December 29, 2010

Maybe tomorrow

One morning, soon after my oldest two kids had moved back home for the month-long winter break, my daughter and I settled by the fire to do work. Since the boys were asleep, the house was quiet.

Then I heard a thumping noise coming from upstairs. It sounded like someone jumping rope. I set down my laptop to go upstairs and investigate when my daughter offered an explanation.

“Oh, that’s Boy in Black. He must be planning to take a shower,” she said, barely glancing up from the stack of papers she was grading.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s his rule,” she said. “He doesn’t get a shower unless he’s done a bunch of exercises.”

That’s right. Boy in Black won’t shower unless he first does push-ups, planks, and leg lifts. The jump roping comes last: I know after I hear the thumping noises that I’ll hear the shower run.

“Yeah, I keep to the rule even when I'm at a tournament,” Boy in Black told me when I asked him about it. “Even if I've played a 100 points and I'm exhausted, I won’t take a shower until I've done my exercises.”

I like the common-sense idea of incorporating exercise into my life by tying it to something routine. Last night, I resolved that I would do 50 stomach crunches before taking a shower. My abdominal muscles could use a little tightening.

This morning, I got up, thought about exercising, and then decided that since I was staying home today, I didn’t need a shower anyhow.

Clearly, I am not as self-disciplined as my oldest son.

December 27, 2010

Christmas music

This year we broke with more than 50 years of tradition. We didn’t gather at my mother’s house for Christmas dinner. Instead, everyone came to my house.

When we discussed the change, my mother said, “You’re going to have to move Christmas dinner to your house after I cork off. We might as well do it now and not wait for a funeral. I don’t want my death to cast a pall over Christmas festivities.” (For the record, she and my father are still in good health.)

So Christmas morning, I coerced my sons into cleaning the downstairs of the house. My husband set up several card tables in the living room. My daughter covered them with white tablecloths and added beeswax candles. They searched through the kitchen cupboard and managed to come up with 20 china plates and 20 sets of silverware. I made an apple cinnamon version of squash soup, barbecue baked beans, oven-roasted potatoes, tortellini salad with artichoke hearts, chickpea salad with cucumber and red onion, green peas, and dinner rolls. Blond Brother-in-law arrived carrying a fully-cooked ham, while Schoolteacher Niece made macaroni and cheese. Urban Sophisticate brought wine.

We did the same things we always do at my mother’s: we talked and ate, and then played games. One group gathered in front of the fire to play Clue, while another group played Boggle at the kitchen table. The rest of us just sat around talking, with mugs of hot tea.

The nicest part about having everyone at our house is that we could all play the piano. I played the Christmas song I’ve been practicing over and over again (“Away in the Manager”), and With-a-Why played some of the classical pieces he does so beautifully. Then my father pulled out his clarinet, and he and Shaggy Hair Boy settled down to jam while the rest of us drank more tea and ate more chocolate cupcakes.

60 years between them

December 26, 2010


Candle ceremony

On Christmas Eve, we gathered in my parents’ living room: on the couch, on chairs dragged in from the kitchen, on the floor. Since the little kids who used to fit nicely on laps have become adults, it was a tight fit. I brought the box of candles we’ve used for years and began handing them out. Some of the candles are burned down to stubs, and I supplemented this year by buying some new long candles, which led to inappropriate jokes from the males in the family.

Our tradition is to turn out all the lights, and then begin by lighting one candle. We pass the flame from person to person, each of us saying something we’re thankful for as we light our candles, until everyone’s candle is lit. Then we sing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I think we settled on that song because it’s the one that the cartoon characters sing a the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. (We didn’t watch much television as kids so I think we were disproportionately influenced by the shows we did watch.) I always try to sit next to Tie-Dye Brother-in-law during the song since he’s the only one in the family who hasn’t noticed yet that I can’t carry a tune.

One of my nieces said, as she lit her candle, “This week at work, so many people were complaining about having to spend time with their families over the holidays. I’m thankful I’ve got a family I like spending time with.”

December 23, 2010

Home for the holidays

Queen of the hill

Last night I drove downtown with my parents and Urban Sophisticate Sister to see the Christmas lights. We parked near the skating rink, which was filled with bundled-up teenagers, skating round and round. The little side streets of bars, restaurants, and shops twinkled with white lights that had been strung on tree branches. We walked into a shop filled with pottery and artwork; my sister bought a ring made by a local artist. Because Urban Sophisticate lives in Big City Like No Other, I don’t think the big Christmas tree in Snowstorm City impressed her; she was more interested in the piles of snow. She climbed up one so that I could snap a blurry photo with her phone.

When I returned to my own house, the young people were gathering by the fire. I’d declared the evening a “no-computer” night, so the laptops were piled upstairs on my daughter’s bed. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter made vegetarian chili in the crockpot. Boy in Black added a leaf to the table, which was soon filled with food. With-a-Why and Quick played a game of chess, sitting on the floor amidst the noise and confusion. Film Guy and his girlfriend, Sparkly Eyes, arrived with cookies and chatter. Skater Boy sat on the piano bench and played his guitar. Shaggy Hair Boy made punch, while Sailor Boy got out bottles of champagne.

Boy in Black said it felt odd, after being so busy as a grad student during the semester, to have time on his hands. He’d even gone shopping with his sister and Film Guy. “I got up, and had nothing to do, so I went to the mall,” he said. “It’s like I’m a thirteen-year-old girl.”

“I’ve still got work to do,” said my daughter. “Research. I’m going to do some work later tonight.” Her words weren’t very convincing. She was cuddled on the couch next to Sailor Boy, with a glass of champagne in her hand.

Quick looked up from the chessboard. “In which Xmen movie did Professor Xavier beat Magneto in chess?”

“Couldn’t be the first one,” said Sailor Boy. “Because he went to prison at the end of that.”

“Right,” said my husband. “The game took place in prison so it must have been the second.”

“This is a pretty dude-heavy party,” said Sparkly Eyes, looking over at me with a smile.

The nights are long this time of year, but somehow the time goes by fast while we’re cooking, eating, talking, and just hanging out by the fire. It was well past midnight before my husband and I went up to bed. It felt good to know that we didn’t need to set an alarm. All of the kids were safely home, and the house was filled with food and music.

December 22, 2010

Auld Lang Syne

Our house has been filled with Christmas music this month: I love hearing With-a-Why or Shaggy Hair Boy play Vince Guaraldi’s score from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And of course, December is the month for holiday recitals.

Now that I’ve been playing piano for almost a year, I have new appreciation for these kids who go up to the piano and play songs in front of a crowd. I pay special attention to little kids near the beginning of the program. I find myself nodding sympathetically as a seven-year-old misses a note. “Yeah, it’s hard when your hands are doing two different things,” I think to myself. It helps for me to hear beginning students struggle to play the piano, because my own children are way past that stage.

With-a-Why and Shaggy Hair Boy played a couple of duets at this year’s recitals, and as always, the crowd loved them. It’s not just that they are talented musicians (they are), but there’s something about seeing two brothers, sitting side by side, their four hands moving confidently over the keys. Shaggy Hair Boy, with his wild curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, has an expressive face that’s fun to watch while he’s playing, while With-a-Why is a shy and serious kid who lets his dark silky hair hide his face while he’s playing. They both love music, and it shows in the way they play. Afterward every piano recital, other parents always come up to me and say, “You must be so proud of those boys!” Their piano teacher, whom we all adore, said to me, “Your boys are the reason I love what I do.”

This week, the two brothers took their piano playing skills to the assisted-living home where my mother-in-law lives. They had to make do with a small keyboard instead of the grand piano they get to use at the music studio, and they mostly played simple Christmas songs that the crowd could sing. My husband grabbed a microphone and led the singing. Someone in a wheelchair would yell out the name of a Christmas song. Shaggy Hair Boy would page through the book until he found the song, and then he and With-a-Why would just start playing it.

The program officially ended at 4 pm, but hardly anyone left the room. My husband, goaded by a crowd of elderly women, sang some Elvis songs complete with corny dance moves. (He loves to impersonate Elvis, and he’s got the right kind of voice.) The boys did a jazzy duet of “Go, Tell it on a Mountain.” Then they did several of the songs from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. With-a-Why played some of his classical pieces, and then he and Shaggy Hair Boy just both started fooling around at the piano, the way they always do, talking and laughing as they play. Even though With-a-Why is incredibly shy, he’s completely unself-conscious when he’s focused on music.

The elderly women in the room kept motioning me to come over to them, and then they’d say things like, “You have a wonderful family.” That’s something I never get tired of hearing.

Auld Lang Syne

December 20, 2010

Knocking at icicles

Sled run

On Saturday, Little Biker Boy called to see if we could babysit him all day. “Ponytail is here too,” he said. We hadn’t seen her since the kids moved.

We had some nice moments: the kids were excited to see the Christmas tree all decorated, and Little Biker Boy bragged about how he had picked it out. We unpacked the Christmas village that goes under the tree: they loved playing with the houses and trains and little figures. They sat at the kitchen table and colored Christmas pictures for the front door. “Just like last year,” Little Biker Boy said. He loves traditions even more than I do.

But it was also a long day. The two kids acted out in the ways that they always have when they are under stress: Little Biker Boy had fits of rage, while Ponytail kept bursting into tears. The two kids kept yelling at each other. My own kids were out doing errands, so I was thankful my husband was here to help out. At one point, we just had to separate the kids: he took Little Biker Boy upstairs to read comic books while I stayed at the table with Ponytail.

It was pretty clear that Ponytail has had a tough few weeks. She cried and clung to me. She avoided my eyes when I asked questions. She kept saying, “I’m not used to living with my Dad.” Later she said that he’s mean, and that he yells at her and hits her. At her new school, there are four girls who are mean to her. She misses her mother. She wishes she still lived down the street.

My husband came up with a project: he needed the icicles knocked off the building he works in. So we climbed into the car and drove to his workplace. Little Biker Boy threw himself into the project with gusto and spent a happy half an hour whacking at the ice with a shovel. Ponytail didn’t want to help but she stood in a snowbank with me and cheered as ice came clattering down. She kept picking up icicles to suck on.

Back at home, Little Biker Boy helped me build a fire. The kids went outside to sled on our front hill, but kept fighting so much that I wanted to toss them both into the snowbank. Finally, Ponytail came in to sit with me, while Little Biker Boy grabbed the shovel and cleared the edges of the driveway. When he came in, he said, “I feel better when I shovel.”

By suppertime, we were all tired. We stopped at a pizza place. “Can we call you Mom?” Little Biker Boy asked. They love that game. They took my hands as we walked in, and kept calling me “Mom” the whole time. They managed to fight over the pizza: I can’t even remember what that argument was about. Little Biker Boy told me about the fight he’d had with his mother that morning: she’d slapped him in the face.

As difficult as the kids were, it was even more difficult to take them home, to drop them off and return them to what can’t possible be a good situation.

I wish I had a different story to tell.

December 19, 2010

In the icy parking lot

When we pulled into the grocery store parking lot tonight, everyone began arguing about who was going to run in and grab the stuff we needed. There were seven of us in the warm car, the whole family plus Sailor Boy. No one was volunteering to venture out into the cold.

Our discussion was cut short when Shaggy Hair Boy looked out the window and said, “Hey, why are there so many cops here?”

Two patrol cars had just pulled in, and six cops were walking purposefully toward the front doors. Boy in Black and Sailor Boy got out of the car immediately. Nothing exciting ever happens at this small town grocery store. Shaggy Hair Boy joined them, and they disappeared into the store.

“Of course, now we’ll going to have to wait forever,” said my daughter. She’s right. We hadn’t exactly sent in the most efficient shoppers.

My husband, impatient to know what was happening, went in and came back minutes later, carrying a small bag of chips. “I felt obligated to buy something,” he explained.

What he’d seen was a female cop sitting on the floor behind the service desk, talking to a small child, about two or three years old. Apparently, she’d been found out in the parking lot, alone.

I rolled down the window to look out across the parking lot. That explained why the cops were walking around the lot, looking under cars, going up and down the rows. The speakers that hung above the front door of the store were blasting cheerful Christmas music, which seemed eerie as the cops searched and we looked around, wondering if we’d see a frantic parent, a dead body, or perhaps another abandoned child.

When I went into the store 15 minutes later to hurry the boys along, a man about my age arrived to pick up the child. Someone told me he was the grandfather. The little girl hung onto his jacket while he talked to the cops and filled out paperwork. We never found out the rest of the story.

December 18, 2010

Pass the cough drops

It seems to happen every fall semester. At Thanksgiving time, my students go home to see their families and exchange viruses. Then, during the last week of classes, during their final presentations, the classroom is filled with sniffling and coughing. As I’m grading their portfolios, I start to feel my sinuses filling, and I need a box of tissues at my side. By the time I submit their final grades, I’ve come down with a miserable cold.

December 17, 2010

Wind chimes

Wind chimes

The day after a storm, a layer of snow muffles the outdoor world. In the stillness, the only sound I hear is an occasional tinkling of the chimes that hang from the house. The music makes me think of sailboats in a harbor, anchored on a sunny day.

December 15, 2010

Snowflakes in the air

Snow is falling outside, but it’s warm by the fire. Boy in Black is in the red chair; he put the wooden leaf from our kitchen table on top of the ottoman, and he’s got his laptop balanced there. Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why are using the other two little tables in the room. My husband’s laptop is on the kitchen table. When it comes right down to it, none of us really like to balance our computers in our laps.

With-a-Why is writing a paper about John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick: he’s arguing that what humans consider justice is often injustice for other animals and how humans treat non-human animals is a violation of the kinds of justices proposed by the three philosophers. He’s staring at his laptop screen, but he’s got a printed out copy of the paper that his sister has written all over. Shaggy Hair Boy, sitting on the couch amidst a pile of crumpled math papers, is studying for a final exam.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is sitting at the hearth, grading psychology exams. She’s incredibly focused, but she’ll look up from time to time to read a snippet to Film Guy, who is also getting a graduate degree in psychology. Film Guy is standing at the kitchen counter, making brownies. For some reason, he’s been making brownies a lot these days. We never have eggs so he keeps substituting other stuff: the cornstarch substitute failed miserably, so tonight he’s trying mashed up banana.

Because everyone has work to do, no one is at the piano. I can hear fingers clicking on computer keyboards, the flip of paper as my daughter turns the pages of the psychology exams, and the crackle of the fire. Every once in a while, Shaggy Hair Boy looks up and asks Boy in Black a question about calculus. Boy Black shakes his hair out of his face and answers with some kind of math formula. My husband looks up from his computer to announce something about the stock market.

Four of the cats have joined us. Rogue has taken a spot under the Christmas tree, so the reddish lights are making her fur look strange. (The tree is decorated, but I haven’t set up the village yet: I’m saving that for Little Biker Boy and Ponytail.) Emmy is stretched out under the piano bench. Trouble is on the back of Boy in Black’s chair. Gretel is curled up next to the pile of psychology exams. When With-a-Why gets tired of the paper he’s writing, he stands up, stretches, and goes to the piano.

River birches in December

River birches in December

Here's the scene out the window as I sit in my warm kitchen and eat lunch.

December 14, 2010


When our kids were little, we always took a whole afternoon to get the Christmas tree. We’d dress warm and spend hours tramping around a farmer's field, knocking the snow off branches of trees and arguing about whether or not the tree we’d picked was big enough before finally choosing one to cut down.

Last year, when we realized that the kids were really too old to get excited about choosing the Christmas tree, my husband and I went by ourselves to look for a tree. We found a local farmer who sets up a Christmas tree stand in a parking lot in the middle of a nearby village. He and his teenage sons were so cheerful and nice about helping us choose a tree that we agreed to go back to the same place this year.

“But still, it’s not as much fun without the kids,” I said to my husband last week. “I miss the kids being little.”

He looked up from his laptop. “I know a kid who would love to come with us.”

When we picked up Little Biker Boy Saturday evening, he was wearing new fingerless gloves. “Look!” he yelled. “I look like Boy in Black now!”

“Yep,” I said. “You look just like one of my sons.”

“They gave me new clothes at school,” he said. “And toys. And some wrestling magazines.”

I looked at him as he climbed into the car.

“It was my last day,” he said. “I hafta go to a new school on Monday.”

He’d never been to a Christmas tree stand before. The cut trees were leaning against wooden stands, rows and rows of them, with leftover trees piled in the snow banks. Strings of white lights looped above our heads.

“I’m taking a picture in my head,” Little Biker Boy announced. “I’ve got 31 pictures of you in my head.” He stood still for a minute, as if he was memorizing the scene.

That was the last time he stood still.

He ran up and down the rows, touching the trees and putting his face up to smell them. Every time we almost chose a tree, he’d change his mind and run over to look at a different tree. He picked up a cut branch lying in the snow, and swooshed it through the air as if it was a light saber. He barged into the little trailer, and then yelled to the farmer, “Is this where you live?”

He was fascinated by the baling machine. When a couple bought a tree, the farmer lifted the tree and pushed it through the machine, and the tree came out the other side all bound with twine. Little Biker Boy climbed up onto the back of the machine and would have dived into it headfirst if I hadn’t grabbed the back of his jacket.

The teenage boy who was helping us was endlessly patient. Every time Little Biker Boy would point to a tree, he’d pull it out and hold it up so we could see how tall it was, and how full. Then Little Biker Boy would say, “I see a better one over there,” and he’d point to the other end of the lot.

When I figured we’d all had enough, I said quietly to Little Biker Boy, “If we have enough time, we can get pizza and bring it home.”

Little Biker Boy pointed to the tree that my husband was looking at. “Okay, that one.”

Within minutes, we had the tree tied to the roof of the car. My own kids were home by the fire when we arrived. Boy in Black was working on his laptop, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter was grading psychology exams, Shaggy Hair Boy was playing the piano, and With-a-Why was reading a book. “We have pizza!” Little Biker Boy announced. “And chicken wings! And I picked the tree! And I look just like Boy in Black now.”

My daughter smiled and gave him a hug. Boy in Black held up his own fingerless gloves. With-a-Why looked up and said, “I’m hungry.” Shaggy Hair Boy began playing “O Tannenbaum.”

We put the tree in the corner of the room, and I filled the stand with water. Little Biker Boy got down on the floor to sneak behind the tree, and then kept crawling around and around, like a wind-up toy.
Around and around

December 11, 2010

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 that taking care of my mental health is most important … and sledding down a hill on a table can end very badly.

You really can build a house out of straw.

You can use the internet to find out which animals have sex.

Vinyl is evil.

Sleep is not overrated.

I learned that sometimes you just have to take a risk and have fun.

I love to write just to write. I don’t like science. I have no idea what to do with my life.

I would not survive an avalanche.

I learned that I really love people and everyone has something to offer.

Driving in the snow can be dangerous.

I have learned how to tune out drunk kids coming home at 3:30 am.

Freewriting is awesome. Sleep is amazing. Facebook is the enemy.

Opportunity cost is the value of the next best alternate forgone.

The safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million.

Nerf basketball and small dorm rooms don’t mix.

Drunk people are very fun to mess with.

It’s possible to live mostly off Ramen noodles.

Calculus is hard.

It’s really necessary to make good friends.

I learned that not everyone dedicates Sundays to watching football.

Seventy percent of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. Only about 7 percent comes from hydro power.

Rubix cubes can be used as weapons.

It’s worth it to bring the map.

Belarus is the country most contaminated by Chernobyl.

How important it is to keep an open mind.

The value of going to the bathroom without people walking in and out is something you never consider until you go to college.

All-nighters are a terrible idea.

Passion can be a great gift or a great burden

Campus is 41 miles from a nuclear power plant.

A line becomes a circle from a farther perspective.

It all comes down to finding a balance.

December 09, 2010

With my bare hands

“There’s a fly in here.” That’s the first thing my mother-in-law said when I walked into her room this evening. She’s in her 80s and very frail.

“What?” I asked.

“A fly,” she said. “It’s driving me crazy. It touches everything.”

I tried to change the subject, but all she wanted to talk about was the fly.

Then I saw it. There really was a fly, zooming around the room. I don’t know where it came from. It’s cold outside, and we’ve got several feet of snow on the ground.

I started chasing the fly. I didn’t have a flyswatter, but I figured it I flattened my palm and snapped my forearm from the elbow, I could be a human flyswatter.

My mother-in-law can’t see very well because of her macular degeneration, but she yelled helpful things anyhow. “I think it’s over there! It just went past your head!”

The institutional beige of the walls made it easy to spot the fly, but it was moving pretty fast. I smacked the arm of her chair, the edge of her bed, and the doorframe. I knocked over the lamp.

And then I got it. I killed the fly.

“Hurray!” my mother-in-law screamed. She was actually laughing aloud. “You GOT THE FLY!”

I washed my hands and tried to look modest.

We talked about other things, but then every once in awhile she’d look up out of the blue and say, “I can’t wait to tell everyone! You killed the fly!” We’d go back to talking the kids and what they were doing and what the holidays are going to be like, and then she’d burst out again, “You killed the fly!”

I drove home feeling like I’d accomplished something today.

December 08, 2010

Going, going ...

Going, going, gone

It's become a tradition for me to post a photo of my picnic table at the beginning of the winter, before it disappears.

December 06, 2010


Many times, over the last couple of years, readers have emailed me with offers to send money or gifts for Ponytail and Little Biker Boy, the two little neighbor kids, who sadly don’t live in my neighborhood any more. It’s really sweet and generous and wonderful that so many people are praying for those kids, rooting for them, and wanting to help.

I’m hoping some day, if I still have contact with these kids when they are adults, I can explain to them how they ended up touching so many lives. I’m hoping some day that I can tell Little Biker Boy and Ponytail how many people were thinking about them and praying for them.

As I’ve explained to anyone who has emailed me, we don’t need any financial support to help these kids. My husband and I can afford to buy them clothes and such. And I’ve got an extended family is willing to help them as well. Red-haired Sister, especially, has been willing to buy the kids whatever they need.

In my return emails to generous readers, I always say the same thing: There are kids like this in every community. There are kids like this in your community.

One blog friend emailed me last week to let me know that she’d gathered up a bunch of clothes and toys, and dropped them off at a shelter in her community that helps out battered women and children. She’d given them a check as well. Another reader told me that she’s kept an eye out for kids in her neighborhood who don’t have mittens: she’s vowed to keep knitting mittens to give away to any kid she sees who doesn’t have a pair. Another said she'd gone online, found the battered women's shelter in her community, and made a donation.

As bleak as I’ve felt lately, frustrated with my inability to help out these little kids that I’ve come to care about, it makes me feel hopeful to hear these stories. Trying to fight the cycle of abuse and neglect in our communities can be a discouraging battle, but the more of us who join that battle, the bigger the chance we have of winning.

December 05, 2010

Visit from Little Biker Boy

It’s only been a week, but it feels like much longer. I’ve been worried about Little Biker Boy, and I felt relieved to see him.

He and his mother have moved again. (Yes, that’s right, after only a week.) But I think it’s a good move. She broke up with the boyfriend, and she’s back on her own, in a small apartment with Little Biker Boy. She’s got a job at a little store within walking distance of the apartment. It’s about four miles from where I live.

Little Biker Boy, I could tell, had had a rough week, but he’s okay, at least for now. He’s back in school. He said that he’s seen his sister, and she likes the school she’s going to. His mother seemed fine with him coming to my house for a visit. I’m hoping we can work this into a weekly routine.

Once he was in my car, he showed me his sneakers, “The soles are coming off,” he said. “I need new ones.”

He and I have a deal: he tells me when he needs new stuff. So we made a detour to the store. Once in the shoe department, he sat on the floor and took off his sneakers. I picked one up to look at the size and realized it was soaking wet. He’d been outside in the slush all day. His socks, too, were sopping wet. They smelled pretty awful.

“Ew,” I said. “I don’t think you can try shoes on with those socks.”

He looked at me. Then I looked down. My feet are about the same size as his. “Quick,” I whispered. “Let’s switch socks.”

I don’t know why I was whispering. I mean, it might be a little strange to switch socks in the store, but it’s not illegal or anything.

“I’m gonna wear your socks?” he asked in disbelief. I sat on the floor next to him and began taking off my shoes.

“Oh, they probably aren’t mine,” I assured him. “I take With-a-Why’s socks all the time.”

By then we were both barefoot, sitting on the linoleum floor, surrounded by holiday shoppers who were rushing carts up and down the aisles. We were both trying to be quiet, which made him giggle.

“These are nice and dry,” he said as he pulled my socks on.

“These aren’t,” I said, yanking on his wet socks. I made a face, and he laughed out loud.

“You wanted them,” he said. He was grinning.

“Try on the sneakers,” I said.

He was hungry, so we got slices of pizza and ate them in my warm car while we talked. We drove through snowy roads, with him exclaiming at the Christmas lights. I’m not a big fan of tacky holiday displays, but he loved even the corniest fake Santa Claus. When we got to my house, Shaggy Hair Boy was playing the piano.

“Can we have a fire?” Little Biker Boy asked. He helped me build it. He loves to be the person to light the match.

“I want to roll in the snow,” he said once we had a fire going. I lent him my boots.

“I’ll go with him,” said Shaggy Hair Boy. He grabbed his coat, and they ran out into the backyard which was covered with fresh snow.

With-a-Why turned from the computer and looked out the window. “They’re making angels,” he reported.

When Little Biker Boy came back in, he said, “I have a surprise for you!” Then he pulled me to the front porch to show me: he had shoveled a path to the door, just like he’s done so many times over the last two winters. Then he settled down in front of the fire with his new plastic wrestling figures, and we talked until it was time for me to take him back home.

December 03, 2010

Til morning is nigh

“I thought of you when I saw this,” Piano Teacher said, handing me a page from a brochure.

The words read: “I always get up from the piano feeling so much better than when I sat down.” I took the page from her and slid into the protective covering on my piano binder, where I’d see it every time I took out my music.

I’ve been playing the piano for almost a year now. I can’t say that learning the piano has come easily. Many times this year I find myself wishing I’d started maybe forty years sooner.

When it comes to music, the one thing I’ve got on my side is stubbornness. I’ll play a piece over and over again until I finally have it. The other thing I’ve got on my side is a piano teacher who isn’t afraid to challenge me and who has complete confidence that I’ll learn.

In October when I told Piano Teacher I wanted to learn a Christmas song, she brought me a version of Away in the Manger, arranged by Martha Mier. It’s the hardest thing I’ve learned yet. I have to play with both hands — and each hand is doing something different. And both hands keep changing position on the keys. And on top of that, I have to use the pedal.

It’s a beautiful song, but it was a big challenge for me. Piano Teacher kept telling me I could do it. She taught me the song just one piece at a time, and then I’d go home and practice it. I struggled so much that at one time I was calling the song, “Away in the Fucking Manger.” I honestly wasn’t sure if I could ever learn it.

But of course, she was right. I did learn the song. For these last few weeks, every time I’ve felt worried or anxious, I’ve sat down at the piano, picked just a piece of the song, and played it over and over again. When I’ve been worried about the little neighbor kids — and frustrated at how little I can do to help them — I’ve sat down at the piano and focused on the pattern, the steps and skips and jumps my fingers needed to do to make the tune. Soon I was able to play the whole song, more or less without mistakes, and eventually, relax enough to let myself hear the music. I’ve played that song over and over again: first thing in the morning, first thing when I come home, and last thing before I got to bed.

And every time, as I get up from the piano, shutting my binder of music to make room for Shaggy Hair Boy or With-a-Why’s music, I glanced at the cover of the binder and think to myself, “It’s true.”

December 02, 2010


As Shaggy Hair Boy and I drove home from campus today, I kept saying, "I'm so glad the winter weather is finally here!" November this year was a dark month, filled with dreary rain, so I was happy to see all the white. The snow makes late afternoons so much brighter.

When we entered the house, I noticed that it seemed chilly. I changed into sweatpants, heated myself up a bowl of soup, and went to look at the thermostat. After twenty minutes of fiddling with the thermostat, staring at the furnace, and sitting hopefully by the heat vent in the kitchen, I came to an awful realization. We were without heat.

Soon the house was cold as a grad student's apartment.

The furnace guy will be here tomorrow morning, and hopefully, we'll get if fixed. In the meantime, I've piled wood on the fire. My first priority is keeping the room warm enough for With-a-Why and Shaggy Hair Boy to practice their duets on the piano. The second is making sure the pipes don't freeze.

It's not too much of a hardship: the fireplace seems to be doing a fine job. My husband is sitting on the floor with his laptop, and leaning against my chair, so his body is keeping my feet warm. My sons are keeping their fingers warm with their furious piano playing. I'll probably sleep by the fire to keep it going all night. I'm thinking I might need to bake some chocolate cupcakes or something in the morning, just to warm up the kitchen. I've got two cords of wood in the garage, so I don't think we're going to have to twist straw into sticks or burn up the furniture. It looks like we're going to survive.