Monday, November 30, 2009

The Oxford Project

The Oxford Project took place in a little town in eastern Iowa. Just under 700 people lived in Oxford at the time the project began in 1984 and Peter Feldstein, an art professor at the University of Iowa, decided he would photograph each of them during the course of that summer. He set up his camera in an empty storefront in the center of town and waited for everyone to come to him. Surprisingly, they all did. He was able to photograph all but about about a dozen members of the population. His goal was to make a straightforward record of the people of this little American town. Everyone in town was photographed in the same way, whether they were rich or poor, young or old. He only took one shot of each person.

These are all casual portraits. No one is dressed up. Everyone just dropped in when they had time. Some brought their pets, which included not just dogs but also a raccoon and a lion. Some held babies. One held a sack of groceries. After he was finished, he put on an exhibition of the photographs in the Oxford American Legion Hall and then he filed the negatives away and didn't think about them much until 21 years later when he decided to follow up on that project. Over the next two years, he rephotographed as many of the original group as he could. Some had moved away and more than 100 had died, but most were still living in the same place. He also brought along Stephen Bloom, another University of Iowa professor, to record some of their stories.

The side-by-side pictures spanning 20-plus years are interesting, but it's the stories that are compelling, revealing. Many dreamed of higher education, few had the opportunity to pursue it. A few found religion, a few more lost it, most profess a strong faith. Many live within a few blocks of where they grew up, some right next door. Several served in various wars and came back worse for the experience. Quite a few long term relationships started at the local bar or at the Sale Barn. A few marriages fell apart, most stood the test of time. The stories are arranged by connections, so families are grouped together, someone mentioned in one person's story will likely have their own pictures and story featured a page or two later.

The pictures and stories have been published in The Oxford Project by Peter Feldstein and Stephen G. Bloom. I was able to check it out from Dordt's library. I've been told that the project was mentioned on NPR, so perhaps you'll be able to find a copy in your local library. If you get a chance, check it out. I think you'll find it interesting.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


We made the big trip to Michigan for Thanksgiving. It is a long drive (just over 12 hours without stops), but we had a great trip. We picked the kids up from school just before lunch and managed to drive 2/3 of the way there, stopping for the night in Peru, Illinois. The next morning, we drove the last 4 hours to Dwight's parents' house in Muskegon, arriving just in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Dwight's brother and sister-in-law and their three kids had arrived from Massachusetts during the wee hours of the morning and Colin met us there as well, so we were all able to sit down and enjoy a wonderful meal together.

Dwight's parents moved to a condo recently and there was plenty of room for both of our families to stay there with them. It felt a little like summertime when we all go camping together. Grandpa made his famous pancakes for breakfast and he and Grandma made sure everyone was well fed the whole time. The kids got along well and we all had a nice time visiting together. We played games, the big kids read books to the little kids, the girls put on a dance show for us. Dwight's oldest brother and his family live in the area, so they were able to come visit each day. We did miss his sister and her family as they weren't able to make the trip in. I can only think it would have been even more fun if they had been able to join us.

On Friday, we had a couple hours to go to Holland and look up a few friends. All our children were able to spend some time visiting with at least one friend. Dwight and I mostly spent time dropping each one off at their friends' houses and then starting over and picking them all up again. In between, we did go to Ottawa Beach for a bit, but we didn't last long as it was really cold on the beach. We also got a chance to talk for a few minutes with a couple of our friends. There were so many more people that we would have liked to see and the kids most definitely had many more people on their "must see" list, but we saw as many people as we could with the limited time we had.

It was nice to be able to go to Holland and see some friends, but it also made me feel sad. The kids all enjoyed seeing their friends, but leaving made them feel sad again too. Maria's teacher, also a transplant from Michigan, warned her that this would happen. At the end of the afternoon, we returned to Muskegon where we enjoyed homemade pizza and family time. Dwight, Brett, and Rocky entertained us with stories about all the outrageous things they did together as children. I laughed so hard, I cried. It was exactly the right way to end that day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sioux Falls

Yesterday Jon Felipe and I drove to Sioux Falls to get his new brace. Dwight took him in about two weeks ago to get all the measurements and assessments done. His old brace cracked shortly after we moved here and we have been repairing it with duct tape while we waited for all the appointments and insurance to be in place.

It had been cloudy all day, but just as we were leaving the sun came out. Northwest Iowa is really lovely country. The landscape is gently rolling so as you come up to the top of a hill, this panorama of fields and houses and barns and silos opens up in front of you. Even with the harvest season over, it is beautiful. The closer you get to the border with South Dakota, the more pronounced the hills become and there are more trees and woods. Once you cross over the Big Sioux River, the landscape turns to farmland again, but it just isn't as lovely as northwest Iowa.

As we drove along, Jon Felipe entertained me by singing all the songs he knew. Then he began making up a song. He really loves to sing. His song, in a combination of English and Spanish, was all about how awesome God is and named many things that show how awesome God is, such as that God makes the sun come up each day. What beautiful words to hear from this little boy who only came home to us the Christmas before last.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

All School Program

Tonight we attended the all school program at Ireton Christian School. The program led off with a performance by the fifth grade band, all three members. The sound was a bit thin, but at least we can be thankful that they all play different instruments. Then the middle school band performed, followed by the all school musical.

This school only has 64 students in grades k - 8, so every middle schooler had a role in the performance and every kid was in the choir. The 1st and 2nd graders did a darling number. I did note that if Jon Felipe attended this school, it would increase the size of the second grade class by 20% as there are only 4 students in second grade. Still, he loved the musical and was pretty sure he would enjoy attending Ireton Christian.

The only downside to the night was the stink. It was the worst odor I have smelled since we moved to Iowa. I must admit that the smell has been worse in town lately too, but there is no comparison. The smell in Ireton was eye-watering, chokingly bad. People were commenting on it as we walked into the school and someone said the farmers had been hauling manure today. Whatever the cause, I was glad we live in town. Jon Felipe pointed out that it isn't stinky at his school, only at Dad's.

Dwight is hoping that some of it dissipates over night as he has playground duty tomorrow. I suggested that perhaps they would have indoor recess because it smelled too bad to go outside, but he assured me that wouldn't happen. He said the kids don't even notice the odor. I just cannot imagine how that could be possible.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's in a Name?

Dordt recently hosted Hug A Linguist Days. We had guest speakers and activities to highlight the work that linguists do. I found it all very interesting, but then again I took a bunch of classes in linguistics when I studied Teaching English as a Second Language so it was "right up my alley" so to speak. One of the speakers in the series mentioned the importance people attach to their given names. This got me thinking about naming in general, and the renaming of older adopted kids specifically.

When we adopted Maria, the task of naming her was pretty easy. Her given name was Maria, it's a name I've always liked, we never considered changing it. She did not, however, have a middle name. I've never had the chance to name a daughter so we generated a few middle name options and talked about it with the kids. Finally, we chose to give her my first name as her middle name. I've always liked my name and the two names sound nice together. It felt like we were giving her a name that was special to us as well as keeping her birth name. So, Maria became Maria Kathleen which we often shorten to Maria K, also known to her friends as Maria the Great.

Naming Jon Felipe was a little more complicated. His given name was Juan Felipe, but we were told that in the orphanage he was just called Felipe, never Juan. In discussing the name situation with our social worker, she told us that older children will often ask what their new parents will name them. So, we wanted to give him a name that was special from us, but we also wanted to respect the name his birth family gave him. We finally decided to name him Jonathan Felipe.

We really like the name Jonathan which means gift from God, something our Jonathan truly is. We call him Jon Felipe or just Felipe. He is very attached to the name Felipe and I think it would have been hard on him to lose this piece of his identity. His favorite music CD is one with Bible songs that puts his name, Felipe, into the songs. He listens to this over and over and over. I think he must also have some recollection of having been called Juan Felipe since Jon Felipe seems to feel familiar to him. He also really likes that the name Jonathan can be found in the Bible and the stories about David and Jonathan are currently his favorites.

What importance do you attach to your name? Would you change it if you could? My adopted children had been given lovely names at birth, which made our job so much easier. I've talked with people who have given their children entirely new names upon adoption and others who think it was wrong for us to change Jon Felipe's name at all. I'm pretty much in the camp of making those decisions on a situation specific basis. What would you do?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Weekend Roundup

This past weekend was nice, a slightly slower pace than the past several weekends. We got a few more boxes unpacked and got things a little more organized, but also took time for a walk, a bike ride, some reading, the kids had friends over. I did little things like organize my spices. Did you know that more spices begin with C than any other letter? Well, that is true in my kitchen anyway.

On Friday, we attended the performance of Arsenic and Old Lace at Sioux Center High School. George and Regina's daughter Kaleigh played the role of Elaine. She did a great job, playing the role with the perfect balance of spunk and naivete. It is a funny play and the actors hammed it up. Jon Felipe laughed and laughed every time Teddy went charging up the stairs. We all enjoyed it and look forward to future productions.

Saturday evening we went to the staff-board potluck at Ireton Christian School. Earlier in the year, Dwight attended the staff-board dinner at Sanborn Christian without us as there was also a family function at Dordt that night. He was pleased that we were attending this event with him. He is at Ireton four days a week and has really enjoyed working there. Unfortunately, when we walked in we quickly learned that this was not a family affair. The invitation was for staff and spouses. Who knew you could hold a potluck in northwest Iowa and not invite the family?

All was not lost, though. After the kids ate, the principal took them over to his house to play with his kids. They had a great time and Luke assured us that they were exceedingly well behaved the whole night. Plus, with everyone bringing a hot and a cold dish, there was plenty of food so it didn't matter that they ate with us. There were whole dishes left over that didn't even have one spoonful taken from them. Jon Felipe has already started asking when we will get to eat at Dad's school again. My answer, "Probably never." It was an honest mistake on Dwight's part, he had even told people that he was bringing his family and no one corrected his mistake, but it was still embarrassing.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Check Up

Yesterday I brought Maria over to the medical clinic for a quick check up. She has a very itchy rash and instead of getting better, it seems to be spreading and getting worse. Also, she still has not totally gotten back on top of things, strength-wise, after her bout with the flu back in early October. I just wanted a quick check to make sure there was nothing else going on and to get some help with clearing up this rash.

We saw the on call doctor for the day. He has been at the Sioux Center medical clinic for over 30 years and was very gregarious. He also was very knowledgeable about Myasthenia Gravis, which was a nice bonus. He assured me that Maria's rash was just eczema and gave us a prescription for a cream to treat it. He also told me that, given all Maria's health complications, he would expect it to take up to 12 weeks for her to fully recover from that virus so not to be too concerned about that either.

Then the doctor took me by surprise with his next question. He looked up from his notes and asked me, "Are you saved and do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" I so did not expect that particular question at that particular moment. I did manage to quickly give a response in the affirmative. Dwight has suggested that that would have been a good time to trot out a few lines from the philosophy I've been reading for new faculty orientation, maybe drop in a comment or two about Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. Of course, none of that came back to me in that moment. Then the good doctor, reassured of the fact of my salvation, proceeded to lecture me on the topic of evolution. It was an interesting office visit.

We have noticed that most of Northwest Iowa is overtly Christian. Everywhere you go, you hear Christian music playing - in the grocery store, at the bank, in government offices. The gas station downtown is closed on Sundays, but every square inch of their lot is used for parking cars for the church next door during Sunday services. Most people assume that since I work at Dordt and have in fact worked in Christian education for nearly a quarter of a century now, I am a Christian. I guess this doc just wanted to make sure.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Dwight teaches art at Sanborn Christian School on Wednesday afternoons. The great coincidence is Sanborn school has a big cookie sale on the second Wednesday of every month. All the ingredients are donated and an army of moms, grandmas, and grandpas decends on the school kitchen to make these wonderful cookies. There are about five choices, but our favorites are the chocolate chip and the monster cookies, which are made with M&Ms. They pack the cookies into empty ice cream buckets. After you eat your cookies, you return the buckets to be reused so even the packaging costs the school nothing. This is a great fund raiser for this little school as they fill and sell hundreds of these buckets each time. So, once a month Dwight comes home from work with a couple buckets of homemade cookies still warm from the oven. What could be better than that!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pumpkin Carving

The kids went over to George and Regina's house to carve pumpkins with their family on Halloween. They just sent me these pictures so I thought I'd share them with you. George and Regina and their girls have been such a blessing to us since we moved here. George is actually my father's cousin, but we are about the same age. Growing up, we saw each other often at my grandmother's house. In addition to frequent family gatherings at Grandma's house, both our families usually ended up there on Sundays after church. In this town where everyone is related to everyone else, Regina and I take particular joy in telling people that we are cousins. My kids love hanging out with their kids. The other day, they came for supper and after they left, Jacob suggested we get together again soon since everyone had such a good time.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Adoption Sunday

Today was a day for celebrating adoption. With this in mind, we chose to attend First Reformed Church this morning. They had a special service this morning that was a celebration of adoption as well as highlighting the plight of the many, many orphans around the world still waiting for their forever families. This is the church that hosts the after school Kid Zone program that I wrote about a few weeks ago. It is a large church and this morning it felt like everyone in Sioux Center was there. A very nice family even gave up their spot in a pew so that my family would have a place to sit.

First Reformed has a large adoption ministry and there were many families in church with adopted children. As part of their ministry, which includes support groups and a prayer ministry, they have launched a grant program that helps raise money toward the cost of adoption, both domestic and international. At the end of the service they asked the families that had been helped by Katelyn's fund to come forward. I can't even tell you how many families went forward, they filled the front of the sanctuary. It was a beautiful thing. The fund helps families from all over the country, not just those from this church.

This evening we invited George and Regina and their girls over for our own adoption celebration. For both of our adoptions, we traveled to their countries in November (and returned home in December) so it felt like a good time to celebrate. We made Romanian sausages (mititei) from a favorite recipe and a traditional dish called mamaliga that is very similar to polenta. It is a big favorite of Maria's. For the Colombian portion of the meal, we had Colombian hot dogs (which must be served topped with crushed potato chips) and three milk cake (torte tres leches). Regina brought vegetables. Everything turned out great and we really had a fun evening. Regina's girls have already asked if I would make them torte tres leches for their birthdays.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Happy Birthday Colin

My oldest child turned 21 today. Surely I'm not old enough for that to happen.

Happy Birthday Colin!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fall Festival

I received an e-mail this afternoon from Maria's teacher reminding me that Maria needed to be at Dordt tonight for a concert. I e-mailed her back and asked if the sixth graders were attending a concert together. Turns out that Maria was in the concert tonight. It was the SCCS fall music festival. When school started, we opted to have Maria quit orchestra in order to have more time for educational support. I didn't realize that the result of that decision was simply that we traded orchestra for choir. Maria loves to sing and I'm glad she has this opportunity, I just wish we knew about it sooner.

I e-mailed the teacher back and asked if there was anything specific that Maria needed to wear and was told she should wear Sunday clothes. Less than an hour before the concert was to start, Maria informed me that she needed to wear black pants and a white shirt. I showed her the teacher's e-mail, but she was adamant about needing to wear black pants and a white shirt. A flurry of searching ensued. The first couple white shirts I came up with were way too small, barely reaching her belly button. We finally settled for a white t-shirt plucked fresh from the dryer and black pants that were only a little too short.

Slightly frazzled, we set off for the auditorium and arrived at the last minute only to discover that the teacher was right and Maria was wrong (you guessed that already, didn't you). There was Maria in her too short pants and her white t-shirt among all her classmates in their Sunday finery. Sigh. Meanwhile, the rest of us settled into the pew for the long haul. You likely remember the joy of elementary school band or orchestra concerts (five variations on the song Bingo, anyone?). Put both together, add a few choirs, and mix in hanging onto a wiggly Jon Felipe the whole time and you have a good picture of our evening. It was a long night.

The fifth and sixth grade choir were near the end. Maria struggled with the stairs up to the stage and fell. Someone hauled her back up and she made it to her spot behind the piano where we could barely see her. She did sing well and clearly knew her part so it all turned out okay. As we were walking out of the auditorium, another parent told me that his daughter comes home from school every day with stories about Jon Felipe. I told him I didn't want to know. Good thing tomorrow is Friday.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Random Thoughts 2

Here are some random thoughts tonight:

1. Jacob's friend Tony grew up in a small town in South Dakota of just over 600 people. He attended the public high school where he only had 8 people in his graduating class. The amazing thing is that the school split those 8 students into two English classes of 4 and 4, one honors and one regular. I didn't know such small public schools still existed, plus splitting the class is just crazy when it is so small to begin with.

2. Several people have asked if this was the most expensive rental we considered. It was middle of the road. There was a place that was a bit cheaper, but we decided not to go with it for a number of reasons, including that it really was too small. There was another place that was the same rent as this and one that was more. We are happy that we chose this one.

3. I love my job. I love what I am doing and I love where I am doing it. I met with my dean today to go over my midterm evaluations and I told her the same thing. I have a great department. There are no weak links, everyone does a great job. There are also no prima donnas. I could not ask for a better team to work with. As an added bonus, we all like each other. What a blessing!

4. Even though I like my job and am pretty certain moving here was the right thing for our family, I am still missing the people "back home." I really appreciate that you all still send me e-mails, leave comments here, and generally let me know you're still out there. It helps a lot.

5. There is nothing in Sioux Center to measure up to Providence Church's Wednesday g@p. Enough said.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Story of the Big House

Finding this house was totally a God thing. We just happened on it while we were out for a bike ride one afternoon. There was a small "For Rent" sign out front and we called right away about renting it (remember, our options had been really limited so we didn't waste any time). I don't know why we even rode down this particular street, it isn't on our usual bike path route.

A couple things we really like about our new house:
The refrigerator has an ice maker
Having a garbage disposal and a dishwasher
More than one bathroom
We can open the oven even if someone is sitting at the kitchen table
We can all fit in the kitchen to eat a meal, even if the kids have a friend over

This house does have an interesting history, though. It was built by a local builder "on spec." He obviously intended it to be high-end and included lots of expensive details like ceramic tile, laminate flooring, a gas fireplace, and nice appliances. Unfortunately, some of the work that he tried to do himself, he should have contracted out instead. So, we have lots of lovely upgrades, but they don't all work. For example, we have a whole house vacuum, but it doesn't work. There is a very nice filtration system for the water, but it is hooked up wrong. There is a nice jacuzzi type tub, but the water heater can only supply enough water to fill it about 1/3 full. Yesterday, Dwight went to run the garbage disposal in the kitchen and it fell off the sink. (It is now firmly reattached.) Even the doorbell doesn't work.

However, a buyer was found and the new owners moved in. They only lived here one month, so the story goes. They were apparently frustrated by the number things not done properly and arguments ensued on who should pay for repairs. They finally simply moved out and the builder was left with the house. This being a small town, word quickly got around and he was unable to find another buyer. He finally let the house go back to the bank and our landlord purchased it from the bank as an investment. He has spent the past several weeks working on many of the repairs that needed to be made. When we moved in, he said that he expected us to find more things wrong and just to call him when it happened (although Dwight did just fix the garbage disposal himself).

When we decided to rent the place, lots of people warned us off. They didn't want us to get stuck with all the problems and we had to keep reminding people that we weren't buying it, just renting it. So, we get to live in a really nice place that has plenty of room and is essentially brand new and the landlord gets to deal with the repairs. Our landlord is really nice and we keep running into him at places like church and the SCCS soup supper. I know it could turn out that he won't follow through on fixing things, but we've had no indication so far that we should be worried about that. We are feeling blessed to be able to live here and enjoy this beautiful house. Next time you are traveling through northwest Iowa, you'll have to stop in for a visit.