Saturday, December 23, 2017

On the Solstice

I had an infuriating day grappling (unsuccessfully) with an impenetrable government bureaucracy (an intolerance for bureaucracy is one of the many reasons I no longer work for the government) and Christmas shopping for about the 100th time this holiday season, thinking I was done, finally, before realizing I'd forgotten gifts for two people. I went into the evening tense and grouchy.

While I made soup, I put E and Z to work stringing popcorn. They've reached the stage where they can pop the corn with only a little guidance, thread their own needles and knot their own threads. One of the advantages of repeating the same rituals year after year. After many years of making failed birdseed ornaments, I gave in this year and bought a bird seed bell instead, and after dinner we hung that and the popcorn in the spruce tree in front of our house and then trekked through the woods, down to the river.

I don't get outside at night at winter much—except when driving to and from places—because, I admit it, I don't like being cold. But it was a beautiful night—cold, yes, but still and starry, with the snow giving off enough light you almost didn't need a flashlight (which is a good thing because my headlamp battery died on the way there).

Down at the river, we lit a small fire (more of a b- fire than a bon-fire), toasted marshmallows, made s'mores, finally burned the sparklers that have been sitting on a high shelf since I-don't-know-when. We sat in the snow and watched as the fire burned down to coals and then trekked our way home, feeling a little lighter as we entered into winter.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Weekend Things ~ Wonderful Life, Bird Count, Hanukkah

We had one of those weekends where everything was happening at once.

M played Bert the Cop in It's a Wonderful Life. I was able to catch two of the four performances, and they were great (don't you love high school plays?). Here he is with George and Ernie, checking out Violet's backside as she struts away across the stage:

Saturday, C and I and E and Z did the Christmas Bird Count. This is the third year in a row and the fourth year overall that we've had the same route in our area. The first time was many years BC (before children), and we both swear we saw snow buntings that year, but we haven't seen them since.

If you want to tag along in spirit, you can watch the video C made of our count:

Sunday, I helped out M's French trip with a bottle drive (lucky kid was at work and didn't have to help me) and then took him Christmas shopping after he got out of work. In the evening, friends came over for our traditional Hanukkah dinner of latkes, gingered beets, and homemade apple sauce. Per tradition, C made a Yule Log Menorah. I think this is the best one yet. Usually the menorah-yule-log gets tossed in the wood stove, but this year C threatened to hide this one and just pretend he made it new next year. I'm okay with that.

They didn't have gelt at the store where I usually buy it, so the kids made do with square chocolates in shiny wrappers. The change of shape didn't seem to slow down their dreidel playing (or chocolate eating) at all, and when the chocolates were gone, they played with nuts.

To infuse an educational element into our festivities, we watched The Rugrats Chanukkah special. It was silly but surprisingly informative and the big kids didn't complain about watching a cartoon.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Best of the Blog ~ Holiday Traditions

Traditions give a comforting sense of rhythm and repetition to days and years. They give us things to look forward to, trigger memories, and are measuring sticks by which we chart our family's changes over the years. They can also be repetitive, rote, and boring. Do we have to do that again? I'm feeling a bit of the latter this year, which either means it's time for these kids to grow up and move out already, or it's time to mix things up and try something new. Before I figure out what that will be, here's a little stroll down some of our favorite holiday traditions.

Christmas Book Countdown

With much bigger boys, this will be the first December in many years that we don't count down the days to Christmas by unwrapping and reading a holiday book (or two or three) each evening before bed. But for all the years it lasted, the Christmas Book Countdown was one of our favorite traditions. (This post tells gives the low-down on the tradition and also includes links to the creation of the book crate and some of our seasonal favorite reads).

Getting the Tree

Setting off into the woods to search for and cut the perfect tree is one of my favorite parts of the holiday. We've gotten a tree out of the woods near our house every year since M was a baby and I've been documenting those tree hunts here since 2009. That year, I shared some history on that tradition.  Some years we collected our tree from snowless woods. Then there was the year we came home from picking out a tree from the woods and decided to instead use the tree that had fallen down in our front yard months earlier. Some years, we've had to squeeze getting the tree in between all the other things we have going on; make that many years. And last year, the year we got our 16th tree off this land, I revisited some of those past tree-gettings.

Christmas Cookies

Making—and eating—cookies is, of course, a favorite tradition of everyone around here. I've honed cookie-making to a science, mixing all the dough in one mega-mixing session, and putting it in the fridge or freezer for later cutting. This saves me from having to wash all of the measuring and mixing implements more than once. To avoid contamination, I start with the white dough of sugar cookies, followed by light brown Spekulatius, and finish with the much darker chocolate gingerbread. Sometimes I add other cookies into the mix, like two kinds of shortbread I tried last year. Different candies make appearances now and then, including the perennial and always improving peppermint bark,

Little Holidays
My favorite part of the Christmas season is not Christmas at all, but the other holidays we celebrate in a small way in the weeks leading up. These are low-stress, high reward events, completely divorced from wantiness, greed, and unrealistic expectations.

On December 6, we celebrate St. Nikolaus Day, with a few treats placed in shoes left out the night before: an ornament for the tree, a chocolate, and a clementine. On or around December 13, we celebrate St. Lucia Day with saffron buns.

Sometime during the eight days of Hanukkah, we get together with friends for latkes, applesauce, a few rounds of dreidel, and our traditional Yule log menorah. A few days ago, M said "Did you know most Christian families don't celebrate Hanukkah?" It was a funny statement, but also a perfectly reasonable thing to be surprised by for a kid growing up in an atheist-but-open-minded-and-slightly-pagan household. We don't mind coopting religious celebrations that aren't our own, especially if they involve really good food. And I'd rather have a latke with sour cream than turkey or ham (or whatever the traditional American Christmas dinner is these days) any day.

For the solstice, we decorate our front yard spruce tree with yummy treats for the birds and, weather permitting, go out for a nighttime trek to the river, where we build a small fire and enjoy being outside at night in winter—a rare event.

Twelve Days of Christmas

Several years ago, I started combatting the day-after-Christmas letdown by keeping the festivities going for twelve more days. Our celebrations are simple: A Twelve Days of Christmas calendar (kind of the anti-Advent calendar); a ring of twelve candles which we light each night while we sing a holiday carol or two, removing one candle each night as we count down to twelve; and one final gift dropped in shoes placed by the fire on the last night of Christmas.

After all that celebrating (not to mention actual Christmas, which involves a lot of contortions with C's extended family plus long-distance Christmasing with my family in Colorado), we are usually ready to settle into a long, quiet winter.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Snow Day

When I saw the weather forecast for Tuesday, I was pretty sure the school(s) would call a snow day. Instead of railing against yet another break in my already shaky December schedule, I decided to embrace it the way I used to when I had an outside-of-the-house job and a snow day could mean a day off for everyone. While grocery shopping Monday, I laid in supplies of cookie ingredients and construction paper. I made plans for puzzles, games, movies, and projects. I visualized every snow day for the last 11 years happening all in one day. While things didn't quite transpire the way I'd envisioned, we had a pretty good—and productive—day.

While the kids would once have raced outside to play in the snow first thing, they are now of an age where they would rather sleep in late (M) or get on the computer first thing. I decided to ignore E and Z's screening and get busy on a project of my own, the supplies for which I bought last holiday season: festive placemats for everyday use during the Christmas season.

Even though our table is well-loved, I like to try to protect what's left of its finish with placemats or tablecloths. I also like to have a nice, attractive table to sit at (this condition does not last long, with homework, bills, mail, crumbs, and various other messes piling up as quickly as I can clear it). I've been so pleased with the bright, festive, machine-washable placemats I made last year that I decided to replicate them, down to the rickrack, in festive reds and greens. So far, I'm quite pleased.

When I finished my project, I rousted two boys off their screens and outside onto their skis, which was a much easier effort than I expected (could it be that they actually like this new activity and might even go out and do it voluntarily some day? Dare I hope?). The anticipated rain had not yet begun, and we had an inch or so of fresh fluff on top of Sunday's snow—not quite enough to shield our skis from gravel in the driveway, so we went off-road into our neighbor's field and then around one loop of our trail in the woods. Z, after laboriously climbing one narrow hill through the trees turned around and skied down it, then repeated the whole process two more times. Fun!

Back inside, we worked on some holiday projects—E made a paper chain to go around part of the living room (to extend one he had begun last week) and Z and I made Scandinavian-style woven paper hearts. Unfortunately I picked a design with five strips, rather than two or three, so the weaving was hard-going, but Z and I each managed to finish one each. The cool thing about both of these projects? They were the boys' ideas, no coercion necessary!

In the afternoon, we settled in for a movie during which I worked on making Christmas ornaments.

We didn't get out a puzzle or play games or go sledding, and I didn't get around to mixing cookie dough until the evening, while I was reheating a dinner of leftovers (that's my idea of cooking—mix cookie dough rather than dinner). But I did get a batch of saffron St. Lucia Day buns made for Wednesday's breakfast (and I managed to not burn them for the first time ever). All-in-all, a pretty good snow day.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


I have never successfully gotten my whole family on skis. Like never having organized a family bike trip, I've been too daunted by the expense and the coordination required to have five pairs of functioning skis on five sets of feet (I'm talking cross-country skiing here—downhill would be in a whole other realm of expense and getting up really early to drive really far away).

I did try once, rounding up enough second-hand and hand-me-down skis and boots to outfit all three kids, ages 7, 3, and 3 at the time. I wrote about the disastrous event in my zine in an essay called "Easily Discouraged":
After breakfast Saturday morning, I get everyone dressed and ready to go out skiing. This process takes nearly two hours, most of which I spend convincing them they want to go outside and looking for the size 9 boots, which M suddenly “finds” behind the curtain in his bedroom just as I give up and start to walk out the door. I stuff my pockets with cookies to fend off any low blood sugar-related meltdowns, pile skis and boots and poles into the sled and we trek up our driveway to the neighbor’s field, a large expanse of gently- sloping white.  
I help Mi fit his boots into his ski bindings, strap his poles over his gloves and walk him a few steps into the field. I go back to the sled and start buckling a pair of skis over Z’s snow boots when one of M’s skis detaches. I finish Z, lead him to the snow and re-attach M’s ski. I return to the sled and start to put the size 9 ski boots on E when Z falls down and M’s ski falls off again. I get E into his boots and skis, help him to the snow, right Z and attach M’s ski again. I try to help E and Z move across the crusty snow and M makes his way toward a small hill he wants ski down. None of them is heavy enough to break through the crust on the snow. M reaches the hill and I try to describe herring-boning from 30 feet away where I’m trying to keep E and Z vertical. The snow is too slippery and M keeps sliding backward. I make my way over to him and show him how to side-step up. He makes it to the top of the hill and starts down, in a fast, beautiful run, until he leans backward slightly, starts to lose his balance, overcompensates and falls flat on his face. 
By now everyone is crying, except me (although I’d like to). I try cheering M up, telling him what a great run it was, but he is unconvinced. We take off skis, load them in the sled and head for home. I prop six little skis and six little poles next to the front door where they will sit, unused, until late April when I finally put them away in the basement. 
And I never, ever tried to get my kids on skis again. I go cross-country skiing with friends maybe once or twice a year. M has since taken up snowboarding—tagging along with friends whose mothers are less easily discouraged (and more enthusiastic about getting up really early to drive really far away) but when I've (half-heartedly) suggested ski or snowboard lessons to E and Z, they both have shown a decided lack of interest which I've felt a lack of interest in trying to surmount. For the interim, we've stuck to snow shoes.

But this year I decided to overcome the enthusiasm gap and get the twins outfitted for cross-country skiing. We picked up skis last weekend through an organization in our area offers season-long cross-country ski/boot/pole leasing for a reasonable price and I'll be signing them up for a four-day ski clinic at a local nature center in January.

In the meantime, after our first measurable snowfall Saturday, we all strapped on our skis and hit the slopes, er, driveway, and that same neighbor's field.

We had a few setbacks, a few falls, a few pairs of tangled skis and legs, but both boys got the hang of it pretty quick and—shh don't tell them I said this—I think they even had fun!

Monday, December 11, 2017

It's beginning to look...

Holiday spirit has been in short supply in our house this year. Maybe because the people in this house whose ages begin with a 1 outnumber all others. Or maybe because we didn't have an snow until Saturday. Or maybe because my own lack of enthusiasm has rubbed off on everyone else. Or maybe it was just that we hadn't done much holiday-ing yet. This weekend we set about jump-starting the household festivities.

M had drama and work all day Saturday and Sunday morning, so we had to wait to get the tree. In the meantime, E and Z and I got the house clean and ready. I made some peppermint bark, using roughly this recipe (I neglected the cream in the chocolate layer, used a blender rather than rolling pin to pulverize the cookies, and used peppermint extract in lieu of the toothpaste extract that's been haunting my cabinet for years).

E and Z and I played out in the new snow a bit Sunday morning (more on that tomorrow).

When M got home, we went out on our 16th Annual Family Christmas Tree Hunting Expedition. Like I said, the holiday spirit, it is weak in this house, and two young people needed coaxing even to get out and look for a tree.

Once outside, though, their enthusiasm increased.

As did their boisterousness (perhaps that was the problem all along—to much time inside in front of screens, not enough outside wrassling in the snow).

C has always lobbied for cutting down a great big tree and taking home just the top 8 feet. I've argued against this plan, because it means taking down a much older, more mature tree, which has put a lot more years into sequestering carbon and plays an important role in shade and habitat.

But as the years go by, all the trees in our christmas tree forest get taller, and I get more amenable to taking the top of a tall tree, because they're both more compact and dense (relative to other forest-grown trees, that is). So the top of a big tree it was.

It ended up being a little on the skinny side, which means it fits just perfectly in our living room.

And it's so far doing a good job of cranking up the holiday spirit, brining lights and greenery inside our home.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Best of the Blog ~ Kid Art Embroidery

Over the last few weeks of blogging, I thought I'd revisit a few of my favorite posts. Since it's the holiday season—and who doesn't start a new craft project two weeks before Christmas?—I thought I'd harken back to one of my very favorite crafts—embroidering my kids' drawings. I've had so much fun over the years working with my kids' art and transforming it into decorative household objects.

I love these projects because kid art is so great, and tracing over it with floss and needle allows you to spend a lot of time noticing the details and character in their work. And, honestly, it's nice to sit and focus on something sweet and simple that has nothing to do with the horribleness of the world. It's good therapy—and cheap therapy. I encourage you to try it.

Don't worry if you lack sewing skills—if you can thread a needle and tie a knot, you can embroider. To get started, see: 
I'll admit, there's a limited range of finished projects you can make with the art once you've embroidered it (for a while I thought of doing a quilt with embroidered squares alternating with printed fabric, but that never happened). Some things you can make with your embroideries:

Wall Hangings (rotated seasonally):

Autumn Wall Hanging
Santa Wall Hanging
Pirate Wall Hanging
Table runners and placemats:

Halloween Table Runner
Thanksgiving Table Runner
Christmas Table Runner
Christmas Placemats

 Owl and Pussycat Pillow
(Sadly, this pillow has gotten completely destroyed by use—the embroidery floss worn off, the white linen shredded; I don't recommend a pillow project in a household of—er—active people).

One of my favorite things about blogging and reading blogs has been getting inspired to try new things and learn new skills. Kid art embroidery is just one of those things I might never have discovered if it weren't for bloggers out there sharing their work.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

November Reads

A monthly recap of books I've read. For past months, see:
January Reads 
February Reads 
March Reads 
April Reads 
May Reads  
June Reads
July Reads
August Reads 
 September Reads
October Reads 

Last month's books were all over the place—a little of this, a little of that. No theme dominated, except possibly "escapism and inconvenient truths."

I start my day with a perusal of news and analysis and I end it with an escape from said news cycle. The last couple of weeks, my escape has been "Stranger Things" (my first Netflix binge, if two episodes a night can be considered a binge). But before that, I was flinging myself to the comforting and imaginative world of Barbara Mertz aka Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Michaels, with a book I found at a used book store (Devil May Care) and one I found on my bookshelf (Wings of the Falcon). The more I read and reread Mertz's books, the more I love her voice, her encyclopedic knowledge of everything, her sly wit, her clever use of Gothic and suspense tropes (both satirizing and embracing), her great characters, and the general fun of her books.

I also read The Mistletoe Murder, a collection of short stories by P.D. James, mainly to see how a murder mystery is done in short story form (thinking about writing one myself), but also because I enjoyed the two books by Ms. James which I read last month. These were great and I didn't realize until after I finished the book that the title story is actually nonfiction. Which kind of wowed me.

Over the last year or so, I've been (very slowly) watching a series of YouTube videos called an Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Several readings go along with each video/lecture and since most of these have been individual poems or excerpts from longer works, they haven't appeared on my lists. The lecture on the Elizabethan period, however, focuses on several poems as well as Shakespeare's play, As You Like It. The edition I found at the bookstore has a "translation" into modern language on the page facing the original, which I had to refer to far less often than I expected. It was an entertaining piece (I do enjoy the comedies more than the tragedies) and I plan to read a second play, "A Winter's Tale," which is not analyzed in the lectures, but which the lecturer mentioned as another piece which addresses how nature versus culture was viewed at the time.

On our road trip this summer, the boys and I listened to a couple of Elizabeth Peters audiobooks—the ones where Amelia Peabody's young son Ramses gets wound up in the murder investigation and causes plenty of trouble of his own. The boys enjoyed the stories—particularly Ramses's role—as I knew they would and, after we finished our last read-aloud, Z asked for "the next Emerson book." I failed to realize before we started that the next book in the series, The Deeds of the Disturber, was the one where one of the suspects has syphilis and the miscreants engage in orgies, but Ms. Peabody's Victorian sensibilities causes her to narrate these events in such oblique terms that we didn't have to have too many uncomfortable conversations. They were quite entertained by Ramses's outrage that he wasn't allowed to investigate an opium den with his parents. After the holidays are over, we will probably launch into the next book in the series, thus fulfilling my master plan of creating more Elizabeth Peters fans and expanding my children's vocabulary to include words like "ratiocination" and "terpsichorean."

This summer, I attended a reading of Soap Opera Confidential, a collection of essays about, what else, soap operas, edited by Suzanne Strempek Shea and Elizabeth Searle, both delightful writers and wonderful teachers in the MFA program I attended. The collection is a super-fun read that covers the range of soaps, from Dallas and Dynasty to daytime, to a nod to Downton Abbey. Before I read the book, I didn't think I had a soap opera story in me, but as I read, I remembered the summer I watched three soaps with my sister, which was also the summer I volunteered in two hospitals as a candy-striper and "volunteen," and a story began to unfold and is now a rough-draft essay, waiting for the call for submissions to Soap Opera Confidential II. It's amazing how words trigger memories and memories trigger stories and 30 years of distance can connect those stories in ways that were not at all obvious at that time.

Lest you fear I spent too much of my reading time last month in escapism and fun, you need not worry. I also read Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America's Forests, by Andrew Nikiforuk, which is about the mountain pine beetle and other Dendroctonus and Ips beetle species that have ravaged coniferous trees from British Columbia to Baja. Even having read several articles on the topic and hiked through miles and miles and miles of dead trees last summer, I did not grasp the enormity of the situation until reading this book. Long story short: climate change and poor forestry management practices (primarily fire suppression) have conspired to turn a rice-grain-sized bug from a natural forest manager which aided in the diversification of forest species and age structure to a region- (or continent-) wide destructive force. And everything humans do to try to combat the bug only compounds the destruction. I can't imagine anyone who is not doing research on this subject  reading this book, but I think everyone who cares about forests, trees, and oxygen should. Consider this statement: "If ambient oxygen levels drop further, women will need to carry their infants for longer periods of time, as many mountain dwellers already do. But for many women, thirty-seven weeks is already a dangerous stretch. 'It's a matter of molecular physics,' says Beresford-Kroeger. 'When the forests go down, women will suffer.'"

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Like in our politics these days—rich/poor, right/left, rational/insane—there is polarization in our house right now, between Holiday Spirit and Grinchy.

Surprisingly, it's the teenager who's been pounding out Christmas carols on the piano since September and asking if it's too early to get out the holiday records and movies yet.

The two 12-year-olds, on the other hand, have complained that it's too early for holiday movies and music (echoing their mother's voice through all of November, ahem). They even declined to do our Christmas Book Countdown for the first time ever (in lieu of the daily picture book, I'm reading them A Christmas Carol, much to their chagrin. But I'm persisting; in today's anti-education climate, it may be the only Dickens they're ever exposed to).

For my point, I've been slow to get the Christmas game on around the house. We went to a wreath-making party Saturday, and I gave my Fiestaware its annual bath and arranged the red and green pieces in prominent positions, but this approach is a bit to subtle for my housemates.

After watching Elf over the weekend (because that is one holiday movie they're always game for), E decided to take over the household decorating himself, Elf-style. He started with a paper chain, but our supply of construction paper was low in the red-and-green department, so he changed gears, and

with a stack of coffee filters, a skein of white yarn, and a roll of scotch tape, he soon scissored and finger-knitted a snowflake garland that sweeps from the living room to the kitchen. 

Even Z got into the act and added some coffee filter art of his own.

I love both the initiative (all I had to do was find yarn and remind him how to finger knit) and the results. Maybe we'll leave the ornament boxes in the basement this year and leave the twins in charge of decorating...

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Quilt (Top) for E

Ever since I finished Z's quilt (top) back in February, the squares for E's quilt have been sitting forlornly on my sewing table, gathering dust and waiting for someone to come and do something with them. Around mid-October, I finally got the inspiration to put them together (probably fueled by something else I wasn't inspired to do, like clean the house or write a book), and so I cleared and dusted my sewing area, threaded my machine, and put a few squares together.

Then the late October mega-windstorm came, wiping out both our internet and the daily solitude that's a prerequisite to writing (did I mention the kids got a whole week off school with that one?), and I got cracking, putting together most of the squares. The momentum continued, and in less than a month, I had the whole top assembled, which is something of a record, even if you include the years since I started cutting pieces.

The original motif was to have been frogs, and I started with some fabrics from my stash and some my mom sent me. Over time the theme expanded to include salamanders, lizards, turtles, alligators, butterflies, crickets, beetles, fish, and parrots. I guess we can call it "Non-Mammal Vertebrates Plus Insects." I suppose it would have been more age-appropriate had I finished it back in 2014, but who doesn't love frogs, really? They're timeless. And he doesn't have to take it to college with him if he doesn't want to.

 In the meantime, I got Z's quilt back from the long-arm quilter months ago.

We chose a quilting pattern called "West Wind," which is highly appropriate, and not only for the nature theme of the quilt. For the backing, my quilter recommended this tan and brown flannel with a pattern like tree rings and to my surprise, I liked it. The front is so busy, that a neutral backing made sense. After much hemming and hawing, I've decided to use the same fabric for the binding, not only because I have a lot of it (nice and long so I won't have to do much piecing), but also because I thought it would be lovely to have a soft flannel edge to one's quilt.

I was hoping to give both to the boys for Christmas, but I finished E's to late to get it quilted. I'll have to wrap up the top for him with a promise of finishing it in the new year—a family tradition I carry on from when my mom used to wrap up fabric and a pattern or yarn and needles, the promise of a gift later on.
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