December 31, 2007

From both sides now

Last photo for 2007

The last light of the last day of 2007 disappearing from the sky in front of my home.

Party like it's 1969

It was such a glamorous holiday in those days. I sat on the staircase in my pajamas, clutching my Raggedy Ann doll and peeking around the wall to watch the women as they came in. They shook snow from their hair and shed dark winter coats to reveal long dresses that shimmered in the lights from the Christmas tree. The men carried musical instruments in dark cases, stashing them over near the piano. We kids, hiding shyly upstairs with our own special New Year's Eve treats, listened to the polite grown-up talk that moved from living room to the kitchen. We could hear the clink of ice as they made drinks and the rustle of bags as my mother refilled bowls of chips or pretzels.

New Year's Eve parties began late and ended in the early hours of the morning, and we kids were supposed to be sleeping, but of course, we weren't. Some of the grown-ups, coming upstairs to use the upstairs bathroom, stopped to say hello. Picnic Mother, whom we knew very well from camping trips and picnics, looked the most glamorous. Thin and blonde, she wore a sophisticated black dress that looked glittery in the bedroom light. Hyper Generous Woman stopped in, full of chatter, and she asked us if we needed anything, since we were too shy to go down amongst the grown-ups.

Of course, as soon as Trumpet Player, who was married to Picnic Mother, arrived, the music began. My father and his friends jammed most of the evening, taking a break at midnight to join in the countdown and kiss their wives. My mother served a full meal after midnight, the traditional meal of ham, baked beans, potatoes, salad, and bread. We kids had eaten earlier, but we had a special treat saved for midnight: a frozen cream pie, which we all thought was the height of luxury. I fell asleep, eventually, listening to jazz and swing, all the old standards, coming through the floorboards and up the staircase, soothing and familiar music to begin the new year with

December 30, 2007

Out of his teens

Birthday candles

By the time First Extra had gotten out of work and driven to our house, we'd already gathered near the fire for the candle ceremony. There were thirteen of us, my own family and some extras, and I'd already passed out the beeswax candles that are made at the monastery. Boy in Black had settled in the comfy chair, with With-a-Why on one side of him, balanced on the arm of the chair, and Math Kid on the other. Sweet Funny Extra had pulled over the wooden rocking chair and was busily destroying his candle. Shaggy Hair Boy and Quick sat on the floor, near the oak bench that we use as a coffee table, while I found a spot on the couch between my daughter and my husband.

It was First Extra's last few hours as a teenager.

We've known him since third grade, and almost from the start, he's been part of the family. As we went around the circle, each person who held a candle said what they liked about him. Boy in Black, who knows him the best, kept chiming in with funny anecdotes. We all know the stories by now, but it's tradition to tell again crazy things that have happened over the years. We heard again about the time he vomited on the way to the Weird Guy Who Does Mostly Parodies concert, and the time he came with us camping in the mountains on a weekend that got very cold and we had only three blankets for all of us, and the time he broke our sliding glass door when he was golfing in the backyard, and the time he was so busy talking that he didn't watch where he was going and walked right into a sign.

Film Guy arrived halfway through the ceremony and joked that he'd been late on purpose in hopes of missing the whole thing, but then he pulled up a kitchen chair and joined the circle. In the dimness, I couldn't see any of the faces, just the flickering of the candles, and the coloured lights from the Christmas tree behind Boy in Black. During pauses in the conversation, I could hear the crackling of the fire. But there weren't many pauses: teasing remarks, funny quips, and laughter filled the spaces between sincere compliments, affectionate insults, and rambling anecdotes.

Then we watched him open his present. Boy in Black's method of wrapping a present usually includes any cardboard boxes we have out in the garage, a number of random objects, and a whole lot of duct tape. The process of creating the package, it seems, is far more important than the gift itself. Each item First Extra pulled out of the box was stranger than the last: a black glove, some packaging straw, a football, part of a drill, an old boot. It was well past midnight by the time we finished the candle ceremony and the unwrapping of the traditional gift. And the boy we've known all these years was no longer a teenager.

December 28, 2007

Broken

Broken

Self-portrait on a grey winter day
as the year 2007 nears the end.

December 27, 2007

Outside

Winter

The past few weeks have been filled with holiday parties, with warmth and colour and food. It's traditional here in Snowstorm region to wear bright red to Christmas parties: red sweaters, red dress shirts, red Santa hats, and fancy velvet red dresses for little girls. Sometimes a rebel (or a redhead) might wear bright green instead, or bright blue. Guests become decorations at holiday parties, their bodies creating swirls of colour as they mingle, moving targets for little kids who were given Nerf dart guns by a childless aunt. Every house we've visited has had a Christmas tree glittering with red and gold, with shiny ornaments in bright colours. Our living room has been deliciously warm, with a fire going almost constantly. The kids —without the annoying distraction of school — have been jamming at all hours of day and night. The holidays have been crowded and noisy, filled with talking and laughter and remote control helicopters that zoom about the living room and dive bomb unsuspecting parents.

But outside, snow covers the landscape. The colours are muted and subtle, the greys, blues, and browns of winter. Misty mornings paint bare tree branches with white. When I drove to the grocery store to buy large quantities of food, I passed fields of glittery white, frost-tipped phragmites waving in the cold wind, and pine trees bending under the weight of icy snow. When I stopped near the canal to take a short walk, I could hear almost nothing, just the sound of snow crunching under my boots. The air smelled pure, cleansed by the swirling snow. I spent a few moments just breathing in the quiet scene before returning to my noisy household.

December 26, 2007

Visions of popcorn balls danced in their heads

Long winter nap

The last few days have been crowded and noisy, filled with family and Christmas traditions. My youngest sister and I, with the help of Dandelion Niece and Russian Girl, revived the tradition of fishing behind the couch for popcorn balls, which was a huge success although it caused an endless number of off-colour jokes. Teenagers are certainly different than little kids when it comes to these cherished traditions! Urban Sophisticate Sister was thrilled although somehow not surprised to get a whole box of black socks. Word Yahtzee, Fluxx, and Settlers of Catan were the new games this season. As usual, my boys got a new supply of t-shirts, mostly black. Shaggy Hair Boy's favorite reads, "Just Say No to High Fructose Corn Syrup."

Twenty of us gathered at my parents' house yesterday for an early dinner, for more talking and eating and another few rounds of Word Yahtzee. We watched a videotape the kids had made in the year 1999, everyone laughing and screaming above the sound. By late afternoon, everyone was tired. When we returned home, bringing with us the bag of popcorn balls that no one wanted to eat, I built a fire, and soon the teenagers sprawled on the couch and chair were participating in another tradition: the long winter nap.

December 25, 2007

Christmas Self-portrait

Shiny

Urban Sophisticate Sister: What are you doing?
Me: Taking a self-portrait.
Urban Sophisticate Sister (leaning in to get into the picture): Oh, that's clever.
Red-haired Sister: The round surface will make you look all weird and distorted.
Urban Sophisticate Sister (pulling away from the photo shoot): Um, yeah.
Red-haired Sister: And your face will be all red.
Me: But I think it's a traditional shot for bloggers.
Me: So I have to take it anyhow.

December 24, 2007

Thankful

Christmas Eve is a relaxed day in our home. The kids all slept late, and my husband and I stayed in bed until nearly 11 am. Then my daughter and Boy in Black went out to do a few errands while I began piling into laundry baskets everything that needs to be taken to my parents' house tonight: food, gifts, candy, and a box of candles. My husband and I made a quick visit to my mother-in-law to bring her a new red sweater she can wear tomorrow. Snow was beginning to fall as we drove home.

My kids are busy making the usual gifts they give their grandparents: chore coupons, to be redeemed any time my parents need a teenager to help with anything from building a dock to figuring out computer software. My daughter and I are about to wrap a few presents that were delivered earlier by the UPS truck. With-a-Why is playing the piano, and Shaggy Hair is taking a shower.

In a few minutes, we'll drive a few miles over the snowy roads to join the rest of the family at my parents' house, where we'll spend the evening. We'll crowd around my mother's small kitchen table to eat veggies and chocolate and pizza, and we'll gather in groups and pairs for conversations. We'll observe all the usual Christmas traditions, plus a top-secret one that my sister and I revived this year, with the help of Dandelion Niece and Russian Girl, an old tradition that left every surface in my kitchen sticky. At the end of the evening, we'll crowd into the living room by the tree to light candles and talk about what we are thankful for.

Candle ceremony

Random, anonymous family members during last year's candle ceremony.

December 23, 2007

Auld acquaintance

Our home was filled last night, with family, mostly, and extra kids, and some friends we've known for years. I made the same food I make every year, big pots of chili, with rice to go with it, with healthy finger foods like cut-up veggies, hummus and pita bread, cheese and crackers. Since we remove the chairs from the kitchen area for the party, I serve only food that can be eaten standing up. We have this party on the Saturday before Christmas each year, and when it falls close to Christmas, as it did this year, the whole extended family is often able to attend, even those coming in from out of town.

Luckily, family and friends are used to the tradition of being crowded together. No one seems to mind eating while standing in the hallway, or sitting on the staircase. I saw Monking Friend and Nurse Friend happily talking and eating while standing in the laundry room, next to hampers of clothes and piles of boots. Since it's hard to maneuver in a crowded home, I give family members jobs to do: my father is in charge of putting logs on the fire, and my mother's job is to keep making new batches of rice.

Spouse, as is his tradition, gathered a group of people to practice some Christmas Carols, put on some Santa hats, and then head outside to go door-to-door singing carols. Tie-dye Brother-in-law nudged me. "Hey, that's what you need for your blog. Naked carollers!" He himself was quite willing to strip off his clothes, but his Jewish heritage and his own beliefs about religion prevent him from singing Christmas Carols, or wearing a Santa hat while posting naked for a blog photo.

We had other music in addition to the singing. In order to make space in the living room, Boy in Black had moved the drum set, amps, and guitars to a bedroom upstairs, where a group of teenagers jammed most of the night, despite being ridiculously cramped. The piano stayed downstairs, of course, so we had piano music in the living room. With-a-Why's version of Vince Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy was in demand, of course. My brother played the piano for a while and then With-a-Why, Shaggy Hair, and Quick all jammed onto the piano bench to try a few numbers together. As the evening grew later, my father, my brother, and Boy in Black played together (clarinet, guitar, and piano) and we persuaded Drama Niece, who has a fantastic voice, to sing a few songs.

By midnight, the older folks had said their goodbyes and the traditional "post-party" was in full swing. Teenagers and young people finally got the comfy couch and chair by the fire, where they could talk and eat leftover food. Spouse began piling plates and bowls into the dishwasher, while I put away any perishable food. When we went to bed, the kids were clearing the table for some kind of card game. This morning, every room is filled with bodies wrapped in blankets and quilts, sleeping soundly.

Trio

The musicians in the photo are my father, my brother, and my oldest son, Boy-in-Black.

December 21, 2007

Frozen

Frozen

I left the house early this morning to run a few errands before a busy day of cooking and cleaning. Warm air moving across the snow-covered fields had created a mist that was coating tree branches with ice. I stopped on a road near my house and got out of the car to take a quick photo. The sun was just beginning to shine through the mist. I breathed in the moist air and looked out across the quiet, empty fields. The snow, which had a crusty, frozen layer on the top, crunched under my boots.

I heard a hum behind me, as a car slowed down and then pulled up next to me. I turned.

"Are you okay?" a man called out from inside his car.

"Just taking a photo, " I said, waving my little point-and-shoot camera at him.

He nodded, looking a bit incredulous, and kept driving. I took another moment to enjoy the stillness of the winter morning, but then got back into my car before another worried neighbor could stop to check on me.

December 20, 2007

Hearth

Hearth

Late this afternoon, my husband and I went to the wholesale club and then the grocery store, buying huge quantities of food. The teenagers unloaded the boxes and bags and big containers, including a jar of salsa that left a splattering of red on the snow when Boy in Black dropped it on the icy path. Tomorrow, I'll be cooking while the rest of the family cleans in preparation for holiday festivities.

The extended family begins arriving tomorrow night, and by Saturday, they will all be gathered here for a holiday party, along with a crowd of long-time friends. For the next week, everyone will spend their time going back and forth amongst my house, my parents' house, and Blonde Sister's house. On Sunday, Urban Sophisticate Sister and I are working on a top secret project in my kitchen; we'll be letting Dandelion Niece and Little Russian Girl help us, after we swear them to secrecy. (Little Russian Girl, who is one of Red-haired Sister's extras, often joins us for Christmas, but she needs a new pseudonym because she has gotten very tall.) And on Monday, we will gather at my mother's for Christmas Eve.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying having my kids home, my own kids and my extras, all of us just hanging out in front of the fire. My husband's vacation began this morning, so now the whole family is officially in vacation mode. On the piano, With-a-Why has been practicing his favorite Christmas song, Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" over and over again. It's one of the jazz numbers from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, the music in the scene where everyone dances crazily, and no matter how many times I hear it, I have the urge to get up and dance like Lucy or Snoopy or Pigpen.

The kids have been building a ramp of snow in front of the house, perfect for flying down in big inner tubes. Film Guy and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter have been watching movie clips on her laptop, trying to decide what they want to go see. My daughter has discovered that our big male cat, Trouble, is scared of the sound her stiff winter coat makes, and she keeps demonstrating this phenomena to everyone who comes into the house. ("Watch!" she'll say, and then do this weird dancing motion, jerking her arms to make maximum noise until the cat freaks out and runs off. Her brothers find the weird motions more amusing than the cat's reaction.)

Despite the busyness of the week, I've had time to sit in the big comfy chair by the fire with a cup of hot tea, where I can listen to the fire crackling, With-a-Why's piano music, the joking and talking of the gang on the couch, and the thuds of snow hitting against the front windows as Shaggy Hair Boy works on the snow ramp.

December 19, 2007

Invisible

I often ask my students to suspend reality in the classroom. For example, putting our desks into a circle is impossible because my fall classroom doesn't have desks: we have chairs and awkward rectangular tables. But I tell them to pretend that the weird rectangle arrangement is a circle, and they oblige.

In September, I was handing out index cards for a collaborative writing exercise, and through some kind of slip of the tongue, I referred to them as the invisible cards.

"The index cards are invisible?" said Curly Red Hair. "Cool."

For the rest of the semester, we acted as the index cards were invisible. When I'd hand a card to a student, I'd put it down very carefully and say, "I'm putting a card here in the left corner of the table," and the student would run her fingers over the top of the table until they met the edge of the card, "Okay, I've got it." If I accidentally set the pile of cards down, I'd make students help me search until we found them.

But once the cards were written on, we decided, they became visible. That was the rule.

One day before class, we were talking about setting things up for final projects. Skinny Kid said he wanted to use PowerPoint. I remembered that I needed to bring the cord so that my students could use the projector so I wrote a note to myself on my hand. I often use my palm as a memo pad, since I tend to lose little slips of paper. And it gives me a good deadline: I have to complete the item on my to-do list before it washes off.

I was talking to Skinny Kid about his title when Red Curly Hair said to me, "Are you feeling invisible today?"

I looked at her in surprise. I'd gotten an email earlier that day that did in fact make me feel invisible. How could she possibly know? Was I that easy to read?

Before I even answered, she laughed at my look of astonishment. "You're writing on yourself, " she said.

Skinny Kid looked up from his paper and nodded seriously. "I can see you now."

We moved quickly to another topic, but the more I thought it about, I decided that my students are right. When I feel invisible, writing is what I do to make myself appear again.

December 18, 2007

The weather outside

Resting

On a deadend county road, snow stays pure and white. When I go out to shovel the driveway, I cut into beautifully glistening drifts and toss soft chunks of snow into piles, working until the driveway has white walls on both sides. After a big snowstorm, every road, driveway, and path acquires these walls, making it seem like we live in some kind of magical play fort. Few kids can resist turning those walls into snowforts, complete with tunnels to crawl through and secret places to hide.

Last winter, a knee injury (possibly the most embarrassing sports injury in the history of sports) kept me indoors. I missed shoveling snow. Yesterday it felt good to go outside, bundled against the cold, trudging into snow past my knees. Our driveway is long, but of course, I have a houseful of teenagers — unlimited labor. By the time, I was beginning to get tired, Shaggy Hair Boy and Boy in Black had joined me, and they worked until the cars were clear and the driveway scraped down to the bottom layer of ice.

On a snowy day, the outside world is muffled and quiet. With my head wrapped in fleece, I couldn't hear much of anything as I plunged the shovel into new snow and tossed it atop the pile. Those soft piles of snow made a nice resting place when I decided to take a break and just watch my kids work. Fresh snow confirms to your body when you flop into it; no piece of furniture could be as comfortable as a snow drift.

Shoveling snow gives me a satisfying feeling of accomplishment: the driveway looked different when we were done, and the car had been freed so that I could go to the grocery store. When we came stomping into the house, we shook snow off our bodies, dripping water everywhere, and crowded near the fire to get warm.

That's Shaggy Hair Boy taking a break in the photo.

Give us this day

Stirring

My blog will be three years old by the end of this month. I've written more than a thousand posts. I've written memes, I've done airport blogging, and I've written about numerous blogger meet-ups. I've done cat blogging, dog blogging, and snake blogging. I've even posed nude for the blog.

But readers keep pointing out the one thing I've never done. I've never posted a recipe.

Readers have been clamoring for the secret behind my healthy bread. Well, I might be exaggerating that just a little. I think a total of one reader asked me for the recipe. But you know what they say: for every reader who actually writes an email, there are 37 readers who thought about it.

This recipe came from a book that I no longer own. I never knew the title of the book because I bought it at a garage sale and the cover was ripped off. I've changed some of the ingredients because I'm incapable of following a recipe the way its written. I don't even remember what the original recipe was called, except that I think it had the word oatmal in the title. But my family calls it healthy bread. Because it's relentlessly healthy. It contains no fat, no refined sugar, no oil. And the most peculiar thing about it is that all of my kids and my husband like to eat this bread. My husband, it is true, likes to slather his slice of bread with butter, which completely destroys the whole healthy concept, but everyone in the house will eat the bread when I make it. Two loaves last less than 24 hours in this house, so I have to make it pretty often.

The first part is quite simple. I use 4 cups of rolled oats, 2 cups of water, and one container (12 fl oz) of frozen apple juice concentrate. I dump this all in a big mixing bowl and stir in a whole bunch of raisins. Then I cover the bowl with a plate to keep out all the cats in the house, and let it sit for at least an hour. That helps the oatmeal get soggy.

A few hours later, when I wander into the kitchen to get a snack, I notice the bowl on the counter and think to myself, "Oh, right, I was making healthy bread." At this point, I've usually lost the urge to bake anything, but since I've got this bowl of soggy oatmeal, I'm committed.

So I combine 2 and 2/3 cups whole wheat flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, and 2 tablespoons cinnamon. I mix this together, and then mix it with the wet stuff, until I end up with a big bowl of dough that is about the texture of cookie dough. I divide it in half.

The pans I use are nine-inch round pans, which I grease lightly. After I shape the two rounded loaves, I take a knife and slash each into 4 parts. I bake these at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, and then 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Because of all the cinnamon, the bread makes the whole house smell nice while its baking.

Here's the most important part. When the bread is done, I break each loaf into four pieces and then wrap each piece tightly in aluminum foil — while the bread is still hot. Even though I risk burning my fingers every time I do this, it's important to lock in the moisture because the bread doesn't have any oil or fat to make it moist. The bread has to be kept wrapped tightly in the foil until it's time to eat it because it will dry out really fast.

Healthy bread is a good recipe to make if you live in a busy household with small children because each stage only requires 3 ingredients and can be accomplished in less time than it takes for the kids to notice that you are no longer giving them your attention. It's fairly bland, flavored only by cinnamon, apple juice, and raisins, which means that most kids will eat it. And it is, of course, relentlessly healthy.

That's my youngest son, With-a-Why, in the photo.

December 16, 2007

Paper chains and fishing poles

Tradition

We joke in my family that you have to be careful about doing anything two years in a row. Because once it's been done twice, well, then it becomes a tradition. And my extended family, which includes four siblings, are big keepers of tradition.

When I was growing up, we had many holiday traditions, some of them kind of arbitrary. For example, on the day we went to cut down a Christmas tree, my mother would always have chili for supper. Her reasoning was simple: she could make the chili ahead of time, and when we came home, cold from tramping around in the woods looking for the perfect tree, supper would be ready. As a kid, I didn't even particularly like chili, but I would have been upset if she had made something different. Family traditions provide stability for a child, providing cues as important as leaves changing color in the fall or the first snowfall of the winter or the first green sprouting in spring.

The Christmas chain was another tradition. We kids would work on it together, usually at a card table set up in front of the big picture window, and make it as long as we could, using all the available construction paper we had. Unfortunately, the stacks of construction paper at our house always seemed to be weird colours like brown and purple — all the primary colors long since used up for school projects and such. One year we had no construction paper when the urge to make a chain came over us, and so we took white lined writing paper, colored it on both sides with red and green crayon, and made a chain out of that. I can remember thinking that the soft colours were quite pretty.

Back in the day, making a paper chain took patience. The technique was to take a strip of paper, swipe it across a shared pool of glue, insert the link into the chain, and then hold the link together until it dried. I don't know if staplers hadn't been invented yet, or we just didn't have one. For that matter, often we didn't have glue. The desire to make a Christmas chain usually came on the first snow day, which was never a planned event, and often we'd be out of glue, since it got used up so quickly on any project that involved glitter. But Blonde Sister would make glue out of flour and water, mixing them into a sticky paste. The flour-and-water glue was a sadly inferior product which meant that links on the Christmas chain were always popping open when we'd go to hang it up.

As a kid, I especially liked any tradition that involved candles. It used to be my job to set the table at night, and during Advent, my mother had a centerpiece on the table that had two red candles in it. Having those candles lit during supper was a big deal to me, a reminder that Christmas was coming. We kids would fight to see who got to put the candles out, especially after someone taught us the method of licking our fingers and then just grasping the end of the wick firmly to let the flame splutter out.

When I was young, my siblings and I would spend Advent making homemade gifts for my parents. We'd decorate a cardboard box and try to fill it with gifts. My siblings used to make fairly artistic wall hangings or things like that, but my talents were limited mostly to felt bookmarks, homemade candles, and poems. But of course, these gifts themselves became traditions, and my mother would always claim loyally that she could always use another bookmark, candle, or poem. On Christmas Eve, we'd have my parents sit in the living room, dim except for the Christmas tree lights, and we'd go get the special box, and carry it down with great ceremony. We'd be carrying lit candles and singing, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," a song chosen mostly because it's the carol at the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. (Have I mentioned that watching Charlie Brown was yet another tradition?)

My youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, who is nine years younger than I am, and whose first pseudonym (given to her by Kindergarten Friend) was Grubby, used to share a bedroom with me, and she and I came up with some of our own holiday traditions, including digging up a little pine tree each year and putting it on top of our chest of drawers. But our favorite tradition, the highlight of Christmas Eve in our minds, was the fishpole tradition.

We'd plan way ahead of time. We'd collect the round cardboard containers that orange juice concentrate comes in, washing them carefully, letting them dry, and hiding them away in our room. We'd take a whole day to make popcorn balls, too, using a recipe that my friend Outdoor Girl had given me. (The recipe called for light karo syrup, and for some reason, that was always hard to find. I still have the urge to buy it whenever I see it in a grocery store.) The most fun part of making the popcorn balls was the moment when we'd have to smear butter all over our hands, dip them into the hot gooey mess of popcorn and syrup, and work frantically to shape the balls before they cooled.

A few days before Christmas, we'd go the bulk food section of the White Guy Grocery Store and buy all kinds of hard candy and individually wrapped chocolates. We'd lock everyone out of our room so they wouldn't find out our secret project (which of course wasn't very secret since we did the exact same thing every year), and spread the candy in piles on the bed, dividing it up equally, and filling the orange juice concentrate containers, which we'd decorated, turning them into holiday party favors that looked, we thought, like something you might buy at a very fancy store.

On morning of Christmas Eve, we'd make a fishing pole out of a baton or a tent pole or a golf club or whatever we could find that year. We'd tie a rope on the end, yarn if we had it, or an old jump rope one year. Then that evening, after all the other traditions had been done, we'd announce that it was time for the fishing game. I recall that Red-haired Sister would always obligingly act excited about the event. We'd pull the couch out from the wall, and both hide behind the couch, crouched down with our bag of goodies. The rest of the family each got two turns at the fish pole. We'd trained them by now. They'd let the rope dangle behind the couch, wait patiently while we tied on a popcorn ball or container of candy, and then when they felt the tug, they'd pull up their present, and pretend to be surprised.

It turned out that no one in my family actually likes popcorn balls, but of course, they were a tradition so we made them every year. We were all relieved when Blond Brother-in-law married into the family because he would eat the popcorn balls and say that he liked them.

Many of the traditions that began when I was a child have morphed into other traditions. When my extended family gets together at my parents' house on Christmas Eve, we have to start at about 3 pm in order to get all the traditions in before bedtime. And then we all return to my parents' house the next day for a big meal and more traditions. One of my favorite traditions, for which I will take full credit, is the candle ceremony during which we each light a candle and say something we are thankful for.

My kids seem to understand the importance of traditions. My daughter is 21 years old now, but she spent time this month happily making a paper chain with With-a-Why. They've changed the tradition a bit — they buy red and green paper so that the chain is Christmassy looking, and they use staplers instead of glue — but of course, each new generation is allowed to make changes to a tradition. And as soon as I have grandchildren, you can bet I'm bringing back the fishing pole game.

The boy in the photo is With-a-Why, of course, and the cat is Gretel.

December 15, 2007

Scrooge in the Twenty-First Century

Sliding to a stop

Conversation in the car on the way to the orthodontist.

Me: How are you liking A Christmas Carol so far?
With-a-Why: Well, the beginning was weird.
Me: Marley was dead.
With-a-Why: Dead as a doornail.
Me: Whatever a doornail is.
Shaggy Hair Boy: How come we are going so slow?
Me: Because of the snow. The roads are bad.
Shaggy Hair Boy: I saw the play.
Shaggy Hair Boy: In seventh grade.
With-a-Why: I didn't know Marley was a last name until all of a sudden they said Mr. Marley.
Shaggy Hair Boy: He was dead.
Me: We're going to be late.
With-a-Why: We could walk faster than this.
Shaggy Hair Boy: I don't know about that.
Me: The roads are bad. I'm being safe.
Shaggy Hair Boy: I think we'd have to run.
With-a-Why: See, at first I thought Marley was Scrooge's wife.
Me: His wife?
With-a-Why: Well, it said that Marley was his partner.
With-a-Why: So I just assumed that meant they were married.
Shaggy Hair Boy: See, look at that sign and you can see how slow we are going.
With-a-Why: Isn't that what partner means?
Me: Um, sometimes.
With-a-Why: So it was a little confusing.
Shaggy Hair Boy: He was dead.

December 14, 2007

Over

Asleep

Boy in Black had a busy week: two presentations, four final exams, and very little sleep. This morning he drove to campus for an 8 am test, the last of his finals. When he returned three hours later, he sat right down at the drums and played furiously. When the music stopped, I looked into the living room to find him on the floor, sleeping so soundly that one of the cats settled down for a nap on top of him.

December 13, 2007

Hemlock needles

Suspended

When Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter moved back home this week, she brought a laundry basket of clothes and — of course — her laptop computer. Almost as soon as she walked in the door, she claimed a spot on the comfy couch in front of the fire and opened her laptop to begin editing a magazine article due this week. Boy in Black isn't done with his semester either: he has several final exams. After I put another log on the fire and sat down next to my daughter with my laptop, he said, "Hey, if we're having a laptop party, I'll bring down mine."

And that's where we've been this week, cosily settled in front of the fire, getting our work done while we eat and talk. With-a-Why and Shaggy Hair have joined us with their homework or sometimes provided background music on the piano, since they've got their Christmas concert on Saturday. (They are playing a four-hand version of the Tchaikovsky's Russian Dance from The Nutcracker Suite.)

In an unusual surge of domestic activity spurred on by the fact that I had papers to grade, I made hot lentil stew, a big pot of homemade vegetable soup, vegan chocolate cake, and a type of cinnamon oatmeal bread that we all call "Healthy Bread" because it is relentlessly healthy. Spouse has been at work, furiously getting his stuff done so he can enjoy ten days home with us at Christmas. The roads have been icy and snow-covered, but inside, the house smells of cinnamon and woodsmoke and chocolate.

I've taken the time to work on some big cleaning projects, mostly downstairs where I can hang out with the kids and clean at the same time. I'm a binge cleaner, and the end of a semester is when I tackle projects: cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer, tossing anything that is still there from last year, emptying the cupboards, going through the bookshelves behind the kitchen table, sorting through the stacks of books and papers that accumulate everywhere. Billie talked on her blog about the concept of osoji, a ritual of cleaning and purification that comes at the end of a year, and that fits with my mood as we approach the Solstice.

This morning, though, after several days of lounging by the fire, I got a facebook message from Often Erotic Sometimes Blogging Friend: "Perfect day for winter photos. Get out there, girl." She was right. The house was empty. My younger kids had gone off to school, Spouse was at work, Boy in Black had left to take a Physical Chemistry exam, and my daughter had gone with him to hand in a final project. So I pulled on my winter coat and boots, and trudged out in the snowy, windy woods behind my house.

White snow was drifting and clinging to every surface in the woods: branches, trees stumps, mossy logs. The ground was frozen, but the ice still thin on the puddles. Since I had worn my tall rubber boots, I crashed happily through the puddles, stomping through the ice, breaking white into jagged pieces that drifted crazily on muddy water. I am far too noisy in the woods to see much wildlife, but snowy ground was criss-crossed with the tracks of white-tailed deer.

A few times, I stopped to take off my gloves and take out my camera, but really, it's not easy to take photos when the wind is blowing snow onto your eyelashes and camera lens. Mostly, I just tromped around, enjoying the cold, pure air, and admiring the way the white snowflakes clung to green mosses and the gold-brown leaves of young beech trees. I walked east, following an old logging trail until I came to the hemlock grove where the deer bed down sometimes. Here, in this sheltered spot, snow was balanced on the green branches of the hemlocks, waiting only for a careless hiker to brush against the needles and send it whirling down to the ground.

By the time I returned to the warm house, my feet and hands were cold, and my lungs were full of fresh, clean air. I poured myself a cup of hot tea, cut myself a slice of chocolate cake, and sat back down on the comfy couch to write a blog post.

December 12, 2007

Ultimate player in the house

Hung on the chandelier with care

Boy in Black has a very limited wardrobe, consisting almost entirely of black band t-shirts and a few pairs of black or grey zip-off pants, teamed sometimes with a black hoodie and often a black bandana. Most of his clothes will stay crumpled in the bottom of a duffle bag for the whole month he's home. But not his Ultimate Frisbee jerseys. He has two team jerseys, one black and one white, and he is always careful to hang them up in an appropriate place of honor. The shirts are the first thing I saw yesterday when I walked into the house.

Yes, it's good to have him home.

December 11, 2007

Desperately seeking

advice on where to buy the perfect pair of black socks.

I've written before about how impossible it is to buy any kind of gift for someone who lives in a small urban apartment. When I get a Christmas present for Urban Sophisticate Sister, I usually buy something like lip gloss, or candy, or a candle — something that can be used up and won't take up any room in her apartment. Usually, I don't buy gifts for grown-ups, but Urban Sophisticate is my little sister, nine years younger, so she doesn't count as a grown-up, even though she is old enough to run for president and would, for that matter, do a far better job as president than the person who currently holds that office. Despite the fact that she has a successful career and a book contract, she is still forced to sit at the kids' table at holiday meals. So she still gets a present.

Anyhow, to get to my point: this year, I've discovered that Urban Sophisticate sister is in need of the perfect black socks. To quote her: "I want black socks that I can wear with my dress boots. They shouldn't be too thick (a la athletic "tube" socks) nor should they be too thin (a la "trouser" socks, which are only slightly thicker than stockings.) I'd say the best thickness of the most desirous socks would be the equivalent of putting two paper towels together. Also, in height they should come up to about mid-shin."

Urban Sophisticate claims that she has searched Big City Like No Other, and the perfect socks are nowhere to be found. Obviously, I'm not going to find them in Snowstorm City either. And I am so incapable of choosing clothes for my sophisticated sister that even a pair of socks is beyond my expertise.

So I am appealing to my readers. If you know of an online source for these perfect black socks, send me a link. Please.

December 10, 2007

Endings

Forgotten

Last week, I drove to my daughter's off-campus apartment for the last Friday lunch of the semester. She lives in a neighborhood of once-beautiful old houses that have been carved up for student housing. The narrow streets, crowded with cars parked as close as they can, curve up and down steep hills, and the bare branches of trees overhang crooked sidewalks. What used to be lovely old porches now hold trash cans and recycling bins.

I noticed a bag of canned goods on my daughter's front porch, a bag that's been there since some time in October. "Yeah," she said, "We got some flyer from the Boy Scouts or someone like that asking us to leave out some canned goods, but no one ever came and picked them up."

It was the last day of classes. Boy in Black and First Extra arrived early, stamping snow off their feet as they came in, taking spots at the little table in the bay window. Film Guy leaned back in his chair and announced, "I just had my last class. Ever." He's graduating a semester early. I'd stopped to pick up Chinese food on my way, and I pulled out the cartoons of food as we talked, piling rice and broccoli with garlic sauce onto my own plate.

I like the end of the semester, the finality of it. I've been going though the piles on my desk, the stacks on my office floor. It's time to file ideas that I didn't have time for, time to toss away material that's outdated, time to sweep the office clean. College students will be doing the same thing, piling textbooks and notebooks onto a closet shelf, tossing away papers, deleting files from their hard drives. At the end of the semester, all the good intentions of August crash into the hard edge of reality. It's a good time to let go of ideas that aren't going to come to fruition, give up incomplete tasks. It's time to accept the fact that no Boy Scout is ever going to come pick up that bag of canned goods that are now gathering snow on the front porch.

December 09, 2007

The dark side

When I was off in the mountains with my Wild Women friends this fall and decided to take a nap, I grabbed a sleeping bag, went out onto the deck, curled up above the waves that were slapping against the shore, and fell right to sleep. My friend kept telling me that they envied my ability to fall asleep any place, any time. Some of them have insomnia, and they kept telling me that sleeping easily is a gift.

Several of my kids have inherited this gift. But there is a dark side to the gift. We who fall asleep easily are all terrible to wake up. Boy in Black, in particularly, has always been dreadful in the morning. When he was in kindergarten, I would carry him downstairs and get him completely dressed for school, and he would not wake up. Now that he's over six feet tall, I can no longer carry him around in the morning, so I have to content myself with kicking him and yelling at him.

Of course, because he's an adult now, Boy in Black sets his own alarm. That means that every morning, now that's he home from college, I get to hear his cell phone going off over and over and over again. Sometimes it's this obnoxious tune that comes from a Laurel and Hardy clip; sometimes it's his own deep voice saying, "Boy in Black! Wake the fuck up!"

The other day, I asked, "How does your roommate stand it?" His room at college is a split double, which means that he and his roommate are only separated by a partial wall.

Boy in Black told me that last week when he had a lot of work to do, he decided to take a nap at 11 pm. He set his alarm for midnight, with the idea that he would get up and do some work then. He stretched out on his bed, with even his shoes on and the light on, and his cell phone in his hand.

When he woke up, it was 8 am. His alarm had been going off every five minutes for eight hours.

"Yeah, the alarm must have gone off 96 times," he said, grinning.

I figure his roommate is either another sound sleeper, or an extremely tolerant person.

Morning has broken

Boy in Black, asleep on the couch, in the full sun, oblivious to the houseful of people who are talking, eating, and playing music around him.

December 07, 2007

What I learned this semester

At the end of the fall semester, I ask my first year students to write on an index card one thing they learned their first semester in college. I tell them that they can include things they learned in the residence halls or from their friends or in any class. Then I shuffle the cards and read them aloud. Here's what they wrote this year.


How to balance doing work with having fun.

Not to piss off my roommate when he's playing Halo.

Snowstorm City is cold. And it snows a lot.

How to identify eastern hemlocks.

Styrofoam is the enemy.

More about plants than I ever expected.

With the right people, a loving family can be formed.

Halo is the backbone of an all-nighter.

No matter how hard I try, procrastinating is inevitable.

Chemisty sucks ten times worse in college than it did in high school.

Never pet a burning dog.

College is pretty hard.

Alcohol gets boring after a while.

I learned how to sleep until 3:30 pm on weekends and still get all my work done.

I learned how to mix food in the dining hall to make dining more fun.

Sledding in garbage cans hurts.

That I enjoy botany.

How to live with and work with an entire floor of people.

Invisible index cards become visible when you write on them.

That I need better study habits.

That anything you want is worth working for.

That friends are incredible.

That walking to the Big Grocery Store takes an hour. And it's not open 24 hours a day, like we thought.

Distance is a good thing, and I can survive on my own, without my parents.

Living in a learning community is pretty cool.

I learned that not everything is at it appears and that not all people practice what they preach.

I learned that a floor full of college students are capable of making a lot of noise at any hour of the day or night.

I learned that I do not enjoy derivatives or taking limits.

That cosmetics can kill you.

I learned that plants are too complex for me to understand.

I learned that engineering is not a career I want to pursue.

Paul Farmer fights infectious disease in Haiti.

I learned how to find the area covered by passing a particle through a vector field, and how to find the tendency of that particle to rotate.

It's important to zip the pocket that holds your keys before participating in a snowball fight.

All about the apical meristem.

I learned that science is not my thing.

How to do the Soulja Boy dance.

December 06, 2007

Ready

Hanging

From now until spring, the laundry room off our kitchen will be filled with winter clothing. We've got wire racks for mittens and gloves on the wall above the heater, and another wall is filled with hooks for coats and snowpants. On weekends when we've got all kinds of extra kids, the little laundry room can't contain all the clothes: we have hooks on both the inside and outside of the bathroom door, hooks on the door to the basement, hooks on the door to the garage. And every wooden chair is usually draped with a winter coat as well.

We are not a household that spends much money on clothing, but I will spend money on good outerwear. The only way to enjoy the winter in Snowstorm region is to have warm gloves, polypropylene long underwear, and most of all, good socks. I wear thick ski socks, the kind that go all the way up to my knees, under my jeans on most days, even when I am going to class rather than skiing.

Last week, as I pulled all the plastic bins from the garage and began matching up gloves to put them on the wire racks in the laundry room, I felt excited about all the winter activities coming up: snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing. Last year, a knee injury kept me inside by the fire, so I am looking forward to being outside this year, enjoying all this wonderful snow.

December 05, 2007

Survival

White pine

Yesterday, I spent much of the day watching student presentations — three classes of my first year students took up the whole afternoon, and then in the evening, the upperclass students who serve as peer mentors did presentations about their experiences as mentors. I love watching presentations because I learn all kinds of interesting things from them, but seven hours of sitting still in a warm classroom tends to get me zoned out no matter how exciting the topics are.

That's why I felt relieved, in the middle of the day, when the four students doing a presentation on outdoor survival skills announced that we would be going outside. Eagerly, we all pulled on coats and mittens, and followed them out of the brick building into the cold, snowy world. A wind filled with wet snowflakes slapped me wide awake. The group had prepared ahead of time; they'd found a spot not too far from our urban campus that could pass for wilderness, if you were willing to ignore the tops of the buildings you could see above the snow-covered trees.

Students in the class, happy to be outside after a day of classes, came sliding and running down the hills, some rolling right through the drifts of snow. Then we gathered around while TossesHisHair showed us how to build a shelter from sticks and tree branches. We built a shelter in no time at all, and then another student talked about sources of food. We learned how to make traps to catch small edible mammals. All this activity was punctuated by occasional skirmishes and snowball fights, but mostly, we were all listening closely.

Students kept turning to me with smiles, just happy to be outside where the branches over our heads were piled with fluffy white snow. Just as we began to feel cold, standing in our semi-circle, QuietStudent cleared a patch of ground, brushing away the snow as best he could, and kindled a small fire using flint and steel. I think we would have all liked to stay there longer, warming ourselves by the fire, but since what the students was doing was most likely illegal, we had to kick the fire out after the demonstration and hide all evidence we'd ever been there. Even though we were outside for only forty minutes, I could felt awake and relaxed as we hiked back to campus.

Without matches

December 04, 2007

Snowday

My mother, this morning

High winds, icy roads, and steadily falling snow made driving difficult last night. All kinds of events were cancelled, including my belly dancing class. I stayed home by a crackling fire with a cup of hot tea.

When I woke up this morning, fluffy snow was piled on the cars, the trees, and the roads, making everything look clean and white. As we listened to the school closings, we were disappointed to hear that East Snowstorm-Traintrack Village School, where my youngest two kids go, was not on the list. Our school district likes to save its snowdays until absolutely needed, a policy which always leads to rumors that the superintendant is from Alaska. Many schools were closed, but my kids had only a one-hour delay.

Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy, who live nearby but go to the Catholic High School, had a snowday. Schoolteacher Niece, who teaches in an elementary school northwest of us, had a snowday. Every school in the city was closed. But not East Snowstorm-Traintrack Village. We kept listening to the list, hopefully, waiting for the announcement, but it did not come.

Teenagers in the district decided to take matters into their own hands. Blonde Niece and Skater Boy chimed in messages over the computer announcing that they had both decided to take the day off. Shaggy Hair Boy, who had been up late writing a paper for English class and was proofreading it one last time, looked sleepily over at his younger brother: "Hey, maybe we should take a snowday. You got anything important today?"

With-a-Why looked up from his bowl of cereal. He was half-asleep, but didn't even pause to think about what his school day might hold. "Nope. I'll stay home."

My husband had already left for work: he doesn't have very far to go. And my college was open, of course. I drove to campus slowly, thankful for the snowtires we put on the car last week. The students were in good spirits, building snow figures and throwing snowballs, and running and sliding on the slushy sidewalks. Students from other parts of the country are always excited about the amount of snow we get here, and their enthusiasm is fun to watch. And the kind of fluffy snow we get this time of year is pretty, coating branches, piling onto surfaces, transforming every building and fence post.

By the time I drove home again, it was dark. I hate winter driving, but once I was off the highway, I was able to relax and enjoy how pretty the night was. My headlights picked up the swirling white snow that was still falling. My own street was quiet, with no tracks at all on the white road, which means I gotten home ahead of my husband. We have no street lights, but the white snow on the pine trees glowed. As I pulled up to my own mailbox, I saw my two hooky-playing sons had shoveled the long driveway. I felt grateful for their unlimited energy as I came into the warm house to put on sweatpants and settle into the comfy couch, ready to retreat from the snowstorm.

The photo is a picture of my mother, taken by my father, out behind their house.

December 03, 2007

Back online

Surviving without my computer for three days was surprisingly easy. On Saturday, I went with some friends to a big arts and crafts show that included a booth full of my friend Quilt Artist's work. We all wandered about, supposedly doing our holiday shopping but mostly chatting with everyone there and buying things for ourselves in the name of supporting local artists. I like it when I can talk to the person who made the item I'm buying, whether it's a handmade necklace or an earth-colored mug or a quilted potholder. I don't do a whole lot of holiday shopping because I don't want to support evil corporations, but it's my opinion that everyone in family can always use another locally made mug.

In the afternoon, I ate lunch with Reiki Friend at a new coffee place downtown, a cosy place with funky decor and an incredible vegan menu. We talked about teenage sons while we ate steaming lentil soup, a tofu wrap, and thick carrot cake. I came home that afternoon with the intention of grading papers, a whole big stack of them, but instead somehow ended up building a fire, hanging out with the kids, and then taking a nap on the couch. I just love to sit by the fire when it's cold and snowing outside.

Saturday night, for the first time in about 21 years, Spouse and I had the house to ourselves. The boys went over to visit Quick, the extra who had surgery over Thanksgiving and who is still house-bound. Spouse braved the cold winter night to go get us some take-out food, which we ate in front of the fire. Needless to say, grading papers was not on the agenda.

But Sunday, I was determined. With my husband off doing errands, the boys working on homework, and my computer still broken, I had no excuse. I sat on the couch by the fire and graded paper after paper, stopping only every five minutes or so to get something to eat. By late afternoon, just as blue shadows were creeping across the snow-covered lawn outside the windows, I had finished the whole stack.

As much as I complain about grading student papers, I will admit that I learn all kinds of things from read them. I read about the nutritional facts of the Big Mac, I learned ways that schizophrenia is treated, I read the history of the Endangered Species Act, I learned why willows are an ideal source of biomass. But from all the papers I read, one bit of information sticks out most in my mind. It was a sentence taken from a paper about surviving in the wilderness: "When lost, it is important to be able to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, as the latter is a valuable food source." I am still thinking about the implications of that.

Today, the replacement part for my computer came in, and I raced over icy roads to get the computer fixed. And now I am home by the fire, with the winds wailing outside the window, a cat at my side, and a warm computer in my lap.

Blogging again