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!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gimme an O, Gimme a C, Gimme a D... (Babble)

I think most of us, if pressed, would admit to having something we care about enough that it counts as an obsession.  Not necessarily to the point of a disorder, but something we know we attend to in a manner that is out of proportion compared to what everyone else around us seems to do.  I think this tendency can either be exacerbated or broken when one becomes a parent because having children forces you to reexamine many priorities.

I bring this up because I just finished working on my latest stack of photos, which is one of my running obsessions.  Many years ago after college while I was packing to move I began sorting through boxes and boxes of photos.  I was surprised at just how many images were of events that I was sure I would never ever forget, but then I couldn’t even pin down what year they were from.  I love having photos of people and places that interest me, but digging through heaps of pictures in boxes was unpleasant.  I decided right then that if I were going to bother to take pictures I needed to start marking them and putting them in some kind of order.  I went out and bought albums and spent a week sorting through all the pictures and labeling them and putting them where I could find them again.

I became extra diligent about this once I started having children, which is good because I apparently only make one model of kid and their baby pictures are very hard to tell apart.  I also paid attention to all the stories I heard from people who took a million photos of their first child and fewer and fewer of each subsequent child, so I made sure there is an equal number of too many photos of all my kids.  I’m not to the point of doing any kind of attractive scrap-booking or anything that elaborate, but all my kids have labeled and dated pictures in albums, and that makes me feel good.  I’m sure I’m messing other things up, but the photo thing I’ve got down and they can’t accuse me of not documenting their childhoods.

It’s funny to me when I think about how reluctant I was to get my first digital camera.  We bought one on a family trip when my regular 35mm Kodak bit the dust, and from the first shot I realized what an improvement it was.  I remember having the thought that I would miss the surprise of getting my photos developed and seeing what I really had, but from that initial photo of me and Mona where I could look at it right away and know if our eyes were open or the composition was off was terrific.
(Me and Mona in 2005)

I love having access to images (like that one) right on my computer, and that the information about the dates they were taken is so easy to find.  I used to sit with a calendar when I labeled Aden’s baby pictures and try to remember exactly which day we went to the zoo or museum.  Someday I hope to take some time to scan all my older photos into digital form, but that won’t be for awhile.  (That sounds like a good nostalgia project to do when my kids are much older.) 

In any case, I talk to enough other parents about how they never get around to printing out pictures, let alone put together albums, that I always feel a bit self-conscious about my obsession.  It’s just that I know how much I like having real photographs to hold and look at to help me remember things, and I think one day my kids will appreciate being able to flip through whole albums of themselves when they were young.

Anyway, one of the casualties of the readjustment period of having Ian home again was that I got obscenely behind in the whole photograph thing.  I try to be in a habit of emptying out my digital camera about once every month, so that way there isn’t too much to do.  And labeling photos (and sorting out doubles to mail to friends and family) is an easy activity for when I’m stuck in the house.  It’s the kind of project that I can do in the room with the kids while they do their own things and I can stop and start as they need me without a problem. 

But with Ian home I’ve been able to escape the house more, and those stretches of time to do my photo thing kind of evaporated.  So the stack of photos I “needed” to attend to went back months and was probably about seven inches tall.  It’s those moments where I’m drowning in photos that I wonder if it’s worth it.

That’s the thing about feeling a bit obsessed–you can’t just take it or leave it.  The photo thing is not that casual for me.  I can’t leave it.  So I stayed up late and sacrificed my day off for building my own instruments just to get caught up.  I like the feeling of being caught up.  The problem is I seem to choose any number of projects that never feel like they will be caught up, and I then I try to decide if they mean enough to bother worrying about them.

The other big one for me that seems to hang over my head all the time is that I write a letter to each of my kids on their birthdays about what they were like for the past year.  It’s a place to stick all their cutest quotes and record all their firsts and describe where they’ve been, who they’ve met and what they’ve done.  It’s a nice idea, and I like the letters I’ve written and tucked away to give them when they turn 18, but the process got really botched with the deployments.  There just wasn’t enough time for everything when Ian was in Iraq, and the letter project was hit hard.  Several of the letters are in rough outline form with chunks of detail that need serious editing, and it’s something I need big blocks of time to read through and sort out.  I sat down to write Quinn’s latest letter on his birthday this week (my baby is four!) and realized to my dismay that last year’s letter is still a mess.  I thought I’d at least gotten caught up with Quinn, but no.  It’s depressing.

And I know this is a pressure I’ve invented to put on myself, and that no one is requiring this of me, and I could just let it go, but I don’t want to.  It’s something in my head that I care about, and I feel as if with the right determination I could do it.

I wonder why some things we can let go and others we let have power over us.  I used to be particular about setting silverware correctly, but since having kids I don’t care.  I notice when it isn’t “right” but it doesn’t bother me.  Whatever weird arrangements of spoons Mona or Quinn lays out is fine.  Adjusting to life with kids has meant learning to relax my attitude about a lot of things, but the few places left for me to channel my more obsessive energies I am keenly aware of.

Does anyone else out there have obsessive arbitrary projects that they question from time to time?  Or am I just trying to make myself feel better by presuming other people do their own version of this too?  I’m curious to know.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Friendship Auditions (Babble)

When Aden was little, maybe right around when she turned three, she became very interested in making friends.  As our first born she didn’t have built in playmates at home yet, and she was intrigued and excited by any interaction she had with other children.  But she was shy.  Until one day her dad, sitting with her on the edge of the busy playground, said, “Do you know who all these kids are?”  Aden shook her head.  “They’re all friends.”  She turned to see all the children on the playground in a new light, and ran off to play with them.

Aden still has moments of shyness, as do many of us, but for the most part she is a master of making new friends.  She likes to lead games and she’s popular at school.  I’ve watched her strike up conversations with new children dozens of times, and she has a natural way of making them feel at ease.  She forms attachments quickly and is a loyal and engaged friend.  She is far more advanced in these skills than I am.

But the rules of friendship are simpler the younger you are.

As toddlers, children just playing near each other can get labeled as friends.  As an older child or teenager the politics of who is your friend can be contentious and complex territory.  Friendships can become obsolete over time and dissolve with distance or circumstance.  I am lucky enough to have friends that I’ve stayed connected to since I was a child, despite multiple moves and changes.  The world would be a harsher place without them.

As an adult I don’t like to swing the word ‘friend’ around too loosely.  I’ve lived long enough that the word is precious.  My true and dear friends are as important to me as any family and I feel committed to them in the same way.  This is part of why I don’t think I’ve been good about embracing Facebook, because I don’t like referring to anybody who wants to link to my page as a friend.  ‘Contact’ I could see (or ‘fan’ or ‘well-wisher’ or in my opinion ‘eavesdropper’ would be good), but ‘friend?’   I originally went on Facebook just because I wanted to see my brother’s page.  I kind of liked that first day where I had only one friend.  But then requests came in and at first I was picky–again because of the use of the word ‘friend.’  ‘Friending’ people I actually knew was one thing, but I remember turning down the request of my friend’s husband’s sister because she wasn’t someone I would recognize in a crowd and why on earth did she want to be on my friend list?  I’ve come to terms with the Facebook thing and anyone who wants on can be there, but I still don’t like the watering down of the word friend to something so casual.  Real friends are rare.

So for me making new ones is hard.  At my age the most daunting part is getting through all the background information because there is so much of it.  To have a meaningful conversation with someone about my life he or she needs to know the cast of characters and the back story that goes with them.  There have been times I’ve wanted to talk about something important with a newer friend, but thinking about all the background necessary to get to the part that currently interests me seems exhausting.  It’s easier to just call a friend back home or one of my brothers and get right to the point.  For my kids a long history of shared experience to base a friendship on isn’t even possible because they don’t have much history period.  Both parties liking the color pink is good enough.

I don’t often hear discussions about strategies for making friends as an adult.  I give my kids ideas about how to make and keep friends when they need it, but offering to share sidewalk chalk isn’t as natural a plan past a certain age.  As a parent you don’t often choose the people you spend time with because they just happen to be the parents of the kids with whom your own children want to play.  Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t (and I must say, I’ve been particularly lucky in that regard that my kids’ friends seem to consistently have very nice parents). 

But trying to forge new, close relationships like the ones I enjoyed in my hometown is difficult.  I remember when we first moved to Milwaukee I was so desperate for friends that when I exchanged a nice moment in a checkout line at the grocery store with a woman about my age I almost blurted out, “Will you be my friend?!”  I eventually did do that with someone who is still my friend when I met her behind the scenes of a museum tour, but that was after slightly more interaction than saying, “Hey, you dropped that.”

I’ve been giving all of this a lot of thought lately for two reasons.  The first is that Quinn is turning four and he gets to have his own little party where he can choose the guests for once.  He picked a couple of people from school to invite over for pizza and cake, but I don’t know what criteria he used for labeling those people his friends.  The first couple of weeks of school I asked him if he’d made any friends yet and he said no.  Aden would have simply labeled the whole class her friends.  Quinn’s approach is different, but I’m not sure what it is.  It’s just kind of fascinating to watch.  I want all my kids to enjoy having wonderful friends, but it’s one of those things I can’t control, and that’s never easy.

The other reason is I have a new friend named Lauren.  She’s a talented local writer who makes me laugh, and she’s agreed to a friendship building plan that gets through all the background work more efficiently.  We’re taking turns on email asking each other to share information about important things like best friends, fathers, preference for plain or peanut M&Ms….  It’s fun.  I feel like we could come up with a handbook at some point about what are good questions to ask new friends to speed up the process.  That’s the thing about being older, is there is more to cover but less time in which to do it.  A comprehensive checklist could be just the thing.

Auditioning for a new friend is such a strange, awkward phase.  Too much dependence or information too soon can feel inappropriate or a little crazy.  The nice thing about Lauren is she seems the same amount of inappropriate and crazy as myself.  I think we’re both looking for someone to have in town with whom we can talk about anything and laugh until it hurts.  It’s finding a match that works and being willing to put in the effort to get that off the ground that’s hard.  But it’s worth it, because, really?  What’s better than having good friends?  (And Lauren, you’ve now been officially declared my friend on the internet, and I’m sure that’s legally binding so you’re stuck with me.  Unless that sounded creepy instead of funny in which case I’m sorry.  Agh!  Stupid early awkward phase….)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Spite and Malice (Babble)

That’s the name of our family card game:  Spite and Malice.  It’s one of those family traditions that’s so ingrained you sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not something everyone does.  Sort of like when Ian and I were in Germany together and the meals at the youth hostel were exactly like what my German grandma always served us, and for the first time I realized I’d been raised on ethnic food.  It had always just been food.
Spite and Malice is pretty simple, although without cards in front of you the explanation might sound messy.

Each person has a stack of 21 cards he or she is trying to get rid of.  You get five cards in your hand and there are four discard piles in your own personal foot near your stack.  You get rid of cards by making and replacing four stacks in the center that everyone plays on that build up from from ace to queen.  Kings and Jokers are wild.  The distinctive thing about Spite and Malice is the deck is as big as you want it to be, usually at least four decks mixed together, so it’s the perfect game for using old decks that aren’t complete.  My grandmother played bridge for years, so she was always adding decks as they got dirty or too old to the Spite and Malice pile.  I have some of her cards mixed into our own Spite and Malice deck.

Some of my favorite memories are of sitting around grandma’s kitchen table playing Spite and Malice with any family who were up for a game–usually my grandma, my mom, my brothers, an aunt, a cousin….  My dad had the infuriating habit of not turning over the next card in his main stack after playing the one on the top, and just playing things out of his hand or foot which don’t really matter.  The only cards that matter are the ones in the stack you are trying to get rid of, but he’d play blindly for awhile, not knowing what card he should be working toward, and invariably when he finally turned that card over it was the perfect thing.  Maddening to watch, I must say, but it kept us laughing.

It’s the kind of game where there is always something going on, but not so much that you can’t talk the whole time.  That’s the beauty of it.  It doesn’t take concentration, so you can think about the game or not and it’s all fine.  It’s something to do while you just laugh and enjoy being together.  Which is a pretty lovely result for a game with such a cruel sounding name.

This weekend I finally taught it to Aden.  I think I was a little younger than she is when I learned it, but because grandma spent her last few years in a nursing home Aden didn’t have the advantage of growing up around that kitchen table which was the accepted venue for Spite and Malice.  Pulling out cards and boardgames isn’t as natural as pulling out laptops in our home, I’m afraid.  Although there are moments when we are faced with each other and need to think of amusing ways to pass the time where cards and games are the best possible thing.

Aden was very excited to learn Spite and Malice.  I can’t remember the last time I played, but it felt good to be dealing out cards from the giant deck.  At first Mona was upset that she wasn’t being included, so I told her she could help me while I taught Aden.  I really just wanted to get one kid good at it before trying to teach it to the next one.  Mona wiggled around next to me and was enthusiastic for about ten seconds and then drifted off to do something else.

Aden caught on quickly.  About halfway through we stopped playing with open hands so I could walk her through what we should both be doing, and were able to just play.  I’d forgotten just how much fun that game can be.  Of course, the fun is really all in the company, and Aden is wonderful company.

My hope is to play with Aden a few times a week before my grandmother’s memorial service in December so that by then she’s a pro.  When we travel to Ohio to say our goodbyes I’m going to bring my Spite and Malice deck and see how many relatives I can get interested in a game.  I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to my grandma than to have us sitting around a table together, playing our family game, and talking.  She’d have loved that.  I’m just sorry she never got to play with my daughter.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Veteran's Day Note (Babble)

I’ve written about my ambivalence for military themed holidays and flag waving before.  I worry about anything that glorifies war while at the same time I think we need to remember and recognize those among us who are willing to make great sacrifices to defend our constitution.  I still feel bewildered sometimes as to how I ended up entangled with any kind of military life.  But I love my husband and he is a soldier so the story is as simple as that.

But this is the story I think of every Veteran’s Day:

(And I apologize now for not knowing off the top of my head who the writer is, but if I find my copy of the original article at any point I will amend this post.)  My dad clips articles for us and mails them out in large packets all the time, and I can tell when he finds one particularly important because it’s a xerox, which means my brothers both received copies of it, too.  Many years ago he sent me a xeroxed article that I saved and still have somewhere buried in a filing cabinet.  It was an essay from the New York Times about Veteran’s Day. 

The author was old enough that his father had fought in World War I.  His father never talked about it, but the author felt great reverence for his service in the Great War, and swelled with pride for his country and his father every Veteran’s Day, back when it was still known as Armistice Day.  He filled in the vacuum of his father’s silence with noble things in his mind.  Until one day, late in his father’s life, the old man finally muttered something about how much he hated Armistice Day.  Because for symbolic purposes leaders on high waited to end the war on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  The old soldier said he watched men die in those last few hours of the war.  Lives lost for nothing grander than creating a moment that looked good on paper to people who were too far removed from the suffering to care.  That’s what he thought of on Armistice Day.

My husband is a good man.  There is no one else I’d rather be married to and I’m proud of the way he served in Iraq.  There are many heroic people in uniform who should be acknowledged today, and shown appreciation for what they do for the rest of us.

But we need to try harder to make their jobs unnecessary.  War is a horror.  It may sometimes be necessary, but it should never be welcomed.  I think the reason these wars we are engaged in have gone on so long is that ordinary people are disconnected from them.  My own children forget the wars are still going on because their own dad is finally home and it no longer touches their lives.  I listened to the line repeated so often about, “We must fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here,” and shuddered.  What right do we have to destroy the lives of ordinary people forced to live where we choose to fight a war?

So, yes, please honor those who are deserving today, because their sacrifices are beyond measure.  But don’t mingle that pride with any misplaced affection for the wars themselves.  I’ve met people who do, and they make me feel less safe.  My husband joined the military to help prevent war.  My greatest hope is that he succeeds and works himself right out of a job.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crying (Babble)

With the recent death of my grandmother I have a good excuse to be crying lately.  Although, honestly, things are already feeling a little better.  The strange thing about her passing, for me, is that since there is no living person in the present to think of as my grandma, I am free to remember her as the person she was before the dementia set in and the woman I knew began to fade.  I’ve been released from thinking of that frail figure as my grandma, and back to thinking of her as the independent, intelligent, and generous person she was for most of her life.  She exists purely in memory now, so I can choose any memories of her I want, and I choose the ones that represent her best.  Oddly, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I have my old grandma back.

But experiencing strong grief has got me thinking about crying in general.  It’s one of those topics that doesn’t seem as if there would be much to it, until you give it a moment, and realize there are more types and situations involving crying than I’d ever have room for on one blog post.  From the parenting perspective alone, consider babies with colic where crying is like torture, babies who learn to fake cry just to get attention, kids who cry only when someone is watching, kids who only cry in private, arguments about letting a baby ‘cry it out’ at night, being able to recognize your own child’s crying in a crowd, if your kid cries in her sleep, crying about shots, crying about nothing, crying about everything….

I was fortunate that as babies my kids almost never cried.  I don’t really remember Mona crying about anything until she was around eight months old.  (She was the happiest little thing, and I had to check her crib often if I put her down in the day because if she woke up she’d just entertain herself with her hands or her toes and not make a peep.)  If they started to fuss I’d scoop them up, and I didn’t see any reason to ever let them cry.  (So for anybody out there whose instincts are telling them to not let their babies cry but are doubting themselves because of some outside influence, I say go with your gut.  I can’t name you one ill effect of having done that myself.)
From the time Aden was a few months old to the present day, if I cry in front of her, she cries.  If I cry in front of Quinn or Mona they can’t deal with it, and they act as if they are ignoring it, but I can tell it’s unsettling to them.  When something effects Aden emotionally tears come quickly and she accepts them.  Her tears flow and she wants a hug.  She even got emotional while we were doing violin practice the other day and got tears all over her instrument (ironically while working on “The Happy Farmer.”)  We got through it and then cuddled for awhile and all was well.  If I start to say something that Mona expects will be upsetting she tries to make me stop.  Mona wants to avoid public tears at all cost, and chooses often to be angry rather than sad to protect herself.  Quinn only cries out of pain or exhaustion, or if I act upset with him.  (If I raise my voice at Quinn it seems to destroy his world so I do my best to not let that happen.)
Sometimes I feel like I cry at everything.  There are songs on the kids’ CDs that will make me weep, and if I sing along with pop tunes I’ve noticed that usually a modulation in the chorus will induce tears for some reason.  I enjoy a good cry sometimes, and certain movie or TV moments can send me instantly over the edge.  (The final moments of Six Feet Under, the end of Harold and Maude, Spock dying in The Wrath of Kahn, emotional scenes in the new Dr Who, that episode of Star Trek the Next Generation where Picard lives out a whole lifetime in his mind and then snaps back to reality…..  Yes I know my Sci-Fi nerdiness is showing–what of it?  Huh?)

Anyway, when I think about crying I think about how unfortunate it is that women, in general, are wired to cry more easily than men.  I hate that.  There was a time in martial arts class many years ago when I got thrown particularly hard, and I had to clamp my mouth shut for a few moments or I knew I would burst into tears and not be able to stop.  I did not want to cry in the dojo, so I couldn’t even say, “Hai Sensei” in response to the teacher’s questions because I knew once the dam broke it was over.  I got away with a serious nod instead.  It’s not that I think crying itself is bad or weak, but the sense of not being in control of yourself is horrible and embarrassing.

And I do believe it’s biological.  I once heard a fascinating radio interview with a person who had transitioned from male to female, and she described what happened after the hormone shift began.  She was on the phone arguing with someone at an airline, and she knew in the past the way she’d gotten results as a man was to speak forcefully, but when she opened her mouth to do just that, all that came out were sobs.  She said she felt as if she were suddenly insane because it wouldn’t stop and the experience was bewildering and awful.

I used to wonder how this could have evolved because incessant weeping doesn’t seem like a useful or desirable trait, but I developed a theory after an incident in college.  I was running a music cognition study that required subjects listen to recordings, and the equipment for doing that was only available in a certain room shared by other psychologists and musicians.  I had clearly signed out the room for use in the afternoon, and a graduate student (who, frankly, no one liked) barged in during the middle of my hour and disrupted everything.  I had to throw out all those data and find new subjects which was very frustrating.  I had a right to be mad. 

But what happened was after my subjects left the graduate student turned on me and told me I couldn’t use the room without my adviser present (not true) and he made me write down the rules (as he saw them) for the use of the room.  He stood over me as I scribbled in my notebook and yelled at me while I kept my mouth shut.  I knew the second I opened it I would cry and I was not going to cry in front of that irritating man.  I walked the entire half a mile home without opening my mouth.  I maintained my composure until I stepped inside our apartment and saw Ian.  Then I lost it.

Ian jumped instantly to my side and tried to figure out what was wrong.  By the time I was able to choke out why I was crying I remember very clearly the sense of Ian bristling as he held me.  He was furious.  He was ready to march out and kill the guy and I had to assure him it was okay and I would deal with it myself later.  That’s when I started to realize the utility of tears.  In the modern world with odd disputes about procedures and protocol I should be able to fight my own battles, but what if the threat had been physical?  It is probably a bad idea for the average woman to seek a physically aggressive confrontation with the average man. 

If I learned anything in martial arts it was just how intimidating a man’s upper body strength can be, and that was just with calm, careful grappling.  So physical fighting is not a good option.  But crying?  That would cause other men who care about me–boyfriend, brothers, father–to leap to my defense with their muscles.  That’s sort of interesting.  So I don’t like that I can’t completely control some crying fits, but I think I know why they exist.  Lord help the boy that makes one of our girls cry someday if Ian’s anywhere around to see it.

Another thing I think about is how crying can help tell us if something matters.  I remember trying very hard to cry when I was four and my grandfather on my dad’s side passed away.  I barely knew him, but it seemed wrong not to acknowledge his death with tears if I was a good granddaughter.  But I couldn’t make them come because from my end that relationship was technical but not emotional.  There are other people since then who have died where I was surprised at my lack of reaction, and when I was honest about how little I was connected to their lives it made sense that I had no tears for them.  It’s a bad sign when a relative does so little to touch your life that you can only hope to muster tears in his or her honor.  (Which is saying something for someone who cries during Star Trek.)

My mom once asked me if I ever cry when I perform music.  I thought that was a great question because I can be moved to tears by certain pieces, but at the time I couldn’t think of an example of crying while playing something.  I’d been moved, or had shivers run up my spine if something was particularly amazing to be in the middle of, but never experienced crying.  I told her the concentration level for getting through a typical quartet or orchestra performance probably blocked that possibility out.  But I had to perform a children’s concert the day after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and now I know it’s possible.  It was a whole program of patriotic music, and as I played our national anthem while blissfully innocent toddlers smiled and clapped, I found out what it was like to perform with tears streaming down my face.

At the moment I’m not shedding as many tears for my grandma as I would have expected.  I’m sure I will at the memorial service in a few weeks as the loss is more palpable, but I’ve cried for her so much in the past few years that now I find myself preferring to focus on thoughts of her that make me smile.  She was losing her life while she was still alive and I’ve been grieving for her for since the first difficult decisions about moving her to the nursing home.  There was so much about her end that was painful to witness (and I’m sure to live), that relief has swallowed my tears for the time being.  My gram wouldn’t want me to cry anyway.  She’d want me to bake her famous spritz cookies with my kids.  So I will.

--photos missing
(Okay, and just because Sad Mona in particular breaks my heart, this is her about two minutes after that other photo was taken.  Because eventually all crying stops.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Eulogy for Grandma (Babble)

I don’t know if I have the right words to express just how much I loved and admired my grandma.  I suspect I don’t, but I owe it to her to try to find them.  I’ve been thinking about what I want to say at her memorial service planned for early December.  If I had to give a eulogy today, this is the one I would give:

Grandma loved babies.  She told me she always had, as long as she could remember.  When I had my first baby, she came out to Milwaukee alone. It was just over a month after the comotion of the holidays when everyone had come out to see Aden right after her birth.  Grandma came out then, too, but the visit in February was special and quiet and private.  We got to spend hours just looking at the baby and admiring all the cute things new babies do.  One of those evenings, sitting in the dining room watching Aden smile and wiggle her hands in the air, we got to talking about our thoughts on life and death in general.  Grandma was always interesting to talk to, and I could talk to her about anything.  I asked her what her thoughts were on dying one day; if it scared her or if she thought there was an afterlife.  Her response was the best one I’ve ever heard on the subject.  She said, “Well, I think about all the amazing people who came before me who accomplished so many impressive things, and how they have died, and I think to myself, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.”

My grandma was amazing.  When she was born women still didn’t have the right to vote, but she loved school and earned a college degree.  She had so many interesting stories about working in adoption and I used to beg her to write some of them down.  She never did, but I remember the ones she told me, and maybe I will find ways to write them down.
There isn’t a day of living in Milwaukee that I don’t think of her.  Sometimes I pass the house she was born in, on the corner of Locust and Cramer.  I live on the side of town where my grandpa grew up and I imagine myself and my children retracing his footsteps when we walk by his high school.  My grandma’s stories of her early life and meeting my grandpa take on new life for me now that I live in their old town.  One of her favorite stories was about how she got to know my grandfather because he would walk her to her bus stop after class because it was on his way home.  My husband is a map and transit connoisseur, and he told me he would never tell my grandma this, but he figured out that grandma’s bus stop was nowhere near grandpa’s way home.  He was merely going out of his way to be near her.

I know a lot of stories about grandma, how when her kids were at school sometimes she and a neighbor would occasionally wile away an entire afternoon playing Scrabble and feel they were being quite wicked.  Or about when she and her friend Florence would visit a place known only as “Lake Twelve.”  Or how she used to help her mother do the laundry which was a full two day project every week, and that in the winter they would hang the wash in the attic where it would freeze solid and they would spend the second day ironing it all dry.  I once asked her if there was any particular modern convenience she’d seen invented over her lifetime that was especially important and without hesitation she said, ‘The washer and dryer.”

There are so many interesting stories about her as a child and a student and a young married woman and mother, but my own experience with her was as a grandmother.  And she was the best grandmother possible.  When I was little we would visit my grandparents in Columbus for Christmas and Easter and it was always special.  Grandma kept a beautiful home and it was always welcoming.  She cooked us wonderful meals, and whenever there were homemade treats on the counter and we’d ask if we could have one she would always say, “That’s what they’re there for!”  She was the kind of grandma that made you feel secure and safe and loved.

But I was particularly lucky to have the chance to get to know grandma better while I was in college.  I wanted to go away to school, but I also wanted to be near home.  By going to Ohio State I was able to be out on my own, but having grandma nearby was like still having a familiar home when I needed it.  I started school nearly two years after grandpa died, and gram and I were able to be there for each other.  She would pick me up from campus nearly every Sunday.  I could do things for her like set the VCR or help with things in the yard, and she taught me how to do laundry without making the washer hop across the basement.  She looked forward to cooking me a real meal once a week and I looked forward to eating it.  She let me bring my friends.  She was the first member of my family to get to know Ian.  Grandma came to nearly every performance I gave while I was at Ohio State, and when I graduated she gave me a box of all the programs from everything I’d played in for the past five years.

When I found myself home more because of pregnancy and babies I got into a habit of calling grandma at least once a day.  She was wonderful to chat with, and was the perfect person with whom to share baby updates because she never found them boring.  She would tell me what was going on in her neighborhood or we’d talk about the news or books or movies.  And when Ian was deployed, grandma was the only person I knew who truly understood what it was like to be pregnant and caring for children in Milwaukee while fearing for a husband at war.  She would listen to me cry and say, “I know, Kor.”  And she really did.

My grandma was smart and kind and made the world better for those around her.  She was the best listener I ever knew.  And she loved me, and I never doubted that she was proud of me.  When I read her some of my earliest fiction she beamed at me and said, “Oh Kory, you are a writer–A real writer.”  And because she said it I believed it could be true.
These past few years have been so difficult.  It’s been heartbreaking to watch grandma slowly fade to a shadow of the person I knew.   There were glimpses of her now and then when I would visit, but the truth is I began mourning the loss of my grandma awhile ago.  That doesn’t make this final goodbye any easier.  There is no way to accept that my grandma is not in my world anymore and have it be anything but profoundly, crushingly sad.  But maybe grandma is finally with her husband again.  Or maybe she has simply been released from the pain of an existence she had degenerated into that I know she wouldn’t have wanted.  Either way I hope death meant relief for my grandma.  And in those moments when I contemplate my own mortality, I can think to myself, “If it was good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.”

I love you, grandma.  And I miss you.

(Last photo of me and my grandma when I visited her at the end of August)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Goodbye Gram (Babble)

My grandma died this morning.

It’s so odd to post this right after posting my essay about losing my grandfather 25 years ago. I feel as if I should say more in her honor but it’s too much right now. I don’t want my grandma to be gone.

She was non-responsive the past couple of days and I have been torn about whether I should have dropped everything and driven out to Ohio. I kept thinking would she want me there? Yes. But would she want me to see her in a coma and have my last memory of her be like that? No.

There’s no right answer to that one. Either way I’m left crying.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

This I Believe (Babble)

This is sort of a moment of shameless self-promotion, but I don’t profit from it so I don’t feel too weird.

Five years ago I was inspired to try my hand at writing by the ‘This I Believe’ project on public radio.  I’ve heard some fascinating essays on that segment, and have even printed out a few so I can revisit them when I like.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and missed not having an excuse to do it since college, and I’ve always regretted the essay I submitted with my school applications.  I was overly influenced by suggestions I’d read and didn’t write the essay that I should have.  I decided to write the essay over and put it into the ‘This I Believe’ format and submit it.

They loved the essay, but it didn’t make the final cut to go on the radio.  The local paper in Milwaukee picked it up and ran it on Christmas Eve and it got a very nice response.  After that, other than the link on my website to the archive of the This I Believe project, I didn’t think about it anymore.

But I got a nice surprise earlier this year when an editor from This I Believe tracked me down and asked if they could include my essay in a collection they were putting together specifically about love.  All proceeds from the book go to continue collecting stories for the project, and my compensation was a single copy of the book, but I was honored to be included.  I got my copy in the mail the other day and it’s still sort of unreal to me that I can open up something off my bookshelf and see my words in print.  With my name in a table of contents like a real writer.

In any case, there are some surprising and touching essays in the book which is called “This I Believe: On Love”, and is available to order now, as well as many interesting essays in the This I Believe archive.

Amazing Grace

My grandfather died twenty years ago. I was fifteen. He was kind, strong, fair, and very funny. When I was a young musician, he was my biggest fan. My grandpa used to applaud when I tuned, and I would roll my eyes and shrug off his enthusiasm as too biased. I played my violin for him when he visited, and he loved everything, but each time he had one request. “Could you play ‘Amazing Grace’?” he asked, full of hope and with a twinkle in his eye, because he knew my answer was always, “I don’t know that one!” We went through this routine at every major holiday, and I always figured I’d have time to learn it for him later.

About the time I entered high school and had switched to viola and started guitar, Grandpa got cancer. The last time I saw him alive was Thanksgiving weekend in 1985. My mom warned us when we turned onto the familiar street that Grandpa didn’t look the same anymore and that we should prepare ourselves. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. He looked so small among all the white sheets, and I had never thought of my grandpa as small in any sense. We had all gathered in Ohio for the holiday, and I’m sure we all knew we were there to say good-bye. I can see now that Grandpa held on long enough to see us each one more time. I remember how we ate in the dining room and laughed and talked while Grandpa rested in his hospital bed set up in the den. I wonder if it was sad for him to be alone with our voices and laughter. Knowing Grandpa, he was probably content.

The next morning I found my moment alone with him. I pulled out my guitar, tuned to his appreciative gaze, and finally played for him “Amazing Grace.” I had worked on it for weeks, knowing it never mattered if I actually played it well and choosing not to believe as I played that it was my last concert for my biggest fan. The cancer had stolen his smile, but I saw joy in his eyes and he held my hand afterward, and I knew I had done something important.

I argued with people all through college about my music major. I was told by strangers that music wouldn’t make me any money and it wasn’t useful like being a doctor. But I know firsthand that with music I was able to give my grandpa something at a point when no one else could. Food didn’t taste good, doctors couldn’t help, and his body had betrayed him and left him helpless. But for a few minutes listening to me with my guitar, he seemed to find beauty and love and escape. At its best music is the highest expression of humanity’s better nature, and I’m privileged to contribute to such a profound tradition.
So, this I believe: Love matters. Music matters. And in our best moments they are one and the same.