About Steph

Your author, part-time, work-at-home writer.

Find Your Girl

Last week on Thursday evening toward the end of basketball practice, June’s coach divided the team into halves and they played a brief scrimmage. “Find your girl!” he yelled, encouraging them to stay near the opposing players they were supposed to be guarding.

I was sitting on a bench with Kerry, Megan’s mom, chatting with her and enjoying the chance to watch the Pandas practice and to relax a little near the end of a busy week. We’d had three inches of snow early Tuesday morning, which led to a snow day that day and two-hour delay on Wednesday. It had been my first normal workday in a few days and I was feeling a little harried, but I was looking forward to Saturday because the Pandas would be playing their first game of the season, and we had other plans as well.

Saturday morning we arrived at the parking lot of the school where the game would be played around 9:40. Mike, the coach, and Maggie, his daughter, fellow Panda (and one of June’s oldest friends) were getting out of their car. “Hooray! It’s June!” Maggie cried. Clearly she was excited about the game, too.

After incarnations as the Purple Pandas (kindergarten), the Red Pandas (first grade), and the Golden Pandas (second grade), June’s basketball team is the Blue Pandas this year. Most of the girls are returning players, though there are two newcomers. We lost our star player from the previous three seasons because she’s playing on a fourth grade team this year with her sister to streamline her family’s hectic schedule. (They have four girls and I think they’re all in organized sports.) It’s possible this girl may have scored half the baskets in all of Panda history, and I suspect this might be a rebuilding season.

It will be different in other ways, too. They’re playing in a middle school gym this year instead of an elementary school gym, which means instead of sitting on the floor or standing, parents watch from the relative luxury of bleachers. Now that they’re in third grade there’s official scorekeeping for the first time and some rules are more strictly enforced (Mike worked hard reviewing the concept of travelling at practice).

One new rule we didn’t know about ahead of time was that the girls can’t wear any jewelry on the court. June’s been wearing a necklace with a tiny dolphin on it for months, maybe as long as a year. She never takes it off. The clasp at the back was completely wound up in hair that had gotten tangled around it and wasn’t even visible. It was starting to remind me of Victorian hair jewelry, but right now it was presenting us with an unexpected problem. Could we get it off before the game started? Beth tried to saw the hair with her keys but it didn’t work. We asked around to see if anyone had a penknife, but the closest we could get was a set of nail clippers. Thanks, Kerry! Finally, Beth got the hair off the clasp and removed the necklace. Meanwhile, two girls with newly pierced ears fretted about whether or not to take out their earrings, which were not supposed to be removed. One girl took hers out and covered the holes with Band Aids to ward off infection and the other girl secured one-time permission to leave hers in her ears.

Once that excitement was over, there was a short practice period. I saw June make a basket, but I missed seeing her get hit on the nose with a ball. I only saw her crying and Mike putting his arm around her shoulder and comforting her. She recovered quickly enough to play in the first quarter.

When it was time to play the teams were lined up and each girl was assigned a player to guard. I was glad to see there was a girl almost as small as June on the other team (the Red Warriors) and that she and June were paired with each other. The Warriors scored almost immediately and Beth predicted, “They’re going to lose.” I thought it was a little soon to say and sure enough the Pandas scored two or three times before the Warriors scored again. At the end of the first quarter the score was 6-6. June’s counterpart was fast and a good passer and Mike had to remind June, “Find your girl” a few times until June started sticking closer to her.

June sat out the second quarter and played again in the third. She said later she liked this arrangement, getting to play and then rest and then play and then rest. The Pandas didn’t score after the first quarter and lost the game 12-6, but it felt closer than that. There were a lot of baskets that teetered on the rim and ended up falling the wrong way. I didn’t see quite as well thought out and strategic passing as the Pandas had last year, and as Mike pointed out at the next practice they weren’t hustling for the rebounds, but it’s early in the season. They play until early March this year, so there will be plenty of time for them to gel as a team. I am looking forward to watching that.

After the game June was hungry and wanted an early lunch at California Tortilla. It’s in the same shopping center with a Starbucks and a Trader Joe’s and we needed to pick up some mac and cheese anyway, so we headed over there and got quesadillas and coffee— I tried the new Flat White, which is kind of between a cappuccino and a latte in terms of foam—and more than $50 worth of groceries because that’s what happens when you go into Trader Joe’s for mac and cheese, or it’s what happens to us anyway.

Back at home, I helped Noah study for his science and English midterms for a couple hours and then Beth and June and I went to the community center to hear a storytelling presentation. One of the storytellers was Noa Baum, whose CD (Far Away and Close to Home) Noah loved when he was younger and June loves now. In fact, when we invited Noah to come, too, he wavered and almost decided to come, too, before opting to stay home and practice his bells and drums. I think he would have enjoyed it because in addition to an Anansi story I hadn’t heard before (Noah used to be a big Anansi fan), she also told both kids’ favorite story from the CD, about a clever turkey who defeats the rich man who steals a gold piece from him. June, who had been listening intently all along, lit up when she started in on that one.

We came home and had a quick dinner. I reheated leftovers for Beth and myself while Noah made the mac and cheese for June and himself because Beth and I were going to a movie, which we don’t do nearly enough, especially considering we don’t even need a to get a sitter anymore. But it was the day before our wedding anniversary, so that spurred us to go on a date.

We went to see The Imitation Game on my mother’s recommendation. Toward the beginning of the film, during the first boarding school flashback, Beth’s phone vibrated and she went out into the lobby to answer it. I could hear her saying, “What’s up, Noah?” as she went through the doors. She was gone a good ten minutes, which was confusing, because I thought if it was an emergency she would have run back in for her coat and we would have been out of there, but if it wasn’t an emergency I thought she’d tell him it could wait.

When she finally came back, I whispered, “Was it an emergency?”

“A minor emergency,” she whispered back. June had a splinter in her foot and Beth had been trying to calm her down and then talking Noah through the removal process. It was the first time he’s ever taken a splinter out of someone else and he did a good job staying calm, but then again calm is his default setting (not unlike Alan Turing, though it seems unlikely Noah will break a code and help win a war).

I tried to remember the parts Beth had missed and to fill her in as they became relevant later in the film, which was very well acted and moving, I thought. Even with the small crisis at home, it was a fun evening.

The next day was our actual anniversary. We exchanged practical gifts. I got Beth a new case for her phone, because she needed one and she got me swim goggles and an umbrella, because I needed those. In the afternoon I made a cake, the same cake we had at both our commitment ceremony twenty-three years ago and our wedding two years ago. In her card I wrote, “Thank you for making my middle age much less terrible,” because we’d recently discussed this article from the Post.

It was another hectic week. Two more two-hour delays (one for ice, upcounty I guess—I didn’t see any here, and another one for a dusting of snow) cut into my workdays. I was so hurried getting dinner ready before June’s violin lesson on Monday afternoon that I didn’t answer the phone call that would have told me it was cancelled and we waited at the bus stop in a cold rain to go to the music school and only to turn around and go straight back home. Wednesday I had a book club meeting and I couldn’t get the book read in time, which was frustrating.

Still even with these irritants, I know my week, my middle age, and my life is a lot less terrible than it would have been if I hadn’t found my girl.

A Merry Little Christmas

Christmas Eve

We spent Christmas at home again for the second year in a row. The kids’ first day off school was Christmas Eve, so after dentist appointments for both of them, we had lunch at Maggiano’s, a cavernous and ornately decorated Italian restaurant in the city. Then we went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at AFI. Though I didn’t have an opinion beforehand, afterward I wished we’d seen Miracle on 34th Street instead because it would have been easier to for June to follow. Nonetheless, everyone did enjoy the film. Beth and I used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year for a stretch from our mid-twenties to our early thirties and possibly not since then. I find it reads differently, more darkly and also more richly, when you’ve reached middle age yourself.

If it had been up to me, we would have just eaten our ample lunch leftovers for dinner and skipped cooking because I had a lot of wrapping and other last minute Christmas chores, but June had specifically requested chili, cornbread, and homemade applesauce for Christmas Eve dinner and she wanted to stick with that plan, so we did. After dinner we watched Christmas is Here Again, put June to bed, and I got to work.

Christmas

The kids were awake and whispering well before six, when they were allowed to get out of bed and open their stockings. When Beth asked June later what she’d been thinking about while she waited, she said she wondered what Santa had written in his thank you note for the gingerbread cookie and carrot we left him, so I was glad I’d remembered to ask Beth to write one while I wrapped presents and stuffed stockings.

Beth and I rolled out of bed at 6:45 and we commenced the present opening, without making the kids wait for us to eat breakfast, though I did make some peppermint tea for myself. June had proposed a new method of opening gifts. In my family everyone opens gifts one at a time, in a youngest-to-oldest rotation, but Beth’s family has everyone opening gifts at the same time. Having only done Christmas as a foursome once before, we have no set protocol. June wanted to take turns but to have everyone open all of his or her gifts in one turn. Beth tested June’s dedication to this idea by asking if she’d be willing to do it oldest to youngest and to everyone’s surprise she said yes, so we did it that way. (She must have really wanted to do this because she also let Noah have his choice of Christmas special on Christmas Eve, as a bargaining chip.) I think it might have taken as long to negotiate how we were going to open the gifts—over the course of a couple days—as to actually open them.

I won’t list all the gifts, but there were many books all around and gift certificates. Fancy teas and sweets were also popular. Noah got a pasta machine, a game, new lined Crocs, and a microphone. June got ice skates, a basketball, a doll dress-making kit, a set of CDs with stories about classical composers, and dog and sled set for her American Girl doll. After opening presents, June and I made cranberry-chocolate chip-walnut pancakes from a new cookbook she ordered from Scholastic.

I’d gotten Beth a mix for cheese dip and she wanted to make it for lunch but we didn’t have any cream cheese so I asked if anyone wanted to go for a walk and when no one did (I was pretty sure of this outcome ahead of time), I walked to the grocery store to get some to surprise her. It was pleasant to be outside on a secret errand, listening to Christmas music on my iPod.

I spent a good bit of the afternoon reading to both kids—The Long Winter to June and The Rogue Knight (a Christmas book) to Noah. Then it was time to make Christmas dinner. We had another tofu roast because June liked the one we had at Thanksgiving so well, plus stuffing, sweet potatoes, creamed kale, cranberry sauce, sparkling cranberry-apple juice, and Dutch apple pie—purchased from a fifth grader at June’s bus stop for their class trip fundraiser. (June will be in fifth grade before you know it and what goes around comes around.)

It was an enjoyable day, but it felt too short. I’d hoped to take a nap, or to have a long soak in the bath, or to read one of my Christmas books. It would be three days after Christmas before I even opened one, but then over the course of three days I read all of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, and it was worth the wait.

Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve

The day after Christmas we drove to Wheeling for a five-day visit with Beth’s mom and extended family. We stayed at a hotel but June spent the first two nights of our stay at YaYa’s house (she made her breakfast in bed one morning) and Noah spent the next two, so they each got some one-one-one grandmother time.

There were two family gatherings—one night Beth’s cousin Sean made Indian curries for a crowd (June played “Jingle Bells” for everyone that night and we contributed homemade gingerbread cookies) and another night Beth’s mom made spinach lasagna. Beth took June skating and I took her swimming in the hotel pool three times (once for almost two hours). We went to the playground and YaYa took June to church and to see Annie at a theater and watched Maleficent with her at home. Beth and the kids played Noah’s new game and the kids bought books at a local bookstore with gift certificates they got from Beth’s aunt Carole. I spent a lot of time the first couple days we were in Wheeling working on an outside (i.e. not for my sister) editing job, but once that was finished I had more time to read and relax. Noah also worked, doing long packets in preparation for upcoming county exams in geometry and Spanish.

One morning a friend of Beth’s mom took us on a tour of the Victorian mansion-turned-retirement home where she lives so we could see all the Christmas trees and decorations. There were at least a dozen trees, all with different themes. YaYa liked the snowman tree best. It had a snowman head for a topper, mittens coming out of the sides, snowman decorations, and two oversized boots underneath. June liked the angel tree and Noah liked the candy cane tree. (We got samples there.) It’s a really lovely facility, but one odd effect of the tour was that when I read a story in the Atwood collection that takes place in an upscale retirement home, of course I was picturing it taking place there, and as something truly awful happens in the story, that was a bit disturbing.

We also drove through the light display at Oglebay Park. Our old favorites—the candy cane wreath, the twelve days of Christmas, and the jumping horse were there of course, but there were also new displays-one of the tunnels had multi-colored lights that crawled across it and some of the huge evergreens had new lights—blue streaking ones and pretty white and gold ones. When we passed the lights that spell “Joy,” I said, “Look! It says ‘June.’” This is a family joke based on the time June was two and thought every word that started with J was her name, including this very light display.

Noah, who’d had a bad headache in the afternoon and taken a two hour, forty-minute nap, was quiet on the drive, not reading the brochure and playing tour guide as he usually does. Toward the end, he started to feel poorly again. We went back to YaYa’s house and he ate a banana and crawled back to bed. The rest of us ate leftover lasagna and then June and I went up to the bedroom where Noah was resting and I read an Edgar and Ellen book to both of them so he’d have some company.

I’d been reading about a lot of friends and kids of friends who’ve had the flu lately on Facebook, and Beth wasn’t feeling so hot either so I feared the worst, but the next day Noah seemed recovered and Beth, while tired and queasy, at least wasn’t violently ill. This was our last day in Wheeling and it was more low-key than the rest. We mostly hung around YaYa’s house.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

We drove home the next day, arriving home around 4:30 on New Year’s Eve. We unpacked, did laundry, ate the Christmas Eve lunch leftovers I’d frozen and had a quiet evening at home, unless you count the noise of bickering kids who’ve been so well behaved at their grandmother’s they had a lot of pent-up arguing to do. Everyone was in bed by 9:45.

On New Year’s Day I had coffee with a friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce lives and teaches in Indiana now but her parents live in the area so I often get to see her at Christmastime. We talked about work, kids, and marriage, and I was surprised to see when we checked the time that we’d been talking for two and a half hours. That’s how it is with good friends. It was a lovely way to ring in the New Year.

Thanks to all of you who read this blog in 2014, and Happy New Year!

Jingle Bell Rock

Nicole, from Girl In a Boy House recently blogged about the inevitability of holiday events if you have children enrolled in any kind of extracurricular activity, apparently even karate in her case. Given that June is in four activities at the moment (due to a three-week overlap between the end of gymnastics and the beginning of basketball), I suppose we’re lucky we weren’t more overscheduled this month than we were. She did make a Christmas ornament in Brownies on Tuesday, but we didn’t have to bring food or show up for anything extra for that or for either of her athletic activities.

However, last week, in various combinations, we did attend and the kids participated in three concerts over the course of six days. June’s music school had a recital on Sunday evening, Noah had a band concert on Thursday evening, and June’s school held its annual holiday concert/sing-along on Friday morning. These events were not all holiday-centric, but there was at least of touch of seasonal festivity in each of them.

I: Sunday Evening, 6 p.m.: Music School Recital

The recital was packed. They had divided it into two recitals and asked people who were originally scheduled for the afternoon one to switch to the evening one to spread the students out more evenly. We were among the people who switched and I don’t know if too many of us did or if the afternoon recital was even more crowded, but in either case, the music school, which has open less than two years, is clearly doing a good business. It was standing room only and quite warm in the main front room.

When we arrived, June called out to Toby, a friend of hers from school, and I waved to the mother of two sisters who attended her preschool, one before her and one after.

Most of the musicians were either pianists or violinists, though there was at least one child playing the guitar. There were some of the standards you usually hear from beginning musicians like “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Ode to Joy,” as well as more complicated classical pieces like “Fur Elise” and a Debussy piece from teenagers. Only two students chose Christmas music, but June was one of them. For weeks before the recital she played “Jingle Bells” and nothing but “Jingle Bells,” even when I tried to get her to practice some of her other songs. She experimented with different tempos and added her own flourish to the end. I knew she was more than ready by the big day.

June played toward the middle of the program. They seem to group the kids roughly by experience, with tiny children climbing up onto the piano bench first and teachers giving guest performances last. When June’s piece was announced, I heard a preschooler in the audience cry out “Oh!” as in “Finally, a song I know!” She did very well and seemed pleased with her performance.

The concert as a whole was quite enjoyable, especially toward the end. The last five students were just fantastic and it’s always fun to see the teachers perform, too. One of them had substituted for June’s teacher while she was on vacation, so we knew him. He played a very difficult sounding piece with a lot of vibrato. On the way to the car I told June she might play that well some day if she sticks with violin. She’s been playing almost a year and a half, but she’s been wavering about whether or not to continue since the summer. She always wants to try new activities and she gets tired of practicing. So, we’ll see.

Thursday Evening, 7 p.m.: Orchestra, Chorus, and Band Concert

Thursday night found us in the gym at Noah’s school, which was a surprise because concerts have always been in the cafeteria up to now. The gym’s a little bigger, which might be the reason. There were enough people there that they had to find extra folding chairs and set them up during intermission. There was a bake sale, to which Beth contributed homemade pizzelles, and from which we bought a bag of assorted cookies, a cupcake, and peanut butter fudge.

Noah had a long wait to play because the jazz ensemble, the intermediate orchestra, the chorus, and the intermediate band all performed before intermission and then after intermission it was the advanced orchestra and the chorus again before the advanced band.

This concert was somewhat more Christmassy than June’s recital. For one thing, the band teacher and a few of the students were wearing Santa hats. The jazz ensemble played “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” as people took their seats. And the chorus’s second set was all Christmas and Hanukkah songs, including “Jingle Bell Rock.” It just wouldn’t be a school concert in December without “Jingle Bell Rock,” would it? There was a lot of popular music of my youth (and earlier) as well—James Brown’s “I Got You, I Feel Good,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and medleys of Queen and Journey songs. I suppose my kids will have to wait until their kids are playing in elementary and middle school concerts to hear the popular music of their day arranged for orchestra and band. In case you were interested in the musical preferences of parents at Noah’s school, the most enthusiastic reception was definitely for the James Brown. Now you know.

When the advanced band performed Noah played tambourine, triangle, and claves. He was a little disappointed not to have a drum or bell part, especially as he’s been practicing the Journey medley a lot, but two of the songs had quite a bit of tambourine. In one song he was supposed to play two notes on the triangle and he missed one. “I missed fifty percent of the notes!” he said on the way to the car, but he seemed more amused than upset. It reminded me how frustrated he used to get about musical mistakes when he was younger and how he just takes them in stride now. Music has taught him that. It’s a good lesson.

III. Friday Morning, 9:15: Holiday Sing

Noah had to stay after the concert to take the percussion instruments back to the band room so Beth and I made ourselves useful folding up chairs and stacking them against the wall for the custodians. It was 9:20 by the time we left the school and Noah still had homework, and Beth and I stayed up to make sure he wasn’t up half the night, so we were all up well past our respective bedtimes—except June who was already in bed asleep when we got home. As a result, I was tired the next morning as I walked to June’s school for the Holiday Sing. Tired, but cheerful, because I really like the Holiday Sing. I never miss it.

At the bus stop that morning there had been a lot of confusion about whether or not the band and orchestra or just the orchestra was playing at this event. In a strange coincidence, most of the kids at our stop are in the fourth grade and nearly all of them play an instrument so there was a lot of consultation between parents. No clear answer emerged. I could see more than one band mother wonder if she should just take her kid’s instrument back home and not risk having her child lose it at school on a day it wasn’t supposed to be there, or if she would thereby deny her child the chance to play at one of the school’s big musical events of the year. In the end all the kids with band instruments took them on the bus.

The way the Holiday Sing works is fourth and fifth graders who play instruments or are in the chorus perform for the whole school in shifts, and after each performance there’s a sing-along with the audience. The whole school practices the sing-along songs (some with hand motions) ahead of time in music class so all the kids know them. Some years the third graders play recorders but they skipped that this year. June is managing her disappointment.

There were three shifts this year instead of the usual two, presumably due to the growing school population. (There are over nine hundred kids at June’s school. The whole third grade is in trailers.) This performance was for the second and third grade, so the chorus and the orchestra (but not the band, at least not at the 9:15 performance) were onstage facing the audience and the second and third graders sat on the floor of the cafeteria facing them. Parents were in the back on folding chairs. June’s class was on the floor pretty close to me, so I could watch her fingers mimic falling snow and other hand motions during one of the Hanukkah songs. That was a nice treat.

Because the performers were closer in age to June than they’ve been in years past, I recognized a lot of them. A girl who used to play on her basketball team was playing cello, as was a boy from the bus stop, and several of her bus stop companions were in the chorus. One in particular looked like he was having a really good time and looked quite dashing in a Santa hat.

The chorus sang “Jingle Bell Rock,” of course, and a Hanukkah song, and “A Hawaiian Christmas.” The sing-along songs were divided into a Kawanzaa set, a Hanukkah set, and a Christmas set. A lot of the songs are the same from year to year, but they do rotate them and introduce new ones every now and them. I think this was the first year they sang “Run, Rudolph, Run.”

The whole thing was very efficiently run. Four orchestra songs, three chorus songs, and nine sing-along songs, and we were out of there in forty-five minutes. I think the music department at Noah’s school could learn something from this event. A two-hour concert on a school night, no matter how lovely the music and talented the performers, is a bit trying. And we learned via email the very next day that they are thinking of breaking it up into two concerts in the future. I think it’s a good idea but either way next December I’m hoping to be in the audience again for another music school recital, for a high school band concert (in a real auditorium with comfortable seats), and watching June in a fourth grade chorus, orchestra, or perhaps both. I love watching them play, whenever and wherever they do.

Thanksgiving By the Sea

Thanksgiving

Chances are I was the only one reading Don Quixote on the Rehoboth boardwalk at 3:30 on Thanksgiving. I wasn’t the only one there, however. The beach and the boardwalk were bustling with people walking off their dinners, either in advance or after the fact. It was chilly, 43 degrees according to the big thermometer on Rehoboth Avenue and the sky was mostly overcast, with bits of blue peeking out here and there. The clouds were thick and gray in part of the sky and puffy and white and just touched with pink in another, as the mid-afternoon crept on toward late afternoon. I was sitting on a bench near Santa’s cottage, so passing conversation between parents and excited small children centered on exactly when Santa would be there. (His first shift of the season was the next morning, at eleven. I’d know that even if I hadn’t checked myself because I heard it so many times while sitting there.) Another popular topic of conversation was the teenage girl skim boarding in the ocean and whether or not she was cold, even in a wetsuit. I took it all in happily, the lovely light turning the sand a pink-gold color and the passing words of strangers strolling down the boardwalk, as I dipped into Don Quixote and Sancho’s adventures.

When I returned to the house, I found Beth and the kids reading and playing electronic games in warmer conditions, in front of a cozy fire. I warmed up there for a while and then went to the kitchen to trim the Brussels sprouts and mix them with goat cheese and spices and slip them into the oven where the tofu turkey was already roasting.

Last year was our first Christmas not spent with one extended family or the other (12/23/13, 1/3/14) and this was the first Thanksgiving we spent as a family of four. Since we also usually spend a weekend in early to mid-December in Rehoboth to Christmas shop and visit Santa, Beth had the genius idea to do the Christmas shopping trip on Thanksgiving weekend this year. We could stay three days instead of two, and we could get an earlier start on our shopping. (I rarely buy much before this trip.)

The kids had a half day on Wednesday, so we used the afternoon to pack and we left late Thursday morning and arrived around two on Thanksgiving, with enough time to unpack and for me to go down to the beach before beginning to assemble the dinner we’d partially cooked and frozen at home the weekend prior.

By six we were sitting down to fake turkey and real mashed potatoes and stuffing with mushroom gravy, rolls, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and two kinds of pie (pumpkin and pecan). Beth was pleased to have made our first Thanksgiving dinner without either of our mothers co-ordinating it (or as she said, “providing adult supervision”). I was pleased to be with Beth and the kids and at the beach and I said so when it was my turn to give thanks. Beth was grateful for to have time to spend with all of us, Noah for his “awesome” family and the Internet, and June for family, friends, and “being alive.” After dinner we watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on what was for us, a very big television, though it might be standard these days. I’m not exactly up to date in these matters.

Black Friday

We had breakfast—lattes, juice, pumpkin crepes, oatmeal pancakes, and a bagel—at the Gallery Espresso at their new location at an out-of-the-way office park three and half miles inland. We’ve eaten there for years, but as proximity to the beach is one of my main criteria for choosing restaurants in Rehoboth, it’s possible I might have never crossed its threshold again if not for the fact that Noah loves their crepes and considers a trip to the beach incomplete without them. (For context, when my favorite pizza place in my pre-kid days moved half a block and lost its ocean view, I never went there again.)

Gallery Espresso never had an ocean view, but it was only a couple blocks from the ocean and open in the off-season and the kids liked it so we’d often eat there multiple times in one trip. That probably won’t happen as often now. I don’t think we’ll abandon it entirely though. For one thing, the pumpkin crepes are really good, but maybe more importantly, the owner recognized us when we came in and exclaimed over how the kids had grown in the over a year they’ve been closed for relocation. Something similar happened at Café a Go-Go last spring. In some real ways, Rehoboth feels like home.

Being in Rehoboth Thanksgiving weekend meant a couple things. It meant we’d be there for the downtown tree-lighting and holiday sing-along Friday night, which would be a new experience for us. It also meant we’d be shopping on Black Friday, which we’d never done in Rehoboth. (And I haven’t done anywhere in years.) I wondered if the crowds would mainly converge on the outlets on Route 1 and not on the downtown stores where I do most of my shopping.

The crowds were not too bad, at least not in the morning at BrowseAbout Books, where I picked up a large pile of books I’d preordered, plus a few more I picked out in the store. There and at the Tea and Spice Exchange I helped the kids do most of the Christmas shopping before lunch. They were both really focused and decisive. The older they get the easier this task gets. I suppose the next step is independent shopping, but we’re not there yet.

We hit the boardwalk Candy Kitchen around noon, and as Santa was right outside it, June went to tell him she wanted a doll dressing-making kit for Christmas. The line was short and she was in and out quickly. I am not entirely sure whether June still believes in Santa or not. She claims to, but she also asked us (and Noah) in advance what it was okay to ask for, as if she wanted to make sure it was something she’d really get and as if she knew who would really be buying it.

After a lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers, I did some solo shopping and found the stores more crowded. Not quite mobbed, but close. The kids stayed home and Beth went to Walmart for a Black Friday protest. (She works for a union, so she does this every Black Friday. I always think I should go with her and never do.) Before it was time for everyone to meet for dinner I took another walk on the beach where I settled on the sand and read some more of Don Quixote. I was trying to get hallway through the second volume for my book club meeting on Wednesday. I could only manage three chapters before I was thoroughly chilled and needed to get up and walk some more.

We had an early dinner at Grotto, which was packed with all the many other families who wanted some pre-sing-along pizza. We got there just in time to avoid a long wait. They had characters from the Grinch painted on the front windows, with the faces left blank so you could take photos of yourself. June wanted her photo as Cindy Lou Who and Noah agreed to be the Grinch. Next they went through the restaurant inspecting the Christmas trees sponsored by local charities and made their donation choices—a children’s charity for June and marine animals for Noah. They based their decisions on a combination of the causes and the aesthetics of the trees.

We arrived at the sing-along seven minutes into it but it was quite cold, just over freezing and twenty-three minutes just long enough to admire the boardwalk lights in the shapes of sea animals, a light house, etc, and to sing secular Christmas music in a big crowd of people, dancing a little to keep warm. There were colored lights twined around the street light poles and white lights on the little trees growing in the median of Rehoboth Avenue and lighted wreaths over the doors of some of the stores, but the big tree was dark until seven sharp when there was a countdown from ten and it lit up. Noah claimed to be disappointed that “tree lighting” did not mean setting the tree on fire.

We headed home, walking past the longest line for Santa I’d ever seen on the boardwalk (maybe a couple dozen families). Once home June had a warm bath, and we watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Beth asked if I’d had a good first day of the Christmas season and I said yes.

Saturday

It only got better the next day. I wanted to take it a little easier, as it was our last full day at the beach. I still had shopping to do, but as I told Beth, we have the Internet at home but we don’t have the ocean, so from a little after ten until 3:30 I was mostly walking or reading at the beach, with occasional breaks to warm up in a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a hotel lounge. I rented a table with an ocean view at the Greene Turtle for an hour. (They also provided hot tea, mozzarella sticks, and a big salad, but I didn’t consider that to be the most important part of the financial transaction.)

While I was roaming the beach and boardwalk, Beth took the kids to the outlets to shop some more and then Beth and June went to Ocean City to skate at a hotel rink, while Noah stayed at the house to do homework.

As I was walking along the boardwalk on my way home, I noticed a pair of causally dressed parents with two very dressed up children on the beach. The boy was wearing khakis and a suit jacket and the girl was in a sleeveless (!) red satin dress. When they started taking pictures I immediately realized what was up: Christmas card photo. And then not ten minutes later I saw two little boys in coordinating cable-knit sweaters posing in front of the dunes and I wondered—why have we never taken our Christmas card photo on the beach? We’ve used boardwalk shots—from Santa’s house or with the lights— but never actual beach shots. I decided to remedy that on this trip.

Once home I had a nice soak in a warm, bubbly, scented bath, courtesy of the bubbling bath oil Beth got me as an early Christmas present. The house had a big clawfoot tub and as soon as I saw it, I regretted not packing any bath oil, so she bought me some because she is nice like that.

Beth and June got home from skating as I was finishing up in the bath and June wanted to get into the water, which still had a fair amount of bubbles, so I got out and let her soak in it awhile before draining the tub.

For dinner we had Thanksgiving leftovers again. This time, at Beth’s suggestion I made the mashed potatoes into potato pancakes and I added some homemade applesauce to the feast. We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in front of the fire, and Noah and I read from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before bed.

Sunday

The next day was sunny and dramatically warmer. Highs were predicted to be in the high fifties, but it felt warmer. After straightening up the house and doing some packing, I took the kids to the beach for a holiday card photo shoot. I made June wear her red coat because she was wearing green leggings and Noah was in a green shirt and vest, but once we were finishing taking pictures, she shed the coat and the kids set to work making a sand volcano. There were artistic differences, however, and June ended up banishing Noah from the construction site. He and I stood and watched the ocean and I tried to help him brainstorm a topic for a speech he needed to write that used some of the same rhetorical devices as Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Che Guevara. (Every one in the class is using Thomas Paine—he chose the other two orators.) We were at the beach about an hour and a half and we only left because Noah was getting hungry for lunch and we were hoping to hit the road by two o’clock.

Beth and the kids had lunch at Grotto, while I squeezed in some last-minute shopping and then had lunch back at the house. Noah had some trouble getting out of the house and then the kids and I went down to the beach one last time to say goodbye to the ocean where June got hit by a wave that filled her boots and soaked her leggings and left her in tears until Beth found her some dry clothes and she changed in the car while I blocked the window. So it ended up being closer to three than two by the time we left Rehoboth. But traffic was not bad at all and our timing meant we were driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge just before five, during a beautiful sunset, with a pink sky above and shiny silvery water below. Sometimes I leave the beach despondent about returning to my landlocked life and sometimes I leave the beach still a bit drunk on the beauty of the world and mindful of everything that makes me thankful. This time it was the latter.

48: A Birthday Weekend

“Welcome to your birthday weekend,” I said to Beth when she came home Friday evening. Her birthday was on Sunday and we had a busy weekend of Thanksgiving preparations and birthday celebration planned.

We’re going to Rehoboth for Thanksgiving this year and we’re driving on Thursday to avoid the day-before-Thanksgiving traffic (plus today’s rainy, sleety, snowy kind of winter storm, though we didn’t know about that when we made our plans). So we decided to do as much shopping and cooking ahead of time as we could.

Saturday morning while Beth was taking June to gymnastics, I cleaned the kitchen in preparation for cooking. Then shortly after they got back I took June to the Co-op to buy Beth’s new favorite chocolate bar. It was a last minute gift idea. Having bought a gift certificate for Café a Go-Go, Beth’s favorite coffee shop in Rehoboth (from the kids), and three books, which are waiting for her at Browse-About, our favorite book store in Rehoboth (my gift), I thought the presents were all squared away. But when June found out Noah had chosen the same gift as her and I’d just combined it into one gift certificate, she insisted on buying something “that’s just from me.” As it was a day before Beth’s birthday, it needed to be something quick.

Beth was on grocery run when we got home, so June wrapped the chocolate bar and set to work making a card. She was sleeping over at Talia’s that night so she needed everything ready before she left.

After Beth got home, she made mushroom gravy and I made cranberry sauce so the house was smelling nice and festive. Talia’s mom Megan came to pick June up at 3:15. On approaching our house she said to Talia that June must be excited because she was waiting out on the porch. “Not half as excited as I am!” Talia, who was hosting her first sleepover, responded.

Megan and I had gone out for lunch earlier in the week and she asked me what were the chances June would get homesick and need to come home mid-sleepover. She’d nixed a sleepover with another girl because apparently that happens to her.

“Zero,” I responded. June has been to several slumber parties and slept over at least twice at the other Megan’s house–it’s a confusing fact of our lives that June and I each have a good friend named Megan. She has never once gotten homesick.

“Good,” Megan said.

Beth and I decided to take advantage of June’s absence to go out for dinner and a movie, as an early birthday treat for Beth. We saw St. Vincent, which we both enjoyed, even though it was a little schmaltzy. I like watching Bill Murray in almost anything. We had dinner at Rosa Mexicano, which we also enjoyed despite its inexplicably ungrammatical name. We shared cheese enchiladas and autumn vegetable tacos (with squash and Brussels sprouts). If you go there, I especially recommend the churros with chocolate, caramel, and raspberry dipping sauces. I haven’t been to Spain since my junior year of college, but the thick chocolate sauce seemed pretty close to what I remember.

Back home, just as we were getting ready to go to bed, we got a call from Megan (the grown up one). June couldn’t sleep and was homesick and crying and wanted to talk to us. Both Beth and I tried to calm her down, but in the end Beth ended up driving over to pick her up and bring her home. The next day I kept trying to find out what had happened but June would just say, “I don’t know” in a the-incident-is-over-Mommy-why-must-we-continue-to-discuss-it tone of voice. Apparently, at dinner Talia had a shared a story about how her mom got homesick on her first sleepover and had to be picked up and when her friend woke up in the morning, she leapt to the conclusion that Megan had been kidnapped. Hopefully the story was instructive enough that Talia didn’t think the same thing when she woke up to find June gone the next morning.

But despite her early exit, June was full of stories about what they’d done. They played Monster Mini Golf and the black light made her white poncho glow, and they’d eaten at a Mexican restaurant where she’d had enchiladas, too. (I was surprised about this until Megan told me she got the sauce on the side and didn’t touch it, so it was really just vegetables rolled up in a tortilla with melted cheese on top). You can watch the tortilla machine make tortillas there and this made quite an impression. Then they watched the Lego Movie, which was very funny and full of jokes that needed to be repeated out of context. So overall, I think she had a pretty good time, even if she didn’t sleep at Talia’s house.

There was an upside to June being home in the morning, which was that she was there for the homemade pumpkin pancakes Noah and I made for Beth’s birthday breakfast. Noah likes to cook with pumpkin in the fall so some time in October I roasted a couple of baking pumpkins and made eleven cups of pumpkin puree, which I froze and we’ve been using in pumpkin bread, cake, muffins, smoothies, and I don’t remember what else. We used the last cup in the pancakes. Beth proclaimed them “delicious.”

Beth opened her cards and presents at breakfast. She said the cards were a good representation of the children’s personalities. June’s was cut into the shape of a birthday cake with candles and Noah’s had a long rambling note inside about how if she used the Café a Go-Go certificate in the summer instead of on our upcoming trip she’d have two hundred days to think about what else to do to celebrate. He then noted if every human on Earth came up with one idea per second for that period of time, she’d have 123 quadrillion ideas to choose from and “that should be a sampling of ideas statistically significant enough to have at least one good one.”

Beth and June left to do the main grocery shopping around ten and they were gone until mid-afternoon because they went straight from shopping to ice skate. Noah and I straightened and vacuumed the living and dining rooms and I made a chocolate cake. Then I left to go to the pool and the library shortly after Beth and June got home. When I got home, June and I made coffee frosting and frosted the cake. She wanted to use a recipe from a novel she recently read about a girl witch who only wants to bake and not do magic. (There are forty pages of recipes in the back.) It called for espresso powder, which I thought might be the British way to say instant espresso (the book was British) but I looked it up and found it’s made especially for baking and ground very fine. I didn’t have time to order that online, so we used instant espresso anyway and it turned out fine.

For dinner we got takeout Burmese from Mandalay, which is one of Beth’s favorites, and ate the cake, adorned with the numeral four and eight candles we’ve saved and used for years. The four in particular is showing a deep indent from being used for Noah’s and June’s fourth birthdays and all through Beth’s and my forties. Beth noted it will be used next in the spring when Noah turns fourteen. But that will be a story to tell in another birthday blog post.

Do Anything

Saturday afternoon Beth took June ice-skating at the outdoor rink in Silver Spring for the first time this season. This morning June was eager to do it again. She’d “do anything” if Beth would take her skating, she said. Would she crawl under the dining room table and pick up all the dropped food, Beth asked. Would she study her GeoBowl packet and pick up all the pieces of the Operation game that are scattered on the living room floor, I wanted to know. June considered. “I’d do one of those things,” she conceded. (In the end she picked up the food and the game pieces and Beth took her skating.)

It has gotten colder rather suddenly. Our huge and prolific cherry tomato plant died pretty much overnight when the nighttime temperature reached freezing Saturday night. This morning I collected four and a half cups of little green tomatoes, which I plan to use to make a batch of salsa verde later this week.

I had a couple weeks of finding the cold and the early dark that came with the return to Standard Time depressing, but today when I left the swimming pool around 4:20 p.m. and walked out into a cold drizzle, I felt the warmth of my hooded sweatshirt as much as the cold of the rain and I noticed how the reds and the oranges of the turning trees seemed to glow in the dim light of an overcast mid-November late afternoon.

With the chill in the air, Halloween over, and Beth’s birthday and Thanksgiving around the corner it seems we are in a different part of the year, one with a lot of potential new beginnings. This month we applied to the Highly Gifted Center, where Noah spent fourth and fifth grade, for June and she started gymnastics at a new gym, since none of us much liked the one where she took classes a couple years ago. The new program is at the University of Maryland and is reputed to give the kids more individual attention and mentoring. June’s been to two sessions so far and is very enthusiastic about it. She especially likes the bars. Of course, busy girl that she is June has other things on her plate. Along with all the third to fifth graders at her school, she will take the test to try out for the geography bowl next week, although she hasn’t been very diligent about studying—despite her initial enthusiasm about being in the competition. Unless she makes a big effort between now and Tuesday I’ll be a little surprised if she makes the team. Looking ahead a bit, basketball practice starts in early December and she has a violin recital in mid-December (assuming she passes her audition, which she probably will).

Meanwhile after a lot of thought about whether or not he wanted to continue on the magnet track, Noah applied to the Communications Arts Program and a math/science magnet for high school. I wonder sometimes—this weekend for instance, when Beth and June were skating and I was swimming and Noah was stuck home reading and annotating Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—why he is signing up for more schoolwork. Then I remembered that he didn’t even have all that much homework this weekend, it just took forever because he could not seem to attend to it. Eighth grade continues to be less work than seventh, though he’s busier now than he was at the beginning of the year. Last weekend while June was at a slumber party we did find time to take him out to dinner at Asian Bistro and to a Buster Keaton movie at the American Film Institute. He’s been interested in silent film since his media class studied it in sixth grade. And the fact that he has been taking media classes for three years and discovered a rather esoteric new interest like this through the magnet program is one of the reasons he wants to continue. It makes sense, even if I worry about the effects of working so hard so young.

Noah also auditioned for Honors band. It was his first audition ever because he was nominated for Honors Band in sixth grade and didn’t have to try out and last year he didn’t want to do it. He was nervous before the audition and he says it didn’t go well. Sometimes he’s hard on himself, but he did fail to read the instructions carefully enough to notice he needed to get timpani mallets from his band teacher ahead of time so he couldn’t even play one of the required pieces. That can’t help his chances. (He also had to wait an hour and half after being called into the audition room to play, which I’m sure was stressful and may have affected his performance.) Whether he gets in or not, I’m proud of him for trying because it wasn’t easy for him. June, who has more moxie and has auditioned for recitals twice and for roles at drama camp several times already, was not particularly sympathetic when I told her he was nervous. “Oh, I’ve done that,” she said breezily.

It made me realize that in the space of just one month the kids will have applied for three academic programs and tried out for three extracurricular groups or events between them. It seems unlikely they’ll have universal success in these endeavors. I started to write something about how I wouldn’t even want that, you learn as much from failure as from success but then I deleted it because who am I kidding? Of course I want them to be accepted at the magnet programs where they applied and for June to play at her music school’s next recital and for Noah to make Honors Band and June to make the GeoBowl team and if she qualifies for the GeoBowl, I will want her team to win. But I also know it’s okay if they don’t. I don’t think they can do anything; no-one can. But I am proud of them for trying, always, no matter what the outcome.

On a Dark Night

So this waiting until the last minute strategy worked out pretty well for Noah this Halloween. He didn’t call Sasha to see if he wanted to go trick-or-treating until Thursday afternoon. They’ve gone the last few years together, but usually Sasha calls Noah, so I thought it was possible he was going with someone else or maybe not going at all. Noah’s almost thirteen and a half and Sasha’s fourteen and it’s around that age some kids start feeling too old. It wasn’t that, though–Sasha was going with someone else. Maybe next year, he told Noah.

Noah was puzzled about what to do. He couldn’t use June as Plan B because June and Maggie made plans to trick-or-treat together at the Halloween parade last weekend. It’s the first time she’s ever gone with a friend. Because Maggie wanted to go near her house and June didn’t care, Maggie’s folks were taking them. I told Noah that Beth or I would be happy to go with him, but he said he was too old to go with a parent without the cover of a younger sibling. He didn’t seem to like the idea of going out alone either, though.

Out of curiosity, or maybe desperation, I looked in his school directory—which has the convenient feature that after the alphabetical listing, kids are listed by zip code—to see any of his classmates live near us. (Because he’s in a magnet program kids come from a wider area than they would if he went to his home middle school.)  I thought if anyone lived in walking distance it would be easier to set up a last minute meeting. It turned out there were no eighth grade magnet boys in Takoma Park, but three girls, one of whom went to preschool with him, but he has no memory of that and he says he doesn’t know her. The other two he knows but wasn’t interested in calling. Then I wondered if a teenage boy calling a girl to go trick-or-treating might be interpreted as asking her on a date. I have no idea. In a few years June might be able to tell me but in the meanwhile, I decided it was just as well he didn’t want to call them.

By coincidence, Noah’s friends Richard and David were coming over on Friday. (The kids had the day off school because Thursday was the last day of the first quarter). So when they arrived at two o’clock on Halloween, Noah asked if they wanted to go trick-or-treating that night, either in our neighborhood or theirs. They live in Silver Spring and not the closer part, which is the only reason we hadn’t considered them before—they are good friends of his. One twin said yes enthusiastically and the other said no, he’d prefer to stay home and hand out candy, which was their original plan. According to their dad, they’d been thinking they might be too old, but given a willing partner, one of them jumped at the chance to go. I felt as if I were watching them all teeter on the edge of their childhood, right there on my front porch.

June had Megan over Friday afternoon, too, so it was rocking here with five kids playing Forbidden Island and Sleeping Queens and hex bugs and hunting for fairies in the basement and playing Mad Libs and whatever else they were doing. I got into the Halloween spirit by updating my Facebook photo album of all the kids’ Halloween costumes since they were babies (I had not updated it for a few years) and in reconstructing our Halloween playlist, which mysteriously disappeared off the computer. I bought a couple new songs for good measure—“Witch Doctor,” and “Love Potion #9.” I was also making vegetable stock, so the house smelled cozy and autumnal. It was also rather hazy, as my kids wanted to demonstrate our new fog machine to their friends and while the front door was open it drifted into the house. It’s very durable fog.

As lively as the afternoon was, the evening felt strange. In recently years I’ve been the stay-at-home-and-pass-out-candy mom and Beth’s the trick-or-treating mom, so being home alone on Halloween is not new, but this felt different, knowing they were out with their friends and not Beth, who ended up staying at work late.  They weren’t even on our usual route, as both were in their friends’ territory.

The twins’ father took all three boys around five so they could they pick up burritos to eat at their house before the festivities. I dropped June off at Maggie’s, leaving around 5:40. Because I forgot to preheat the oven in time to eat at home, she had to eat her slices of frozen pizza while we walked. On the way, someone asked if she was Wednesday Adams, which was a comment we’d heard about her costume at the parade, so I had to explain to her who Wednesday was, in case she heard it again.

I got home at 6:15 and started handing out candy to little kids in dinosaur and ballerina costumes and middle-sized angels and superheroes and teenagers just barely costumed (one in street clothes and an Obama mask) or not at all.  The strangest costume had to be the dragon with bunny ears. Strangely, we didn’t get a single Anna or Elsa.

Noah called twice to remind me to turn on the fog machine and then to see if I had—I did and it was much appreciated by the people who came to the door. A boy from June’s bus stop called it our “mistifying” machine, but I’m not sure if he intended the pun or not. Noah also texted Beth to say the trick-or-treating was great in the twins’ neighborhood.

Beth got home around 7:20 and June followed around eight. She said after trick-or-treating, she and Maggie and Maggie’s brother and Maggie’s brother’s friend had a big candy swap and she got rid of all her nut-containing candy (she’s not allergic, she just doesn’t like nuts) and steadfastly refused to part with her wild cherry nerds. Just before I put June to bed at 8:20, Megan came to the door, dressed as witch, with a very nice spider-covered veil descending from her hat.

Beth called Noah a little before nine to see if he was ready to come home. He was in the midst of his own candy swap, but it’s a longish drive, so Beth left to get him. They were back by 9:25, thanks to sparse traffic. Beth looked into his bag and predicted it would last him a year. It might. He makes his Halloween candy last.

It was a strange Halloween and probably a preview of many dark October nights to come as the kids celebrate more with their friends and less with us, and increasingly far from home. Originally, June and Maggie were considering asking if they could trick-or-treat alone, without any parents, though they scotched the plan before asking both sets of parents. Since June had asked me, I’d consulted with Maggie’s dad and we decided as a compromise they could go with Maggie’s older brother, who is in sixth grade, if they asked. As it turned out, they didn’t ask, and Maggie’s parents were with them the whole time. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long, though, before June is trick-or-treating without adults. I think Noah was ten the first time he did.

They insist on continuing to grow up, both of them. That’s a trick and a treat, all at once.

With What’s Available

I have been having trouble keeping the Ship of Steph from running aground recently. This is only one small example, but on Sunday afternoon when I was walking home from my weekly swim at Piney Branch Pool, I ran into my dissertation director and her partner (maybe wife now—I don’t know), another English professor, who was also on my committee. They also live in Takoma Park, a town of approximately 18,000 people, but oddly, I never see them. In the fifteen years since I got my Ph.d, I’ve seen the partner/wife once in a coffee shop, and the dissertation director…never. We had a brief, awkward conversation that left me feeling awash in feelings of failure and shame over the wreck of my academic career. It wasn’t their fault really, and I may even have been unintentionally rude to them in my brusqueness, but clearly even after nine and a half years out of the classroom and seven and a half years after I gave up on finding academic work (5/11/07), I am not completely over this loss.

I told two friends about this encounter; the first one works at the Folger Institute. Our older kids went to preschool together and for a long time I envied her job. Non-university-affiliated jobs for a Shakespearian are few and far between, so it seemed to me she’d hit the jackpot. Just now, she’s frustrated to be doing more work on the website and less scholarship and teaching than she’d like, so it was a shift of perspective for me to know the job I’d envied her for years was not perfect. On the flip side, the other person I told, a stay-at-home mom/blogger/part-time graduate student in library science, told me she was jealous of my job, because I work at home, writing, and get paid for it. Again, more perspective.

Then on Monday evening, June had a migraine and Noah was struggling with some middle school social drama I probably shouldn’t detail here and I just felt so sorry for both of them and in Noah’s case, helpless to do anything for him.  I at least know what to do when June has a headache. (Give her painkiller and anti-nausea medicine, put her to bed, hold her while she sobs, hold the basin and her hair when the anti-nausea medicine fails to work, stay with her until she’s almost asleep, then leave.)

But my moodiness, June’s headaches, and Noah’s being thirteen aside, I do have a positive story to tell you. Here goes:

The Halloween parade and costume contest was Saturday afternoon. On Friday afternoon, I wasn’t even sure Noah was going to be in it. Noah takes this contest very seriously, especially after he won in the most original category when he was ten (dressed as a newspaper, 11/1/11) and again when he was twelve (dressed as a SmarTrip, 10/28/13). This year, between being busy with school, and possibly more importantly, paralyzed by his desire to top last year’s costume, he didn’t even have any ideas yet. He just kept saying, “What could be better than a SmarTrip?” and I kept telling him it didn’t have to be better, it just had to be half-decent, and achievable with the available materials and time. He gets fixated sometimes, on the way he thinks things should be and can’t move forward with the way they are. Where do you think he gets that particular character trait? It’s a mystery.

Meanwhile, June’s costume was all set. She’s going as the girl from the ghost story who wears a green ribbon around her neck and when she takes it off her head falls off.  The previous weekend we’d gone to Value Village to buy her an old-fashioned looking second-hand black velour dress and some lace-up black boots and Target to get black tights and Jo-Ann’s to get some green ribbon.  June wanted to add some fake blood dripping out from underneath the ribbon to complete the effect (on the big day Beth managed to get a soaking-through-the ribbon look).

While I was waiting for the kids to come home from school Friday, I was thinking about the Halloween I was ten or so and dressed as a stick of Wrigley’s gum—a costume made of crepe paper and aluminum foil, which ripped almost as soon as I set out. I came home in tears and my mom thought for a few moments, and then left and came back with a rain slicker, an umbrella and a container of Morton’s salt. “You’re the Morton’s salt girl,” she said and Halloween was salvaged. I was thinking Noah might need a similar maternal miracle and wishing I could provide it.

But a little while after Noah came home, inspiration struck. He wanted to be a calculator. This seemed like a good idea. We had some large cardboard boxes he could cut up for a front and back panel. All he would need was some paint.  We called Beth and she offered to pick some up at the hardware store on the way home. In the meanwhile, he printed an image of a calculator, superimposed a grid on it, and then with June’s help, drew a grid on his cardboard. Next he sketched out the buttons, the display panel, etc. There are a lot of nice details, but my favorite is the number the calculator was displaying: 10.31.

By the time he went to bed the first coat of paint (dark gray, the background color) was applied.  It needed to dry before he could add other colors. In the morning he did a second coat and then did homework while that coat dried, and in the early afternoon, he applied the third and final coat.

He wasn’t ready yet when it was time to leave at one, so Beth drove June and me to the parade staging ground, where carnival games were in progress. The games were a new part of the festivities so it wasn’t clear when the contest and parade would start. Luckily, they went on long enough so that when Noah arrived around two, there was enough time to spare to watch his sister throw a ball at a pyramid of cans, and for them to stick their hands in boxes to feel “eyes” (grapes), “veins,” (spaghetti), etc. The jelly “guts” were so sticky when Noah put his hand in the “teeth” (dried beans) bin his hand came out with beans stuck all over it.

When it was time for the contestants to gather under the banners with their ages, June and I went to the seven and eight year old area and Noah and Beth went to teens and adults. We met up there with June’s friend Maggie, who was dressed as a leopard queen. She was wearing more leopard print items than I could count and a small tiara. Her face was masterfully painted as well. Noah wanted to know if she was queen of the leopards or a queen who just happened to be a leopard but we never got a straight answer. One of the judges asked June her name, which is a sign you are under consideration. I think this was the first year she’s been asked. The judge took Maggie’s name, too. (Last year Maggie won scariest for her zombie princess costume.)

While we were waiting to start marching June and I heard one of her peers say, “Daddy, I saw someone dressed as a calculator,” and I thought I saw a flash of annoyance cross June’s face, as if she was thinking, really, here in my area?

We walked with Maggie and her dad the rest of the route and met up with Beth and Noah at the end. Beth reported the judges had taken Noah’s name, too. A local band (one of Noah’s favorites, was playing while people milled around and waited for the contest results.

This was the first year the parade has been held in middle of the afternoon.  In the past it’s always been at dusk, which is spookier. We were all a little cranky about that, except June because it meant the parade didn’t conflict with her friend Claire’s Halloween party this year so she could attend both. Another advantage was that it was not freezing cold like last year. In fact, it was quite warm. June was actually hot in her black velour dress.

Finally the band took a rest while they announced contest results. A baby dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg won a prize, as did a preschooler dressed as a forest fire. In June’s age group, the leopard queen won most original (or maybe it was funniest) and scariest, the category June has decided is her goal, went to a Day of the Dead-style sugar skull.  June was very gracious, clapping for everyone who won and running over to offer her congratulations to Maggie.

Before they moved on to the nine-to-twelve group, the band played another song, as we waited rather impatiently.  When it was time to announce most original the announcer discovered the name was missing and said he’d come back to it.  I was hoping it would be Keira, a fourth grader from our bus stop who was dressed as a person tied to a rocket, with stuffed jeans-clad legs emerging from her waist as her real legs were hidden under the rocket’s flames. She won last year for her picnic table costume.

Teen to adult was next and when they announced the winners, Noah won for most original. June clapped and congratulated him. She has matured a lot since Noah first won a costume contest prize and she was jealous as could be, like a caricature of jealousy, really. Even so, we reminded her that Noah was ten and had worn a lot of very original costumes before his winning streak (three out of the past four years) started, so she shouldn’t be discouraged. The winner for most original in the nine-to-twelve group was finally confirmed and sure enough, it was the girl on the rocket.

We hung around to see who won the group costumes. Most original went to the family of one of June’s friends. They were dressed as a campsite (tent, can of bug spray, campfire, and s’more). Once we’d heard all the results, I bought Noah a Grandsons CD as a keepsake and we went to CVS to buy candy corn to eat during our next activity: pumpkin carving.

Later, while June attended Claire’s party, Beth, Noah and I ate Chinese takeout and I read him the first chapter of The Haunting of Hill House, one of my very favorite horror novels. It was a pleasant evening, one I will try to remember when I forget things don’t have to be perfect, just half-decent, and achievable with what’s available.

Not Every Sunday, Not Every Monday

Friday & Saturday

A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently that she was down and wanted to some suggestions for what people do to feel better.  A lot of people, including me, suggested getting outside. I thought of this on Sunday, when I spent most of the afternoon outside. I needed it, as I’ve also been down for a while. Part of it was having a mild cold and part of it was missing Noah while he was away in New York for a week on a school trip, although even together neither of those factors really accounted for the depth my funk. I did notice after the fact that while he was away that I used a lot “dis” words in my Facebook status updates—“discombobulated,” “disquieting,” “disrupted.”

But then he came home and we were all very happy to see him. We went out for celebratory pizza at gelato at Mama Lucia’s Friday night, and he and June spent part of Saturday afternoon and evening working on a movie they’ve been making together and digging into the big box of Pop Rocks he bought at FAO Schwartz. The Supreme Court decision that allowed friends of mine to get married in Virginia and Colorado this week was also cheering.

Sunday

Sunday we had a day of family togetherness planned. June’s music school had a booth at a little street fair in the morning and they asked her to come play her violin in front of the booth. She did this once at the farmers’ market last spring (4/12/14) and was happy to do it again.  Noah stayed home to finish up some work before our afternoon outings, but Beth and I were there to see her play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Ode to Joy,” and two of her own compositions to a small audience and applause.  Afterward we stopped at a crepe truck and had a snack because we were going to have a late lunch.

Next we drove out to Northern Virginia, where we got cider, spaghetti squash, pumpkins and decorative gourds at Potomac Vegetable Farms. The kids and I picked two gourds each. Mine—a little orange and green speckled pumpkin and a white one—are on my desk. The rest are on the porch and the dining room table. Beth said she had “zero decorative gourd needs,” so no gourds for her.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park on the Maryland side of Great Falls was our next stop. Last week Beth’s cousin Sean biked from Wheeling to Washington, D.C. and his mother, Beth’s aunt Carole was driving out with Beth’s mom to pick him up and bring him back to Wheeling, so we all agreed to meet up at the park for a picnic. We arrived around the same time as YaYa and Carole, a little before two. Sean was not expected until four, so we had our picnic without him near the canal. As always when members of Beth’s family are together, a lot of food was exchanged. We went home with our leftovers plus a bag of pistachios, some pretzels and three kinds of cookies. YaYa and Carole took with them their leftovers, a jug of cider, and a box of flax seed crackers.

After we ate we took a walk along the towpath and on footbridges and boardwalks over the Potomac River and on an island in the middle of the river. It was good, restorative even, to be walking around outside with family in a beautiful place. The kids had fun, too.  They both enjoyed throwing pebbles and acorns into the canal and Noah liked inspecting the locks and June found a sycamore tree that was hollow for at least ten feet up. It reminded me of the hollow tree in one of the Pippi Longstocking books.  Unfortunately, Sean got lost on the way to the park and around five we had to leave without having gotten to see him, but it was still a very nice afternoon, and not something we do every Sunday.

Monday

The next day was Columbus Day. I used to love Columbus Day. I always said it was my favorite minor holiday, its celebration of imperialism and genocide notwithstanding. Why? Beth has it off work and the kids don’t have it off school so it gave us a built-in date day every second Monday in October. When June was in preschool, we’d visit Noah’s elementary school because the schools all have Open Houses on this day, which is convenient for so many DC-area parents who work either for the federal government or for non-profits that follow the government’s holiday schedule. But even with June in school only a few hours, we always seemed to have enough time to have lunch out while she was at school and watch a Netflix movie while she napped.

But once June started elementary school, we had two schools to visit and we’d generally go to one in the morning and the other one in the afternoon. It was still pleasant and we still found time to eat lunch out, but it wasn’t quite the luxurious day it had once been.

So all this is to say that it wasn’t as disappointing as it would have been a few years ago when June announced Monday morning that she was sick to her stomach and didn’t want to go to school. I have to admit I did think sadly of the lost opportunity to have lunch alone with Beth before I tried to sort out who would go to which school when.

As a first step, we decided I would go to June’s morning class and Beth would stay home with June. June has math and science in the morning in Spanish and I speak Spanish and Beth doesn’t so that decision was easy enough.

I wanted to see this class, as opposed to June’s afternoon class, for two reasons. One was that since Noah’s been in middle school we always go to visit his Media Production class since it’s consistently his favorite and he has it during sixth period this year. But the more important reason is that June feels intimidated by Señorita Y.  Señorita Y has a reputation for being strict, but June usually does fine with strict teachers (and lenient teachers, and all teachers basically). It’s to the point where she won’t turn in forms and she failed to turn in her summer math packet because she was afraid to approach her, and as a result she isn’t eligible to go a party this week for all the kids who finished it and I had to wade through a lot of red tape to order to school pictures on the phone after they’d been taken. I wrote Señorita Y a note and asked her to tell June she can talk to her whenever she needs to, which she did.  I’m not sure if this talk will help matters or not, but I wanted to see what her class is like, even without June in it.

The lesson was on multiplication. They were discussing the commutative property when I arrived. Later they used a matrix to figure out 9 x 9 and various kinds of diagrams on the white board and in their notebooks to figure out other problems. They also had plastic tiles to arrange in row and columns. The lesson seemed well thought out and the kids were engaged, but I did see Señorita Y get cross on a few occasions, when a child was too slow to answer or asked a question that had already been asked and answered. She’s not a particularly patient or friendly teacher, but June’s doing well in her class, according to the mid-quarter progress report we received and some teachers (and bosses) are just like that. Learning how to deal with gruff authority might be what June needs to learn from her as much as multiplication strategies. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach before doing anything else about it.

When I came home, June was feeling better and she was ready for lunch. After she ate two bowls of lentil soup, an apple, and a pear, and asked for a cookie, I informed her that if she was well enough for a cookie, she was well enough to go to school for her afternoon class. She went back to her room to listen to a book on tape and to think about this and after the first cassette of Ramona the Pest was over, she decided she would eat the cookie and go to school. I gave it to her, feeling a bit like I was bribing her because it allowed me to go with Beth to Noah’s school, which was what I wanted to do.

We took June to her school and drove to Noah’s. We were going to his sixth and seventh period classes and then taking him home.  Driving him, we’d get home a half hour before the school bus and he needed an early start on his homework because he was going to a high school Open House for a math and science magnet that night.  I didn’t know whether I was going or not because I didn’t have a babysitter yet and while we leave June alone in the daytime for short periods and both kids alone at night, we don’t yet leave June alone at night.

In Media, the kids discussed how the interviews with their documentary subjects in New York had gone, as it was their first day back in class after the trip. After that, the teacher gave instructions for transcribing the interviews and set them to work writing thank you notes to their chaperones and interview subjects.  This was not too exciting to watch and the next period was not much more dynamic.

In science, they are designing green houses, each in a different ecosystem.  (Noah’s house is in Antarctica. I imagine heating it will be his biggest challenge.) The project itself sounds interesting but what they actually did in class was go to the computer lab and do research, so there wasn’t much instruction to watch in this class either.

That night Beth and Noah went to the Open House and I stayed home with June, as I had failed to find a last-minute sitter. This is the second time this has happened this month. I really need to find a back up sitter.  Anyway, Beth said the session was interesting and informative. Noah didn’t have much to say but I’m hoping after he goes to the humanities magnet session tomorrow he will be able to make some comparisons.  We had been leaning against having him apply to any high school magnets because seventh grade was so brutal, but eighth really has been better, at least so far, so we are considering the idea again.

It wasn’t an ideal Columbus Day. I would have liked some alone time with Beth, especially as she’s leaving on a five-day trip Friday morning, and I was sorry to miss the magnet Open House. I’ve missed two of these now and I am feeling out of the loop. But I think I have a better sense of June’s morning class and it’s always nice to see Noah in his school environment, even if the lesson plans were not particularly scintillating. That’s not something I get every Monday either.

Little Girl in a Red Granite Chair

Beth and Noah went on their annual early fall mother-son camping trip this weekend. They camped in Shawnee State Park in south central Pennsylvania, toured Lincoln Caverns, and had other adventures.  While one of her mothers and her brother were enjoying the natural world, June took in some culture.

I’d been wanting to go the Degas/Cassatt exhibit at the National Gallery for a while and Beth had originally suggested we try to go on Rosh Hashanah, which the kids had off school, but it ended up falling between two other days when Beth was leaving work early (Wednesday to take Noah to an orthodontist appointment and Friday to pick him up from school and leave on their camping trip), so she had to beg off, with regrets.

I thought I’d take the kids anyway, or maybe just June, as Noah had an English paper he wanted to write so he wouldn’t have to do it on the camping trip, but I ended up deciding not to go partly because Noah objected to being left behind and partly I thought there was a better chance he’d actually finish the paper if I stayed home and kept him on track.  (I found out later in the day what he’d really been interested in was the going out to lunch part of the plan and not the exhibit, which might have changed things if I’d known it at the time.)  He did write almost a page, which was not as much as he hoped, but it was something.

So I decided to try again on Saturday. Sometimes I try to do a lot of fun, consolation prize-type things with June when Beth and Noah are on this trip to because she doesn’t like being left behind and she gets sad.  She’d been complaining bitterly the night before that while she has invited Noah to come along on her annual late spring camping trip with Beth at least twice he never invites her to go on his trip. (It’s true, but he was up front the first time she invited him that he was not going to reciprocate because he likes the alone time with Beth, so she can’t complain she didn’t know how it would go down.)

The outing was not exactly a treat. June had no objection to going to an art museum but she wasn’t excited about it either. However, it would be one-on-one time, more so than if we stayed home and I cleaned house (which was the alternate plan), plus we’d been to Chuck E. Cheese for a school fundraiser the night before and I let her stay almost two hours, eating pizza, playing arcade games, and running around with her best friend and then I took her out for frozen yogurt, so I didn’t feel too bad about choosing an activity I wanted to do.

Getting out of the house was more difficult that anticipated.  June was slow to get dressed because she was upset (to the point of tears) about losing her progress in a long, multi-level game on the Electric Company website because she’d forgotten her username and couldn’t save the game. I hadn’t made her quit in order to leave, she had just gotten tired of it and quit around the same time I wanted to leave.  So we missed the 9:28 bus and then the 9:58 bus just didn’t come and when the 10:28 bus was late I was coming very close to throwing in the towel on the whole outing but at 10:34 a bus came and we boarded it. I’d even risked running back into the house shortly before the bus arrived to get the camera battery I’d left in the charger and was rewarded with a working camera. I also read a chapter and a half of The Grim Grotto (Series of Unfortunate Events #11) aloud to June while waiting for the bus so the time was not entirely wasted.

I’d chosen a Metro stop that required a line transfer for two reasons, because it was closest to the museum and also because there’s a Starbucks right next to it.  It was so close to lunchtime it seemed like fortification was in order if I wanted to go straight to the exhibit rather than the café.  There were no more transportation issues and by 11:35 we were leaving Starbucks and walking to the museum, vanilla milk and a latte in hand and vanilla scones and a toasted bagel in our bellies.

As we approached the West Building I noticed a poster for an Andrew Wyeth exhibit I hadn’t realized was there. I wondered if we could see both before June lost interest in art. The National Gallery of Art is very large and even with a map, I still needed to ask for directions twice before we found the Degas/Cassatt exhibit. Once we were inside, though, we were immediately rewarded with the sight of the exhibit’s most famous painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

It was the second to last weekend of the exhibit and it was pretty crowded. I was glad we hadn’t waited for the last weekend. Other than babies in strollers and strapped to their parents’ chests, June was the only child there. She was interested to see two big wooden boxes of Cassatt’s pastel crayons at the entrance. As we wandered through the three-room exhibit, I tried to find the balance between being pedagogical enough and not overwhelming June with explanations. I commented on how the girl in the armchair doesn’t seem to be posing, but is just sprawled out on the chair the way a child would naturally sit. We talked about how the artists were friends and she wanted to know how they met if she was an American and he was French. Then she asked if they ever collaborated on a painting. We noticed many of Degas’ painting were portraits of Cassatt and June took delight in counting how many of them there were. She might have lost count when we discovered one whole room consisted of sketches and paintings of Cassatt on a trip to the Louvre.  Meanwhile, a couple near us was having a discussion that went something like this:

“They weren’t lovers, though.”

“No, there was no sex involved.”

And then they just kept reiterating this fact in different ways. It made me wish Beth were there so I could whisper to her, “Did you know Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt had no carnal knowledge of each other?” but instead I stifled the urge to laugh because I didn’t think June was listening to them and didn’t really want to have to explain.

The Wyeth exhibit was right next to the Degas/Cassatt exhibit and I couldn’t resist going in, although this one was less kid-friendly, being nothing but paintings of windows.  How fascinating, I thought, and how boring, June seemed to be thinking.

“He sure did like windows,” she said.

“Why do you think an artist might like about windows?” I said.

“I dunno. The light?” she said.

I agreed. The windows do change the light in the painting and they also let you see two scenes at once, the inside one and the outside one, I explained.

I stopped short in front of Evening at Kuerners, because I’ve seen this painting before, three years ago at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania with Beth. I even mentioned it as one of my favorite Wyeths in this blog post. It was on the wall in between two other paintings of a single lighted window of a house or barn seen from outside at night. Then we saw a painting of N.C. Wyeth’s studio from the outside on a snowy day. Beth and toured that studio on the same weekend getaway, albeit on a sweltering July day.

When we’d finished with Wyeth I asked June what she’d like to do next and she choose to see some of the sculpture in the permanent collection.  There were a lot of Rodin sculptures and also some Degas dancers. I pointed them out to June. It was a lot less crowded away from the travelling exhibits. Often we were alone with the guards, one of whom told June she looked like a Vermeer painting. I wondered which one he had in mind.

After a late lunch in the café, the one with the big waterfall right outside the window, I bought some magnets with Andrew Wyeth paintings on them–Evening at Kuerners (because if it’s going to follow me around I might as well take it home) and also the one of the studio. We paused in another gift shop long enough to read a children’s book about the painting of Little Girl in a Blue Armchair and we learned the answer to two of June’s questions.  Cassatt met Degas when she moved to Paris and he actually painted part of the background of that very painting.

Going up the stairs to exit the museum, I overheard a frustrated college-age man explaining to his out-of-town relatives that the café really wasn’t that expensive for D.C. and they should have just eaten there. Beth later pointed out someone should have told them when you get into a world-class museum for free, it’s a bit churlish to complain about the overpriced food. I agree, though I’d had a pang of regret when June’s eyes were bigger than her stomach and I had to throw out her nearly untouched $5.50 slice of pizza because you aren’t allowed to remove any food from the café. (We did smuggle out a brownie in June’s bag, don’t tell anyone.)

Next we headed for the sculpture garden. It was around two in the afternoon when we left the museum and it was noticeably warmer than when we’d entered. I was worried June would be hot because in the spring and the fall she has a tendency to dress for the weather that’s just around the corner instead of the weather we’re actually having, so on this sunny day with temperatures in the low eighties, she was wearing a ribbed turtleneck, a corduroy skirt, and tights. But she didn’t complain as we wandered through the sculptures. It had been so long since we’ve been there that she didn’t remember it and she enjoyed the more whimsical pieces. After a half hour or so we were both ready to leave.

We headed home. I rested a bit and then cleaned the kitchen, made dinner, menu-planned for the next week and made a grocery list. There was time for a few rounds of Mad Libs before June went to bed, and after a shower, I fell into bed with a book, our artistic day over.