Happy 2nd Anniversary, Nightwalker!

Today is the 2-year anniversary of the release of Nightwalker!

I never intended to write a book like this—or at least, I never intended for this to be the first book I published. Nightwalker has no princesses or unicorns, and it barely has any magic. I had no idea (and still have no idea) how to market the thing. How did someone who wanted to write fairy tales end up writing—essentially—spooky, supernatural Book of Mormon fanfiction?

It began as a 2016 NaNoWriMo project. At the time it seemed like all my friends were going through a faith crisis, and while I never reached crisis level, I did spend some time really thinking about what I believe and why I believe it. What does it mean to have faith? What sustains us when Church members—or even Church leaders—act in confusing or hurtful ways? Why does God let bad things happen to good people? If I had “felt to sing the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26), why couldn’t I always feel it?

The scriptures had answers to these questions, and as I studied them, the writer wheels in my head started turning. It felt like God was synthesizing the ideas I was pondering with some undeveloped characters and plot bunnies in my brain, producing the most complete story I’d ever conceived. Given this incredible gift, I knew what I had to do: put all the fairy tales and princess stories on the back burner and write Nightwalker to the best of my ability at the time.

(To complicate things, that “time” spanned almost exactly five years, and by the time I finished there were HUGE quality gaps between the beginning of the book and the end of the book. But I digress.)

So, I guess you could say that Nightwalker is a testimony of sorts. Because I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the histories of Milabel, Ependom, and Asura have strong ties to Church history and the events of the Book of Mormon. Each of the characters has a different relationship with religion and God, but regardless of their belief or lack thereof, it becomes clear (I hope) how He is working in their lives.

My greatest fear in releasing this book into the world was that, because there’s a pernicious influence in the Milabel church, readers would think I was criticizing my own religion. This was not my intent at all! While the Church is made up of imperfect mortals, Christ is at the helm. The prophets, seers, and revelators who lead this church do so under His direction and authority, and I love and support them. I hope that readers will note that the “restoration” event in Nightwalker leads directly to the downfall of the Guardians. 😉

Probably the biggest criticism Nightwalker has received is that the romance between Alec and Maren wasn’t romance-y enough. Readers wanted more conflict, more tension—in short, they wanted the plot to be more like every other YA book in existence. And that’s totally fair. This was something of a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted the romance to take a backseat and be relatively easy so that Alec and Maren could focus on supporting each other through the crises they faced. I also wanted to show that when two people are compatible, have the same goals, are both trying to do what’s right, and care deeply about each other, you can skip a lot of the turbulence in the relationship. That said, I know I have a lot to learn about writing romance.

Then again, my 8-year-old son informed me that **SPOILER ALERT** he didn’t like that Alec and Maren got married at the end, and asked why I would do that. So you can’t please everyone, I guess.

Overall, I’m still quite happy with how Nightwalker turned out. I felt like I learned a lot while writing and self-publishing it, and despite how weird it is, I’m proud of my firstborn book baby. And if you haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll like it, too. You can get your copy here!

(And if you have read it, PLEASE leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads! It really helps!)

Yes, Christians Can (And Should) Enjoy Harry Potter

Recently it’s come to my attention that some Christian fantasy writers are calling for more so-called “non-magical fantasy.” If this seems like a contradiction in terms, you’re not alone. As far as I can gather, non-magical fantasy involves made-up or semi-made up worlds, medieval aesthetic, and self-proclaimed deep, stirring themes. These concerned citizens allow for books like the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings that are written from a strict biblical worldview by known believers, but decry any magic systems involving demon worship or witchcraft that is not defeated in the end—specifically calling out Harry Potter.

I’m sorry. What?

I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and grew up as part of the so-called Harry Potter generation. As a whole, members of the Church seem to be less worried about Harry Potter than Evangelical Christians, so I largely missed out on the debate on whether the books promoted satanism. Although I discovered Harry Potter later than my (almost universally church-going) classmates, I loved the books as much as (or more than) the next nine year old geek. I made myself a wand, sorted myself into Gryffindor, copied spells into homemade spell books, and ran around on a costume broomstick trying to curse the neighbor kids—and dodge their curses in my turn. Although it could be argued that I could have used some of this energy reading scriptures or memorizing the Articles of Faith, I never felt like this period of fanaticism negatively impacted my testimony. And while my ardor for the Wizarding World has waned over the years, I make no objection to my children experiencing the wonder for themselves.

That said, the Bible warns us to avoid witchcraft. Leviticus 19:31 says, “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” Deuteronomy 18:10-12 warns, “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” And there’s always the classic Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Seems pretty definitive. So am I just justifying a sinful guilty pleasure in my defense of Harry Potter? I would argue, no. Why? Because the witchcraft in Harry Potter isn’t real witchcraft as laid out in the Bible.

The story of the Old Testament is one of a people whose God—a loving, powerful, real Father in Heaven—brought them out of darkness and bondage and showed them how to live and in whom to put their trust. And time and time again, the people turned from God and tried to worship literally everything else. Trees. Statues. Demonic spirits. Money. Themselves. These forms of worship ranged from woefully ineffective (see 1 Kings 18) to absolutely horrifying (the phrase about making your son or daughter “pass through the fire” above refers to child sacrifice—spend a few minutes googling Molech if you have a strong stomach). Moses spent enough time with his traveling companions to know this would become a serious problem (I leave you guys alone for five minutes and you’re already forgotten everything God did for you and are worshiping a stupid golden calf?), and prophets through the ages have had their hands full trying rein this tendency in before it destroys civilizations.

This is the context in which we read about witchcraft and wizardry—a warning against horrific acts such as human sacrifice, consulting with demonic spirits, and seeking forbidden knowledge. We can infer that words like “witch,” “wizard,” “charmer,” and “enchanter” are words for a practitioner of these evil forms of worship. According to this fascinating article from Haaretz, we really have no idea what the original word from the aforementioned bible verses, mekashapha, actually means—although scholars have guessed that it could mean an herbalist, poisoner, or evildoer. (As an aside, could I interpret this to mean that essential oils peddlers deserve the death penalty? Discuss.) The Old English word for witch, wicce, is even more inscrutable, but seems to have connotations relating to evil spirits and poison, and the devil.

This is decidedly not the definition J. K. Rowling uses. Witchcraft in the Harry Potter books is a magical ability an individual is born with, which can be used for good or evil according to a person’s moral agency. Harry did not make any deals with the devil or demonic entities to gain his powers. He inherited them from his parents along with his iconic messy hair and green eyes. The Bible does not condemn this kind of witchcraft—it can’t, because it does not exist and never has. As every eleven-year -old Harry Potter fan knows painfully well.

There are, of course, characters who choose to use their magic in ways reminiscent of the verses above—satanic rituals, murdering to gain power and immortality, and engaging in necromancy. They are called Death Eaters, and it’s safe to say they are roundly defeated in the end—which was one of the conditions for an acceptable fantasy book, according to the non-magical curmudgeons (NMCs). As Dumbledore says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Maybe it’s unfortunate that Rowling picked such a religiously-fraught word as “witch” to describe someone like Hermione Granger, but she could have easily picked any number of words: mage, magician, fairy, mistborn, surgebinder, or she-wizard (note: wizards are condemned in Deuteronomy just like witches, but you don’t see anyone warning that Gandalf is going to lead their children into forbidden paths). Rowling picked the words she did because of the modern-day aesthetic she was going for—one that evokes images of broomsticks, bubbling cauldrons, spooky castles, and pumpkin as a staple food. As followers of Christ, we should be capable of exercising enough spiritual discernment to avoid condemnation of something good based on questionable word choice.

And yes, the Harry Potter series is good—morally good, not just fun and interesting. The books are full of Christian symbolism and themes: love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, repentance, agency, the Resurrection, and life after death. Magic is a vital vehicle for delivering these ideas–the beauty of Lily Potter’s sacrifice for her son comes alive in its protective power against Voldemort, and a horcrux is a chilling symbol of the way murder rips the soul apart (and remorse–repentance–puts it back together). J. K. Rowling places Bible verses on the tombstones of Harry’s parents (1 Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”) and Dumbledore’s mother and sister (Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”), explicitly stating that these verses “epitomize the whole series.” It’s worth noting that Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, an Apostle of the Lord, has quoted or made reference to Harry Potter multiple times in official talks. If your reading standards are more stodgy than an actual Apostle’s, you may want to consider loosening up a little.

NMC claims that J. K. Rowling isn’t a believer are unfounded. She may not be especially open about her beliefs, but she is quoted as saying, “I believe in God, not magic,” and once told reporters that if she talked about her Christian faith too much, readers would guess what was coming too easily. Admittedly, this is a silly reason not to share your beliefs with others. But the way her testimony bleeds over into so many aspects of her books speaks volumes about her faith. J. K. Rowling is not be a perfect Christian—or even a Lewis or a Tolkien—and I disagree with her on many, many subjects. But you simply cannot say Harry Potter isn’t written from a biblical worldview.

I agree with the NMCs in that each person must use agency and discernment in deciding what media to consume, and above all seek and take direction from the Lord. Goodness knows there are so many awful fantasy books out there, many of which really do glorify satanic practices or are little more than pornography. I’m all for encouraging writers to glorify God with their writing and improve their craft so we can crowd this garbage out of the market—it’s what I’m actively trying to do. But Harry Potter isn’t the problem here, and there are times when a witch is not a witch. Part of exercising discernment means having all the facts before condemning a wholesome, uplifting, beloved book series that has given generations of children a love for reading.

As puppet Dumbledore once said, “Let them have their flapdoodles.”

I Watched Amazon’s Cinderella So You Don’t Have To

Sometimes I like to watch dumb movies on Amazon Prime while I’m sewing, knitting, or folding laundry. For a while, every time I started browsing for mindless entertainment, I’d be greeted with ads for their original movie, Cinderella, described as “a modern movie musical with a bold take on the classic fairytale.” Hoo boy.

I held off on watching it for a while, because I knew it was going to be a train wreck. But I’m kind of a sucker for Cinderella retellings, and when I finally decided to see what the fuss was about, I was shocked to learn I’d misjudged it. For you see, Amazon’s Cinderella is not a train wreck.

It is a dumpster fire.

The utter crapitude of this movie is truly mind-boggling. It’s morally, logically, and artistically abominable. The fact that it currently has a 3-star rating on amazon is an insult to all the wholesome, honest 3-star products on these here interwebs. I’m not even going to put a spoiler warning on this review, because that’s kind of the point. I want to excoriate this piece of dreck so thoroughly that no one will ever watch it again. And I’ll do it without even touching on the drag queen fairy godmother. Y’all probably know how I feel about it, anyway, so we’ll leave that can of worms (caterpillars?) closed.

We’re essentially hammered over the head with the movie’s message during its sarcastic rendition of the standard “Once upon a time” opening. The aforementioned magical individual informs us that the story takes place in a land of tradition, where people have been doing things the same way for generations. Okay. We get it. Traditions bad! Progress good! What follows is two hours of being punched in the face with these themes over and over and over.

The traditions in question, of course, are gender roles—albeit gender roles taken to an absurd extreme never seen in the history of humanity. Evil stepmother Idina Menzel is at odds with Ella, of course, but because she’s jealous of her ambition—she wants to be a clothing designer instead of getting married, which is the whole purpose of women in such regressive cultures as these. Stepmother Elsa refers to Ella’s desire to engage in the business world as “blasphemy.”

Do these people think anyone really feels this way about women? Even in scary traditional cultures, women have always contributed to their families economically—helping manage family businesses, pulling their weight on the farm, and yes, taking on the essential task of keeping house and raising children (it counts, yo). Even the scary, regressive Bible encourages this in Proverbs 31:24.

24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

That sounds like exactly what Ella’s trying to do, and it’s somehow illegal in this kingdom, where female servants in the palace literally wear Handmaid’s Tale uniforms. Because this kind of dystopian culture has only ever existed in these people’s twisted fantasies.

The stepmother’s coming from a place of love, though. Oh yes. Her emotionally scarring backstory is that her husband left her for wanting to pursue the piano. Learning to play an an instrument is universally accepted to be a beautiful, perfectly feminine pursuit. Furthermore, you’d think music would be a valuable skill for even a woman to have in a kingdom known only as the “rhythm nation,” in which most of the backup band members to the town crier/rapper are women. Not to mention prominent orchestra members at the ball.

Not content to punch the viewer in the face repeatedly with one message, the movie adds a bratty teenage princess whose sole purpose is to lurk wherever the other royals are discussing grownup stuff, pop out, and say “Is now a good time to discuss [insert environmentalist/anti-capitalist/ talking point here]?” It wasn’t funny the first time, and it got less funny with each subsequent incident.

All hail the nanny-state queen

Ella herself is insufferable. Portrayed by Camila Cabello, she is the least sympathetic and charismatic individual in this movie—including the mice-turned-footmen, who have an entire scene where one of them figures out how to relieve himself in human form. Every word that comes out of Ella’s mouth is sarcastic and occasionally crass. She’s slovenly by choice, and her stepfamily is—not unreasonably—always getting after her about her ratty hair, dirty face, and general lack of interest in basic hygiene. She makes her stepsisters look sweet and charming by comparison. We’re supposed to boo and hiss when Stepmother Elsa tells her, “Smile. Girls are worth more when they smile,” but I found myself wishing she would crack something other than a superior smirk once in a while.

Ella’s stepsisters are described as “obnoxious” and “self-absorbed,” but these are better descriptors for Ella herself. Instead of losing her glass slipper in her flight from the castle, she takes it off and viciously lobs it at the butler’s head. This is not the Cinderella we know and love. The beloved fairy tale is about a kind young woman, beautiful inside and out, who endures degradation and disappointment without losing faith that it will all work out somehow. This bratty girl is nothing like her, and I just can’t bring myself to root for her.

Three of these people look at least somewhat fun to hang out with.

In my opinion, the worst moment of the movie occurred close to the end. Once Prince Nobody rejects the throne and promises to trail after her as she pursues her passion around the world, she’s asked to describe their relationship, and answers, “We don’t have to put a label on it. Maybe just…in love?” Because even after the prince dedicates himself to helping her achieve her dreams, the tradition of committing to a romantic relationship is too regressive for this #girlboss. The explicit theme of this story is, “I choose me,” and she’s not going to let love, commitment, or any of the things that make life really worthwhile slow her down.

This movie bills itself as a musical, but the several moments of original composition hardly qualify as music at all. Mostly they just clumsily shoehorned bad pop songs wherever they kinda sorta fit. You can tell they’re going for “Woke Ella Enchanted” here, even cramming in Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” although from the preceding scene, Prince So-and-so doesn’t seem particularly interested in a relationship—just avoiding the ones his father is trying to arrange. The strongest connection I felt to a character in this movie was when the stepsisters exchanged awkward, embarrassed looks when their mother started singing, “Material Girl.”


The writing was also irredeemably terrible. We’re talking two hours of absolute gems like these, spoken with straight faces:

“I know you’re angry with me for yelling at you. I hate to break it to you, but kings yell.”

-King Patriarchy

“Excuse me, your highness.”
“‘Your highness’ was the man whose blood I spilt to take this crown.”

-Queen Anti-Patriarchy

“So this is the…fountain.”
“Do you have a…fountain where you live?”
“I don’t. I just have…streaming water, sometimes.”

-Jane Austen, probably

“You guys are boys? I always assumed you were girls…because veryone knows mice are girls and rats are boys.”

-Ella, an intellectual

And then there was this sea monster schtick. Early in the movie, Prince Whatsisname is listening to an unfortunate young woman detail her plans for an arranged marriage in a scene badly ripped off from Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law—lacking all of the writing skill, of course. The woman—it’s insulting to compare her to Steris; I apologize—holds up a map, showing that if they marry, their lands will be united, extending their influence all the way to a sea monster in the corner. I thought it was kind of a funny line at first: ha, ha, medieval fantasy map with a sea monster. But they just keep using the same joke over and over and over. They refer repeatedly to “the domain of the sea monster,” suggest that the prince marry the sea monster instead of the non-Steris Steris character, etc. The debacle culminates in the king declaring, “I want the sea monster!” and later singing to his wife (whom he has offended), “You are more important than any sea monster to me!” For the love—find another (intentional) joke. You can do it.

I count the two hours I spent watching this movie as net wasted—which is surprising, because I spent those hours making my daughter this dress:

This pretty well illustrates what’s wrong with Cinderella, actually. If you allow yourself to get distracted by the ideologies the movie is trying to promote, you’ll miss out on the most beautiful, magical parts of your life. Ella might go on to be a famous, successful fashion designer, but I’m betting she’ll never know the joy of sewing imperfect dresses for her own little girl, while she climbs up on her lap and grabs the thread off the sewing machine. And for the first time since watching that movie, I’m starting to feel sorry for her.

I’d give this movie one star—zero, if I could. Amazon, next time you decide to make an adaptation, you might want to consider preserving some of what makes the original good (please remember this as you work on the Lord of the Rings series you’re currently butchering).

2021 GTA Year in Review

(Yeah, I know, I no longer write on the Good Times Ahoy! blog. But the grand tradition of everyone thinking I’m writing about Grand Theft Auto every November/December/January lives on FOREVER, dangnabbit.)

Well, we survived another year, and while 2021 didn’t involve a lockdown, a new baby, or a movacuation, it was a pretty busy one. I really appreciated Tom taking on the 2020 Year in Review/Christmas letter, but I’m glad to be back in the saddle this year.

Without further ado, let’s get to the updates!

The Tom

Tom continues to be the best husband and father we could possibly ask for. He’s still working for Valero, now on his fourth refinery economics job. The current assignment involves coordinating plans for four Valero refineries along the Gulf Coast. Sometimes the plans don’t even get destroyed by Winter Storm Uri, Hurricane Ida, pandemic aftershocks, or refinery misadventures! But despite all that, Valero is doing well, San Antonio still seems to have gasoline (from the refineries Tom plans for!), and we are very grateful to be taken care of by such a great company.

Outside work, Tom is serving in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by planning activities for the 9-11 year old boys, among other things. He’s written a handful of blog posts and articles for Public Square Magazine (all linked on his blog here). For the second year, he masterminded our family chocolate-making process, in which about 15 pounds of Belgian chocolate became around 900 hand-dipped chocolates per the Nysetvold family recipe.

Tom’s big parenting achievements of the year include introducing Dan to programming with Scratch, helping Will learn to read (more on that later), and getting Marie hooked on finger-puppet books, the first of a series of gateway drugs leading ultimately to Lord of the Rings.

Favorite series read this year: The Second World War by Winston Churchill.

The Elissa

This was a pretty good year for me. I spent most of it trying to get better at dealing with these adorable people.

I suppose the most notable thing I’ve accomplished this year was publishing a book (which you can buy here! And review! Plz?). It’s been terrifying releasing something so personal and so full of my ideas and personality out into the world, but I’ve been bolstered and humbled by the constant support of family and friends throughout the whole process. I love you guys. So much.

I’ve continued filling our house with crafts. So many crafts. In addition to my normal knitting and crocheting, I also picked up sewing in a more serious way, largely because I want to make my adorable daughter pretty dresses. I didn’t do a craft roundup for last year’s post, so I figured I’d do a giant one for 2020 and 2021.

I might have a problem.

I’m still baking lots of bread, both yeasted and sourdough, pursuant to my eventual goal of never buying bread again. I’m getting more comfortable with the sourdough process, and my loaves are turning out tastier, and sometimes even prettier.

Best sourdough sandwich loaves yet

My favorite books I’ve read this year were Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, The Wraith and the Rose by CJ Brightley, and The Executioner of God by C. David Belt. The first is an outstanding sci-fi novel by the author of The Martian, the second is a lovely fairy retelling of The Scarlett Pimpernel, and the third is about a time traveling templar knight and runaway nun hunting the Morrigan through the centuries. I’d highly recommend all of them.

The Dan

Dan has had a great year. He graduated from Nysetvold Homeschool and matriculated into first grade at the local public school. By all accounts he’s having a blast with his many friends, and his teacher claims he’s very helpful and polite and the other kids learn a lot from him. Dan has also started piano lessons with Mom, and played on a soccer team for the first time this fall.

Dan at the elementary school bike rodeo

A new institution in our family is the Dan and Will Baking Challenge, in which Dan and Will follow recipes start to finish with minimal help from adults. Dan tends to do most of the work in these endeavors, which suits both of them pretty well. We’ve had some mishaps (like the time Dan thought you just put whole eggs in the mixer and ended up making crunchy, calcium-fortified cookies), but the results have generally been fantastic. We’re glad Dan is developing his talents in such a productive way.

Little bakers at work
Crunch crunch
Much more successful coconut bars

As always, Dan is an excellent big brother and helps keep his siblings in line when they misbehave, even after a long day at school.

Dan’s favorite books he’s read this year are Nightwalker by Elissa C. Nysetvold (kid sure knows how to butter people up) and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan.

The Will

Will’s personality has really come out this year. I think he enjoys being the oldest kid at home for a good portion of the day, although he sure misses palling around with Dan. He has an amazing imagination, and is always creating alter-egos for himself. His latest is Goblin Will, since we read The Hobbit as a family and watched the animated movie over and over again. Goblin Will is a nice goblin, though. Not like the other goblins in our back yard who need to be slain.

Will defending the helpless Marie with his sword
Viking Will ready to pillage for candy

He also enjoys building amazing robots and other creations from Duplo and Lego.

Will named this car/truck/duck thing Mr. Pickles
“Mom, look at all these burninated pirates!”

Will’s big accomplishment this year is making it through Learn to Read (or, in other words, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons). He’s been cruising through the Mercy Watson books, Magic Treehouse, and the Kingdom of Wrenly series. He also loves to read Book of Mormon Stories to himself.

Mom’s “big red book” ended up being a letdown
Number Snack

One fun thing is how much Will has developed socially this year. He went from walking around saying “I don’t wike anybody” to trying to buddy up with every stranger we come across and tell them his life story. The other day he stopped someone from leaving the doctor’s office to tell her all about his plans to drink hot cocoa at snack time.

He’s also a very sweet older brother to Marie. These two have such a sweet relationship.

Will’s favorite books he’s read this year are Magic Treehouse 5: Night of the Ninjas by Mary Pope Osborne and Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke.

The Marie

Marie is growing up way too fast. She’s walking, starting to talk, and destroying things left and right. Seriously, she’s our most mischievous kid yet. She wants to be independent so badly, and tries to do everything herself. And I mean everything.

Coloring in an actual coloring book for once? It’s a beautiful one from Aunt Cathy!
Giving mom finger guns after being caught stealing chocolate
Baby loves black beans
Going for the pie on Thanksgiving
Using some serious qigong to brush her teeth with mom’s toothbrush

She cleans up well, though, and she loves shoes.

Marie can identify her feet, hands, tummy, hands, and arms. She loves to play peekaboo and gives the best hugs. Her favorite words are daddy, mama, feet (“Deet!”), pretty (“Ditty!”), shoes (“Doos!”), hi, and bye (hilariously, “Dieeeee!”) Yeah, her main consonant is “d” right now. We’re working on it. We get so many comments on her eyes, and how pretty she is in general, so it’s no wonder “pretty” is one of her first words.

Marie’s favorite book is a finger puppet book called Daddy and Me.

Family Activities

This summer we took a family trip down to South Padre Island. I never pictured us becoming a beach family, but that’s where we are, and it’s pretty great. Tom made an awesome Aztec-temple-inspired sand castle with Will’s help, Dan and I played in the waves for hours, I got severely sunburned and stung by jellyfish, and Marie ate lots of sand. It was super fun. We also took a drive to Boca Chica to scope out Starbase. Despite this, Will has somehow decided that Elon Musk is our imaginary friend, and refuses to believe he’s a real person. This is not helped by the fact that our favorite road trip game is pointing out every tiny shed or decrepit building along the road and saying, “Hey, look! It’s Elon Musk’s house!”

We took another road trip up to Yellowstone to hang out with my family. It was a very long drive, but everyone had a fantastic time, and the weather was gorgeous.

Another notable family memory from 2021 was getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Tom and I were both Team Moderna, and it kind of kicked our butts—Tom in particular got hit hard with the side effects. I still credit the copious amounts of chrysanthemum tea I drank for keeping me more or less functional post-jabs, but it’s possible I was just lucky. Dan had no averse effects on Team Pfizer Jr, for which we are very thankful. It’s been really nice to get back to more-or-less normal life this year, and we’re thankful for these life-saving gifts from God for helping make that possible.

So excite. So vax. So 5G

We wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Know the Novel 2021 Part 1 — Introduction

I’m super excited to participate in the lovely Christine Smith‘s blog linkup this year. Christine created the Know the Novel linkup for writers to get excited about each other’s NaNoWriMo projects and cheer each other on. Even though I’m not officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year, I would love to share a little bit of what I’m currently working on.


Yes, I know “Metamorphosis” is a lame title, but it’s all I got for now. Until recently I’ve just been calling it “the butterfly thing,” so be grateful we’ve got this much.

I actually attempted to use this story for NaNoWriMo last year, but life was so busy that even when I spent every free moment writing, I could barely scrape a thousand words or so–not nearly enough to make 50,000 words by the end of the month. Add in a road trip during the second week of November, and I just threw in the towel. So this year, I’m taking things easy. The story naturally follows the three-act structure, so I’m going to try to get through Act 1 during November. That will probably be something like 30,000 words, which I feel like is a more reasonable goal for this stage of life.

So let’s get to the questions!

What first sparked the idea for this novel?

This story has been running through my head in various forms for over a decade. I honestly can’t remember where all the ideas came from, but the moment that sparked it all occurred on a hike with my family. We were up Provo Canyon, hiking out of South Fork Park, and there were multiple swarms of yellow and black butterflies. There were so many that I started to feel a little creeped out (butterfly wings are beautiful, but insects and other creeping things give me the jibblies). In what was probably my first real “writer moment,” I asked myself, “In what circumstances would big groups of butterflies be a problem in a fantasy novel?”

Enter Marcus (the villain—more on him below) and his kaleidoscope of magically-modified butterflies.

Share a blurb (or just an overall summary!)

A quick glance at Nightwalker’s blurb (preorder here!) will tell you I’m not very good at writing blurbs. I definitely do not have a blurb, an elevator pitch, a tagline, or anything like unto it for this novel. So here’s my best attempt at a summary.

Imagine a world where humans and fairies coexisted for centuries, mutually benefitting from each other until something goes catastrophically wrong. Wars are fought, gifts are withdrawn, and humanity is technologically crippled and magically cursed. A magically gifted human child is prophesied to restore the world to its rightful state—and her older sister accidentally hands her over to the bad guy. Oops.

Luckily, Big Sister is the proactive sort, and she really wants to fix the problems she’s caused. She might just have to commit treason and turn her back on humanity to do so.

Where does the story take place? What are some of your favorite aspects about the setting?

Metamorphosis takes place in a pretty standard fairy tale kingdom. Go on, take a moment to groan. I’ll wait. I know the whole medieval European sword-and-sorcery setting has been overdone, but there’s a reason it’s so popular. Castles are friggin’ awesome.

The kingdom is called Kilona, and while I’m still hammering out worldbuilding details, it’s sort of a mixture of southern Italy and the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico, two places I really love. But my favorite aspect of the setting is actually the magic system. I’m really pulling in a lot of my (admittedly laughable) sCiEnCe background here, and we’ll see if I can actually pull it off.

Tell us about your protagonist(s)

Lots of legit authors are using Artbreeder to generate sweet images of their characters, or at least have found celebrity look-alikes. I’m still trying to figure out Artbreeder and I don’t really hold with celebrities, but I did use a website called Doll Divine to make laughably bad images of a few of my characters a few years back (thanks to Natalie for getting me hooked ages ago). So…there’s that. I tried to go back and make some that are less cringey, but alas, most of Doll Divine ran on Adobe Flash. RIP.


So innocent. So orange.

Sora is the main viewpoint character. She’s a hopeless romantic who doesn’t always think things all the way through. Sora is deeply interested in anything related to fairies and magic, and is curious to a fault. She loves her family and tries to think the best of everyone, and will do anything to fix her mistakes—even if it kills her.


Pieric is Sora’s older brother. Unlike Sora, he has no interest in or sympathy for fairies, and blames them for humanity’s current plight and for disfiguring their younger sister, Meri. Pieric occasionally has strange dreams that end up coming true, though he hides this from everyone but Sora because he doesn’t want to be associated with magic. He’s devastated when both his sisters disappear, and it’s anyone’s guess whether his visions or his fairy grudge will get him into more trouble.


A mysterious fairy who shows up to Sora’s house to give newborn Meri a baby blessing. She left a painful burn on Meri’s face and ran away, but Sora thinks there’s more to Liana’s actions than vindictive spite. When Meri is kidnapped, Sora hopes she can find Liana again.


The angry boi

Prince Kiro is the heir to the fairy throne. His father was captured and presumed dead in the fairy war, but Kiro believes he is alive, and refuses to take the throne until he knows for sure. He harbors a fierce antipathy toward humans, but will do anything for his people, including consorting with his enemies—like Sora.


The royal fairy doctor, and resident loveable dweeb of the crew. Bored with his cushy job, he passes the time trying to replicate magical effects using technology humans can use. He’s a pacifist by nature, but he volunteers to help Sora, seeing an unprecedented opportunity to study humans and see how they tick.

Who (or what) is the antagonist?

As mentioned above, the antagonist’s name is Marcus. Vengeful, ambitious, greedy, cunning, and a bit too suave with the ladies. Like most villains, he believes his actions to be just—he’s trying in his own way to restore humanity to its former glory, without the dependency on fairy magic. It’s just that his way is, well, horrifyingly evil.

What excites you the most about this novel?

The most exciting part is probably that I’ve been waiting to write it for so long. The plot has developed and changed dramatically over the years, but at its core it’s the same story that captivated me as a teenager. It feels so personal that it’s thrilling and terrifying to share with the world.

I also just love my characters to death ( literally??? Maybe??? Shhhh…don’t scare them). They’re going to be very fun to write, and I hope I can make them fun to read, as well.

Is this going to be a series? Standalone? Something else?

Standalone for now, but I have the vaguest inklings of a distant future sequel, and maybe some quick stories in between. Ask me again in a few years.

Are you plotting? Pantsing? Plantsing?

Oh man, I am SUCH a plotter. I’ve outlined and re-outlined this thing so many times. I’m hard at work preparing the final, official outline right now, and it’ll probably have about 20,000 words when I’m done.

Name a few unique elements about the story.

Ugh, I don’t know. Is anything truly unique these days? Some of the magical elements are probably a little different from the norm, although there’s a lot of fantasy out there. I’m sure I’m unknowingly ripping off someone’s ideas—probably a lot of someones. I’d like to think the interplay of musical, scientific, and spiritual aspects of the world are pretty distinct.

Really, the main thing that’s unique is probably my worldview seeping into the story. A lot of the ideas came about as I’ve been grappling with real-world ideas and issues that are important to me. Trying to weave them into the story without being preachy has been challenging, but stimulating. I’ll be interested to see how readers react.

Share some fun “extras” of the story (a song or full playlist, some aesthetics, a collage, a Pinterest board, a map you’ve made, a special theme you’re going to incorporate, ANYTHING you want to share!).

I do have a spotify playlist for this book. There aren’t any special meanings to the songs—they just sort of help me get in the mood when I’m writing.


Whelp, I’ve probably blathered enough vague nonsense for a while. Best of luck to all those attempting NaNoWriMo this month. Check back here next month for a progress update. And please check out everyone else’s projects in the Know the Novel linkup, because there’s some fabulous creativity going on.

There and Back Again: A Homeschool Holiday

(In case you can’t tell, we’ve got The Hobbit on the brain. I read it to the family on a recent road trip, and now Will begs me to let him watch the animated movie every day. He’s even started calling himself “Goblin Will.” Parenting win!)

Sometimes it feels like half the posts on this blog are just accounts of different ways I’ve tried and failed to educate Dan. But I suppose that makes sense, as that’s basically the essence of parenthood.

We decided to homeschool Dan last year for kindergarten. It was a wonderful experience, but we decided to put him back in public school this year. I thought I’d give a little account of our decision-making process and what our school days looked like, in case anyone else ever faces similar decisions (although I hope we’ll never have another global pandemic—this has been the lamest apocalypse ever).

Call to Adventure

Our story begins back in late 2019, when I started following Bethany Mandel on Instagram. Bethany homeschools her children using the Charlotte Mason method, and when I watched her Instagram Stories about their homeschool setup, I immediately wanted in on that action for my kids.

If you’re not familiar with Charlotte Mason already, she was an early 20th century British educator who believed that “children are born persons” and should be respected and educated as such. Her philosophy focuses on educating the whole child, spreading a feast of ideas instead of drilling facts, and reading “living books” instead of textbooks. I read the first two books in her education series and was blown away by her ideas on what a child’s education can look like. This planted a dangerous seed in my mind: what if we homeschooled our children?

Bear in mind, we never intended to homeschool. I went to public school, and for the most part, loved it. I liked my teachers, I loved seeing my friends everyday, and I did well enough for school to be a pleasant experience. Tom has cooler feelings toward the public school experience, but had no objection to our children attending. But as I read Charlotte Mason’s words on Christmas Eve, visions of poetry readings and nature study danced in my head.

I did some digging and found out that not only does Texas have full-day kindergarten (barf), but said kindergarten is not even mandatory. The idea of keeping Dan home for a year became more and more enticing, and even though we eventually decided to enroll him in the local public school, I now recognize these feelings as divine inspiration. I needed to be prepared for the events of 2020, and have a plan in place for Dan.

Crossing the Threshold

As we watched school websites and Facebook pages to figure out what school would look like in Fall 2020, I became more and more concerned. Distance learning sounded like a dumpster fire waiting to happen. Our school district was committed to in-person schooling, but it was unclear whether they would be taking any Covid precautions at all—or whether they would do any good. I felt leery about the fact that the district was supposedly committed to the health and safety of students and staff, but the administrators all went on a very non-socially-distanced retreat weeks before school started. It bothered me that they weren’t offering accommodations for high-risk students or their families, and that their response to parental concerns was, “You’re welcome to go to another school district or homeschool if you don’t like our system.” We had so little information about Covid back then, and I just didn’t feel I could trust these people with my son. With a newborn at home and uncertainty about Dan’s unique health situation (googling “coronavirus hydronephrosis” pulled up a concerning study from China in which only three children were hospitalized due to Covid: two with cancer, and one with hydronephrosis), the decision was easy: we would be homeschooling.

I decided on the Ambleside Online Year 1 curriculum based on four factors:

  1. It’s Charlotte Mason based.
  2. It’s free. Who doesn’t love free? I was surprised to learn how expensive homeschool curricula can be, so this was a big plus. We’re a big e-reader family, and most of the books were available on Project Gutenberg. It seemed like a perfect fit.
  3. I fell in love with the book list. My dad used to read Aesop’s Fables and Just So Stories to me before bed, and I was so excited to pass these stories on to Dan.
  4. It’s not designed by Jenny Philips (I know so many of you guys love The Good And The Beautiful, but after having to sing her songs every year in Young Women…I just don’t want her in charge of my children’s education. Let’s leave it at that.)

We didn’t do everything in Ambleside—we sort of unschooled for science and geography, and we never ended up doing artist study or folk songs. I started out following the classical music curriculum, but soon decided I’d rather familiarize the kids with my favorite pieces and composers than feign enthusiasm for Offenbach (who even cares about Offenbach?). So we did more Wagner, Johann Strauss, Camille Saint-Saenz at Halloween, Tchaikovsky at Christmas, and Beethoven. For math, I used Kate Snow’s Kindergarten Math with Confidence, since I’d been using her preschool math book and loved it. When we finished that, we started on Singapore Math and are still using it for extra math practice.

Every day we would start off with a prayer and a poetry reading. Then we would work on Recitation, wherein Dan (and sometimes Will!) would work on memorizing and beautifully reciting a poem. Over the course of the year they mastered “It Can Be Done” and “You Mustn’t Quit” by William J. Bennett, as well as Psalm 23. Toward the end of the year we started working on the Articles of Faith, but we didn’t get very far.

Next, I would turn on whatever classical piece we were studying and Dan would do about five minutes of copywork. I would write out a line from a poem or hymn on a whiteboard, and Dan would try to replicate it as neatly as he could (and usually embellish it somehow). Sometimes I would do a math activity with Will, or have him practice tracing letters in his Cars handwriting book.

After that was reading time. Dan and I would read a chapter of one of his books together, alternating paragraphs, and then he would narrate it back to me. This was probably the most challenging part of the school day. If Dan wasn’t paying enough attention, or if he was distracted by a wiggly Will or a crying Marie, he wouldn’t remember anything we read, which was frustrating for both of us. He improved dramatically over the course of the year, though, and we still use narration as a tool. The other night he narrated one of the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon, and I was super thrilled.

At this point, everyone needed a break, so I would get out some cookies and put Marie down for a nap. Then it was math time. I loved that Kindergarten Math with Confidence was open-and-go, so I would just have to gather some supplies and read the script. It was probably a little too easy for Dan, and we ended up skipping ahead quite a bit, but he would tell anyone who asked that math was his favorite subject.

Dan was very proud of these birds he drew for a math activity
Will often got to participate, too

Charlotte Mason was also big on handicrafts. While we didn’t do as much of this as I’d have liked (Lego counts, right?), we did learn a couple new skills.

Bread buddies
Making butter by hand is hard!
Practicing sewing skills on a gingerbread house ornament

All told, the school day would take about an hour and a half from start to finish, including breaks for snacks and feeding the baby. We would typically be done before lunch, and the kids would have the rest of the day to play together and read.

The Ordeal

Seems pretty idyllic, right? So why did we stop?

The first concern we had was that Dan clearly wasn’t getting enough social interaction. We joined an awesome nature playgroup, but seeing friends only once a week wasn’t enough. I have a lot of irons in the fire at home at any given time, so committing to more than one lengthy social activity per week was difficult.

2020 was a rough year for us, as for many others. We had a baby in April, and we moved from Southeast Texas to San Antonio in August. It was a series of huge adjustments for the whole family, and on top of that, I always have some postpartum mood issues during the first year of the baby’s life. At first, the homeschool routine helped everyone by providing structure and stimulation. But toward the end of the school year, we hit a breaking point. That hour and a half period overwhelmed me to the point that I dreaded getting up in the morning. I pared our homeschool routine down to the bare minimum: literally reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. It didn’t help.

Maybe I picked the wrong curriculum. Maybe we didn’t take enough breaks. Maybe I should have spaced the school day out more, instead of trying to get it all done before lunch. Maybe I should have just given Dan his reading assignments and chilled out instead of reading with him. Maybe we should have had school outside more often. There are a lot of maybes, but the bottom line was this: something had to give, and school was the easiest thing to outsource.

We’d made sure to move to neighborhood with a good elementary school, which had transitioned back from distance learning to in-person instruction. And as Covid data continued to accumulate, we never saw anything too concerning about school infections or hydronephrosis complications (and later found out that his hydronephrosis has improved so much that it’s almost undetectable on ultrasound), so we felt much safer sending Dan back to public school. With no small amount of disappointment, I enrolled him.

The Return

Dan took the decision like a champ. He’d seen enough of public school on TV that he had positive associations for it. Even before we’d decided to send him back, he and Will created classrooms out of Duplo and taught their toys history, math, and science.

It was definitely an adjustment to cut the apron strings at last. The first few weeks, Dan would come home happy but exhausted, then see what we’d been doing at home all day and declare that school was the worst and he wanted to be homeschooled again. But he’s settled into the routine, and things are going much better. He has a bunch of friends, and he seems to like his teachers. He’s really enjoying checking out whatever books he wants at the library. It’s unclear if he’s actually learning anything, but we’re doing our best to supplement at home.

First day of school picture

As for me, I have mixed feelings. For one thing, it’s a lot quieter at home for much of the day, which has been a huge relief. I’d forgotten how easy it was to just drag TWO tiny humans around everywhere. I’m starting to realize I’m a better mom if I outsource some things, which has to be better for everybody, even if it feels selfish to make decisions based on that fact.

That said, there are things I’m not super thrilled with about public school. Every day Dan comes home excited to tell me what he’s been doing on his school-issued iPad all day (barf). It kind of feels like I drove myself crazy to keep him from spending the entire school year glued to a screen, only for him to spend the next year glued to an even derpier screen. The Covid precautions they’re still taking are a joke, although they’ve backed down on mandatory masking (huzzah!). Kids only get playground time once a week, they don’t get to sit together at lunch, and if they leave their water bottles at home they just don’t get to drink anything for seven hours. We’ve already being subjected to a dumb school fundraiser—and they didn’t even sell chocolate or magazine subscriptions or anything. It was a pledge-based “fun run.” Listen—my tax dollars are already funding lame-o iPad time. If I want my kid to run laps, I make him do it at home for free.

We definitely miss the hours and hours of free time, the quality literature, and the element of beauty that homeschooling brought to our life. Also—and this is another selfish thing—Charlotte Mason moms are my PEOPLE. We’ve made so many awesome friends through homeschooling, and although Will, Marie, and I are still showing up to the playgroup meetings, I don’t know how I’m going to find people as weird as I am next time we move. In addition, lately it seems like whenever I find a new piece of media I really like—a podcast or a YouTube channel that really resonates with me—the hosts will invariably mention, “We homeschool our children using the Charlotte Mason method. And I’m like, “OF COURSE YOU DO!”

As with every other aspect of motherhood, there’s a lot of guilt associated with educating your children. Much of it is self-inflicted, but I’ve seen a lot of if perpetuated in the homeschooling community: “If you put your kids in public school, you don’t really love them, and they’re not going to love God.” That sort of thing. In a local homeschoolers’ Facebook group, I saw lots of comments to the effect of, “If you’re going to put your kid back in public school next year, don’t homeschool—just stick to distance learning. Don’t give them a taste of freedom and then take it away.” Dude. Not cool.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: If anyone else tried out homeschooling last year and didn’t love it, it’s okay. You’re not a bad mom. Everyone wants to do what’s best for their families, and that’s not always going to look exactly the same. It’s been helpful to remember that my parents are excellent, and my sister and I went to public school. Tom’s parents are excellent, and he and his siblings went to public school. Putting kids in public school is something that reasonable parents do all the time, and most kids turn out just fine.

If homeschooling ever becomes the right decision for our family again, I would love to give it another try. My heart tells me last year wasn’t the only experience we’ll ever have with homeschooling. But for now, I know Dan is a wonderful kid, and he can thrive anywhere. So we’ll see how this year goes.

I love these little people. So much.

Book Release: Nightwalker

Remember that time when I was like, “I’m gonna write a book someday!” And all you guys were like, “Who are you again?”

Well, I’m excited to announce that I wrote a book! And—even more surprising—it’s actually pretty good!

Nightwalker is a YA-ish spooky fantasy novel about faith, friendship, and running from ghosts through the desert. If you’re familiar with the noblebright genre (and you should be), it’s probably on the darker end of that. There are strong Christian themes, which also happens to be my love language. Here’s the blurb, for those of you who like blurbs.

Generations ago, brave colonists settled Milabel, unaware of the malicious Spirits lurking in the shadows, waiting to possess the bodies and minds of any who venture out after dark. Desperate to eradicate the evil in their midst, the church founded the Guardians of Virtue, a religious police force who burn innocents along with the possessed.

When Alec plays an ancient flute from a haunted canyon, his easy life as the governor’s son is upended. Unpredictable seizures paralyze his body and fill his mind with the screams of tormented Spirits. Betrayed by his father and pursued across Milabel by the ruthless Chief Guardian Vade, Alec searches for a way to liberate Milabel from the evil Spirits. But his curse is getting worse, and the voices in his head are calling for Nightwalker.

Maren thought the most dangerous thing she would ever do was help Alec escape from the Guardians. But when she hears ghostly voices after nightfall, it’s her turn to run. A Spirit named Anaru begs her to read his record, claiming his plan can save Milabel. But if Maren agrees, will she save Alec–or doom him?

Or, as my six-year-old son and alpha reader puts it, “It’s about a bunch of teenagers trying to stop ghosts.”

This book has been in the works, on and off, for the past five years (some of you may remember when I posted the teaser cover back in 2017). It was my NaNoWriMo novel back in 2016, and even though my life has been through the tumble-dry cycle of babies and floods and pandemics and moves, I keep coming back to this story and these characters. I’m so excited to share them with you.

Nightwalker is available for preorder and will be released on November 11, 2021. If you’re interested in an ARC, let me know. Thank you for your support!

We Don’t Want Any: An Appeal to Northside ISD

Several days before Dan started first grade, Northside ISD sent out an email informing us they were implementing a mask mandate. I have Feelingstm on the subject, which I emailed to the board of trustees. Normally I wouldn’t post something like this, but it’s probably the piece of writing I’ve put the most effort into in months (though my AP Language teacher would probably disapprove of both style and substance), and Tom really wanted me to. So here it is. Don’t hurt me.

To whom it may concern:

I am deeply disappointed to learn that Northside ISD is implementing a facemask mandate, in direct defiance of Governor Abbott’s ban. This is unscientific political theater, and I expect better from the adults I trust with my children. 

There is little scientific basis for requiring young children to wear masks in school. Children are at very low risk for COVID-19 complications. The CDC reported that the hospitalization rate for children aged 5-17 was .8 per 100,000 the week of August 7. Economist Emily Oster equates this level of risk to that of a vaccinated grandparent.  Studies have shown that the vast majority of children who contract the virus are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. All adults around these children can and should be vaccinated or otherwise take personal responsibility for their own health, so there is no reason to place this burden on students.

On the other hand, there are many compelling reasons why masks may be detrimental to young children’s well-being. Many young kids struggle to keep their masks on and keep them clean, and even those who have been conditioned to endure their discomfort may suffer from acne, eczema flare-ups, and breathing trouble. A 2018 study on mask use in operating rooms showed significant bacterial contamination after just two hours. 5- and 6-year-old students cannot be expected to remember to change their masks every two hours throughout the school day. Children with physical or learning disabilities will be disproportionately impacted by these measures. 

Furthermore, the psychological impact of masking on child development cannot be ignored. Young children need to see facial expressions for optimal emotional development. Masks are at best distracting and often anxiety-inducing–they certainly aren’t conducive to an optimal learning environment. Some children respond to this anxiety with increased mouth-breathing, which can lead to facial deformities

Children have suffered a disproportionate amount during the pandemic, having been cut off from friends, teachers, outdoor playgrounds, and many of the activities that make childhood worthwhile–all because of a disease which poses little to no risk to them. They suffer to make the adults around them feel a little better. My kids are very fortunate–they have parents, siblings, other family members, and friends who have the time and energy to provide for their developmental needs, and yet they have struggled since the pandemic started. Many children do not have the same advantages. As public educators, it is your duty to ensure that our children have the best education possible. This is not possible if they cannot see the faces of their teachers and classmates, are distracted by anxiety and claustrophobia from covering their faces, are breathing in mold spores and E. Coli all day, or are not breathing enough at all. 

My family has dutifully followed masking requirements since the beginning of the pandemic, and those of us eligible for vaccines have received them. Our children will be vaccinated when they are able. We are not anti-vaxxers, COVID-deniers, or conspiracy theorists. But given that vaccines are widely available and extremely effective against hospitalization and death, even from the delta variant, it is unethical and irresponsible to subject students to seven hours of unsanitary mask-wearing five days a week. I applaud Governor Abbott for the rational way in which he has handled the COVID-19 pandemic and fully support his mask mandate ban. NISD should rescind their mask mandate and allow parents to make their own decisions about their children’s health and safety, while teachers should be vaccinated. 

Thank you,
Elissa Nysetvold

Put Down the Palantir

I recently finished reading The Return of the King again. When I have a newborn, I need books that are familiar, comforting, and uplifting to keep the despair at bay, and The Lord of the Rings always delivers (along with another favorite series, The Stormlight Archive).

One thing that struck me in this readthrough was Denethor’s descent into the despair and madness that eventually led to his fiery demise. Contrary to what Peter Jackson would have you believe, Denethor isn’t just a creepy old man who sits around eating chicken and tomatoes while Middle-earth burns.

As Mordor prepares to assault Minas Tirith, Denethor is making his own preparations, gathering his allies and sending the women and children to safety. He may be overly proud, but he’s a true enemy to Sauron, sleeping in his armor to keep himself sharp enough to deal with the looming threat to the free world.

Instead of stubbornly ignoring the outside world, Denethor eerily
seems to know too much. His men describe him as “unlike other men: he
sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the
Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read
somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him.” And when Gandalf comes to rescue Faramir, Denethor reveals the truth: he has a palantir. And it’s that nifty, shiny, oversized marble that drives him to despair.

Gandalf laments, “[Denethor] was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which the Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind…Thus the will of Sauron entered into Minas Tirith.” Pippin confirms that Denethor left Faramir’s sickbed, and when he returned, he was “changed, old and broken.” Captain Beregond reports seeing a “strange light” in the Tower the night Faramir was brought home.

Does any of this sound familiar?

We have ubiquitous objects that show us only what others want us to see, often driving us to despair and depression. Our phones and computers deliver us valuable information about the world and the ones we love, but filtered through sensationalist news stories and whitewashed social media posts. These objects can bring evil into homes and spaces that are otherwise well-protected.

Tolkien may have written these books decades before this kind of technology was invented, but he was a smart dude. He even got the “strange light” right—the blue light on our phone screens that wreaks havoc on our circadian rhythms.

I imagine Denethor rushing up to the Tower, looking up his son’s symptoms on PalantirMD, scrolling through some sensationalized headlines, concluding that everything is truly hopeless, and deciding he might as well end it all before Sauron destroys everything. It’s a heartbreaking situation, not least because it could conceivably happen to us.

I’ll admit I’ve acquired a bit of a problem with my own palantir use in the past few years. How many sleepless nights have I spent with my phone, bending my thought this way and that, checking in on people I admire and friends who have lost their way, obsessively checking the NYT Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker, glancing over an endless stream of articles about how terrible the world is and how much worse it’s getting every day, trying to calm myself but feeling more and more anxious? It’s unhealthy and depressing—not to mention a colossal waste of time.

Modern prophets have counseled us against excessive use of technology. And a few years ago, President Russell M. Nelson invited the youth and women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to fast from social media, “and any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.” He promised that by doing so, we could help gather scattered Israel. Aside from being a refreshing spiritual experience for many, this invitation sent a clear message: not only will wasting less time on the internet make us feel better, but it frees us up to actually serve people and accomplish some good in the world. Elder David A. Bednar offers two questions to help guide our use of technology:

  1. Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?
  2. Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capcity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?

I plan to use these questions to think about how I’m using technology, and make an effort to “put down the palantir” and do something productive. I invite you to do the same.

Why I Pulled My Kid Out of Preschool

What? Two blog posts in two weeks? What is this madness?

I’ve gotten a few questions about why we pulled Dan out of preschool. It still feels like a weird decision sometimes, particularly because it happened just as most of my friends were busy signing their kids up or getting them onto waiting lists. Anyway, I thought I’d write the story here and clear things up.


About a year and a half ago, we decided to put Dan in the local Montessori preschool. We’d heard great things about the school, and I’m pretty on board with the Montessori method. Also, between Harvey aftermath and taking care of two tiny children, I was a bit of a basket case and needed a break. All this to say it felt like a good idea at the time.

Even so, I felt terrible about shoving my firstborn child out into the cruel, uncaring world at such a tender age—and from the way Dan cried when I dropped him off, he clearly felt the same way. But I promised myself I’d volunteer in his classroom frequently to assuage my guilt, and the other parents assured me that in a few weeks Dan would run in happily without even saying goodbye.

Neither of these ended up happening.

Cute picture from a school newsletter

I was able to volunteer a few times, but it was never going to be a regular thing. The teachers (understandably) didn’t want an energetic William running around and messing up the well-ordered environment, which meant I had to find a babysitter every time I wanted to come. The teachers dropped hints that I wasn’t really being a team player, but from the questions I got (“When’s your next day off work?” “Can’t your mom watch the little one today?”) it sounded like our situation was somewhat unusual. I did try my best to help out in other ways whenever I could, but my inability to spend time in the classroom was a constant, low-level source of guilt.

When you bring a William to a preschool activity, he ends up pants-less in the rabbit pen.

As for Dan, he eventually stopped crying when I dropped him off, but he compensated by crying at home. Every day was a struggle to get him out the door. He seemed happy enough when I picked him up, and often had some fun stories to tell, but there were little indications that something was wrong. He seemed terrified of the other kids’ playground behavior. He had a potty training regression. He developed nervous habits like biting his fingers. As time went on, he started having tummy-aches every day, which I’ve since learned is a symptom of separation anxiety in children.

Sad face because he thought I was leaving

Dan missed a lot of school days due to sickness, and I wondered if he just had too much fun at home. To try to solve this problem I staged a very regimented, Montessori-style school day for him while he was sick. I tried to make it as close to his actual school routine as possible. It backfired spectacularly: for the next week he was begging me to let him stay home and do “Mom school” instead.

Mom School in action

At the time we figured Dan was just a little too young to be in school every day. Still, we decided to stick it out. After all, what good would it do to pull him out just as he became emotionally ready to handle it?

Well, a lot of good, actually.

A couple things tipped the scales for us. The first was the homework situation. Each week Dan would come home with a folder full of packets of worksheets. At first I thought, “Aww, that’s cute,” and would occasionally have him work on some of them. But I never cared enough to make sure he got them done and returned to school in a timely manner. After a while, I started getting increasingly direct messages from his teachers about making sure he turned everything in so it could be graded.

To be fair, this is like 3 weeks’ worth of homework. But still.

Eventually the homework situation got resolved—or so I thought. A few weeks later I came to the school and found that all the kids were having circle time except Dan, who was sitting in the corner doing a worksheet with a teacher standing over him. When I confronted her, she sheepishly tried to explain what Dan was doing and asked if he could bring the worksheet home to finish. I said no and took him home. I’m still angry when I think about it.

I think because Dan is a pretty bright kid, his teachers just assumed he had a five- or six-year-old’s attention span. Heck, I’ve fallen into that trap myself. I knew he was doing some lessons with the older kids, but I hadn’t realized they were putting that much pressure on him. The thing is, we didn’t put him in preschool because we wanted him to learn anything. We just wanted him to goof off with other kids and have the kind of fun, preschool-y, sensory-type experiences that I’m too lazy to provide him with at home. And clearly that that wasn’t happening.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came after Dan had missed almost a month of school due to sickness (also because of school). He showed up just in time for Mother’s Day, which was actually pretty nice. I found a babysitter for Will and Dan and I got to eat muffins together.

The next day, however, they had a Donuts with Dad party. The invitation said that the party was supposed to end half an hour before school started, which I took to mean it was optional—a fun party for the kids whose moms couldn’t make it to Mother’s Day, perhaps. That was how I pitched it to Tom, who had an important work meeting he didn’t want to miss. I told him that was fine and brought Dan to school a little late the next morning, hoping Donuts with Dad would be over.

Reader, it was not over. Dads milled about left and right, eating donuts while Dad-themed music played. Dan’s teacher looked at me in horror and asked where his father was. I told her he had to work. She rolled her eyes and asked me to stay. In hindsight I should have stayed—or better yet, taken Dan with me—but I was already running late to a dentist appointment, so I left, feeling awful about the whole thing. A few hours later, I signed out a very distressed Dan under the judgmental, disapproving eyes of the staff. Dan was super mad at Tom for the rest of the day, and we spent a lot of time reminding him that his dad loves him very much and had in fact taken him out for ice cream the previous weekend.

We’d had enough. Preschool was making everybody miserable. Even with everyone in our family sick and on antibiotics (two rocephin shots for me!), the previous month had been happier and less stressful than everyday preschool life. The next morning I sent the school a terse message saying that Dan would not be returning, and to please let me know how many service hours I needed so I could pay the fee for not completing them. I ignored multiple requests to come in for one final parent-teacher conference, and that was it. Dan was officially a preschool dropout.

I took this picture on Dan’s first official day of freedom.

There was definitely an adjustment period once Dan was home again. For the first few weeks he threw a tantrum every time we needed to leave the house, whether for groceries or a fun activity at the museum. He was so desperate to play with his toys and generally be a little kid. And Will had to break the habit of eating Dan’s leftover breakfast cereal (he’d become a sneaky little scavenger while Dan was at school). But eventually everyone calmed down, and we’re in a good routine now. Dan is much less stressed out, and everyone is happy (most of the time).


I’ve occasionally felt bad that Dan isn’t getting “socialized” properly. But after reading Charlotte Mason’s Home Education, I feel much better about the whole thing:

The clash and sparkle of our equals now and then stirs up to health; but for everyday life, the mixed society of elders, juniors and equals, which we get in a family, gives at the same time the most repose and the most room for individual development. We have all wondered at the good sense, reasonableness, fun and resourcefulness shown by a child in his own home as compared with the same child in school life.

This is definitely true for Dan. He gets plenty of “clash and sparkle” with his friends at church (not to mention his brother), and I love that he’s able to carry on decent conversations with adults as well as other kids. I think he’s going to be just fine.

With all this said, I’m definitely not against preschool, or even this particular school. Plenty of people love it, and they do some great stuff there. Now that he’s in a happier state, Dan looks back on some of the activities and his preschool friends with fondness (except that one jerk kid; friggin’ [name redacted]).

And I get it—it’s annoying to deal with parents who don’t go with the flow. But the flow just didn’t work for Dan, and that’s all there is to it. Pulling him out of preschool and keeping him home this year was definitely the right decision, and I’m glad we made it.

I just have to remember that every time I bring both kids to my doctor’s appointments.