Monday, December 31, 2007

I've been busy building.

If you tell people that a small boy is interested in building robots, that small boy is very likely to receive robot related kits. And if that boy has a mother who enjoys assembling items, that mother will likely spend much of her holiday vacation building and rebuilding and rebuilding yet again. The boy might even have to remind his mother that the kits were given to him, not to her, and that she should really pick up her knitting and leave the kits alone for a little while.

Grandma and Grandpa showed up with some Wacky Wigglers. The Wigglers are indeed Wacky. The kit has a motor, many gears, and some accessories. It's fun to see how the gears work together to move our creations.

Santa dropped off a snap circuit board. I cannot even begin to describe how very cool this toy is. The version Jake received has instructions to build 100 different projects that illustrate various circuits and ways to use electricity. The kit was for kids over age 8, so we've had numerous discussions about only building the written projects and only building with an adult until Jake understands the underlying concepts (or until I finally get sick of building with the kit myself).

Jake also received a race track that uses magnets from his other grandma and a snap-together construction set from his great-aunt. All told, we have about 675 individual pieces that have thus far added up to over 60 hours of fun. I don't remember toys being this cool when I was a kid.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's not Christmas until the white kids rap.

Jake's school had their Christmas concert last night. I left my sick husband at home with my crabby tired girl and met my mother-in-law at the concert. I had a blast. Sure, it was a little longer than necessary and I'm sure that we've all heard one too many cheesy medleys in our day. But really, what could possibly be more festive than 30 awkward white Catholic midwestern 7th graders getting their groove on with a Christmas rap? I think the choir director chooses a rap to accommodate the changing voices of the boys, and the occasional squeaky honk from the choir certainly did add a certain something to the experience. I realize that I am probably coming off as sarcastic, but the truth is that the kids had a great time performing and I had a great time watching them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It hurt a little to say it.

Boy! If I see you reading that book for one more second, I'm going to come in there and take it away. Go. To. Sleep.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Past: A Slip of the Tongue

My mother has always been an inveterate supporter of Santa Claus. Even after all of us girls had figured out who delivered the presents, we played along. It seemed so wrong to rob Mom of her little secret.

Every year, we'd make a list for Santa. The entire family would make our annual Christmas shopping trek to the nearest mall in Springfield, a 90 minute drive from our rural home. At some point in our day, Mom would disappear for a while under the cover of a lame excuse. The funniest was the year that she told us an upset stomach had her in the mall bathroom for over an hour. She delivered that excuse while devouring a slice of sausage pizza. Anyway, while we were shopping, she would surreptitiously put items on hold at the counter. Then once she'd made her excuse, she'd fly back through the mall picking up all the held items and ferrying them out to the car where they would be hidden under a blanket in the trunk. We would surely never notice that the blanket was a little lumpier by the end of the day! Once at home, the gifts were safely hidden away from eyes that never really pried. We carried on in this manner for years.

Mom finally slipped in 1990. I was a sophomore in college and was home for break. Mom had gotten a beautiful embroidered jacket for me. It was very expensive. I'd tried it on at the urging of a store clerk who thought the green color would complement my eyes. I fell in love with it, then looked at the price tag. $145! Scandalous! I gave it back to the clerk and told Mom I'd check the clearance rack in a few months. When I saw the jacket next to my stocking on Christmas morning, I shrieked, "Thank you so much, Mom!" Mom replied, "You're welcome!" Then she stopped, realizing that she'd actually admitted to the Santa Claus racket. We all laughed, both relieved and disappointed that the game was over.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not Exactly About Christmas

Claire's third birthday was yesterday. True to form, she spent the day surprising me. She started her little life by shocking me at an Easter egg hunt. Jacob and I were sitting on a bench when I realized that I felt awful. And then I realized why I felt awful. I ran home to take a pregnancy test. After a year of heartbreaking negatives (and enough drama and tears for years of heartbreak), I had finally gotten pregnant during the month that we stepped off the conception carousel for the sake of my sanity.

Many months later, I was sitting on the living room floor feeling awful. Then I realized why I felt awful. Nick and I took our time leaving because I'd had a long, grueling labor with Jacob. Thirty minutes later, we were flying down the highway while I was desperately trying NOT to have a baby. Claire's head crowned in the delivery room before the very nice security guard managed to move our double-parked car away from the emergency entrance. We were sure that we'd be greeting Samuel when the doctor put my beautiful baby girl on my stomach. Nick and I laughed and laughed. "We have a daughter! Already! We just got here and we have a daughter!"

She surprised us by being an easy baby. Then she surprised us by being a remarkably challenging toddler. Every time I make any assumption about Claire at all, she turns my expectations upside down and inside out. She is never who I expect her to be, but she is always wonderful.

When I walked into her room at daycare yesterday, she was wearing a turquoise flower girl dress. We donated the dress to the preschool some years ago. It had originally belonged to my niece, who wore it to her mother's wedding. I had completely forgotten about the dress. It was surreal to see my no-longer-a-baby-girl wearing that dress that belonged to a girl who now drives and has a boyfriend. Claire's growing up behind my back while I've got my eyes on her all the time. It's a surprising trick.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas Past: The Tale of the Bells

There are those family legends that everyone tells, even those who may not remember the actual event. I was too young at the time to really remember what happened. Still, the bells and how they came to be is part of the fabric of my Christmas. I tell the story to my children as if I do remember.

Late one Christmas Eve in Texas, my sisters and I were sound asleep waiting for Santa to come. We'd been told that Santa only comes when children are sleeping so Tiana and I wasted no time getting to bed. Katie was an infant at the time, Tiana was a serious preschooler, and I was a difficult toddler.

Tiana and I woke to the sound of jingling bells. We lay there, eyes screwed shut lest Santa think we were awake. Then we heard my father shout, "Santa! Santa! You forgot your bells!" We rushed into the living room, where my father was standing in the open door. He had his eyes on the sky and in his hand was a long red velvet ribbon with jingle bells sewn to it at regular intervals. Tiana pressed past Dad and caught a glimpse of the sleigh in the night sky. Mom called us back in and said that we'd save the bells for Santa to pick up next year. We hung them on the wall, looked longingly at the presents, and went back to bed.

The next year, we hung the bells on the wall again for Santa to find. He never did take his bells back. We figured that he had just made another ribbon during the summer. The ribbon is still hung near the door of my parents' house every year. We girls insist on it. Tiana is still sure she saw something or someone flying through the sky on that Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Present: Cookies

Someone - it might have been me - had a bright idea at November's book club meeting. Instead of reading a book in December, we'd all bake cookies! And then we would bring the cookies to the meeting and exchange them! We could nosh and chat and make plans for the next year. And leave with cookies! Cookies, cookies, cookies! Well, it seemed like a swell idea in November.

This past Friday, I peeked at my calendar. The little boxes for this weekend had somehow gotten crammed full. Breakfast with Santa, setting up for the school's Christmas store, selling scrip (I really should write a post about that sometime), and the list went on. The cookie exchange was starting to look more and more like a bad idea. I've never really been one to back off a challenge, though. In fact, I made the challenge more interesting by filling every spare moment with video games instead of cookie making. Cookies taste better if they're made at the last possible moment, right?

I decided to make pinwheels. I reasoned that if I could make a jelly roll, then I could make pinwheels. Besides, Joy of Cooking claimed that people bought the entire book on the strength of the refrigerator cookie dough recipe. Clearly, this was a good plan!

At seven on Saturday evening, Jake manned the mixer while I dumped in the ingredients. The dough was very sticky, so I decided to chill it for a bit before attempting to roll and layer it. Around 9 or so, I decided it was chilled enough. I put on the kettle so that I could have a cup of tea when I was finished. I assembled the paraphernalia and began to roll. Then I remembered that I cannot use a rolling pin. I did manage to somehow get the dough to a relatively uniform 1/8" thickness, but it required copious amounts of flour and the end product was more shredded amoeba than smooth oblong.

I turned off the whistling kettle and soldiered on. I rolled another oblongish sheet of dough. I put sheet 1 on top of sheet 2, yanked off the waxed paper, and very nearly put sheet two into the garbage can. It was still attached to the wax paper. After several more attempts, I actually managed to get the sheets together and roll them into a very bumpy looking log. Then I tackled the second set. All told, it took me an hour and twenty minutes to create two logs of cookies. The recipe claimed that they would yield 120 cookies but I had my doubts. I shoved them in the fridge and went to bed.

Sunday morning, I got up before the kids (!!) and headed to the kitchen to bake. After slicing the first roll, it was painfully clear that I was going to be short at least a dozen cookies. I scraped the remaining sugar out of the bin to make another batch - even forgoing sugar in my coffee in order to have enough for the dough. Then, miracle of miracles, I had enough cookies! I stacked them 3 across, 3 down, and 6 up. I counted and recounted. Yes! Six dozen cookies! I did a happy dance in the kitchen, then went on about my day with the extra dough safely in the fridge.

After lunch, at t minus one hour, I started packaging up the cookies. I swatted Nick's hand away, "I barely have six dozen. You can't eat them. I know it doesn't look like six dozen, but it is. I counted and recounted." Nick looked at me, opened his mouth, then shut it again. Then, my poor math hit me square between the eyes. I was 18 cookies short. Somehow, I managed to roll, laminate, slice, and bake the dough I'd put in the fridge earlier. I made the 18 extra cookies, and packaged up all six dozen in a frenzy.

I arrived at the party two minutes late to discover that the hostess wasn't home. She had been delayed at the tree lot and had sent her mother over to open the door for us. As I arranged my cookies on the table, I noted that the hostess had only packaged up 10 cookies per package. My mother in law arrived with 4 dozen toffee bars and 2 dozen snowballs because she had also miscounted. I closed my mouth up tight and accepted the compliments on my lovely cookies. All the same, I don't think I'll suggest repeating the cookie exchange next year. Maybe we can roast chestnuts instead.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Christmas Past: Episode 2, aka Another Tree, Another Man

In the winter of 1996, Nick and I spent our first Christmas together in a shared domicile. We had become engaged a few months prior and promptly moved into the bottom floor of a two family flat in Dogtown. These flats are common in St. Louis, both two and four family varieties. They are large brick building with apartments one up/one down or two up/two down. Most are owned by individual landlords. Both the apartments and the landlords are rich in character. We were very happy in our new apartment and couldn't wait to decorate for Christmas.

In my previous apartment (a studio in a four-family flat), I'd always decorated a small table-top tree. We were excited about having a larger tree that actually stood on the floor. We trundled off to the nursery to pick one out. We found a lovely four foot tall fir - just tall enough to be on the floor, just small enough that I could actually close my trunk on top of the tree. I was practically hopping up and down by the time we had it wrapped in netting and safely in the trunk.

I could have cried when we got home and realized that the tree wouldn't fit in the stand that I had. The trunk was simply too large. Nick, ever my hero, quickly ran to the store to buy a new tree stand. He came home with the next biggest size. It looked huge but we set it up anyway. I prostrated myself in order to turn the screws while Nick lift the tree into the stand. "OK, drop it!" I told him.

"I did drop it. Tighten the screws."

"Hm. It's not really in the stand yet. It's not anywhere near the bottom." I stood up and held the tree so Nick could see for himself. The branches had been trimmed from the bottom 8" or so of the trunk, but the stand was a good 6" deeper. Nick stood back up, grabbed the tree, and started jamming it up and down in the stand like a piston. The floor was covered in needles, but the branches held firm. I laughed a little at his uncharacteristic fit of pique and received a dirty look for my trouble. He stood the tree against the wall, then stomped into the kitchen.

I heard a drawer slam shut, then Nick came back with a steak knife. I stupidly asked, "What are you going to do with that?" Nick didn't even bother to answer me. He just started to hack and saw at the branches. Five minutes later, he stood up again and unleashed a volley of curses at the still intact branches. Then he stomped into the hallway and slammed open the door of the linen closet.

This time, he came back with a hammer. This time, I refrained from asking stupid questions. He grabbed the tree and the knife and carried everything out onto the porch. I lit a cigarette (Don't harass me - I quit. Well, mostly.) and listened to the war outside. It sounded like Nick was cutting down an entire forest out there. Eventually, he brought the tree and tools back inside. Everything, including Nick, was covered in sap. He jammed the tree into the stand and spat out, "There. It's beautiful." And it was.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Past: Episode 1, aka Dad will never live it down.

Our story starts on a tree lot in '78 or '79. Dad, Mom, my older sister Tiana, my younger sister Katie, and I were choosing a tree. I was 7 or 8, Tiana was 9 or 10, and Katie was around 5. It was dark, cold, and utterly magical. We girls wandered through the lot looking at each and every tree. "Dad! Let's look at this one!" Dad would obliging pull the tree out of the stand and give it a slow twirl. "No! Too tall!" or "No! It's flat on that side!" or "No! Not green enough!" We had it narrowed down to two trees. Mom made the final decision.

When we got back to the turquoise Ford XL, my father's pride and joy, we discovered that the tree was mammoth. It hadn't looked quite so big on the lot. Mom worried, "Maybe we should go trade it for a smaller tree. This isn't going to fit." Dad tut tutted at her and told her to get us in the car. "It'll be fine! I've got some rope." We climbed into the backseat and waited as Dad tied the tree into the trunk. The car rocked as he crammed the tree into the open trunk and laced it in. We giggled and slid all over the black leather bench seat. Mom got out of the car to check Dad's work and was promptly sent back inside by my irritated father.

We set off for home. It was a short trip - we had to drive by the PX, turn left at the big intersection, then two rights on smaller streets. Tiana, Katie, and I were all kneeling on the back seat, peeking at the tree through the gap in the open trunk. Dad turned at the light and the tree slid out of the trunk. It landed right in the middle of the busiest intersection on the base. Cars were honking and veering around the fallen tree. We were screaming, "THE TREE! THE TREE! THE TREE IS IN THE STREET! AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! DON'T RUN OVER OUR TREEEEEEEEEEE!" Mom was cackling, Dad was cursing, and I'm pretty sure the partridge in the pear tree laid an egg. Somehow, the tree got laced back into the trunk and we got it home with minimal damage. The next year, Mom bought an artificial tree and Dad didn't even protest.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Starting at the end.

Jacob has library on Wednesdays. I get excited to see what he chose each week. Last week, I picked up his book bag to check his homework and very nearly strained a muscle. "What on earth is in here?" I asked. Jake came flying back into the room to snatch the bag out of my hand. The heavy bag swung from the momentum and very nearly spun Jake in a circle. He ripped it open, pulled out a huge tome, and held it up with straining muscles for my approval.

"It's Harry Potter!"

"Yes it is! It's the last one, though. Don't you think we should start with the first?" I replied.

"No! I want to read this one!"

"Well, I don't know that we can read this in a week. Grandma has all the books. Why don't we just..."

"No! It's ok! Mrs. Z said that I can just keep checking it out until I get it all read. I'll just keep checking it out and checking it out." With that, I was out of arguments.

But I really, really didn't want to start with the last book. I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books yet. I wasn't particularly interested in reading a children's series for myself when the Harry Potter buzz first started. Then my mother-in-law started buying all of the books for Jacob. That annoyed me, so I determined that I would read the books to Jacob when he came of age. Grandma could give Jacob the books, but I would read them to him. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably reveal that Grandma intended all along for Nick and I to share the books with Jacob. I can be fairly petty sometimes when it comes to my mother-in-law.) I've been waiting all these years, avoiding the movies, the books, and discussion of the books among my friends, so that I could have a fresh reading when Jake was ready. And now, he's ready but he's starting at the end. I can only laugh because I am well-known for reading books - especially whodunits - out of order. I read the first few chapters, skip to the end and read the last few pages backwards, than resume reading in a normal manner.

We're on chapter five and we're both enjoying it. It's a little confusing here and there because we don't really know the major players or the rules of Harry's world. Jake keeps asking me questions about the story. I'm not above a snippy reply, "We'd know that if we started at the beginning, wouldn't we?" But I've already peeked at the last few pages. It appears that Ms. Rowling was ready for readers like me, though, since the last few pages seem to be an epilogue of sorts. I think that is profoundly unfair. If Jake is going to make me start at the end of the series, I should at least be able to quickly find the end of the story. Harumph.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Not according to plan

I was woken at five on Saturday morning by a small plaintive voice, "Mommy, my ear hurts." She kept repeating it as I was digging my way out of sleep. There's something about that time in the morning for me that makes me thick. Any other time, I can spring out of bed in a second. I finally managed to move myself five feet and pluck her out of the crib. I pulled her back into bed with me, unable to think of a better response than getting under the covers again. She lay there with me, rolling around a bit, until I finally had the brilliant idea of waking Nick up to fetch some ibuprofen.

Claire just couldn't get comfortable so I soon gave up on sleep. I put on my big fuzzy robe and wrapped an afghan around Claire. I stood her up in the dark hallway, went into the bathroom and flipped on the light. As I brushed my teeth, she slowly sank to the floor and sat there in a little fuzzy yellow lump. I knew then it was going to be a long day.

I had planned my day out to the minute. Instead, I spent hours sitting with Claire in the big chair waiting for the doctor's office to open. Then another hour at the doctor, another hour grabbing snacks and medicine, and another hour sitting in the chair again until Claire fell back to sleep. I was worried about Claire, irritated about the change in plans, and anxious about my ever-expanding to-do list. Jacob was clamoring for attention as well. Then late in the day, I saw pus filled discharge seeping out of Claire's ear. Her eardrum had burst again. That pushed up the dial on the worryometer and added a few items to my to-do list for next year, like specialist visits and perhaps tubes for her ears.

In the end, I had a productive day. If I look at what I accomplished, not the least of which was comforting my child, it was a good day. But if I look at the big balance sheet in my head, I'm in the red. I either need to find a way to increase my productivity tenfold or find a way to fix the books. Frankly, I'm leaning toward accounting tricks.

This stopped me in my tracks this morning.

A woman writes about suffering - click to read.