together, trading parts back and forth: melody-alto-tenor. We sing hymns at home with the kids regularly, but singing in a group of 1,000 or so people, with a great organist accompanying and the love of your life at your side? Pretty incredible.

Here's a video of the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing an arrangement of "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," one of Patrick's and my favorite hymns. We once sang this arrangement together in a choir for a special meeting in the Kirtland Temple, one of the most treasured LDS historic sites--so this video brings back another great memory of singing with my BFFP.

For more Music Monday, visit Soccer Mom in Denial!
Author: Luisa Perkins
•3:53 PM
Also Shear-jashub. And Dominic and Travis. Also Zanzibar Buck Buck McFate.

Because, you see, it turns out we're having a girl!
Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:43 PM
I tell you: I am a freak.

If I were slightly less self-aware, I'd be one of those neurotic, smothering mothers you see in the movies: the ones who can't stop fussing over their kids, much to the eye-rolling of everyone else. I have all the crazy impulses those hennish women have; I just clamp down tightly and don't let them out.

Christian is going on a three-day ski trip with the high school Ski Club tomorrow. The club goes by well-chaperoned bus to Vermont, stays at a well-policed dorm, skis like crazy for three straight days, then comes home late Friday night. Christian is so excited, he can barely stand it.

Me? Butterflies are tying themselves in knots in my squished stomach (remember: I'm in my sixth month of pregnancy, and the hormones ain't helping any right about now). Christian has gone away before, but only to Scout Camp, with tons of other church kids and chaperoned by dads I know well.

I trust Christian. He is an amazing kid. His good friend Peter is going on the trip, and Peter is as solid as they come. But part of me wants to order background checks on everyone else, kid and adult alike. I remember being fourteen; I wish I could forget.

I also wish I could forget things like that footage they used to show on The Wide World of Sports when the narrator would intone, "...the agony of defeat." Or the fact that nylon ski pants tend to melt and catch fire when hung too closely to a heat source. Or those vivid descriptions of frostbite from that book I read last year about Shackleton's ill-fated trip to Antarctica. Or the ridiculous and dangerous antics of some of the adult advisors at my high school (granted, that was in Truckee, last bastion of hippiedom). Or, hey, wasn't The Overlook in The Shining a hotel for skiers? Or...or...or...

At 5:30 tomorrow morning, I'll hug my boy, smile, and send him out the door. Then I'll take some deep breaths and try to muster up some shred of faith that he'll return to me safe and sound.

Can you tell how much I'm looking forward to sending him off to college in three years?

Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:16 AM
In 1984, I don't really know who I am. I'm 17, so maybe that's normal, but I've been out of high school for a year and still have no idea what I want to do with my life. My high school friends are all away at university now; my sense of identity seems to have left with them, and I'm not getting much in the way of new direction in my classes at Modesto Junior College. I'm very, very lonely.

I meet a new crowd; they're not the deepest dishes in the drawer, but they are fun and different. I reinvent my external self in their image. Why not? I've done the preppy thing, I've been a punk; now it's time to try the vintage/mod look. For everyday wear, I comb through thrift stores for boxy cashmere cardigans, muslin shirtwaists, and moleskin capri pants. But I can't resist also buying dupioni silk suits hand-tailored for well-off women a quarter century before. And hats: a friend's mother gives me some gorgeous pillboxes--one completely covered in ostrich feathers--that would have met with even Holly Golightly's discerning approval. I soon add to this collection, courtesy the local Salvation Army and Goodwill outlets.

But where does one wear such finery when one lives in the Central Valley of California, America's Apricot/Sugar Beet/Almond Basket? Conveniently for Anj (not my sister), Deb, Lily, Don, Kasey, Mike, and me, a new slice of heaven has opened up in downtown Modesto: The Café Decadence.

It's much more innocent than it sounds. A couple of guys create a little restaurant that is open in the evenings only. There's a garden out back that they string with copious amounts of tiny white lights and fill with mismatched patio furniture. Foodwise, they focus on one thing: excellent desserts.

My favorite is Cake of Joy. Thin layers of chocolate butter cake and crispy, light, hazelnut meringue alternate with generous amounts of mocha buttercream and creamy, dark ganache. Every bit of it is homemade by one of the partners, and it is fresh, rich, and perfect. (I've been dreaming of recreating it for years.) But the Carrot Cake is also excellent, as are the Linzer Tarts, the Berry Crumbles, and the Sour Cream Lemon Pie.

To drink, of course there's coffee, but that's not my thing. I either have the iced Ruby Mist tea or the Hot Buttered Milk. That last I have recreated: warm milk with cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, and brown sugar stirred in. Delish; don't knock it till you've tried it.

The other mods and I aren't really welcome at "The Dec" during prime-time hours; hordes of real adults with real jobs (and who can leave real tips) show up perhaps before or after a movie, enjoy something fabulous to eat, and go home to their real lives. But after 9:30 or so, the place empties out, and we mods arrive in full regalia. The guys wear thin-lapeled suits with skinny ties and mismatched cufflinks, acting natty backdrops to us girls. We do our best to be Audrey or Marilyn, Doris or Sofia, and as we sit under the fairy lights, making our orders last and chatting for hours on end, we imagine we're in San Francisco or New York, or the ultimate: Paris.

The music, wafting out of speakers wired to the sycamore trees, helps us along. It's stuff I haven't really heard before, but I fall head over heels for it. The owners favor Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. I enjoy Lady Day and the Divine One, but sometimes the tragedy that wells up out of the voices of these first two is too much for me; it reminds me of how alone I really am with this sparkling but shallow group. Ella, on the other hand, becomes my my friend and secret ally.

Even when she's singing the blues, there is a warmth and wit to Ella's lithe, pure voice that lifts my spirit and makes me smile. I can't decide which is more marvelous: her technical perfection, or the way she pours every drop of her glorious soul into her music. Often, when one of her songs comes on, I drop out of the conversation, close my eyes, and just listen.

And it's a good thing I do, because it turns out that Ella has messages intended only for my ears. You're stuck, she whispers. I was stuck once, too. Everything around you is just a shadow of something bigger and better, but you're in danger of falling for the mirage. You can get out, though, if you want.

Really? I ask silently, night after night. How? Where? Show me the way out.

Wait and watch, girl
, she answers.

Filled with a new, restless energy, I do as she counsels, and when I get offered a job in the Bay Area not long afterwards, I gather my courage, leave the mods behind, and go. I'm fairly certain they don't really notice I've gone. But no matter: though there are plenty more mirages and mistakes on my journey, I'm starting to get a sense of direction at last.

It's 1994. I'm sitting in a lovely Manhattan apartment with Patrick and our close friends D&S. I've been to the real Paris, and it is worlds better than even Ella describes. Sweet Baby Christian is asleep in another room, and we four linger for hours over fabulous dessert and talk. The conversation sparkles, but it has depth. Our friends are beautiful and stylish, but they have minds and hearts even more attractive than their clothes. I feel loved and treasured, warm, safe, and understood.

Ella comes on the stereo, soft in the background. Suddenly, she's speaking to me again, whereas I've heard only her songs for most of the last decade. Look around, girl, she whispers. You did it; you got unstuck and found the reality behind the pretty shadow. You made it out.

I look around with a sudden lump in my throat and realize she's right.

For more Music Monday, visit Soccer Mom in Denial.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•7:10 PM

Author: Luisa Perkins
•10:49 AM

GOD with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.

Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.

Then let the march tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years.

--Gerard Manley Hopkins, "At the Wedding March"

Happy Anniversary, Darling.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•10:40 AM
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a classic book beloved by generations must be made into a film--or into several films, as the case may be. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is just such a book. A while ago, my dear friend and fellow Austen fan Annette Lyon and I discovered that we had widely divergent views on which is the 'best' version of P&P; we later came up with the idea of simultaneous posts highlighting the reasons why. Once you read mine, make sure to go read hers; thus our exposition will have been completed.

Unlike political candidates and Bible-bashers, Annette and I resolve to keep our pieces focused on the positive; we're both confrontation-averse like that. Besides which, neither of us expects to win any converts to our particular tents, as opinions in these matters tend to be steadfast and immovable. I realize that my position is that of the minority, so be specially careful and kind should you choose to comment.

I enjoy all the versions of Pride and Prejudice, from the 1940 Laurence Olivier film to the Colin Firth mini-series; from the Bollywood takeoff Bride and Prejudice to the movie we at our house call "Provo and Prejudice." My favorite, however, is the most recent: Joe Wright's 2005 production, starring Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley. Now that I've shocked and offended many of you, I'll explain why.

It used to be important to me that a film adapted from a book conform exactly to the book; very few movies can meet this rigorous standard. In fact, Gone With the Wind is the only one that comes to mind at the moment. I have a different view now, because I have come to believe that film and novel are fundamentally different types of art. When I want textual conformity, I'll go to the primary source: the book itself. When I want an visual and aural evocation of the emotions that the book arouses in me, I want a movie that has stayed true to the spirit of the book without sacrificing the dramatic nuances unique to the medium of film. And it is Wright's fluency in language of film that makes his production such a masterpiece.

Joe Wright decided to set his movie in 1797, when Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice (under the title First Impressions), rather than in 1813, when the novel was first published. The 16-year difference changes things dramatically as far as the look and feel of the production is concerned. Because 1797 was a year of transition (unlike 1813, when the Regency Period was in full flower), a greater range of contrast without sacrifice of authenticity was available to Wright's creative team. For example, the Directoire (later called "Empire," once Napoleon came onto the scene) style was only just coming into widespread fashion, and only the richest and most fashionable families would have embraced it fully at that time.

Wright's costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, took this into consideration. For special occasions, a mother like Mrs. Bennet, forced to be budget conscious, would naturally have focused on making sure her marriageable daughters were dressed as currently as possible, she herself wearing her best-quality dress (into which she could still fit) from years past. The wide variation of styles the viewer sees at Wright's balls and social gatherings serves to highlight the socio-economic chasms between people like the Bennets and the Darcy/Bingley families.

I also appreciate Durran's genius for meticulous fittings and wearable fabrics. All the cast members of Wright's production look as if they actually live in these clothes; they are at ease and move about comfortably, instead of looking trapped in costumes. It is the most natural-looking of all period dramas--let alone Austen movies--that I've seen.

Other cinematic details add to the sense of the everyday setting that was Jane Austen's forte: crumbs on the table; genteel women struggling with hangovers; families living on intimate terms with their poultry and swine. These little visual clues mimic the written ones Austen gives us, and give us a mundane background which the timeless romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is then able to transcend.

Augmenting the romance at every step is Dario Marianelli's gorgeous score. He bases his melodies on some of Beethoven's early sonatas, while also incorporating traditional English country dances and a smattering of Henry Purcell (England's most prominent 17th century composer). Marianelli entrusts his orchestration to the young but masterful Benjamin Wallfisch, who also conducts the recording. The result is a lush, lovely wallpaper, the perfect backdrop for the internal and external dramas that unfold. I don't buy movie soundtracks very often, but this was one I knew I wanted to own upon first hearing it.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which the music--specifically the dance music--is the only dialogue. Darcy and Elizabeth dance together, making semi-polite conversation at Bingley's overcrowded ball; in the next shot, everyone else in the room has been magicked away, and the couple is alone, completely wrapped up in one another. It is a scene in which the medium of film communicates perfectly the chemistry of the moment, one in which words would have been superfluous and ineffective.

Wright's casting (as realized by Jina Jay) is brilliant, with one notable exception. Scrawny, toothy Keira Knightley would not have been my first choice for Elizabeth. But then again, I've never agreed with how Elizabeth has been cast in any version of Pride and Prejudice; there are some I actively loathe. When viewed comparatively, Knightley tends to be the Elizabeth I dislike the least. (Whom would I have cast instead? Perhaps a young Emma Thompson. But I'd cast Emma Thompson in about anything.)

With everyone else, Wright makes up for his error with Elizabeth. Casting actors who were the age of the characters in the book was important to him; his choice to do so points up well both how young they are and how young Austen was when she wrote the novel (she was 21, a fact that never fails to blow me away as a writer).

The actors fit uncannily well with my internal vision of Austen's world. Brenda Blethyn drapes Mrs. Bennet's dithering over a backbone of steel; she is, after all her fluttering and fits, a survivor. As Mr. Bennet, Donald Sutherland's distant affability and selective vision concerning his children is pitch-perfect. Rosamund Pike's Jane is an ethereal picture of shyness and guileless warmth. Lydia is embodied flawlessly by Jena Malone; her giddy snobbery and sheer youth make her behavior all the more shocking, yet understandable.

Tom Hollander never takes the easy route with his portrayal of Mr. Collins; we have a sneaking affection for him despite his pathetic pomposity. Simon Woods is simply adorable as the hapless and easily influenced Mr. Bingley. With Rupert Friend in the role, it's the first time Wickham has been hot enough that elopement with a penniless soldier actually seems like an attractive option. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine? It doesn't get more perfect than that. And then there's Mr. Darcy.

And it's really all about Darcy, isn't it? I don't know what male readers of Pride and Prejudice think, but women love the book in large part because Darcy is so very swoonworthy. In the 1995 mini-series, Colin Firth is eminently soulful. And once you get past the dated makeup and elocution, Laurence Olivier's portrayal can't be faulted in the least. But it is Matthew Macfadyen who most resembles my Darcy.

When we first see him at the Assembly Ball, Macfadyen's Darcy is arrogant, priggish, and utterly unattractive. When I saw the movie for the first time, I was shocked; I had previously admired Macfadyen's considerable charms in the British television series "Spooks" (shown in the U.S. as "MI-5"). He was so very ugly as Darcy in this initial scene that I almost hoped Elizabeth would this time keep her word in swearing to "loathe him for all eternity." An hour later, my mind was changing pretty quickly; an hour after that, I was a goner. As Darcy, Macfadyen's transformation from perfectly awful to the most desirable man in England is pure magic.

It's so magical that the final scene of the movie--the notorious 'kissing scene'--disturbs me not at all. Why shouldn't the newly married Darcys enjoy some domestic bliss on their fabulous balcony at Pemberley? For me, it completes the fantasy. Jane Austen herself reportedly loved to tell friends and family the further adventures of all her creations; I can't imagine that, after going through so much work to get them together, she would begrudge her two most famous and beloved characters a tender moment or two.

Hmmm, now I feel like watching it all over again...but first, I need to go read Annette's post!
Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:23 AM
'Brown' as in chocolate, of course. Ahhh, Valentine's Day: another excellent reason to eat chocolate. Today, my Valentine to you is the fantastic recipe that follows. Here's why I love it, my trifecta of recipe requirements:

1) It's delicious.
2) It's impressive to serve.
3) It's easy. Really.

I cut the recipe out of The New York Times Magazine at least 12 years ago; I say that because I believe Christian was a baby the first time I made it. I've made it many times since then--sometimes for Epiphany, with a clean coin hidden in one of the servings, sometimes at this time of year, or anytime I need something quick, elegant, and scrumptious (come to think of it, that should be nearly every day). It is adapted from a famous dessert served at Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern.

First of all, you need 8 small (3 to 4 oz.) heat-proof ramekins. Those tiny Pyrex bowls with the fluted edges work well, and you can usually get those in a package of 4 at the supermarket. Or splurge at Williams-Sonoma, or some such spot, and get the classic French white soufflé molds.

Chocolate Soufflés with Melted Chocolate Centers

1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup, plus 1 tablespoon, sugar
2-1/2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2-1/2 oz. semisweet chocolate, plus 8 additional chunks, approximately 1 inch long, 1/2 inch wide, and 1/2 inch thick
(don't use chocolate chips; use something good, like Green & Black's)
1/3 cup warm heavy cream
2 egg yolks
5 egg whites

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Butter the 8 ramekins, then dust the insides thoroughly with the tablespoon of sugar (this step is key; your soufflés will not climb up the sides of the ramekins without the traction the sugar crystals provide). Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet and set aside.

2) Melt all the chocolate except the chunks in a heavy saucepan over low heat; watch it carefully and stir it well. Add the warm cream and stir until completely combined. Remove the pan from heat and whisk in the egg yolks and half of the 1/3 cup of sugar. Transfer this mixture to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

3) In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the remaining sugar and beat until the egg whites form soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold in the next 1/3, and when the mixture is well combined, gently fold in the remaining 1/3.

4) Fill the ramekins to the rim with the chocolate mixture, dividing it evenly. Place a chunk of chocolate in the center of each and bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until puffy. Serve immediately with whipped cream or really good vanilla ice cream.

Here's the fabulous news about this recipe. You can make it up through step 2, then let it sit (put the chocolate mixture in a warmish spot and put the egg whites in the fridge). Assemble the remaining ingredients and equipment, then have the rest of your fabulous dinner party. Once your main course, salad, and cheese have all been consumed and your guests are regaling one another with witty repartée, slip into the kitchen and complete steps 3 and 4. It won't take you more than 5 minutes to do it.

Have a wonderful day! As always, if you try the recipe, let me know how it works for you.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•12:52 PM

Example No. 1: Several days ago, I read Ex Libris, a collection of Anne Fadiman's essays, and immediately emailed several friends recommending that they read it. Like a beautiful jewel in a simple setting, each essay shines; considered one after another, the pieces create an aggregate loveliness that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

How disappointing it is to me to admit that my admiration for Fadiman's talent is heavily tinged with envy. It's not just that her writing is superb; my jealousy extends to her person. I've never read Homer and Virgil in the original; I don't live in a spacious and bright SoHo loft. I didn't go to Radcliffe College. Worst of all, I've never been friends with Mark Helprin.

(Many of you know that Helprin is my hands-down-favorite living writer. After hearing him read once, I asked him to sign all my copies of his books, congratulating myself all the while for my restraint in not dropping to my knees and kissing his penny-loafered feet. My love for him as a person is now tempered by my knowledge of his political leanings, but his writing remains pure magic.)

Example No. 2: I'm submitting a short story for an anthology put out by Shimmer magazine, the theme of which is 'steampunk animal fables.' (Yes, it's exactly that kind of crazy obscurity that really gets my creative juices flowing.) As much as I love the steampunk subgenre, it's been awhile since I've read any, so I pulled out two pillars--Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--to get myself in the rhythm of that unique world. Such wonder and ingenuity; such marvelous stories told in liquid and transparent prose. Instead of the inspiration I was hoping for, I put the books down with a sense of loving despair.

The Case Under Consideration: At last year's Readercon, Eric Van said, "There are two kinds of books that a writer reads: those that make you say, 'I can do better than this [crap],' and those that make you want to throw the computer out the window and never write another word." Other writers agreed. Some said they couldn't read within their own genre while working on a manuscript, while others went further and said that they saved all their favorite authors for rests between projects. If they read books they admired while simultaneously trying to write their own, they found themselves hamstrung, hopelessly blocked by the indulgence of comparison.

Writers are not alone in the comparison obsession; I've witnessed people of all kinds doing it. Children, women, men; doctors, painters, knitters; athletes, musicians, writers of computer code; cooks, bloggers, and parents. Each says to him/herself, "I can't [x] like that one. Why even try?" Or, with a shot to the ego, "My [x] is much better than that person's is." Either way, his/her own work suffers, because its creator no longer sees it for its own merits, but only in the relief it casts (or doesn't) when considered against someone else's.

If the work suffers, why would we risk short-circuiting expressions of creativity by indulging in comparison? What compensation is there for the loss of self-esteem or the false gain of a short-lived high?

(I have some highly metaphysical theories having to do with universal forces of opposition and the adversarial components of creation that attempt to answer these questions, but I won't burden you with them. At this point in my blogging life, I have a fair sense as to what will cause my readers' eyes to glaze over and their index fingers to click onward.)

Discernment is an essential part of emotional maturation. Having a distinct yet open-minded sense of one's likes and dislikes is healthy. We are taught to judge thoughtfully, to compare and contrast. "Write a 2,000-word essay discussing the relative merits of Shelley's 'Ozymandias' and Horace Smith's 'Ozymandias,'" our English professor commands, and we do our best to comply (and are graded on a curve for doing so). After we see Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, all our friends ask how it compares with Simon Langton's. Was the clam chowder at Ocean House better than that at The Oyster Bar? Exactly why are Huggies better than Pampers or Luvs? Inquiring minds want to know.

When the comparison is removed from our own realm of expertise, we can be passionate in our discussion without taking it personally. Which is better: Ted Nugent's guitar work in "Stranglehold," or Stevie Ray Vaughan's in "Voodoo Chile?" I can discuss the strong points of each virtuoso animatedly, but with a sense of detachment; I'm not a guitarist, just an ardent fan.

In similar fashion, excellent blogs like Radioactive Jam and Ransom Note Typography inspire pure admiration in me; their posts are so very different from mine that there's not much basis for comparison. (If, on the other hand, you are the owner of a blog on my blogroll that is not one of the two mentioned above, have no doubt: I love you, but I envy you, too.)

Is there a way for me to evaluate my own writing in a vacuum; can I hand a story to a friend to read without adding the self-deprecating caveat, "It's not Tolstoy?" My friend and I both know I'm not Tolstoy; why is it so essential to my pride that I remind her of that salient fact?

In the realm of hobby: can I knit a sweater and enjoy it for its own sake without wondering what Eunny Jang or Amy Singer would think? Can I enjoy the neighbor's perennial border without wretched feelings of woe when I look at my own?

It is when comparison is turned inward that it poisons. I take absolutely no joy in a sense of competition with others (no, not even when I'm beating you at Boggle). It's my goal to get to a secure enough place emotionally that I can appreciate the work of others without compulsively analyzing how it stands up next to my own. How to get there? I'm still fumbling around on that key point of strategy; when I puzzle it out, I'll let you know.

And if you figure it out first, please share. I'll be disappointed that I wasn't the one for only a minute, I promise.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•7:01 AM

It is April 2006. Patrick, the kids, and I are staying at FDR Pebbles, a kid-friendly, all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. We're having a wonderful time.

Daniel is eating sand to his heart's content. Tess, in her Coast Guard-approved floating bathing suit, is in the huge pool with fabulous water slide for hours at a time. Hope is enjoying meeting new friends and tie-dyeing as many T-shirts as possible. The boys are thriving on their freedom to shuttle between the game room and the swim-up grill ("I'm eating a cheeseburger in the pool!" crows James). Patrick and I are sea kayaking and snorkeling whenever we're not napping or getting massages.

How is it possible that the seven of us are each doing exactly what we want at any given moment? The genius of FDR Pebbles is that it assigns each family a nanny for the entirety of its stay. Since we have five kids, we opt for paying an additional $100 for an extra nanny for the whole week. We meet Tina and Sonia within minutes of arriving and fall in love. Both are mothers themselves; are certified in first aid and CPR; and are kind, funny, and sensible.

The nannies are with us from 9 to 5, and we can pay them $3 per hour to stay longer. They very much want the extra work and are happy to stay as late as we'd like; we can't help but oblige. They trade off: one oversees Daniel, who still naps twice a day, while the other watches the girls. The boys are generally under the supervision of the older kids' Activities Coordinator, but know to check in with either the nannies or us when they want to do something new.

Complete freedom is a heady thing. We can take the older kids snorkeling. We can spend one-on-one time with any one of them, building sand castles or reading and chatting side by side in hammocks. There are many off-resort adventures available, but we find ourselves content with the myriad of activities we've already paid for right on-site.

There is one notable exception, which turns out to be the highlight of the entire trip for me: Ron, the snorkel boat driver, highly recommends a trip to the Luminous Lagoon, ten minutes away by car in Falmouth. Tina and Sonia agree: the lagoon is not to be missed. So one night, we leave Tess and Daniel with the nannies, and FDR's shuttle bus takes the rest of us off to adventure.

We are dropped off and wait at the Glistening Waters Marina until it's fully dark, sipping oversweetened fruit punch and admiring the mangroves while the rest of the tour group assembles. Finally, our captain arrives with his boat and introduces himself as Timothy. About 30 of us strap on life vests and clamber aboard; as Timothy hands me into the boat, I smell the unmistakable, cloying odor of ganja. This gives me pause for a moment, but I decide to be zen about it. Yeah, mon; this is Jamaica, after all. Once we're all aboard, Timothy heads out.

It's a beautiful, warm night; the stars hang low and the breeze is soft. As the boat picks up speed, Timothy starts to sing. What does he bawl to the moon, his dredlocked head thrown back, his gravelly voice carrying out over the dark water? None other than what seems like the entire oeuvre of Jamaica's own son, Bob Marley.

"Lively Up Yourself." "Three Little Birds." "Stir It Up" (for the first time, I realize that the lyrics to this one are emphatically rated-R). And of course, the peace anthem made cliché by Jamaica's Board of Tourism: "One Love."

What could be cheesy and annoying is instead magical. Sometimes Timothy's captive audience (most of the members of which have had several rum punches at this point) sings along, which he actively encourages as confidently as any arena rocker would, pumping one fist in the air as he steers the boat with the other.

Patrick, the kids, and I lean over the side of the boat to watch our progress; we are the first of the group to notice that the boat's wake has turned a phosphorescent green, and that we can see what look like glowing missiles darting to and fro in the water. "They're fish!" cries Hope, and our mouths fall open in astonishment. We have arrived at the Luminous Lagoon. It is only now we realize that the lagoon doesn't glow all the time; the water is as black as you would expect on a dark night--until something moves through it.

There are only a few places in the world where plankton called dinoflagellates glow, or 'bioluminesce,' when disturbed: Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico is probably the most famous, but the little lagoon in Falmouth amazes us. Timothy stops the boat and invites us all to get in and swim. We jump in right away; I am surprised at how many of the other passengers opt to stay on board. The very muddy bottom disconcerts us. The water is only about three feet deep, so we do our best to float or tread water shallowly as we enjoy the spectacle.

We wave our arms through the water and spin around, watching trails of bright green follow our every movement. Hope is the first to raise her arms out of the water; the glowing droplets running off her body transform her into a little goddess of light, like something out of an ancient myth. We all imitate her, mesmerized by our own glory. And all the while, Timothy sings, his lusty, gravelly renditions somehow the perfect accompaniment to our watery dance.

Like all magic, it's over all too soon; Timothy announces that our time is up, and we reluctantly climb back into the boat. As we glide slowly back to the marina, we all sing along with our blissed-out captain: "Don't worry about a thing/'Cause every little thing gonna be alright." Our arms around our children, Patrick and I look at each other and smile. This is a night we'll remember forever.

For more Music Monday, visit the glamorous, globe-trotting Soccer Mom in Denial.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•6:34 PM

Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:26 AM
Eleven months ago, I celebrated the fact that our family had finished reading the Old Testament aloud together in this post. This morning, we read Revelation Chapter 22, completing our reading of the New Testament.

This year, because of Christian's high school schedule, we have less family scripture time in the mornings than we did last year: only 10-15 minutes most days. But a little bit, done consistently, goes a long way. As Zechariah says, "For who hath despised the day of small things? For they shall rejoice..." (Zech. 4:10)

I treasure our morning time. The family sits at our kitchen table bathed in the soft lamplight; Patrick, the older three kids, and I take turns reading verses, while Daniel and Tess look on in their picture Bibles. Hope's reading has improved most dramatically in the past two years since we started Genesis, but all the kids read with more expression and facility, making the beautiful passages come alive for the whole group. Jacobean English isn't easy for modern tongues and ears, but it has become much more natural for all the children since we began our journey.

I hope, however, that our scripture reading has been more than a daily elocution lesson; I hope the words are sinking deep into the hearts of my children, giving them daily sustenance and equipping them with divine tools to handle life's many challenges.

I can't read the last few verses of Revelation without thinking of the following piece of music. I've been lucky enough to sing it a few times; it's gorgeous.

Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:10 AM
Author: Luisa Perkins
•2:48 PM
It all started Saturday night, a time when no self-respecting plumber in the Americas will answer his 'emergency' phone. I went down to the basement to put in a load of laundry and noticed that the concrete floor under the washer was wet. We sometimes get a little water in that corner of the basement when it rains (and it had been), but something told me to open the door to the little bathroom that sits right next to our laundry area.

Tess was showering at the time; the waste pipe that runs from our washer to the main line was spurting some water out from under the cap. There's drainage in that area, so it wasn't too much of a mess yet, but I knew we had a problem.

"Houston," I said to Patrick when he walked through the door from some errands about a half hour later, "Come check this out." I turned on the tap to the slop sink so that he could see the mini-geyser-like action. He crouched down, hemmed and hawed, and talked man-talk to the pipe for a few minutes. I informed him that I'd already left a message for our regular plumber; we had some time to kill until we had to leave for dinner with our highly entertaining friends J&J, so we spent it leaving messages with other plumbers in the area. You know, just in case.

We kept hygiene activities to the barest minimum the next morning ("Take the shortest shower of your life," I admonished Christian as I shook him awake), and I knew that, between church and a luncheon at a friends' house, we'd be gone most of Sunday. I hoped that would mean we wouldn't have too much back-up to deal with, knowing that we wouldn't see a plumber until at least this morning.

We got home a little before Super Bowl kick-off time last night; our regular plumber had left a message (the only one who ever did), so I called him back on his cell phone right away. "Jack," I said, "I know you're just sitting down to watch the game, but please send somebody over first thing in the morning. You know we have five kids; you know how much flushing that entails." Maybe he sensed my panic, or maybe he was just eager to listen to Jordin Sparks sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Either way, he hurriedly agreed; I rang off and got our game snacks ready using mostly disposable dishes.

I awoke at 5:30 this morning to a hideous burping sound. "It's the basement toilet," Patrick muttered into the dark. Christian, in his sleep-deprived haze (we had let the boys stay up for the whole exciting game), had forgotten our need to conserve and was taking a regular-length shower.


When Jack's son John arrived this morning at about 9:00, I led him to the little basement bathroom. I won't describe for you what met me when I opened the door, but remember my pregnancy-induced super-mega-bionic sense of smell and my overactive gag reflex. Breathing through my mouth, I walked back out and asked John to give me a minute. He, in turn, took one look at the room and said, "You'll need to call our 'rooter' subcontractor, Al. I don't have the equipment for this." He gave me the number and left quickly.

I called Al and got his angel wife on the phone. At first, she said Al's day was very full, but when I uttered the magic words "five kids" (and perhaps when she heard the desperation in my voice), she had a change of heart and was able to schedule us for an appointment at noon.

In the meantime, I put my normal routine on hold. No dishes (still left from Saturday); no laundry; no exercise, since I couldn't shower. No flushing (Daniel, a.k.a. "Mr. Fastidious," really didn't like that). I got caught up on some other tasks and waited.

Al was great. He arrived on time, brought in his fancy drain snake with attached camera (again: yerrrrch), and had the line cleared in about a half hour. I happily wrote him a large check, took his card (which I plan to laminate and put in a very safe place), and sent him on his way--after hearing what the clogging culprit was.

Baby wipes.

("They don't break down," Al said, waxing philosophical. "I've seen it time and time again. Once you flush one, it's the beginning of the end.")

Who flushed the wipes, and when? It is a puzzlement. Daniel has been potty-trained for a couple of months; I can't remember the last time we had the wipes box out. And I've always known that regular wipes aren't flushable; every box you buy says so in prominent typeface on the back.

And yet, and yet. The evidence was incontrovertible. (Though I should say that I take Al's testimony at face value; I didn't confirm his diagnosis with my own eyes.)

The crisis is over; all that remains is catching up on the laundry and kitchen maintenance. That, and somehow steeling myself--or providing enough incentive to someone else in the house--to take a bucket of water and some bleach down to the little bathroom to clean up the remaining detritus. Jove's nightgown: I can barely stand the thought.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•10:32 PM

Woohoo! Against all odds, the New York Giants just won the Super Bowl. With that, and the Mets having signed star pitcher Johan Santana this week, the Perkins family is officially in sports heaven. Pictured above is the crew at our Super Bowl party right after the Giants scored in the first quarter. Now we all need to settle down and get some sleep (as if).