December 31, 2007

From both sides now

Last photo for 2007

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

Party like it's 1969

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

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

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

December 30, 2007

Out of his teens

Birthday candles

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

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

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

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

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

December 28, 2007

December 27, 2007

Outside

Winter

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

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

December 26, 2007

Visions of popcorn balls danced in their heads

Long winter nap

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

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

December 25, 2007

Christmas Self-portrait

Shiny

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

December 24, 2007

Thankful

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

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

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

Candle ceremony

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

December 23, 2007

Auld acquaintance

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

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

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

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

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

Trio

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

December 21, 2007

Frozen

Frozen

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2007

Hearth

Hearth

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

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

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

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

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

December 19, 2007

Invisible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 18, 2007

The weather outside

Resting

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

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

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

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

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

Give us this day

Stirring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 16, 2007

Paper chains and fishing poles

Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2007

Scrooge in the Twenty-First Century

Sliding to a stop

Conversation in the car on the way to the orthodontist.

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

December 14, 2007

Over

Asleep

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

December 13, 2007

Hemlock needles

Suspended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2007

Ultimate player in the house

Hung on the chandelier with care

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

Yes, it's good to have him home.

December 11, 2007

Desperately seeking

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2007

Endings

Forgotten

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

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

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

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

December 09, 2007

The dark side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning has broken

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

December 07, 2007

What I learned this semester

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


How to balance doing work with having fun.

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

Snowstorm City is cold. And it snows a lot.

How to identify eastern hemlocks.

Styrofoam is the enemy.

More about plants than I ever expected.

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

Halo is the backbone of an all-nighter.

No matter how hard I try, procrastinating is inevitable.

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

Never pet a burning dog.

College is pretty hard.

Alcohol gets boring after a while.

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

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

Sledding in garbage cans hurts.

That I enjoy botany.

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

Invisible index cards become visible when you write on them.

That I need better study habits.

That anything you want is worth working for.

That friends are incredible.

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

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

Living in a learning community is pretty cool.

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

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

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

That cosmetics can kill you.

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

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

Paul Farmer fights infectious disease in Haiti.

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

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

All about the apical meristem.

I learned that science is not my thing.

How to do the Soulja Boy dance.

December 06, 2007

Ready

Hanging

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

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

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

December 05, 2007

Survival

White pine

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

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

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

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

Without matches

December 04, 2007

Snowday

My mother, this morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 03, 2007

Back online

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging again

November 30, 2007

On vacation

No, not me.

It's my computer that has decided that it needs a little rest, some relaxation, and a replacement part that won't get here until Monday.

I'll be back as soon as my faithful companion is up and running again.

November 29, 2007

Inside my head

Migraine

Me: Hey, what do you think of this photo?
Shaggy Hair Boy: Uh ... what's it supposed to be?
Me: The inside of my head, when I have a migraine.
Boy in Black: How does that make sense?
With-A-Why: You can't take a picture inside your head.
Me: My readers asked for a photograph.
Shaggy Hair Boy: Uh, it looks like hair.
Boy in Black: More like the outside of your head.

(Just then my husband comes home. I shove the laptop in front of him before he even takes off his coat.)

Me: What does this look like to you?
Spouse: Frayed twine? Nerve endings?
Me: Nerve endings? Oh, that's on the right track.

(I look smugly over to the boys.)

Boy in Black: It looks like dog hair.
Me: Dog hair? How did you figure that out?
Boy in Black: Because it looks like dog hair.
Me: But we don't have a dog.

(He shrugs.)

Me: (after a moment) So what kind of dog do you think it is?
Boy in Black: The kind of dog your blogger friend has.
Me: Hey, I thought you didn't read my blog.
Boy in Black: I was bored. And had a lot of work to do.

The photo would be much cooler if I had photoshop. But it is pretty close to what I see when I close my eyes during a migraine: darkness with swirling lines of flashing colour and brightness.

November 28, 2007

Migraine

An alien slug creeps into my head, slithering through the ear, spreads its slimy grey body across the inside of my head, then twists all the parts behind my eyeballs, expanding and contracting so that my thoughts bang against the inside of my skull and the room around me spins and spins, shoving me into some alternate universe.

November 27, 2007

Lake in November

Lake in November

I spent most of last weekend sitting by the fire, listening to music, eating all kinds of food, and just hanging out with my family. I did not grade a single paper. But my husband and I did sneak out one afternoon for a walk at Pretty Colour Lake. Breathing in all that fresh cold air felt wonderful after a whole morning nestled in the comfy couch.

The ground was frozen, to our relief. The muddy paths had become nicely solid trails. Temperature rose into the 40s this weekend, but snow still lay in the shadows beneath the cedar trees. On sunny summer days, the lake is a brilliant green-blue colour, but on a grey November day, the water sometimes turns a deep blue. That's the wonderful thing about living in a climate with four seasons: no matter how many times you walk through the same landscape, the scenery is different.

Spouse and I walked the familiar paths, talking about our kids, our extended families, and our plans for the holiday season. For the first time in 22 years, we didn't take a holiday photo of the kids to send to friends and relatives: it seemed time to give that tradition up, since even our youngest child is now a teenager. And we didn't talk at all about buying gifts, since we don't have little kids any more. I'm not much into buying gifts for grown-ups. But many of the other traditions will continue, some deepening with meaning over the years.

The wooden Christmas village with the British theme that my parents built for me many years ago will be relevant now to more members of my family, now that my daughter and husband have both been to the European City With the Famous Clocktower. I feel a little sad that Mama Cat will not be guarding the village this year. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and With-a-Why are continuing the tradition of making a Christmas chain to tack up on the walls: it's become a sister-brother bonding ritual. We'll continue to host the first of the family holiday get-togethers on the Saturday before Christmas, and I think just about everyone in the extended family will be able to come this year. (The closer the Saturday is to Christmas, the bigger the crowd we get.) We've already blocked off nights on the calendar for Christmas parties hosted by friends, but most importantly, I am looking forward to the end of the semester, when my two oldest kids will be moving home for a month. We've planned which day we will be going to get our tree, which is always one of my favorite parts of the season.

We planned the month ahead as we walked around a quiet lake that had just the thinnest layer of ice in some places. I could remember walking this same trail 22 years ago, pregnant with my first child, and excited about the new year coming because it would be the year during which I became a parent.

A group of geese in the middle of the lake rose at once, as we watched, and went flapping and honking to the far shore.

November 26, 2007

It's a tradition

Last week, when I had lunch with Woman Who Writes Poetry (Often Erotic) and Sometimes Blogs, we began talking about the Creative Writing Conference I attended last winter. The 2008 conference will be held in Big City Like No Other, an easy train ride away, so she said she is going to attend.

"Hey, let's be roommates, " I said. "I've already reserved a room in the hotel."

She agreed, and we happily chatted about the conference, both of us coming up with names of friends or famous writers who might be there. As we stuffed ourselves full of pita bread, baba ganoush, and warm falafels, we talked about how much fun it will be to room together.

Suddenly, Often Erotic Sometimes Blogging Friend stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me suspiciously.

"Wait a minute. Does this mean I have to pose naked for your blog?"

Well, duh.

November 25, 2007

Jamming

Guitar solo

All Thanksgiving week, the house was filled with music. With the college kids home and the younger kids off from school, the musicians of the household (that is, everyone under the age of thirty) had all kinds of time to jam. Skater Boy was here, as was Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy. And of course, they brought guitars and amps with them.

One musician was missing: the extra we call Quick. He's amazing on the drums and piano, just incredibly talented; his father is a band teacher so he's been playing since he was a little kid. He's smart and polite, a kid who fits right in with my own kids, and although he's in Shaggy Hair Boy's grade at school, he's comfortable talking to the college kids or playing chess with With-a-Why. But he wasn't here this weekend. The day before Thanksgiving, his lung collapsed, and he was rushed into surgery. He spent Thanksgiving in the hospital, drugged and mostly sleeping. But he's recovering now, able to sit up and play computer games, and hopefully, he will be back here to play in no time.

I'm the token non-musician in the household, but I love to sit by the fire and listen while the kids play. A jam session has an interesting dynamic. The musicians are so intent on the music that they pay attention to nothing around them. They communicate with body language, short sentences full of music jargon, and mostly, through the music itself. Boy in Black, on the drums, will suddenly pick up the tempo. Shaggy Hair Boy, on the piano, will give him a quick glance, just an instant of eye contact, and then pick up the tempo. The jazz improv numbers are performed without words although once in awhile I'll hear Boy in Black say, "Niiiice."

The musicians switch places all the time, moving from drums to piano to guitar in a smooth choreography. Older Neighbor Boy is most likely to take the microphone. (Yeah, we have microphones. And very tolerant neighbors.) In between numbers, they will discuss what they are going to do, with the more experienced musicians teaching the less experienced ones. It's not a whole lot of talking — just quick sentences and nods of the head — but mostly, they play the same songs over and over, they experiment and try things out, and they laugh like crazy if it sounds awful. I've often thought the jam session could well serve as a model for learning of all kinds: most writers I know, for instance, learn from hanging out with other writers and playing around with words.

Last night, all the extras had gone home, and my husband and I were lounging on the comfy couch with our youngest child when the older kids started playing. Shaggy Hair began on the piano, playing chords and a bass line, and tapping a tambourine with his foot. "Come on," Boy in Black said to his sister, "You should solo." My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter usually plays classical piano rather than jazz improv, but she obligingly sat down on the piano bench next to her brother and began picking out notes in the upper register. Boy in Black grabbed his guitar. With-a-Why, too sleepy to join in, snuggled against me, warm and happy to have all his siblings home.

Improv

That's Shaggy Hair Boy in the top photo.

November 24, 2007

Made for walking

"Hey, your shoes are untied!"

I hear this constantly, from friends, students, and perfect strangers. It's not my fault. The great minds who run the shoelace industry have conspired over the last decade to create shoelaces that don't stay tied, a matter I find incredibly frustrating. I wear sneakers or hiking boots every day, including the days I teach, and my shoelaces are always dangling and flapping as I walk. These modern shoelaces are pretty, I admit, and they are strong, but the damned things do not stay tied. Yes, I've tried the doubleloop technique that seems to work for my friends. It does not work for me.

My students are always yelling at me to tie my shoes. But what's the point? They just come untied again. I refuse to keep tying them every five minutes, just on principle. The entire purpose of the shoelace to tie the shoe. Why would anyone start making shoelaces that untie as you walk? It's like making a clock that doesn't tell the correct time or a microwave that doesn't cook food or a jack-in-the-box that doesn't pop out of the box.

Back in the day, I told my students, we had shoelaces that stayed tied. They were flat and cotton and sometimes they broke, but at least they did the job.

Of course, I've sort of regarded the warning, "you are going to trip," as some kind of urban myth. No one, I thought, really trips on shoelaces. I mean, it's annoying to have them flopping around my sneakers, but I never thought that the untied shoes were dangerous.

But then last week, I was on an outing with my students. I was walking along a sidewalk, talking happily, gesturing with my hands the way I do when I talk. My left foot stepped down, and my right foot, trapped by a shoelace, stayed tethered to the ground when I tried to pick it up, and in an instant, I went crashing to the ground, falling headfirst onto the sidewalk. My knees, palms, and ego scraped against the asphalt.

My students could have said, "I told you so," but they didn't. They checked my cuts to make sure they were clean, and then one student said, "You know, they still make the old kind of shoelaces. You need to buy some and replace these laces that won't stay tied."

As usual, my students were right. I found flat, cotton shoelaces at the grocery store. I was so eager to buy them that I didn't even stop to see if they had any color but white. I'm thinking black would have been a better choice. But of course, I am not out to make a fashion statement. I'm just happy to have laces that do the job.

New shoelaces!

November 23, 2007

Bearing fruit

An orange!

Long-time readers know that I have an orange tree in my living room, a tree planted by Shaggy Hair Boy about twelve years ago at Blonde Sister's house. The tree belongs to Shaggy Hair, but I'm the one who waters it. And I have to prune it pretty often because the branches brush against the ceiling. The tree has lots of glossy green leaves and sharp thorns, but it has never actually produced fruit. Until now.

The other day, the boys were jamming in the living room, and I was in the midst of my annual pre-holiday cleaning binge, which involves pulling out stuff piled in corners of the house and yelling at the kids to choose what crap they want to keep because I'm going to get rid of it all right now, this very instant. Usually, the kids avoid me when I'm doing projects like that, but instead, Boy in Black and Older Neighbor Boy began yelling for me to come and look at the orange tree.

I figured it was some kind of a joke. I came and stared at the branch they were pointing at. I couldn't see anything.

"Right there, Mom," said Boy in Black. "Look closer!"

Then I saw it: a little green fruit, the size of a golf ball, hanging precariously from the tip of a branch. Fruit! On our orange tree!

Everyone in the house came running to look at it. Then I looked into the branches near the ceiling, the ones that get pushed up against the window when the musicians shove the tree out of their way. There I saw another small, misshapen piece of fruit. And this one was even orange!

Since Blonde Sister was in Big City Like No Other, we made a video on my daughter's cell phone and sent it to her. Yes, we made a video of an orange that was just hanging on a tree, doing absolutely nothing. We do lead exciting lives.

Of course, family members who haven't seen the fruit yet are skeptical. One sister came up with the theory that someone sneaked into the house at night, ignored the four laptop computers in the living room, and quietly super-glued fruit to the tree. "You need to start locking your doors," she said.

When we talked over the phone yesterday to the family gathered in the city, Blonde Sister insisted on talking to With-a-Why, to hear the story from him. I don't think she's really going to believe it until she sees the orange with her own eyes. Or reads about it on my blog.

November 22, 2007

Thankful

Refrigerator music

Any family members who live in town usually gather at my mother's house for Thanksgiving. This year the crowd was smaller than usual. Blonde Sister and her family decided to go to Big City Like No Other to have dinner with Red-haired Niece and Urban Sophisticate Sister. They were watching the parade from the place where Urban Sophisticate works and, judging from their text messages and cell phone pictures, had quite the view. When I talked to Urban Sophisticate on the phone later in the day, they had just eaten a big meal and were ready for naps. Red-haired Sister and her family, who usually don't come for Thanksgiving because they come for Christmas, were vacationing in a Warm Country Where Thanksgiving is not Even a Holiday. My brother and his new wife stayed in Camera City to spend the day with assorted family and friends there.

So only nine of us gathered at my mother's house, a group small enough to fit around one table. My mother cooked the traditional turkey dinner, and several apple pies, and the house smelled like good food as we came in from the cold. Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy brought their guitars, so we had music while we talked. We called Urban Sophisticate on a cell phone to sing happy birthday to her, and that somehow led to a long phone conversation between With-a-Why and Blonde Sister about the orange tree in our living room. Boy in Black got out his laptop out to set up my parents' new wireless router. (Yes, they've gone wireless! I can blog from their house now, although since they only live five miles away, I'm not sure why I ever would.) At one point, I walked into the living room to see all four of my kids and my father crowded onto the couch to watch clips of Laurel and Hardy on Boy in Black's laptop. I'm not sure, but I think he was teaching his grandfather how to download stuff illegally.

Snow was falling as we drove home, and Christmas music was playing on the radio. It feels like the holiday season has begun.

The photo shows Boy in Black in my parents' kitchen.

November 21, 2007

Through

Through

Today, people are traveling. My students are heading home: jouncing half-asleep on a bus seat, or listening to an iPod on the train, or crowded into the backseat of a car with backpacks and laptops. Friends are driving miles and miles to be with family, some of them with small children strapped into car seats or homemade goodies balanced on the back seat. For other friends, the beginning of the holiday season is not a physical journey, but an emotional journey, at time to remember who they are, who they are becoming, who they want to be.

I am cuddled in a big chair by my own fire, surrounded by family and cats. My kids are home; in fact, all four are piled on the couch right now, talking and joking with each other. This afternoon, I took my mother-in-law shopping; tomorrow, we go to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner. As I doze sleepily by the warm fire, listening to the affectionate chatter of my children as they tease each other, I think of those friends who are on difficult journeys, who are driving into a storm and then going straight through, and I try to send them some energy, some warmth from my hearth.

November 20, 2007

Coiled

I haven't had a snake dream in a long time. Until Sunday night.

The dream began innocently enough. I was with a group of strangers in a room full of tables and chairs, at an event that had kind of an American Idol feel to it: we were competing for some kind of job. We were raising our hands and answering questions, and I was sort of feeling desperate to show that I was not like anyone else.

A man in a furry vest took me into this side room and told me I needed to do a snake demonstration. The room had cement block walls, and metal tables and cages. The man handed me thick leather gloves and two sticks and pointed me to a glass cage that held two snakes. The snakes were colorful, bright orange and red and black, and both were curled up in sort of figure eight shapes, more like ropes than snakes really. I felt petrified, but I can remember thinking to myself, "I have to do this. I have to show him that I can do this." (In real life, I am not particularly afraid of snakes, especially the harmless snakes we have in this part of the country, but in dreams, I am terrified of them. They seem to be much more than just snakes.)

I figured that as long as I had the gloves and sticks, I could manage to handle the snakes without touching them. But then, somehow, I lost the gloves and the sticks. They were gone. I searched desperately, and couldn't find them. I knew then I would have to pick the snakes up with my hands. I felt so anxious about this that I couldn't talk, could barely breathe. I went back to the glass cage, and noticed that the snakes were outside the cage. They were loose! One of them was beginning to move toward the crack in the wall.

I panicked. The snakes were getting loose! And it was my fault! And I didn't have gloves or the stick! I felt paralyzed. The snake slithered into the crack and disappeared. I made my legs move. I ran out of the building, a big stone, castle-like structure. And there on the green lawn, I saw one of the snakes, curled up. A man was lying on the grass, and I went over to ask him for help. He turned over, and under him was the other snake. I screamed ... and woke myself up screaming.

I hate these dreams. Afterwards, I couldn't sleep. I looked around the dark room and wondered if snakes were creeping out of the cracks in the walls. (Perhaps it's because I'm such a sound sleeper, but I don't think very logically in the middle of the night. I can sort of function in a sleep state.) My husband, who woke up when I screamed, said comforting things and pointed out that we have never had a snake in our bedroom. I told him that I was fine, and he went back to sleep.

I went downstairs to my office to put on a light, to wake myself up and get myself out of this dream world in which snakes come rolling out of cracks in the walls. As I looked at my computer, an email chimed in. The email was from Artist Friend, who happened to be up late working on his computer. I sent him a quick email, to have some kind of contact with another awake human being, and that made me feel better.

My friend Poet Woman has told me that I should embrace the snakes in my dreams. Snakes can represent change, growth, and transformation. And it's true that snakes, both real snakes and dream snakes, appear at times of positive change in my life. But still, the dream was so frightening that I was still shaking as I read the email from Artist Friend.

In the email, Artist Friend talked about going to an observatory with his son to see the Holmes Comet. And I remembered that when I'd had breakfast with Poet Woman and her husband on Friday, they'd both told me to look for the comet too. Poet Woman, had explained exactly how to find it.

So I put on my winter coat and boots, grabbed the binoculars, and stepped out my front door. A bit of moonlight was glittering off the patches of snow drifted on the frozen ground. I took a few deep breaths of the icy night air. Snakes do not live in these kind of temperatures. I could feel myself calming down.

Above my head, stars hung in the darkness, filling the space from the top of the woods to my own roof. Immediately, I saw something different, a blurry shape that isn't usually there. The comet! It seemed to be pulsing, but perhaps that was simply my eyes adjusting to the darkness.

I stood for a few minutes in the darkness, feeling tiny and insignificant. I looked carefully at the comet and then at my own home, with just the light from my office spilling out onto the snow. I came back into the warm house, kicking off the boots and hanging my coat on the back of my chair. Another email chimed in: Artist Friend telling me to go back to bed. I climbed back up the stairs, back to my warm bed, sleepy and calm now, but still wondering why the snakes have appeared to me again.

November 19, 2007

That's where it's at

Apple pie

The apple pie had been made that morning, by the community at Beautiful Hair's church. As we relaxed by the fire with cups of hot tea, eating the delicious pie, Beautiful Hair talked about the apple pie fundraiser she runs. Whole families get involved. Kids peel apples, another group cuts them up. One group of adults and teenagers roll out the crusts. Crimping the crusts is the most important job, given to a group of old women who have been doing it for years. At the very end, a small child has the job of sprinkling "love" or a bit of sugar on the crust to make it glitter. And in just a weekend, the community produces and sells 500 apple pies. Beautiful Hair had supervised the whole process, and she brought Apple Pie #500 to her friends.

We, that is, the group of friends who call themselves Wild Women, were gathered at the home of Gorgeous Eyes, a lovely old house in Town by the Lake. We spent the first part of the evening eating and chatting, catching up on our lives. We haven't shared a meal together since our retreat in the mountains more than a month ago. Since two of the women present hadn't been on the retreat, we felt obligated to re-tell some of our adventures. Of course, by now the stories have been exaggerated wildly.

For instance, my friends are now claiming that when we took a walk late at night to an ice cream parlor, I was flashing my breasts at the cars that drove by. The real story is that I used the white bra I was wearing to SAVE OUR LIVES. Really. Nights are dark in the woods, and we were following a narrow road. When headlights approached in the distance, it suddenly occurred to me that we were all wearing dark clothes: Gorgeous Eyes, for example, was wearing black pants and a black shirt. All those junior high school safety videos about wearing white or reflective material at night raced through my mind. And at the moment, I realized the only white clothing I had on was my white bra. In a flash, I had pulled up my sweatshirt, just in time to catch the headlights of the car and alert the driver that he need to swerve and avoid the gang of women on the road. My action was, in other words, just short of heroic.

Of course, on that same weekend, you may recall that my friends did pose nude for my blog. When I announced that my blog is now the number four yahoo hit for "photos of middle-aged naked women," Signing Woman laughed, but Gorgeous Eyes reacted in horror. "What? We aren't number one?" Junk Food Woman complained that she didn't like her pseudonym, but then she couldn't come up with anything better, which means she is now in danger of becoming The Wild Woman Who Doesn't Like Her Pseudonym.

One of my friends brought a karaoke machine that belonged to her daughter, complete with several CDs of Popular Party Music Mostly From the 70s. Despite the many jokes and sarcastic remarks made as we looked over our music choices, it took only moments for everyone to start singing and dancing to the music. I am not a musician so I won't comment on the music itself, but I will say that seeing the lyrics on the television screen was pretty painful. Does all 70s music have such lame lyrics? And yet, the corny lyrics just made the singing more fun, because mostly we were laughing so hard we could barely sing. We didn't take turns, but all sang at the same time, dancing in unison like the Jackson Five, except with less precision. We ended the night with our arms around each other, swaying back and forth, singing, "That's What Friends Are For."

November 18, 2007

Sparkle

Yesterday morning, I had to get up early to drive With-a-Why to a piano competition. Well, I don't know if competition is the right word. He had to go in to the piano studio and play a couple of songs in front of a judge. He had the early morning time slot, which meant he was half-asleep as we drove over. When we walked in the studio, only one kid was ahead of him, a little boy dressed smartly in dress pants and a dress shirt. The kid's mother seemed all nervous, "This is his first time, " she said to me. I think the sight of With-a-Why, dressed in an old black band t-shirt, his uncombed hair hanging in his face, calmed her down.

The first little boy went into the other room, picked his way laborously through "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and came out looked pleased with himself. The mother and I congratulated him, and then they stayed to listen to With-a-Why. One of the songs he was playing was the "Flight of the Bumblebee." It's a fast song, and his fingers fly across the keys as he plays.

The mother turned to me. "Wow."
Then she asked, in an undertone, "How often do you make him practice?"

That question always surprises me, although it shouldn't because I get it from other parents all the time.

"I don't make him practice," I said. "He plays all the time — someone in my house is always playing the piano — but it's completely up to him whether or not he chooses to play."

It's a weird thing amongst parents in my area. They have the idea that a "good parent" tells their kids when to do homework, when to practice music, what to eat. I never do any of those things. I never tell my kids to do their homework, I never tell them when to practice their music, and I let them eat whatever they want whenever they want, although they are limited by the fact that we keep only healthy food in the house. What shocks parents is not how casual my parenting is (because after all, they all know I'm the crazy liberal feminist), but the fact that my kids have turned out so well: healthy, smart, and musical. Despite their slacker parents! The idea of empowering their kids to take charge of their lives is simply an idea that has not occurred to many parents in this community.

The piano teacher came over to talk to me, while With-a-Why was talking shyly to the judges, and she asked whether or not Shaggy Hair Boy liked the piece she had sent home with him the week before.

"Your kids can be hard to teach, " she said. I looked at her in surprise.

"See, most kids take lessons because their parents want them to," she explained. "So we just go through the songs in the book. But your kids play because they want to. So I have to find songs they will like, or work with songs they bring in. It's more of a challenge."

I laughed. Then With-a-Why came out, and she hugged him. We looked at the judge's sheet. He always gets high numbers but I can never understand the comments, hand-written and full of musical jargon : "Your something-or-other is excellent. Something-or-other dynamic shaping. Your left hand something-or-other. Great something-or-other and musical control!"

But I loved the last sentence on the sheet: "Your playing is full of sparkle!" That, I understood. As we drove home, I looked over at With-a-Why. "That sentence sums it up. Your playing is full of sparkle!"

He looked at me sideways, "Mom! That was the one sentence that didn't say anything."

"No, it was the one sentence that said everything."

He was muttering about something he could have done differently -- he sets very high standards for himself -- but as we drove home through the snowy world, he gave me one of his rare smiles. He shook his long, unwashed hair back into his face, and snuggled back against the seat, this quiet child who knows how to make the music sparkle.

Self-portrait at the music studio

Above the keys

November 17, 2007

Answer key

Winter begins

Last February, the snow was so deep in my backyard that I couldn't find one of the picnic tables. This morning, I took a photo of the two picnic tables so that later this winter, I'll know just where to find them.

November 16, 2007

Despite the cold

Last night, I drove to a small community art gallery to meet some friends and look at the art that had just been hung. The gathering included several pseudonymous bloggers, but I've gotten so lax about staying anonymous that I am not going to link to any of them. My friend Poet Woman, who is an artist as well as a writer, scientist, photographer, healer, and all-around amazing person, had traveled all day to be at the opening, which featured some of her work. A group of us claimed a clump of chairs, hanging out and talking, catching up on news. Poet Woman's grown daughters, who both live in Snowstorm Region, encouraged her to tell all kinds of stories, including the one about the leech she once kept as a pet. The leech, I think, was before all the white mice that once lived in her bedroom.

This morning, the story-telling continued in the diner where I met Poet Woman and her husband for breakfast. Snow was falling, big flakes carried by a strong wind, and we all kept talking about how pretty snow seems this early in the season, when we are still excited to see it. After filling ourselves with breakfast food, we drove to a park to take a walk amidst all the new whiteness.

Even though I was wearing wool hiking boots and a winter coat, I felt ill-prepared for the sudden burst of winter weather. The three of us kept laughing at how cold we were, shivering and huddling together for warmth, all of us risking frostbite to our fingers to take out our cameras. As we trudged along a trail, Poet Woman and I caught up on all that has happened in our lives over the last few weeks while her husband ran ahead and took pictures of us, dropping back now and then to join the conversation. Poet Woman and I often talk to each other over email, typing words on our computers in warm houses hundreds of miles apart, but how much easier it was to talk in person, to look at each other's eyes and give each other hugs, our heads bent against the fierce wind, taking turns to walk in front and shield each other from the cold.

Wind and snow