December 30, 2009

The weather outside is frightful

We've spent this week lounging by the fire, eating hot soup and playing games. We've had a constant stream of holiday company, including my daughter's friend Free Spirit. She's a massage therapist who loves to cook vegan food, which makes her an ideal addition to the household. She's baked vegan chocolate cake TWICE already. We're trying to bribe her to live with us indefinitely.

A crackling fire keeps the humans in the house happy, but the cats hate being confined to the house in this icy weather. I've tried to keep them on their good behavior by feeding them catnip, which makes them act stoned and happy. Unfortunately, neither catnip nor Feliway spray worked to keep Trouble, the grey male cat, out of the Christmas village under the tree. After he peed on it a second time, I packed up the village and put it away to prevent a third incident, which surely would have led to feline homicide.

One of the great things about having everyone home is that we have live music all the time. Usually either Shaggy Hair Boy, Quick, or With-a-Why is at the piano, so we've got a constant stream of classical music or jazz while the rest of us do the important work of lounging on the couch and eating leftover holiday food.

Holiday music

The cat in the photo is Emmy, not the evil Trouble. And that's With-a-Why at the piano.

December 29, 2009

Soup! Glorious soup!

My blog is five years old – and I think in all that time, I’ve only posted one recipe. So today I’ve decided to share my top-secret recipe for delicious vegetable soup.

The glory of vegetable soup is that you make it with whatever you happen to have in the house. It’s especially good for using up vegetables that are starting to get soft and wilt a bit around the edges. Making soup requires no talent and no concentration. Today, for example, I made soup while listening to Beautiful Smart Daughter, Boy in Black, and Free Spirit play the game Scattergories in front of the fire. I’ve often made it while supervising the little neighbor kids as they color pictures at the table.

To make the soup, I first yell for someone tall to get me the stockpot from the high shelf in our laundry room. (If no one tall is around, I have to drag over a kitchen chair.) Then I fill the stockpot partway with water – a couple of quarts or so. I rummage through the cupboards for any kind of tomato product. Today, for instance, I dumped in a big can of crushed tomatoes and a can of diced tomatoes.

Then I begin chopping up anything will give the soup some flavor: a couple of onions, some cloves of garlic, several stalks of celery. If I’m feeling especially ambitious, I’ll sautee the onions first, but most of the time, I don’t bother. I cut them up and dump them in. I’m a lazy cook.

Then I look through the refrigerator for any vegetables I can find. We always have carrots, which I like to add just for the color and texture. And usually we’ve got some peppers, too, some broccoli, and some squash. Today, I found a half a bag of fresh baby spinach and dumped that in too. If I have any overripe tomatoes on the counter, I chop them up as well. Sometimes I add potatoes, but only if I’m in the mood for chunks of potatoes. And they don’t freeze well, so I leave them out if I’m planning to freeze some of the soup.

I chop up vegetables and throw them in the pot until I get bored. Then I take a break to check my email, put another log on the fire, or unload the dishwasher. Then I decide to go the easy route and find veggies in the freezer: usually a bag of corn and a bag of lima beans. I dump those in and give the pot a stir. I add more water from the tea kettle if the soup isn’t liquidy enough. Then I make myself a cup of tea and sit down to read the mail.

At some point, I start adding spices: a handful of oregano, a big handful of basil, a pinch of fennel, a couple of bay leaves. The only thing I ever measure is the salt and pepper. I use ¼ teaspoon of pepper and a teaspoon of salt. I don’t know why I bother to measure them: it’s a tradition I guess.

Just as the soup is beginning to smell good, I start rummaging through the cupboards for beans. Always, I use a couple cans of kidney beans, but sometimes I add chickpeas too, or pretty much any kind of bean I can find. By then the stockpot will be getting pretty full. I only know how to make huge quantities of soup.

The last thing I chop up are scallions, if I have them, fresh basil if I have some, pretty much any herbs I can find. And then an entire bunch of parsley. I always buy parsley when I’m planning to make soup. I think the green makes the soup looks so much healthier. I dump in random spices as the mood strikes me: today, for instance, I dumped in some celery seed.

When the soup is done, I offer it to anyone in the house. “Eat some vegetable soup! It’s health food for Ultimate players.” The glory of soup is that it’s an entire meal, all in one pot. And it’s healthy! My household is very tired of hearing me say that. You have no idea.

December 28, 2009

New snow


The holidays go by in a blur of chatter and chocolate. I’ve spent the last ten days cooking and cleaning, sitting by the fire with family, eating all kinds of good food, talking and playing games. My house has been full of my kids, our extras, and my extended family. I’ve stayed up late with the college-aged gang, and I’ve been woken every morning by a pounding on the front door as the little neighbor kids arrive to play. Our next round of out-of-town visitors arrive this afternoon — my husband’s sister and niece.

This morning, I slipped out of the house by myself for a walk out back. Last night’s snowfall covered the trees with the kind of sticky snow that looks like it belongs in a corny movie. Snow muffles the woods so my steps were quiet as I trudged through piles of white. Branches held puffs of snow, and when a light breeze began, snowflakes swirled about, falling into my eyelashes and onto my coat. The cold air tasted clean. When the sun came out from behind the clouds, bits of snow began to sparkle.

December 26, 2009

Opening the time capsule

On Christmas Eve, when my extended family was gathered at my parents' house for the usual holiday frenzy of eating and talking, we decided that in addition to all of our usual traditions, we would open a time capsule that we’d put in the basement on New Year’s Eve, 1999. School Teacher Niece said that we’d agreed to open it every ten years.

The shoebox was filled with a variety of odd personal items, including several photographs and a cassette tape of music played by my father and his friends. The kids, who were of course ten years younger, had put in all kinds of strange writings and drawings that caused screams of laughter. Red-haired Niece had included a calendar in which she had written down what she’d done every single day in 1999. “You were ahead of your time,” Urban Sophisticate Sister told her. “This was pre-facebook, but you were writing status updates.”

The shoebox did contain some more serious items that were intended to show some of the significant events of the 20th century — a computer chip encased in plastic, a Susan B. Anthony coin, a pair of contact lenses, the Diary of Anne Frank — but some of the objects seemed like strange choices. The map of Louisiana, for instance. “I think I had to do a project on Louisiana that year in school,” Boy in Black said.

"The bottle cap was mine," Blond Brother-in-law said. "I'd just gotten out of work and opened a beer."

Urban Sophisticate and I spent a long time puzzling over a pair of black shoelaces. “Who in the family would have put these in?” she asked. “And why?”

“Shoelaces were invented before the 20th century,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Finally, Boy in Black pointed to the side of the shoebox that we were using for a time capsule. “It’s the same brand. I bet they were just in the shoebox.”

Urban Sophisticate laughed. “This is how archeologists get things wrong.”

December 23, 2009

Holiday time

The energy level in the household has been rising as out-of-town family and friends arrive. Quick took his last final exam and was in our living room 24 hours later, playing chess with With-a-Why. Sailor Boy, who took a week’s leave from the Coast Guard to be here for the holidays, spent last week training in Southern State That Cannot Handle Snow and had planned to fly here Friday. After 72 hours of traveling, or mostly sitting in airports sending pathetic text messages, he finally arrived here Monday afternoon. “I need a shower,” he said when he came through the door.

Blonde Niece arrived home in time to help me do some Christmas shopping. As long-time readers know, I’m terrified of the mall, but Blonde Niece is fearless. She efficiently steered me through the necessary stores, then we relaxed in the food court and talked about her first semester of college. (That evening, that same food court was the site of a holiday flashmob organized by a local college student. About 300 people, mostly college students, alerted by a notice on facebook, gathered in the mall. The loud speakers began playing Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” and on cue, hundreds of young people began dancing, much to the surprise of all the holiday shoppers who had just come to get something to eat. As much as I hate the mall, I would have loved to see that event.)

I declared a week-long ban on computer games. In return, With-a-Why was allowed to skip school to be home with his siblings. The rest of us have the week off, so we’ve mostly been hanging out by the fire and getting ready for Christmas. Red-haired Sister, Tie-dye Brother-in-law, and their two kids arrived yesterday. They brought a bag of presents for the little neighbor kids; my sister’s plan is to leave them on the doorstep in the middle of the night.

But the real Christmas miracle? I haven’t yet killed any of the cats.

December 22, 2009

Fa la la la

Carol of the bells

A couple days ago, my husband decided it would be a good experience for my two youngest kids to do some community service at the assisted-living facility where my mother-in-law lives. With-a-Why is shy, and when he does volunteer work, he usually chooses something like setting up chairs in an empty room. But Spouse figured he could use music to coax With-a-Why out of his shell.

“We’d love to have your boys come and play some Christmas carols,” the social director said when my husband called.

This afternoon, I coerced the boys into taking showers, and we loaded the keyboard into the car, with With-a-Why complaining. “I need pedals. I can’t do most of my songs on this keyboard.”

“You don’t have to play the kind of music you do for recitals,” I said. “Mostly, the old folks just want to see you having fun.”

Shaggy Hair Boy grabbed a folder of Christmas music, and that’s mostly what the boys ended up playing. The elderly folks started singing along right away, and the social director ran to get a microphone for my husband, who has a beautiful voice and who warms up quickly to an audience who laughs at corny jokes.

It wasn’t a very polished performance. Shaggy Hair Boy kept rooting through the folder of music to find songs, accidentally dumping the whole thing onto the floor at one point. My husband joked with the boys and the residents as they moved from song to song. It was the kind of informal jam session my kids are used to.

When I saw that one woman knew the words to every song, I nudged my husband, and he rolled her wheelchair up to the microphone so they could sing a couple of duets. Shaggy Hair Boy good-naturedly took requests from the audience, even when they weren’t songs he knew very well. He and With-a-Why did a four-handed piece that got a round of applause from the crowd, who by then had figured out that With-a-Why was shy. They loved it when he played some of the score from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. My mother-in-law sat in the front row and looked proud.

“Admit it,” I said to the boys on our way home, “You had a good time. And doesn’t it feel good to know that everyone there enjoyed it?”

“I don’t really like nursing homes,” said Shaggy Hair Boy said.

“No one does,” I said. “That was the point. To make it feel like our living room instead.”

“If the world exploded right now,” Shaggy Hair Boy said, “I’d probably go right to heaven.”

Fa la la la

December 20, 2009

Takes a village

Under the tree

Yesterday, when the two little neighbor kids came over, I gave them the task of setting up the Christmas village on newly washed white sheets. “We’ll be in charge,” Little Biker Boy said importantly. I knew he and Ponytail would be eager to play with the little figurines and houses. He’d asked about the Christmas village just as soon as Christmas commercials began appearing on television.

I was busy cleaning the kitchen — we were getting ready for our annual Christmas party — but I could hear the kids talking as they played. “We need to put the castle HERE,” Little Biker Boy said to his sister emphatically. “That’s where it was last year. I remember.”

Friends and family might tease me about making the exact same food for every party, but Little Biker Boy loves that predictability. “You’re going to make that punch again? With lemons floating in it?”

He loves the seasonal rituals of our household. His own life has not been that stable. He spent almost a year in foster care when he was small. Then when he was about kindergarten age, his father kidnapped him for a couple of years. The details of his life during those years he was a missing child are murky: he remembers that he lived in the Florida for a while, and that he lived in an apartment over a bar.

Little Biker Boy is looking forward to our first big snowstorm. “I’m going to shovel a path for you. Remember how I did that last year?”

Whenever our furnace clicks on, he likes to come into the kitchen and sit on the floor near the register, to enjoy the warm air flowing out. I usually sit down with him and we talk for a few minutes. “You aren’t ever going to move, are you?” he’ll ask as he leans against me for a hug.

“Not likely,” I tell him. “We own this house, and we don’t have plans to sell it.”

That answer always comforts him, but I don’t have the heart to say aloud what he already knows. His life is less predictable than mine, and neither one of us can predict where he might be next year, or even next season.

December 18, 2009

Trouble in the Christmas village

Every year after we decorate the Christmas tree, I take a photo of the wooden village beneath it. The village was a gift from my parents many years ago. My father built the little houses, shops, church, museum, and castle; my mother painted them. Little kids who come to our house — and sometimes adults too — will spend hours lying on the floor, playing with the pieces and imagining life in this little utopian world.

As I pulled the village out of the box this year, spreading white sheets on the floor beneath the Christmas tree to simulate snow-covered ground, I imagined writing a nice blog post about the village. I figured I’d take a sweet photo of the neighbor kids playing with the village. Little Biker Boy had already asked about it. Or perhaps I’d take a picture of Rogue, the cat who had already curled up near the castle, as if she were guarding the village.

But last night, just as my husband and I were snuggling in bed with a laptop, ready to watch the latest Big Bang Theory, Shaggy Hair Boy burst into our bedroom. “Uh, something bad happened in the Christmas Village.”

I leaped up. “One of the cats?”


Trouble, a grey male cat, had walked over to the village, stood right on the tin foil skating pond, and sprayed urine across the houses, the figurines, the cotton drifts of snow. It’s not the first natural disaster to hit the Christmas village — one year Skater Boy fell into it and broke the ice pond mirror — but I think it might be the most foul. Those poor little ceramic ice skaters never knew what hit them.

I yanked up the wet sheets to throw them in the washer, ranted about how I hated all things feline, and piled the village on the kitchen counter to be washed. So instead of a lovely photo of the Christmas village nestled under the tree, here’s a photo of houses and figurines piled into a colander to be washed.

Damned cat.

Natural disaster hits the Christmas village

December 17, 2009

And found

I bought toothpaste at the grocery store. I know I did. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. I looked in the bathroom, opening drawers and checking to see if it had fallen to the floor. I went downstairs to the kitchen and searched the counter where I unload the groceries.

I went back upstairs. The toothpaste had still not materialized. I came back down and searched again. I was beginning to feel a little crazy. Had I left a bag of groceries in the car? I remembered the time that I found a gallon of milk in my trunk, ten hot summer days after I bought it. That was pretty nasty.

I turned to the gang in the living room. “Has anyone seen some brand new boxes of toothpaste?”

Shaggy Hair Boy looked up from his computer, “I remember seeing them somewhere."


He shrugged, “I don’t know.”

I went upstairs again and burst into my daughter’s bedroom. She and Sailor Boy were deep in conversation, both intently looking at something on her computer.

“I can’t find the boxes of toothpaste I bought at the store,” I announced dramatically. “I KNOW I bought some."

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter said, without hesitation: “Usually you set stuff like that on the stairs.”

The stairs? I’d run up and down the stairs about five times in my search. But I went back and looked anyhow.

Yep. There on the third step were two boxes of toothpaste.

It’s nice to have my daughter home.

December 16, 2009

All together

All my kids are home. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter arrived by train yesterday, after a week of writing papers and getting almost no sleep. She looked exhausted, but at least she didn’t have the flu.

“That’s the advantage of having no life,” she said cheerfully. “I haven’t been near anyone so I couldn’t catch anything.”

Tonight, we’re all hanging about the living room. Shaggy Hair Boy is at the piano, playing jazz. My daughter is on the couch, with a brother on either side. My husband is at the table with his laptop. I haven’t built a fire because I’m waiting to be over my cough, but the Christmas tree makes the room cozy.

I’ve been decorating the tree while the kids – as tradition dictates – make unhelpful comments that make me laugh. We bought an already-cut tree this year because it was pouring rain on Sunday, but the weather has gotten colder now and there’s snow outside the window, as there should be. My daughter had a paper to finish this afternoon, Shaggy Hair Boy has one more final, and I’m not done with my grading, but we’re gradually making the transition into the holiday season.

December 15, 2009

What I learned this semester

At the end of the fall semester, I ask my first year students to each 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.

I learned how to write lab reports and do research.

I learned how to freewrite – and why.

I learned to get up on my own instead of my Mom waking me up.

It’s means it is. And that’s the only time the word needs an apostrophe.

I’ve learned how to work on an average of 13 hours of sleep per week.

The frustrating and amazing complexity of Biology. Not only the organisms, but also the numerous terminologies.

The really depressing effects of Chernobyl.

Facts about Lyme disease.

I learned that chameleon tongues are hydrostatic skeletons. Their short and fat tongues have a set of muscles that will stretch the tongue out so that the chameleon can catch its food.

This semester I learned that if I’m going to do something, I should take my time with it. Patience has a way of revealing answers.

Outdoor classes rule!

PowerPoints are BORING. And I want to stab myself every time I sit through one.

My high school math teachers were awesome.

Mountaintop removal really sucks.

How to use facebook.

I learned how to procrastinate. And that’s not a good thing.

How to make solar cells.

How to share a room with another person.

How very many hippies there are.

Why everyone loves the state fair.

Tiger Woods is a playa.

Budgeting your time is super important.

That it’s 2.3 miles from my dorm bed to the entrance of the library.

Snow is cute. So far.

Politics are hard to avoid.

I learned that you have to study way more in college than you do in high school.

I learned that there is never enough time to sleep AND get your homework done.

Also -- hugs are more necessary than you might think.

I learned to take more responsibility and to be more independent. I also learned what it feels like to be stressed, lonely, happy, confused, and what my family means to me.

I learned that squirrels can see in color.

Parasites have it easy.

December 14, 2009

Prayer flags

Moments of prayer

In our living room, these Tibetan prayer flags (miniature ones made by my friend Gorgeous Eyes) catch moments of afternoon sunshine. They hang from the orange tree that Shaggy Hair Boy planted when he was little.

December 13, 2009

Droopy household

Our holiday season has gotten off to a slow start. Thanks to this never-ending flu, I’ve missed the holiday piano recital and the first two holidays parties. But finally, I’m starting to feel better. I actually slept last night: the cough is getting better. I’m tired and achy, but I had the energy today to sit at my desk and make a to-do list. I'm leaving it out for elves to find.

I’m wondering who the household is going to get sick next. My husband already has a cough. Boy in Black complained last night that his ears and throat were hurting. We had planned to go get our Christmas tree this afternoon, but this afternoon, I looked around the house and noticed sleeping bodies everywhere. No one seems to have any energy. The kids and I are at the end of our semesters and my husband took the week of Christmas off. I think everyone is looking forward to a quiet time of eating warm food and catching up on sleep.

Afternoon nap

Boy in Black, napping on the couch.

December 11, 2009

Still sick

Yes, I’m still alive. But I don’t much else to report. I’ve got the kind of persistent cough that means I simply can’t sleep at all. My ears hurt. My throat hurts. My ribs hurt. I’m guessing that what I had was the H1N1 flu; the little neighbor kids were diagnosed with it in November, and I ended up taking care of them because their mother was very sick as well. So yeah, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. I kept hoping it was just a cold, but that hope disappeared days ago.

Today is Day 11 of me being sick. Yes, I’m counting – I want credit for all these days of misery. At this point, I think it’s no longer the flu but all the secondary infections that are making me feel so miserable. I’m guessing that antiobiotics would clear these up pretty quickly. But unfortunately, antibiotics make me break out in hives. Perhaps someday, I’ll be in the mood to experiment and find an antibiotic that I’m not allergic to, but I right now I don’t feel like making that sacrifice for science. I’m hoping to get better without having to resort to any itchy experiments.

I’m sure I’ll be healthy again soon. Perhaps saying that confidently will make it happen. But in the meantime, thanks to all the bloggers who have sent emails of concern. I appreciate the messages. In the midst of feeling so utterly miserable, I have to say that it’s been wonderful to get emails from friends. What has made me feel really great is that some readers who have been concerned about the little neighbor kids have been sending me presents for the kids: I can’t tell you how much it touches me that people I’ve never met share my concern and are trying to help out from miles away.

December 06, 2009

Enough already

It turns out that I’m not so good at pretending I’m not sick. For most of last week, coworkers and students kept saying things like, “God, you look awful.” I made it through a poetry reading Wednesday night by taking drugs and eating really spicy foods to open up my sinuses. Even so, I fooled no one. Afterwards people said things like, “Nice poems. Go home and get some sleep.” By Thursday, the cold had moved from my head into my chest, resulting in the deep cough that makes even strangers say to me, “Are you okay?”

So on Friday, I gave in and declared myself to be sick. I’ve been drifting about the house in sweatpants and a t-shirt, clutching a cup of hot tea, a cross between Miss Havisham and the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can’t sleep because the cough starts up every time I lie down. So instead I’ve been watching videos on my laptop – reruns of the Big Bang Theory or Northern Exposure. I’ve pulled out my comfort books to reread them, including the whole Betsy-Tacy series that I’ve loved since I was a kid and all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. “At least I’m not stuck in a prairie blizzard in a claim shanty,” I tell myself. And that makes me feel better.

I missed today’s holiday piano recital. Since I get to hear Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why play the piano every single day – at my house, someone’s always playing — it didn’t make sense for me to go spread my cold to all the other families at the piano studio. I’ve had to send the neighbor kids home when they’ve knocked on the door: they hate me being sick.

But being officially sick does have its advantages. My husband has been waiting on me hand and foot, bringing me food, cough drops, and ginger ale. He’s good at giving me attention when I’m feeling miserable. It’s been nice to do nothing but read for long stretches of time, a treat to just close the door to my office and ignore all the stuff that I should be doing. It hasn’t all been bad. But still. My ribs hurt from coughing. I can’t really breathe. I’m very ready to be done with this cold and get back to life again.

December 04, 2009

What lies ahead

Early December is a busy time, so when I’m sick, I just pretend I’m not. I can’t afford to miss class because my students are giving presentations. I’ve got deadlines to meet and projects to complete. I stumble through the day and then collapse at night. I don’t recommend this strategy for anyone with a bad cold or flu, but it’s the reality of early December.

After a night of fevered coughing, I got out of bed this morning to take my youngest child to school. Breathing in the cold, moist air felt good on my sore lungs. I haven’t felt much like writing on my blog this week, so I figured I’d stop and take a photo, so long as I was awake in the early morning light. Traintrack Village is full of Christmas decorations, so I thought maybe I’d take a picture of something cheery.

But instead, as I came back along the traintracks, a route I travel every single day, I decided to snap a photo of the tracks. I’ve lived somewhere near these tracks all my life. They’ve always been there. I like that they curve. I never know a train is approaching until I hear the whistle and feel the rumbling. As I stood in the cold winter air, wondering when we’re going to get some snow, I looked down the tracks and wondered what might be coming along them next.

What lies ahead

December 02, 2009

Under the weather

When I’ve got a bad cold, everything seems miserable. Any kind of noise makes me want to scream. Even the cats in my household seem to absorb my miserable mood. They hiss and snarl at each other. The humans in my household don’t fare much better. I’d like to write something lyrical about being sick, but to be honest, it mainly just sucks.

December 01, 2009

Cold and flu

Every fall semester, I say to my students, "Get your work done ahead of time. Because at Thanksgiving, everyone goes home and exchanges germs, and then when you get back on campus, everyone will be sick."

Just this once, I would have loved to be wrong.