About Steph Lovelady

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

Artful April

When I flipped the calendar page to April I noticed it looked busy, and notably artistic.  Here’s a sample of what we did during the first two weeks of the month (a lot of which never even made it onto the calendar).

Tuesday:  4 p.m. June’s violin lesson
Wednesday: 3:15 p.m. Observation day for last meeting of June’s drama class
7:30 p.m. Steph’s book club (The Iliad, books 1-6)
Saturday: 9:30 a.m. June’s makeup violin lesson
10:15 a.m. First meeting of kung fu class for June.
Sunday: 11:05 a.m. June performs at her music school’s booth at the farmers’ market
3 p.m. Movie date for Beth and Steph (The Grand Hotel Budapest)
Tuesday: 7:40 a.m. Band festival drop-off for Noah
4 p.m. June’s violin lesson
Wednesday: 7:30 p.m. Steph’s book club (The Good Lord Bird)
Friday: 5:30 p.m. June’s violin recital for June

Noah also had five band practices during this period. He normally has them after school every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but the teacher cancelled practice the day of the festival. And I feel compelled to note I’m not even considering two meetings of the discussion group for the MOOC Beth is taking on American Capitalism, as I am focusing on the (martial) arts here.

Wednesday Afternoon: Drama Class

Wednesday was the last meeting of June’s after school drama class. The winter session of after school activities was supposed to end in mid-March but we had so many snow days this year, it was pushed to the first week of April and they still had to extend the class time of three of the meetings from forty-five minutes to an hour to recoup the lost time.

Sadly, the school district as a whole is not being as honorable about making up lost days as the after school activities program.  We had ten snow days this year, six over the limit of built-in ones, and we will only make up two of those six, but I will spare you a rant about that right now.  Maybe I’ll save it for when school ends a week before I think it should. I should still be plenty bitter by then.

Anyway, parents were invited to observe the last class. It was originally billed as a performance but then the instructors clarified it wouldn’t be anything different than what they do on a normal day. Nevertheless, there were more parents present than kids, so most of the nine kids in the class must have had at least one parent there.

They started with warm-up exercises and pretended to be zoo animals and then one of the teachers read them We’re Going on a Lion Hunt. You may know this chant as “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” especially if you frequent library story times.  Then they brainstormed all the different places the children in the book go (grassland, lake, cave) and the kinds of animals one might encounter in these habitats.  Creative answers were encouraged. Next, they pretended to visit each locale. Two children pretended to be the explorers and the rest were animals. My favorite part was when they all put their hands on each other’s shoulders to form a long, conga line-style snake.

When it was over I asked June if it was like a normal class and she said not really because everyone was behaving themselves. I knew sometimes the teachers had classroom management challenges. This frustrates June whether it’s in regular class or extracurricular activities because she takes everything she does seriously and she expects the same of her peers. Overall, though, she said she did enjoy the class and she’s looking forward to her spring after school activity—Indian dance, which starts in late April.

Wednesday Evening: Book Club

That same day my book club had its second meeting on The Iliad.  This book club is officially two different book clubs, although the members are basically the same.  The Big Book Club covers two classics a year, at least four sessions per book. The first meeting is always a lecture by a professor or graduate student who’s an expert on the book. (The Bi-Monthly Book Club, or as it’s sometimes jokingly called, the Small Book Club, tends to focus more on contemporary fiction.)

This was our first post-lecture discussion of The Iliad and it was a lively one. We covered questions such as whether the gods who orchestrate all the action could be seen as symbols of different psychological states, the role of women, whether all the violence was glorified, lamented or both, and the sheer loveliness of the extended similes. As I consider myself an expatriate from academia at times, this book club has been a real lifeline for me. I almost always come home from it feeling energized, sometimes to the point of not being able to sleep when I get home.

Saturday Morning: Kung Fu

I met Beth and June at her kung fu class, as they were coming from her make-up violin lesson (which she attended in her kung fu uniform).  The original lesson was, of course a snow-related cancellation. June’s music school is also more conscientious about making up snow days than our school district, it should be noted, if one cares about that sort of thing, which you may have guessed by now, I do.

I got there first and was surprised to see as other kids arrived that they were mostly wearing black kung fu uniforms like hers.  We got hers as a hand-me-down, but when June last took kung fu two years ago only one kid had a uniform and everyone else wore street clothes.  Not much else seems to have changed in the interim, other than that June is now no longer one of the younger kids in the class. Now she’s probably one of the oldest ones, though she falls in the middle in terms of size.  Two kids had white belts already.  June had debated whether or not to wear hers to class and decided not to, as she has forgotten a lot of her white belt skills and thought she might need to test for it again.

I remember being startled at the first class two years ago at how the rather gruff teacher just launched right into exercises without any introduction or much in the way of instructions. It was like that again.  He did acknowledge June, saying, “It’s been a long time,” warmly when he saw her. He had the children sit cross-legged and they took turns closing their eyes and trying to locate coins he dropped around them by the sound of them clattering to the wood floor.  June remembered this exercise and had said she hoped they would do it at the first class.  He said, “Good job, June,” when she found them. I wasn’t sure if he’d remember her name or not, so that was nice.

He introduced the children who were returning to the new ones and praised their skills. “June was very good,” he said, with a slight emphasis on the past tense and then they got started. They practiced various poses and stretches.  He liked June’s shark fin. He went up and down the line, critiquing and re-positioning kids until they were in the right pose, talking to them about self-control and hard work and suggesting if they weren’t up for the rigors of kung fu, they should take karate or tae kwan do. I was glad June didn’t pipe up that she had taken karate since she last saw him.  It wouldn’t have gone over well. He’s sure of his own way of doing things and he doles out criticism as readily as praise. I think June actually likes that about him because she knows when she’s really earned an encouraging word.  It was forty minutes into class before a child who wasn’t paying sufficient attention was temporarily exiled to sit with his mother. I remember it usually happening earlier than that.

About forty-five minutes into class they started kicks and I could see June was glad to get to that part.  Then the instructor had the two white belts and another of the returning student demonstrate the forms everyone else would need to learn.  Then he said, “Let’s see what June remembers.”

She came to the front of the class, bowed, did two or three forms and said, “That’s it.” He seemed satisfied and sent most of the class to the water fountain so he could have a little extra instructional time with the two white belts. When the class was re-assembled he showed everyone what he wanted them to practice and class was over.

Sunday Morning: Street Performance

When June had her violin lesson on Saturday, her teacher mentioned the school was going to have a booth at the farmers’ market the next morning and she didn’t have to but would she like to stand in front of it and play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and her recital songs?  Would she? June was all over that.

They didn’t give us a time slot since they’d be there for the whole four hours the market was open and when we showed up at 10:15 they were still setting up the tent so we finished our shopping and came back a little after eleven. Beth went to get us a couple coffees and missed June going through her repertoire the first two times, but she did see the last round.  June ran to meet her when she returned and reported to her she’d drawn “quite a crowd” in Beth’s absence and she did. About a dozen people stopped (not all at the same time) to stop and clap for her. She bowed after every song and seemed quite pleased.

Sunday Afternoon: Film

Sunday was quite an exciting day for June as she woke up at Zoë’s slumber party, went straight to the farmers’ market and was home long enough to eat lunch and play in the yard for a little while before Becky and Eleanor came to pick her up for her afternoon that featured a manicure, gelato, a tea party, and a walk in the woods. (This was a birthday present.)  June was waiting impatiently for them on the porch when they arrived.

Beth and I seized the opportunity to go see a movie.  It was actually our second movie of the weekend. The night before while June was at Zoë’s house, we had some one-kid-two-moms time with Noah, going out to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Silver Spring and watching the first half hour of the first Harry Potter movie. June has caught up by herself and we hope to finish it all together over spring break.

For the adult movie, we chose Grand Budapest Hotel. This was fun, a bit more violent than I realized it would be, having not read much about it, but engaging and a nice getaway with Beth. We’ve seen three movies in a theater since Christmas, which may be some kind of post-kids record for us.

Tuesday Morning: Band Festival

The first thing I heard Tuesday morning was Beth exhorting Noah to get into his band clothes—“I’m not kidding,” she was saying tensely. The bus for the band festival was leaving from Noah’s school at 7:40, she had to drive him there, and time was running short. I managed to snap a quick picture of him before they left. See what an enthusiastic subject he was?

In the spring the band travels to a number of judged festivals and other performances, including one outside Hershey Park, after which the kids go to—you guessed it—Hershey Park. Tuesday was their first one, a countywide competition. Noah was hoping the band would score well enough to advance to the state-level competition, as the chorus already had. After all, who wants to be beaten out by the chorus? Last year they did advance and went on to get a perfect score at the state competition.

That afternoon Beth forwarded me an email from the band teacher. The band had done very well, scoring “superior” from two judges and “excellent” from two more, but they needed a perfect score to advance.

June and I crossed paths with Noah as he was walking home from the bus stop and we were headed to another bus stop for her violin lesson. I yelled congratulations mixed with condolences from across the street, and then called him a few minutes later on my cell phone. He sounded a little disappointed, but he was a good sport about it, as is his way.

Wednesday Evening: Book Club

The next evening the other book club met.  We discussed The Good Lord Bird, a piece of historical fiction by James McBride about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, told from the point of view of an African-American adolescent boy who travels with Brown. It’s narrated in a sort of American picaresque style—a lot of the discussion focused on connections to Huckleberry Finn—with a dash of postmodernism. It was a good discussion, but I would have liked to talk more about the fact that the protagonist cross-dresses for most of the novel.

Friday Afternoon: Violin Recital

On Thursday evening at dinner June said Friday was going to be “the best day ever!” She cashed in forty tiger paws (a reward system at her school) to have lunch in the classroom with her teacher, she was going to Maggie’s birthday party directly after school and from there she’d go to her recital.

I’d spent a good deal of the week ferrying June’s violin from place to place.  She broke the bridge on Monday afternoon while she was practicing so Tuesday morning I took it to the music store to buy a new one and get it installed.  Later that afternoon at her lesson, the teacher said the new bridge was too high and we needed to get it shaved down to fit the violin, which is a quarter sized one. Indeed, June had to press harder on the strings and was making mistakes she hadn’t been making before, so I called the store—found out the employee should not have put it in as is—and arranged for a loaner while we get the bridge customized. I went back to trade violins on Wednesday morning, so June could finally practice. (She did an extra long practice that evening.)

Friday I brought the violin to Maggie’s house where her birthday party was in full swing. (Literally, the kids were taking turns on the backyard swing.) June had already changed into her recital clothes and after her turn being pushed high into the air by Maggie’s dad (who is also her basketball coach), she gathered up the cup and saucer she’d painted and the cupcake Maggie’s mom packed for the road and we were off to the recital.

On arriving, June learned from the program that she was going first and she looked a little stricken, but her teacher told her they were going to a practice room to run through her songs, “and then you won’t be nervous any more.”  She sounded convincing, and when June came back she did look more confident.  It turned out I knew one of the moms in the audience. Her kids went to the same preschool mine did, but in different years. Her third grader was going to play the guitar in the recital.

June was the only student in the recital to play three songs and also the only one listed as an arranger of her own music. (She was improvising a tune based on a half scale.)  There was a small mistake in her first song but she recovered and went on to play the rest of her songs well, took a bow, and looked relieved to be able to sit and listen to the other violinist, the guitarist, pianists and the tiny girl playing a drum kit.  There were ten musicians in all, most of them ten or under, and the whole program over completed in twenty minutes. Then it was time for juice and cookies and a celebratory pizza dinner at Roscoe’s.

The most artful part of April was over, but it was the first evening of spring break so more adventures awaited us…

An Out of This World Birthday

I. Star of the Week: Friday

“Have a good time, star of the week,” I called out to June as she and Beth headed out the door at 8:15. Beth was taking her to school because she was chaperoning the second-grade field trip to Air and Space. It was the first event in an almost unbearably exciting three days: first the museum trip, which corresponded with June’s birthday party theme—outer space—followed by a school fundraiser at Chuck E. Cheese that evening and then June’s birthday party, which would start late Saturday afternoon and last until Sunday morning, on June’s actual birthday.

“You were star of the week?” Beth inquired.  Star of the week is a rotating position in June’s afternoon class.  Mainly it consists of being responsible for classroom chores, but Ms. K has done a good job selling it.  Beth wanted to know if it was a coincidence that it was the week before her birthday.  It was, June said.

While they were gone I read a few chapters of a P.D. James mystery, cleaned the kitchen, exercised, worked on the outline for a brochure, and gathered June’s early birthday gifts.  I’d bought her a sweater and a skirt with starts on them to wear at her party, and a pair of pajama bottoms with glow-in-the-dark stars, also for the party.  June has two pairs of much loved and now ragged glow-in-the-dark space pajamas (hand-me-downs from Noah) which would have been perfect for the party if not for the fact that one pair no longer glows and the other has a huge whole in the crotch I’ve mended multiple times and which is now beyond fixing. So clearly, new pajamas were needed. It turns out glow-in-the-dark space pajamas are harder to find than you’d think. I spent several evenings looking online and finally found a pair (bottoms only) in her size on eBay.  I put everything in a dark blue gift bag, which I decorated with outer space-themed stickers. These were for a build-your-own solar system craft for the party but we had more than we needed.  In fact, June and I had spent much of the previous afternoon sticking identical stickers back to back, punching holes in them and suspending them from the ceiling with fishing line for party decorations. June also drew Saturn (sans ring) with marker and glitter glue and then made rings for the Pin-the-Ring-on-Saturn game.

Beth got home from the field trip a little after two, reported it had been a success, especially the IMAX 3-D movie about the Hubble space telescope and then she started baking the cake. June decided she wanted a three-tier cake with sky blue frosting and roses on it before she settled on her party theme and she could not be swayed to a more space-themed cake, even after I found out through a photo posted on Facebook that one of my local friends owns a star-shaped cake pan that would have been perfect. June did agree to some star-shaped candles and picked out black plates, cups, and napkins with gold stars on them.

Once both kids were home from school and June had showed me her rainbow-striped coloring page of the space shuttle, she opened her early presents, which also included some fabric and sewing patterns from YaYa, a clue that June was getting the sewing machine she asked for from us. Then Beth and June set out on their second trip to Party City in less than a week, this time to get the star and moon-shaped balloons we’d already bought filled with helium and to procure additional balloons, including a huge one that says, “another year of fabulous!”

When they returned, it was off to Chuck E. Cheese.  We ate pizza and June ran around with friends and played games and had several pictures taken of herself, with and without a statue of the mouse.  Beth, Noah, and I played a lot of skee ball and I shot hoops, too. The tickets we earned playing games with twenty dollars worth of tokens netted June a bookmark, a container of purple play dough, a glow-in-the-dark plastic snake, a box of Nerds and a roll of sweet tarts. No one ever said the prizes are a good deal, but we had fun and we also raised $9 for June’s school between the tokens and our meal and Noah didn’t complain too much about being forced to set foot in Chuck E. Cheese, the very concept of which seems to offend his preteen sensibilities. There’s a Fro-Zen-Yo next door so we had dessert there (except for June who opted for an ice cream sandwich plucked from a machine by a robot arm at Chuck E. Cheese).

After June was in bed I wanted to make sure Noah and I had some one-on-one time during a busy, June-focused weekend, so we started reading The Martian Chronicles, a book I used to teach. He liked the part where the astronauts from the second expedition end up in a Martian insane asylum.

II. Out of This World: Saturday

Saturday was a whirl of party-related chores.  We cleaned and reorganized the living room so that there was enough floor space for five sleeping bags and cleared everything on the porch to one side to make room for the piñata and the Pin-the-Ring-on-Saturn game. June and I cleaned the kids’ room, filled the goody bags, and worked on the party timetable. Beth and Noah hung a paper curtain in the living room and practiced projecting a movie onto it, and Beth and June frosted the cake. In the excitement we forgot that June had a make-up violin lesson, but her teacher dropped by with a small gift for her (polka-dotted rosin).

All day June was singing “Let it Go,” because we were going to show Frozen at the party.  June had not seen the movie because with rare exceptions she was not allowed to watch PG-rated movies until she turned eight and Frozen has been the hottest movie for kids June’s age for months.  She’s watched the video of the most famous song many, many times and has it down pat.  She was also wearing a small tiara like Elsa’s from the time she got dressed that morning.

The party started at five, but June had asked if Megan could come an hour early, ostensibly to help with last-minute preparations. I remember my sister and I doing this when we were kids; the real reason is to affirm best-friend status, and as Megan is without question June’s best friend, I said yes.

Once the rest of the guests began arriving, June directed them to page through a book about the moon she’d set out on the living room rug along with one of Beth’s old astronomy textbooks from college.  Noah started a playlist of songs about the moon for atmosphere. Then we directed them to the table I’d covered with newspaper and set out clear plastic sun-catchers in the shapes of the moon and stars, along with paint, brushes, and cups of water.  This proved a popular activity and the girls painted a few each before Beth and Noah returned with pizza and we had to clear off the table to eat.

After pizza, the beautiful blue tiered cake, and ice cream, June opened her presents. Marisa got her a book about space.  There were several presents of fabric and a sewing kit and Lego and Lite-Brix kits. Maggie made a nice card with chalk drawings of outer space on black construction paper.

The piñata was the last order of business before the big event—getting into pajamas and watching the movie.  This year’s model was star-shaped and covered in shiny gold foil. It was actually quite pretty. Last year was the first year one of June’s guests broke the piñata without maternal or fraternal assistance and it was after everyone had a had a few turns so I was unprepared when Megan, only the third girl in line, broke it.  In retrospect, I should have only let each girl hit it once during a turn so more girls had a chance. Live and learn.

I was a little worried before the party started that in an effort to fill sixteen hours, we’d actually planned too many activities.  Beth looked over the schedule right before the party started and said it was “ambitious,” but I ended up glad for the full schedule because the party, surprisingly loud considering the small number of guests, always got louder and more chaotic whenever there was a down moment. And as it turned out, we had all the girls in pajamas and sleeping bags, supplied with popcorn and ring pops and ready to watch the movie at 6:55, five minutes ahead of schedule. I noted this with some satisfaction and Murphy’s Law immediately took effect. The movie wouldn’t start. It wasn’t compatible with one of the devices we were using to project it. Beth and Noah tried several fixes and finally Beth had to purchase a new copy online, which at fifteen dollars was totally worth it.  The film began at 7:03.  Luckily, speedy tech support is Beth’s specialty.

There was some chatter during the movie and many admonishments not to give anything away because June had not seen it already (it’s possible all the guests had).  They certainly knew the songs and there was some singing along.  When “Let it Go,” was about to start they all sat up in their sleeping bags.  I told Beth it’s like the anthem of their generation, and she predicted they will all be belting it out when they’re thirty and going through bad breakups.

Marisa was not spending the night so her mom came to pick her up when the movie was over and everyone else brushed their teeth and got back into their sleeping bags. I explained the rules, everyone was to stay put unless they needed to use the bathroom but they could converse until ten.  It was around nine-fifteen, an hour and half past June’s bedtime and she said she was tired and just wanted to go to sleep and not talk at all. Her friends all wanted to stay up and June was starting to look upset. Someone suggested reading and she went and got an armful of books for her friends.  I supplied flashlights to those guests who had not brought their own (a surprising number of them had) and soon everyone but June was reading quietly and she was snuggled down with her eyes closed.

I was surprised by this turn of events and wondered if getting them quiet for the night might be as simple as that but by nine-thirty I was hearing voices, including June’s, now sounding cheerful. Shortly before ten I came to remind them it was time to sleep.  I returned with a similar message shortly thereafter and then Beth went in at 10:15, got water for everyone who was thirsty, and spoke somewhat sternly about the need to stop talking and by 10:30 they were all asleep or doing a reasonable imitation of asleep.

III. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars: Sunday

I fully expected them to all be up at the crack of dawn, but they surprised me by sleeping until almost seven and they were sluggish and disinclined to get up even then.  The girl who’d kept the rest up after they wanted to go to sleep was complaining that she wanted to go back to sleep, but everyone was talking. I put in a Magic School Bus DVD about the solar system and they watched it, still lying on the floor, while Beth made pancakes and I sliced bananas and set the table. June wanted a candle in her pancake because it was her real birthday so I put one in and they all sang “Happy Birthday” to her in English and Spanish.

Breakfast perked the girls up and they got dressed and went outside with their moon observation journals (the fact that they are studying the moon at school might have inspired June’s party theme). Although it was supposed to be out at that time, it was too cloudy to verify and they all dutifully noted that in Spanish in their journals.  Next they played Pin-the-Ring on Saturn on the porch. June had the first turn and went several feet wide of the mark, taping her ring to the front door, making everyone including her laugh.  Zoë went second and almost walked off the porch steps before I grabbed her jacket, so from then on after blindfolding and spinning each girl I took her by the shoulders and gently pointed her in the right direction and then they got more accurate.  We had an extra ring so I let June have another turn and she got hers onto the paper with the rest of them.

The last two scheduled activities were making a solar system map with stickers and playing a game Megan had invented especially for the party called Catch-the-Star. It involves chasing a beam of light from a flashlight around the living room. I didn’t quite understand the rules, but the girls all did, and that’s what mattered.

We ran out of activities just ten minutes before the end of the party so we sent them outside to chase one of the balloons. One guest’s mother thought the party ended at ten instead of nine, and she had to come all the way from Rockville so she was just setting out when I called at nine-thirty to inquire if she was on her way.  The girl and June worked on building the car from the kit she’d gotten for her.

Once the party was finally over, June opened her presents from immediate and extended family: the sewing machine and a case to carry it, a kids’ guide to herbs, a shawl she’d admired, a saddle for her American Girl doll’s horse, two Edgar and Ellen books, and a lot of clothes. I went overboard with clothes this year because June’s new favorite colors, light blues and greens are easier to find than orange, her old favorite, and blue and green are also my favorites.

Becky, June’s preschool music teacher and the mother of her favorite babysitter, came by in the afternoon with more presents, a historical book about women’s basketball, and certificates for activities with Becky and Eleanor—a manicure, gelato, a tea party, and a game of Horse.

June spent the day quietly playing with her new building kits, reading Harry Potter, which I wouldn’t let her read until she turned eight, watching Frozen again and singing “Let it Go,” under her breath. After dinner we ate leftover birthday cake and June wanted us to put candles on it and sing to her again, so we did.

Happy birthday, dear June. As your card said, I wish you the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Pi Day

I finished with my week’s work Thursday morning just before lunch. After being busy for all of January and most of February, my work has slowed. I knew this would happen eventually because Sara had warned me at the end of last year when one of her major clients scaled back, but coming a few months before summer, a season in which I usually work and earn less and spend more (on vacations and summer camps for the kids), it’s not a welcome development. So I’m casting about for ideas about how to earn some supplemental income, but also trying to enjoy the extra time instead of fretting about it.

This was my third week on reduced hours and the first week I minded it. The first week I was glad of the break and I got some satisfying cleaning projects done, and the second week the kids had two days off school—more weather-related cancellations—don’t even get me started—four inches in March, in Maryland! It’s not like we live in the Klondike, except apparently we do.  And then later that week I was sick, so it was just as well I didn’t need to work much.

After lunch, I cleaned the bathroom, and then set out on some errands. June’s birthday party—her first slumber party—is in about a week.  Her party theme is outer space and I was wondering if the post office was currently selling any stamps with pictures of the moon, or stars, or something like that for the invitations.  I’ve often had good luck with this pleasing little detail of party preparation, but not this year. The closest thing would have been stamps picturing the Medal of Honor, which is star-shaped, but not particularly celestial, so I passed. I ended up using international forever stamps with a picture of the Earth seen from outer space we already had, even though they are worth more than the postage required. I did get her a birthday card, however, with a face made of the sun on one side, and the moon on the other. When you open it, there are stars and it says, “Wishing you the sun, the moon, and the stars,” so the trip felt like a success anyway.

Next, at Beth’s suggestion, I stopped at Capital City Cheesecake and bought four mini-pies for Pi Day on Friday (March 14, or 3/14, if you’ve never heard of this holiday). I got two apples, a coconut cream, and a pecan.  I would have stopped at the Co-op for milk, but I needed to get home to meet June’s bus and I didn’t want to cut it too close.

Often I’m still wrapping up my work for the day when June comes home, but I always spend at least the first fifteen minutes she’s home having some one-on-one time with her before her brother gets home. Then I will often go back to work while she starts her homework, unless it’s a violin lesson or drama class day. Thursday was neither and I had no work, so I suggested we take a walk in the woods where the crocuses were blooming. I’d noticed them the day before when I was picking her up from drama class. Every year I look forward to the day I first see them, a riot of tiny pale purple flowers, bursting out all along the banks of the creek and the winter-muddy path beside it. They all bloom at once, sometimes as early as mid-February, probably in late February on average. It was so cold this year they were late, but they finally came.

Wednesday had been warm, so warm I went bare-legged under a denim skirt, which turned out to be a bit of irrational exuberance; I was chilly much of the day but I refused to change clothes out of stubbornness, even wrapping my legs in a blanket as I read the Iliad (for book club) and drank hot tea on the porch. By Thursday, a cold front had come in—the high temperature was thirty-five degrees lower than the day before—and I was wearing long underwear under my corduroys and a sweater under a hooded sweatshirt. The crocuses were bundled up, too. Most of them had closed, even though it was a sunny day.  Nevertheless, it was pleasant to be outside in the sun.  I was watching June carefully for signs of an incipient migraine, as sudden drops in temperature often bring them on, but she was fine.

We’d packed an after school snack for June to eat at the picnic table by the creek—a vegetarian hot dog with ketchup wrapped in foil to keep it warm, a carrot and a bottle of ranch dressing, and a plastic baggie of chocolate and vanilla bunny-shaped cookies. I was putting the snack in a tote bag when June patiently informed me it really needed to be in a picnic basket. (I believe Beth made the same error the last time she took June on a picnic.)

After eating, admiring the flowers, practicing her Pocahontas pose on a small boulder, and pretending to be a princess in a magic forest, June was ready to go home. She helped me make the once weekly dinner she plans (scalloped potatoes and more hot dogs). Even though I would have liked to work more this week, it really had been a pleasant afternoon.

I had the whole day free Friday and I’d like to say I cleaned the house from top to bottom, or took some productive steps toward finding extra work, or started the story I’ve been meaning to write for Rehoboth Reads short story contest, but I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I spent too long online deciding which kind of paint to buy for the sun-catcher painting craft at June’s party. I did two loads of laundry and dried one of them on the clothesline. I straightened up the kitchen and dining room, and then went on a meandering series of errands.

I started with a leisurely cappuccino back at Capital City Cheesecake, where I heroically resisted the St. Patrick’s Day cupcakes (chocolate with green frosting), knowing there would be pie that evening, and then I headed to the Co-op for eggs, milk, and tofu. While there I got a birthday card for my sister and pondered whether or not to buy thank-you cards depicting a lighthouse and a starry sky for June’s post-birthday thank you notes. I decided not to, as June might rather make homemade cards.  (She made her own invitations. I typed up and printed the logistical info for the inside of the cards and she drew an outer space scene on the front and a girl in a sleeping bag on the inside of each one.)

Then I took a bus to the closest county library in search of How to Train Your Dragon books because our town library has a low stock of them and is always out of the one June wants. I got the next two in the series. By the time I got home there was just enough time to ride the exercise bike before June’s bus came.  For most of the day I was listening to my iPod, first a podcast and then twelve chapters of Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift.  (Hey, I can’t read Homer all the time.)

And speaking of books, when the kids came home, I read Pet’s Revenge to both of them on the porch.  The Edgar and Ellen series is in the rare sweet spot of books both kids like so it’s quite a find, but because the kids are rarely free at the same time and Noah has a longer attention span I had been reading the books to each of them individually. I like the books, too, but not well enough to be reading them twice in such quick succession, so once June and I got to the end of book 3, I made her wait for Noah to catch up, and we started book 4 together.

In case you were imagining an idyllic scene with the two of them listening raptly to the dulcet sounds of their mother reading in the mellow late afternoon light, it wasn’t much like that.  Even though seating arrangements were carefully negotiated before we started, June’s not much for sitting still and she was either swinging dangerously fast and close to Noah and me, or repeatedly getting up from the sky chair and complaining when Noah repeatedly stole her place. The bickering made me think I might rather go back to reading the series twice in relative (if redundant) peace and quiet, but I’m not giving up yet. It just seems like the sort of idea that ought to work, so I’m going to try to make it work.

They both practiced their instruments next while I wrote this post, though once June was finished and Noah came upstairs for some music, they found the time to argue over the laptop. It made me wonder why they were fighting so much and then I realized it might be because basketball season’s over so June and I weren’t at Friday afternoon practice and they were both in the house without homework occupying Noah, which honestly doesn’t happen very often.

We had take-out pizza for dinner and the pies for dessert. Noah ate three slices of pizza and then used a ruler to approximate .14159 of a piece and ate that, too.  We did not measure the radius of the pies and calculate their areas, but Beth tried to explain what pi means to June and although she didn’t quite follow, she recalled a Cyberchase episode about it.  We then discussed why other irrational numbers don’t have their own holidays.  I said I couldn’t think of another one that sounded like a food, but Noah said the square root of two. You could eat root vegetables for that one, or maybe carrot cake if you were feeling festive.  It was a cheerful dinner, a good ending to my furlough day.

I’m sure I can find plenty of ways to fill my extra time over the next weeks, but if you happen to need a writer, researcher, or editor for short-term projects any time this spring, give me a holler.

Another Writer in the Family

When I was looking for positive things about February in my last post, I forgot an obvious one.  A week ago, June’s afternoon class had a publishing party, to showcase the kids’ second quarter writing. I’d been to the first quarter one in November, so I knew what to expect. Each child has a collection of writing on his or her desk and kids and parents travel through the classroom, read the papers, leave compliments on a sheet provided for this purpose, and then everyone eats. At the last party, being a former writing teacher, I took my responsibility seriously and tried to leave substantive comments on each child’s work. Being a well-trained middle-class mom, I also brought juice boxes.

This time June wanted us to up our game a little, so we brought grocery store cupcakes.  And Beth was able to take off work early, so we were both there, although I arrived ten minutes late and Beth got there about hallway through the festivities. I got right to work circulating around the room and reading. There were factual essays about snow and re-imagined or original fairy tales on display. Because I was late and there was less time for reading and commenting than at the last publishing party, I probably only read work from half the students in the class of sixteen, but I got a good sense of what they’d been working on last quarter.

The reason we were on a tighter schedule was that there was a new activity. The kids had illustrated their stories using a computer animation program and these were projected onto a screen while recordings of the kids reading their work played. Or that was the idea anyway. In practice the recordings were so soft as to be completely inaudible, except for the occasional word or two that could be heard, in isolation and sometimes rather loudly. (And whenever that happened the kids would laugh in surprise so it was hard to catch even that word or two.) I couldn’t even follow the stories I’d just read. I think if I’d been the teacher I would have ditched this plan and had the kids read their papers aloud, but we sat politely and clapped at the end of each story as if we’d heard it. June’s was last, and miraculously the audio worked fine. We could hear the whole story.  The class laughed again at this turn of the events, but Ms. K shushed them and we listened.

Most of June’s classmates had opted for the alter-a-fairy-tale approach, so there was the story of the three little sharks (who tell the wolf they won’t let him in, not by the hair of their finny, fin fins) and the Gingerbread Fish, who swims away from an ever-growing mob of pursuing sea creatures. June went the original story route, however. I wish I had a copy of the story so I could tell it in more detail, but it’s still at school. Here’s the gist:

A boy discovers the condiments in his refrigerator are alive and move around at night. He writes a story about it for school but the teacher throws it in the recycling bin because it was supposed to be a non-fiction piece and she doesn’t believe that it actually happened. Then, seized with doubt, she breaks into his house at night, and observes the phenomenon herself, fainting in surprise when she sees it. Back at school she plucks the story from the recycling and displays it on the wall. And then somehow the teacher ends up dying of injuries sustained during her fall when she fainted. The story ends, “And they all lived happily ever after, except Ms. K.”  Yes, she did use her teacher’s real name in this story. Now the class was laughing all over again and repeating June’s final line to each other.

I told Ms. K she’d been a good sport about being killed off in June’s story, but she didn’t seem to mind.  “June’s writing is amazing,” she told me.

In the car on the way home June said she didn’t like it when people were laughing at the beginning of the story but I said I didn’t think they were laughing at her, that they were just surprised that the sound was working.  She didn’t say she minded people laughing at the end. I think she recognized that as admiration for the funny ending.

June brought home a lot of language arts homework this week, some of it routine like alphabetization practice and a worksheet on contractions. But what caught our attention was a series of sentences using her spelling words, which she opted to string into a story, and a rather dramatic one at that. There’s an excerpt in the photo. Our run-away favorite line is, “But if you weighed my sorrow it would be 1,009 pounds.” (The point of the spelling lesson was ie/ei words, if you couldn’t guess.)

But her dramatic streak is not limited to her school writing. On Monday she made arrangements on the bus to shoot hoops with a fourth grader who lives down the block. It would have been quite the social coup, but the girl never came.  June waited for her on the porch for a long time. It wasn’t until the next day that I found the notes she made while waiting. “Strange sounds, windy, no sign of A., getting dark early.” All it was missing was howling wolves getting nearer and nearer…

When I quoted this on Facebook, one of my friends commented that we had “another writer in the family.”  She comes by it honestly. We are a family of writers. Beth’s the online communications director of her union. My father was a newspaper, magazine, and eventually web site editor; my sister and I work together as copywriters; I was once an English professor, and from the time I was a kid into my early twenties, I used to write fiction.  I have recently been thinking of giving it another try. There’s a contest run by Browse-About Books in Rehoboth I want to enter.  The stories have to take place on the Rehoboth boardwalk. So far, though, I don’t have any good ideas, so we’ll see. Meanwhile, Noah and his classmates are amusing themselves by writing a collaborative story online. It’s a version of The Hunger Games, but with themselves as characters. He’s participating even though he hasn’t read the books yet.

Of course, Noah has been writing for school, too. He had a two-page paper about Mauritania due on Thursday for an ongoing unit on Africa. They had a celebration called Africa Fest that day with food and music. For Africa Fest, he had to make a trifold poster with two other students, make a model of a Mauritanian artifact (he chose a stringed instrument called an ardin) and write the paper (a demographic and historical overview of the country).

It was a straightforward assignment, with a series of factual questions to research and answer.  It wouldn’t have been too stressful except he’d neglected to work much on it, focused as he was on his product liability documentary, and even though he is a good writer, any kind of writing is slow for him. He didn’t get to the paper the weekend before it was due, because of other assignments and then on Tuesday night he didn’t feel well and couldn’t work productively, so Wednesday afternoon found him with the research done, but only three sentences written.

This seemed like a completely impossible situation, because the artifact wasn’t made yet either. I advised him to skip algebra homework as well as practicing his drums and to focus only on Africa Fest assignments. He decided to start with the instrument, which took until after dinner to construct, but came out pretty well. It’s the kind of thing he does well. He wasn’t completely satisfied with it, though. He thought it would be better if it actually played music.

It was seven by the time he started on the paper.  Beth and I had consulted in private about whether there was any chance he could produce a passing paper in the time he had and if maybe he should just take the failing grade and do his math instead, but he wanted to try. It did seem a shame to let all the research go to waste.

He ended up staying up until almost midnight and working on it some more in the morning but he did finish. Beth and I normally go to bed around 9:30 since the alarm goes off at 5:45, but I stayed up with him until 10:45, sitting with him in the study, mostly reading a magazine, feeding him the next question he needed to answer whenever he finished one, and making sure he didn’t get sidetracked or spend too much time on any given question. Once the paper was written and it was just the Works Cited left, I went to bed, leaving him at the computer. I think I see a lot of all-nighters in his future as a college student.

But the good news is now that IDRP and National History Day and Africa Fest, all of which kind of ran into each other, are over (well, almost over—he still has to finish reading Things Fall Apart, write a speech about Mauritania, and write a comparison paragraph about colonialism in Mauritania and Angola this weekend) but once they are all over, there might be a bit of a lull before the next big thing, which is a Shakespeare unit.  He’s not sure when that starts but he doesn’t have any assignments for it yet. I worry about the time it will take him to read the plays, but I also think it could be a lot of fun.  Chances are I will read along with him, for what family of writers could resist that?

February Faces

Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

I saved a blue conversation heart from Valentine’s Day and put it on my desk, next to the erasers. It says, “Be Happy.” Some days it seems like a cheerful encouragement and I think, “Okay, I’ll try that.”  Other days it, and the thick brown mug I often use that says, “Do what you like/Like what you do” just seem to be taunting me.

February is such a challenge some years. It started with strawberries, I think.  On the first day of February, after a basketball game, Beth and June and I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things, and June was hungry so Beth got her a fruit cup consisting of blueberries and strawberries. She ate all the blueberries but didn’t want the strawberries.

I love strawberries, but real ones, not pale winter imitations of strawberries. In our area real, ripe, juicy red strawberries are available for about a month, which can start anywhere from late April to late May, depending on weather conditions. I probably hadn’t eaten one since some time last summer, but now last spring seemed like a distant memory and next spring like it might not ever come, so I ate the strawberries.

My main problem is that we have had too many snow days this winter, seven to be precise and three of them in February.  They fell during a period when I was swamped with work and have caused me a lot of stress.  One day—Valentine’s Day actually—when we’d had two snow days in a row and I had a noon deadline, the morning play date I’d scheduled for June fell through because the mother of the child woke up sick and I almost cried when I read her message.

In addition to the snow days and the late openings (too numerous to count), our heat has gone out three times this winter. We always got it fixed the next day but not before the temperature in the house dropped into the forties. Our oil company has not been as interested in the question of why it keeps going out as we are.

The last time it snowed (ten inches, about a week and a half ago), I hurt my back and aggravated the ongoing tendonitis I have in my right forearm shoveling snow and chipping ice off the sidewalk. Both are better now, but it has not helped me feel positive about winter.

Sometimes I do like winter, at the beginning of it usually. The cold temperatures are novel and invigorating and the snow is undeniably pretty. It’s fun getting out the flannel sheets and my sweaters and warm socks and making warm, cozy meals. Most importantly, it makes Beth happy, because winter is her season, and until we’ve had several snow days, I’m on board. Eventually, though, we get to the point where what makes her happy (a big snow) makes me unhappy, and what makes me happy (cold rain, sleet, anything that does not result in the kids staying home yet again) makes her unhappy. It’s an uncomfortable state of affairs sometimes.

I’m also sad for Noah right now, because despite a month of weekends (not to mention quite a few snow days) he spent glued to the computer working on his documentary for National History Day he didn’t make the cut to advance to the county level. He’s not very competitive and is generally very easy-going about grades and the like, but he wanted this, and although he took the bad news graciously, I still wish there was something I could do to make it better, other than offer sympathy. But sometimes that’s all there is.

So, what went right in February?

Well, we all got nice Valentines presents for each other. We bought books for the kids (one about fonts for Noah and the fourth book in the Edgar and Ellen series, Pet’s Revenge, for June). I got fancy cheese and chocolate for Beth and she bought me a Starbucks card. Beth brought home a half-dozen red roses and the kids selected chocolate truffles and chocolate-cherry bread for the whole family. And that evening we went out for heart-shaped pizza at Zpizza, which according to Noah “tastes like love.” The day that started with me nearly weeping ended sweetly.

Also, the Pandas had a few games. After the one I already blogged about, they played a double game the next weekend.  They lost the game June played in 24-18, but it was an exciting game and both teams played well. The other game might have been a win or a tie. There’s no official scorekeeping and I heard conflicting reports. Either way, it was close.

The best thing about June’s game, though, from our perspective, was that for the first time ever in three seasons of playing basketball, June took a shot at the hoop. Being the shortest player on her team, she has often lacked the confidence to try to score and instead passes to other players. She often gets assists and up to now seemed content with that role, but at practice the day before something clicked and she told us she just felt like she could do it.  So she took a shot and it almost went in, too. After the game, she told us that trying to make the basket was her favorite part of the game.

So it’s not that surprising that she tried again at the next Pandas’ game. More on that in a little bit…She and I have been playing Horse at our neighbor’s hoop once or twice a week ever since basketball started. I have a height advantage obviously and I’ve offered to handicap myself by shooting from further away or giving her two shots for every one of mine, but she has rejected these offers. As a result, I always win. There would be no point in letting her win. She’d know and she’d be mad. (The fact that I always win does not stop her from critiquing my form, however. It’s all wrong apparently.)

So on Thursday we were shooting baskets with a wet, dirty basketball (the street was slushy). My hands were gritty and tingling with cold; I was wishing I’d worn gloves and thinking I’d like to go home, but she kept asking for one more game. The scores were closer than usual and I realized we weren’t going home until she won. She finally did, on the fifth game. “We can go home now,” she said casually, after the winning basket. Later she mentioned to Beth that all four games she’d lost, she’d only lost by one point, but when she won, she won by two points.

At the game on Saturday, June took another shot at the basket. It wasn’t as close at last time, but they were playing on ten-foot hoops again and she was completely surrounded, so it was not an easy shot. I was proud of her just for trying.

It was an amazing game overall. It started off slow—both teams were handicapped by using the taller hoops.  It was not clear to any of the parents why were we using the ten-foot hoops, as we switched gyms to get one with eight-foot hoops. Maybe it was the other coach’s preference or maybe it was because we were short a player at the beginning of the game and a full-court game made more sense than two half-court games.  Anyway, at the end of the first quarter the purple team was ahead 0-2 and at halftime the score was unchanged. Then at the beginning of the third quarter the Pandas’ offense just snapped into place. They were seeing who was open and passing strategically and shooting over and over. It was a thing of beauty to watch. At first the other team seemed a bit startled and intimidated, but then they stepped up their game too. By my reckoning, the final score was 8-6, Pandas.

After the game, Beth and June and I went straight to the hardware store where we took a workshop on starting seeds. We’ve been gardening for years, mostly from seed, but we often have to start over with new seeds because they don’t germinate or the seedlings get eaten by slugs—so we thought we could use some pointers. What I took from it was that we haven’t been using a light enough grade of soil for germinating and that we might have better luck with slugs if we started seeds earlier inside, rather than waiting for warmer temperatures and starting them outside.  There was an amusing moment when I asked about slugs because the earth mother-type instructor clearly did not want to give advice about how to kill living creatures. She opined that all insects have their place in the universe and then quickly mentioned beer and eggshells, both of which we already use. June wanted to know how to grow potatoes, which is a gardening goal of hers for this year. The instructor said using seed potatoes was probably the best bet. Then we all planted tomato seeds. We choose Brandywine and Marvel Stripe. We’ve grown Brandywines before (from plant starts rather than seed) but I had never heard of the other kind.

It was an unseasonably warm day. Beth and June went on to further Saturday afternoon adventures, ice skating on slushy ice at the outdoor rink in Silver Spring and playing at a muddy, slushy playground. I mostly stayed home, supervising Noah’s homework, and reading the Washington Post magazine on the porch in shirtsleeves, then going for a short walk before dinner. It’s going to get cold again later in the week, and it might snow Wednesday and again on Friday, but today we have two pots with tomato seeds in them sitting near the study window, cheering me up more effectively than that bossy candy heart.

Sometimes February faces grimace at another snowstorm or put on an intimidating game face, but others watch attentively from the sideline at scoring teammates, or bend over a small pot, full of soil and hope.

Hustle, Hustle, Hustle, Pandas!

“People are here!” Maggie yelled to her dad, June’s basketball coach, as I entered the gym with June and Talia for Friday afternoon practice.  June and I had picked up Talia in the parking lot where her mom was stranded in the car with her napping younger brother. Other than Maggie, they were the first players to arrive, but soon everyone else was there and the gym was filled with the sounds of sneakered feet and bouncing balls slapping against the wooden floor, as well as the shouts of seven- and eight-year-old girls. The Pandas were psyched.

After a month of twice-weekly practices, their third season began this weekend with a field trip to a high school girls’ basketball game and their own first game. Half the team has been together since kindergarten and most of the rest of the girls joined last year, in first grade, so the team has a nice esprit de corps.  (Half of them also went to the same preschool.) They are always the Pandas, though the colors of their shirt varies by year. First they were the Purple Pandas, then the Red Pandas, and this year the Golden Pandas. (I think this last one sounds like a strip mall Chinese restaurant.)

After practicing the line dance that is supposed to help them with their pivots and other footwork, and the passing drills, and the scrimmage, Coach Mike gathered the team for a final huddle and their traditional cheer, “Hustle, hustle, hustle, Pandas!” It’s positive and to the point, like Mike himself. He’s the kind of coach who can pull this kind of thing off: once when the players were glum during a losing game in kindergarten (a year in which they lost every single game), he told them gently, “That’s not the Panda way,” and to a player they all perked up and looked heartened. He’s that good with them.

After a quick dinner of frozen pizza Noah heated up for us while we were at practice, we swung by Megan’s house and picked her up to take her to the high school game. This is an annual Panda field trip the girls love. (Last year June was sick and missed the trip, but we went with a smaller group of Pandas to a University of Maryland women’s basketball game and that made up for it.)

Mike had instructed all the girls to wear their team shirts to the game. They’d have an on court high five with the home team, the Blazers, at halftime, he said. He spotted us as we were buying tickets for the adults (kids in basketball league t-shirts got in free) and urged us to stay at least until the end of halftime. He knew we’d be taking June home early because we are strict about bedtime. I assured him we would.

We found the Pandas and assorted parents and siblings and took our seats, then made a snack bar run. June studied the Starburst ingredients list to see if they were vegetarian (no dice, gelatin) and then checked out the Swedish fish (success!) while Megan got a Rice Krispie treat and a couple other things. She asked if she could come back later to get something for her little sister. She had four dollars and she wanted to spend as much of it as possible.

We were sitting right next to the pep band and I was watching them, thinking that would be the only thing that might get Noah anywhere near a high school basketball court. Then I recognized one of the drummers, a tenth-grade boy who plays in a band with June’s favorite babysitter. (We went to one of their concerts last spring at the VFW hall.)

Before the game started, Mike led the Pandas onto the court and they were introduced on the loudspeaker as “The Golden Pandas and future Blazers.” The Pandas stood next to the cheerleaders as the high school players were introduced one by one and ran through the double line of cheerleaders. That would have been enough excitement, but there would be more.

The game started and, not surprisingly, it’s much faster than elementary school basketball. We all admired how the players instinctively knew where the ball was and where to pass it and that they could get baskets from pretty far away.  I know in organizing the trip, Mike wants to show the girls where they could be in seven years, at least those of them who really will be future Blazers.

The Blazers were winning 26-19 at halftime. The Pandas walked down the edge of the court, getting high fives from a line of cheerleaders and then disappeared through a door. When they returned half of them were wearing Blazers t-shirts over their Panda shirts. They were going to scrimmage! They were the halftime entertainment! Mike told them only moments before it happened and didn’t tell the parents at all.

The scrimmage lasted about five minutes and considering the baskets were two feet higher than the ones they’ve used at practice and in games, they looked pretty good. Sally, the Panda most likely to be a Blazer someday, even got a basket. Here’s about thirty seconds of it Talia’s mom shot on her phone:

For the record, those empty bleachers you can see comprise the seating area for the opposing team. The home team side was close to full.

When the girls came off the court, Megan had a split lip from falling down, and a bag of ice she’d received as first aid. She didn’t tell anyone she was hurt until the scrimmage was over and she didn’t even cry, she wanted us to know. Beth said she probably had so much adrenaline it didn’t hurt as much as it normally would.  In the car the girls could talk of nothing but the game, both their own and the big girls’

“It was like we were the guests of honor,” June said.

“We were!” Megan said earnestly. Then June allowed humbly that before most of the people in the crowd got there, they hadn’t heard of the Pandas. Fortunately, that situation was now rectified.

Next we discussed the Blazers’ game and the strengths of various players. This conversation was somewhat impeded by the fact that Beth could only identify players by their jersey numbers while both girls relied more on the players’ hairstyles. I walked Megan to her door, explained to her mother how she came to be injured, and then we drove home.

The next day was the Pandas’ first game. Before the game, the Pandas bounced balls on the sidewalk outside the school and huddled and Mike asked for thoughts. It doesn’t matter who wins, someone offered. Mike said it didn’t but it did matter that they hustled and did their best. And had fun, another player suggested. Yes, have fun, too, he agreed.

If you haven’t been in an elementary school gym recently, a common configuration is two eight-foot basketball hoops along each of the long sides of a rectangular room, and a ten-foot hoop on each of the short sides.  That way you can play two games simultaneously with the short hoops or one full-court game with the tall hoops.  In kindergarten and first grade, they always used the short hoops and they’d been practicing on them all January, but this gym did not have enough short hoops. Someone came with a long-handled tool and tried to lower the hoops but it didn’t work, so the coaches decided that instead of splitting the teams in half and playing two games, they’d play on the full court, with the tall hoops.

The Pandas started warming up and throwing balls at the tall hoops. A lot of them were going in, and not just Sally’s. June had that serious look she gets on her face when she is determined to do something, but none of her shots went in.  Overall, though, the Pandas looked good. But every now and then I glanced over at the girls in the light blue t-shirts practicing on the other side of the court, the Dolphins, and I noticed their shots were going in, too.

At first, the teams seemed pretty evenly matched. I think the score was tied, or at least close, at the end of the first quarter. But after that, the Dolphins hit their stride and they scored basket after basket after basket. Beth thought June looked tired, even though the fact that they were playing only one game meant all the players were sitting out half the time. I pointed out she’d been up an hour past her bedtime and I wondered if the whole team was tired from the previous night’s adventure. By my count, the final score was 14-2, but Beth thought the Pandas scored twice and she might have been right.

The Pandas didn’t lose heart, though, and they minded their manners. After Sally scored the first (and possibly only) basket of the game, Talia took the time to hug her, and when Lila tripped over an opposing player right before the final whistle, I saw her say, “Are you all right?” before getting back into the game.

The Pandas and Dolphins needed to clear out of the gym as soon as the game was over so the 12:00 p.m. game could start. The team huddled on the sidewalk outside the school again.  Mike said there were things they needed to work on, but he found things to praise as well. Then they all put their hands on top of each other and chanted, “Hustle, hustle, hustle, Pandas!”

Midway Through Middle School

The kids have just finished a five-day weekend, or five and a quarter if you count the delayed opening today. They had Monday off for MLK Day and Tuesday was the teacher grading and planning day they have at the end of every quarter and Wednesday was a snow day. Third quarter (finally!) starts today and this means Noah is midway through middle school. Last week was exam week. I actually like midterms because the teachers assign a lot less homework, so even though he has to study, his load is lighter than usual. Nonetheless, he’s had a lot going on. There was a band concert last Thursday, he’s been swamped with homework ever since exams ended, and he got braces Tuesday.

Before the Long Weekend: Wednesday and Thursday

Thursday was a really nice day for me, if busy, which I appreciated because Wednesday was not.  It was the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, so I was little down all day, and I had a computer problem that stopped me from working on a day when I was already behind, and the fire alarm kept beeping because it needed new batteries and I couldn’t figure out how to get the old ones out of the darn thing, and then I got a mild scare when Noah was a half hour late because he missed the Metro bus after band practice and he didn’t call to tell me or answer my call because his phone was dead.  It was that kind of day.

Thursday on the other hand was reasonably productive on the work front, and once the kids got home they were full of appealing requests.  June wanted to go down the block and play Horse at our neighbor’s basketball hoop and then she actually asked to hear a chapter of The Secret Garden.  We have been limping our way through this book, which I loved a child but she’s lukewarm about at best, for over a year. It was the second day in a row we’d read from it, but we haven’t since then.

Because of his band concert that evening, Noah didn’t have much time for homework, so he asked me if I could read Things Fall Apart to him because it’s generally faster for me to read to him than for him to read to himself.  I am never one to turn down a request to read a classic, so we read chapters two to four (and I went back later and read the first chapter on my own).

Noah also had a couple pleasant revelations.  “I accidentally won the geography bee,” he told me when I asked how school was.  He had not realized there was a geography bee and had not studied for it, but he won nevertheless, which is just classic Noah. He’s a little disgruntled about having to advance to the next level (competing against the winners of other social studies classes at his school) because he thinks she should study this time, but I pointed out that not studying seemed to work out pretty well last time.

The big news, though, he kept to himself.  At dinner Beth asked if he’d gotten his IDRP back and he said, yes, and then casually, “I got an A on it.”  Because he got a C on the rough draft, we were not expecting this. I’d already told him that I didn’t care what grade he got on the final paper because he’d worked hard and I was proud of that regardless of the grade. I meant it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to hear he’d done that well. It’s good to have your work recognized.

So we were feeling celebratory as we headed off to the winter concert. We took June for the first time since she was in preschool.  Because she napped back then, she actually had a later bedtime than she does now. Last year the winter concert was pretty short, though, and we thought we’d try bringing her to this one.  We may not be doing it again any time soon because they have a new band teacher now and he does a lot of things differently, and one of them is that the winter concert is approximately twice as long. June was leaning against me for much of the concert and she did not get to bed until and hour and a half past her bedtime. I think she enjoyed it, though, especially when the orchestra was on stage and she could imagine when she will be old enough to play violin in a concert.  She’s particularly interested in the concept of being first violin, a distinction not available to percussionists.

Speaking of the percussionist, we could sometimes see him, more often his hair than his hands or sticks, but he says he played snare drum, triangle, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals and tambourine and I believe him. Their last number was “Bolero,” which is always fun to hear.  Because the percussionists don’t take their instruments home they are supposed to return them to the music room but the other three musicians abandoned the job to Noah so Beth and I helped him in the interest of getting home.  I had a lot of reasons to be proud of him that day, but the fact that he would never, ever think to leave the instruments on stage and assume someone else would take them where they belong was one of them.

Long Weekend: Original Four-Day Version

Friday Noah got to relax because Fridays are a no-homework zone, no matter how much homework he has, and he did have a lot. I read to him before leaving for June’s basketball practice and then again after she was in bed. We finished the last book in the Fablehaven series, Keys to the Demon Prison. We’d been reading these books since around Labor Day, so that was satisfying. When we came home from basketball, he was practicing his drums, without my having reminded him, which was also satisfying.

Saturday morning Noah and I picked up another series we’re also reading, The Norumbega Quartet, where we’d left off, with book #4, The Chamber in the Sky, and then he did algebra and media homework.  I wanted him to get all his non-social studies homework out of the way because he had to write rough drafts of the annotated bibliography and a process paper for his National History project.  They have to turn their IDRP into a new format, so he’s making a documentary about product liability law, or he would be making it if he didn’t have so many preparatory assignments getting in the way.  By Sunday afternoon he was ready to start on the annotated bibliography and he worked on it until Monday afternoon.

A great many parents told me it would be better after IDRP and I’m not really in a position to judge yet, as it was five weeks ago that they turned it in and they were on winter break for almost two weeks of that time, and then they barely went to school this week…but National History Day is a pretty big project, too. I hope once Noah gets to actually making the film, he will enjoy it more, but right now while he’s fleshing out his research, it’s kind of a slog.

Beth and I both have a very strong desire for Noah to have more free time than he does right now, so we’ve been considering his options for high school and thinking more and more seriously of encouraging him not to apply to any of the academic magnets, although a performing arts magnet is a possibility.  He’s been in magnets since fourth grade and in general the rigorous curriculum has been good for him, much better than when he was in third grade, bored, unchallenged, and unhappy. But his ADHD and slow processing make the work harder for him than for many of his peers, and I think this year he may have hit the point where just working harder than everyone else is becoming a less viable strategy. Also, once he’s in high school it will be easier to piece together a schedule with enough AP classes for him to be challenged but not so many that he’s doing homework all the time. That’s what we hope anyway.

Monday morning Beth took Noah to the orthodontist to get spacers in preparation for the braces, and then she took him back as soon as they got home because one of them had popped out of his mouth. He’d been complaining that one felt wrong all along and I guess he was right. Beth gave him some painkiller before the procedure and he didn’t seem to be in much pain. In fact, he got himself a bowl of tortilla chips in the afternoon, which helped me decide not to bother pureeing the cauliflower soup for him at dinner.

On the way to the second trip to the orthodontist, Beth dropped June and I off at Value Village so we could brave the 50% off MLK Day sale. Value Village is a huge thrift store, think big box size, not particularly well organized, and crazy busy on a sale day, but it’s also very cheap and June’s outgrown a lot of clothes recently.  We went in with a list of thing we hoped to find: basically leggings and long-sleeved tops, including turtlenecks and sweaters. I told her we were there for practical school clothes that fit now, nothing out of season and not anything to grow into because her style changes. Given that as we walked in the door, she was saying, “How about a party dress?” I think I was lucky we walked out with two pairs of fleece pants (there were no leggings, at least none I could find), three tops, and a white knit poncho. The poncho was not on the original list, but I decided it could serve the same function as a cardigan, so I relented. She loves it so much that when we went to Starbucks immediately afterward and wanted a hot chocolate and I said she could have one but she’d have to take off the poncho to drink it, she opted for water.  All these purchases, plus a pair of snow pants for Noah, cost less than seventeen dollars.

At home, I ran a load of laundry, the third one of the day, this one consisting of other people’s size 6 and 14 clothes that are now my kids’, mixed in with a bunch of baby clothes they once wore, which I’m giving to a pregnant friend. I am so sentimental about the kids’ baby clothes that I still have a lot of them, though fewer all the time, because I give some away every time someone I know has a baby. Before I put them down the laundry chute, I looked at them all, and marveled that my quickly growing man-child, who’s taller than me and who has a deepening voice, and has sprouted hair on his legs and a strange shadow on his upper lip, ever wore those tiny onesies and sleepers and footed leggings, but he did.

Tuesday morning Beth took Noah to the orthodontist again for the actual braces while June and I made banana bread and muffins, and watched the snow come down outside. Noah came home with braces.  They caught me off guard every time he smiled, and he did smile, which I don’t think I did the day I got braces.  He didn’t seem to be in any pain, ate raw carrots at lunch and didn’t take any painkiller. This is very different from how I remember this experience. I’m not sure if there have been advances in orthodontia since the early 80s or if he was having a mercifully tactile under-sensitive day.

Noah worked on his process paper most of the rest of the day. June and I delivered the banana bread, along with the baby clothes to Wakako. She lives just far enough from a bus stop that it felt like an adventurous trek in the snowstorm but not so far that it was arduous.  June looked sleepy on the bus home, but she stayed in the yard sledding and making snow angels when we got home.  Shortly before we left, June noticed that all the radiators were cold. Beth called for a boiler repairperson and fortunately it was an easy fix, because it was supposed to be frigid the next day, with highs only in the low twenties.

Beth took June for a walk in the woods by the creek later in the afternoon and while they were gone I buckled down to work, which I had been doing only sporadically for the past couple days.  I had deadlines and the threat of a school closure the next day had put the fear of God in me. When Beth and June got home, Beth had a conference call and June took it upon herself to shovel a good bit of our long walk. She did a great job, but it was still snowing, so it got covered again soon and then Beth did the whole walk and then it got covered yet again.  Shortly after dinner, Beth got the notice that school was closed the following day.

Weekend Coda: Snow Day

When we woke up, the house was freezing. The radiators were cold again so the morning was a rush of calling the heating oil company (Beth once, me twice) to get a service call, going to the hardware store and buying some space heaters (Beth), and trying to shovel the icy walk and then giving up (me). Then Beth drove June over to Megan’s house and left for work, and Noah and I holed up in the study to work. He had a series of essay questions to answer about his film topic. When we turned on the new heater, it registered the temperature in the room as 43 degrees, but over the course of several hours it got up to 69 degrees.  Not bad, considering that outside it had been in the single digits overnight and didn’t get past 15 during the day.

The repairperson came around noon and by one, he was finished and the radiators felt faintly warm. I fetched Megan and June and brought them back to our house where they continued their seven-hour play date. When we came home, I found Noah asleep in his computer chair. He woke when I came into the room and said he had a headache and stomachache, so I put him to bed.

I salted the walk, ate a late lunch of grilled cheese and black bean soup, and then went in to check on him. I asked if he wanted me to read to him, and he did, so I read for an hour and twenty minutes.  Then he was feeling better and he went back to work while I took a long-handled ice scraper to the ice on the sidewalk and chipped away most of it. By the time I came in, tired, cold, and sore, and discovered the lentils I’d left simmering on the stove had burned, I was feeling as if the day, or maybe the whole endless weekend, had really been too much.  And I learned from my friends on Facebook, that there was a two-hour delay the next day.

But the next morning the kids went to school, Noah frustrated he had never completed his essay questions. I tried hacking at some of the more stubborn icy spots on the sidewalk, cleared the toys off the living room floor, read just a tiny bit of a new novel (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam) and sat down to tackle my own backlog of work in a quiet house. It’s a new semester and time to make a fresh start.

A Game of Twister

The week leading up to our anniversary was full of unusual events. Sara and I had some looming deadlines so I’d worked both days of the previous weekend and that left me feeling slightly disoriented about what day of the week it was all week.  It always seemed like the week should be further along than it was.

Polar Vortex

And then there was the Polar Vortex on Tuesday.  You probably heard about this even if you don’t live in the American Midwest or the Eastern seaboard. There were record-breaking lows everywhere, but it was considerably less dramatic where we live than in the Great Lakes area.  We were supposed to get highs in the teens and single digit lows, but the high on Tuesday was around twenty.  It was basically just an unusually cold day.  Even so, surrounding counties panicked and cancelled school. Shockingly, Montgomery County did not.  The most notable thing that happened as a result of the cold was that a bottle of detangling spray we’d ordered for June arrived frozen. It’s really a wonder we all survived.

Monday after school I took June for a walk down to Long Branch creek so we could compare the landscape pre and post-freeze. Beth thought the creek might freeze solid the next day and if it did June wanted to walk on it. We couldn’t go back on Tuesday because June had a violin lesson after school and by Wednesday she’d lost interest in the project and didn’t want to go. I’d peeked out the bus window on the way to violin the day before and noticed that Sligo creek was only about half-frozen anyway. Long Branch is a little smaller and slower but I doubted it had frozen solid so I didn’t push it.

Old Friends

Tuesday evening we got a surprise call from a friend of our Iowa days.  From 1989 to 1991 Beth and I attended grad school at the University of Iowa and lived in a housing co-op. Our house had twelve people, a mix of undergrads, graduate students, and several twenty- and thirty-somethings unaffiliated with the university, one of whom was a city council member. If you’d like to see a picture of the house, go to the url above and choose Anomy from the house list on the left.

Sue and her husband Scott were among our best friends in the house.  She was a doctoral student in history and he was a musician and a writer. They got married around half way through the time we lived there and I remember translating a poem from Portuguese for them as a wedding present.  (I know all you engaged folks are now rushing to add me to your guest lists.)

Now Sue’s a history professor and she was in town for a conference and to visit her mother, who lives in D.C. She invited us to lunch, so we met her near Beth’s office.  If my count is correct, this was only the fourth time I’d seen Sue since we finished our Masters degrees and left Iowa to go work for non-profits in D.C.  But as Sue pointed out, you just don’t make friends in middle age the way you do as a young adult, especially when you’ve lived together, so it felt easy to pick up where we left off.  (The only exception might be parents in your child’s class in a co-op preschool, which is why a large part of my social life still revolves around people we met when the children were very small.)  Well, there’s always the nursing home, I pointed out.

A lot of our conversation centered around predictably middle-aged topics—growing children (between the two couples we have one in college, one in high school, one in middle school, and one in elementary school), aging or recently deceased parents, career successes and discontents. It wasn’t a long lunch, as Beth had to get back to work, but we covered a lot of ground. It was good to see her.

On the way there, I got leafleted by a D.C. mayoral candidate who was handing out literature at the Gallery Place Metro stop.  I could have said no thanks, I live in Maryland, but I liked being taken for a city dweller, as I associate it with my younger, hipper days. (Not that I was ever hip, just marginally more so than now.) Beth and I lived in the city when we tied the knot, twenty-two years ago. We did it in the living room of our apartment seven months after we moved there, with around thirty guests crowded onto the couch and rented folding chairs. And we still lived in the city when Noah was born nine years later and for his baby year, so I will always associate it with those heady days of new adulthood and new motherhood.

The Children Go to School (or Don’t)

I didn’t work much on Wednesday as it takes a big chunk out of my day to get into and out of the city so the next day I was somewhat dismayed when June announced on Thursday morning she had a sore throat, a stomachache, and a headache and she wanted to stay home from school.  Noah had been sick with a stomach bug the previous weekend so I was cautious and let her stay home. She was pretty lethargic all morning and spent a lot of time under a blanket staring into space without making a lot of demands so I actually managed to get a good bit of work done in between reading to her and making her snacks (her appetite was unaffected). She perked up after lunch, so we took a walk to the 7-11 to get milk.  We passed Long Branch creek and noticed it was more frozen than Sligo had been the day before, but not frozen solid. There were some big frozen puddles in the woods by the creek, though, so we paused there a while so she could slide across them and pretend to be skating.

Friday morning there was freezing rain and a two-hour delay, because why wouldn’t there be?  The sidewalks were kind of treacherous, though, so I can’t complain too much. I wasn’t too stressed about getting work done because I knew I’d have enough time for my only deadline that day and I’d logged plenty of hours the weekend before.  I actually enjoyed getting to sleep a little later and have a more relaxed time getting the kids out of the house.

June had Megan over for a play date after school and before basketball practice.  When Noah got home about twenty minutes after the girls did, they had the Twister mat out and soon he joined them in the game. Noah doesn’t usually play with June’s friends (being five years older) so it was heart-warming to peek at them as I fried tofu and sliced apples for an after school snack. The girls are a lot more limber than he is, but he is longer, so everyone had some kind of advantage.  As is always the case when anyone plays Twister, there was a lot of laughing.

At four-thirty, Megan’s mom Kerry picked up Megan, June, and me and drove us all to the elementary school gym where basketball practice is held. I normally enjoy the walk but it was still cold and rainy so I was glad of the ride. It was the first Friday afternoon practice of the season. I always enjoy these, both for the chance to see the girls in action, but also to talk with other moms.  (And it is almost entirely moms on Fridays; more dads make it to Saturday practices.) I ended up having extended chat with the mother of three girls in the gym, one of the Pandas and the two assistant coaches, both of whom attend Noah’s school, one in sixth grade and the other in eighth. We talked about middle school and the crazy workload and the ups and downs of each grade. When practice was over Kerry drove us home, where Beth, Noah, and hot pizza awaited us.

Date Night

Saturday was our anniversary, both of our commitment ceremony, twenty-two years ago, and of our wedding, one year ago. So now it’s official, we’re not newlyweds any more. Beth took June to basketball practice in the morning and I made our anniversary cake (from the same recipe as the cake at our commitment ceremony) in the early afternoon, with some help from June. In the mid-afternoon, we ate it and exchanged gifts. Beth got me a wallet like hers because I’d admired it, and I got her a shoe rack. I realize this doesn’t sound very romantic, but the kids’ shoes tend congregate in an untidy pile in the hall outside their room.  Two years ago, I got Beth a shoe rack for Christmas and it worked for a while, but it was too small for the number of shoes the kids had and it was kind of flimsy. It met its end after a year or so when one of the kids crashed into it. I thought I’d try again with a sturdier (and taller) version.

Around four-thirty, we left for a movie-and-dinner date.  We saw Philomena and then went out for tapas, followed by coffee. I can’t tell you how nice this was, but I’ve been thinking of it a lot in the days that have followed, about how important it feels to do things like this. We’ve been married a long time, and sometimes it does feel like a game of Twister. Remember the slogan, “the game that ties you up in knots”?  But then we end up laughing and having fun.  And when something breaks, we try to build a stronger version of it, something that can last another twenty-two years at least.

Home for the Holidays

I. Christmas Preparations

Because we didn’t travel this year and the kids had almost two weeks off school, we had a long stretch of time at home, but somehow it seemed to go quickly.

The Saturday before Christmas in between making six trays of gingerbread cookies and a pan of fudge, we binged on Christmas specials. We own a lot and we all had a great pent-up desire to watch them after telling June night after night that we couldn’t because Noah had too much homework, so we watched four in a row, pausing only to deliver gingerbread cookies to friends of the family who were leaving town the next day. We had decided to give away a lot of the cookies and candy we made this year so we could still have a little of everything we usually make but not be overwhelmed with sweets with only the four of us to eat them. This ended up being really fun, making the treats as well as all the little visits.

Sunday we only watched one movie from our stash, but we also went to the American Film Institute to see The Muppet Christmas Carol in a theater, which was great fun. Noah and I read the book when he was nine, but it was June’s introduction to the story, and a pretty good one at that.  I didn’t remember that it was so faithful to the original. After the movie, we discussed similarities between Scrooge and the Grinch. I told June how when she was three and we were watching the How the Grinch Stole Christmas she kept saying over and over, “He is so mean. He is so mean,” and then at the end, surprised, “So now he’s nice?”  Same story, really.

Beth went to work Monday and Tuesday, but Tuesday she only worked a half-day and she took June with her so I could get some work done. Monday the kids and I made buckeyes (chocolate-covered peanut butter balls) and we made deliveries to Sasha’s family and to Megan’s because they live within walking distance and Megan’s family was also heading out of town.

While I was gathering ingredients for the buckeyes, I switched on the radio, heard they were about to play an excerpt from “The Santaland Diaries,” thought about it for a moment, decided Noah was old enough for a mild introduction to David Sedaris, and called him in to listen. The part that really made Noah laugh was when a mother wants the department store elf to tell her child Santa won’t bring presents if he doesn’t behave, but he goes quite a bit further, describing how Santa will steal everything from the house, despite the mother’s urgent attempts to hush him.

On Christmas Eve, Beth made cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, I wrapped presents and the kids practiced their homemade production of The Nutcracker, which they performed for us before dinner. (They planned to make a video version on Christmas day, but artistic differences scuttled the project.) We put out gingerbread cookies in the shape of the word “Ho” (Noah made these) for Santa and I went into the garden with a flashlight to pick one of the last carrots for Rudolph because he deserves the best.

II. On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day

On Christmas morning the kids were opening their stockings by 6:00 a.m., the earliest they were allowed out of bed. I’d heard June going to the bathroom two hours earlier and she told me later she thought she’d heard Santa and the reindeer on the roof while she was in there.  Beth and I rolled out of bed around 6:30 and well before 7:30 all the presents were opened. I won’t list them all, but June got books, a skateboard and an American Girl doll (Kaya, the eighteenth-century Native American girl, as well as a box set of books about her and a bunch of accessories). Noah got books, a camcorder, a shirt, gift certificates and a check.  I got books, audiobooks, and gift cards.  Beth got books and a metal thermos that entitles her to 10% off each drink at a local coffee shop. But our main present to each other was to get the kids’ preschool self-portraits framed, only two and a half and seven and a half years after they finished preschool. Better late than never, no?

June and I went to the playground in the afternoon where I sat on a bench and read Doctor Sleep, struggling to turn the pages with my fingers in gloves while June climbed on the rocks by the creek and swung on the swings for a half hour or so. Later Beth and I cooked dinner—mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mushroom-Swiss cheese puff pastry, cranberry sauce and rolls. It was all quite delicious.

Overall, it was a strange day; I was half content, half melancholy about being separated from my family of origin on what would have normally been their turn. I didn’t predict it would be as hard as it was because I don’t feel sad when we’re with Beth’s folks for holidays—it’s what we do half the time, I’m used to it and I enjoy seeing them as well. But whenever anyone posted photos on Facebook from my aunt Peggy’s house in Boise where Mom, Jim, and Sara were staying along with Peggy’s family, I had the feeling we should have been there.

III. Christmas Aftermath

But my mood improved after Christmas day was over. The two days after Christmas June went to an ice skating camp run by the county park system. We thought it would be good to get her out of the house for a couple days so she didn’t end up bouncing off the walls, and also so we could have some time alone with Noah and with each other. Thursday was Noah’s day. We took him into the city, where we went to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips, browsed at Kramerbooks, where he spent some of the Christmas money he got from my mother, and then we went out to lunch.

Friday, Beth and I left the house at 11:30 and we were kid-free for five and half hours.  We delivered more treats (which now included pizelles Beth had made) to families who live in Silver Spring, had lunch at Republic (Takoma Park’s newest restaurant) and then went back to Silver Spring to see Inside Llewyn Davis. It was our second time in that theater in less than a week but I don’t remember the last time Beth and I saw a movie in a theater alone together. It might have been a year ago, or even two. The movie was fun and it felt good, restorative even, having that long block of time together, and made me think we should get a sitter for our first (or twenty-second) wedding anniversary in a little over a week.

Around this point, halfway through break, Noah started doing homework in earnest. Up to then he’d either been enjoying some homework-free days, or working just a few hours a day. I’m sad to say that he spent the last six days of his twelve-day break mostly working. Because he’s taking high school-level algebra and Spanish he has to take countywide standardized tests in those subjects in January and he had a preparation packet for each of those classes. The math didn’t take long, but he was working on the Spanish for four or five days, full days.  I was sad that homework ate up so much of his break, but at least he had some time to relax at the beginning, and he got to go to a movie, and a museum, and I read to him from the fourth and then the fifth book in the Fablehaven series (Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary and Keys to the Demon Prison) every day of break except the very last one.

I worked several days over break, too, but not nearly as hard as Noah did. I’m not even sure what I did the Saturday after Christmas except make our final cookie and candy delivery and take June to another playground where she spun on a merry-go-round and swung on a tire swing until it was so dark out that her blonde hair, jewel-red coat, and the sparkles on her shoes seemed to glow in the winter dusk. And then Sunday I spent an exceedingly slothful day in my pajamas, taking the occasional break from reading one of my own Christmas books to read to the kids from theirs.

However, Monday I roused myself to get dressed and leave the house a few times.  Beth and June went ice-skating at the outdoor rink in downtown Silver Spring and I tagged along to watch.  She really did learn a lot at skating camp.  Over Thanksgiving she was had to hold onto the wall or one of those metal things you push in front of you, but now she can skate by herself and even do a rudimentary twirl. If you are fond of June, this one-minute video is worth watching just for her smile at the end.

We also went to the frame store to drop off the portraits. Going after Christmas turned out to be a good idea. The framer said he’d been swamped right up until Christmas but he did our job in one day.  Finally, I met up with my best friend from graduate school and adjunct days, who was in town visiting her folks.  We had a leisurely chat over tea, coffee, and dessert, and talked about work, kids, marriage—all the things that really matter. Joyce lives in Indiana now and I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was great to reconnect.

The kids both spent time with friends on Tuesday. Sasha came over and he and Noah played a lively game of Forbidden Island, and then started a game of Monopoly. (Does anyone ever finish a game of Monopoly? Sometimes, I suppose, but not often.) Meanwhile, June was at Zoë’s house, and I got a few hours’ work done. We had sparkling apple-grape juice at dinner but that was the extent of our observation of New Year’s Eve.  Everyone was in bed by ten. As someone who doesn’t like to stay up late and doesn’t drink, I have never figured out a good way to celebrate this holiday.

New Year’s Day June had another friend over and I worked some more because Sara was swamped and asked me if I could. Beth was engaged in various cleaning and organizational projects. She hung the pictures and a coat rack, and helped June clean the kids’ room. Earlier in the break she’d organized the Tupperware shelf and straightened some areas of the basement. I was not as ambitious, but I ran some errands and made black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year along with a glazed beet and cranberry salad.

Yesterday the kids were back to school and Beth went back to work.  I used one of the Starbucks gift cards I got for Christmas as an excuse to go read in a quiet place before diving into work myself. I think we all had a good break. Even though I missed seeing my family, sometimes it’s good to tend the home fires.

IV. Bonus Day Off

And that’s how that blog post was going to end, but today, after only one day back at school, the kids were home again. We were just at the edge of that big Nor’easter you’ve probably heard about on the news if you’re not from around these parts. We only got three inches, but it was enough to cancel school and what would have been June’s first basketball practice of the season.

The timing was bad in terms of work, because Sara’s been really busy and I’d hoped to put in a longer day than I did, but it wasn’t going to be a really productive day anyway because I had a dentist appointment to get a new crown. Fortunately, Beth and I share a dentist and we happened to have back-to-back appointments so I brought June into the city, the three of us had lunch together and they we traded June off during our appointments and took the train together as far as Beth’s office, where we parted ways.

That took four hours out of the middle of the day, but I worked before and after. June played in the snow before and after. She made a snow angel and a snow volcano (which she colored with red food coloring so it could appear to have erupted), she went sledding on the little hill in our back yard and she went exploring down the block to see how it looked in the snow. She was outside a long time, considering the temperature never rose above 25 degrees, probably two hours, not counting time spent at bus stops, on train platforms and walking down city streets where the wind rushed as if we were in a canyon.

Noah spent the day at home. He went outside to clear the snow off the car with June and then he took all the ornaments off the tree (which he said made him feel like the Grinch), practiced his drums for two hours, and did some algebra homework.

It wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend the day, but last year around this time I was really, really sick with bronchitis, so anything better than that seems like an improvement.  Happy 2014, one and all!

O, Christmas Tree

We are spending Christmas at home this year for the first time ever. For the kids’ whole lives we’ve alternated Christmases at my mother’s house and Beth’s mother’s house.  Even before Noah was born we usually spent Christmas with one family or the other, though the alternation was less strict back then. But last January my mother and stepfather moved to Oregon, and it’s not as easy to travel to see them now so we decided to stay home.

Of course I am sad about not seeing my family on Christmas, but there are upsides: no packing, no travel, a more relaxed winter break, and the biggie in June’s eyes—we got a Christmas tree. Because we were always away on Christmas day and our parents had their own trees it never seemed worth getting one before.

On a Friday evening not quite two weeks before Christmas, we all piled in the car after a diner of frozen pizza and drove to the lot of volunteer fire department to buy a tree. Except when we got there the lot was dark and unstaffed and there were only a couple of trees lying on their sides on the asphalt.  It looked as if they’d sold out.

We reconsidered our options. Ace Hardware had trees in their Garden Center behind the store.  And there was a temporary lot in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.  We decided if we couldn’t support the fire department we’d support a local brick-and-mortar business. Ace it was.  The trees were mostly bundled up and it was hard for me to tell one from another or to guess what they might look like with their branches down but Beth and the kids settled easily on one in the seven to eight feet area and we bought it. When the store employee lifted it to make a fresh cut on the bottom and trim the lower branches, Noah whispered to me, “Tree hugger,” which made me laugh.

The next day Beth set to work cleaning out the clutter of toys in the living room to make room for the tree. Some she moved temporarily down to the basement and some she put aside to give away. Then she set the tree up in its stand.  Sunday she strung lights on it—the lights a thoughtful early Christmas present from my sister who picked lights similar to those we had growing up. However, we didn’t put the ornaments on it because we wanted to wait until after Noah’s paper was turned in and he could participate.

June was delighted with the tree, even only partially decorated, and with the tall candles we put in the fireplace (the chimney doesn’t draw well so we never build fires) and she spent a lot of time reading in front of it, or listening to me read to her.

All weekend and through the week that followed the tree kept taking me by surprise, the unexpected smell of fresh pine in the house, the warm feeling I got from seeing its colored lights shining the dimness of the living room. We thought the cats, or at least Mathew, who’s the more easily spooked of the two, would show some surprise and perhaps even dismay at having a tree in the house, but they had no reaction whatsoever. Apparently we’ve done stranger things than bring a live tree into the house. It is a very odd tradition when you think about it, but it’s also a wonderful one.

The lights proved a bit fickle, as Christmas lights will, and one day a section was blinking on and off, even though they are not blinking lights.  I noticed the neighbors’ tree was doing the exact same thing, about a quarter of their tree was blinking, when it had not been previously, so maybe something about the electric current was odd that day. Or maybe the trees were communicating with each other in Morse code. If so, they said what they needed to say and then stopped.

A week after we bought the tree, we decorated it. Noah had turned in his research paper the day before and was in high spirits.  We’d let him pull the middle school version of an all-nighter on Wednesday night—he was up several hours past his bedtime that night and was still tinkering with it on Thursday morning before he left for school but he got it done. I was super proud of him for completing such a big project and also super relieved.  It felt as if a weight had been lifted from all of us and now we could celebrate.

Friday evening, we got take-out pizza and let Noah choose the restaurant. I thought it would be a quick job to decorate the tree because we didn’t have that many ornaments, just the ones we’ve accumulated over the years as presents from people who didn’t know we didn’t have a tree, a few we’d bought this year, and some spare ones YaYa gave the kids over Thanksgiving.  But I hadn’t actually gone upstairs with Beth, YaYa and the kids when they were selecting ornaments or looked in the box afterward and I didn’t realize it wasn’t a few ornaments she gave us, it was several dozen.

I’d imagined the end result would be a sparsely decorated starter tree, but by the time we’d finished the tree was loaded.  It holds several cherished ornaments from Beth’s childhood, many of which I recognize from Christmases we spent at her family’s house. We also have a newly purchased tree topper, a rusted metal angel holding a star (because we couldn’t settle on whether to get an angel or a star) and our new ornaments everyone had a hand in choosing. June got an angel playing the violin. I meant to buy an ocean-themed one in Rehoboth but I forgot and settled on a Starbucks cup instead.  Beth and Noah picked ornaments with characters from classic Christmas specials.  Beth got the Grinch in a wreath and Noah got a set of four characters from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Once the tree was decorated, and after June was in bed, Noah sprawled on the floor next to it staring at the candles in the fireplace and playing with the melted wax, and just being still for a long time. I thought this inactivity might be just what he needed after working so hard for so long, but eventually he and Beth got the idea to set up the train and they threw themselves into this task with great enthusiasm.

Last summer Beth’s aunt, who had been storing it, gave Beth the train set, circa 1979, which used to wend its way around the Christmas trees of Beth’s youth. It took some trouble shooting to get it going but once they did, Beth and Noah spent a lot of time happily watching it go around the tree. It was like having Noah’s six-year-old self back for a visit, and I for one was happy to see him so carefree.

Every Christmas I have spent with my mother, from childhood to adulthood, she has declared, with utter sincerity, that this year’s tree is “the best tree we’ve ever had.” It’s become something of a family joke. My sister posted a picture of her own tree on Facebook this year, saying it was the “best xmas tree ever!” Since we’ve only had one tree, I suppose this one is by definition the best one we’ve ever had, but considering the happiness it’s brought all of us, I think it could be the most memorable one we’ll ever have.