This is What Democracy Looks Like

Monday: MLK Day

The Monday before the inauguration was MLK day. Our traditional service project for this day is to participate in a creek cleanup. We choose this activity a long time ago because it’s easy for little kids to participate, or if they choose not to participate, to run around in the woods while the adults fish beer cans and trash out of the creek and off its banks.

It’s been a few years since I’ve participated. Two years ago, I was miserably sick with strep throat on MLK day and a year ago I don’t remember what happened but I know I didn’t go—maybe Noah had too much work and I stayed home to supervise. But this year everyone was well and community service seemed too important to waive because of homework. Beth and I wondered, independently of each other, if a creek cleanup was enough given the circumstances. My first thought for an alternative activity was volunteering at a food bank, but you have to be thirteen and June’s only ten, and the environment is dear to my heart, so we stuck with the creek cleanup.

All the creek cleanups I’ve done over the years have been along Long Branch creek somewhere between our house and June’s school, but this one was a bit farther away, in between the Long Branch community center and library. The strip of woods that surrounds the creek is wider there so instead of working in the creek and very close to it, we had a bigger area to cover. The amount of litter was greater, too. In under two hours the four of us filled five garbage bags full of recycling and two with trash.

It does seem like a worthwhile activity when you’re confronted with the trash-strewn woods and then you and a bunch of strangers get to work and after a couple hours, large swaths of it are cleared. But as Beth pointed out, it just points to bigger social problems, because someone might have been sleeping on those two mattresses other volunteers dragged out to the community center parking lot. This is not an uncommon find and I always wonder if we should just leave them be. Not to mention that well over half of what we were picking up was empty beer cans and bottles, probably not the leavings of social drinkers.

So, feeling simultaneously like we’d accomplished something with our morning and that we hadn’t, we went to La Mano and got lattes and steamers and headed home, where Noah immediately took a bath to get the smell of stale beer off himself.

Friday: Inauguration Day

Beth and the kids only had three days of work and school the next week because they were off Friday for the inauguration, not that we had any intention of going, or watching it on television or turning on the radio any time between the hours of eleven and four. I also observed a Facebook blackout during those five hours. (Beth decided to watch the Obamas get on their plane and fly away and it made her cry.)

We decided the best thing we could do with the day would be to binge-watch A Series of Unfortunate Events, as the first eight episodes were released on Netflix on Friday the thirteenth. I made (vegetarian) pasta puttanesca and chocolate pudding for dinner the night before, a meal the children make for Count Olaf and his theater troupe in the first book. We are hard core fans of this series, and the audiobooks, especially the ones Tim Curry narrates. We even bought a new, modern-sized television to watch it. This was an event.

I would have liked to be watching at the exact moment Trump was taking the oath of office, but Noah had a classmate coming over at noon so they could finish a documentary they were making on Edward Snowden for their media class (and submitting to a student documentary contest run by C-SPAN), so we had to stop shortly before then. Starting Thursday night and continuing Friday morning and evening, we watched the first four forty-five minute episodes, which I realize might not constitute a binge for some people but for us it does.

If you love these books, you will probably love the show, which captures their quirky essence much better than the movie. If you haven’t read them, start there. I have to say, though, I was identifying with the three Baudelaire children, with their house burned down, the people who were supposed to be looking out for them dead or missing and suddenly in the care of someone who does not wish them well. So, maybe it was not as escapist an activity as planned. Still, the Baudelaires and resourceful, brave, and loyal to each other. That counts for something.

After lunch, June and I made peanut-butter chocolate chip cookies while listening to the Indigo Girls, I read several Shirley Jackson essays, and then I took her to a voice lesson. She’s got a recital next weekend so she and the teacher worked on diction, expression, and other performance considerations. After the lesson, June had her jury for the recital and she passed it. I could tell she was nervous because she was clutching the front of her pants with both hands, but from her face you would have never known it.

On the way home, we swung by Roscoe’s to pick up pizza and an arugula-beet salad, which we ate at home, not really wanting to interact with other people than necessary on this bleak day. Once Noah had put the finishing touches on his movie and had submitted it to C-SPAN, we watched one last episode of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and went to bed so we could all be rested for the big event of the weekend.

Saturday: Women’s March

Beth and Noah were out the door by seven. Beth was supposed to show up at her office to greet the busloads of CWA members arriving at her office and Noah was going to assist Mike, the CWA photographer who was filming the march. I was proud of Noah for going because he absolutely hates crowds, but he knew was important. It helped that he had a task to focus on and that he got to use some cool photographic equipment like a 360-degree camera and a steady cam. He even endured holding hands with strangers during a CWA sing-along, but I missed that as it happened before June and I got there. This must have been horrifying for him. 

June and I left about an hour later, right after she made her “Another Girl Scout Against Trump” sign. It was a last-minute job, but if you look carefully you’ll see she printed out and taped the Girl Scout insignia to it. She chose this message because she was appalled to hear some Girl Scouts marched in the inauguration parade. She also decided to wear her Girl Scout vest over her hoodie.

While we were at the bus stop in front of our house, a stranger pulled over and asked if we’d like a ride to the Metro. I thought about it and decided it was a day to trust women, so I said yes. She told us she had a disability that made marching hard so she was shuttling friends to the Metro and seeing June’s sign, she figured that’s where we were headed. As we approached the Metro I could see steady streams of people on foot, many in pink hats, all walking toward the stop. June looked surprised and excited to be seeing crowds already, in our little town. The trains were crammed, but we got on the first one we saw because people packed themselves in tighter to make room for us.  We were right next to a group of women scientists in their lab coats.

We arrived at CWA headquarters shortly before nine. There was a mini-rally on the sidewalk in front it, which repeated every time new busses arrived, meaning we heard some of the speeches and chants twice. In between we went inside and sampled fruit and an egg and bagel sandwich at the breakfast buffet for members who’d been on buses since the wee hours of the morning. They’d come from states as far away as North Carolina, but the ones who arrived while we were there were from New York and New Jersey.

We set off to march with the second group, but we got separated from them almost immediately in the chaos on the mall. We were much too far away from the stage to hear the rally program or even to catch more than glimpses of the Jumbotron blocks away. So, we turned our attention to the crowd. We drifted through it to people-watch and read signs.

Some of the most popular signs were “Girls Just Want to Have Fun-damental Rights” and “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and various feline-themed signs. I also saw a lot of “Love is Love is Love” and “Black Lives Matter” signs and portraits of Trump in the style of Obama’s iconic Hope posters, except they either say “Nope” or “Grope” and there were also a lot that said “Make America Think Again.” The next day over dinner we discussed how making fun of Trump’s physical appearance (hair, skin, small hands) was a slippery slope, even though he himself treats people that way. (It was our “When they go low, we go high” moment.) But we all thought “Super Callous Fragile Ego, Trump You Are Atrocious” was fair game.

I thought this one summed up things pretty well: “There Are So Many Things Wrong with Trump I Can’t Fit Them on This Sign.” June’s sign was popular as well. All day people were taking her picture and many former and current Girl Scouts wanted to pose with her. (Beth tweeted her picture to the Girl Scouts.) I learned later people left drifts of signs in front of the Trump Hotel and lined the White House fence with them and when the fence was completely obscured, they tossed more over the fence. I wish we’d seen that and done it, too.

By eleven-thirty, the mall was completely packed, I was feeling a little claustrophobic and needed to use the bathroom badly. The march wasn’t even supposed to start for an hour and a half, so we started looking for porta-potties, I found a bank of them but the lines were several dozen people deep behind each one, so Beth suggested we walk back to her office and re-group. We got back there around noon, used the facilities, and stayed over an hour, mixing with more members who’d arrived. We split one of the box lunches that had appeared on the buffet table between the three of us, to supplement the hard-boiled eggs and trail mix we were carrying. Beth ate the veggie wrap, I ate the apple, and June had the potato chips.

Back at the mall, we hung back a bit to avoid getting trapped in the mass of pink-hatted humanity crammed onto it. It was unclear how we’d know when it was time to march because no one within blocks of us could hear anything, but eventually people started walking down the length of the mall. Beth noted the crowd wasn’t going along the official march route. Later we learned there were too many people to fit on the official route. It was already filled from end to end by the time the march was supposed to start so people spilled out into nearby streets and reached the White House by various routes, like water pouring into all available channels.

Our tributary went by the Trump Hotel and a small pro-Trump counter rally. The crowd took a break from chanting “Black Lives Matter!” “Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like. This Is What Democracy Looks Like!” “Hands Too Small, Can’t Build a Wall,” and “We Need a Leader, Not a Creepy Tweeter!” etc. to chant “Shame” at them.

We also were going along the Inauguration parade route for a while and the stands were still there. They were quickly packed with people who wanted to watch the march go by. Workers who had been taking one of the stands down before the march arrived stood by and watched. One of them was standing on a truck full of stand parts, grinning and laughing.

Considering how chaotic the march was, the police response was restrained. There was not a single arrest. I realize this was probably because while diverse, the march was still majority white. A group of half a million people of color marching on the street without a permit might not have been so tolerantly received. However, once we were almost to the White House the police started throwing up metal barriers in the street to keep the marchers away from it. Some verbal communication would have been appreciated here because it looked like people might get trapped between the fence that was already blocking access to the White House and the new barriers. We had to look lively to get back on the other side ourselves before the line of barriers was complete.

At this point, we turned around and walked back to Beth’s office again. Mike and Noah were already on the Metro, so we got in the car and drove home, tired, footsore and joyful. June kept commenting on the fact that neither Beth nor I had been to a big march until we were in college. She seemed happy to have reached this milestone earlier than we did.  But she’s living in more dire times.

Of course, I would have rather taken my ten-year-old daughter to the inauguration of the first woman president. That’s what I fully expected to do and I’d been looking forward to it. Beth and Noah went to Obama’s first inauguration when he was seven and it was a great experience for him. But this was excellent experience for her, too, if the point is learning about democracy.

Today, two days after the march, Beth and Noah went to work and school. I was home working, too, but also tending to June who had been felled by a stomach bug Sunday night, and was staying home from school. It was a chilly, rainy day, but I was still warmed by the thought of half a million people all returning to their regular routines, but possibly taking a short break to write their Senators and representatives, as I did.

We Need a Little Christmas

Friday: Christmas Eve Eve

We left for Blackwater Falls State Park (http://www.blackwaterfalls.com) on Saturday, the morning of Christmas Eve, and the day before was a whirl of activity. I’d finished my work for the week on Thursday so I could go to the dentist in the morning Friday and pack for the trip. Beth took off work early and she met me at Union Station as I was coming back from the dentist. We admired the big Christmas tree Norway sends to Washington every year and visited the model train display the kids, especially Noah, used to love when they were little. Then we had lunch at Shake Shack and headed home.

I mopped the kitchen floor and did a couple loads of laundry and when the kids got home I had Noah vacuum the dining and living room floors and everyone packed and we took June’s present to Megan’s house and picked up pizza to bring home. All this time there was a tree tied to the top of the car that had been there since Thursday. We were taking it to West Virginia. After dinner, the kids opened gifts from my mom and Beth’s brother Johnny and his wife Abby so we wouldn’t have to pack them. June got books from a series she’s reading and a new basketball and Noah got a gift certificate. “Merry Christmas Eve Eve,” I told June when she went to bed.

The last thing I did before collapsing into bed was to make gingerbread dough to take with us. We hadn’t had time to make any holiday sweets, what with the kids in school and Noah overloaded with homework until two days before Christmas. But I had another motive for baking the gingerbread at the cabin. Eighteen years ago, we spent Christmas in another cabin in the same park with Beth’s parents, her brother, her brother’s then girlfriend and now wife. Beth and I arrived first and made gingerbread before anyone else got there. To this day, Beth’s mom still talks about walking into the cabin and smelling the baking gingerbread and how happy it made her.

Christmas Eve

We left a little after ten and arrived around two-thirty with a stop for lunch at a very festively decorated little Italian restaurant with excellent garlic knots. We also went into the dollar store next to the restaurant, looking for cookie cutters because I’d forgotten to pack those. The man at the counter practically yelled, “Merry Christmas!” at us and I couldn’t tell if it was genuine merriment or political aggression. Maybe we looked like the “Happy Holidays” types. As it was I was just a little nervous about driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia with our “I’m With Her” magnet still on the car bumper. Anyway, they didn’t have any cookie cutters.

Check-in for the cabins was at four and we were hoping they’d be lenient about it because we were eager to set up the tree and get dinner started, but they weren’t, so we had to wait in the lobby of the lodge for an hour and a half. Fortunately, Beth’s mom arrived almost the same time we did, so we all sat around the gas fire and caught up with each other.

Once we got into the cabin, we unpacked and decorated the tree and put presents under it and adorned the mantle with boughs Beth trimmed off it. Then we had chili and cornbread YaYa made (she did most of the cooking while we were there and she fed us well). Then we watched Frosty the Snowman and one by one, we went to bed, ready for Christmas.

One my friends decorated her house for Christmas earlier than usual this year, saying “I’ve never needed Christmas more.” I had some trouble getting and staying in the spirit, but I kept trying and sometimes it worked. As I mentioned this was my second Christmas at Blackwater and it was Beth’s third (her family had Christmas in a cabin there the year she was nine). It seemed like a good year to get far away from everything.

Christmas

I told the kids they could open their stocking gifts at six at the earliest and to be “quiet as mice” until seven. The surprising thing is this worked. Noah slept until seven-thirty, so it was easy for him, but apparently, June opened her stocking at 6:25, right outside our door, so quietly that I thought the faint rustling I heard was Beth’s mom going to the bathroom. Later she told us “You wouldn’t even know I was a kid” from what was in the stocking—some mint tea she’d wanted at the tea shop in Rehoboth, a tin of mints, an orange, a spa cloth, some gloves, and some peppermint Hershey’s kisses.

The rest of us opened our stockings all together and then the rest of the gifts. June got the two things she wanted most, a 3D pen and a gift certificate to get her hair dyed. The pen came with a book of projects and she got busy with these right away. By the time we left, she was almost out of rods for it. She made a pair of eyeglass frames, earrings, a butterfly, a picture frame, and some red and white berries to transform a pine cutting into mistletoe, under which Beth and I were obliged to kiss. She also got clothes and a book/DVD set of Anne of Green Gables and I don’t remember what else.

Noah’s gifts were even more grown up than June’s—a set of flannel sheets, pajama bottoms, gift certificates and three loaves of bread from his favorite food catalog, to be delivered between now and February. The first loaf—cranberry-pecan arrived today.

I got several books, including a Shirley Jackson collection and a Shirley Jackson biography, my two favorite teas (hazelnut and black chocolate), plus lotion and soaps in many scents, and flower seeds. Beth got flavored sugars, basil-infused olive oil, her New Yorker subscription renewed, a gift certificate for a local coffee shop, and the new Springsteen memoir.

YaYa’s main gift was a Google Home. We spent a lot of the day making requests of it—to play the radio, set timers for cooking, even to flip a coin to settle a dispute between the children. She was quite pleased with it. She also got a Carly Simon memoir and a mug with deer on it and some soap with a cabin embossed on it to remind her of the cabin.

After we opened presents, I read to both kids, then everyone but Noah took a walk along the edge of the river canyon and by a half-frozen pond. The sides of the canyon were dotted with evergreens and bare gray trees and cut with a long waterfall on the far side.

It was peaceful by the pond—the ice was a dull silver; the open water was shiny. June wandered by the edge, breaking off little pieces of ice. The trail went on and we might have walked further, but YaYa had a not quite healed fractured toe and Beth was feeling ill. When we got back to the cabin, she went straight to bed while everyone else ate lunch and she stayed in bed all afternoon.

The kids and I made gingerbread cookies while she was asleep. In the absence of cookie cutters, we used glasses and knives and a pizza cutter, and the top of a Tupperware container to shape circles of various sizes, people, a caterpillar, the first initials of our names, and a smiley face as big as a dinner plate. We decorated with bits of hard candy, as I’d also forgotten the dried cranberries we usually use. But it was fun to improvise and I think the kids will remember this year’s cookies for a long time to come.

YaYa made spinach lasagna for dinner and Beth got up to eat, though she went back to bed while the rest of us watched Frosty Returns. And then Christmas Day was over.

Boxing Day

Beth was feeling better the next day, so after Noah did some pre-calculus and Spanish, we went out to lunch and then we went to see Blackwater Falls. It’s a 57-foot fall on the Blackwater River. There’s a boardwalk of steps that goes down to various viewing platforms. It was a warm day, in the fifties and sunny and some of us didn’t even wear jackets—but there was ice along the rocks near the bottom of the falls, and rapidly dripping ice along the rock walls to our side as we descended. The water going over the falls is stained brown from the tannin and very loud as it crashes to the bottom. It’s a mesmerizing sight.

Back at the cabin, Beth and Noah watched Revenge of the Sith (they’ve been making their way through all the Star Wars movies over the course of the past year or so) while YaYa took June swimming at the lodge pool and I wrote this.

Then Noah and I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—a YA novel about growing up Latino and gay in the Southwest in the 1980s I highly recommend. While we read, he started to feel ill, so he skipped dinner, which was YaYa’s signature baked macaroni and cheese and spinach pies she buys from a Lebanese bakery in Wheeling.

Our dinner conversation turned for the first and only time on the trip to the sad and frightening moment we’re in politically. It came up because YaYa was talking about being in high school and she mentioned her civics class was called “Problems in Democracy.” It seems like a good title for Noah’s current AP Government class, though it’s called NSL Government (National, State, and Local Government), a somewhat less appealing course title. But then again, YaYa graduated from high school in 1961, right on the verge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, so democracy had its own problems then, too, didn’t it? We turned our attention from our national nightmare to Nightmare Before Christmas, which YaYa, June and I watched until it was time for June to go to bed.

Some More Days

Noah still felt ill the next day and Beth had relapsed so he spent the day in bed, emerging around four o’clock for a banana and some toast—his only meal of the day, and she spent the day on the couch, making her way through the Springsteen memoir. YaYa took June back to the pool and they were gone for hours.

Around four-thirty, I went for a walk. It seemed like a good time for winter walk. I’d see the sunset and if I walked an hour, I’d be back before full dark. I set out along the road in front of the cabins, and returned via a cross-country ski trail behind them. It was a straight, narrow trail with yellow-brown grass and tall, slender, bare trees swaying in the wind on either side. The sky reddened and then darkened and clouds blew quickly across it. I stumbled on a playground near a picnic shelter, well, just swings, and I sat on one and swung for a while, with the lyrics from Suzanne Vega’s “Freeze Tag” going through my mind:

We go to the playground
In the wintertime
The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past
Upon the swings of indecision
In the wintertime
Wintertime
Wintertime
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night

There’s so much we’ll need to say no to in the coming months and years, loudly and repeatedly if we don’t want to lose our way as a country, but it’s also important to remember to say yes, too, to ourselves, and to each other. I’m still working on that.

Beth made tacos for dinner and June contributed a tiny piñata to each place setting. She made them out folded notebook paper and filled them with bits of ribbon candy. She drew designs on them I thought might be poinsettias or snowflakes, but she said they were just abstract decorations. After dinner, YaYa made drinking chocolate with condensed milk and whipping cream. June said it was “as think and rich as melted chocolate bars.” It’s a quote from the Polar Express, June’s favorite Christmas book. We drank it while we watched the rest of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The next day, our last full day in the cabin, everyone woke up feeling well. Beth made pancakes for breakfast and all the womenfolk went for a hike, leaving Noah to soak in the bath and do some Government homework. (His teacher gave them a series of small assignments do over break and was perverse enough to call it an “advent calendar,” even though there was no chocolate involved and it started on Christmas Eve instead of ending then.)

We started with the Elakala Falls trail, which was about as much hiking as YaYa wanted to do, so we split up there and she went home while we tackled the Balanced Rock trail and then used the Shay Run trail to get back to the lodge where we’d parked the car.

It was cold when we set out—in the mid-twenties—but sunny and still so it didn’t feel too bad, though Beth and I both wished we’d thought to put on long johns under our jeans. The trails were surrounded with ferns, rocks covered with moss and lichen, evergreens of all sizes, including a lot of saplings growing quite close together, and towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves curled against the cold. There were icicles on the boulders and needle ice pushing up out of the ground all over. Beth was quite taken with these intricate crystal formations.

The water at Elakala Falls and in all the little creeks and runs was reddish brown with tannin and where the sun fell on it, it glowed. All along the Balanced Rock trail but especially near the end and at trail intersections, people had built cairns. June took pleasure in adding to them, and collecting icicles, and walking along a fallen log like a balance beam. The log was on the ground on one end and stuck in the fork of a tree on the other so it was inclined and slightly bouncy, making it a challenge, but she didn’t fall. And of course, at the end of the trail, we found the Balanced Rocks themselves, two boulders resting on each other.

After lunch, there was another expedition, YaYa and Beth took the kids tubing on artificial snow, while I stayed home to read. When everyone got home, Beth took the decorations off the tree and I read “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a Road Dalh story, to Noah. It’s about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks it and serves it to the detectives who come to investigate. Apparently, his English teacher thought it would make cheery Christmas reading. (It’s actually a fun story, though I probably just wrecked it for you.)

We had noodles and cabbage with veggie sausage for dinner and then Beth and Noah took the denuded tree outside and came back to report the sky was full of stars—Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers, plus Mars and Venus.

Beth and June played a set of Christmas songs together on the violin and then Beth played “Silent Night” while June sang it. YaYa was a suitably appreciative audience. After Beth diagnosed and fixed a problem with the gas fire, we watched a little bit of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town while June toasted marshmallows on said fire and we had more drinking chocolate.

The next day we checked out of the cabin and did a little shopping at the lodge gift shop. While we were there it started to snow hard after hours of sleet. It was the first real snow we’d seen the whole time we were there. The timing seemed cruel, as Beth loves snow and she loves Blackwater canyon. I suggested we stay, but we left, for fear the roads might get bad. Within twenty minutes we’d driven entirely out of the snow, though back at the park they were supposed to get six inches. (We did get a little snow squall of our own today in Takoma Park, but it only last a half hour or so and melted almost immediately.)

Despite illness and the lack of snow, we did spend time with each other and appreciated the natural beauty of one of Beth’s favorite places. I think we all got a little Christmas.

The Opposite of Terrible

It’s time for school concerts. Noah played in the winter band and jazz concert a couple weeks ago, and June’s school’s holiday sing was Monday.

Winter Band and Jazz Concert

Noah was a nervous wreck in the car on the way to the band concert. He’s been playing drums for six years and he’s not usually too worked up before concerts, but he’s in an advanced band in which he was placed because of a schedule conflict and he’s got a bit of an imposter complex about it. He said he thought the fact that he was so nervous would make it more likely he’d make mistakes.

I thought he might be right, but I told him even if he did make a mistake he’d be the one most likely to hear it, that all the sound the audience is taking in making it hard to hear individual errors. He wasn’t having it.

Noah took private lessons instead of playing in the band last year so this was our first high school band concert. At his school, they split the orchestra, band, and chorus concerts into three different nights. I thought this meant the concert might be shorter than a middle school concert. But there are five different bands at his high school, not counting the marching band, which I don’t think plays at concerts. Noah had attended the orchestra concert the week before and had gotten back later than I expected, so I wasn’t expecting a short night. A glance at the program confirmed that would be the case again.

June was with us, even though it would surely keep her up past her bedtime, because we don’t have a sitter any more now that Eleanor’s in college and we so seldom need one I never invested the time in finding a replacement. If June had her way I would have found her a ride to and from her school’s Reading Night, someone who would drop her off at our empty house when it was over. But even though she’s been staying home alone for years we didn’t feel quite right about having her alone in the house at night, so we made her come. She probably would have been excited about being out late if it wasn’t for the fact that she was missing something she wanted to do. But she was mature and didn’t complain too much. It might have helped that we bought her a brownie at the bake sale and I read to her from Cricket while they were setting the stage between groups.

Another way the concert was different from a middle school concert was the fact that we were in comfortable auditorium seats, the band was up on stage, and there were colored lights behind them that changed from blue to green to red. It was nicely done.

The Jazz Combo played first. This group consisted of two saxophonists, a pianist, a bass player, and a percussionist. Because it was such a small and talented group, there were plenty of opportunities for solos. My favorite piece was probably “Black Orpheus,” but they were all good.

As would happen with each band that followed, the teacher introduced members of the band who were in the school’s music honor society and those who had made the county honors bands, the all State bands, the All Eastern Bands, and the Honors Band of America. There were a lot of names to announce. The musicians at Noah’s school are an accomplished bunch.

Next up was the Jazz Ensemble. They had vocalists, a boy and a girl, for three of their five numbers, which interested June. I think she might have been imagining herself up on stage with a microphone and a big band backing her six or seven years hence.

Then the concert band played a few songs. One was one of those high concept band pieces with which you’re probably familiar if you’ve ever had a kid in band. It was called “The Great Locomotive Chase.” It was inspired by a Union raid on the railroad tracks in Georgia during the Civil War, and featured instruments that sounded like a train whistle and other sound effects. That was fun. June was starting to fade, though, and she alternated between leaning against me and Beth. I was tired, too, as I’d been up late keeping Noah on task the night before as he wrote an alternative ending to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Symphonic Band (the intermediate band) was next. Noah’s going to play in this band next semester. It’s hard to fit in band with as many required classes as the CAP kids have, so this year they’ve just let him play whenever his schedule allowed, which we appreciate. Many kids in CAP just drop music and I’m glad he hasn’t had to do that, even though he had to skip a year.

At last, it was time for the Wind Ensemble, or the advanced band. I don’t know why they call it the Wind Ensemble when it’s not just wind instruments, but there you have it. Noah had told us what he was playing in each song ahead of time. We like to know because it’s usually impossible to see the percussionists all the way in the back. He’d also told me weeks ago he didn’t have any difficult parts, so I was surprised to hear the snare drum as the most prominent percussion sound in their first piece, “Matador.” This is a very fast song and he sounded fantastic, very precise. Beth and I exchanged happy, relieved looks over June, who muttered, “He probably made three little mistakes he’ll go on and on about.”

Noah played timpani in “Amazing Grace,” a smaller part, but I’m always glad whenever he gets some timpani experience because they didn’t have one at his middle school and it’s been an audition bane for him because of that. He played the bass drum and woodblocks capably in “Hebrides Suite” and the concert was over.

As we walked back to the car I asked him how he thought it went and he said, “okay” and later, “not terrible.” This for him nearly amounts to self-promotion. But he’s right. It wasn’t terrible. It was the opposite of terrible. I’m happy he held his own with challenging music and I hope he’ll be comfortable in Symphonic Band next semester. It was clear from the concert he doesn’t belong in the non-audition concert band, which was his first choice (because he hates to audition). But whatever band he plays in, I always enjoy hearing him perform.

Holiday Sing (and Electoral College March)

June sang and played violin at her school’s Holiday Sing once last Friday and twice on Monday. Last year she was in the chorus, but there was no chorus this year, so the whole fourth and fifth grade sang instead, preparing in their regular music class. The band and orchestra played, too.

June is having the opposite problem Noah’s having with music this year, and I think it’s a worse problem to have. Mr. G’s replacement isn’t as skilled at assessing the students’ skill and experience levels and coming up with appropriate lessons for everyone. This was Mr. G’s superpower.  Mr. B is basically treating them all like raw beginners. June says the fifth graders who just started to play last year are incredulous at how easy the music is and she’s been playing for almost three and a half years. Not surprisingly, there’s no advanced string ensemble this year.

So, we’d been considering having June drop out of orchestra after the January concert, but then we found out there wasn’t going to be a January concert this year so the timing is less clear. It’s hard to see the point of pulling her out of her science and Spanish class once a week if she’s not learning anything. But before we take that step, I wanted to address my concerns with Mr. B first. He did offer to give June some harder music and meet with her after school on Mondays, which was generous of him. But the first piece he gave her was “Frere Jacques,” so we still have the same underlying problem.

Meanwhile, to keep from losing ground, June’s been practicing songs from orchestra camp and last year’s orchestra selections, and she’s using online tutorials to learn new songs. She and Beth have also been practicing Christmas songs together in preparation for a joint performance for Beth’s mom at Christmas, which they are both enjoying. The obvious solution is to put her back into private lessons, but between Scouts, basketball, and voice lessons, she has enough on her plate without adding another item to her weekly calendar.

This year the Holiday Sing was the same day the Electoral College met. I’d noticed this coincidence ahead of time and I thought it might mar my enjoyment of the event. Sure enough, I was melancholy as I walked to June’s school.

Just two days earlier I’d taken another long walk, from the Washington Monument to the White House, as part of a rally and march to ask the electors to vote their conscience.

I told June I was going to a rally to ask the electors to vote their conscience and asked if she’d like to make me a poster. She considered. “Is it okay if it has glitter glue and sparkles?” 

“Yes.”

She was sold.

I told Noah where I was going and he said, “Why do you think that will work?”

“I don’t,” I said.
“Then why are you going?”
“Because sometimes you have to try even when it seems hopeless. That’s what we learn from Frodo and Sam, right?”
He gave me a half-skeptical, half-sad smile.

The march started at the Washington Monument and proceeded to the White House. Even though we’d had an ice storm that morning the day had warmed up considerably. The late afternoon light was a lovely pale gold. I wore my coat unbuttoned and even got a little overheated as I tried to keep up with the marchers, who on average were probably about twenty years younger than me and pretty well spread out in the street. The march was spirited, but sparse, as these things go. The signs were about all sorts of lefty issues, relevant I suppose because they were all issues affected by the election, but I would have preferred a narrower focus on our appeal to the electors.  At the end we were standing by the reviewing stands for the inaugural parade, which are under construction. This seemed to point out how little we could really do about it.

But when I got home, Beth had made a lasagna and Noah had made enough progress on his pre-calculus so we could read the last chapter of Return of the King after dinner. I felt I’d done what I could and it was comforting to be back home.

At June’s school before the Holiday Sing, I sat in a row of a few other mothers of June’s friends. The mom next to me and I discussed how neither of us was sad to be leaving elementary school behind at the end of the year and the state of instrumental music at the school. She seemed to agree with my assessment but I could tell from a look of mild surprise on her face, that I am considerably more worked up about this than she is. This had been happening to me every time I talk to someone about instrumental music. I guess I need to tone it down.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the band started to play “Jingle Bells” because they didn’t sound half bad, if a little morose because the tempo was so slow.  Their Hanukkah selection, “My Dreidel” was fine, too. I started to wonder if the orchestra would sound better than anticipated, once all the different instruments were playing at once, as opposed to June’s simple, repetitive piece of it that I’d been hearing at home. Sometimes that does happen. But when they played, it sounded more like an exercise for beginners than a song played by kids with over a year’s experience playing together. I was also having disgruntled thoughts about watching children fiddle while Rome burned.

Luckily, the singing part of the Holiday Sing was next. In this performance, the fifth grade sang a few songs alone and then there was a sing-along with the fourth-grade audience. Half the fifth grade (all that can fit) got up on risers and sang a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas song, followed by a spirited rendition of “Let it Snow.” There was a pause while the two halves of the fifth grade traded places and sang their songs.

I was sitting in exactly the wrong place to see June. The music teacher was blocking my view of her. But the teacher was swaying and the longer the concert went on the more pronounced her swaying became, so I could sometimes see brief flashes of my daughter. This was somewhat amusing.

They sang two songs alone and then it was time for an eight-song Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Christmas sing-along set. Many of the songs were familiar from years past. There’s a Hanukkah song I’ve always liked called “In the Window,” and “Ocho Candelitas.” They shook things up a bit with the Christmas songs. No “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Feliz Navidad,” which are perennial favorites. Among the new songs was “Mele Kalikimaka.” I’d like to think this Hawaiian-themed song might have been a tribute to our outgoing President, but who knows? At any rate, they don’t change the songs much and in my ten years of attending this concert I don’t think they ever sang it before. And then, my last Holiday Sing was over.

That night, doing the dishes, I was trying not to think about what had happened that day, that out of 306 electors who were supposed to vote for Trump, only two had the decency and temerity to consider his appalling words and actions and say no. I wasn’t expecting a different outcome—really I wasn’t—but if it had been even a dozen of them, I might have felt a little better about humanity.

As I pushed these thoughts away, I found myself humming that pretty Hanukkah song, so familiar from years of Holiday Sings. I’ve never heard it anywhere else. The experience of hearing children on the verge of their winter break, singing songs of joy for all these years has also been the opposite of terrible. Maybe I will miss it after all.

Postscript: Beth went to a march about a week ago as well, against the Muslim registry, and President Obama recently took steps to make that registry less likely. We are not powerless.

 

Beach Replenishment

Thanksgiving

It was a quiet drive to the beach. It usually is now that the kids disappear into their electronics on long drives. Beth and I didn’t have much to say and I was trying to keep my mind off current events. I made sure to admire the trees along the highway, past peak, but still pretty. But my thoughts inevitably wandered from nature and as we were exiting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I realized I’d barely looked at the water and this is the loveliest part of the drive to Rehoboth.

We arrived at the house and ate a late lunch of sandwiches we’d picked up at the WaWa just outside town. June and I left around 2:30 to take a walk on the beach. It was a warm, sunny day. We’d brought hoodies in case it was windy on the beach, but we didn’t need them. June took her shoe and sock off her good foot and walked half-barefoot on the sand. She’s using crutches on and off since she stopped wearing the boot and I wasn’t sure how she’d do with them on the sand, but she got along decently.

We rambled back and forth between the beach and the boardwalk. I was happy to be moving, enjoying the mellow late November sun and the salt tang of the air. We ran into the family of a sixth-grade girl who was in the string ensemble at school with June last year. Her dad was on crutches, too, and we exchanged stories about why. By the time we left the beach at 3:45, the clouds were just touched with pink.

Back at the house the kids and I made our traditional apple-turkey table decorations, with a twist this year. June gave hers three heads and Noah’s had none. Then Beth and I finished cooking the dinner we’d started at home the previous day.

We feasted on a tofu roast, stuffed, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushroom gravy, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and rolls. We didn’t share what we’re thankful for as sometimes do at Thanksgiving dinner, but I thought about it as we ate. There’s plenty. We have each other, decent health, enough for our needs and many of our wants, like a house at the beach for Thanksgiving weekend.

We did the dishes and Beth made a fire. We sat in front of it and ate pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple tart. (I think everyone sampled two of the three desserts.)  Once June was in bed and Noah was soaking in the big, clawfoot tub and Beth had retreated to our bedroom to read, I called my mom, and we talked while I watched the fire die. 

Black Friday

We got off to a slow start on Friday. Noah slept in—I woke him at 9:15 and he either went right back to sleep or just stayed in bed. He didn’t make it down to breakfast until 10:15. Around 10:50, the rest of us left him doing pre-calculus at the dining room table and went to take a walk on the beach and boardwalk and then to start our Christmas shopping. Beth split off by herself a couple times. Mostly I was helping June do her shopping. Between Candy Kitchen, the tea and spice shop, the seashell shop, and the bookstore, she nearly finished it.

She wanted fries so we got some and sat on a bench on the boardwalk to eat them. We were right next to Santa’s house and we noticed there seemed to be a lull in the line so we got into it. The people in front of us were forcing an unwilling toddler to sit on Santa’s lap. He was crying and covering his eyes with his hands. They took pictures anyway. What is wrong with people? When it was June’s turn, I noticed Santa had a safety pin and I wondered if it was political, but it was on his pants, so maybe he just had a rip there.

The fries were just an appetizer. Next June and I had lunch at the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the view, so June thought it was logical to ask for a balcony seat. It was in the mid-fifties, not frigid but colder than I might think to eat a restaurant meal outside. I asked anyway. The manager was a little reluctant, but he seated us out there and we had the whole balcony to ourselves. The server said it was nice to step out of the overheated restaurant, but I tipped her 25% for having to go out of her way.

I got my usual off-season meal there—hot tea, fried mozzarella, and apple-pecan salad. June got pizza. It was fun looking down on the people strolling along the boardwalk and we had a great view of the beach. June started the crossword on her menu and was disappointed that the “large animal with one horn” was a rhinoceros and not a narwhal, which she though would more appropriate for a seaside eatery. Irritated, she switched over to the connect-the-dots of a sea turtle. (I didn’t bother telling her The Greene Turtle is a chain with non-beach locations.)

June wanted frozen custard next but I was a little chilled from eating on the balcony so it was easy to say no. We went back to the house where Noah was still doing homework. He didn’t want to go out shopping with me, so I read to June and we relaxed until it was time to leave for an early dinner at Grotto’s. We wanted to finish in time for the holiday sing-along and tree-lighting downtown. Our regular Grotto’s had a line so we went around the corner to the smaller one on the boardwalk. The kids were slightly disgruntled because it wasn’t decorated for Christmas like the big one and there’s no gelato there. So after we ate, we went back to the bigger location where Beth and Noah got take-out gelato and June and I assessed the Christmas trees decorated by Delaware charities and she chose to bestow the dollar I gave her on a local cancer charity’s tree.

The sing-along was much more crowded than two years ago, a year when it was bitterly cold and the only other time we’ve gone. Between not being able to get very close to the bandstand and the sound system only working intermittently we often couldn’t even make out what song the chorus was singing but eventually it got better and we could sing along. Noah hadn’t been that enthusiastic about attending this event so Beth and I were surprised and pleased when he started singing. I guess I haven’t heard his singing voice in a while because I was also surprised at how deep it is now.

I also learned I’m the only one in my family who knows the words to “Home for the Holidays” as I sang:

I met a man who lives in Tennessee
And he was headin’ for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania folks are trav’lin’ down
To Dixie’s sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee,
The traffic is terrific!

The songs were mostly secular (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let it Snow,” etc.) until the very last one, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and then they lit the tree.

June and I got frozen custard to eat on the way home. (I was going to abstain but they had pumpkin-cinnamon, so what could I do?) Given the crowds, I was glad we’d walked instead of driving. I’m sure it was a massive traffic jam getting out of there.

June was pretty tuckered out from walking most of the day on her crutches but she managed to stay awake long enough to watch The Year Without a Santa Claus before she went to bed. After she was in bed I took a bubble bath in the big tub and read half an Alice Munro short story, which was the only reading I did on the whole trip.

Saturday

We had breakfast out, at Egg. We’re looking for a new go-to place for crepes, now that Gallery Espresso went out of business, after a brief stint out in Lewes under the name Paradigm. We all liked it, though June had been hoping to eat at the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel’s fancy Victorian-themed restaurant.

As Noah was already out of the house, he and I did some of his Christmas shopping, while Beth and June did the same. Later Noah returned to the house to work, and I met up with Beth and June, who’d been to see the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel’s Christmas decorations. The next thing on June’s agenda was for me to read to her in the lounge of the Sands Hotel. This is something we used to do when we stayed there or when we stayed in nearby hotels without lounges and we needed to give someone (usually Noah) some peace and quiet. As we had a whole house to spread out in, it never occurred to me we’d need to camp out at the Sands. But apparently, it’s a tradition now, so I brought Eleven Birthdays and read it to her in front of their Christmas tree.

I wanted to head back to the house for lunch and June wanted to eat lunch out so we compromised. Her first choice was Green Man, and mine was Grandpa Mac. I thought we were closer to Grandpa Mac, but I wasn’t sure, so I told her we’d eat at whichever one was closer. She agreed to the deal and I looked the addresses up on my phone. Sure enough, Grandpa Mac was closer, so I got to have baked mac and cheese with spinach for lunch and it was really good. While waited for our food and ate, we went over the test prep packet for the humanities magnet and I showed her how to make a graphic organizer and a web for the essay, as these are required and she’s never learned how to do that at school. That made me feel useful and pleasantly pedagogical.

It was mid-afternoon by the time June and I got home. I had the kids change into their Christmas outfits so we could do a Christmas card photo shoot on the beach. We got some nice pictures, which increases the chances that we’re actually doing a card. Noah looks solemn in all the shots because I’d said I might want to do a pensive-looking card, but June disregarded that suggestion and smiled.

I stayed on the beach after Beth and the kids left and walked south. I usually go north but there’s a beach replenishment project going on in the center of the beach that involves a lot of heavy machinery on the sand and a barge and a floating barrier out in the ocean. We walked by it many times over the course of the weekend and it was kind of fascinating to watch, but I wanted a quieter walk. The clouds were just starting to go pink. It was the time of day when the shadows in all the footprints and depressions in the sand get very sharp and the water is slate gray in places and silvery and illuminated with the last light of the day in others.

Shortly after I got back to the house we all left to see the light festival at Cape Henlopen State Park. It was a nice display, similar to the one we see in Oglebay most years, but smaller. They were also having a winter carnival in the Cape May-Lewes ferry parking lot, with live music and rides. We considered going up in the Ferris wheel but it was colder than the night before—in the mid-forties– and windy. I might have done it if I’d known for sure there would have been a view of the water, but we passed on it. There were also people ice-skating, or trying to, on a small rectangle of plastic.

Back at the house Beth made another fire and we ate a dinner of food from various restaurants and Thanksgiving leftovers in the living room while we watched Christmas is Here Again. It was a cozy end to the day.

Sunday

Beth made pumpkin pancakes, we packed up the house, and I took another short, solo walk on the beach. We drove to downtown Rehoboth where we did some more Christmas shopping and then June finally got to eat at her choice of restaurant, after having been overruled twice. She chose Green Man. I told everyone that the Green Man was a symbol of resistance during insurrections that followed the Norman Invasion, a fact I picked up from this book, which I read for my book club in September.

Over our lunch of sandwiches and smoothies I explained to everyone how the Green Man was a symbol of authentic pagan Englishness in opposition to French Catholicism and how some of the native laborers who built the Norman cathedrals, included Green Men in the decorations as a small act of rebellion.

The kids and I headed down to the beach one last time. Noah always puts his feet in the ocean for the number of waves that corresponds with the last two digits of the year whenever we leave the beach. He does it barefoot, no matter what the season. I do it, too, but with rain boots in the colder months. However, I’d left my boots in the car which was parked quite a distance away so I did it barefoot, too, but only for two waves. It was cold but not as cold as I thought it would be. June was sitting the ritual out because I didn’t want her to get her ankle brace wet, so I said I was doing the two, June the zero and Noah the sixteen in 2016.

June wanted to get her fortune told by the mechanical fortune teller on the boardwalk. I said no reflexively but then she suggested the fortune might contain a phrase I could use as a blog post title. I handed over the dollar. But, alas, Zoltar wasn’t working that day, so we didn’t get to see the future.

It was around three when we finally hit the road after a long stop at the outlets to buy the kids new fleece-lined crocs and shoes for their upcoming band and orchestra concerts and some clothes for June. This timing meant we got to the Chesapeake Bay at 4:45. The sky was burning, the water was shining and as we crossed it, I felt just slightly replenished, more ready to face the uncertain future and to keep making small acts of rebellion.

Fifty

During all the awful tumult of the post-election fallout, a good thing happened. Beth turned fifty. Her birthday usually comes right before Thanksgiving and this year it was the day before. Because of that, it often seems to usher in the holiday season for our family and Tuesday afternoon, as I was out getting a birthday card for her, I felt my heart lighten a little. We still have a lot to celebrate.

When Beth and I started dating, I had just turned twenty a couple months earlier and she was several months shy of twenty-one. We’ve spent our twenties, thirties, and forties together and now we’re embarking on our fifties. It’s a comforting thought, that we’re in this together, come what may.

Beth took her birthday off so we could cook and prepare for our Thanksgiving trip to the beach. (We’re renting a house in Rehoboth from Thursday to Sunday.) The kids had a half-day, so in the morning I took Beth out to La Mano and we got coffee and split a cranberry-orange scone. There were no seats available so we walked up to downtown Takoma and sat at the table outside Dolci Gelato, which wasn’t open yet, so it didn’t feel like we were squatting. It was a pretty day and the morning sun was warm enough so we didn’t feel cold.

From there we went to the hardware store, because Beth knows how to party on her birthday. No, seriously, it was birthday-related. ACE sent her a $10 coupon for her birthday and she bought twenty leaf bags with it. Then we drove to the library so I could return a book and get another one, but I forgot it doesn’t open until noon on Wednesdays, so we came home and puttered around the house. I worked a little and did laundry. Beth made cranberry sauce and mushroom gravy.

June got home around one and started to set up her gift for Beth—fifty origami cups she’d made over the last couple days, each with candy inside (miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups, Hershey’s kisses, or espresso caramels) arranged on the living room floor into the shape of the numerals 5 and 0. I’d told Beth ahead of time June’s gift was “showy and sweet” and Beth replied, “Just like June.”

It took longer to set this up than either June or I anticipated. We’d tested it on the living room carpet the day before to see if the cups would stand up when weighted down with candy and the our test cup did, but it turned out fifty of them were more of a challenge and they kept falling over. They were all shaped just a little differently and different kinds of candies weighed them differently as well. The Reese’s cups worked better than the kisses or the caramels. June also wanted them to touch each other, which she thought would help them support each other and I thought would lead to domino-like toppling. We were both right at different points in the endeavor. She ended up making the five, I made the zero, and since we had cups left over, she made an exclamation point.  Noah observed that depending on where you stood to view it, it could look like 50!, 105, or 501. Beth told June it was “magical.”

All Beth’s presents from us were food. I guess, given the circumstances, we all gravitated toward comfort food. Noah got her a set of dessert sauces—bittersweet chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, sea salt caramel, and dark chocolate sea salt. I got her two boxes of fancy crackers, two hunks of cheeses we’d never tried (Piave Vecchie and dry Jack), two baking mixes (brownies and molten chocolate cake), apple cider syrup, and pumpkin pancake and waffle mix.

After Beth opened her presents, I made brandied sweet potatoes and while they were in the oven, we headed back to the library and then to the grocery store to get a prescription. Noah was just finishing drumming when we got home, so I read most of Act Three of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to both kids. They’re not often free at the same time, so reading this play has been slow going, but we’re all enjoying it.

Next I made Beth’s requested birthday dinner—breaded baked tofu sticks with curried tartar sauce, egg noodles, and homemade applesauce. For dessert, I made a chocolate cake with coffee frosting. I put it in the oven just before we sat down to dinner. About five minutes before it was supposed to come out of the oven, I realized I didn’t smell cake. Turns out I’d turned off the oven when I took the sweet potatoes out and I never turned it back on when I put the cake in. Luckily, it only needed to bake a half hour and by cooling it on the porch, I was able to get it frosted so we could all eat cake and ice cream before June’s bedtime.

A few days ago, I told Beth I was thinking of not doing a Christmas card this year. It just seemed like a lot of work and it was hard to imagine putting a smiling picture of us on the front of it or writing a cheerful letter about what we’ve been up to this past year. The annual card means more to me than to her, so I thought she might go along with the idea of taking a pass. Instead she looked surprised.

I said I wasn’t sure if it was just post-election depression and if I’d regret it later if we skipped a year. She asked if I’d thought it was too much work last year. I said no, so clearly it was post-election depression, but that the part I wasn’t sure about was whether I’d regret it or not. She gently suggested we take some pictures at the beach “just in case.” We discussed the possibility of sending a card with no letter, of taking a more pensive looking picture, of putting some political message on the card.

I’m still not sure what we’re going to do, but I think she handled it just right. If she’d said that we should do the card, I might have said it was pointless and started crying. If she’d said sure, let’s skip it this year, I probably would have cried, too, because that would mean it really was pointless. We’ve had our share of rough patches and misunderstandings over the years, but sometimes she knows just how to handle me. I guess twenty-nine years of experience comes in handy there. I’m lucky to have her in my life and I’m happy she’s been on Earth for fifty years.

I’ll close with this excerpt from Springsteen’s “All That Heaven Will Allow,” which Beth put on a mix tape she made for me when we were much, much younger.

Rain and storm and dark skies
Well now they don’t mean a thing
If you got a girl that loves you
And who wants to wear your ring
So c’mon mister trouble
We’ll make it through you somehow
We’ll fill this house with all the love
All that heaven will allow

Happy fiftieth birthday, sweetheart. I love you in good times and bad.

This is Halloween

Saturday: Halloween Parade 

Fifteen minutes before we need to leave for the Halloween parade is always a hectic time at our house and this year was no different. June’s costume had been pretty much finished for a week, but the paint was still damp on Noah’s. This is how it usually goes.

So at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon, Beth was spraying hairspray on June’s hair and teasing it into a mad scientist style, while I was cutting painted emojis out of poster board for Noah’s costume, carefully because the paint was still tacky. Meanwhile, Noah was using the paper cutter to cut up the business cards June was going to pass out along the route.

Maybe by now you’re wondering, what the kids were going as? June was the Tongue Twister, a character of her own invention. She wore a lab coat with tongue twisters and graphics of a tongue tied in knots on it. She had the aforementioned crazy hair and a big pair of glasses that distorted her eyes and she carried two wrenches in which she was twisting a rubber tongue. (Did you know you can order rubber tongues from the Internet? Now you do.)

Noah was a Samsung Galaxy 7 Note phone on fire. The flames are my favorite part of this costume and they were a group effort. Noah printed a model for tracing onto the poster board and he and June traced the shapes with pencil. Then he painted them with three layers of paint—yellow, then orange, then red. Then he and I cut them out and he and Beth glued them to the front of his costume with spray glue. Halloween inspires us to teamwork.

We had some Halloween-themed temporary tattoos, so though I wasn’t in costume, I got into the spirit by decorating my face with a witch, a vampire, and a ghost and the backs on my hands with a black cat and a mummy. Beth wore a necklace of plastic skulls that light up red, but it was too sunny for the lights to show. It was an unseasonably warm day. I was in a black turtleneck and a denim skirt with no tights or leggings and I was a little warm. I was glad June had opted for a camisole under her lab coat instead of a warmer shirt.

We got to the Co-op parking lot around 1:15, fifteen minutes after the festivities started. There’s usually a lot of milling around before the contestants divide into groups for the judges. June guessed how many plastic spiders were in a jar and played some games. Beth, Noah, and I people watched and waited for the contest to begin.

There were the usual adorable babies and toddlers in bee, lion, and bunny costumes. A boy who used to be in Kindermusic with June was either the Grim Reaper or a Dementor on a skateboard. A girl from her drama camp was the Phantom of the Opera and a girl from drama class was a Minecraft dragon. I think that’s what she was—neither of my kids has been much into Minecraft.

I saw an unusual number of zombies this year—including zombie cheerleaders, a zombie prom queen, and some standard zombies. There were also several individuals and groups, male and female, going as Ghostbusters. My favorite version of this had a baby in a white snow suit with a sailor hat and collar as The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, though I was a little afraid he or she was going to overheat in that get-up.

Noah thought his most serious competition for Most Original in the teen and adult category was the house from Up. The house wasn’t that detailed, though. Just cardboard rectangle and roof painted yellow.

It’s an election year so I expected some political costumes and there was both a Hillary Clinton (accompanied with Secret Service agents) and a Donald Trump in June’s age group. The girl dressed as Clinton had a photo of Clinton’s face blown up and held in front of her own face and she wore a pantsuit. The boy dressed as Trump had a “Make America Great” hat and a blazer on, and there was money sticking out of his blazer pocket. There was an adult Nasty Woman and a Basket Full of Deplorables, which I never saw but I heard about later from Beth and Noah. I’d predicted someone would do that, but Beth and Noah said it wasn’t done the way I would have guessed. It was a man with a basket attached to his rear. I would have preferred it as a group costume with multiple people in a big basket.

Speaking of group costumes there was a group of adults I think was going as decades. There was a flapper, Elvis, a hippie, etc. I liked that idea. People were walking around taking pictures of each other and both kids had their pictures taken by a representative from the Recreation Department and by strangers.

Around two it was time to divide by age. I went to march with June and the nine to twelve year olds and Beth went with Noah in the teen and adult area. Usually the judges circulating through the crowd only ask a few people’s names and if they ask yours there’s a good chance, but not a guarantee, that you’re going to win. It at least means you’re under consideration. But this year the nine-to-twelve judge was asking every kid’s name and it took a while for her to get them all down. Then later, once we were marching, she came back and asked June for her name again. June thought that was a good sign.

We marched to downtown Takoma and June did pretty well with her boot. When anyone commented on her costume, she handed them one of the business cards she had in her jacket pocket. They have a picture of her on the front and tongue twisters on the back and they say, “You’ll be tongue-tied by the time I’m finished.”

While we were waiting for the contest results to be announced, I commented to Beth, “It’s not too cold for gelato,” because we were standing right in front of Dolce Gelati. She didn’t care for any, but I bought some for myself and the kids.

As we were eating the gelato, June realized she didn’t have her tongue. I went back into the Dolce Gelati and downstairs to the bathroom in the basement where we’d just been but I couldn’t find it.  Shortly afterward, a friend of hers (the one dressed as the Phantom of the Opera) came up to us and said, “I found your tongue” and handed it to her. It was black from being on the ground, but she was glad to have it.

“That’s why it’s handy June knows everyone,” I said to Beth.

The Grandsons, a local band that always plays at this event, was up on stage playing. There’s usually a pretty long wait for the results, but sooner than I thought, they were announcing results for the four and unders, and then the five to eights, and then the nine to twelves, without pausing for music between results, as they often do.

In June’s age group, Most Original went to Hillary Clinton, which was a bit of a surprise as Presidential candidates in Presidential election years are not really unexpected. Consider this—in the Family Circus in the Sunday comics, Dolly was Clinton and Billy was Trump. I think we can all agree that it’s in the Family Circus, original is probably not the right characterization.

Scariest went to Donald Trump, another surprise because I didn’t think a contest run by a municipal government would go there. We waited for Funniest, because June had strategically tried to design a costume she thought could win any of those three categories. And they never announced it. They just took a break for a musical interlude before the teen and adult results.

Well, we were all sad for June because it was a good costume and she really wanted to win, as did Noah. For whatever reason, both kids have latched onto this contest and it means a lot to them. Nonetheless, she took it pretty well, even if she was surprised. I think after her name was taken a second time, she thought she had it in the bag. I’ll admit, I kind of thought she did, too.

After another song or two, they announced Most Original for teens and adults and it was one of the Ghostbusters. Scariest went to one of the zombies, a good one with a lot of elaborate makeup and Funniest was…the Samsung phone. The M.C. made a joke about asking him to stay away from the stage, but Noah went up and collected his prize, a $25 gift certificate for Busboys and Poets. He was happy to win, though I think he would have preferred Most Original. Unlike June, he has a clear preference for that category.

While we waited for Beth to fetch the car, Noah kept telling June the judging was really bad this year. I was touched by that because I didn’t feel that as her parents Beth and I could say too much about it or we’d be modeling poor sportsmanship. However, he was better positioned to comment on it, both as her brother and someone who had just won.

We headed home, made popcorn and watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, because June had been wanting to do that. Then I read Serafina and the Twisted Staff to her, while Noah did some homework. Around six, we dropped June off at her friend Claire’s house for their annual Halloween party where she met friends dressed as an archer, a fallen angel, a vending machine. Once we’d dropped her off, Beth, Noah, and I went out to dinner at Noah’s favorite Italian restaurant.

Monday: Trick or Treat

Getting the kids out the door for trick-or-treating was nearly as rushed as getting to the parade. Right before it was time to leave, I realized I needed to do June’s hair because Beth wasn’t home yet, and the kids remembered I hadn’t gotten the Frankenstein’s Monster head candy bowl from the basement and we hadn’t set up either the little coffin with a skeleton and colored mist coming from it, or the bigger fog machine. I got the candy bowl and filled it and set Noah to work on the fog machines.

Plus, there were some Halloween decoration we never got around to putting the batteries in—despite June’s frequent reminders. And I never made a replacement Halloween playlist to play while waiting for trick-or-treaters.  Over the years I’ve made two of these, both of which got accidentally deleted for some reason.

The kids left around 6:40 with Noah was protesting it was too early and no one would be home and Beth and me telling them to go already because June was slow with her boot and he was slow in his costume and I wanted them home by eight because June would need to wash the hairspray out of her hair and he had undone homework.

I did the dinner dishes and waited by the door for trick-or-treaters. I heard one group making their way through the fog on the way to the door saying, “I forgot about this house,” so I guess we were decorated enough, even without all the batteries.

The kids came home a little after eight, and Megan came to the door around 8:20 while June was about to get in the bath, so she came to the door in a bath robe, with her crazy hair. Megan had called that afternoon to invite June to trick or treat with her, but between their more ambitious route and June’s ankle and Noah not having plans to go with anyone else, it seemed best not to change plans at the last minute.  We promised June they could go together next year, maybe without adults, if it was okay with Megan’s folks. June and Noah tried to hit Megan’s house while they were out but no one was home, so I’m glad they at least got to see each other, however briefly. Megan had on a Mexican dress and a Day of the Dead mask and skeleton tights. 

This is Halloween for us. We decorate the porch and the yard and carve pumpkins, the kids make costumes and march in the parade. Sometimes they win the contest and sometimes they don’t. They come home on Halloween night with bags full of sweets and plans for next year.

Break a Leg

A week after June fell off the playground equipment and hurt her right ankle, she still was in a lot of pain and couldn’t put any weight on that leg, so Beth took her to see an orthopedist and it turns out it wasn’t a sprain at all–she’d fractured the growth plate of her fibula. It’s apparently a common injury in kids from ten to fifteen years old who are undergoing growth spurts and her feet have been growing very quickly recently. So now she’s in a boot for three weeks and when she gets out of that, she’ll have a brace for another three weeks. She’s still using one of the crutches for balance, but it’s easier for her to get around now that she can put both feet on the ground. We both feel bad about the fact that she was walking around for a week with a fractured ankle.

So…the 5K she was going to run in mid-November is now out of the picture. She’s still going to her running club practice twice a week, to cheer on her team mates. And on Thursday, her first practice with the boot, she walked laps while the other girls ran. I let her basketball coach know that she probably won’t be able to run when practice starts up again in late November. He’s working on some drills she can do without running, because he’s that kind of coach.

The final performance in June’s acting class was Wednesday afternoon, the very day she got the boot. I contacted Gretchen to let her know June would be there, but that she probably wouldn’t be able to change into the bottom half of her costume. She was supposed to be wearing a bathing suit. As soon as she got home from school, we threw her swim top in a bag along with her props and headed out to the elementary school where the class meets on the bus.

Parents weren’t supposed to come into the room until twenty-five minutes into class, so the kids could run through their scenes, but once I’d accompanied June up to the third floor classroom and gotten her situated, Gretchen asked if I’d like to stay and I did. I watched while Gretchen and the members of June’s group hastily re-blocked the scene so June could be sitting down the whole time.

When the rest of the parents came in, the kids demonstrated a couple of acting warm-up games I’d seen on the first day of class–it was the one where they all have to repurpose a prop and the one where they form a human machine by performing repetitive movements while saying one line from their scenes.

The first scene was from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Gretchen’s older daughter Lottie was filling in for a kid who dropped out of the class a few weeks ago. The three actors were all expressive and had a good rapport with each other despite having had less time to work together than the other groups. (Watching them practice this scene over the course of six weeks piqued June’s interest in the play, and we just finished the last novel in the series, so we’re reading the play now.)

The next scene was adapted from a novel called Bad Girls. In it one girl is bullying another and a third who wants to social climb but has some reservations about what it takes. Again the kids all worked well together and did a good job conveying the sometimes conflicting emotions of the scene.

After each scene, Gretchen would talk about acting principles it demonstrated, such as subtext, substitution, objects, or obstacles. In most of the scenes, she had the actors stop and start over if there was a rough spot and then she’d discuss the challenges the actors were facing. It was a like a little acting seminar.

In the June’s scene, the third one, the challenge was the lines. Her group was doing a scene from Foursome, an absurdist play by Ionesco. The lines are so repetitive it can be quite easy to lose your place, whether you’re looking at the script or you’re off book, as June was. They only had to stop once, and they put quite a lot of passion into the scene, which is an argument.

At first, the other two characters are arguing and June’s character is reading a book and sipping a drink and trying to ignore them. Then she intervenes as the voice of reason and gradually gets drawn into the argument and becomes as emotional as the other two.  She was supposed to start sitting while the other two characters argue with each other, and then jump up to join the argument, but in the new blocking, she stayed seated the whole time. It would have been harder to change the movements of the other two characters because they get quite physical with each other.

The final scene was from the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. In this scene, the actors demonstrated their off scene beat, or an imagined pre-scene they use to get into character. Some of the other groups showed theirs, too, but this one was more involved and the two boys played it for laughs.

I always enjoy seeing June perform and this was a fun event. I liked seeing the kids acting as well as seeing some of the process behind it. Gretchen just announced the play for next summer’s musical drama camp will be Beauty and the Beast and June’s already looking forward to that. She thinks she’d like to be the beast.

And speaking of acting, I mentioned a few posts ago that June was in an online commercial for the Alliance for Retired Americans. Well, it turns out it was just her feet. They’re the ones waltzing in pink crocs:

We’re all looking forward to seeing both her feet, without an Ace bandage, a boot or a brace sometime in early December.

Of Pumpkins and Presidents

We live pretty near the Maryland/Virginia border but we don’t go to Virginia often. We’re more often in the District, where Beth works and where our doctors and dentists are. However, in the past week, we’ve visited our sister state twice, or at least June and I have.

1. Pumpkins

Late last Saturday afternoon we drove forty-five minutes to Potomac Vegetable Farm, our traditional source for jack-o-lantern pumpkins. There are certainly closer places we could get pumpkins or pumpkin farms with more bells and whistles in terms of activities, festivals, etc. But we started going to Potomac Vegetable Farm before the kids were born because the family of a friend of ours from college ran it, and now it’s a sacred tradition. We’ve only missed one year when we all had a stomach bug.

On the way there I noticed Northern Virginia is Clinton/Kaine country, if yard signs are any indication. And that’s good, because unlike reliably blue Maryland, Virginia is a swing state, or it often is, in a normal year. (It went for Obama twice, but Bush twice before that.) It’s looking pretty safe for Clinton at the moment.

Noah was working on the script and storyboard of his dystopian trailer before we left and it was hard to pull him away from it, but I’m glad he agreed to come because it turned into a pretty fun family outing. We picked out some decorative gourds and our jack-o-lanterns—I opted to go with a white pumpkin this year—took the traditional pumpkin farm photo of the kids, and stocked up on cider and fall produce. I got beets, squash, a sweet potato, and some late cherry tomatoes to cook with and Beth got a couple green tomatoes, which would supplement our garden tomatoes when she made her signature fried green tomatoes for dinner on Sunday.

From the farm, we headed to Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we’ve never tried before and which we all enjoyed. If you go, I recommend the fake shrimp. I also appreciated the owners’ commitment to sunflowers in the décor. There were real sunflowers growing outside the restaurant (dead now of course, but I’m sure it was pretty when they were in bloom) and sunflowers decorations everywhere you look inside.

As we finished our meal, we discussed dessert options. June’s been wanting to try bubble tea for a while now and Beth looked on her phone and found a (mostly) Asian dessert place nearby that carried it. June got mango and I got coconut and Beth and Noah went for chocolate cake and raspberry cheesecake respectively. As we drove home, sipping our sweet drinks and listening to Halloween music and catching glimpses of the enormous full moon that kept popping in and out of view, I felt deeply content. Over the next week, whenever I glimpsed the little pumpkin and yellow and green gourd on my desk, it kept reminding me of that pleasant day.

2. Presidents

Almost a week later, on Friday, I chaperoned a fifth grade field trip to Mount Vernon. I signed up because the last field trip I went on to Saint Mary’s City last spring was fun. But as happened last time, I didn’t really expect to be chosen because there are often more parents who want to chaperone trips than there are slots. But when June came home the next day with a form about a new online training about child abuse and neglect all school volunteers have to complete and I asked if I could wait to see if I was chosen before I did it, she said, “Oh, you’re in.”

So I did the training, and it was kind of annoying, because near the end I lost all my progress due to a computer glitch and then I had to start over. But I persevered and Friday morning found me at June’s school.

We almost didn’t go on the trip because on Wednesday at recess June twisted her ankle and on Thursday morning she still couldn’t put any weight on it, but she really wanted to go so we decided to give it a try.

We got a ride to school with Megan’s mom, who was dropping off her younger daughter. The buses left the school at 9:40 and crossed the Maryland/Virginia border about twenty minutes later. It was a pretty drive. The leaves are just starting to change and we passed the Washington Monument, National Airport, and drove through charming Old Town Alexandria with all its colonial architecture. I noticed some water birds in the Potomac. And then about 10:35 we arrived at Mount Vernon. As we disembarked from the bus, Zoë noticed the Clinton button on my backpack and said, “I like your button.”

Chaperones were allowed to wander with their groups until our tour of the mansion at 11:30. I was sharing a group of eight girls with the father of one of June’s friends, but it soon became clear June couldn’t keep up on her crutches, so I told him I was going to peel off with her so we could go at her pace. We made our way slowly toward the mansion, stopping to rest on benches and to read short bits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows while her classmates went to explore the farm and gardens.

June was a trooper with the crutches, but she was getting tired and red-faced, so when we got to the mansion, I left her with her math teacher—I couldn’t find my co-chaperone or her social studies teacher—to go see if I could get a loaner wheelchair. In retrospect, I should have done this at the entrance, where they have more wheelchairs, but we were still trying to keep up with the group then and there was no time to stop and ask. They only had an adult size wheelchair at the mansion. The wheels were too far apart for June to comfortably maneuver it by herself but all we needed was some respite from walking for her and I could push her.

She rode in the wheelchair through the line to get into the mansion and then we stowed it outside because she wanted to go up to the second floor. During their reading about George Washington and his family she got especially interested in his step-granddaughter Nelly and she wanted to see her room, so she hopped up the stairs while I held the crutches.

There were a lot of school groups visiting that day (or maybe every day) and so they really hustle you through the house, but you can explore the out buildings at your leisure. We peeked into the smokehouse, the stables and carriage house, the storehouse, the clerk’s office, and the paint storage cellar. They used a lot of paint at Mount Vernon because even though the mansion looks like it’s made of stone, it’s really made of wood carved to look like masonry and painted with paint mixed with fine sand, to give it the glitter of mica in stone. Anyway, it needed frequent repainting. We got shooed away from the ice house because we’d gotten too close to a private tour group, so we never saw inside it.

Reading the signs, I noticed they almost never used the word “slave.” Instead it would say “enslaved gardeners,” “enslaved cooks,” “the enslaved population,” etc. It made me reflect on how this shifts the concept from slavery as a state which is continually forced on a person rather than a slave being something he or she inherently is.

I asked June what else she wanted to see and she said the Washingtons’ tomb so I pushed the wheelchair carefully down a pebbly hill to see George and Martha’s white marble sarcophaguses housed a big brick tomb that also houses the remains of other relatives as well. I would have liked to go see the slave memorial and the wharf but I was afraid of going even further downhill with the wheelchair. I learned later from the Mount Vernon website we were only fifty yards from the slave memorial at the time, but I didn’t know that, just what direction the signs said to go. It was hard pushing the chair back up the hill so when a passerby asked if he could help I accepted his offer. Thanks, stranger!

We peeked into a vegetable garden and an orchard on our way back to the museum but we didn’t go into them, as there were stairs. At the museum we toured exhibits about Washington’s childhood, the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. It was nice to have a flat surface for the wheelchair. We didn’t have time to see the 4-D movie we later heard June’s classmates extol, but maybe we’ll go back some day.

We returned the wheelchair and re-joined June’s classmates for a late picnic lunch on the lawn near the driveway. As we ate the sky clouded over, the temperature dropped dramatically, a terrific wind kicked up, blowing leaves everywhere, and it started to sprinkle rain. By the time we were gathered to wait for the buses, it was raining in earnest. I helped June into her raincoat and urged her to go slowly on the wet pavement. (She’d fallen twice on wet restroom floors in the museum.)

We ran into traffic on the way home and there was a lot of water on the road the bus pushed up in sheets and the drive that took less than an hour getting there two hours and fifteen minutes getting back. We were an hour and twenty minutes late returning to school and the whole fifth grade missed their school buses. (Something similar happened on the way home from St. Mary’s last spring so I wasn’t surprised.) I’d been hoping to put June on her school bus and walk home by myself, but we got a ride with another chaperone. Thanks, Mindy!

During the bus ride, I asked June if she was glad she went and she said, “Yes. Are you?” I said I was glad to have gone and also to have been there to help her get around. “I wouldn’t have gone without you,” she said, leaning against me and resting her head on my shoulder. She was so tuckered out she actually fell asleep for fifteen minutes or so.

I have a piece of paper on which I jotted down these words, a quote from Washington, which were painted on the wall in the museum: “That the Government, though not absolutely perfect, is one of the best in the world, I have little doubt.”

Our democracy was far from perfect then, as I’m sure the enslaved population and many of the women would have attested, and it’s still far from perfect, but it’s gradually getting closer to fulfilling its promise and I think it’s quite a lot better than near-apocalyptic vision of one of the Presidential candidates. It was moving to visit the home of our first President near the end of the second term of our first African-American President and on the eve, I hope, of the first term of our first female President. It makes me wonder what other almost unimaginable changes will take place in my children’s lifetimes.

Wintry Mix

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, or anywhere in the country where the temperature hovers right around freezing for much of the winter, you’re familiar with wintry mix, precipitation that switches back and forth between rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow. We had a whole day of that on Tuesday. I think we had all four kinds of precipitation over the course of the day. Because we were right on the rain-snow line, forecasts for the day varied wildly. We might get ten inches of snow! Or nothing! There ended up being a dusting of snow in the morning that melted by noon with no more accumulation, even though it kept snowing (and sleeting and raining) throughout the day. The afternoon snow squalls, while pretty, didn’t stick.

This post will be wintry mix as well, a mélange of four things that happened over the course of the last week and a half.

I. Thursday to Saturday: Visit with Uncle Johnny

Beth’s brother Johnny, who lives in Seattle, was swinging through the East Coast on a trip that would include New York City, the DC area, Wheeling, WV, and Kentucky. He arrived in DC from New York on Thursday night. Beth met him for dinner after work and they had dinner at a teahouse in the city. Friday she worked a half-day and then they went to the Building Museum before meeting me for lunch at District Taco. (I was already in the city because I had a dentist appointment to get a temporary crown applied.)

From there we went to the Portrait Gallery, where we took in paintings, drawings, sculptures and, in the most interesting interpretation of “portrait,” a short animated film, set to John Lennon’s song “O Yoko.” The film was continuously playing on a small screen mounted on the wall between two paintings. I heard a guard confess it was driving him crazy listening to it all day. I liked it, but I didn’t have to listen to it any longer than I wanted to, so I saw his point. We made sure to show Johnny the portrait of John Brown, which is now a favorite of ours because when June was in preschool she was fascinated with it and always insisted on coming to see it whenever we came to the portrait gallery. (She has no memory of this now, but we are still charmed.)

I peeled off early, leaving Beth and Johnny at the museum, because I wanted to be home when June got home. She had left her violin at school two days running and I wanted her to be able to practice for her upcoming orchestra concert over the weekend, so I’d told her if she forgot again, we’d be heading to school to get it, getting a custodian to unlock the classroom door if need be. It didn’t come to that, as she remembered to bring the violin home. Perhaps this was because I got down on my knees on the wet pavement of her bus stop that morning and begged her to bring it home. That’s the kind of maternal behavior a nine year old will strive to prevent from occurring again.

So Johnny got to listen to June practice the violin when he and Beth arrived at the house, and then he wanted to see Noah’s drum kit, and Noah practiced, too. (I had them do it sequentially to spare Johnny the experience of listening to both at once.) We went out for pizza in Silver Spring and left Johnny at his hotel.

Saturday Beth and June went to meet him so June could swim in the hotel pool, but it was closed until ten and June had gymnastics in College Park at eleven, so they hung out in his room instead and June watched the Disney channel. After watching June’s gymnastics class and eating lunch with her in the University food court, they all returned home just long enough for June to change into her basketball clothes and to pick me up so we could go to the Pandas’ game.

Going into this game, the Pandas had lost a game and won two. It was a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost every game last season. “It’s like they just realized how to play basketball,” another parent said to me. Well, they didn’t forget, winning the game 8-4, against the Warriors, a team I remember beating them twice last year. The Pandas’ offense was apparently not as strong as in the game we’d missed the week before but their defense was great and they caught a lot of rebounds and that was enough to do the trick. It’s so fun to watch them win and Johnny was a good fan, cheering and taking a lot of pictures.

June still wanted to swim in the hotel pool, even after gymnastics and basketball, so we left her there with Johnny and headed home until it was time for dinner. Noah had been working all day but he took a break to go out for Burmese with us. Johnny had never had Burmese before and enjoyed it. He came home with us for a little while and then we said goodbye because he was leaving for Wheeling early the next morning. It was a nice visit, but too short. June had hoped to take Johnny ice-skating and shoot baskets with him at the hoop near the end of our block. But there’s always next time. 

II. Tuesday: Two-Hour Delay

Monday night, considering the forecast and the fact that he had a long history reading on WWII with two dozen questions due Wednesday and only about a third done, Noah said, “I need a snow day.”

“You don’t always get what you need,” I responded, thinking one of us wasn’t going to get that, though at the moment I didn’t know who it was.

But there was a two-hour delay, which was a nice compromise, long enough for Noah to get make some progress on the assignment and for June to practice her violin, make a card for Megan (whose grandmother just died) and for the two of us to take a walk to Starbucks where she had a slice of lemon pound cake and I sipped a green tea latte while I read to her. “That was nice,” she said as we headed for home shortly before her bus was due. And it was.

III. Thursday: Band and Orchestra Concert

The band and orchestra concert delayed during the snow week finally happened on Thursday and it was worth the wait. As Beth came in the door around 5:45, I was exhorting June to change into her concert clothes and find her music. This must have sounded pretty familiar from all Noah’s years of concerts.

I’d laid out a variety of white tops and dark bottoms on my bed so June could mix and match. She chose a white cardigan and a black pleated skirt, with black leggings. But she hadn’t changed out of the socks she’d been wearing that day—they were turquoise with pink hearts.

“What socks are you going to wear to the concert?” I asked, thinking surely not those.

“I am wearing socks,” June said, matter-of-factly.

We looked at each other silently. I almost opened my mouth and said you can’t wear those socks to an orchestra concert, but then I decided why not and said if her dress shoes fit over them it was fine. They did.

June was sure her sheet music was tucked into her music book, but when she looked, she couldn’t find it. So we left without it, telling her she’d have to share with someone.

When we got to the school gym, scores of young musicians and their families were milling around, finding their seats and tuning their instruments. There are one hundred and sixty kids in the band and orchestra, so you can imagine how many people were in the room. And while most kids at the concert were in white and black concert garb, a number of them were in street clothes, so I guess colored socks weren’t really a big deal. And they were packed together pretty tightly so sharing music wasn’t either.

It was a while before the concert got started, so there was time for socializing. We waved from our seats at parents of June’s classmates and fifth-graders we know from the bus stop and elsewhere. The mother of a fifth grade trumpet player came over to ask about the Communication Arts Program at Noah’s high school because her eighth grade daughter just got into it.

After a fanfare by the advanced brass, the whole orchestra played a medley of fiddle tunes. June had a duet with the first violin from the advanced string ensemble. This was originally going to be a solo, because no one but June volunteered, but then the first violin changed her mind. June was a little peeved about this, but I’m pretty sure she’ll get a solo in a concert some day if she sticks with it. I got a little teary while the two girls played. It happens to me at least once at every concert.

Although that was the highlight for us, it was just the beginning of the concert. The beginning band played a series of songs meant to evoke different parts of the country (this part of the program was called “Road Trip”) and the orchestra did a series of songs representing different animals from the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the water and wind.

There were movie themes, from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, which was preceded by two boys acting out the “I am your father, Luke” scene and there was an audience sing-along to “Hey Jude” and later we all stood to do the chicken dance with accompaniment from the advanced clarinets. (“I wasn’t told I would have to dance,” Noah commented afterward, but dance he did.) A girl who attended June’s preschool in the class one year ahead of her played her own original composition on the flute. The advanced clarinets and flutes played “Silent Night,” which seemed little out of place in February, and because there’s a little-known law that at least half of all elementary and middle school band and orchestra concerts should feature a jazz tune during which the musicians don sunglasses, they did that, too.

At one point, the bridge popped out of June’s violin but she ran over to the director between songs and he fixed it for her.

It was a fun evening. I am really in awe of elementary school music band and orchestra teachers. Imagine if your job was to teach a few hundred mostly inexperienced nine-to-eleven-year-old musicians from two different schools enough music to pull off two concerts at each school every year. Because he also works the elementary school where Noah attended fourth and fifth grade, Mr. G was Noah’s first band teacher, too, and he does a wonderful job.

IV. Friday to Sunday: Valentines’ Day Weekend

Friday morning, about twenty minutes before June’s bus was due, she decided she wanted valentines for her class. This happened after weeks of insisting that no, she didn’t want to buy or make any valentines this year. She just wanted to give a few friends some big Hershey’s kisses privately. I never thought June would lose interest in class valentines exchanges at a younger age than Noah did, but apparently she had.

Her last-minute change of heart was partly motivated by the fact that she wanted to bring the candy to school and couldn’t unless she had something for everyone. So I found a bunch of printable valentines online and she selected a page with cartoon animals and robots she liked. Then I printed them and she cut them out and signed them. She thought she had a class list but she couldn’t find it so she left them unaddressed, saying “They will know who they are for because they will be on their desks.” I couldn’t argue with that. Three minutes before we needed to leave for the bus, the valentines were sealed in a plastic bag tucked into her backpack. Sometimes I feel like I’ve really got this elementary school mom thing down.

That afternoon Megan came over. We’d been planning to take both girls on a field trip to a high school girls’ basketball game, an annual tradition for the Pandas, but snow was predicted so the game was cancelled and we decided to switch plans to a play date. June gave Megan a big chocolate kiss and Megan gave June a card with a drawing of bees that says, “We were meant to bee,” with a chocolate kiss taped to it. While they were playing, I swiped a conversation heart from the stash of candy June brought home from school and I broke my temporary crown on it. Karma, I suppose.

On Saturday, Noah wanted to make something heart-shaped for dinner. I was thinking grilled cheese sandwiches we could cut into hearts but he had more ambitious plans: heart-shaped slices of lasagna. So we made spinach lasagna and used a cookie cutter to cut four little hearts out of it. (The rest we ate in more traditional slices.)

On Valentines Day proper, Beth made heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and we all exchanged gifts, mostly chocolate and books, but I also got a Starbucks gift card.

The kids have Monday off for Presidents’ Day and we’re supposed to get more wintry mix Monday through Tuesday—snow, freezing rain, and rain, with an ice storm thrown in for good measure. I guess that’s how we know it’s winter here.

Cool Yule

Christmas Eve

We flew to Oregon on Christmas Eve. It was a long day of travel (three flights in total) and I had a bad head cold that caused me some ear pain that got worse every time we landed. It would have been a trying trip even if on the longest flight I hadn’t been seated next to a woman who was so determined to discuss God’s role in her reproductive life that when I rebuffed her attempts at conversation (as politely as I could), she just had the conversation with the poor couple in the row in front of us. Beth and Noah were seated a few rows ahead and they watched Star Wars and part of The Empire Strikes Back because he’s recently gotten interested in watching these films, what with all the attention the new one is receiving.

We did get to visit with Beth’s brother in Seattle, in between the first and second flights, as we had a long layover. We left the airport, saw his house, and had lunch with him. We don’t see enough of Johnny, so that was nice. His wife Abby was out of town but she thoughtfully left us a tin of pinwheels and soft ginger cookies.

My mother and stepfather picked us up at the last airport and as rain changed over to snow, drove us through downtown Ashland to see the Christmas lights in the business district, which were quite lovely, though I had to strain to keep my eyes open to see them. Then we had a dinner of Mom’s delicious homemade minestrone after which Beth, June, and I all crashed. Noah, who is apparently made of sterner stuff than us, wanted to adjust to West Coast time in one fell swoop and stayed up until his actual bedtime.

Christmas

I told the kids if they woke before five (and I thought it was a pretty sure bet they would) to try to go back to sleep, but that at five they could read or entertain themselves with electronics until six, when they could come out their rooms and open their stockings. I left a couple oranges in June’s room to tide her over until six and hoped for the best.

I was awake for the day at 4:05 but I followed my own rules and didn’t look at my phone until five. At six sharp I heard June leave her room so Beth and I got out of bed. I inadvertently woke Noah by going into his room to see why an alarm was going off in there. He’d set it but slept through it though the door opening woke him. We all opened our stockings and then Beth and June and I went outside to play in the snow, because there was snow, about an inch or so, but that was enough for June to make not one but two little snowmen, one on Mom and Jim’s deck and another in a small park just across the street. We haven’t had any snow at home so she wasn’t going to let it go to waste and it was a good thing she acted quickly because later in the day it melted almost completely.

When Mom and Jim got up we had breakfast—French toast casserole, scrambled eggs, and veggie sausage. Sara and our new niece and cousin, Lily-Mei (also known as Lan-Lan) whom Sara adopted from China just two months ago, arrived around ten. I opened the door when they rang the bell and Lan-Lan was clearly surprised and somewhat dismayed not to see her familiar grandmother. She hid briefly behind Sara’s legs, but she acclimated to us pretty quickly. June in particular was very good with her and by the end of the day they were fast friends. Lan-Lan called her “Goo” and wanted to hold her hand all the time (going down slides, in the car, walking around the house, etc.)

As she warmed up to us, Lan-Lan enjoyed playing a game with our Christmas card. Sara had been using it to help her recognize us before we arrived. Sara would point to someone on the card and say, “Who’s that?” and Lan-Lan would (usually) point to the right person. This never got old. She was fetching the card so we could do this for days.

The rest of the morning was dedicated to opening presents. There was a great quantity of books, soap, tea, socks, and cashmere scarves exchanged. Sara and I got each other peppermint soap and I got Sara the exact same brand of chocolate tea Mom got for me. In addition, Beth got a big stack of books, mostly about women in rock, I got a camera and a teapot and tea cups from China, Noah got a bunch of Amazon gift certificates he’s already used to purchase a new monitor and other computer equipment, and June got ice skates, a gift certificate to get her hair dyed again and some jewelry.

But it was Lan-Lan who really cleaned up (because so many of Sara’s friends gave her gifts). The big hits were a rocking horse and a set of little bean bags. Noah decided to put reindeer antlers on the rocking horse and to make a red nose out of a barely-inflated red balloon and soon it was a rocking reindeer. Lan-Lan rode it and delighted in the neighing noise it makes when you press a button and all three kids played for a long time tossing the bean bags into empty boxes. Every time Lan-Lan got one in everyone would applaud and then she would sit down so she could clap, too. She does it with her one hand and the opposite foot. Lan-Lan also found time to scribble with her new crayons and play with her egg shakers.

Sara and Lan-Lan went home for her rest time and while they were gone I had a nap. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and slept deeply for nearly an hour, which helped me stay up until 9:30 that night. When Sara and Lan-Lan came back June and I went to the playground with them. Once we were there the simple scene seemed momentous to me and I said to Sara, “We’re at the playground with our kids.”

“We are,” she said simply.

This was a long time coming. I didn’t have kids until my mid-thirties and Sara not until her mid-forties, both after long waits, but here we were watching our kids tear around the snowy mulch (June yelling “I’m going to get you” and Lan-Lan shrieking happily) like sisters who’d been watching their kids play together for years.

The girls held hands going down the slide and Sara made a video of it. Lan-Lan wanted to watch over and over and over again. Later June helped push Lan-Lan on the swing. Sara stood behind her and June in front and they pushed her back and forth saying, “She’s mine! No, she’s mine!” while Lan-Lan laughed. (This kid has the cutest laugh you can imagine.) Things only got more hilarious when they invented the game “Switch.” Either Sara or June would yell “One, two, three. Switch!” or to make it more suspenseful, “I feel a switch coming on” and then they would run and switch places. This was funny for a long time. I’ve found you’re never as good a comedian as when you have babies or toddlers.

We came back to Mom’s house and changed clothes for Christmas dinner. Lan-Lan wore a black and gold dress that used to belong to June. (The whole time we were there I took a lot of pleasure in seeing her in Noah and June’s old things—pants, socks, barrettes.)

We ate our dinner—chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cranberry sauce, rolls, and a gluten-free chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. (Sara’s gluten-intolerant.) We ate on the early side so Lan-Lan, who has an early bedtime, could get to bed. As a result, after Sara and Lan-Lan left, we had time to watch A Christmas Story, which we’d never seen before. Mom and Jim enjoyed the nostalgia factor, as they were kids in the 1940s, when it’s set, and June appreciated the broad humor.

Boxing Day

The big activity the next day was a trip to Jacksonville, a nineteenth-century mining town that has a lot of its original Old West architecture. This was almost a trip to Crater Lake, which Mom really wanted us to see in the snow. But the snow up in the mountains posed a problem. Most of the roads there were closed. Only one entrance was open. Various routes were considered and debated and when we left the house, we were actually intending to go there but then we saw a sign for a closed road ahead and we gave up and went to Jacksonville instead. There we browsed in the shops and Lan-Lan stopped to pet the many dogs of Jacksonville, and we had coffee and pastries in a nice coffee shop Beth found, where I got a hazelnut mocha breve and Sara and I shared a gluten-free crème de menthe brownie. Sara said it was the best brownie she ever had and I said, except for Mom’s crème de menthe brownies and she solemnly said, yes, of course.

Mom and Beth were both disappointed not to make it further up into the mountains, but there were lovely mountain views along the drive and there was a spectacular sunset as we drove home.

We went our separate ways for the day then. Sara and Lan-Lan went home and the rest of us went back to Mom’s house where we watched a DVD of pictures from Mom, Sara, and Sara’s boyfriend Dave’s trip to China. (We didn’t get to meet Dave on this trip, as he was with family in Arizona.) Then we went out for pizza. June and I were done in by this point. She was resting her head on the table as we waited for our food and I might have done the same if it were socially acceptable adult behavior—I could have used another nap that day. But the pizza came quickly and we got home in time to put June to bed by her (new, West Coast) bedtime.

Sunday

I slept until 6:15 the next morning and as a result it was the first day I wasn’t feeling jet-lagged. We had brunch at Sara’s house—her famous almond pancakes. Noah and June kept Lan-Lan occupied while Sara cooked, mostly by tossing dishtowels to each other in the living room. Did you know this is the best game ever? Now you do.

We devoured a huge stack of pancakes, a quadruple batch. Noah alone had fourteen. (They’re pretty small, but still…) Sara said it was her first time having people over to eat since Lan-Lan came home and she seemed pretty pleased with how it went. Soon it was time for Lan-Lan to rest so we cleared out.

In the afternoon Mom, Beth, Sara, June, Lan-Lan and I went to a different playground and there was more sliding and swinging and games of Switch. When we got cold we went back to Mom’s house. Sara swung by the food co-op while toddler-free and then we had a big late afternoon snack of chips, crudités, dips, cheese, summer sausage, lentil and green bean salads and spiced nuts. This plus an eggroll was dinner for Sara and Lan-Lan, but after they left, we had baked macaroni and cheese and Christmas dinner leftovers. Needless to say, we were all very full after that. That night Beth and Noah finished Return of the Jedi, which they’d been watching little by little.

June lost a tooth that day and she was hoping the Tooth Fairy would find her. We’d been having snow flurries on and off all day and she also was hoping it would stick overnight and there would be snow in the morning.

Monday

The next morning there was a dollar under June’s bed (it fell off in the night and took some finding) and there was snow, a wet, heavy snow that clung to the tree branches and then fell in clumps. But apparently the second snow of the year is not as exciting as the first snow because June didn’t go out and play in it until Sara and Lan-Lan arrived mid-morning. Instead we read a couple of chapters of Harry Potter (the Platform 9 ¾ chapter and the Sorting Hat one). Beth went for a walk to the UPS store to mail home a package of presents that wouldn’t fit in our luggage and then Sara and I walked to Dutch Brothers to get eggnog lattes, while Mom, June, and Lan-Lan went on their own walk and made a third snowman. It was harder to make a snowman with a two year old than June anticipated. “I don’t think she understands the words ‘Don’t kick the snowman,’” she later told us ruefully. But it was still standing when Sara and I got home after a pleasant walk and conversation.

In the afternoon we made gingerbread cookies. Mom couldn’t find her recipe so I was going to look for a similar one online when Beth told me she’d scanned some important recipes onto her phone a while back and sure enough, she had it. We had to tinker with the recipe, using gluten-free flour and butter instead of shortening (because of trans fats). This is what happens when you try to make gingerbread with a nutrition writer, but at least we used real sugar and not stevia or something like that. (I love you, Sara, really I do.)

Mom mixed the ingredients, letting Lan-Lan dump in the pre-measured baking soda and spices. We decided to have separate workstations on the kitchen counter for Sara and Lan-Lan and for Noah, June, and me. Lan-Lan mostly played with the dough while the rest of us rolled out dough, cut it and put raisins on it. When my kids started to bicker over access to the most desired cookie cutters and over who squashed whose cookie, I told them not to act like toddlers, as that job was taken and then they got along a little better. Even cutting the recipe in half we made three trays of cookies and frosted some of them with leftover frosting from the cake.

We finished in time for an early dinner at a Chinese restaurant and then Sara and Lan-Lan went home and Mom and Jim went to a violin and piano concert while Beth, the kids and I settled in to watch Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

Tuesday

In the morning we had time for a visit at Sara’s house before we left for the airport. Lan-Lan got us to dance by playing one of her musical toys and as that was a hit, she got a great quantity of other toys (mostly dolls and stuffed animals) from her room to see if we’d like those as well. We could only stay about an hour. When we left, Sara and Lan-Lan watched us from the living room window as we got into Mom’s minivan and began our journey away from snowy mountains, my mom’s house, and our first visit with the newest member of our family.