Sunday, December 25, 2011

'Tis the Season (For Some Wonderful Music) (Babble)

Look where I got to perform this weekend:
(In the light of the morning rehearsal)
(At the end of the midnight mass)
I was asked by a friend if I would play the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of St Josaphat here in Milwaukee.  It’s only about a mile from our house, and I knew the kids would be done opening presents long before I had to go back to play the mass again on Christmas morning, so I agreed to the gig.  The place is simply beautiful.

What a wonderful experience to play with talented musicians in such a setting.  The orchestra was up in the choir loft with the singers and organ, which is nice because you can concentrate on the music without feeling like you are on display.
When we’d finish a piece on a big chord of strings and trumpets and timpani the sound would reverberate for at least another full bar afterward.  It was amazing, and I wish my family could have been there.  My parents in particular would have loved it.

In some ways performing music is just a job that involves parking and lugging things around and concentration and just plain work, but what marvelous work!  (Although for the choir director/organist who has to lead everyone and also play music with his feet, I think it was less marvelous and just plain work.  But I’m a viola player!  I play my part when I’m supposed to and Sudoku the rest of the time.)  Christmas Eve is a magical night to get to make great music, even for those of us who don’t claim the holiday in a religious sense.

The line between the personal and the sacred is an issue I think about a lot during this season.

I believe each of us is tasked with deciding for ourselves what is meaningful and right and true in this life.  Even if you subscribe to a particular religion, you have to weigh all the information you are provided from many sources and use your own judgment about how to interpret all of it.  Each of us has to come to peace with what we think our place is in the universe on our own no matter what markers we choose to guide us.

Are there really people who get worked up about others using more inclusive phrases like ‘happy holidays’ this time of year?  I wonder about people who would be so insecure in their own belief systems that they find offense where none was intended.  I had people wishing me Merry Christmas at my store the whole week of Hanukkah and I appreciated it, even though it didn’t make a lot of sense.  It was meant with good will and I accepted it in that light.  I’m mystified by people who are supposedly upset by the phrase ‘happy holidays’ because when I was growing up it was shorthand for Christmas and New Year’s and they could simply take it in that light if it suits them.  But it’s a handy term to use when you don’t know what people believe, and that’s respectful in my opinion.  No one should be using the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ as a verbal weapon or a means to intimidate people.  How is that a reflection on what the season is supposed to be about?  Thankfully in my own community this does not seem to be the case and I think that whole controversy is constructed for TV ratings and not of concern to actual people.

I myself am not Christian, but I like having a tree and a tradition of gift giving.  It’s part of my heritage and it’s fun and it makes my kids happy.  My father’s side of the family is Jewish, my mother was raised Christian Science but her father was raised Catholic, my sister-in-law is from India….  There are lots of interesting traditions to draw from in our home if we wish.  I don’t see any point in fighting the tide of Christmas cheer at the end of December so we put up lights and hang stockings and enjoy it all, but it’s one of many possible choices.

So I may be neutral when it comes to a lot of things about this season, but the one place where I have a decided allegiance is with music.  This I have a strong opinion about.
There was a fascinating piece on 60 Minutes back when I was in college that I remember watching with my grandmother in her family room one evening.  The story was about a high school girl in Utah who planned to major in music as a singer so she needed to participate in her school’s choir, but the area being predominantly Mormon meant that most of the music they did had Christian themes.  She and her family sued.  She didn’t believe she should be coerced into worship of a faith that wasn’t hers in a public school in order to fulfill her educational needs.

I found this riveting.  Because on the one hand I don’t think it’s fair to force a single religion onto people in a publicly funded place.  If a government building puts up a nativity scene because a lot of people in the community want it, I think that’s okay, as long as they make room for things minorities in the community want as well, because that’s fair.  Christians should not get in a tizzy because someone else in the community wants a menorah there too, or an atheist manifesto, etc.  But people do get upset when they see things they hold sacred juxtaposed with things they do not, so I think in most communities it makes more sense to leave such displays to private individuals and institutions.  The majority needs to put themselves in other people’s shoes better.

But as much as I wanted to support the girl in Utah for being able to hold her own against the majority religion, from a musician’s point of view I can’t, for two reasons:
First, from a practical standpoint, she will starve.  No one asks me if I am a Catholic before I go perform in a Catholic church.  No one asks if I am Baptist or Muslim or Jewish.  They only ask if I can be there on time.  If I had to screen every couple who needed a string quartet for their wedding to make sure their beliefs matched my own before I could accept the gig, I would never get to play.  If you sing for money, chances are good you will be offered work in a church.  And unless there is some extreme circumstance that makes it impossible or too distasteful, you take it.  Because if people are willing to pay you to make music you should be appreciative.

Second, from a musical standpoint, she will be actively denying herself the opportunity to sing some of the greatest music ever written.  Both inspiration and funding have come from religious institutions over the centuries, so some of the best music people have created have religious themes.  I don’t care if you are Christian or not, if you can get a part in a production of The Messiah by Handel you take it.  It’s transcendent in its beauty.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve performed the Hallelujah Chorus and it’s always a privilege and a thrill.  Would she really turn down the Mozart Requiem or a Bach Cantata due to Christian themes?  Insanity.  A musician on some level must be like an actor.  If actors only chose roles that specifically reflected their own personal beliefs then that’s not even acting.  The arts are more expansive than that.  There is beauty to appreciate in all cultures.  What a shallow, worthless life as a musician you would have if you cut yourself off from most of it.

I love traditional Christmas music.  I love The Holly And The Ivy, and Deck The Halls, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and Joy To The World, and Angels We Have Heard On High….  My favorite is Silent Night.  I may not be a Christian, but I am a musician, and I know sacred when I hear it.  I love playing this music.

I don’t know what ever became of the girl in that story.  I’d be curious to find out.  I hope she was able to find a career in music if it’s what she wanted.  But I hope if she’s still singing that maybe somewhere out there this season she’s not denied herself the chance to sing some really lovely music.

I wish all of you peace and joy this season, regardless of what you believe.  And I wish you whatever music makes you smile.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Personal Touch, or Just Touched? (Babble)

It took an entire day, but I finished all our holiday cards this weekend.  When we have time I run my own little sweatshop (fueled with Christmas cookies) and the kids help me crank out about 90 cards to send.  Last year we did potato print trees decorated with stickers (and if you didn’t see the post about it the first time around, it’s worth clicking on just to scroll down and see the hilariously horrific card Quinn accidentally came up with).
When we don’t have time to make our own we do a photo card of the kids or the whole family.  This was a busy year, so we hired my friend Carol to come photograph us at home, which worked out well since the kids really wanted our new dog in the picture.
I think in the era of email and texting and facebook and people feeling hyper in touch with phones on them all the time, holiday cards have lost a lot of significance and many people no longer bother.  I understand that, and would never resent anyone for not sending us a card, but I like to send them.  To me it’s important.

Several months back I read a piece on Motherlode that I believe was about gifts and/or thank you notes.  (I would link to it except I don’t remember enough specifics to do a useful search in order to find it again.)  The post basically asked why it is that in most families women are the ones tasked with finding gifts and writing thank you cards.  I thought it was a good question, because those sorts of formal nice touches in the service of connecting people do tend to be neglected more by men than women.  I know in my home if I don’t do them, they do not get done.

As often happens the most entertaining reading was in the comments, and one man’s writing in particular really bugged me.  He essentially said that if women feel like wasting time by preparing little gift bags and writing notes it was no skin off his nose but that it was a pointless exercise.  He made it sound silly.  But it’s not silly.  People need connections for fun, comfort, happiness, safety, support, protection, and meaning.  Those connections are what make up our lives.

The gender component of this is interesting to me.  I think it comes down to the fact that typically a man’s status is based more on measurable accomplishments, and a woman’s on the success of her relationships.  For many of the couples I know it’s the woman who tends to be in charge of the social calendar and who keeps a running tally in mind of what kinds of interactions are taking place among family and friends.  I do think women in general are more attuned to this than men (although there are certainly exceptions) and monitoring and maintaining relationships of all sorts is something women place a high priority on.  This instinct makes sense to me because physically women are more vulnerable than men on average, and to counter that women tend to prefer groups.  Maintaining connections is a way of securing a group.

So how do we maintain connections between people?  By acknowledging that they matter to us and there are many ways to do that.  One of the ways I like to do it is with holiday cards.  I hand write each and every one.  (The only exception was during Ian’s first deployment when everyone wanted an update about how he was doing in Iraq and the kids were 5, 3, and a month old and I had to print out a mass letter because there are limits to my ambition.)

I like going through my address book and stopping to think about all kinds of people from different points in my life.  I want them to know I still think of them, and that the role they played or continue to play in my life means something.  I like to think when they see their names written in my own cursive hand that they feel that connection, that they know I was thinking specifically of them.  My list includes childhood friends and old professors, relatives both near and far, neighbors and business associates.  It’s a list of my life from many angles.

Some people I never hear back from.  Every year I weigh certain names in my book in front of me and decide if they are people who maybe don’t want to hear about my family anymore.  When the effort to maintain even a slight connection is entirely one sided it’s hard to know.  But then I will cross paths with one of these people unexpectedly, and I’ve been surprised when more than one of them has said they’ve kept every card we’ve ever sent, and they can’t wait to see what we’ll do next.  So I think it’s worth the effort, even in cases where I’m not sure.  The effect is sometimes made more lopsided by the fact that I blog.  I’ve had many people apologize for not doing more to stay in touch and say they have a false sense that we are because they read my posts and feel up to date about my life.  They forget that I’m still in the dark about what’s going on in theirs.

The man on the Motherlode thread who thinks his wife’s pretty gift bags and thank you cards are frivolous is wrong.  And the part that bothered me was that he’s likely benefiting from his wife’s work in that regard and not giving it the proper respect.  Those aren’t just gift bags and notes, they are ties to other people.  Ties that are kept active and relevant and alive through something as simple as hand written cards.  Does he expect a safety net to be in place among the people he knows in case of an emergency?  In case he’s ill and needs help?  To rejoice with him in his triumphs?  To care that he exists at all?  That doesn’t just magically happen.  That takes some investment and effort, and different people find ways to do that differently.  It sounded to me like he was mindlessly reaping the benefits of someone else’s work and that on some level he felt entitled to those benefits regardless.  That’s arrogant, and I’m hoping in real life he’s less so.

Every year I wonder if I’m crazy to bother with all those cards.  And every year I conclude no and sit down to address dozens of envelopes.  I don’t expect my children to carry on the exact same tradition themselves, but I hope they each find a way that works for them to take a moment at least once a year to acknowledge the special individuals in their lives in a personal manner.  Accessibility is not always the same as being in touch.  Meaning requires intention.  A day is not much to spend, really, in the service of maintaining those connections.  Especially if it can be done with something as simple as a pen and a roll of stamps.
(Family portrait by Carol Kraco)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Double Digits (Babble)

I have a kid who is ten.  I’m having trouble settling my mind around that idea.  Ten years is such a substantial number.  If you say you’re going to put something off for ten years it sounds like it may as well be a million.  But now I can look back ten years and I’m still a mom then.  How crazy to think back that far to myself in my early thirties with one tiny baby who somehow dominated all my time.

Aden was a great training baby, though.  She was easy and healthy and sweet.  We still had to deal with vomit and diapers and poop and spit up and sleepless nights and croup and weird rashes and teething and all the other things that go into life with a baby–I have not forgotten the endless work of new parenting and am not romanticizing it, but Aden was unusually patient for a baby.  Whatever mistakes we made she was kind to us about.  She looked at us trustingly with her beautiful blue eyes and forgave us with smiles as we tried to figure out what we were doing.  She gave lovely little hugs that barely reached around part of my neck.

Now that tiny little baby comes up to my chin and jabbers on the phone with her friends and watches her little brother for short stretches if her dad and I both need to go out.  It’s…. unbelievable sometimes.

Aden just hosted her first sleepover for her party.  It went exceedingly well.  Well enough that I won’t try to talk her out of another one.  It helped that the girls were all on the first floor at the back of the house, and Ian and I sleep on the second floor in the front.  Rumor has it they stayed up until 2, but I didn’t hear anything and all the girls took care of themselves just fine.  It also helps that I genuinely like all of Aden’s friends.  I was even impressed as we were making pizza and eating cake to discover that most of them were fans of Dr Who, liked the Marx Brothers, and the movie they put in to watch when the rest of us went to bed was The Princess Bride.  (I was tempted to stay up and watch it with them, but I know I would have just brought down the mood by being unable to resist coming up with boring rules about where they could or could not spray their silly string.)  We keep a mirror ball in our living room (what? you don’t?), so that got some use in a game of freeze dancing.
There was also a game Aden invented called ‘Clemen-toss’ that involved rolling clementines onto a target.  (The rule in our house is yes, you may juggle the clementines, but you must then eat whatever you drop.)

I had trouble with the cake this time, though.  I wanted to try something new and it wound up being a learning experience.  Which is another way of saying a time consuming annoyance, but one I volunteered for so I can’t really complain.  (Although at the time I got very whiny, and Aden was the mature one saying, “It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it will still taste good!”)

Aden didn’t have any ideas at first for her own cake, so I suggested we do a checkerboard cake, but with all different colors inside instead of just two.  Sort of a rainbow checkerboard.  The idea is you have three round layers, each with three concentric circles in them that when stacked the right way look like a checkerboard when you cut into the whole thing.  I did that once for Aden when she was two back before there were kits for doing it, and I just piped the batter into the pans using a ziploc bag.  I picked up an actual jig for making checkerboard cakes a while back and wanted to try it, and doing it in lots of colors sounded fun.
We just made some basic white cake from a box and added food coloring.  But white cake is not as hearty as something like chocolate, and the top layer just fell apart when I put it on.  Not good.  I ended up scraping it off, along with the custard filling between the layers and had to send Ian out to the store for more cake mix.  I remade the custard and the top layer, but you can see the failed bit on the table.
The original plan was to pour chocolate ganache over the whole thing, but it was all too lumpy and gappy to try that with, so I found a chocolate butter cream frosting recipe online to use instead.  The frosting spread like a dream but tasted a little strong, and that particular recipe made a TON of frosting.  (But I was glad I saved it because I had to make a last minute cake for Mona to take to class for a party.)
Frosting hides a lot of sins.
After I suggested the checkerboard cake, Aden came up with some concept of a sheet cake in the shape of a dragon, but not like her sister had last year.  She wanted to draw a shape and cut it out, but she wanted the checkerboard thing too, even though I said that wouldn’t really work right that way.  She ended up drawing a dragon with frosting onto the finished cake.  (Which WordPress isn’t letting me download a photo of for some reason….)

Aden’s getting pretty good with her own baking and decorating skills.  She made her own cupcakes to take to school this year.  White cupcakes dipped in chocolate ganache, and then she made butter cream frosting and did all the decorating herself.  I showed her how to use different piping tips and then she did it all on her own (with some help from Quinn in the chocolate quality control department).

Anyway, the checkerboard cake sort of worked.  I think I know how to do it better next time with less grumbling and fewer trips to the store.
The kids all liked it and it tasted good, so that was all that really mattered.  It was a tasty kind of experiment.

And did I mention my daughter is ten?  Wow I love that girl.  Best decade ever.  Can’t wait to see what the next one holds in store.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Special (Babble)

(Mona on the school playground, Oct 30, 2006)

One of the most difficult days I experienced during my husband’s first deployment was on November 1, 2006.  I remember the date because the weather had been fairly pleasant and warm right up through Halloween, but the next morning the temperature dropped dramatically and it was officially cold out.  The reason this was a problem is that Mona, at the time still two years old, would not wear shoes or a coat, and I was only a couple of weeks from giving birth to Quinn.  If I wrestled shoes onto Mona she just kicked them off.  I could not get her into a coat.  I was too pregnant, too exhausted, too stressed, and in too much pain to physically do what needed to be done with Mona to keep her in shoes and a coat.  I was stuck.  I carried her shoes and coat everywhere in the hopes she would come to her senses and ask for them when she got cold, but that never happened.

Every morning when I would take Aden to half-day kindergarten at the public Montessori school I would be caught between a rock and a hard place, because Aden would not walk herself into the building and down to her classroom, which meant Mona had to get out of the car, too.  If I only had to walk Aden across the playground to the building I could have lived with leaving Mona buckled in her car seat, but not if I was going inside the building.  I pleaded with Aden to go alone and she would not.  I pleaded with Mona to at least put on her shoes and she would not.  So I would walk with Mona and Aden into the building and try to figure out what I was supposed to do when it got really cold.  On November 1st when it reached that point, I decided to go to the office after delivering Aden to her classroom to find out if anyone could help me out for just two more weeks until Ian came home for the birth of the baby.

But on my way into the building a woman (I’m assuming a parent otherwise why would she be on the playground?) chastised me for putting Mona in danger by not having her in a coat.  The meanness of her tone startled me and I held out Mona’s coat and said, “Fine, you do it!”  She snapped back that no, I was the parent and I was being irresponsible exposing my child to the cold which was tantamount to abuse and she should report me to Child Protective Services.  By the time I got into the building I was crying uncontrollably.  I didn’t want to be crying but I was so upset and embarrassed and frustrated and at my limit with everything that it was too much.  I cried on and off the entire day.

Now, the upside to that particular story is I met some wonderful people who came to my rescue (including my friend Carol who volunteered to pick Aden up at my house every morning and let her walk into the school with her own daughter, thus solving my dilemma for the rest of the school year), and I learned a valuable lesson about not judging other parents but trying to help when possible.  That woman could have offered to get Mona into the coat and shoes, or at least carried her into the building for me which I couldn’t do while nine months pregnant.  Calling me a bad parent was not helpful to anyone, and to essentially kick a pregnant woman (whose husband was in a war zone) while she’s down was just cruel, no matter how justified she felt.

But that’s not actually what I want to focus on with this post.  I’ve got a whole other piece in the works about judgment and parenting that I will finish tinkering with someday and will put up, but in the meantime I’ve got something else rattling around my brain with a lot of odd tangents to it.  Indulge me while I try to sort some of those thoughts out here.
While I was inside the building that day, trying to pull myself together, I had a talk with an important figure at the school about what solutions there might be to my problem.  I was trying to arrange to have someone meet me at my car in the mornings to help walk Aden to class, or something along those lines.  But this person I was talking to was fixated on the problem of Mona and her shoes.   I got nothing but suggestions for getting Mona into shoes.

Mona is not like anyone I’ve ever known.  At age two she was very much in her own little world.  She didn’t talk much, nothing we said to her seemed to register, she did not exhibit empathy yet, and she was not interested in objects or physical things.  Her favorite toy was her shadow.  She was adorable and brilliant but unpredictable and difficult to manipulate.

The school official didn’t want to hear any of that.  I had to listen to a lecture about sticker charts.  The solution to all my problems with Mona apparently lay in the proper use of sticker charts.  Now, I may not have been able to control my youngest daughter as well as I would have liked, but I still knew her better than anyone else could.  And Mona wouldn’t have noticed a sticker chart if I taped it to her face.  She also would have paid no attention to attempts at reverse psychology or anything resembling logic.  Mona just didn’t want to wear shoes.  I knew the only way to make her do it was to be consistent and force them back on her over and over and over until she realized I was not going to back down on the issue, and I was too pregnant to do that right then.

When I protested and said that the techniques being suggested would not work on Mona, the person got exasperated, eventually saying, “Every parent thinks their child is special.  I’ve seen this work on a thousand children.”  I was not in any emotional state to argue at that point, but I remember thinking very clearly at the time, “Well, every child IS special, and meet child number one-thousand-and-ONE, because you are wrong.”

That line about everyone thinking his or her child is special has stayed with me.  I think about it often.  Every parent should think his or her child is special.  Because every child is special.  And this is an issue I’ve struggled with a little bit, especially when talking with certain people who have differing views from my own.

There is a line in the movie The Incredibles that is central to the point of the film about how “If everyone is special, then nobody is.”  I agree that there needs to be room for people to be extraordinary.  We are not all equal in our abilities or talents or willingness to work.

But I believe that the extraordinary among us with the right encouragement and resources will rise to the top.  I don’t think that just because some people have a specific genius for art or music, etc., the rest of us aren’t worthy to have a go at those things and we benefit from that experience in different ways.  I know artists and musicians who are weary of seeing bad art and hearing inadequate music and wish sometimes others without innate talent would just stop.  I don’t see the mediocre as a threat to the brilliant so it doesn’t bother me particularly, and I accept that the audience for the truly great is sometimes small.  But just because I will never be singer in any official sense does not mean I should never sing.

When I started team teaching violin lessons for clients in music therapy I had to rethink the whole point of playing music.  Normally when I teach the goal is to improve performance on the violin.  I have materials and techniques I use to get students from point A to point B to point C, with the purpose of working toward more complicated music and wider opportunities.  Among the side effects of that kind of training are greater confidence, developing self-discipline, relaxation, and interacting with new people.  In music therapy this is kind of flipped on its head.  The goal is the side effects, and learning to play violin specifically is the vehicle.  So if I happen to have a student who never improves on a technical level because of some obstacle or another, it doesn’t matter.  I see the benefits of playing violin, I just have to think about my part in the equation in a new way.

I have never had a single music therapy student who I did not think benefited from playing violin.  Will any of them go on to great professional careers in music?  Unlikely.  But the same is true of my regular students.  I talk to adults who come in my store all the time who wished they could play violin and somehow think it’s too late to start.  I tell them it’s too late to be a child prodigy, but there is no ‘too late’ for music.  What difference does it make if someone else started younger?  Starting younger did not mean that person went on to do it forever or even be very good.  All that matters is that it brings you joy.  Everyone should be allowed that.  The people who want to put in the exhaustive work of going pro will do so.  They will be exceptional and rightly admired for it.  That doesn’t mean average players have to forgo the fun of making their own music.  So I don’t believe giving everyone a chance to be included somehow negates the exceptional.  It just opens up the possibility for everyone to make it their own.

So is every child special?  I think yes.  Because I don’t mean it in a dopey silly way that suggests we bow down to children or not expect them to behave, I mean that every person–particularly at the beginning of life when they are still learning to make responsible choices–deserves respect and care.  Every child should have a fair chance to be the unique individual he or she is supposed to be.  Every child should be entitled to decent medical care, good nutrition, education, exposure to the arts, a safe environment, and love.  It’s heartbreaking to me that this isn’t the case for even most of the children in this world.  How different things would be if all children were raised as if we are glad they are here.  I don’t understand people or policies that write children born into bad circumstances off as if they don’t deserve better.

I most often hear people griping about the ‘Everyone is special’ problem when it comes to competition or ceremony.  There are people who whine if kindergarteners get a little graduation, or if everyone receives a ribbon or trophy.  Many people want there to be a winner and a loser I suppose.  I think that’s too narrow.  For one kid maybe being the best at something was easy.  For another, maybe grappling with a learning disability made the same journey much harder.  Who really deserves the praise?  The person who worked or the one who didn’t have to?  I never practiced viola in high school.  I didn’t need to.  The music we performed had to be accessible to strong and weak players alike so it was easy for me, and praise for my part in it didn’t mean much.  However, the classical guitar solo I put together to perform onstage with the orchestra my senior year–THAT was work.  Terrifying, nail-biting, worry-up-to-the-last-minute-will-she-get-through-it-without-falling-apart work.  The praise I got for that was earned and I knew the difference.

The truth is, life is hard for everyone at some point.  There are enough real lessons in success and failure to go around without inventing more.  Why not change the rules to Candy Land so everyone wins?  So what?  I don’t think important character building lessons about being a good sport happen at age three for most people.  No one likes losing, but little kids can’t grasp the big picture in order to take losing well.  So why bother?  My kids hate losing at Chutes and Ladders so we don’t play it.  I remember hating when I lost at Chutes and Ladders as a kid.  It didn’t make me a better person to suffer through that.  Eventually you put things in perspective and now I don’t care if I win at it or not, and my kids will get there too.  The point of playing games together is to have fun.  If finding ways to play together without someone losing makes it more fun, great.

The point of little ceremonies and all those little trophies is to acknowledge everyone on whatever terms are meaningful to them.  There is no way to know whom that will touch.  There are too many kids among us who do not feel special at home.  That ribbon one person sees as a worthless gesture may mean the difference for someone else between feeling school is a good place to be or not.  Between feeling special or not.  Between feeling like they are worth anything or not.

So, back to Mona and her shoes.  When her dad came home on leave from Iraq he simply told her to wear them.  She knew it was pointless to fight him on the concept, so she did it.  No sticker charts.  Just because you have techniques that seem to work universally, you have to leave room for the possibility of the new.  The times I’ve failed my own violin students were all cases where I neglected to take the individual into account and tried to force them into a mold that worked for others.  Seeing what is special in everyone takes imagination.  It can be hard.  But when we don’t make that effort, that’s when life becomes cheap.  When we don’t see everyone as special we write others off too easily, and that’s a mistake.

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”  —Albert Einstein

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Down, One to Go, Then We Get a Tree (Babble)

This is the point in the season where I remind myself to just breathe.  We’ve had Quinn’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Mona’s birthday….  Just Aden’s sleepover to go and I can finally concentrate on Christmas.  It would be so nice to spread out some of the festivities and parties and gifts over other parts of the year, but that’s just not how it works for us.  We have a month and a half that feels like an avalanche of wrapping paper and sugar and then the calendar looks like a desert until piddly things like Valentine’s Day or 4th of July show up.

Quinn just turned five.  Five!  And he seems older.  I mean, of course he’s older, but there is something less small and fragile about him now that feels new.  He’s taller and he moves like a bigger kid.  His toddler proportions are gone.  He still gloms onto me like the baby boy I’ve always known, but Quinn has crossed some threshold into a leaner more capable state of being that startles me sometimes.  Five just seems so grown up.
(Okay, so looking at that sweet face he doesn’t seem old.  But it seems old compared to this:
So I guess it’s all relative.) For his party this year Quinn invited kids from his class at school, and he wanted a chocolate cake that was silver with pink hearts on top and a candle in the shape of a 5.  I looked around the cake decorating section at Michael’s and found silver, edible spray paint, and sugar paper in different colors.  So I baked a basic chocolate cake layer cake with butter cream frosting, spray painted it, cut out hearts in various sizes, and let Quinn arrange them wherever he liked.  It came out just like he wanted, so we were both happy.
His party involved pizza, a hunt for paper candies redeemable for actual candies that kept the kids busy, and a game with balloons and a parachute that was just a thinly veiled excuse to bop balloons around until the parents returned to pick everyone back up.  All the kids looked sad to leave so that counts as a successful party.

Mona’s party was a bit more work and very loud.  My little girl is eight!  Wow.  She used to look like this:
And now she’s eight.  (And Aden is about to turn ten which is really kind of boggling my mind, but back to Mona….)

Mona wanted a fish theme, with a cake that looked like an aquarium.  This was easier than the dragon cake from last year, but I still had to think about it.  We ended up with four layers of sheet cake and lots of frosting, and Mona cut out all the fish and plants herself from sugar paper.  We used a bit of brown sugar along the bottom to look like sand, and Mona added details with some piping gel.  I finished it off with a little bit of leftover silver spray paint so it might look more like it was behind glass.

Mona’s party included a game where the kids got to hunt repeatedly for clams she’d made out of duct tape.  When anyone found a clam with his or her name inside they got to ‘fish’ in the fishing hole where Aden was waiting on the other side with a bag of prizes.  Everyone had a fish bowl that they could pile their prizes into, and Quinn, Ian, and Mona just kept hiding the same clams again and again until the party was over.  It was an easier game than actually trying to organize all those kids into doing something together, but it made all of them happy and kept them busily moving around.
(Mona’s friend Sammy busy fishing.)
Mona got some great gifts, including a big roll of yellow duct tape (which I always have trouble finding for her) and an optical illusion ornament from Ian’s mom that had everyone mesmerized.  Her big gift from us this year was we finally told her she could have a real fish.
We walked over to the neighborhood pet store after most of her guests had gone and she picked out a pretty Beta that she immediately named Rainbow.
(Mona and her friend Sammy at the pet store.)

Overall a lovely day, but I’m worn out.  One more cake to make, and our first ever sleepover coming up, and then I promised the kids we could finally get a tree.  And then after figuring out what birthday gifts to get all my kids, I get to start looking for more gifts.  Because there is another event with gifts coming up, right?  Yeah, that.  If I only I could convince them that half-birthdays are cooler than actual birthdays….