Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It's what we do

We just finished all our holiday cards this weekend.  I'm behind on all things Christmas, and still need to bake and figure out many of the presents, so I was tempted to skip cards altogether.  But Quinn wanted to do them.

Quinn likes lists and excuses to hand write things and organizing stuff into piles, so holiday cards are right up his alley.  I decided if he really wanted to help it would be worth going to the trouble.  We talked about what to make and settled on an origami star.  YouTube showed us how to make one, and we got to folding.

In the past when we've done our little home assembly line process of putting together holiday cards I thought of it in two parts: The making of the actual cards, and then considering whom they are for and what to put inside.  It never occurred to me that the second half of that process would be done by anyone but myself, but the part that most interested Quinn was addressing envelopes.

I never realized just how much mental editing I have been doing when it comes to my address book until I handed it over to my eleven year old son.  It's not simply a functional list.  There are people from all different stages of my life with clues to how their lives have changed over time.  There are people who have stayed in my address book longer than is practical because it's the last connection I really have to them now.  I still have old address books in case I need to look up someone from the past who didn't make the transfer to the newest one.  There are friends who are really only memories now.  There are people who have died that I can't bring myself to cross off.

I didn't want Quinn to address an envelope to everyone in the book--the dentist, the school, the service station, none of them need a card.  But there are addresses in the book that look like something to skip that we don't, like my old dojo.  So I flipped through the book and made a rough list for Quinn to follow, and then added extra names that I knew were not in there (such as neighbors we can hand deliver to, whose addresses are currently unnecessary to document, or people we interact with regularly but don't actually know where they live), and set him loose with a pen and a big stack of envelopes.

For the most part he did an excellent job, but there were several envelopes addressed upside down.  There were also a few botched names, and some confusion about what was an extra last name and what was a child.  I left most of those alone.  The only ones I quietly redid myself were ones where he included a spouse that had died.

One of the things I enjoy most about spending time alone with Quinn is he asks me a lot of questions.  If the radio is on he'll want me to explain words and events from the news, which often challenges me to think about things in the world more carefully.  When the radio isn't on he tends to ask me to explain things about myself, which can be an even bigger challenge.

Quinn had lots of questions about how we do the holiday cards.  Even as he was happily immersed in his task he wanted to know, "Why do we do this?"  I told him it probably isn't as necessary as it was in the days before social media, but that traditionally this was a time of year to catch up with people.  There are a lot of people I've been glad to have in my life but whom I don't actively pursue activities with that are worth taking a moment to acknowledge.  This is a time of year when doing so doesn't seem out of place or awkward.

Then Quinn wanted to know who many of these people were.  "Oh, well, my mom once had a friend she adored and he died and that's one of his children whom we used to see around Christmastime and she sends me a card and I like seeing how her children have grown so I assume she likes hearing from me, too.  That person I was friends with in college and you met her when you were a toddler but I haven't seen her in person in years and she never writes back but she's told me she likes getting our cards and when I write one to her it reminds me of playing in orchestra together.  That person I only know from her blog but I'm really glad to know her and it's nice to reach out once in a while in a tangible way so the friendship feels more real.  That's a relative we never see, but family connections are important in their own way and I think my grandma would have wanted me to send this person a card so I do it to honor her."  Etc.

Between the cards and decorating the tree I got to thinking a lot about what constitutes a tradition.  Religious people, or people with strong cultural identities, have traditions readily available to borrow from.  People who share those traditions seldom question them, and their meanings often just become assumed.  Families like ours that don't have those templates to draw on kind of dabble in what's available and then create meaning for ourselves.  But within many families either way there are habits or shared events or preferences that shape what they do, and when they get repeated they often get termed traditions as well.

My daughter is not a fan of change, and when she likes something she wants to repeat it as closely as she can.  Hence, for the past several years she has had a skating event for her birthday with about a dozen friends followed by a sleepover for just the girls (although boys can come back to the house for a bit, they just get driven home before midnight).  She loves this so much that even though there are other things that might be fun, too, she just can't imagine altering any of it. 

Part of this event is walking over to Target and letting everyone pick out snacks for the evening.  This rose primarily out of the fact that I didn't want to mess up providing foods for vegans or people with allergies so better all around if everyone selects things for themselves and I just pay for it.  Aden refers to this trek to Target with her friends as a tradition.  How many times would we have to do that for it to be reasonably called a tradition in the eyes of others?  Does it start at twice?  Does it have to get passed down to another generation before you can apply the term?  Can something retroactively be referred to as a tradition if it was too new to qualify at one point, but later definitely is?

I don't know if the snack walk is a tradition or not, all I know is sometimes Target makes some peculiar choices when creating signs, and our current favorite is this one for bananas near the checkout:
By the each!  We like that "each" is there twice.  Quinn was mostly amused by the absurd apostrophe use.  We decided the only thing that would make the sign better was if they had used "buy" or "bye" instead of "by."

We also picked up a new star for the tree at Target this year.  Normally we make one, but that's become another tradition that isn't really a tradition.  For years we didn't have a specific topper for the tree, so Aden and I would throw one together using paper or paint or glitter or plastic jewels or whatever else we had lying around.  Usually they are too flimsy to last and we end up making another one the following year.  But then we saw what we dubbed the "infinity star" at Target and decided we wanted that instead.  We actually mulled it over for a couple of days because did we really want to interrupt this "tradition" of flimsy stars?  Yes, yes we did.  That crazy blinking star is cool and goes well with the weird tree dazzler lights we picked up last year.  We can make other flimsy things if the desire hits us.

Putting up our ornaments together is definitely a tradition.  We have a funny hodgepodge of things on our tree that always make us smile and remember and laugh.  There are things from my childhood and Ian's, and I have a small collection of things for the tree that were my grandma's that are bittersweet to hang. 

The newest "tradition" is the dog using the tree stand as a water bowl.  (That's his fuzzy little butt sticking out at the bottom of the tree during a recent drink.)

Quinn was asked recently at school to write an essay about his favorite holiday, and I asked what the contenders were.  He said Halloween, Easter, and Christmas.  He was leaning toward Christmas, but figured everyone else would pick that as well.  Halloween he likes for being able to wear a costume, and of course for the candy.  Easter he likes doing the egg hunt each year, especially in New York.  But what he likes about Christmas?  The road trip. 

When we moved to doing Christmas in Detroit several years ago, the kids still wanted to open presents under our own tree on the day of, so we started a new routine of doing Christmas morning at home, then hitting the road.  I felt bad about it at first because spending all day in the car did not seem like a fun way to spend a holiday, but the kids love it.  Quinn says he likes getting presents and then deciding which ones to bring with him.  We usually get them a new DVD and they watch that together huddled in the backseat.  They have candy canes to suck on and usually a new stuffed toy to cuddle and we are all together, and all of it makes them happy.  I've always appreciated that my kids are good travelers, but didn't realize how much they enjoyed actually being in the car.  (No wonder they liked the eclipse trip so much.  That drive barely had a destination.)  Maybe it's a routine if it's boring and a tradition if it brings you joy.  If so, the Christmas car ride qualifies as a tradition.

Happy Holidays to everyone!  No matter what you celebrate or what you purchase by the each, we wish all of you peace and joy in the coming year.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Surprise Cakes

This year has been the birthday season of the surprise cakes. 

The first birthday is Quinn's, and he couldn't decide what kind of cake to ask for.  Mona wanted try her hand at making a cake this time, and offered to surprise him.  He liked that idea, and the result was this adorable cat cake.

Pretty much all of this was Mona.  I baked the actual cakes, but Mona did all the sculpting and decorating.  I would like to mention that my end of it was no small deal in that I wound up baking three sets of cakes three days in a row.  Her original idea was a "transfer mouse" from some online game the two of them like to play together, and she wanted it standing.  I tried to explain (based on my vast amount of experience with past cake wrecks) why the way she was going at it wasn't going to work, but some lessons one must apparently learn for oneself.  There was one collapsed cake, then another even more collapsed cake, before Mona finally accepted my adage of "The cake should be wider than it is tall to remain stable" and the cat cake came to be.

We had a nice quiet birthday with Quinn this year.  He made a million cereal treats to take to school both for his classroom and for the after school geography club, and for dinner we tried a new taco truck and ate while watching anime at home.  (I highly recommend the short series "Erased" if you haven't seen it.)

He did love his cake and asked if he, in turn, could surprise Mona with a cake for her birthday.  Mona was scheduled to spend her birthday weekend at a sleepover for a friend whose birthday is on the same day, so Quinn and I decided we needed to make a cake that was easy to transport so she could take it to the party.  It wasn't at all what Mona was expecting because the cake was simply cake-shaped, but I think it came out cool and Quinn did a good job.

We made a "checkerboard cake" which means we used different colored batter in concentric rings in the cake pans so that when the layers were stacked they would look like a checkerboard when you cut into it.  That way the surprise cake had a surprise inside as well.

This one took a couple of tries, because the first attempt was with chocolate cake and white cake, and we learned the hard way that the two textures of cake don't hold together, so we just added different colors to white cake.

Quinn also wanted to go crazy with frosting colors and the piping bags, so we did.

Right before Mona's birthday, though, was another cake decorating/fundraiser event at Aden's school.  Last year Aden made a spectacular dragon and geode cake, and it won first place, but it was too beautiful to cut into and wound up not being the best choice for a fundraiser where people pay to buy slices after the awards.  This year she went with something more accessible: a candy sushi plate.

The fish part is just a basic chocolate cake cut to the right shape and frosted, and I helped again with baking and a bit of the crumb coat which got tricky, but the rest of it was just Aden working late into the night with cereal and marshmallows and candy.  There are Oreo crumbs in there, gummy fish, fruit roll ups, Twizzlers... 

I think she did a beautiful job.  (And so did the judges, who awarded her first place for the second year in a row.)

My mom was in town briefly in the middle of birthday season and decided to make a collective cake for us to celebrate with all together.  The cake itself was a chocolate chip cake with custard filling that was delicious, but to top it off we put on a "magic candle" we found at the grocery store. 

You light the center wick, the flame gets kind of high (the instructions suggested we should be 3-4 feet away from it), it sparks briefly, then opens like a flower with tiny lit candles that burn down quickly as they make the whole thing spin slowly.  It was also supposed to make music, but we didn't get that to work until after the candles went out.  The package described it as making "continuous music" which is apt, since the only way we could shut it off was to crack the candle housing open and disconnect the battery from the speaker.  We loved that weird thing.
For Aden's birthday she wanted to continue the surprise cake theme and have her siblings make whatever they chose.  They settled on a shield and sword from the Legend of Zelda, which worked out well because Aden had a skating party at Incrediroll again, followed by a sleepover, so we had a cake for each site.

This time we used fondant to decorate with.  I baked a couple of cakes again, but the kids made the fondant themselves and did all the real work.  I helped with some frosting work again, and I cut out the white and yellow fondant bits for the shield, but the rest of it was all Quinn and Mona.

Aden managed to walk into the kitchen at the wrong moment and saw the drawing we were working from which spoiled some of the surprise, but she wasn't expecting two cakes, so part of it was still unexpected.  Cake is cake, though.  Surprise or no, it still tastes good.

Best cake making tip I can share this year is the glory of parchment paper.  We cut out parchment paper to fit along the bottom of all the pans and it made lifting the cakes out to do things with incredibly easy.

In between Quinn's birthday and Mona's birthday is Thanksgiving, and I feel the need to show that not everything we make comes out pretty.  My grandma used to serve orange jello at the big holiday meals, and I inherited her cut-glass jello plate and the mold in the shape of a ring that fits on it perfectly.  I also inherited the recipe, but have yet to make it work. 

The orange jello calls for (appropriately) three boxes of orange jello, orange sherbet, mandarin orange slices, and crushed pineapple.  The problem is this is one of gram's recipes where the amounts of everything are unclear because it just says "a can" or "a box" and we have no idea what the proportions are.  Every year we make a new guess and every year we end up with orange soup.  Luckily orange soup is still delicious, but I think gram would horrified that we're serving a giant bowl of brightly colored goo in her honor on our holiday table.
We'll try again at Christmas.

In the meantime, no more cake for a while.  We are caked out.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Rare and Beautiful Things (VSA 2017)

Amati violin at the Smithsonian
I made a hastily arranged trip to DC recently in order to attend part of a VSA (Violin Society of America) convention.  It's an off year (meaning there was no makers' competition which is a much bigger event and lasts a whole week) and I wasn't planning on going, but I won a lottery for a special pre-convention tour that was too good to miss.

Thankfully I have friends in the area who were willing to put me up and drive me around which made the trip even feasible.  (They also own one of my violins so I was able to at least offer some instrument maintenance in exchange--Although I have to say I found doing bench work at a kitchen table to be surprisingly disorienting when I'm used to being surrounded by all the tools and light I need.)

The pre-convention tour, that was only available to a smaller group than would attend the full convention, included a trip to the Library of Congress in the morning, and the Smithsonian in the afternoon.  Both places have an impressive collection of rare instruments, including some of the most famous that Stradivari ever built.  I had the opportunity to study and play the collection in the Library of Congress many years ago, but have never seen the ones in the Smithsonian other than in photos.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween: Bay View Style

Happy Halloween!  It's been over for us for days, but I hope everyone else out there who has fun with it on the actual day has a good time.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Aden the Armadillo

Aden really likes being a kangaroo.  Up until a couple of weeks before Halloween she thought she would just be a kangaroo again this year.  But her sister in particular couldn't believe she'd pass up the chance to be something else, especially since she could always still just be a kangaroo if she changed her mind.

So at the last minute she decided to be an armadillo.

By last minute I mean about a week ago I had a couple of hours to sew together a basic jumpsuit and tack on a couple of ears, and then Aden was supposed to do the rest.  She really wanted to make all of it soft so she could lounge around in it, and she had ideas, but wasn't sure how to execute them and kept putting it off.  We wound up the day before the Halloween Dance staying up late and getting the last of it done.
After some trial and error we ended up with a fleece armor-shell filled with batting and the outside layer folded with nine pleats (for a 9-banded armadillo).  I stitched it to the body and attached the tail to the underside of it.  And I added a small snout like a bill to her hood.

All the lighter color details Aden did herself with paint, plus she added claws to a pair of gloves.

It's not as flashy as her siblings' costumes this year, but she's very happy being an armadillo.

And she seems to be past her worries about being too old to Trick-or-Treat, which I'm glad about.  There are so many adults who dress up in our neighborhood she doesn't look out of place, and it's just a big welcoming event here, regardless of how old or young the kids are.

At school next week she's just going to be a cowgirl because her school is already warm, and changing in and out of a heavy costume for gym sounds annoying, but at home she plans to hang out in armadillo mode often.  She loves being an armadillo.  (And I love her.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Quinn the Lion Fish

This is officially the most labor intensive costume I've been asked to do yet.  But I think it came out looking good!

When I asked Quinn a few months ago what he wanted to be for Halloween there was a deceptive pause in his answer that gave me hope for a simple costume this year.  He said, "I want to be a lion... fish."  A lion would have been easy.  My mind went to a couple of elements I could use to make it cool and knew I could knock it out in about a day.  But then the word "fish" came into the picture and I realized, no, this was going to be a challenge.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

I guess the best of Dorothy Parker isn't good enough.

Our car gets broken into about every six weeks.

For the most part our neighborhood is fairly safe.  I'm not nervous walking our dog at night.  Our street dead ends into the railroad tracks a block away from our house so there isn't a lot of through traffic that direction.  We have nice neighbors.  I don't feel scared in or around our house.  (Although there was a carjacking on our corner a few months ago, but I'm still more nervous about running into a skunk than a criminal.)

Our garage only holds one car, so we tend to park the minivan inside, and the sedan in the driveway by the alley.  We can't keep a garage door opener in the sedan because then someone could use that to break into the whole garage and they might take, I don't know, our kites or a rake or something.  We tend to keep the doors to the car unlocked simply because I'd rather deal with people rifling through everything than a smashed window, but it's still annoying.

I don't know if it's the same person or group who does a regular round of rummaging through cars on our block, or if it varies, but they always go through it the same way.  We come out in the morning to find all the compartments wide open and everything a more jumbled mess than usual.  I mostly get pissed off if they leave a door open enough to keep the dome light on which runs down the battery.  Our last car they used to steal the radio out of over and over, but that hasn't happened in years (probably because there's not much of a market for them anymore).  Lately nothing gets taken that we've noticed.  They leave the change on the floor, they don't want pens or the car owner's manual, and last week they even rejected our GPS which we'd accidentally left in the bin between the front seats and they dumped it on the floor mat.

There is not much of value in our car, but when it's rifled through, there is one thing we always check for.