Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Forget Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time... (Babble)

I am blogging while walking on my treadmill!

Despite my hopeful attempts of late to get in better shape, getting out to exercise keeps getting interrupted by life.  The kids will be off of school or someone gets sick or I have to use my time to wrap presents because things like memorial services pop up.  I know these aren’t real excuses to some people, but I argue those are people who actually like to exercise.  I know several people who run, and not because they have to but they seem to like it.  I am not one of those people.  I wish I were one of those people!  The idea of exercising for the pleasure of it rather than as some time sucking chore is amazing to me.  I like the results of it, I understand it is something I must do, but I am infinitely happier reading a book or building a violin or cuddling with my kids, none of which burn calories or strengthen muscles.  Time spent exercising makes me want to scream.

But, my weight has reached proportions that make me physically uncomfortable, so I have to start paying attention and putting the task of getting into better shape on the front burner.  I can’t ignore it.  I want to be healthy and I want to be a healthy example to my kids.  I can’t be a role model that shows them exercise is fun, but at least I can prove to them I believe when something is important to do, you do it even if you don’t want to.  And whenever possible, be creative.

I saw a news story a few weeks back about a workplace that got rid of traditional desks and replaced them with treadmill workstations.  The employees could walk slowly while they typed and used the phone, and everyone was happier.  What an idea!  If I could combine my laptop time with exercise, that could work.


We have a simple, fold-up treadmill that had gotten buried behind computer equipment in Ian’s study.  I had him move it into my shop.  I am not crazy about anything invading my shop space that is not directly related to violin making, and the treadmill is being doomed to a sawdust covered existence, but it’s an out of the way room with enough space for it, so in it went.

My first thought was to construct a tall shelf thing with legs that would fit on either side of the treadmill, but then I realized if I faced the wall I could just screw a little shelf in right there.  It’s not very feng shui to have my back kind of to the door, but maybe I’ll just get a little rear view mirror.  (Or try turning my head.  That sounds cheaper.)


Anyway, so far it seems to work.  Walking somewhere at a pace between one and two miles an hour is easy, but I figure it adds up and it’s better than not doing it.  I walked a mile last night while writing emails and catching up on my favorite blogs.  Then I walked a little faster while watching a show on Hulu, and slowed down again when I wanted to type.  I’ve composed this whole post while walking on the treadmill, so I can actually consider blogging exercise.  And it doesn’t feel like exercise, and it doesn’t feel like wasted time.  This could be good!  The trick will be to see if I can write blog posts about anything other than walking on my treadmill.  We’ll find out soon.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Quiet Joy (Babble)

The first Christmas we got to spend in our house in Milwaukee was crazy.  I had just given birth to my first baby a few weeks before and didn’t feel up to travel, so the whole family came to us.  My parents, brothers and in-laws, all my uncles, aunts, and cousins, all came to our home to meet Aden and celebrate the holidays and have a party for my brothers who were born between Christmas and New Year’s.  Our house couldn’t quite hold everyone and when we lined up all the available tables to seat people for dinner we couldn’t open the front door.  It was hectic but it was great.  My Christmases as a child were big fun gatherings, too, and I was happy that the holiday event had come to Milwaukee.

But as the generation of cousins I grew up with began splitting obligations with new families, and people moved farther and farther away, things have become quieter and quieter.   I’m no longer the relative with the smallest children to complicate travel.  And Ian is home now.  When he was in Iraq there was a distinct need to have additional people here on big holidays to help fill the void.  This year was set to be the quietest yet, but I didn’t realize how quiet.

The plan was for just my parents to drive out on Christmas Eve so we could enjoy the actual day together, and my aunt and uncle from Ohio would come out for a few days afterward.  The irony is that when we were hosting the masses we lived in a house about half the size of the one we inhabit now.  We finally have proper space to fit everyone at the dining table without causing a fire exit hazard, and now there isn’t even a need for the leaf in the table.  It’s strange how that happened.

Unfortunately, even that meager plan has been pruned down further at the last moment.  My father isn’t well and my mother called this morning to tell me he was in too much pain to make the drive.  I feel so helpless, and so does my mom.  They’ve run every test they can run and can’t find the cause of the problem, so now he just has to wait and rest and take Tylenol until he can get in to see a specialist next week.  Some days are better than others, and today proved to be one of the bad ones.  Part of me feels we should go there, but it’s a long drive and a family with three kids is not conducive to the rest my dad needs so there isn’t much point.  So I will stay here and worry and we will have Christmas morning with just my little family alone.

In some ways this makes me sad, because obviously I’d like to see more of the people I love, but my little family is wonderful.  I have such an embarrassment of riches to be thankful for–my three sweet and healthy kids, my husband home safe and sound, a house I enjoy waking up in every day, food on the table, a job I love…. There is nothing I lack and I am profoundly aware of how fortunate I am.  I’m concerned for my parents and wish I could help, but to feel sorry for ourselves is ridiculous.  It’s not the Christmas I was picturing, but there is nothing wrong with what we have.

What we have is different from what we’re accustomed to, but it’s peaceful and nice.  Ian and I took turns going out to the violin store to finish some work there while the kids stayed home and played.  They pretended to sled in the living room for a long time, which is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.



Aden and I made stollen to put out for Santa.


Mona accidentally broke a wand that Aden had just gotten from the tooth fairy, so the two of us stopped at Target on the way back from the grocery store (neither of which, we discovered too late, was a good place to go on Christmas Eve) and Mona used her own money to not only buy Aden a new wand, but one for her brother as well.  We had Chinese take out in place of the meal my mom had planned to make.  We cuddled up for movie night.  We put out carrots for the reindeer.

And do you know why I’m writing this blog post?  Because I’m waiting for my children to pass out soundly enough that it will be safe to go downstairs and help myself to a piece of stollen and a carrot or two, and then stuff everyone’s stockings.  They are so excited!  Quinn is almost asleep at my feet, and I can hear Aden and Mona tossing and turning down the hall. 

This is the first year we’ve had a real mantel to hang stockings from, and we didn’t need to rearrange the world to make room for a tree in our new living room so it’s been a pleasure to have it up without it being in the way for a change.  The new house is fun to decorate, so we have a ton of lights up this year.  It’s beautiful and fun and I can’t wait to see the kids’ faces in the morning when they finally get to open their presents.  Quinn told me several times today in what order he plans to open them.  The one in the candy cane paper is first, then the one in the reindeer paper, then red one, then the one with the snowflakes on it….

It’s hard finding presents for the kids so soon after their birthdays, but I think I found them some things they will enjoy.  I heard people ask each of my kids this week what they want for Christmas and they all said they just want to be surprised and they will like whatever they get.  How can you not want to give presents to people like that?
So we are having a quiet, private little Christmas.  It’s a different kind of joy.  And it is miraculous. 

Whatever any of you are doing today, I wish you peace and all the love your heart can hold.  Happy Everything.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flat Ellora (Babble)

I adore my niece.  Her name is Ellora, and she’s smart and dear and I love her.  Many people around the world are already acquainted with Ellora through my brother’s Daily Photo project.  Arno has compiled photos from every day of his daughter’s life into a time lapse animation so you can see her age.  (He also wrote a program that keeps her eyes aligned in each one so her focus seems locked on you while you watch the images fly by.)  It’s pretty amazing:

Ellora is the only first cousin my children have, and for the first time in recent memory she won’t be joining us for Christmas vacation.  My kids all cried when I told them.  Mona in particular is having a hard time with it.  But!  We did receive a less animated but still entertaining substitute in the mail the other day.  Introducing, Flat Ellora:


(Sadly, one of Flat Ellora’s eyes fell off soon after arrival, but Mona quickly set about gluing it back in place.  I’m sure she’d do the same for her actual cousin if one of her eyes fell out in our dining room.)

Flat Ellora is a project my niece is doing for school based on the popular Flat Stanley idea.  She shipped a paper version of herself to us to show around Milwaukee for a week.  It’s not as fun as having real Ellora in town, but my kids had a good time with the flat version.

The first thing we noticed about Flat Ellora was that she was not dressed appropriately for winter in Wisconsin.  She arrived from New York in a fashionable outfit, but it’s blizzard city here, and staying warm trumps everything when it comes to attire in the Midwest during bouts of wind and snow.  Aden and I set to work making her a snowsuit with good boots and mittens.


Mona was more concerned that a week in our house means needing a good costume.   I think Mona has more costumes in mind, plus all the kids were concerned about the lack of a suitcase and toys….  I don’t think my niece’s teacher was expecting a new wardrobe and accessories to return with Flat Ellora, but that envelope is pretty stuffed.

I gave each of the kids at least one day at school with Flat Ellora, along with a digital camera.  My kids would love to take their real cousin as a guest to their classrooms someday, but it’s hard to figure out when such an opportunity would become feasible.  But not a problem for Flat Ellora!  Aden just stuck her in her backpack and off they went.  She forgot the camera that first day, but Flat Ellora was a hit with her class, and got to follow along to violin lessons in the afternoon.

Flat Ellora was in for a higher level of abuse activity the next day accompanying Mona.  There are always a lot of projects and presentations going on in her classroom, and the kids made Flat Ellora a clay dress, posed her near everything and everyone, and pretty much gave her the full tour of the plants and the maps and the puzzles.



(In the last picture Mona is doing a presentation in front of her class about Flat Ellora and some of the other kids are helping find New York on the world map.)

Unfortunately amidst all the excitement Flat Ellora lost an eye and her mouth and a bunch of hair.  (New York may be a busy place, but it’s got nothin’ on the whirlwind of stuff my kids are up to, so maybe the stress of all the Montessori hustle and bustle was getting to her.)  Flat Ellora had to go to choir rehearsal half blind and unable to sing, but the girls still liked having her there.


Before bed I found her a new eye, made her a new mouth, glued a bunch of her hair back down and then tied the rest of it into ponytails in the hopes that she wouldn’t lose any more.  Because the next day she was headed for Quinn’s classroom.
Quinn was very proud to take Flat Ellora to half day kindergarten.  He told me he showed her how to write lower case cursive letters.
Aden and I worked together on the journal that came with Flat Ellora.  Unfortunately the letter we received with it suggested we talk primarily about transportation and infrastructure as we experience it over the time Flat Ellora is here.  That would be the car.  Nearly everything we do is within a radius of about a mile and a half and it’s cold out.  I mean, it’s different from what they experience in New York where they take the subway and buses all the time, so maybe our trips day after day in the minivan on, well, roads, will sound exotic, but I doubt it.  (Actually, when the real Ellora was little and she’d visit us she’d talk about getting “on the car.”  I wonder why we get ‘on the bus’ and ‘on the train’ and ‘on the ferry,’ but we get ‘in the car?’)  Ian did have to fly out of state on the last day for Army drill in Colorado, so we got to mention the existence of airplanes.  We live only about six miles from the airport, so it’s hard to forget about airplanes.

In any case, we summed up the transportation elements of our lives in about two sentences and then decided to fill the journal with pictures about going to school in Milwaukee and what we did this week, which included setting up our Christmas tree and hanging stockings.  We have a stocking here for my niece, so it was nice to get to use it even for just her Flat self.
(Flat Ellora makes a cute ornament!)

We liked hosting Flat Ellora.  It was strangely sad to see her go when we took her to the post office.

I’m kind of hoping after seeing her that one of my kids’ teachers gets inspired to do a similar project.  Flat Stanley is interesting, but what a fun idea to send a little flat version of yourself off into the world somewhere!  (I want to mail myself to Italy…..)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Let them eat one last cake (Babble)

Aden’s recent birthday party went really well, but it occurred to me as I was trying to fall asleep that night that it was almost a disaster.  By the skin of our teeth did it work out.
But first of all, this is what Aden looks like at nine.  It is blowing my mind that she is nine already.  I remember her as a tiny thing in the hospital, and my precious baby learning to walk and talk, and then run and dance and play with friends and become a big sister and go to school and oh my god now she’s nine.

For Aden’s cake this year she wanted a marble cake with chocolate ganache and cut strawberries in the middle layer, butter cream frosting, and pink fondant.  I was new at most of that, but it came out okay.  I made my own fondant which tasted pretty good, but my husband and I slipped a bit getting it onto the actual cake after I rolled it out, and I ended up making some pink icing to pipe all over the place to hide the seams and cracks.  Aden was happy with it so that’s all that mattered.  She put on all the little candy pearls and sprinkles and candles.


Anyway, the party crisis was this: I had Aden make her own invitations and be responsible for handing them out at school.  Two nights before the party I asked her who was coming, and not only wasn’t she sure, but she said three of the invites never made it out of her backpack.  It was after 8:30 in the evening, so I made her call the mom of each of the girls in question and ask if they were available for the party (which they were). 

Now, initially Aden told me she wanted a small, quiet party, maybe even with her being able to serve hot cocoa from her tea set for fun.  But she made about eight invitations, which with my three kids adds up to a lot of kids.  The only guests who actually showed up for the party were the three I made her call. 

The party was perfect.  Three girls turned out to be the perfect number to have over.  That made six kids gathered around the dining room table, and they made their own pizzas and while the pizzas baked the kids played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and then a sort of makeshift two team version of Pictionary.  (That game was adorable, because Quinn was the ‘hat’ that held the slips of paper telling people what to draw, and for some reason they couldn’t all sit back to watch the person drawing, they all kept jumping up to gather close to the easel.)
In any case, they all had a great time, they made great pizzas, they were happy with the games, Aden got to serve cocoa in her little teacups, the cake was fine, and Aden just smiled and smiled and occasionally jumped up and down with sheer joy.  It could not have been nicer.  Except that at the end of the day it finally hit me that if I hadn’t made her call those friends a couple of nights before the party, there would have been no one there.  Can you imagine how tragic that would have been for Aden to be waiting by the goody bags she put together to hand out, standing among her carefully hung streamers and balloons and have no one come?  Agh!  I’m not sure exactly what happened to all the other invitations. 

I know one of the kids who came to Mona’s party had simply put that invitation up on his fridge without mentioning it to his mom until the night before, and she panicked and gave me a call and I told her it was not too late to RSVP and of course he could come.  I’m sure lots of Aden’s invitations will show up during winter break backpack cleanings.  But as I say, it was a perfect little party and exactly what Aden wanted.  I just can’t believe how close it came to being a really disappointing day instead.  I think next year I will follow up on the guest list a little more closely.

I can’t believe I’ve been a mom for nine years.   It’s gone by so fast and yet feels like forever.

I love my Aden.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mommy's Sweatshop (Babble)

My dad always wrote letters.  Real letters, on paper.  He hand wrote thank you cards and for years longer than he should have he hand addressed every show announcement from the gallery. But in recent years with recurring health scares and preparing to close down his business, (and frankly, the convenience of email) my dad hasn’t written as often.  I call him a few times a week as well, so maybe a letter would seem too out of date by the time it arrived.  I miss the letters, but dad has poured more of his energy into drawing lately, and that’s been quite wonderful.

In any case, sometimes you carry on certain traditions or ways of doing things that make good, logical sense, and then there are also things that feel right because they are familiar or associated with people you love.  For me, sending out out holiday cards falls into the latter category.  Anyone truly interested in knowing what’s happening in my life can read this blog or make contact through things like Facebook anymore.  There are people who need the annual update, but not many.  I wonder if the expense and trouble of holiday cards is really worth it, but I have it in my head that once a year you touch base with people using a hand written note.  That feels right even if the notion is impractical and out of date.

Usually we make our own cards, too, but during the years when Ian was deployed or after I had just given birth that was crazy.  Those years we either used basic photo cards or waited a couple of months and sent out Valentines to everyone instead.  I asked Aden what she thought we should do this year–another photo card or make them ourselves?  Crazy girl after my own heart said, “Make them!”

So I set up what Ian affectionately calls ‘Mommy’s Sweatshop’ and put my kids to work.  We decided to go with a potato print of a pine tree, and when that dried the kids could all decorate the trees with stickers or sequence or whatever they wanted.  We picked a cold, lazy afternoon and cranked them out.

I went ahead and carved the potato, then showed the kids how rub it in the paint and make a print.






You would think the older kids would be the most helpful at much of this, but honestly, the four-year-old made the majority of the cards.  Aden is particular enough that she spends a long time on each one.  So the few she made are beautiful, but since there were more than 80 cards to do I was trying to encourage speed over beauty.  Mona gets self-conscious, which combined with her instinct to always do things differently can be a minefield some days.  She decided to draw on the cards as well, adding gifts and background color, etc., but then when people remarked on her cards being different (even in the most complimentary way) she backed off from doing any more.

So I was left primarily with Quinn, who uses copious amounts of glue and doesn’t care if there are words on the stickers he picks out.  The funniest thing is he found a page of heart stickers that came from an unused baby book.  Each heart has some milestone written on it, so several trees have ornaments that read things like “Baby’s third tooth” and “First bath.”  Some cards are minimalist with a single sticker in the middle of the tree, and others are covered in butterflies and sequence.  A few are covered with Halloween stickers, which makes for a strange holiday combo card.  Every year that my kids help make cards I save out one to remember what we did, and I’ve picked out this year’s already.  I can’t send it because it’s so awful and funny I can’t bear to part with it:
It’s just such an innocently constructed nightmare of a card.  The heart on the top says “1 Month Old”, followed by a headstone and what looks like a baby skeleton.  Quinn just happily picked out stickers he thought looked nice together, but good heavens.
We still have some cards to finish, and now I have to get busy actually writing in them and tucking pictures into a few.  There is only so much Mommy’s Sweatshop can successfully delegate to the smaller people in the house.  Some of it is always just Mommy’s Sweat alone.

Maybe someday I will get more practical and at least pare down my list.  There are people I never hear from myself who I wonder if they puzzle why they even get a card, but the truth is there is no one on the list that I don’t think of fondly, and it’s nice even for just a few moments a year to remember something about the people from my past and let them know they are remembered.  That doesn’t seem like a waste of time, even at a time of year when there is no time to waste.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Not Fair (Babble)

I don’t mean for my blog to seem like a constant litany of posts on death, but we don’t get to choose what life hands us, and lately it’s just the topic that seems to rear its head too often to be ignored.

Today one of my dearest friends in the world lost her younger brother. He’d been fighting a brain tumor for awhile, and recently stopped chemo to die at home. He leaves behind a wife and two small children. It’s just wrong. I felt inadequate as I called my friend to give her my condolences.

I didn’t want the day to pass without getting up on my tiny soapbox in this corner of the internet to say that Natan will be missed. Alit, I am so sorry your brother is gone. I love you and wish there were something I could do.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Memorials Are for the Living (Babble)

A long time ago a college friend of mine told me of an odd dilemma.  An artist she knew was frustrated because her dying wish was to be cremated and her ashes fed to her friends in the form of brownies.  Everyone was appalled and no one wanted to eat the death brownies, so the artist asked my friend if she would sneak her ashes into brownies on the sly and feed them to her friends anyway.

Now, I don’t think the artist had any realistic expectation of an early death approaching, I think the whole thing was some overwrought creative thought process gone wrong.  But my friend was concerned.  She took the idea of a dying wish very seriously, and wondered if she should promise the artist to do as she asked even if she herself didn’t approve of it.

I looked at her and laughed because the whole thing was so gross, and then reminded her that dying wishes aren’t for the dying, they are for the people left behind.  It gives us something to do at a time when we are helpless.  It’s comforting to feel we are honoring the person who as died, but the dead person doesn’t know about it.  Memorials are for the living.  I told my friend that if it gave the artist a sense of peace to think someone would carry out her strange wish, go ahead and say she would.  It didn’t mean when the time came that she actually should, and in fact, I thought she owed it to other people not to.  My friend hadn’t considered that option and seemed relieved.  The dead have only as much power as we choose to give them.  And they don’t get to bake or serve brownies, with or without ashes to taste.

I thought a lot about the influence of the dead this past weekend when I was attending my grandmother’s memorial serviceI don’t think it could have gone any better.  Like many families we have issues that surface between certain relatives that can cause tension, but for the most part everyone loves one another and gets along well.  My grandma would have been pleased with everyone in attendance.  My mom and I brought several of her signature desserts.  I played my viola, although I admit I have never had more trouble focusing while trying to perform, so I hope my mistakes weren’t too noticeable.  My cousin, Tony, did an excellent job of organizing everything and keeping the service on track.  I was holding myself together pretty well until he began reading quotes from some of the letters from people who had been recipients of my grandmother’s charity work.  She ran a food pantry out of her basement and every Christmas she anonymously sent gifts to needy families.  One letter thanked ‘the friend’ who had provided so many beautiful presents for their children who had been expecting nothing that year, and who turned to them all bright eyed and happy Christmas morning saying, “See!  There is a Santa Claus!”

We had the opportunity to pick through the last of my grandma’s possessions.  That was bittersweet.  I only took items that sparked specific memories for me, and I felt self-conscious asking for certain things.  I took a couple of old lady plates, a vase because Aden liked it, a can opener, her sugar spoon….  The item I’m most glad to have is her favorite glass Christmas tree ornament.  It’s a funny little silver and red and green thing that looks a bit like a cross between a spool of thread and an accordion.  When I used to help her put up her tree when I was in college that was the ornament she was most careful with because she’d had it the longest.  I will be honored to hang it on my own tree this year.  My Uncle Joe also made sure I got her large Christmas plate that she used to serve cookies on when she had company.  He told me she specifically wanted me to have that, and just typing that sentence is making me tear up again.

I felt like I had taken too many things while I was in Ohio, but when we got home and unpacked the grandma box I realized I really hadn’t.  There’s just something so unseemly about taking things that aren’t yours, even if the owner is gone and would like you to have them.  The nice thing, though, was that since people were only interested in keeping a bit of grandma and not in actual things, there was no squabbling over any of it.  My cousin the lawyer laughed as all seven grandchildren looked at the knick-knacks spread before us, and said that these were the kinds of items that keep people in the court system for years.  I’m glad that’s not us.  And a big part of the reason that’s not us is because of who grandma was.

How do people survive losing too much at one time?  Or at the wrong time?  On my father’s side of the family we lost relatives in the Holocaust, and when I read stories of people who literally lost everyone in their family it takes my breath away.  I can’t imagine suddenly being that disconnected in the world.  That’s a pain I can’t fathom.  My grandmother was 92.  I will miss her until the day I die myself, but her life was full and wonderful.  She had her struggles, but she would have been the first to tell you she had a great life.

My grandmother’s ashes were encased in a small stone box and lowered into the ground alongside my grandfather.  It was so strange to be at the grave site a quarter of a century after the first time we all gathered there.  A nearly identical collection of relatives as for my grandfather’s funeral, but this time the grandchildren were all grown and standing with our own children.  To know that without the loving existence of the two people buried at my feet that my children would not be here was sobering.  I owe my grandparents everything.  To see their legacy standing in the cold in the form of parents and scientists and artists and kind souls was moving.  Their lives mattered and continue to matter.

There were a few simple readings, and then each of us was offered rose petals to drop into the hole as we walked past the grave.  The only person who declined was Mona.  I’m not sure why she didn’t want any rose petals, but I credit Mona with a brief bit of comic relief at a time it was needed.  In packing for the trip to Ohio I neglected to check that the kids brought their coats.  That seemed like such a no-brainer during a blizzard it never occurred to me that Mona would leave her coat on the hook in the house, but she did, and at the cemetery Ian and I dressed her in as many layers of our own sweaters and sweatshirts as we could find.  So she stood looking lumpy in a huge, red, hooded sweatshirt, staring into the hole for an inordinate amount of time, until I was finally able to usher her along.  There was something so strange and sweet about watching my little girl stand there in her sparkly shoes, the day after she turned seven looking so old and so small at the same time.  The sight would have made my grandma smile.  I’m sad every day that my grandfather never got to meet my husband or my kids.

I’ve read lots of opinions by people about whether or not it’s appropriate to take children to funerals.  I think the answer to that varies greatly depending upon the kind of service and the temperament of the child, but in our case I was very glad to have my children along.  During the memorial service itself they mostly played with their cousins in another room, but they understood what the occasion was about (as much as any children can be expected to understand death) and showed the proper respect when it mattered.  Death is hard, but it’s the ultimate contrast for appreciating all we have.  The memorial was not for my grandma.  She’s gone.  It was for us.  And I think for my kids to see a family coming together to acknowledge all we’ve been given and to celebrate life while still mourning our loss was important and powerful.

It was a long couple of days, but there was music and singing, good food, some wonderful stories, and overall I’d say more laughter than tears.  Just the kind of gathering both my grandparents would have loved.  I can’t believe my grandma had to live such a long portion of her life without her husband at her side.  May they both rest in peace together.  They are missed.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Rethinking Pink (the Misogynist Within) (Babble)

Pink.  Pink is the current most identifiable symbol for what is girlie.  Pink is nothing in and of itself, but it is the tip of an iceberg.   I have been, on some level, struggling with the color pink in different ways for most of my life, and I may have finally come to terms with it.  Maybe.  But it’s taken accepting some hard truths about myself to get there.

Anyone with any proximity to someone raising little girls in our culture knows that pink dominates the girlie girl landscape.  For those who love pink this is wildly convenient.  For those buying clothes or toys for girls who do not care for pink it can be problematic.  Then there are parents like myself who personally have tried to push back against the avalanche of pink based on our own tastes and preferences, regardless of what our particular girls want.

My girls have both been through fluffy looking princess phases, and they both like pink, but they like other things too.  We’ve never had a problem with them insisting on any particular color, so I never felt as if they had been brainwashed by society to choose one.  But I resisted the onslaught of Disney princess related movies and merchandise as much as I could, and I was thrown into a mini crisis in my mind one Christmas when a relative gave my girls Barbies and I debated whether I should let them keep them.

I have never thought of myself as particularly feminine.  I’m always surprised when other people see me that way, since I don’t wear makeup, I live in clothes that could double as sleepwear half the time, and I don’t have pierced ears or interesting shoes or a cute purse.  (Actually, I own one cute vintage purse I found in an antique store, but I’ve never found a time to use it and I likely never will.)  Many of my interests have put me in environments dominated by men.  When I gave a lecture about violin making to the local Woodworkers’ Guild a man actually came up to me afterward just to say how jarring it was at first to listen to a woman talk about tools, but that the longer I talked the more he got over it.  So I’m used to moving in circles where I don’t feel I’m being judged by particularly feminine standards.


I fretted a little for my girls because I don’t want them to feel limited in this world.  I want them to tackle whatever interests them and not be held back.  The princess stories bothered me because they struck me as promoting images of women that were passive and weak and dependent on men for happiness.  Barbies seemed overly focused on physical beauty as a woman’s greatest attribute.  Everything wrapped in pink hit me as mildly distasteful and unhealthy for these reasons.

Then I had a boy.  And you know what?  He’s a boy who adores his older sisters and when he was two his favorite shirt was a hand-me-down that made him feel included.  And it was pink.  I had to stop and reassess for bit.  Because it started to dawn on me that there was bigger issue with pink that I hadn’t considered before.  The bigger issue was misogyny, and I was guilty of it.

That may sound extreme, but when I started to look around at the larger society for cues about how my son would be treated walking out into the world in a pink shirt I did not like what I saw.  Among my family and friends there was no problem, but once you are attuned to stories about boys in pink you start hearing some very scary things.  The intolerance in some cases is frightening.

And that’s when I began to come to the defense of pink.  Because what I see all too often now is that girls and the things they like are considered inferior.  If a girl aspires to partake in things more stereotypically associated with boys–anything to do with weapons, or sports, or tools–she is viewed by many as taking a step up.  Conversely, if a boy wants to pursue something regarded as feminine–like sewing, ballet, or organizing a tea party–this can still be controversial.  It’s okay and often encouraged if a girl wants to play with boys’ toys.  We think it’s cool if a girl can throw a football or fire a gun.  If a boy wants to play with girlie things–with pink things–the reaction can be incredibly negative.  It might be tolerated, but seldom encouraged.

I became offended by the idea that somehow the toys my girls liked were contaminated.  Pink was lesser.  I was guilty of having thought that too.  I had avoided pink for myself because it lumped me in with girls.  I wanted to be better than girls.  That’s misogyny.
I began to really look at things differently.  I started with Cinderella.  I had remembered the Disney movie as a sad example of a woman waiting to be rescued by a prince and not much more.  But I sat and watched it with my kids and that’s not what I saw at all.  I saw a variety of different female characters, from the scary step-mom to the silly step-sisters, to some industrious mice, to Cinderella herself who was strong and decent.  She was in an impossible situation without real options and she worked hard and looked for the good in life despite her circumstances.  Yes, she’s eventually rescued by a prince, but he’s more a symbol of the ultimate prize of love and wish fulfillment.  The prince is part of her reward of the better life she deserves.  (I still can’t stand the Little Mermaid, though.  You don’t relinquish your voice.)

Next I looked at Barbie.  I never liked Barbies and my kids aren’t particularly interested in them either, preferring snuggly stuffed animals as I did, but when I took a look at the Bratz dolls suddenly Barbie was looking pretty good.  Barbie at least seemed to have an education and could hold a variety of jobs.  The Bratz dolls just looked trashy.  I tried to pinpoint what bothered me about Barbie, and I realized it was unfair to essentially dislike her because she was many people’s idea of pretty.  Yes, I know the problems associated with unrealistic body image and emphasizing looks over substance, but isn’t it wrong to discount people because of their looks either direction?  If I dismiss Barbie the veterinarian because she’s blond and wears heels, how am I likely to treat a real woman vet who is pretty and wearing heels?  If all I had against Barbie was her looks, well then I’m being shallow.  (I’m still trying to figure out how I came to feel I need to stick up for Barbie, but there we are.)

When I started looking at any number of female figures from past and present with the perspective that feminine did not equal less valid I learned something.  What looks like passivity is sometimes really patience.  Being polite and gentle is not the same as weakness.  To blame a woman for being judged by her beauty is to blame the victim.

But where does this sense of the feminine as lesser come from?  I think it’s a power imbalance.  The worst insults you can throw at a man are all some way of calling him a girl.  At its core, I believe it comes down to the fact that typically during sex the woman is the person who is ‘done to.’  I’m not saying I don’t understand about all the different varieties of intimate behavior possible between people, but at a basic level it’s understood that women are at the receiving end of the sex act, and there is a sense that that is lower.  It’s not considered a position of strength.  For the same reason I think for many men the underlying root of homophobia is really misogyny.  The idea of a man accepting a feminine role is intolerable to some, because it flies in the face of accepting the masculine role as superior.  I don’t think it is.

But the masculine role can be more threatening.  And women are so disproportionally the victims of violence that I think a lot of misogyny is not wanting to be vulnerable out of a sense of self-preservation.  When you witness abuse you see two sides–the abuser with the power, and the victim who suffers.  Many people don’t want to identify with victims because it’s an unsafe place to be.  When you choose masculine pursuits you are choosing power.  You are choosing safety.  Choosing pink means needing protection.  We don’t respect the vulnerable as equals.

I want all children to have the freedom to choose what interests them.  I don’t believe in girl toys and boy toys.  There are just toys.  I don’t think my son’s toys are inherently better than his sisters’.  And I don’t think pink is a sign of something weak simply because girls like it.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to think a tea party game is more boring than a wrestling match–everyone is entitled to his or her personal preferences–but it is wrong to use your personal preferences to judge something as negative.  The tea party is different but not less valid.  I may still have no interest in Barbie, but I no longer harbor any sense of disgust about her either.

Freedom to choose does not make my less-traditional choices better, it just makes them truly mine.  I want my kids to have choices and sometimes they choose pink.  Pink is fine.  For anyone.  Even me, finally.

Friday, December 3, 2010

BIrthday Season in Full Swing (Babble)

January in Wisconsin is not usually a pretty month.  It’s nice on the days the snow is fresh and the wind chill isn’t at arctic levels, but for the most part it’s cold and grey and cold and slushy and cold.  But right about now I find myself casting an eye at my new calendar with the wistfulness of the weary.  Almost nothing is happening in January.  No holidays, no birthdays in our immediate family, no big meals or gifts….  January looks blissfully simple.  I can’t wait.

In the meantime, we are in the throes of birthday season again, and this year it’s particularly packed.  From mid-November through the end of December we have Quinn’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Mona’s birthday, a memorial service in Ohio for my grandma, a trip to Michigan to see the last group show at my parents’ gallery, Aden’s birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s.  Plus there’s a harvest play in there somewhere, a kids’ concert I’m supposed to be in, and a performance of the Messiah that I should be practicing for.  I’m not sure when I’m supposed to find gifts for people or mail out cards, but somehow I will get it done.  I hope (she said, while looking longingly at all the blank space on the January page of the new calendar).

Anyway, Quinn’s first real birthday party was a success.  This year he got to make decisions about his cake and the activities and the guest list.  Unfortunately the only good time to have his party was during the middle of the week because the weekends around it were all spoken for with book club and work and a choir concert.  I thought it made the most sense to just have Quinn invite a couple of friends over right after half day school and have pizza and cake at the house and let them all play for an hour or two.  But my daughters were so upset that I scheduled their brother’s party while the two of them were still in class that I ended up pulling them out at the half day pickup too.  At first that seemed a little crazy to me, but I asked myself, what will they remember more?  Their brother’s party or a couple of hours of self-directed Montessori education?  Heck, it’s Montessori, so the party might even count as a life skills lesson, so win-win!  (Yes, my powers of rationalization can be impressive.)

Quinn could not have been happier.  He only stopped smiling long enough to blow out the candle on his cake.

(Good grief, my baby is four.  FOUR!  How does that happen?  I swear it was only like a minute ago he looked like this:




(Which was awfully cute, too.  But he’s even more fun now that he says things like, “Mom, I love you bigger than space!”)

Next we have Mona’s party coming up.  Mona has already chosen prospective party locations for the next three or four years.  Last year she really wanted it at Chuck E. Cheese’s, which with Ian deployed was great because I didn’t really have to do anything other than show up and pay for pizza.  I’d do that every year it was so easy, but now that Mona has that out of her system it probably won’t happen again.  This year she wanted a ‘Planet Bounce’ party, which was what a local gymnastics facility used to call its party plan complete with bouncy houses next to the trampoline floors and sponge pit.  It’s now called something like ‘Bounce and Beyond’ but Mona is stubbornly sticking to ‘Planet Bounce.’ 

Whatever you call it, it’s simple, the kids love it, and my only duty is to take care of the food.  I asked Mona last night what she wants to serve and she said fruits and vegetables.  She suggested celery and then added that she won’t eat any of it.  So I told her to pick things she herself would actually eat, and we came up with: bananas, carrots, apples, and string cheese.  We may also do some kind of mini sandwich to order deal, where we bring little rolls and peanut butter and jelly and ham and cheese, etc., for those who want some.

The big deal for this party is the cake, which Mona wanted to look like a light purple dragon with silver and gold bits to it.  She drew me a picture to help me out, and we went online and looked at other dragon cakes people have come up with to give me some direction.  I knew I could make a dragon cake, I just didn’t want to spend hours accidentally making the wrong one.  Maybe I was feeling overconfident because my kids and I watch a lot of Cake Boss and it just seems like with enough fondant anything is possible, but I think I did okay.  Mona made the wings herself out of paper and put on all the Hershey’s Kisses and sprinkles.  I used a devil’s food cake recipe from my mom, and I found recipes for fondant, butter cream frosting, and modeling chocolate online.  Creative cakes make me happy, so that’s my favorite part of Birthday Season.  I honestly think if I couldn’t make violins, I would be happy designing cool cakes.






By the way, modeling chocolate?  My new favorite thing.  It’s just 10 oz of chocolate melted and mixed with 1/2 cup of light corn syrup.  It feels like clay but you can eat it.  (Aden said it tasted just like a Tootsie Roll.)  When it gets too hard you just zap it in the microwave for a few seconds and it’s pliable again.  I used white chocolate so I could mix it with food coloring, and I’m thinking that chocolate sculpting could be a fun craft activity next rainy day that I have a bunch of extra kids in the house.  And little chocolate sculptures made by the kids would be really cute presents or decorations on cupcakes….

The plans for Aden’s party next week are a little undefined at the moment.  She wants something at home and quiet.  She wants a simple cake and she’s going to help decorate it.  I’m a little concerned because her ideas for activities can get intricate and then other kids get bored.  At Quinn’s party she ran a game called ‘Pin the Topping on the Pizza’ and it was way too complicated for four-year-olds.  I salvaged the game by simply holding children upside down and challenging them to tape the paper topping to their name on the slice of pizza while wiggling them around and making everyone laugh, but it was not the game Aden had envisioned.  Aden was good about letting go of her original idea, though, which is new.

In fact, you seldom get to pinpoint certain attitude changes in children, but this one I think I can.  The night before Quinn’s party we were putting up streamers by the reflected light of our disco ball and having fun, but something about it didn’t happen the way Aden had pictured it.  She went off to her bed to sulk while Quinn and Mona danced in the living room and told their dad where to tape balloons.  I went upstairs to talk with Aden.  I reminded her that the party wasn’t about her.  It was about what made her brother happy because it was his day.  If however the streamers got put up made him happy, it was right, and she needed to let it go because she was missing the point. 

About an hour later when she had joined us again and was putting up more decorations with her siblings, I was listening from another room and heard Mona starting to get picky about something when Aden stopped her.  She said evenly, “Mona, this is Quinn’s day.  However he wants it is okay and we don’t get to decide.”  It was so gratifying to know she actually heard what I said and took it to heart!  Too bad it’s so rare that that moment stands out, but I’ll take it.

In any case, for her own party she was thinking about board games or something along those lines.  I’m thinking a Pictionary event with teams might work if I can talk her into it.  She’s having trouble accepting that some of the party games and activities we did when she was little might not work as well for third graders.  I don’t know if her friends are interested in Pin the Tail on the Donkey anymore.  We have time to figure something out.  We’re going to have everyone make their own mini pizzas, so that will be fun.  (And, SSHHH, don’t tell her, but I’m thinking for her present of getting her a pair of roller skates.)

I supposed there’s something to be said for getting all the presents and parties and baking done in one fell swoop at the end of each year, but I see other people planning birthday parties in the spring or summer and I’m always a little jealous.  It must be nice not to have all the birthdays smushed together in the winter along with Thanksgiving and Christmas.  But we got what we got and it’s the smallest imaginable price to pay considering all we have.  I am too lucky for words.

Now excuse me while I go off to do about a million other things (while I dream of January and quiet and a cup of cocoa)….

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cookieland (Babble)

Today was all about baking.  If I’m on some kind of serious baking deadline I have to kick everyone out of the kitchen so I can be more efficient, but whenever possible I try to leave the whole day open for baking so my kids can help, too.  If there is time and space to make mistakes, then baking with my kids is a lot of fun.

There are lots of skills I want to make sure my kids have under their belts before they head out into the world on their own, and baking is one of them.  I’ve often been amazed by how many people I run into, some of whom are good cooks, who are intimidated by baking.  I never have been.  That’s not to say I haven’t had my share of disasters (Quinn’s recent birthday cake involved much airing of smoke out of the house), but that’s just life.  For the most part I bake fine, and I want my children to know how to make cookies and cakes from scratch if they feel like it.  So far they’re on their way.

My most intrepid baker is Aden, who has been making cookie dough almost entirely on her own since she was four.

(Aden with one of the first cookies she ever made.)


She likes to experiment, and even came up with an odd cookie during the summer with a friend of hers that had marshmallows in it which melted into weird craters all over the surface of the cookie.  They tasted pretty good, though.

Anyway, I had a talk with her again today about some baking basics, like creaming the butter before adding the sugar, and a little about respecting the chemistry of baking so that she keeps the proportions of things right.  I reminded her about not dumping in big cups of flour all at once to keep it from flying everywhere, and to remember to scrape the bottom of the bowl.  She knows all of that, but I’m her mom so I have to say something, and she listens politely.

Aden and Mona are both good at cracking eggs (I usually have them do that in a separate bowl so I can inspect for bits of shell even though most of the time they crack clean), and I feel bad that Quinn hasn’t mastered that yet but there is so much competition for cracking a couple of eggs that he gets edged out.  (We’ll have to make omelets for lunch sometime when his sisters are in school.)

Today’s baking was in preparation for next weekend which is when we’re going to my grandmother’s memorial service.  My grandma wanted to be cremated, so there was no rush to burial after she died.  We’ve had some time to plan which I think has been good.  I’ve prepared some music to play on my viola while people are arriving, most of it pieces I used to practice at her house on the weekends when I was in college.  At first I was worried that I might be too distraught to be able to play well, but now I think I will be glad to have something specific to do.  My grandma was important to me and I wanted to do something for her service, and music seemed like the appropriate contribution for me to make.

However, big family gatherings, whether in celebration or mourning, mean food.  And it’s hard to get away from the fact that this time of year is also when grandma did most of her baking.  For Christmastime to feel right to me it needs to include my grandma’s cookies and stollen.  I decided the best way to remember grandma at her memorial would be to make some of the desserts that I associate only with her.  This coming weekend is also Mona’s birthday party and I promised her I’d make a dragon cake (which sounds involved, but I’ll figure something out), so I wanted to get as much baking for the memorial service done today as I could.

The things that would keep best are the spritz cookies and the stollen, so those are what the kids and I tackled today.  Spritz cookies we make regularly.  Grandma showed me exactly how she made her wreath and tree cookies many years ago.  Spritz cookies are crisp little butter cookies that you squeeze out of a cookie press.  Grandma’s was incredibly hard to use, and she told me not to carry on that annoying part of the tradition but to get one of the more modern ‘gun’ shaped styles which we did.  For Christmas she would make little wreaths sprinkled with green sugar and decorated with two tiny bits of red candied cherry for bows.  The trees she sprinkled with tiny colored balls.  There are lots of other shapes that come with the cookie press, and we have lots of different kinds of sprinkles in our decorating arsenal, but I told the girls for this particular batch of cookies I wanted them just like their great-grandma used to make.  Aden helped me mix the first batch of dough, and then when I needed a second one she did it completely by herself (even doing the math correctly to double the recipe).  Mona decorated all the wreaths, and Quinn did a tray of trees.  I should have enough to give a box to each of my uncles and cousins at the service, plus a plate to have out for everyone.

The stollen was a funny experience.  For those of you not drowning in German heritage, stollen (pronounced ‘SHTUH len’) is a bread-like little cake with dried and candied fruits inside and topped with a simple sugar frosting.  I don’t know if anyone in the family actually likes stollen, but if there was ever a year to break out grandma’s recipe and make it, this seemed like the year.  I remember grandma’s stollen at Christmastime being something we kind of ate while we played cards because it was there.  It had those weird red and green candied cherries on it.  It wasn’t bad, but I never craved it.  This year its nostalgia value outweighs everything else about it, so it’s baking as I type.  It takes forever!  I’m amazed grandma took the time to do it.  It has yeast in it, and you have to scald milk and add sugar and everything rises for a couple of hours, and then you add candied cherries and spices and raisins (and citron which I didn’t have so I left out) and let it rise again, and then you knead it and cut it into three loaf pans where it’s left to rise again before you can finally bake it.  One loaf I’m going to share with my kids this week, and the other two will go into the freezer before the drive to Ohio.

My hope is to bake two more of grandma’s cakes right before we go.  One is called a Jersey Coffee Cake that’s made with sour cream and cinnamon and pecans and was the kind of thing she used to make when her bridge club was coming over.  The other is a coconut cake that kind of screams of the era when my grandma learned to cook.  The first ingredient is yellow cake from a box.  There is a strange step of poking the cake to death with a fork and then pouring a heated mix of coconut, sugar and milk over the top of it.  Eventually you top it with cool whip mixed with coconut and then top that with more coconut.  Sounds odd but it’s delicious.

There are few ways of conjuring up old memories better than with food.  I hope these foods help other people at the memorial service to picture grandma more clearly even though she’s gone.

And in the spirit of sharing and cooking, I want to pass on my grandma’s pie crust recipe for anyone out there who may want to use it.  We make quiche regularly, and I always like to have crust on hand in case I need to throw together a pie at the last minute, so we use this recipe a lot.  It’s a pie crust that you can store in the freezer so we always have some on hand.  It’s convenient and it tastes good.  I have no idea where my grandma got it from, but here it is:

Perfect Pie Crust

Combine:  4 cups flour, 1 Tbs sugar, 2 tsp salt, 1 3/4 cups shortening

Then add:  1/2 cup water, 1 Tbs white vinegar, 1 large egg

Once it’s all kneaded together (we do all of it in a Kitchen Aid) cut it into 4 equal parts.

Wrap each ball of dough with some plastic wrap and then again in foil for freezing. 

It thaws in less than an hour usually, but I’ve even warmed mine up in the microwave for 20 seconds and it works fine.  You can roll it out or just press it with your fingers into the pie plate. 

I know pie crust purists who don’t believe in over handling dough and that people can be scared of shortening anymore, but for us it’s convenient and tasty and it reminds me of my grandma every time we make it.  Maybe someone else can use it to start some new memories!  How nice would that be?  Happy baking.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Extra Thankful (Babble)

It hit me the other night as I was trying (unsuccessfully) to get to sleep that this was about the time I was originally expecting Ian home from his deployment.  Army time doesn’t seem to work like civilian time, so to avoid frustration whenever Ian used to go off to drill for a day and tell me he’d be home at a certain time I would always add two hours and that was usually closer to the truth.  If he was away for a matter of weeks I would add two days.  For a full deployment I add two months.  I’d rather be pleasantly surprised by having Ian back early than feeling resentful and anxious because he’s late.  So last year when he left in September I planned on him being gone a year from that point, plus two months to be safe, which put his return around Thanksgiving.

That time line was originally closer to what was scheduled to happen, but then the mass troop withdrawals from Iraq kicked in and Ian ended up coming home earlier than expected.  Back in August.  Which means we’ve had more than 100 additional days with Ian that I hadn’t planned on.  I’ve gotten so used to having him home that I took for granted that he’s here.  The concept that we could have lived these past few months with him still deployed kind of shook me up.

I keep thinking about all the additional things Ian would have missed if he were just coming home now.  He would not have seen my grandma one more time before she died.  He would not have met my cousin’s new baby.  He would not have been here for the first day of school, or the girls’ choir concerts, or parent-teacher conferences, or Quinn learning to read.  He would have missed Trick-or-Treat which means seeing the kids’ costumes only on this blog instead of watching Mona the Dalmatian bounding ahead in search of candy and carrying Quinn in his blue jay outfit when he was too tired to walk (or fly).   Plus I would still be frazzled, my store would still be messy, the gutters would be overflowing with leaves, and the kids would not have been able to do swimming lessons.  It would be life during deployment, which is incredibly stressful.  I think I’d already blocked out how hard it was because I want that time to be firmly in the past.  The idea that by my own calendar I could still be living it kind of hit me in the gut.

I was feeling a little down about this Thanksgiving.  We were going to host dinner at our house for friends and my parents, but the friends were able to visit family, and my dad’s health has been giving us all a scare recently so he understandably doesn’t want to travel.  With more notice I would have liked to extend an invitation to maybe another family in the area who has someone deployed and could use a hassle free Thanksgiving meal, but at this late date people seem to know what they’re doing.   So it’s just our own little family.

That sounded a bit lonely to me at first, but after counting up all the extra days with Ian that I have to be thankful for, I can see this holiday for what it really is.  It’s a chance to spend a nice day with my husband and all my children in our home.  We will have pumpkin pie for breakfast, I’m going to teach Aden how to make twice baked potatoes, we will have cranberries in the traditional shape of a can because it makes us laugh, and I will cook the green bean casserole that I’m the only one who eats but we have to have because otherwise it’s not really Thanksgiving.  I can’t wait!

It’s so easy to focus on what you lack instead of what you’ve got.  Especially with the passing of my grandma I’m more keenly aware of how many other people in my life I miss but seldom see.  I want more time and I want less distance.  Sad roads to go down are easy to find.

But I got extra time with Ian.  I’d forgotten about it.  The same way we tend to forget that every day is extra time.  Thanksgiving with my husband and kids isn’t lonely.  It’s the best thing there is.  And this year I am extra thankful.  I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday!

UPDATE:  Turns out a friend of mine named Robyn (who also builds violins) and her husband didn’t have a big plan for Thanksgiving, and they agreed to come join us for dinner.  It was great, and it felt right because at its heart I believe the holiday is really about sharing.  We got to teach them Spite and Malice, and they taught us Kings in the Corner, which was also a lot of fun.  Plus we got to play viola duets for a little while, and how cool is that to have each of us playing on instruments we made ourselves?  We’ve decided we should try our hands at composing to complete the loop and not need anyone else in the process.  Anyway, it was an awesome Thanksgiving.  Mona made an amazing paper turkey as a centerpiece, the food came out fine, we turned on the disco ball for awhile, Quinn hid plastic frogs for people to find….  Definitely one of the best Thanksgivings ever.  Hope the same was true for all of you!