The Adventures of Housebound Mom

This is a very, very old piece of writing that I could have sworn I’d already published, either here on the blog or via KidsOutAndAbout.com. But then I couldn’t find it, and I wanted to link to it via the KOA newsletter, because I’ve been nagging everyone that they Must. Go. Outside. And I know that that’s tough when kids are little. So here it is. (What? You’re not signed up for this newsletter that we send out each week. Get on that, please!) And if you’ve known me for a while, you may home seen it before, from waaaaaayyyyy back when I was doing the newsletter for the Niskayuna Moms’ Group.

After J got a fever at 9 days old, leading to a stay in the hospital and various torturous medical procedures, our family has decided to remain in relative seclusion until Thanksgiving, when the baby’s immune system would be up to speed. At the time, we’d been experiencing the first of the yucky fall weather and I’d been, frankly, half asleep most of the time. So I thought some other mommies might enjoy my ideas for incredibly lazy and cheap activities that your kids might enjoy when you’d rather—but think you probably shouldn’t—plop them in front of another show. If you have some of your own, I’d love to hear them and pass them along.

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Fun with the Digital Camera: Kids love pictures.

  • Take pictures of favorite people and put them in an album or on the refrigerator for the very youngest kids examine. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even make an alphabet or counting book with objects around the house. I know people who’ve sent away for books like this and shared them with cousins. Impressive!
  • Print up little (or create a folder on whatever electronic device you’re willing to let a child hold containing) photos of various objects to use for various fun and games. We take pictures of objects around the house to play scavenger hunt or pictures of our most-often-purchased food items so that we can occupy ourselves searching the grocery store.
  • After being bashed by the toy motorcycle one too many times, Cute W pasted a photo of my daughter into a document to create a driver’s license for her. Now if she crashes into him too often she “loses her license”.
  • For older kids, take pictures of the places that you go and the people that you see regularly, then put them on a calendar to help them understand days of the week (Wednesdays is Moms’ Group) or look forward to a big event, like Grandpa visiting.
Come to think of it, the girls would also "help" grocery shop by looking for items on a picture list. No wonder these kids are slaughtering the state testing.
Come to think of it, the girls would also “help” grocery shop by looking for items on a picture list. No wonder these kids are slaughtering the state testing.

Kitchen Concoctions: Pass some time with easy activities.

  • Put a pile of cornstarch in a plastic dish and add enough water to get it all wet.       It’s likely to get a bit messy, but the crazy solid-liquid texture can fascinate toddlers (and adults, really) for a long time.
  • Pull out a bunch of spices from the cabinet and have a smell-a-thon. The only danger here is that they’ll want to do it again tomorrow when you’re just trying to cook dinner.
  • Mix half a cup of rubbing alcohol and a couple of drop of food coloring in a plastic bag that seals, then add dried pasta and shake it up. Spread the pasta to dry on waxed paper and you have colored noodles make string or paste. Crafty, and great when you need to clean out the cabinets, anyway.

The Mail: You get it every day: why not milk it for all that it’s worth?

  • Make the mail truck an event. Get to know your postal carrier by offering cookies or a hand-painted picture once in a while, and you’ll have a friend who visits your kids daily.
  • Cut up those complimentary return address labels from charities so that you have an endless supply of stickers: we’re biggest fans of the ASPCA’s puppies and kitties.
  • If I have any piece of junk mail that can remotely interest my toddler (anything with pictures of children, animals, vehicles, or toys), I tell her that it’s “her” mail.
  • If credit card companies send you one of those fake cards, hand it over to your child to fill wallets and purses, or keep it with your real stuff in case you need to negotiate a quick trade because they’ve gotten something important.
  • For older kids, hand over those Pottery Barn and other home catalogs and let them cut out and glue furnishing and other items to make their own room on a page.

More Life at Our House

This morning M was snorting over one of our baby photo books. “And put syrup on Isis!” she cackled. For a few weeks when J was a toddler, she had discovered humor, and her idea of a joke (probably born during a pancake breakfast) was to add this phrase to anything anyone else said. As in, “Girls,” says Mommy, “don’t forget to brush your hair and–” “And put syrup on Isis!” J would shriek, and the girls would completely lose it.

Actually, it was pretty funny, at least for the first couple of times.

“It’s so sad,” M lamented. “We don’t say anything cute or funny anymore.”

Not true. I insisted. She demanded an example, and I had one handy.

Over Christmas break we’d invited a couple of friends over for pizza dinner. They were friends we used to see all the time, and now everyone’s so busy that we just don’t. We’d fit dinner into a somewhat tight schedule, deciding that the friends were too true blue for us to fret about how clean the house was. M had a soccer game for late afternoon, but we figured that if we hustled out right after the game, we’d be all set. We headed straight to the car, as planned, and had driven to the first stop light when I asked J if she’d remembered the book she’d brought. Nope. We looped back and J ran in. We waited. The clock was ticking. She came back out, book-less. M and I, exasperated, ran out to do a second look. M hit the lost & found while I retraced our steps to the bleachers. Nothin’. As we were heading out of the soccer place, Cute W was heading in. “We’ve already checked!” I yelled at him. And M and I headed back to the car, me muttering that Cute W thought that we were incompetent, and then swearing that I would be deeply, deeply bitter if he actually found the damn thing, but Don’t Tell Daddy.

Sure enough, Cute W strode out to the car, smirking and holding the book aloft. Dammit. Apparently J had wedged the book into the underside of a bleacher or something? I don’t know. I wailed in distress, J thanked him graciously, Cute W laughed, and M immediately threw me under the bus. “Mom said that she was going to be mad if you found it.” Traitor.

But the point was, we were now officially late to our own party. So Cute W raced along while I texted our friends that we’d be home any minute. We were still ahead of them, but just barely.

As we parked in the driveway and tumbled out, M said, “I just keep thinking about how the people on Downton Abbey spend days getting ready for a party, and we’re almost not here to open the door for people.” At which point she opened our back door while singing a Ke$ha line, “The party don’t start ’til I walk in.”

Give me a break. That girl is funny.

I am frequently reminded of that quote from my favorite essay ever from Anna Quindlen. Like her, “I wound up with the three people I like best in the world.”

They’re being extra-lovable these days, too (knock on wood!). M’s declarations of fierce hatred for her parents have dropped significantly. Part of me is over-analyzing whether she is retreating to her family because 7th grade sociability has been less reliable for her lately, but I am trying my best to stay out of it and just appreciate her generally pleasant demeanor. The other night Cute W was out of town overnight, and thus I was ignoring the really ridiculously messy kitchen in order to finish something on the computer. There was a bit of suspicious pot clanging and later, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a dishwasher unloaded and reloaded and the counters wiped down. It was. . . so very, very beautiful. I love that girl.

J, meanwhile, has been hard at work on her social studies project, recreating the steps in Native American clothes-making. How cute is she?

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At one point she was trying to color small wisps of cotton black to look like ash from her campfires, but they somehow managed to look a weak grey-blue. I suggested that I could actually burn a piece of paper to create actual ash, and she looked like I’d just told her we were going to Disney World. M, meanwhile, began to panic: she still hates fire. J and I took the lighter into the other room to spare M the fretting.

J has recently been dabbling in floor hockey. She signed up for the weekly after school program, which is basically a bit of a free-for-all, but she was super-excited about it.  So then I suggested the town’s upcoming weekly program that was field-hockey-oriented skills and games for girls, and luckily it didn’t conflict with gymnastics. So she signed up. When she arrived and jumped out of the car, the first girls she encountered were significantly taller than her and were toting their own field hockey sticks, so she panicked and fled, blinking back tears. I sort of tough-loved her back into the gym, and she ended up having a terrific time. So I’m psyched.

We’ve consistently tried to get each girl interested in more than one sport because it’s supposed to help prevent injuries, and I tried to get M to do some basketball, but all I managed was one week of morning summer camp. And I think that she regrets it a bit, now, because several of her friends are doing basketball after school while she’s home, with her lame mother. But she loves-loves-loves soccer, so she’s got that. J, meanwhile, does a ton of gymnastics, but that’s separate from school, and M had so much fun on her school team this year–it just feels like a great way to have guaranteed middle school friends. Plus I’m ambivalent about just how much time Josie spends at gymnastics practice. She likes it and I wouldn’t want to make her quit, but I can’t help thinking that if it ever did get overwhelming for her and she didn’t have another sport, her poor little body would go into some kind of shock without 11 hours of practice a week.  So it’s nice to keep our options open. And of course, now her schedule’s busier than ever, with one sport or the other every day except Sunday. Or, theoretically, because tomorrow morning there’s a gymnastics meet! Of course, for a gymnastics meet you really do about half an hour of actual gymnastics and six hours of being nervous.

That’s what’s going on around here. Except, have you noticed how beautiful it’s been lately? Here’s the view from my car after a JCC class the other day:

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And this is my view as I look up driving on my way to and from the JCC. That’s right. I had to pull over an take a picture. I love the spring when the tunnels of greenery come back, but this is pretty gorgeous too.

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That’s right: I’m just like my tv alter-ego. I’m actually starting to love winter.

 

Winter Fun at Lapland Lake

We spent the weekend at Lapland Lake, and I wrote a review of it for KidsOutAndAbout.com.

Wow, everyone there really loves winter. It’s pretty amazing. We left on Friday night, and I was a little stressed out, actually. I’d originally said that we’d arrive around dinner time, but then M had an evening soccer game, so we ended up going afterwards. And then, since it was later, I’d said that I’d call when we were on the way, but the phones were out, so I ended up emailing. Between my low texting skill level, my somewhat lame phone, and my propensity to get car sick if I dare focus my eyes anywhere, this was more arduous than it sounds. I shouldn’t have worried–they were perfectly lovely and we got there just fine.

Basically everyone had more fun than they expected. We took a family skate skiing lesson, which Cute W and I thought was much more fun than classic skiing. The girls had never been on cross country skis before, but since they downhill ski and ice skate, they were pretty well prepared. And, in fact, they did very well. Halfway through the lesson the ski instructor watched M tearing up the hill and murmured, “You have a natural skater there.” J struggled a bit more, and she got a little frustrated by the end of the lesson, but once we started exploring on our own, she was happy again.

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After doing some cross country skiing, the girls tubed for a little bit. They each had their own tube, but shortly after we got started, a 3-year-old and his mom appropriated one of ours, and no one had the heart to try to take it back. I think the girls had a much better time sharing one tube, anyway.

Girls tube Lapland Lake

We were tubing in anticipation of the Scandinavian pole sledding activity. I was confused: I’d conflated the description and told a small crowd of parents that the activity would involve the resident reindeer. I was wrong about that. Basically, there’s an upright pole frozen into the snow, and then they attach another pole that sticks out to form a radius of a large circle with the sled on the end. A grown-up (someone on staff) pushes the pole in a small circle while the kid on the sled flies in a bigger circle.

J pole sled Lapland Lake

They loved the pole sled, although I think M got a little motion-sick. After that we did a quick snowshoe walk, but the girls were eager to get back to skiing.

Honestly, I was faring the worst of all of us. Between being overdressed and exerting myself with my inefficient, first-time-skate-skiing strides, I was literally steaming.  That’s right: literally steaming. The rest of the family found that pretty hilarious. By the end of the day I was hatless & coatless in the objectively super-freezing weather, and I was still a little too warm. Plus, I acquired a blister on each foot, which made each stride a little bit ouchy. Luckily, I’d just finished Unbroken, so when I felt like whining about my feet, I reminded myself that Louis had survived through extended time on a life raft and then in a Japanese POW camp, so maybe I should just suck it up. Things improved later, when I took advantage of the sauna. They have “men only” and “women only” times, so I was on my own, and when I arrived, I was relieved that I was, in fact, alone. I was just a little too sleepy to make awkward chitchat with a naked stranger. But it made me wish that I had a couple of girlfriends or sisters and a bottle of wine. Yeah, you’re probably not allowed to drink wine in the sauna. Well, whatever.

We exhausted ourselves. Cute W took pictures of us, at my request, in the restaurant in the evening. I wanted to capture the cute whine goblets and Christmas lights that had dressed the place up for the evening. Instead, all I could see in those photos were two girls who looked like they might, at any moment, drop their faces into their plates and start snoring.

We went for one last ski on Sunday morning before heading home in time to make football snacks before the Broncos (season-ending) game. It was definitely a bunch of fun. Details here.

ALSO: I’m going to be on WNYT Newchannel 13’s Live at Noon TODAY (Thursday) talking about active winter fun.

The Big Reveal: Basement Edition

I said that we’d decided to upgrade the basement playroom as the girls’ main Christmas gift, mostly because we were interested in doing it eventually and they hadn’t given us any ideas. At one point I’d asked J what present she’d like if she could have some sort of fabulous fantasy, and she said that she’d like to make over her room. So, we decided to give the girls a bit of flexibility so that they could have the fun of deciding what would go where. We bought a cabinet suitable for holding a tv, some new shelves, a pull-up bar, a swing hammock chair, two cool new lamps, some decor items, and paint swatches to show that we were willing to repaint, and we basically piled it all into the mostly-cleared out basement.  An aunt’s gift was cute personalized throw pillows and Grandma and Grandpa provided a new blanket and a family gift of an X-Box (360, on sale because it’s officially outdated), so those worked well with the plan, too. The girls already had bought themselves a variety of turquoise seating over the years, because if it is a fun turquoise home item, the girls want it. Oh, and we lucked out, because Santa Claus delivered us a new tv for the living room. And then he moved the old tv downstairs. And then he hooked both tvs up for us. That man is amazingly magical.

I was honestly a little worried about how this gift would go over. There was not much else the girls were getting, so if they weren’t thrilled, well, Christmas was just going to be a bust this year. On the morning of the 23rd M told me that she’d dreamed we’d gotten a kitty, and I was like, “It’s-not-happening-it’s-not-happening-it’s-not-happening.” But I’ve said that about other things, just to throw them off the trail, and then they’ve gotten those things, so I wasn’t sure if they were convinced.

The girls always write a note to Santa, and Santa wrote back, and this year he explained that he’d brought the tv because he knew that their parents were doing something special in the basement, so that was how we got them to go downstairs and investigate. And then, man, I wish that we had videotaped it, because they both girls were much more excited than we expected. J shrieked repeatedly while running around the room, and M covered her mouth with her hands and turned slowly, looking dazed. They were psyched.

We wanted to get the room together asap, so the girls got to work quickly on choosing a new paint color that would go with the turquoise. Cute W and I kept reminding them that we had almost no natural light. The sunny yellow had worked well for all these years, until the girls started accumulating clashing turquoise furniture, and we were a little worried that we’d turn the place into a dungeon. Pretty quickly they settled on purple, and I eased them to the lighter end of the spectrum. These were the finalists:

paint samples

. . . and our winner was the lightest of these, the third from the left. We were amazingly efficient and got the room done in one day. So here’s a virtual tour. You walk down the stairs and look right:

new lamps and shelf and pillow

The white shelf with baskets is new, from Lowe’s, and on top are two LuvALamps, which you can find at Colonie Center. My friend C tipped me off that J had admired the ones at her house. I wanted at least one lamp down here because guests sometimes sleep on the futon, and they need a reading light. Between the lamps is a really cute “Follow Your Arrow” homage to Kacey Musgraves that we found on Etsy. One of my challenges was to find cultural stuff that both the girls like and that are cool but also positive messages. For example, M & I love Divergent stuff, but J hasn’t read those books yet, while Hunger Games and Taylor Swift stuff are great, but I was worried that my fickle children would think that they were a little too overdone. We were going for slightly less obvious choices and things it hadn’t occurred to them to want because they didn’t realize that they existed. Oh, and you can see the end of the futon with one of the cute new personalized pillows. . .

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. . . and now, the other end of the futon with the other pillow, and one of the most sought-after items: a pull-up bar. We’ve been wanting a pull-up bar for ages, but our house isn’t very cooperative. Most pull-up bars are made to fit in doorways, but our old-fashioned doorways won’t hold them. Years ago, Cute W bought one and gave up on hanging it, and then the girls pooled Target gift cards to buy one more recently, but we couldn’t hang it. For the last week or two before Christmas, J said, “The only things I really, really want for Christmas are a pull-up bar and some chocolate.” So Cute W did some major research and finally found something that would work. Yes, if you are an adult who pulls up vigorously and high, you can hit your head on the ceiling panels, but it works. The red poster is “Keep Calm and DFTBA [Don’t Forget To Be Awesome]”–Cute W often reminds the girls DFTBA as they head out to school. And, when M saw it, she said, “Wow! Did you have to special order that?” The answer is no: there’s actually a whole online DFTBA shop.  The girls had already acquired the springy chair and poof chairs in their quest for All Things Turquoise.

Look a bit more to the left and you’ll see the super-awesome hammock swing, which we all really like.

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The girls have often admired hanging chairs in catalogs, but this one is much cheaper, at less than $40, plus the colors went well with everything else. Once they saw it, they reminded us that they’d been drooling over similar swings while we were window-shopping during a camping trip over the summer. Yeah, okay. . . I’d completely forgotten about that. Farther to the left is the American Girl doll area, which is still going strong in our otherwise grown-up-looking playroom.

And, this is the last picture to complete the circle–the space to the left of the American Girl stuff (you can actually see the Bitty Baby changing table), and the rocker is right next to the stairs to go up again.

TV cabinet and rocker

Our “new” tv from the living room is sitting on a fabulous cabinet from Target. The tv cabinet was a tough one, too, because you need a substantial piece of furniture to keep your tv secure, but most substantial pieces of furniture look too grown-up for me, much less for this room. We were actually standing at Target weighing our options when I noticed a little occasional table in turquoise. I mourned that it just wasn’t steady enough to hold a tv, and oh, wasn’t that too bad, and that’s when we realized that some of the items in stock came in other finishes online! Oh, happy day!  This was mere days before Christmas, but it miraculously arrived in time to be assembled (hooray for Cute W) in time for Christmas morning. Of course, this particular turquoise table clashes with the turquoise of the rocker when they’re so close together, but I wasn’t in charge of arranging the room. The rocker/ottoman is the faded denim one, with the addition of some fabric from JoAnn’s that I hot-glue-gunned into place. It looks much nicer this way, and it really wasn’t too hard to do. It helped that I was pretty much ready to throw the rocker away, so I didn’t feel like I could “ruin” it. The doorway here leads to the dress-up clothes, blocks, craft supplies, and other fun stuff, which is no longer cluttering up the main room. There’s also a Leslie Knope poster: we all love Parks & Recreation and Leslie Knope/Amy Poehler, who is, as the poster says, “A Pawnee Goddess and Freakin’ Awesome.” And, above the rocker, there’s a phases-of-the-moon poster that’s an annual gift from Grandma & Grandpa.

So! It was a huge success! The room is definitely more of a hangout place than ever before, and it’s a pretty good workout room, now, too, because there’s plenty of space, a pull-up bar, and the tv in case you have workout DVDs. It gets a bit chilly, so we have a space heater, but I predict that in the summertime heat, the whole family is likely to gravitate downstairs just to hang around. It also felt good to get things that everyone can use and share for a long time instead of the kits/toys/supplies that are sometimes popular and sometimes completely ignored, or things that are fun once for a few hours, and then it’s over.

Tony, Help Me Out

Amid all of the shortbread baking and de-cluttering, I went into a minor panic on December 23rd when I couldn’t find a bunch of gifts. I don’t know about you, but in the month before Christmas, I’m constantly squirreling things away into various hiding spots around my house. I might put a ton of thought into camouflaging something huge while the kids are away at school, grab an arriving package out of their hot little hands and tossed it up high, or wedge a shopping bag somewhere as I’m walking into the house. And then, at some point, I have to find all of that stuff again. A few days before Christmas, I wanted to wrap a present for each girl to put under the tree, but I couldn’t find M’s. And then I couldn’t the next day. Or the next day.

In fact, on Christmas Eve Eve, it began to dawn on me that, along with M’s biggish one, I couldn’t find several other small presents. I checked all of my spots, and then Cute W checked everywhere, and then I checked it all again. I was progressing from bemused through stumped and straight into freaked. What the hell? Was I going to have to shop for this stuff again? It was too late to order from Amazon Prime! This was ridiculous.

At this point, you might wonder why I hadn’t yet done what any normal, reasonable person who’s searching for something would do, and it’s kind of a funny story.

Well, first of all, the normal, reasonable thing to do in this situation would be to pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

St. Anthony and I go way back. When I mentioned this story to a sister, she recited a rhyme from our Grandma, which was something like Uncle Tony, look around/Something’s lost & must be found. I grew up praying to St. Anthony when something was lost, and I still do it today (like when I lost my diamond). This always makes Cute W roll his eyes, because he doesn’t believe in, well, pretty much anything.

In fact, one of my favorite vacation stories is when Cute W and I went scuba diving. On the boat out, he chatted up one of our guides. Among other topics, she mentioned that she’d just completed a special search-and-rescue scuba diving course. Forty-five minutes later, we were all underwater as Cute W gestured to his empty ring finger: in the ocean chill, his wedding ring had slipped right off. Our guide signed that she’d keep looking, and not much later she popped from the surface, triumphant. Cute W asked, “So, did you use any of your new search-and-rescue techniques?” as he slid the ring back on his finger, and she laughed: “Nope! I just prayed to St. Anthony!” I felt like high-fiving her.

So, why hadn’t I asked Uncle Tony yet? Because I was expecting a St. Anthony medal to arrive at my house that very day. Yep: my nephew had asked for one for Christmas after his old one fell into the garbage disposal (note: he didn’t lose it, he just couldn’t reach it anymore).

anthonyKnowing that the medal would arrive at any time, I felt like I should hold my prayers until I had the medal in-hand. Wouldn’t that make my prayer more powerful? It seemed like it.

But as the day passed, I became increasingly desperate, and I finally went ahead and prayed. Within the hour, I noticed that large box that I’d strategically hidden in plain sight in our storage area. Something bulky had arrived in it, but there was plenty of extra space, so I’d consolidated a bunch of smaller gifts into the box. Then I’d put it somewhere that everyone could see, but I made it so inconvenient that I’d bargained that no one would bother with it. Here, it’s the long cardboard box that’s balanced weirdly for no good reason:

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Hooray! The box was found and Christmas would continue on schedule! Thank you, Tony!

 

Update on the Pre-Holiday Frenzy

I know. It’s been forever. First we were busy with Christmas and visiting relatives in Vermont. And Cute W’s been home from work, so we’ve been on extended vacation mode. We’ve been doing things like learning how to play our new cooperative game, Forbidden Desert, binge-watching Modern Family, and testing which chocolate chips produce the best results when combined with the homemade mint ice cream from my new ice cream maker.

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It’s some pretty serious business, people. It feels a bit like we were sucked into a time vortex for a while, but I believe that that can occur if the entire family wears pajamas into the afternoon. Sadly, it’s back to reality for everyone tomorrow, but with this ridiculous sloppy weather, I feel pretty confident that there won’t be much venturing out for today, at least.

From the above description, you might have the idea that we’ve been complete slobs, but that’s not true. You’ll remember that prior to Christmas, we were de-cluttering, and that effort has continued. For example, now that we’re well into the 21st century, we’ve said good-bye to mountains of cassette tapes.

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I also tossed out a massive pile of tri-folds full of (mostly M’s) scholarly work. I’m sharing this as a tip, actually, to those of you with younger kids. What I should have done was to take photographs of these presentations immediately upon completion, then recycled them about a month after they came home. Then I would have a record of all of that fine work in mint condition, and I’d still have closet space. Instead, we stockpiled these little gems long enough for the glued pieces to detach, the paper to tear, and, in some cases, for mold to form. By the time I took photos last week, much of the splendor had faded.

But finding this Learning Fair project form when M was in third grade made me chuckle:

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Third grade! My small girl had attended several fairs and observed other kids showing off their pets or their drum sets, displaying American Girls and LEGO creations, and surreptitiously handing out M&Ms, but she was determined to do a cheerless report on Japanese internment during World War II, complete with stark black & white photographs. I’d encouraged her to dress it up with some props (maybe luggage with the few belongings she’d take if someone decided to intern her?) or an interactive quiz or some colorful borders, but she had a plan, and it was all about the facts. Maybe because it seemed more grown-up? I don’t know, but she had a plan, and she learned, dammit. So cute.

Anyway, all of this de-cluttering was in service to our big Christmas plan. Neither girl had given us many ideas for Christmas gifts, and a couple of ideas that were offered were rejected (a puppy and a kitty were mentioned frequently). The girls are tough. Neither of them actually wear earrings or other accessories very often, they don’t like frills or make-up products, and I’ve realized, over time, that when I get them kits, the kits stay tucked away on a shelf unless I take charge and do the activity with them. In the past, they’ve paged through catalogs (I’m a big internet shopper, so I get tons of catalogs), but I feel like when they circle those, they’re pretty much just manufacturing “needs” out of nowhere, and that’s frustrating. So we were pretty stumped.

We decided to go with a basement playroom re-do. The girls have long enjoyed our playroom, from way-back-when it included a play kitchen as well as for long hours of Barbie play.

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The girls have pared down their toys quite a bit, but there are still plenty down there: blocks, American Girl dolls and accessories, craft supplies and more. But they’re getting older, and we’ve been meaning to make a shift to a more tween-to-teen style hangout. Plus, we thought it would be great to have a tv down there. Our house is pretty small, and with the designated homework spot in the dining room, it can be annoying when one daughter’s still doing homework and the other daughter has a small window of tv-vegetation time before heading off to some practice or other.

We decided to focus our Christmas gift-buying efforts on playroom decor that would make the room seem more fun. In order to make room for new stuff and let the room look more grown-up without denying the girls the toys that they still love, we set to work on one of the storage areas, trashing old stuff so that it could become a walk-in toy closet. And meanwhile, we attempted to act like we were just de-cluttering for the heck of it so that it would be a surprise.

It was tricky. For example, I’d faux-casually ask the girls how they felt about certain things in the room to gauge whether they could be trashed. One tough one was our glider and ottoman, left over from when I was pregnant with M. The upholstery was pretty trashed (here’s the ottoman):

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Cozy, but ugly, and all in a faded, splotched denim blue that didn’t work with all of the turquoise furniture the girls had acquired over the years.  In fact, I mentioned just over a year ago that the girls kept buying trendy turquoise furniture that didn’t match the yellow playroom walls.

But, back to the glider and ottoman. M wanted it gone because it’s so ugly, but J strongly wanted to keep it, or to keep the ottoman, at least. I sighed and said that I wasn’t going to keep just the ottoman without the rocker, and we were at a bit of a stalemate. So I had to get creative with that one.

The glider issue is funny, though, because I remember that when we bought it, we went with the denim upholstery because it seemed the most non-nursery-neutral. I had the idea, as we plunked down the cash, that once the kids were beyond the rocker stage, we’d move it into our living room or something. Because a rocker is the sort of thing that grown-ups have in their living room. Which means that 13 years ago, I was still under the delusion that something magical would happen that would make me fundamentally change my perspective on everything from its current state to that of a grown-up. I thought that some sort of chemical balance would shift that would make me become a person who wants to sit in a rocker instead of slobbing all over the loveseat we’ve owned for more than twenty years. It’s having children grow up, I guess, that’s made me realize that I’m never going to feel like a “grown-up” grown-up, like the ones I knew when I was a kid. Right now I feel like a 20-something matryoshka doll encased in an outer shell that someone’s painted with stray grey hairs and squinting lines, and at some point, we’ll both be trapped inside a shell with saggy breasts and hot flashes, and my children will have no idea that the real me is still trapped in the damn thing.

Oh, well.

Speaking of which, on my last grocery trip before Christmas, I noticed that Hannaford was getting people ready for hardcore family quality time:

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That’s right: flasks! I resisted. I’m afraid of flasks, actually, and have been ever since I foolishly took a sip of something from my sister-in-law’s date’s flask at Cute W’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding. It was shortly after college, and I had a pretty high tolerance, but after that fateful sip (chug, maybe?), things quickly turned ugly.

Okay! So the basement playroom’s done, and I’ll have a “reveal” post, along with whether the kids were okay with some redecoration instead of a kitten, coming soon.

Shortbread=Life

Last night I was pressing shortbread dough into molds, Cute W was applying orange frosting to blue cupcakes in preparation for Monday Night Football, and we were catching up on news of the day. Cute W said, “A girl I went to high school died. I didn’t know her well. Cancer.” I gave a little sympathy moan.

“Yeah,” he said. “Carpe diem.”

Now, I hate that. Don’t tell me to seize the day when I’m in the middle of doing something that’s unbelievably mundane.

“Well,” I harrumphed. “If shortbread is the meaning of life, then I’ve got it all wrapped up.”

I’ve been making quite a bit of shortbread lately. It’s one of many Christmas recipes that’s a must-have holiday tradition each year (here are links to more of them). I made my first batch because we must have a multitude of cookies in tins at Christmas. That’s just how we roll. And then I remembered that I used to always give Mary her own whole shortbread, and I couldn’t shortchange Gene on his first Christmas without her, so I dragged the molds out again. And then yesterday, M arrived home with candies, a hat, and other goodies gifted by her friends. I’d asked her about gifts for friends before, and she’d pooh-poohed the idea, but I saw an opening now:

“Don’t you want to reciprocate?”

“That depends,” she said. “What does reciprocate mean?” We ended up settling on wedges of shortbread tied up with pretty ribbons. And so I’d clambered up to the cabinet above our refrigerator again to haul the molds out. The first two times this month I’d brought them out, I’d caused a small bakery-item avalanche from that cabinet. I was lamenting to J that I was silly to even bother putting the molds away again before Christmas. Each time I use them, washing up is meticulous, because little smidgens of crust like to linger in the mold’s details. This year I had the brainstorm to scrub it with our mushroom brush, so that’s an improvement. But then they have to dry and get put into their special boxes and set up and out of reach.

“Why don’t you put them someplace easier to reach?” J asked.

“Well, once Christmas is over, they’ll be tucked away until next year,” I explained. She made it clear that she thought I should keep them handy for the foreseeable future.

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So, as I pressed dough into a mold for the sixth time this season and pondered other items on my to-do list, it sure as heck felt like I wasn’t seizing the particular day. I consoled myself with the thought:

What if the meaning of life is, indeed, shortbread?

It’s a piece of history from my childhood that I’m passing on to my children.

It’s just a few simple ingredients–butter, sugar, flour, vanilla–put together to make something that feels like a little bit of perfection.

It’s easy to make–with a mixer I can crank out the dough almost without thinking. But it turns out best with some care and attention.

When I first purchased the special shortbread molds, it felt like an investment, and now I can’t imagine not having them all of these years.

It feels like I get better at making shortbread every year, but there’s always a risk. When I flip one of those half-cooled ceramic pans over, there’s that dramatic pause while I hope that all will be well. And there’s almost always one spot that’s just a bit crumbly, so the best I’ve achieved is almost perfect.

This fancy picture is from Brown Bag
This fancy picture is from Brown Bag Cookie Molds

When the shortbread comes out, it is a crisp and golden thing of beauty. Delicious? Of course. But if you take the time to really observe, that ordinary, yummy shortbread is a thing of splendor. I first bought my shortbread molds many years ago, and when I saw the intricate designs,  it reminded me of the details in the cathedral where I used to give tours. I’d lead puffing tourists up winding stairways into the arcade below the rose window and advise them to look into the shadowed corners rarely seen. There, too, were intricate carvings, and in the tour I’d liken them to the gorgeous colors and spirals one might find deep in the ocean, more evidence of the Grace of the universe, present even when we’re not present to observe it. With the shortbread’s delicate botanical whorls and ridges, its images of thistles and flowers, it makes baking feel like efflorescence.

So I wiped down counters and washed dishes and considered that continuing this family history, investing effort and patience for something good that I can share, finding beauty in all that is ordinary. . . could my drudgery possibly be considered seizing the day? Maybe? I don’t know.

But, in any case, if shortbread is life, life is sweet.

 

 

 

 

 

Pickled Pumpkins

Among the many, many foods we ate during our Thanksgiving, we tried something new: pickled pumpkins. My sister had made them, and she offered them up as an appetizer, placed on a lettuce leaf with a bit of cheese and gussied up with pumpkin seeds and a fancy-pants pomegranate syrup that she made from reduced juice. At the time I was too busy eating to take a picture, but I recreated something similar later:

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Those pickled pumpkins were good. And what’s weird is that I don’t actually like pumpkins under normal circumstances. But these were strange and delicious at the same time: spicy and sweet, and especially great with a little Romano cheese for contrast. She got the recipe from AllRecipes.com. Cute W was a huge fan, too.

We were psyched when my sister gifted us with a jar to take home. Except that I put it into my carry-on because I was afraid of breaking the glass, and it didn’t occur to me that all of those cubes of pumpkin were swimming in just enough vinegar to make a bomb. Or so the TSA feared. I refused to abandon those lovely little autumnal jewels, so the rest of the family sat waiting while I backtracked, drained the jar of pickling liquid, and got back in line. A woman with a little boy was near me in line, and he was clearly curious about the lonely woman who was flying with only a jar full of orange stuff. Now, personally, I’d never heard of eating pickled pumpkins before, but when I explained my predicament to the boy and his mother, she said, “Oh! Pickled pumpkins! I love them. Absolutely worth going through the line again.”

Yep, she was right.

 

Ready for Christmas?

I’ve been wavering between feeling downright euphoric (I’ve actually squealed at the piles of boxes waiting for me to open and squirrel away, and I was super-excited when I scooped up something the girls will like thanks to my oh-so-clever friend C) and going into a minor panic at what I haven’t done yet.

Did I tell you about what happened last year? We were at our Christmas Eve church service when J leaned over and said, “I wonder what Santa’s going to get for Madison.” Madison. You know, our goldfish. As far as I was aware, Santa had made no provisions for Madison the Goldfish at all. Which is ridiculous, because he always gets some things for Isis the Cat. So, on Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, I headed out to Target hoping to find some fake kelp in the pet section. So, first? Whatever you and I might think about Target on every other day of the year, Target at 10 pm on Christmas Eve is an utterly joyless place. It’s a bunch of disorganized, stressed-out people and children who should have been in bed long ago. Plus, the fish offerings in the pet section consisted of fish food. Nothing festive. Santa ended up picking out some window gels to put on the tank. Hopefully Madison enjoyed that. J thought it was cute. Anyway, I feel pretty confident that Santa was clever enough to hit the pet store hard and early this year, so that’s one less worry.

Holiday preparation-wise, today was not my most successful. I had two main items on the to-do list. First, send off a package to Grandma, then head to the (gasp!) mall in search of just a little something more for one of my daughters. Have I mentioned that my daughters have given me almost zero ideas? It hasn’t been helpful. M started by asking for a phone and a dog. That’s not happening, and she most downgraded to a kitty. I’ve pointed out that the reason that we own our cat is because she couldn’t get along with the other feline at her previous adoptive home. J started with “I don’t know” and has most recently declared that she only wants a pull-up bar and some chocolate. Our small, old house doesn’t appear to have a single doorway in which a pull-up bar can be installed. But I bet she’ll score some chocolate.

Anyway, Cute W drove our new Rogue to work so that he could bring home the large-ish gift that had been delivered to his office, which left me with his car.  So my first challenge was that I couldn’t find the damn keys. I’ve been so spoiled by the Rogue. I just need to have the keys somewhere in the general vicinity, and I love that feature. It didn’t seem like that big a deal when we bought the car, but it has changed my life. Except not this morning. Eventually I found the keys, but by the time I got to the counter with my package, I realized that I didn’t have my wallet with me. I’d dumped it out of my bag while I was searching for the keys.  Then I was told the package probably wouldn’t arrive by Christmas. Well, good effort.

Then it was off to the mall. Cute W had driven away with the GPS stored in the Rogue, too. I’m sure that you remember that I am crippled by a complete lack of directional-sensing abilities. So much so that I’d looked up and written down the directions to the mall. On a sheet paper that was cast aside during my frantic search for keys. Well, I reasoned, surely I could make it to the mall. I’ve lived in the area for 12 years, and I’ve been there many, many times. Yes, well. My ability to get lost is well-nigh heroic. If getting lost were a superpower, I’d totally be wearing a cape right now. I ended up having to park at a random Hannaford to run in to the bathroom and check the GPS on my phone. Tragic.

By the time I made it to the mall, there was a big flashing sign suggesting that I might drive to a different entrance, but I’d barely made it to the ramp I’d found, so I ignored that.  The parking lot was a horror show. I was way too hesitant for some mad-dog shopper who blared her horn into me as I hesitated between near-left and far-left lane. Being at the mall was a bit like visiting a wake as I mourned the loss of M’s favorite store (Delia’s) and J’s favorite store (Ruum). There was so much inventory that I wished I had the girls with me to do some serious shopping, but anytime that they’re free is a time when the mall is likely to be even more crowded, and as you can tell, I barely made it through my trip on a weekday morning, so. . . no. Maybe we’ll try after Christmas. Anyway, purchases were made. Also, chocolate was acquired. I managed to get things home and hidden away before J was home. Which means that I’ve swung, once again, from despair to optimism. Maybe I’ll get it all done.

Hope you’re all ready.

De-cluttering

I’ve been de-cluttering. I know: you thought I might be running around shopping or decking halls or some such, but cleaning out some storage is Christmas-gift-related. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

But I’ve been uncovering treasures and not-quite-treasures. It was a pretty epic purge, if I do say so myself. In one time capsule, I unearthed ribbons from a preschool gymnastics meet (blue for first, natch), a junior prom souvenir wine glass, and (wait for it:) my first bra. All went into the garbage. . . impressive, no? Those were the easy ones. Tougher to send into recycling were multiple notebooks full of history and French from undergraduate and graduate school. I got rid of about 85% of it. At one point I was hesitating at the recycle bin, but then I saw one of my papers from graduate school. The grade was a B, and I’m not kidding: immediately I flushed with a little bit of rage and a big dose of shame. I could feel my heart beating more quickly. And so I tossed it, and everything else from that class. Phew! That felt good. But here’s some stuff that I’m keeping:

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Wow. I had no idea that we’d gone to Chuck E. Cheese so often! Especially surprising since it’s one of my least favorite destinations ever. But there’s something  mesmerizing and magical about that draw-you-a-picture machine, isn’t there? I think that we will keep these forever.

 

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This picture requires some notes.  It’s from November of 2007, so M was 5, and she meticulously drew all of the items on my grocery list while we walked around Hannaford. Afterward I did my best to label what was what on the back side of the paper. In the top right you’ll  see a smiling M. To her left, in the top middle, are two bananas. The bottom-left circle with 4 circles inside represents oranges, and just above and to the right is a little rectangle with a cow on it: that’s butter.  By this time I had J, too, and I was a more experienced mama, so I realized that labeling for Future Memories was a good idea. It’s a bummer looking at the old pictures and they’re basically two smudges–like, what the heck was that?

And here’s where you can tell that I needed a writing outlet: I documented our early sibling struggles in a preface to a compilation of sticker charts that I had created for M.

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That’s right: each of these smiley faces represents a day in which M refrained from smacking J upside the head or grabbing J’s stuff from right out of her hands. Let’s just say, every day was not a sticker day. But it worked for a while, at least.

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Speaking of the poor, abused younger sister, what about J’s stuff? We have so much stuff for M, the first daughter (and first granddaughter on her Dad’s side). Did we save anything of J’s?

Nope.

Aw, c’mon! You know I’m kidding. Here are two well-documented pieces from a particularly formative time in the artist’s development, what I like to call her The Sun Looks Like A Spider period:

 

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On the right, you’ll see a portrait of me holding J’s hand. A portion of this work of art has been torn away, and while there exists hearsay evidence that it’s because another resident artist used the space to scrawl, “I hat you!” However, this cannot be proven, since the ripped-off paper is not extant. On the left, you’ll see the artist’s very first attempt at writing her name.

Speaking of formative artistic periods, this painting is an early work by another up-and-coming young artist:

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This piece is by my little brother, John Szlasa, who got an MA in Fine Arts from Yale and will soon be appearing in the American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitational Exhibition. In case you aren’t familiar with the Academy, this is an unbelievably big deal. A seriously huge honor. As in, possibly I should pull this out of the cardboard box that it was in with my moldy 7th grade Home Ec cross stitch (trashed), because if I keep it in climate control and find the right buyer, maybe we can retire, living on this!  And in case you think I don’t know art when I see it, I do have five of his other paintings hanging around the house–I’d forgotten about this one.

We had tons of cards, and I think this one may get tossed, but I wanted to point out the adorable mouse choir singing in front of a penis house:

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Wait, what? You don’t see it? Maybe I’m getting a little punchy from inhaling mold spores.

Ah, and finally, never to be tossed:

 

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The cache of letters between Cute W and me when we were both abroad for a semester. Those were the days before email, folks. One of the girls started to take an interest in these, and I successfully maneuvered them away from her, saying that they were probably full of mush. I have no idea, really: I haven’t read them in at least twenty years. And I didn’t open any of them for fear of getting sucked in. I have too many other boxes to sort.