December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve

When we were talking in class one day about holiday rituals — both the cultural significance and the environmental impact — a student from Country Famous for Cigars said that his family always gathered around a bucket of water on New Year's Eve. They'd put their hands into the water to release all the stress and worry of the old year, and then the oldest family member would toss the bucket of water out the door.

Our tradition here is to spend a quiet evening at home, with a fire in the fireplace and the kids playing music. We have a big meal right after midnight, something that my mother's family always did. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black went out this afternoon to get groceries for the meal: they are in charge of it this year.

We don't have a bucket of water, but we do have a fresh layer of snow, several inches of it. I like beginning each year in a landscape that is clean and white, like a new page of paper.

New snow

December 30, 2008



When I was a kid, my favorite place to dig a snow fort was under a pine tree. That way, instead of just a white cave of snow, I could have a roof made of pine branches, the green needles holding snow against sky. I'd dig out a spot near the trunk, just big enough for myself, and settle back into the snow, feeling cosy and comfortable and protected by the branches of the tree.

From marbles and piracies

From marbles and piracies

December 29, 2008

The world vanishes

The world vanishes

A rush of warm air created a thick fog that rose up from the melting snow as I took the two little neighbor kids, who are four and eight, on a hike through the woods. They'd both been feeling sad, but soon they were stomping through puddles of slush and screaming with laughter. We walked farther and farther into the woods until we were surrounded by snow and ice and the dark shapes of trees.

"Do you know how to get back?" Little Biker Boy asked nervously. I pointed out landmarks to him to show him that I knew where we were. "That's the dancing tree. And see the orange ribbon there? I put that on the tree myself. That's the boundary line." Finally, I asked him to look down and figure out how he could find his way home. After a few minutes, he noticed our footprints, which made a path through the wet snow. He sighed with relief at this knowledge.

Ponytail clung to her new Christmas doll as she stomped happily into slush and scrambled onto fallen trees. Little Biker Boy kept asking me the names of trees, and after I pointed out the tracks of a white-tailed deer, he was eager to follow its trail. He agreed with me that the trunks of the beech trees look just like the legs of elephants.

Both kids were soon wet up to their knees. I took them to the spot I come to when I'm feeling sad: a fallen tree which makes a great place to sit. Wet snow came dripping down off the scotch pines, landing with little splashes. The kids sat on the log for a few minutes while I walked around and took some photos.

"It works!" Biker Boy said. "I don't feel as sad!" Ponytail said nothing, just hugged her doll tighter and took a bite from a handful of snow.

Walking back through the snow was more difficult and decidedly less peaceful. Ponytail, obedient to the rule of four-year-olds everywhere, decided she needed to be carried, even though she'd been full of energy the whole way out. Little Biker Boy waded too far into a puddle, and his boots filled with icy water, which caused him to wail in agony until I took off my boots and gave him my dry socks. By the time we emerged from the woods, I was as wet and cold as the two kids, and happy to return to the warmth of the house.

When you're feeling sad

No secrets you could keep

No secrets you could keep

December 28, 2008

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

One morning back in November, I came downstairs in the morning to find Boy in Black in the living room, still awake, with his laptop. He's a nocturnal creature, so I wasn't terribly surprised. I mean, this is the kid who stayed up all night to design an R2D2 to go with his Halloween costume.

"What're you doing?" I asked casually as I went into the kitchen to feed the cats.

"Research," he said.

I looked at him in surprise. "Research?" It's true that he does some research with a physics professor, but it seemed unlikely that he'd be doing it until 7 am.

He gave me a sleepy grin. "Yeah, I'm researching light sabers."

Ever since dressing in a Star Wars theme for Halloween, he and his brothers have been playing with plastic light sabers — toys we bought the last time Star Wars paraphernalia was in vogue. They sometimes duel inches away from me in the living room. Yes, my youngest child is fourteen, and I still find myself saying, "Isn't that an OUTDOOR toy?"

Frustrated with how easily the cheap plastic toys broke, Boy in Black searched online and found two guys who made sturdy light sabers that were "duel-worthy." He showed me a youtube clip of the sabers being dropped out of a second-story window onto a cement sidewalk or being tossed into a pool. Clearly, these two guys had our family in mind when they designed the sabers.

So Boy in Black ordered four of the sabers: one for himself, one for each of his brothers, and an extra one for whichever extra was over at the time of battle. When the sabers came, he hid them in my closet and worked on small modifications, exchanging emails with Light Saber Dude about the details. He gave the sabers to his brothers on Christmas mornings, and the three boys retreated into a closet to test them out in the darkness.

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

December 27, 2008

Hanging with the family

We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at my parents' house — mostly eating and talking and then eating some more. My family has the ability to devour enormous amounts of food. By the afternoon of Christmas Day, little groups had settled down to play games. Blonde Niece, Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair Boy, and Blond Brother-in-law were playing cards at the folding table that had been set up as the kids' table. Another group were playing a board game in front of the fire.

Dandelion Niece coerced a few family members to play the strangely addictive game "Set" in the living room. Anyone not involved in a game was busily talking — one group sitting at the kitchen table, finishing up the homemade pies, and another near the Christmas tree. Well, except for With-a-why and Suburban Nephew, who were running around with nerf guns, shooting people.

Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy had stayed up all night right before Christmas Eve to record a CD for the family. With Shaggy Hair on the piano and Boy in Black on the guitar, they played a dozen songs — some traditional holiday numbers and then some jazz favorites thrown in for good measure. The CD, which they called "Melodic Sea's Groovin' Sleigh Ride" played beneath the chatter in the house.

With her grandfather

My daughter and my father, planning their next music session.

December 26, 2008

Christmas present

Slab of chocolate

Dandelion Niece holds up the gift that her mother, who is my red-haired sister, got for Christmas. A five-pound slab of chocolate.

Baby of the family

At church on Christmas morning, With-a-Why leaned against me, his head snuggled against my shoulder. How sweet, I thought to myself. Even though he's a teenager now, he's still affectionate with me, especially when he's sleepy.

When we stood up to go to Communion, he turned and whispered to me, "I hope the lice is gone. Or else, you're screwed."

December 24, 2008

Happy holidays

Little red barn

At my parents' house yesterday, I looked the window to their backyard, to my father's snow-covered garden and little red barn that served long ago as a stable for an appaloosa horse. It looked like a holiday photo. I was thinking that I should put on my boots and go out outside with my camera.

Then I glanced at my parents' computer and noticed that the desktop photo was the scene that I was planning on shooting. My father had already taken the photo.

"Hey, email me that photo for my blog," I said.

My father looked at his computer and shrugged, "Okay."

Then I sat back down by the fire with a hot cup of tea.

December 23, 2008

Skiing along the edge

Let it snow

Today I went cross-country skiing behind my parents' house with six family members, plus Red-haired Sister's three crazy dogs. Beyond their backyard lies a wooded area, bounded on the east side by a highway fence. My mother, the oldest in the group, led the way, breaking a trail through the heavy snow. Snow clung to the branches of the trees, white against a light grey sky. When the kids began deliberately knocking into the branches of the pine trees, the air filled with swirling white.

A big section of the old apple orchard and the woods has been bulldozed for development. On this winter afternoon, a site construction crew were hard at work, despite several feet of snow on the ground. The thick whiteness was a big improvement over the field of mud we'd seen at Thanksgiving.

Dandelion Niece climbed to the top of a pile of slash that looked like a small white mountain. With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew skidded down off the snowbanks onto the snow-packed driveway that will eventually lead to a big medical center. A cement mixer came rolling by, and then a dump truck. Across the newly cleared field, I could see cars driving by on the highway. We waved to the truck drivers and then turned to go back into the woods, the remnant of wildness that gets narrower each year.

Through the woods

December 21, 2008

Along the tracks

Weekends in December are filled with holiday parties — gatherings where eating and talking are the main activities, and the standard costume is a red sweater. It's a time for catching up with old friends, hanging out with the extended family, and eating delicious treats. Last night, family and long-time friends gathered at my house, all crowded together by the fire and the Christmas tree, and in the kitchen, and hallway, and upstairs in the bedrooms. Our house was overflowing.

Today, Red-haired Sister picked up With-a-Why so he could go play with his cousins. My kids went off to do some errands, and my husband began working on his holiday newsletter. I decided that after the cleaning and cooking of the last couple of days, I deserved some quiet time to myself. Because the snow in my own woods was pretty deep, I went over to the main street of Traintrack Village and walked along the traintracks.

The landscape was mostly grey and white and pale blue; plows had piled the snow into banks along the street, and every roof was white with snow. Two kids were building a fort in the mountain of snow at the end of a driveway. A man in a dark overcoat was digging his car out of the snowbank near the post office. I climbed up on the railroad bridge to look out over the trainyard, and a train swooshed past underneath me, the bright orange cars swaying just slightly as they moved along.

I've always liked to watch trains go by. Influenced, perhaps, by childhood picture books, I imagined the railroad cars carrying food for Christmas dinner and presents wrapped in bright paper. I waved to the passengers on the Amtrack trains and pictured them arriving home for the holidays. The trains don't stop in Traintrack Village, they hurry past, going east and south to Big City Like No Other, or west to City on Great Lake. When I turned back to look at the town, I could see lights coming on already in the houses, preparing for the longest night of the year.

Rushing past

December 20, 2008

I wish those damned elves would stop making toys and come clean my house

My desire to have a sparkling clean house for our Christmas company creates some tension between me and my sons who have — how shall I say this? Different standards than I do. The holiday music in the house is often accompanied by me yelling at my kids to help clean RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.

"Why do you care what people think?" Boy in Black will argue as I am preparing to morph into Psycho Mom mode. I usually respond with a glare. "That's not it. At all. Having a clean house at Christmas is important to ME."

Yes, I do like a clean house at Christmas. I blame this on the holiday television specials from my childhood. These specials usually featured Some Semi-Famous Guy Who Sings, some of his family members (or at least a cast who pretended to be his family), and a whole bunch of holiday songs. The show always took place in some big old farmhouse or ski lodge with snow and pine trees and some kind of Christmas service that involved people walking through the dark with candles. The house would be decorated with pine boughs and red ribbons and a big Christmas tree. The show didn't create any tension or any suspense; it was reassuring and predictable, filled with corny conversations that were totally scripted. It always ended with Semi-Famous Guy singing a holiday song, staring at the camera with a sappy, sincere look on his face.

The problem is that these holiday specials still play in my head.

Most of the year, I don't mind the messiness of living in a house where about a dozen teenagers come and go constantly. But as soon as we bring in a tree and decorate it for Christmas, suddenly I remember the old farmhouse in that holiday special. Then I look around and think, "Wait! This isn't right! Andy Williams never had half-filled glasses of juice on his windowsills or pages of calculus homework strewn on the carpet or textbooks piled at the hearth!"

Then I turn into Psycho Mom and make all the kids clean.

One thing that makes our house look messy is the sheer amount of books, papers, and notebooks piled in odd spots. We all spend most of our time in the living room by the fire, and the piles tend to accumulate over the semester. As a result, the downstairs of the house looks the way my sixth grade classroom looked at the end of the year the teacher made us dump out our desks.

The other night, I had a brilliant idea. I put our names on six index cards which I spread across the living room floor. Then I took the stacks — the mail on the kitchen table, the schoolpapers on the counter, the pages of sheet music, the sketchpads and artwork, the books on the floor by the couch — and just sorted them into piles. The sorting went very quickly, and soon each person in the family had a pile of stuff that he or she could be responsible for putting away.

"Come take your pile!" I yelled.

I glanced over at the table. How much nicer it looked with nothing on the surface. "This worked really well," I said smugly to my daughter.

She nudged me. "Watch With-a-Why."

My youngest son obediently picked up his pile, an unwieldy mix of books and artwork and schoolpapers. He looked at it in kind of a puzzled way and then carried it over to the corner between the couch and the fireplace — which is where most of it had come from in the first place — and set it back down on the floor.


In his defense, With-a-Why doesn't have his own desk, or his own chest of drawers. He shares a room with two brothers, and there really isn't any place for him to keep his stuff. So I can see why he might consider a corner of the living room the place for his artwork and comic books and schoolpapers. But mostly, I blame the fact that that he's never seen one of those corny Christmas specials.

December 19, 2008

Snow day

My husband and I had planned a quiet day by the fire, just the two of us. Taking a day to ourselves right before the holidays is one of our Christmas traditions, something we do instead of exchanging presents. He had taken the day off from work: I'd gotten out the massage oil and lingerie.

Plans for the day changed just a bit when a snowstorm came through the region and the kids — oh, happy day — ended up home with us. We had a nice day, the six of us hanging out by the fire, eating and talking, mocking Christmas specials that my daughter had looked up on her laptop. But it wasn't quite what we had envisioned.

Before I step

Snow gathering on the back step, right at the beginning of the storm. I always stop to admire the pattern of the fresh snow before stepping into it.

December 18, 2008

Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat the sounding joy

In the evening, our piano is in constant use. Shaggy Hair Boy, With-a-Why, or Quick will leap up in the middle of a card game to play something if the mood strikes them. It's especially nice during the winter to sit by the fire and listen to the piano music mixing with the conversation in the room. The other night, while Shaggy Hair and With-a-Why were goofing around with the balance board, trying to see if they could balance each other's weight, they naturally decided to play the piano at the same time. They did a song they played at the holiday recital, a four-handed version of Joy to the World.

December 17, 2008


Film Guy once described the lifestyle in our household as "communal." Usually, that's a good thing. Our couch is always piled with kids (or young adults, you might call some of them), and on weekends, the floor is strewn with sleeping bodies. Any of the kids will just grab a pillow or blanket, and find a spot on the couch or floor. When the kids play Ultimate, they bring a pile of black shirts and white shirts to the field with them, and every time they choose teams, everyone switches shirts. We have shelves and hooks in the laundry room filled with warm clothing, too, that are used by anyone going outside in winter weather. With so many kids and extras, it makes sense to share.

When I found head lice on With-a-Why, the communal aspects of our life seemed suddenly ominous. When I tried to think of every place my youngest son's sweet head had been, I felt overwhelmed.

A reader asked, "Did you have to wash all his bedding?" Um, yeah. We had to wash EVERY PIECE of bedding in the ENTIRE house. My husband piled sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and quilts into his car and spent the evening at the laundromat. I took any decorative pillows that didn't have cases on them, put them in a big trash bag, and stuck them out in the garage, figuring that the frigid temperatures would eventually kill any lice. I don't know how long I need to leave them there, but likely, I'll forget about them altogether and find them in the spring. With hoodies and winter coats, we followed the "20 minutes in a clothes dryer" rule of thumb.

I've spent the last couple of days checking the scalps of every person who walks into the house: the little neighbor kids, the teenage boys, my parents. It's amazing how quickly we've all gotten used to this basic primate behavior. Everyone will be sitting by the fire, talking like usual, and I'll just walk over, hunker down like a chimp, and start inspecting Shaggy Hair's scalp. First Extra even asked me to check his scalp, "I felt itchy as soon as I heard." When the boys were playing a card game, I took the opportunity to probe their scalps with my fingernails. None of them even looked up. Checking for nits has become socially accepted behavior.

Somehow, incredibly, the lice has not spread past With-a-Why. Given the way we live, this seems miraculous. Thankfully, because he's the baby of the family, With-a-Why still asks me to comb the tangles out of his long hair in the morning: otherwise, I would never have caught the lice in time.

Killing the lice was the easy part. I slathered half a jar of mayonnaise on With-a-Why's head, gave him a plastic wrap turban, and topped that off with a washable winter hat. He looked so cute with all the hair off his face. Boy in Black, who was playing a game with him to keep him busy, said, "That smell makes me want a sandwich." But the mayonnaise worked, and the lice were smothered to death. (Since then, I've found that olive oil can also be used as a smothering agent. It probably smells better. But the mayonnaise does have the advantage of being easy to slather on. It doesn't drip, and I was able to pile all that hair on the top of his head and make it into cool sculptures before adding the plastic wrap.)

The harder part has been removing the nits — the translucent little eggs that cling tenaciously to the strands of hair. I measured With-a-Why's hair, just so I could get the credit I deserve for this task. It's 22 inches long. He has dark silky hair, very fine in texture, but lots and lots of it. Apparently, that's just what a louse looks for in a home. I have spent hours and hours combing nits out of that hair. Literally. And I am going to have to keep checking his head every night for weeks to make sure I've gotten them all.

Boy in Black keeps looking up facts about lice on the internet. Some are helpful: "You need a metal fine-tooth comb, not a cheap plastic one." He was right: the metal comb was way more effective. And I was hugely relieved when he reported that cats do not catch head lice from humans. I had already imagined putting each cat in the dryer for twenty minutes.

Red-haired Niece, who works at Ridiculously Expensive Pre-school in Big City Like No Other, reported that all her kids have had lice, and that lice don't like the smell of lavender. I rooted through my stash of essential oils for lavender, and soon all my teenage boys smelled nicer than they've smelled in a long time. And when we finally washed all the mayonnaise out of With-a-Why's hair, it was smooth and silky and beautiful. Apparently, all that gunk is really a beauty treatment.

So mostly, that's how I've spent the last few days. I've been going over and over With-a-Why's hair with a fine-tooth comb. I've been checking the scalps of all of our extras. I've been trying to train everyone in the house by showing them nits on With-a-Why's hair so they will know what they are looking for. And I keep making people check my scalp, since I am the person mostly likely to have caught the lice. When my daughter arrived home on Monday afternoon, I met her at the train station. "Hey, welcome home! Want to check my head for lice?"



December 16, 2008

The red chair

My favorite color has always been red. Partly, this was because red was one of the leftover colors. My oldest sister choose green as hers, and my next oldest sister chose blue as hers. So when my parents were color-coding things like duffel bags or scarves or camping pillows, I naturally ended up with the red ones.

More than that, though, I've always loved how bright the color red is — cheerful and full of energy. I live in a landscape that is lushly green for spring and summer, and brilliantly red-orange-yellow-gold in the fall. But from November through March, more than half the year, it's a landscape of mostly whites and greys. Oh, we have subtle colors in the winter — blues and browns and tinges of green — but still, white dominates.

I can appreciate the beauty of the winter landscape and those subtle colours. But still, my winter coat is red, my sweatshirt is red, my fleece is red, and my favorite sweater is red. My superhero cape is red. And just recently, we bought a bright red chair to put in a sunny spot in the living room. This winter, when everything outside is white and grey, I am going sit in that red chair and write.

Guarding the Christmas tree

Gretel guards the Christmas tree.

December 15, 2008

With a fine-tooth comb

This morning, as I was combing the tangles out of With-a-Why's long hair, I noticed oblong translucent beads clinging to the fine, dark strands. Head lice!

He was thrilled to hear that he could stay home from school. Boy in Black volunteered, nobly, to play computer games with him to keep him sitting still while I treated his hair and combed out the nits. My husband, who gets squirmy at even the thought of head lice, immediately began stripping the beds in the house.

With-a-Why has fine, straight hair — and lots of it. The first louse who leaped to his head must have been thrilled to find such prime real estate.

It's relaxing, really, grooming my youngest child, while he and his oldest brother talk strategy for the computer game they're playing. I'm reminded of the nature show I used to watch when I was a kid: they'd show a bunch of primates — chimps, maybe, or some kind of monkeys — just sitting around picking nits out of each other's hair.

And now when my extras, long-haired teenage boys mostly and two little neighbor kids, come over, I'll be asking them sit down so I can inspect their scalps. I try to think of it as a new way to make them feel welcome.

December 14, 2008

Early winter

Early winter

The streams and lakes aren't frozen yet, but it's beginning to look like winter.

December 12, 2008

Ice age coming ... and we still have school

Ice age is coming ... and we still have school

"Our superintendent is from Alaska. That's why." That was the bitter complaint, the rumor that spread on the bus as it rolled over icy, snow-covered roads.

When I was a kid, all the other schools got more snow days than us. It never seemed fair.

The hope for a snow day usually began when I'd come downstairs in the morning and hear the radio. That sound meant that my mother was listening for school closings. We kids would gather at the kitchen table while my mother spooned out bowls of hot oatmeal with canned peaches floating in it.

When the announcer would say, "These schools closed," my mother would turn the little nob to make the sound louder, and I'd put down my spoon to cross my fingers. How cruel it would be when our school didn't make the list.

We'd grumble as we put on boots, coats, and mittens, grabbing out lunches and books. (No one carried backpacks in those days: they hadn't been invented yet.) Any other day, we might have gone cheerfully out to wait for the bus, maybe even looked forward to seeing our friends, but the knowledge that OTHER KIDS had the day off, that OTHER KIDS were happily climbing back into bed or getting out their sleds or getting dressed to go build snowforts -- well, that was hard to take.

Of course, my kids' generation is more pro-active than mine. They have rituals around the wish for a snow day. When a snowstorm is predicted, they wear their pajamas inside out and backwards. This is supposed to guarantee a snow day. Sometimes it works, of course. We do get an awful lot of snow here.

But other times, like today, it doesn't. "It's because not enough kids wore their clothes inside out," Shaggy Hair Boy complained as I picked him after school. "EVERYONE BUT US had a snow day today."

The district has a new superintendent, as the other one retired years ago, but the rumor has not changed since my childhood: "It's because the superintendent is from Alaska. That's why."

The title of this post was With-a-Why's away message today.

December 11, 2008



Shaggy Hair Boy no longer wears braces.

I'd hate to add up how much time I've spent in the waiting room of the orthodontist's office over the last ten years. We've invested an awful lot of time and money in the pursuit of straight teeth for all four kids. But this spring, With-a-Why's braces should come off too.

And then I'm never setting foot in an orthodontist's office again.

December 10, 2008

Near a sunny window


The other day, I decided to stop feeling miserable about all the portfolios I needed to grade. I like teaching. I like my students. I enjoy reading their ideas. Surely, this process didn't need to be so painful.

So I built a fire, made myself a cup of hot tea, and settled onto the comfy couch. Boy in Black already occupied the other end of the couch. In fact, he had completely covered the coffee table with textbooks that had enticing titles like Electromagnetics and Introduction to Real Analysis and Thermal Physics and Analytical Mechanics. He has five final exams this week, and he was busy studying. "Studying" in this case meant gathering all his books together and taking a nap near them. When I moved his stuff to make room for my stack of portfolios, he stirred long enough to say, "Hey! What are you doing? That's my table of knowledge!"

I had a peaceful afternoon grading portfolios. I drank hot tea. I ate cookies I'd brought home from a campus bake sale. I looked out the window to see how sparkly the snow looked. When the fire got low, I put on more logs. I heated myself up some vegetable soup. I had a lazy conversation with Boy in Black. I graded a few portfolios.

I tried to enjoy the distractions rather than get annoyed by them. Quick brought over the sheet music to a rag called "Graceful Ghost," and With-a-Why played the first page of it over and over again. The neighbor kids came over late afternoon, and I spent an hour playing with the wooden blocks and train tracks. When it grew dark, I walked the neighbor kids home and made pasta. By then, Shaggy Hair was playing the piano, mostly just improvising. Boy in Black had woken up long enough to cover a piece of paper with formulas. I graded a few more portfolios. I ate the tofutti that my husband had gone out in a snowstorm to get for me.

It was an enjoyable day. I felt peaceful and content. Zenlike, almost. There was only one problem. I GOT HARDLY ANY WORK DONE. Out of the stack of portfolios balanced next to Boy in Black's textbooks, I had graded only a handful. At the rate I was going, I would be still grading portfolios well into the new year.

So the next day, I went back to my old way of doing things. I locked myself in my home office. I talked to no one, except to snap at anyone who dared come near me. I sat on an uncomfortable desk chair and felt miserable. I didn't build a fire. I ignored the teenagers when they came home from school. Between portfolios, I did nothing but stare miserably at the stack. But at least it got the job done.

In my next life, I want to be a cat.

December 09, 2008

And gathering swallows TWITTER in the skies

Over Thanksgiving, I was talking to my kids and a bunch of college-age extras about my experience with SuperPoke, a facebook application which lets you publicly send your online friends silly expressions. See, at first, I didn't grasp that much of the language on SuperPoke was taken from the world of online dating. And I didn't understand that many of the expressions were .... um, metaphors. Mostly metaphors for sexual activity. I pretty much had no idea. I thought "trout slapping" meant throwing fish. And "motorboating" meant giving people rides in a boat. And that "teabag" meant I would be giving someone a hot cup of tea.

Looking these phrases up in the urban slang dictionary was quite a revelation. I suddenly found out I'd been doing all kinds of perverse things with my blogging friends. (Some of my friends were as innocent as I was, while others were smiling at me and just waiting to see what happened when I figured it out.)

Anyhow, at Thanksgiving, when I was explaining my mistakes to the young people in the room, most of whom are also my facebook "friends," they laughed hysterically at my ignorance. They kept saying things like, "OMG! How could you not know?"

Then last weekend, I was sitting by the fire with my laptop when Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter glanced at my screen.

Daughter: What are you doing?
Me: I'm on twitter.
Daughter: Twitter?
Shaggy Hair Boy: (smirking) That's what she said.
Me: It's a social networking site.
Daughter: You want to know what twitter really means?
Me: Lots of people use it.
Daughter: People your age, who don't know what it means.
Boy in Black: (looking down at a page of physics) Stop! I don't want to hear it.
Me: There's nothing obscene about the word twitter.
Daughter: Okay, if you want to think that ....
Me: No, seriously. It's the sound birds make or something like that.
Me: It's even in that Keats' poem.
Daughter: Look it up.

(a few minutes later)

Me: Oh. My. God.
Daughter: (looking over my shoulder) They phrased it quite nicely.
Me: Well, I'd prefer the word perineum.
Boy in Black: (without looking up) I'm trying to study here.
Me: So when people use it as a verb ... I'm twittering ... what would that even mean?
Shaggy Hair Boy: We really don't need to hear any more.
Daughter: (laughs)
Me: Slang words that refer to women's body parts almost always —
Boy in Black: Can we stop talking about this?
Me: Maybe I should look up tweet or twit or —
Shaggy Hair Boy: MOM!
Daughter: Or maybe you should do it some other time.
Boy in Black: When I'm not here.

December 07, 2008

I've been a sinner, I've been a scamp

We piled into my car: my daughter at the wheel, then my parents, Blonde Niece, and me. "Isn't this fun?" I said to my daughter. "A road trip with your grandparents, your mother, and your cousin!"

She rolled her eyes, "I guess this means I can't play MY music."

We stopped to get food and drink, and then we were off. It was pretty short, as far as road trips go. We were traveling to Camera City to stay with my brother and his wife, and they live less than 100 miles away.

The highlight of the visit, and really, the point of it, was to see Drama Niece in a play. She goes to Fancy Arts School, an urban high school that draws talented kids from the whole area and puts on the most amazing theater productions. The sets alone, built by kids in the school who take courses in set design, are worth seeing. The set we saw Friday night was a two-story set that looked like a luxury ship and included two curving staircases.

The production was "Anything Goes," a fast-paced play filled with jokes, silly plot twists, and the music of Cole Porter. Drama Niece played Reno, which meant she had a chance to perform numbers like "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Anything Goes" and "Let's Misbehave" and "Blow Gabriel Blow." The school orchestra, 32 musicians in all, backed her up on the songs. The role meant she wore glamorous, glittery outfits — I lost track of how many costume changes she had. The silly plot gave her the chance to get the audience laughing with gestures, expressions, and subtle body movements.

When Drama Niece is on stage, she gets so into character that I forget that it's her and simply get drawn into the play. As my readers (and certainly anyone who knows me in real life) know, I have no musical or acting talent at all — I can't even carry a tune — so the talent of family members just stuns me. It's fascinating to watch how Drama Niece can get a reaction from the whole audience with a simple uplift of a shoulder or raising of an eyebrow.

Drama Niece has had starring roles in just about every musical the school has put on, so we all knew she could sing and act. But this play presented a new challenge: tap dancing! When I saw her after the show, I said, "I didn't know you could tap dance," and she said, "I didn't either, until this show." She'd spend every study hall down in the music studio, practicing. The nine other girls dancing with her in the big tap-dancing scene number were mostly dance majors so they had set the bar pretty high, but she pulled it off.

Plays produced during the 1930s were almost always lively and fun, designed to take people's mind off financial troubles. As we left the play, the music of Cole Porter was still going through my head, and I felt like tap-dancing across the sidewalk in my winter boots. Tap dancing always has that affect on me. Back at my brother's house, the night ended quietly, with tea and coffee and a birthday cake. Drama Niece had just turned seventeen. Dressed in her less glamorous outfit of sweatpants and t-shirt, stage make-up still on, she blew out the candles on her cake.

Seventeen candles

December 05, 2008

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.

Bugs are edible. Mushrooms are basidiocarps. Elephants don't actually have sex.

I learned that high school doesn't prepare you at all for college.

I learned that the liver can regenerate itself.

I've learned about the importance of time management.

I learned about downcycling and how some recyclables end up in the landfill after a slightly extended life.

Worms have brains, and college is really hard.

The value of a home-cooked meal.

There's a lot of shit involved with plants.

I learned that you get as much out of something as you put into it.

I learned how to derive a function.

You can get lead poisoning from lipstick.

I learned how hard calculus really is.

Dining hall food sucks. People live longer in Andorra. Muir and Pinchot were responsible for the environmental revolution. The clitoris is an undeveloped penis.

Time management is the most important thing, especially when it comes to homework.

I failed at things I am usually good at and succeeded at things I'm normally bad at.

Because of electron clouds, some atoms are bigger than others.

Your feet are healthiest without shoes. Most Americans have foot problems by the time they are 50. Barefeet rule!

Trying to get work done in a lounge filled with friends is impossible.

Willow trees are the next generation of biofuel.

You can die from a lack of sleep.

The graveyard is a great place for class.

Chemistry in college is way harder than it is in high school.

I learned to think about my audience when I write.

In a deuterostome, the anus forms before the mouth.

It's easy to catch a cold when you live in a dorm.

A banana is an herb.

Friends are really important. Especially ones who don't bullshit.

A single parade in New York City can generate 23 tons of trash.

December 03, 2008

Last minute

Scene: Shaggy Hair is playing the piano. Boy in Black is on the couch surrounded by textbooks, papers covered with physics problems, and his laptop computer. With-a-Why has wandered over to the kitchen area with the kind of stapled worksheet that eighth graders are given for school projects.

With-a-Why: I need an empty can.
Me: Shouldn't you be in bed?
With-a-Why: I have this project due tomorrow.
Boy in Black (without even looking up): Just finish up the Ovaltine and use that.
With-a-Why (dumping out the Ovaltine): I need a rubber band.
Me: Let me see that sheet.
Shaggy Hair: We need to get the piano tuned. Listen.
Me: (over the sound of piano music) You've had THREE WEEKS to work on this.
Boy in Black: (without looking up) It's fine.
Me: It's almost ten o'clock.

With-a-Why sits down on the floor and builds a rubber-band powered Ovaltine can, while his brothers chime in with helpful suggestions.

Shaggy Hair Boy: You gonna race them?
With-a-Why: Yeah, and you get points by how far it goes.
Me: Your grade depends on whether or not the vehicle works?
With-a-Why: I get at least a 60 for doing the worksheet. It needs to go at least two feet to get more than that.
Boy in Black: Where'd we put the skateboard bearings I got to fix the vacuum cleaner with? Try them.
Me: You've had THREE WEEKS and you're just doing this now?
Boy in Black: It's fine.

With-a-Why: The hole needs to be bigger.
Shaggy Hair Boy: That's what she said.
Me: None of you get enough sleep.
With-a-Why: There's too much friction.
Boy in Black: You need friction to make it go forward.
Shaggy Hair Boy: I think you're winding —
With-a-Why: I need a new rubber band.

Scene two: In the car. I've just picked With-a-Why up from school.

Me: How did you make out with the rubber band thing?
With-a-Why: Uh, it was on the fritz.
Me: Did it move?
With-a-Why: I got 60.
Me: It didn't work? At all?
With-a-Why: You're going to say, "That's what you get for doing it at the last minute."
Me: I didn't say that.
With-a-Why: You were thinking that.

Me: So tell me what happened. It didn't move at all?
With-a-Why: It went 60 feet.
Me: 60 feet?
With-a-Why: It would have gone even farther if the wall wasn't there.

Me: (laughing) I was hoping you'd learn some kind of lesson about not doing stuff at the last minute.
With-a-Why: Doing it at the last minute helped.
Me: How do you figure that?
With-a-Why: I didn't have time to do anything complicated so I had to go with a simple design.
Me: Well, I think you're lucky you had siblings to help.
With-a-Why: If it had curved to the left, it would have gone into the attendance office.
With-a-Why: You get bonus points if your vehicle goes into the attendance office and messes with things.
Me: So you didn't really get a 60.
With-a-Why: I got a 100.
With-a-Why: That's what you get when you do it at the last minute.

December 02, 2008

We're ready


I've put snow tires on my car. We've bought snowboarding passes. Last week, I pulled bags of winter clothing out of the cedar chest and tried to match up all the mittens and gloves. (I've gotten less picky about this over the years -- so long as each pair has a right and a left, they don't have to exactly match.) The warm socks are piled in a bin, ready to be worn. In a seasonal fit of binge-cleaning, I even tackled the garage, tossing junk and gathering recyclables and hanging the bikes from the ceiling. The snow shovels are on the front porch. The ice scrapers are in the cars. The firewood is stacked, ready to be carried into the living room, an armful at a time.

December 01, 2008

Hate mail, Club Libby Lu, and me

More than two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Club Libby Lu, the store that promotes "make-over" parties for little girls, parties where a girl as young as four or five is dressed as either a princess or a sex object, parties that end with the little girls dancing with "sexy moves" in the window of the mall store. Actually, my post wasn't so much about Club Libby Lu as it was about the conversations I have with my students during the ten minutes before class begins and about how two blog posts about Club Libby Lu led to a discussion about consumerism, the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls, and damaging gender stereotypes. But my post ended up being the target of many google searches, mostly from parents planning birthday parties. Because I'd dared to criticize Club Libby Lu, the post led to hundreds of hate emails.

For the record (and to repeat what I said in some of the comments on my posts), I am completely in favor of kids, both boys and girls, playing dress-up and experimenting with all kinds of costumes and roles. But Club Libby Lu gives the girls only two options: you can be the pretty princess (and a princess by definition is someone born into power and wealth, not an empowered woman who chooses her path) or you can be the sex object rock star who dresses slutty for an audience. Girls at Club Libby Lu parties aren't given the option of scientist, or pilot, or doctor, or firefighter.

And yes, I'm appalled at the way how young children are sexualized at a place like Club Libby Lu. When sexuality is forced on kids before they are ready, it is artificial, and not at all empowering. The first couple of strange comments I got about Club Libby Lu, I made an honest effort to explain some of this, but soon I figured out that commenters never came back to hear what I had to say. When I turned the comments off on the post, I began getting the hate email.

Much of the hatemail begins or ends with an insult to my character. If I look critically at Club Libby Lu, then surely, there must be something wrong with me. Anonymous readers tell me that they feel sorry for my husband, with the implication that anyone who criticizes Club Libby Lu must be frigid. They tell me that I'm an "uptight bitch" and that they feel sorry for my children, who clearly never get to have any fun at all because of their evil feminist mother.

Many of the emails tell me that I need to "lighten up." Why is that whenever feminists analyze gender roles, someone tells them to "lighten up"? The implication is that it is better to just go through life with your brain turned off. My favorite insult was the anonymous person (hate mail is almost always anonymous) who called me a "childless prude who clearly has no clue what it takes to raise kids." That made me laugh.

What appalls me most about the hate mail is not the venom that pours out; that's just misdirected anger and I shrug it off. No, what's shocking is how poorly the emails are written. Has the state of public education in this country sunk to such a level that adults can't communicate in whole sentences? Must their insults be so unoriginal? And what ever happened to making a logical argument?

The biggest defense of Club Libby Lu — well, actually, the only defense I can glean from any of these rambling and poorly written emails — is that the girls have "fun" at the parties. Yep, that's the whole defense. "But it's fun." One parent said he had reservations about the place because of the sexist messages it seemed to be sending, but that he was glad he kept his mouth shut because his daughter "had fun." That seems a curious defense to me. I know people who think that torturing animals is fun — I knew kids when I was growing up who shot birds for fun — and the fact that the kids think it's "fun" doesn't make it okay.

I've yet to receive an email that had any sort of logical defense for Club Libby Lu. And the hate emails are about to come to an end. As many of my readers already know, Saks is closing all their Club Libby Lu stores. By May of 2009, all 98 stores — including the one that opened here in April of 2006 — will be closed. The Saks news release said simply that the stores were "not profitable." I suspect it is the economy more than cultural change that has brought about the end of Club Libby Lu, but still, I am relieved to see those doors shutting.