Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving - the Report

Saturday afternoon, and still recovering from Thanksgiving. Grandpop is conked out after a strenuous afternoon of shopping. Kim and Grammy are beading, which is not as biological as it sounds. Tabitha and Lauren are watching Wall-E, one of the classic movies of this or any age. It is a grand holiday, yes it is.

We actually ate Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day, a rarity for us. For years we ate on Friday, simply because it worked out better that way with all of the traveling. But since the folks with the largest distance to go were already here, we figured, "Why not?" Such radicals we are. Grandma and Grandpa came down, bearing Uncle Randall, Aunt Amy and Cousins Keegan and Brody, and we filled up the house with food, more food, and still more food:

The kids ate first, since they finish faster...

Then the adults went at it, because, well, we just park there.

Turkey - 25 pounds of it.

Grandpop does the honors

Cranberry sauce - two kinds: the whole berry kind, which has a nicer flavor, and the jellied kind, since it's not Thanksgiving unless you can count the rings on the jiggling tube of jelly.

Rice. Mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Bread. Stuffing. Because you can't have too much starch, Atkins be damned.

Peeling spuds for KP duty

The green bean, mushroom soup and fried onion casserole that no American holiday meal can be without by statute dating back at least to the Eisenhower administration.

Roasted beets with feta cheese, just to keep the green beans on their toes.

Aunt Linda's pineapple dish, which goes with everything.

More wine than we could drink, and not nearly enough of it.

Two pumpkin pies, one apple pie, and the remains of a ricotta pie.

Lots of good food, a warm house, and family to share it all with. Life is good.

We ate. We watched the Lions lose (another Thanksgiving tradition - we're not entirely sure what would happen if they won; probably something apocalyptic. The Eagles won the night game, though). The girls and cousins played their games. The adults talked, as adults will (great googly moogly but adults talk All. The. Time. I never understood it as a child, and certainly neither Tabitha nor Lauren understand it now, but they will - yes, children, you will).

Lauren and Brody play at the concession stand,
though what concessions they had to make were not clear.

It is a grand holiday that forces you to sit down and remember why your life is actually pretty good. I am not an optimist by nature, which helps when I'm watching the Eagles, Flyers or Phillies play their respective sports, but which can often make me miss things that I should see in the larger world around me. Thanksgiving exists to remind me that the good things are there - family, friends, food, shelter, on and on and on.

Next time, though, we'll remember to save the wishbone before getting rid of the turkey carcass. Because no matter how good life is, there is always room for wishes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gearing Up for Thanksgiving

Grammy and Grandpop are visiting from Philadelphia!

They drove out over the first part of the week - being retired has certain benefits, of which not having to worry about a work schedule is only the most obvious - and arrived last night at dinner time. They will be visiting over the Thanksgiving holiday, and then heading back on Monday - avoiding, with any luck, the congestion on Wisconsin's highways caused by the end of the deer season. Not Thanksgiving, particularly. We can handle Thanksgiving just fine. Deer season, not so much. It's a matter of priorities.

Kim and I got married on the last weekend of deer season, and my future father-in-law was somewhat offended by our choice of dates. "Well," his daughter said, "if you're any kind of hunter you'll have your deer by then." I don't remember offhand if he did, but I do know he was at the wedding. It was good to have him there, though whether he has forgiven us for our scheduling decision I still don't know.

So today Tabitha and Lauren have been having some grandparent time. Tabby and Grammy spent the morning baking pies, which turned out to be more exciting than anyone thought it would when Grammy forgot to put the apple pie on a cookie sheet and it dripped onto the oven floor and set off all the smoke alarms. There was much to-do, but the pie was saved. Eventually the smoke cleared, and we could close the windows and doors again. The pumpkin pies were a lot less dramatic, as pumpkin pies tend to be. They are the Quakers of the pie world that way.

Lauren, meanwhile, is currently playing "Battleship" with Grandpop, and doing a serviceable job of defeating the former Navy man at his own game. Lauren is a whiz at those things, and at some point we will seek to make money off of this.

The cooking and the general flurry of activity is designed to get us ready for tomorrow, when Kim's parents and various other folk from that side of the family descend upon us for a festive day of socializing and eating and relaxing and more eating. Grandparent time with all four grandparents! It will be fun.

We've already got the most important part of the day squared away: there will be dessert.

As for the main course, Lauren and I chose the turkey when we went grocery shopping on Saturday. Apparently, if you want a reasonable sized turkey, you can't wait until Saturday. When we got there, we had a choice between turkeys that were too small and turkeys that were too big - a choice that was perfectly obvious, really. It all comes down to one thing: Leftovers! There must be leftovers! Leftovers that we can eat well into December, until we begin to grow feathers ourselves! So we came home groaning under the weight of this beach ball of a turkey that just about fit into the fridge and will probably fit into the oven if we use enough force. But by God there will be leftovers.

I have also reached deep into the family archives and made Nana's ricotta pie. It is amazing how many of those old recipes include hard liquor - whiskey in this case. She also used to make a chicken breast recipe that involved a fair amount of brandy. Why don't we do that anymore? We worry too much about eating these days.

Of course, in retrospect, it might have been a mistake to let Lauren lick the bowl.

Though it didn't affect her Battleship skills any.

Love and Marriage

Last night I proved that, after thirteen years of marriage, I can still make my wife hot in bed.

This involved going downstairs, setting the kettle on, filling up the hot water bottle and bringing it back so that she could, with time, move her neck again. But I'll take what I can get.

Yesterday was our thirteenth anniversary - a lucky baker's dozen of years since we stood up and declared publicly what we already knew in our hearts. A lot has happened since then. Kim got tenure. I got my PhD and set off on a series of jobs, teaching, running a museum, shelving books, ferrying Russians around, and so forth. We found a nice house a couple of blocks from our original apartment. Tabitha and Lauren came along. We got rounder. Maybe happiness weighs more.

It's been quite a ride, and I'm glad that I'm sharing it with Kim.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Menthol, Eucalyptus and Memories

Tabitha has apparently inherited my respiratory system, more's the pity.

Every fall I end up with one of those lingering coughs that doesn't really stop me from doing any of the things that I don't want to do, but does keep me from being welcomed in most social situations. It hangs around, refusing to leave or be placated by medications, unguents, or whiskey, no matter how I try. Eventually it gets bored and moves on, usually sometime around spring, and then the cycle can begin again. You get used to it.

For the last month Tabitha has had one of these coughs, one that has generally not prevented her from going to school but has managed to make her rather annoyed. We did take her in to see a doctor after a while, and he got one of those looks that you learn to interpret as a parent - the one that says, "This kid has a minor cough that I can't do anything about, but I'd better dress that up in some jargon so they feel they got their money's worth out of coming here." So we got some jargon, some instructions to make sure that we give her plenty of liquids (because usually we keep her freeze-dried, you know) and a reassurance that eventually it would go away.

Well, at least we know it wasn't more serious.

The cough is more persistent at night, for some reason. During the day it appears only sporadically, but at night it can be enough to wake the cats - not an easy trick, really. So we search for ways to ease this.

One thing that does seem to work is the old standby, Vick's Vapo-Rub (or its equivalent - they all come in those little blue jars these days, so it's hard to tell them apart). You slather it on, and the cough disappears! Magic.

And so one of the scents of my childhood returns. I love that smell. All through my childhood we had a vaporizer in my room - a dark turquoise plastic bucket with a black lid, something that could only have been designed in 1964 - and every winter the room would be redolent of Vick's. It takes me back, it does.

Tabitha is less taken by it so far, though she says she is getting used to it. Ah, my child, this is how memories are made! Some day you will look back on this as the beginning of a beautiful thing.

Not now, granted, but some day.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Old Block Is Just a Mass of Chips

Part of the reason I am so excited about Lauren's declaration that reading is her favorite part of kindergarten is that this makes it a clean sweep for the girls as far as reading goes.

Tabitha has always loved books, even as a baby. Kim and I read to both girls when they were far too young to understand even the concept of "stories" and all they knew was that whenever the page turned, something new appeared. This was enough. As Tabitha got older, books became her comfort device - she would smack into a wall or experience momentary exposure to Barney or have some other minor childhood trauma, and we would have to go read stories for a while to calm down.

These days Tabitha almost always has her nose stuck in a book, a trait she gets from both Kim and me and one we encourage. Her most recent addictions include the Emily Windsnap series (about a junior high girl who discovers one day that she is a mermaid - you would think this sort of realization would occur to people earlier in their lives, but the ability to overlook the obvious is a crucial plot device in a surprising number of stories), a series about dragons, and anything even remotely connected to Ripley's Believe It Or Not.* These seem to have replaced the unending Warriors series, though that might simply be a mirage brought on by limited time.

Warriors, for those of you new to YA literature, is essentially a combination of The Lord of the Flies and The Guiding Light, only with cats. There is probably a lesson in that somewhere, but for the life of me I don't know where it might be.

The remote loses out...

We live in a house full of books. There isn't a single room that doesn't have at least half a dozen of them lying about, and most have more. Some of this is my own personal preference - when I have extra money, that's pretty much what I buy - and some of it is a parenting choice. I want the girls to be surrounded by books, to know that there isn't anything they can't or shouldn't read, and to pick up and devour whatever strikes them.

Tabitha has long since claimed all of my old Garfield books.

At night we give the girls "minutes" - time after bedtime stories, when they are allowed to read on their own for a while before the lights go out officially. We always say that they can have 5 minutes, or sometimes 10, but in practice it usually comes to 15 or 20. They think they're getting away with something when that happens. Heh-heh-heh.

One of the many things that make me happy about Tabitha and Lauren is that they both regard a trip to a bookstore as a treat and a reward. I hope they never lose that.


* I sympathize with this Ripley's obsession. When I was a bit older than Tabitha, I used to bike up to Ardmore, where the book stores were, and invest my meager holdings in one or another volume in that series, along with a 2lb bag of peanut M&M's, and that would be my day. It is small wonder that I turned out the way I did.

The Story of Our Summer III: Interlude

When we got back from San Francisco, we all breathed a sigh of relief at the success of our traveling and went directly to bed. It didn't last.

First, Lauren graduated from Montessori school right after we got back. It was a pleasant ceremony, short and sweet. There was no head-shaking moment like the one when Tabitha graduated, where one of the 5-year-old graduates played his guitar and sang the old Paul Simon song, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." The mental images were a bit incongruous. This time was much less mind-spraining. There were a few short speeches, and Lauren sat there in her cap and gown, trying not to blow away in the gale-force winds. When her turn came she proudly marched up and got her certificate. Onward to kindergarten! Carpe diem! Illegitimi non carborundum! You make us proud, kid.

After the speeches there were games, most of which involved the finding and getting of candy. Can you ask anything more of a graduation? Why don't they do that when you get your BA? For graduate degrees, they could substitute wine.

A couple of weeks later, Kim went to Oregon for a conference on green chemistry and education, which is all the rage among the chemistry types who happen to be in education. The conference was in Eugene, a city where bicycles outnumber cars, green is the new black (so you know the organizers of this conference were thinking ahead...), and people who go into restaurants and order bacon cheeseburgers get escorted to the county line and given a gift certificate to a gym somewhere else. Kim loved it - she went on hikes, she ate good food that nobody else here would eat, and if it weren't for the fact that we're kind of cute she probably would never have come back.

Good thing the girls and I practice our winsome smiles. Those things are tough to do cold.

While she was gone I took the girls out for some disaster tourism here in our little town, which spent much of June under water. This is what happens when you combine 100+ inches of snow over the winter with record rains in the spring. Fortunately, we live up on a hill - if our house ever floods, our flooded house will be the least of our problems - but it was still a long, wet year. We watched the water flow down Main Street, then headed over to one of the bridges over the river to see if it would capsize, and when it didn't we went to the library where the water was creeping slowly up through the parking lot toward the green spray-painted line that meant "evacuate."

It was slow-motion excitement.

We did not go swimming in that water, unlike a great many other people who felt that it would be fun. The Darwin Awards people will never run out of material - you know that, right? No, we confined our swimming to the public pool, where the girls were taking swimming lessons for the second summer in a row.

They were actually pretty good at this - moving up the ranks, moving out toward the deep end of the pool, and all that. When I went through this process, way back in the early years of the republic, I just eventually grew tall enough to walk to the deep end, but the girls just get better and better at swimming out. They love being in the water, too - they would live at the pool if they could.

At the end of most lessons, the teachers would bring them over to the diving pool and let them jump. Both girls loved this, especially the low dive, which they would use to the point of wearing it out. They even went off the high dive a time or two! There is nothing that warms the heart of a parent like seeing their children flailing through the air into deep water.

Now where did I put that whiskey?

The key thing about the swimming pool, though, is that they have a snack bar there - one that stocks Tootsie-pops: Tootsie-pops that come in a variety of flavors, including (drum roll) watermelon! We did our best to eat all of those. And if the wrapper contained a picture of a horse or an arrow, well that was a lucky day that was.

They're all lucky days, swimming in the summertime.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Another Chip Off the Old Block

Lauren's kindergarten class likes to make books. They each color in a page, and when they are finished their teacher puts them into sleeves and then into a binder and sends them home. So far we've gotten about half a dozen of these things, on topics as diverse as what the kids were wearing that day to the field trip out to the pumpkin patch. Kim and I take turns filling out the comment page, and then we send them back.

The last book we got was about their favorite activities in kindergarten.

Most of the kids put down things like playing in the loft, playing with their friends (one girl, who came to Lauren's birthday party, even put down playing with Lauren), or playing bingo. I have this image of a group of 5-year-olds sitting quietly in rows, wearing green visors and holding large permanent markers, waiting to pounce on G-57. You can't start bingo too early, I always say.

Lauren's entry? She likes to read. She even drew a picture of a shelf full of books.

I am so, so proud.

"I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves." - Anna Quindlan

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hmmm, I See...

My world has edges again.

Tabitha sat on my glasses almost three weeks ago now, rendering them both inoperable and unrepairable, so I have been meandering about the planet without them ever since. On the one hand, it does give a nice soft-focus feel to things. On the other hand, well, ibuprofen is a marvelous thing.

I did not miss the glasses too much, surprisingly enough. Other than watching television, which I don't do much of anyway, there really wasn't anything I couldn't do. And since most of what I watch on television involves large men chasing a small ball or some similar object, I could do that too just by watching the uniforms flow by. Eventually the announcers would declare that someone had scored.

But this situation couldn't last, and I set out to get new spectacles. Not having had my eyes examined since the previous presidential election, I figured it was time for me to have them looked at by a professional before I charged off to ye olde eyeglasses shoppe. This, of course, took a few days to set up, but eventually - boom! - there I was, at the optometrist.

They remembered me there.

That is never a good sign. Right there in my chart it probably said something like "crashing nuisance," in large part because getting the eye drops into my eyes is an exercise in futility. What can I say? I don't like things approaching my eyes. Last time they tried it, it took nearly half an hour before they finally hit on having me close my eyes, filling the corner with drops, and then asking me to open them again. When it was all over they asked me if I wanted contacts. "Have you been here with me this past half hour?" I asked. "Never mind," they said.

This time we went directly to the "filling the corner" strategy, much to everyone's relief, and I walked out with a new prescription with no fuss.

Then I went to Sears to get it filled. They were having a sale! I was in and out in mere minutes, which is the definition of a successful shopping trip as far as I am concerned.

It took two weeks for the specs to come in. It might have been quicker, except that Sears Optical used DHL for all their shipping, and DHL pulled out of the American market last week. So I think they had someone fling them here with a giant slingshot, which took extra time though there was no additional charge.

So now I have new spectacles. They are snazzy. They are sharp. They are, to nobody's surprise, almost exactly the same as the ones I had before, except with hinges instead of memory metal.

I am so predictable.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Apparently my cell phone can get text messages. Who knew?

I did not want this capability when I got the new phone. Nor did I want any of the other doodads, geegaws, whizbang-techno-amazements or gizmos, up to and including the camera that you simply cannot purchase a cell phone without these days, but clearly this was not my choice to make. My cell phone now has a camera, which I have never bothered to figure out how to use. I already had a camera. Why did I need another one on my phone? Especially since my first camera is a rather nice one, and the one on the phone takes fuzzy, low-res photos? All I want my phone to do - are you ready for this? - is make and receive phone calls.

That's it.

This fact nearly rendered the cell phone sales clerk catatonic, the last time I was actually delegated with the solo task of selecting cell phones. She got this look on her face as if a living, breathing Ancient Roman, complete with toga and short sword, was standing in front of her asking for directions to the chariot races, and she was rendered speechless for a full minute. It was all I could do not to call her a whippersnapper.

Eventually Kim chose the phones that time - she is at home with gizmos and technogadgets of all kinds, and the sales clerk recognized her as a fellow 21st-century American, which made the process go much more smoothly. The most recent time we had to choose phones - this summer - Kim just came along with me, mostly to make sure that I didn't select a model made of wood.

The thing is that nobody who knows me would ever think to send me a text message. The only text messages I get are spam from my cell phone provider, who otherwise is a model of what a cell phone provider should be in that I can make and receive calls from almost everywhere except the supermarket, where I most need that capacity ("what kind of beans did you want again?"). So whenever the little "text message" alert makes its hollow beeping noise, I jump in alarm before a) figuring out what that noise means, and b) ignoring it because it is meaningless.

I am behind the curve again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ready For Her Close-up

Tonight was the big performance of our local Brownie troop down at Not Bad President Elementary School. Everyone who was anyone was there. You should have seen it.

We dropped Tabitha off with the other Brownies (and Junior Girl Scouts - they're color coded, so you can tell them apart. Brownies are, well, brown. Juniors are kelly green. Whenever the local hierarchy gets its act together and we figure out where Lauren's Daisy troop is, she'll be blue) and headed off to find our seats.

There was a period of rest.

Eventually the various scouts marched in, color guard first, and began the program.

On the one hand, the substance of it was completely over-the-top patriotic, featuring both country music and poetry best described as "enthusiastic." On the other hand, the scouts did a very nice job of it, and the basic idea - a salute to veterans - was pretty cool. They sang their songs and recited their poetry, and then they asked the veterans in the crowd - some of whom were brought by the girls, and some of whom just came on their own - to stand up and identify themselves. There were vets ranging from WWII (including one who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge) to Iraq, with most of the intervening conflicts represented. There were a lot of Vietnam vets.

You know what? The Vietnam vets are all grandparents now. In my head this makes perfect sense - it was 40 years ago, after all - but it still came as a surprise.

Eventually the program came to an end, and there were snacks. Snacks heal all wounds.

Tabitha did a very nice job with her part, and we're proud of her.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

See You In The Sunday Paper

My neighbor slept late today, so we didn't get our Sunday papers until after dinner. That's okay. It's Sunday - where are we going to go?

My neighbor has one of the wholesale distribution routes for a bunch of different papers, and every Saturday night he drives off to pick up a truckload of them, and then he spends the rest of the night delivering them to various retail establishments. But the warehouse never counts them out exactly right, and he ends up with extras that he would have to recycle if he didn't give them to us. He's a good neighbor that way.

So on any given Sunday, in addition to the local blab that we actually subscribe to, we might end up with all or parts of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, The London Financial Times, or a few others. It's a crapshoot, which makes it fun. We each have our favorites. Tabitha likes the ones that have color comics - she is old enough now to enjoy them, though a lot of the humor is still pitched above her. She reads them to Lauren, who laughs anyway. The prize for me is the NYT Review of Books - imagine, a whole tabloid section devoted to nothing but books. There can be no finer use of newsprint.

The ironic thing about the whole set-up is that we now receive the Sunday New York Times far more regularly than we did when we actually subscribed.

I have always loved the Sunday paper. It is a monument to leisure that no web page can replace, which is probably why it is a dying institution. We move too fast these days.

When I lived in Pittsburgh, I would walk the half a mile from my Shadyside apartment to a newsstand in East Liberty that sold not only the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but my hometown Philadelphia Inquirer (pronounced "Ink-wire") as well. I would then walk back to my little apartment, grab my folding chair - the one that rocked - and some snacks and head off for another half mile in the other direction to the park. And that was my day.

I lived alone. I wasn't in school. I didn't own a television. I had nowhere to go, nothing better to do and nobody to do it with anyway since most of my friends were either in school, married or both. This was my time, to sit in the shade of a tall tree and slowly work my way through two - count 'em, two - entire Sunday papers. Sometimes I got ambitious and brought a book too, but that was just overkill.

Oh, I suppose those newspapers were useful in some ways. I was certainly better informed about things than most people, for all that counted for anything. Postal strike in Ireland? All over that. Oddball laws passed in every state? Got that in spades. But usefulness was never the goal. It was simply a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, when nothing else was being demanded of me. There is too much of "useful" in the world as it is. "Useful" has its place. But it can be overdone.

The Sunday papers await me now, and not having a mast to lash myself to, I must obey their siren call.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On Pillows and Childhood

Our fiendish plan worked.

The girls sunk deep into their foam pads last night and slept the morning away - at least as much as they sleep any Saturday morning away. They fell asleep fairly quickly, too, though I thought Lauren was going to levitate off her bed at first from the excitement of it all. So: money well spent.

As I was making up the beds last night, putting the foam pads underneath the sheets and making sure that there were enough sheets to cover them so that the whole thing didn't let loose with a rubbery "SPROING!" at about 4am and bring interesting times to our quiet household, a thought occurred to me. Thoughts do that - they sneak up on you when you least expect them, though why this is so remains something of a mystery to me. Thinking is something one ought to be doing all the time, really.

But nevertheless, there I was, putting the pillows into their cases, when it occurred to me that you can tell a lot about how people spent their childhoods by how they do this simple task. Specifically, by whether they put the zipper at the closed end of the pillowcase or the open end.

Kim insists that the zipper goes inside, down at the closed end. Otherwise, she says, you end up sleeping on it. This to me says that she had a fairly quiet nightlife as a small child. Because if there was one thing that my brother and I learned early on as children, it was that if you put the zipper down at the closed end, it would leave quite a mark the next time you whacked someone with it.

Keith and I shared a bedroom for a number of years when we were growing up, and we had an entire repertoire of amusements designed to pass the time when we should have been getting to sleep. They all followed a standard trajectory: whispered suggestions, quiet beginnings, enthusiastic middles, and, eventually, diving back into bed in a vain attempt to avoid The Wrath Of The Father. We could have set our watches by it, if we had worn watches.

But you only had to be clipped by a zipper once before you learned to put it at the open end, where you grabbed the pillowcase, rather than the closed end, where you hit people. It was a kind of detente between us.

If you're wondering, holding the pillowcase by the closed end during a pillow fight was never an option, either - that's a great way to send your pillow sailing into the hallway, leaving you defenseless. There's a long list of things in this world that you only do once, just to see what they're like, and then never do again - giving a cat a bath, catching a frisbee with your teeth, actually answering the question, "Do you know what time it is, young man?", and so on. Clipping people with zippers is on that list. Leaving yourself defenseless with your brother in the room is too.

Childhood: great stuff for the survivors.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Foamy Delights

There are two slabs of foam slowly inflating on top of the girls' beds right now. It's really kind of eerie how they do that - like they were coming to life or something. I keep expecting a pale foamy hand-like pseudopod to reach out and steal my wallet.

They are an odd off-white color and they have a soft, yielding texture as if they have never fully congealed, but I know from experience that eventually they will be capable of supporting the weight of a sleeper. Sort of.

We have one on our bed, and it is an odd sensation when you climb aboard and then slowly sink into your own cozy, surprisingly warm personal divot. Sound gets muffled. Acid rock comes unbidden to your mind. Your muscles lose their ability to power your limbs. Eventually, Keanu Reeves drops by and tells you which pill to take.

Naturally, we felt this was an experience that our children ought to have. Because we can't get enough of Keanu "Bogus!" Reeves, that's why. Is it just me or does everybody expect him to fall into his Bill and Ted character no matter what movie he's in? That thought certainly livened up Dracula for me, anyway. We'll be sure to get an autograph, provided our muscles are obeying our will at that point.

Tonight will be the test. No doubt the girls will be so rapturously comfortable that they will sleep until all hours on a Saturday morning. And thus our fiendish plan stands revealed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Catalogues, Cookies and Christmas

It's getting on Christmas season once again, and this can only mean one thing: the annual flood of catalogues is in full swing.

I am not complaining. We like this onslaught at our house, and we look forward to it every year. All of us - even the girls - will page through the various offerings, laughing at the clever slogans on the t-shirts or pointing out what seems like a new and exciting gizmo designed to liberate money from our wallets. Signals and Wireless catalogues are favorites all around. The girls like the various toy catalogues and party good catalogues. Kim likes anything that promises to optimize life around the house. I tend to reserve my excitement for what I call "book porn" - those extended catalogues such as the ones Edward R. Hamilton puts out that just list book after book after book after book, all at steep discounts. I can look through those for hours, making out lists of books I will never end up buying. But that doesn't matter. It's the looking that's fun.

Not that I would object to the buying, mind you.

Now, a lot of the things that appear in these catalogues are clever solutions to problems you didn't know you had, or just neat stuff in general. It must be said, however, that once in a while you run into something that just screams out at you, "Not Well Thought Through."

And thus we come to the Nativity Cookie Cutter Set that Kim saw yesterday.

On the surface, this seems like a perfectly reasonable product, and one eminently suited for these Evangelical States of America. It is a set of cookie cutters, one each for all of the figures of the Nativity scene - wise men, donkeys, Mary and Joseph, the whole crew. You can see why someone thought it was a good idea, and why it would sell. Religion, sugar, tchotchkes - fun for the whole family!

But still.

I'm not the most religiously observant fellow you'll ever run into - if there is a church-attendance requirement to get into heaven, my goose is cooked - but I do take my faith fairly seriously even so. And it seems to me that the Nativity Cookie Cutter Set is just an invitation to theological trouble.

Let me put it this way: would you bite the head off the baby Jesus cookie?

My guess is that as soon as you did that a voice just like the one Bill Cosby uses in his "Noah" routine would echo throughout the land - a very unhappy voice, with very unhappy things to say. This is not a voice you'd want to hear more than once, probably. So you'd pretty much have to let those cookies pile up, uneaten, until you had a mound of baked baby Jesuses just sitting around the kitchen that you couldn't do anything with. It's not like throwing them in the trash would be much of an improvement, and the whirring blades of the garbage disposal are just right out.

I'm not even going to discuss the leavening issue.

No, I think we'll pass on this one. We'll stick to cookies shaped like reindeer or trees, things that don't produce theological dilemmas when you're hungry. It's hard enough watching what you eat during the holidays as it is.

News to the Minute

Just to keep updated on a few things:

  • Tabitha and I continue to push our way through Middle Earth. The Riders of Rohan have survived Helm's Deep. Pippen and Merry are with the Ents at Isengard. Frodo and Sam are somewhere northwest of Mordor. It's a long book, but a good one.
  • Lauren is back in school today, less than 24 hours after getting out of surgery. She's a tough little kid. Honestly, she seemed in better shape than Tabitha, who appears to be fighting some sort of crud.
  • Seven of the eighteen windows are now on the house, including all but one of the second floor windows. Adam and I were going to do more today, but it is grey, raining and cold here in Baja Canada, so perhaps tomorrow.
  • Zen remains a missing quantity in our house, in every conceivable sense of that phrase.
  • The fact that the Phillies won the World Series has still not quite sunk in. In part this is my native pessimism - I'm still trying to figure out how they can lose it even now. And in part it is because of the deafening silence that their victory has produced outside of a 40-mile radius of Independence Hall. They weren't even on the cover of Sports Illustrated - not that you can find a copy of Sports Illustrated in our little town. If a title drought falls in Philadelphia and nobody is there to hear it, did it really happen?
  • I am still psyched about Obama winning the election. Perhaps the best commentary I've seen on it was a cartoon that showed him sitting at the desk in the Oval Office, scotch-taping the Constitution back together. His first three years are going to be spent undoing the damage of the last eight.
  • We are still inundated with sugar, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, our anniversary (lucky number 13!) and three birthdays to go before the end of the year. Somebody fetch me a bag of carrots.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Avoid the Adenoid

No matter how much you know that it is the right thing to do in the long run, sending your child off into the surgeon's care - even for minor surgery - is an anxious thing.

Lauren had her adenoids removed today, in what we hope will be a step toward improving her hearing. We got up earlier than usual, and as I took Tabitha over to the Montessori school for before-school care, Kim got Lauren bundled up and over to the Surgical Center. I met them there as they were checking in.

Now, whoever designed the Surgical Center had an odd sense of humor. It is located in a bare-concrete parking garage, so that whenever you look out the front windows it always seems like a dark and stormy night. Not that the windows are all that helpful anyway - they are all one-way glass, so you can sort of see out but as you approach to come in it seems as if someone who looks just like you is headed out.  It feels like you're about to enter a highly localized time warp that puts the Surgical Center a few hours ahead of the parking garage. This is just not what you need in a situation where you're already feeling out of kilter. If I had been in charge, I'd have put the whole thing somewhere more cheerful, preferably a location that didn't look like a Blade Runner set. But that's just me.

This was not the first time we've been to this particular establishment. Lauren had tubes put in her ears when she was about eighteen months old or so, which was another anxiety-ridden affair - like this one, more about the general anesthetic than the actual operation. It came out well, though. Her chronic ear infections cleared up, her balance improved, and that afternoon she was running happily down the sidewalk as if it never happened. The most harrowing part of the whole experience was actually Kim's highly unstable coffee mug. You would think a medical establishment would have towels aplenty, but you would be wrong.

So we walked Lauren in behind the reception desk, and got her ready for her operation. The nurse took a wide variety of measurements, and gave Lauren a packet of stickers and a small stuffed cat. The doctor dropped by for some last minute discussion. The anesthesiologist - a college buddy of Kim's, ironically enough - chatted for a bit.

I was tasked with getting Lauren into her gown.

Who designs those things - disgruntled origami masters? Wouldn't it be easier just to give people a gaily-patterned sheet and let them wrap up? It would certainly be warmer.  I got it on her eventually, but the resemblance to the scene in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving where Snoopy squares off against the lawn chair was not entirely coincidental.

And then she was off, bravely following the nurse into the OR, where parents are forbidden. I understand that - any teacher will tell you that parents are generally the biggest obstacles to getting anything productive done with children, and really I had no great desire to see the actual operation anyway - but still it was an odd feeling when the door slowly closed behind her.

After about 45 minutes of grading exams (Kim's chemistry class is HUGE this year, and I can grade multiple choice as well as she can - besides, after 45 minutes of grading exams just about anything else seems pleasant), it was over.  The doctor called us into a small room and assured us that Lauren was just fine, that she had come through as a "star patient," and that she had what he referred to as "bonus-sized" adenoids.

Bonus-sized?  Do we get a decoder ring with that?

When she had recovered a bit they called us back to see Lauren as she drowsed in the recovery chair. She seemed quite fine - actually, the hardest part of recovery for her was when she discovered the IV in her foot. Her eyes got big and her face instantly assumed the "What the hell is that doing there?" look that said everything was back to normal.

Eventually I hauled her back to the car, and we took her home. After a few go-rounds of "Rocky and Bullwinkle," she perked up and had some toast and a popsicle. Then she got dressed and asked to go to the pharmacy, where the most wonderful candy counter in the world resides - I had promised her 3 candies after surgery, and she was cashing in.

Good to have you back, kiddo.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I'm Gonna Git You, Saqqarah.

A while back Uncle Geoff and Uncle Wall-E came by for a visit. We had a fine time, hitting the local barbecue establishment, visiting the pumpkin patch, and eventually working our way up to Kim's parents' house for a festive evening of Ukrainian food.

While he was here, Geoff bequeathed unto us a scourge. It is an enjoyable scourge, and fun for the whole family, but a scourge nonetheless. We now are the proud owners of Saqqarah.

The seed is planted.

For those of you who do not play computer games - and by and large I count myself in that category, since Minesweeper is generally as sophisticated as I get - Saqqarah is a multi-level matching, logic and speed game in which the aim is to remove jewels of varied colors from various matrices, all the while being harassed by a blue gorilla and serenaded by music from an ancient Egyptian bordello.

It is surprisingly addictive.

We have gotten to the point now where we simply do not have enough computers. Tabitha has a game in progress on Kim's computer. Lauren and Kim have games in progress on mine, which is somewhat faster because it has fewer gizmos and toys on the hard drive. My game is also on my computer, forever emitting the siren call of procrastination when I should be doing something more important, such as, oh, anything. But I'm not alone - nobody gets any work done around here anymore. Even when we're not playing our own games, we're watching someone else play theirs and giving them unwanted advice. Fortunately there are no sharp objects near the computers, otherwise either the spectators or the blue monkey would end up perforated.

I'm not entirely sure what will happen when someone exhausts all the Temples of Jewelry and reaches the end. Perhaps the monkey will give us a banana - or, preferably, a bourbon.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Perils of Autumn

There are certain disadvantages to having the weather turn colder. Some of them are obvious, such as the fact that you have to find jackets and hats before leaving the house, the slow decrease in grilling opportunities, and the onset of the basketball season. Others, though, are a bit more subtle.

The "Summer Door" has closed, much to the consternation of Tria, our black cat. Mithra - the grey one - is pretty much okay with being inside, but Tria regards the indoors as a form of penance for whatever kitty sins she has committed and would prefer not to be reminded of. There is always a period of adjustment when the Summer Door goes away and the Winter Door takes its place - she'll race to the door and demand to be let out, and then you can just see the disappointment and consternation ripple across her as the cold, harsh reality of Not Summer curls her whiskers and frosts her tail and she races back into the Warm. Cold weather is hard on Tria.

And because of that, it is hard on us.

You see, when the weather gets colder, Tria spends more time indoors. And those indoors are just that much more "indoors" than they usually are, what with the windows tightly shut and all. So you end up with Tria in a relatively airtight environment. Which wouldn't be such a problem except that she is the most flatulent cat I have ever owned.

Yesterday she rendered the living room completely uninhabitable for almost half an hour, which is fairly impressive given her relative size. She is the ninja master of such things.

Maybe it's just revenge.

She's subtle about it too, in that sneaky feline way that dogs and most guys never quite grasp. You get no "Force-10 Pantsbusters" from her. You can't hear anything at all. If it didn't happen so constantly, you might think it entirely coincidental that shortly after she appears the plants die, the new windows bow outward from the pressure, your eyes water like it's final exam day at the onion-cutting academy, and the paint falls off the walls in foot-wide strips. She'd certainly like you to think so.

Honestly, it's like living with a 10lb frat boy.

Perhaps I should go back to the auto parts store and get more air fresheners.

Friday, November 7, 2008

An Apple for the Road

I changed the air freshener in the car today.

Having one of those dangly little scented cardboard things has never been a priority of mine, but this summer we had to go to the Grand Opening of the new auto parts store in our neighborhood. It used to be a Hardees, before that was closed by popular acclaim. It took so long for the land to be put to use that we were beginning to suspect that it was a Superfund site, which having eaten there a few times would not have surprised me. But this summer they finally leveled the old Hardees and commenced to moving large piles of the Earth's surface about into new and more pleasing shapes. Eventually they put doors on.

Naturally the girls were just fascinated by this. And when it became clear that it was going to be new auto parts store (as opposed to something useful like, say, a Barnes and Noble), the girls began agitating for a field trip.

So approximately 15 minutes after they first opened, there we were. It was nice, in a "what on earth am I doing in this place?" kind of way, with rows of shiny things whose names and functions might as well have been written in Mayan on some ancient stone wall, and a pleasant rubber-and-metal sort of smell. Naturally we had to buy something, and car air fresheners seemed like something hard to screw up.

Do you have any idea how many varieties of air freshener they now sell for your car? Great googly moogly, people, what on earth are you doing in there? Wait, no. Don't answer that.

We cruised our way through the selection - cinnamon, lemon, "sea breeze," baby powder, various incarnations of the traditional "pine," pina colada, coconut, even something called "new car scent" (because outgassing polyvinylchlorides never go out of style!) - before settling on something labeled "sour apple." At 3 for $2, how could we go wrong?

So we took our souvenir out to the car and hung one up on the mirror, not far from where the dog with the bouncing head would have gone 30 years ago. Let me tell you, those air freshener people do not mess around. Within heartbeats, my car smelled like the inside of a cider press - which was not unpleasant, once you knew what to expect.

But all good things must come to an end, and eventually the car resumed smelling like cracker crumbs and spilled tea.

Not today though. Today, the cider press returned. And there's another one just waiting in the wings. Better living through chemistry, that is our motto.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Now and Zen

We seem to have lost our Zen, here at the old homestead.

On our last trip to the pumpkin patch, the girls were probably most excited not by the pumpkins but by the woolly-bear caterpillar whom they snatched from its home and returned to ours in a plastic zipper bag.

Now, woolly-bear caterpillars can be useful as weather predictors - you see how much the colors vary from normal, and you can tell how bad the winter will be - but the trick to that is knowing what the standard woolly-bear caterpillar looks like in the first place. This one looked, well, brown and black. And fuzzy. Not that it matters much - we live in Wisconsin, after all, and all you have to do is predict a cold and snowy winter and you'll pretty much be right no matter what. So the usefulness of this particular caterpillar was, in fact, somewhat limited.

After trying several different versions of a home for our newest resident, including one structural masterpiece involving sticks, wax paper and a fair amount of cling wrap, the girls settled on a more straightforward plastic box, which they filled with a miniscule percentage of the Creeping Charlie patch that we call a lawn. Apparently, woolly-bear caterpillars will eat just about anything. The girls even put some Creeping Charlie in the fridge for later, should it get hungry for a snack.

Then it was time to name the caterpillar, a tricky thing since nobody could tell if it was a boy caterpillar or a girl caterpillar and nobody really wanted to learn how to do that. Eventually, by communing with the spirit of our long-passed-away cat Pepper, Tabitha came to the conclusion that it was a boy, which meant that it would (after several short-lived alternatives) be called Zen.

Zen had a harrowing life here, it must be said, despite having a small green friend who came in with the Creeping Charlie sharing his box. When he wasn't being paraded around by small children, he was being investigated by cats. But he seemed to be doing okay.

Yesterday he vanished.

Now, this means one of several things. He may have just escaped and is hiding around here somewhere, waiting for revenge. We're not sure what that might be, but it will probably be something slow. He might also have finally met the cats, which probably would not have gone well for poor old Zen. Perhaps he beamed up to some other dimension to report to his caterpillar overlords on the status of their world takeover plans. This one we doubt, but you never know these days, so we can't entirely rule it out.

In any event, we are Zenless now. Ah, Zen, we hardly knew ye.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Kind of President, At Least For Me

For the first time in what seems like an eternity, I feel as if the US is not headed for disaster. The two-bit hooligans who have run our Constitution into the ground for the last eight years are definitely headed out the door, though they have two more months in which to continue their assault on our values, economy, world standing and security. Honestly, they should just go away and hide in shame, but they won't - that would require a measure of self-knowledge that they don't have. But their days are numbered, and for that I am glad. I will rest easier tonight.

We took the girls with us to vote yesterday, because that is a behavior that they should just assume is normal. We had heard all sorts of stories about lines and waits, but at 3:15 on a school day we basically just walked right up and filled in our ballots. I was voter number 942, though - roughly double where it usually is. As noted earlier, I filled in my ballot for Barack Obama - though I still don't have a functional pair of glasses, so for all I know it could have been Barney Google. I don't think Barney was on the ballot, though. My track record in picking winners - from either party, for any office - is laughably poor, so even with the polls as lopsided as they were, I was worried. But the girls went off to play in the school playground - which has much cooler stuff than the one at their own school, apparently - and who can stay tense watching children play?

As the results began to come in and turn the map blue, I felt better. Kim and I sat in bed and watched John McCain's concession speech - a magnanimous and gracious speech that reminded me of why I used to like the man (if not the people behind him). Where was that guy for the last few months? And then we watched Obama give his talk.

Zow. That man can speak.

I don't know how to respond to a President who is both intelligent and articulate. I'm old enough to remember Nixon, who was intelligent but, as Dave Barry once put it, always seemed as if a large and disorganized committee of aliens had taken over his body and was still trying to figure out how to use it - a quality that carried over into his speeches. Ford may have been intelligent, but who could tell? Carter certainly was intelligent, but never managed to sound like it. This could have been the accent, which to my biased Yankee ears never helps. Reagan was perhaps the most articulate president in my lifetime, given to flights of soaring rhetoric that could inspire his supporters, of which I was not one. But credit where credit is due - he could speak. He was an actor, after all. Intelligence was not required of the job, and if he had any he hid it well. Bush the Elder was smart, but a more hopeless speaker you could not find if you interviewed every player in the National Football League. Clinton was brilliant, but never figured out that a velvet fog of verbiage was not the same thing as eloquence. Bush the Younger couldn't pass a junior high English class.

But when Obama gets rolling, he can move mountains. Cadences and ideas just roll down toward us mortals, and even when you think back over what he said, it still sounds good. It's a rare quality.

The girls were very excited this morning when they woke up to find that Obama had won. Not half as excited as we were, we told them. I hope this is the beginning of a new era, one that will repudiate the nightmare of the Bush Lite years. I know this will take time, and that Obama will disappoint, will fall short, will not be able to change things quickly or at times at all - but still, a President can do things, and I think he will.

This isn't change, he said. This is the opportunity for change.

I'll take it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Zippity Doo-Dah

Among all the other wonderful things that Lauren got for her birthday, most of which still await thank-you notes, was a zip line.

This summer we went out east for to have Good Times and visit with Friends And Family, and eventually that part of the summer will get its own entry here (oh, yes it will). But our second stop on the trip was in Pittsburgh, there to catch up with our friends Lannie and Pat and their horde of children ("we have our own volleyball team," Lannie said). Since it was the middle of a weekday we didn't get to see everyone - not even Pat, who has gone on from being a mere graduate student like the rest of us to Great Heights Of Political Influence and had to be at work that day. But we had a grand time with Lannie and a chunk of the team.

Lannie and Pat are the sorts of people who would buy a large but somewhat needy house and then fix it up to look wonderful, and indeed they have done so. Still a work in progress, as are most houses, but really cool just the same. And as far as the girls were concerned, the most miraculous thing that they had installed was the zip line that ran from one side of the back yard to the other. It was a masterpiece of child-energy consumption, and they had a grand time.

So the idea developed that perhaps we could do that. And by "we," somehow this devolved down to "me." Now, I understand the reasoning behind this, me being home and all, but as noted before projects are just not my strong point. But I agreed to give it a try, and Kim ordered one from Amazon, which truly does sell everything these days - even books.

After staring at the packaging for a week or so, just to make sure it wasn't rabid or potentially explosive, it was time to put it up. So we went to our local Home Project Store - the kind of establishment that makes me itch just walking in the door - and purchased a 10' wooden beam and some post cement. We borrowed a post-hole digger from a neighbor, and I set to work. Eventually there was a hole 20" deep, into which I poured both beam and cement. A couple of days later - time for the line itself. Except that the piece for the other end was too short to go around the tree, so we had to wait for a longer piece to arrive. But then it was time for the line itself. I got it up with a minimum of bloodshed and obscenity, and decided to take a test run - according to the specs it could hold me, and I wanted to be the one on it if it should turn out like most of my efforts. And it did, alas. The concrete crumbled, the beam sagged and the line fell. So back to the drawing board.

I discovered that the manufacturer recommends a hollow steel post instead of a wooden beam, but trying to find one of those in our town was a lost cause. Who needs hollow steel posts? Apparently people who need them in 21' lengths and can afford to spend squadrillions of dollars. Not wanting to dig an 11' hole to put one of these things in, I instead girded my loins and went back to the Home Project Store to buy a 12' wooden beam (and dug the hole 3' deep this time), and some stronger cement. This seemed to work. After rather more bloodshed and obscenity than the first time, the line went up.

And so did the girls.

They have had a grand time zipping back and forth through the yard these days. They squeel, they laugh, and they come back tired but happy - and that is what it's all about. Eventually I ended up using the first wooden beam to make a brace for the second, which has made it rather sturdier and less worrisomely flexible that it was originally. I am the King of Suburbia. Or at least I snuck one by the goalie when he wasn't looking. I'll take it.

Happy Birthday, Lauren. It was a long time coming, but here you go.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On Politics, Glasses and Voting

I was supposed to be out canvassing today, as part of a "get-out-the-vote" effort organized by the Obama people. I suppose that getting out the vote means getting out all of the vote - even those who for reasons beyond my comprehension seem to want four more years of W's disastrous reign - but still. This is America. Every vote ought to count. Even the ones that mystify me.

But two things happened. First, I ended up with some sort of low-grade autumn crud, one that hasn't slowed me down too much but which has left me sounding like James Earl Jones after forty years of unfiltered Pall Malls. I can't imagine that anything I would say in that voice could convince a burning man to jump in a lake. And second, this morning Tabitha accidentally sat on my glasses, snapping one of the stems off. Now, I can see okay without them - I'm typing this now with my uncorrected vision and so far the typos I have had to correct are not any worse than usual - but driving about the streets for more than just the bare minimum is not something I want to do without my spectacles. So off to Sears I go.

I tried to contact the Democratic Party to let them know wasn't coming, but I spent 45 minutes searching the phone book and the internet looking for a phone number and came up with nothing. Why would a political party make it that difficult to find their number? Don't they want to be called?

So here is my plea to you, since I can't go door to door today: Go out and vote tomorrow. You Obama supporters, you definitely go out and vote. And yes, even you people who think that John McCain is going to survive long enough to prevent the nightmare apocalypse that would be President Palin, you go out and vote too. It's important. We've had eight years of the most destructive, obsessively secretive, blindly partisan, egotistically short-sighted, demagogic, anti-Constitutional, torturing, illegal-war-mongering, flat-out anti-American administration in our history and it is time for the grown-ups to take charge again.

McCain would not be a bad president, I think. I worry that he is too old - as Dennis Miller once said of Ronald Reagan: "This is the man with his finger on the button. My grandfather is that age, and we don't trust him with the remote!" I worry that he is far too beholden to the same gargoyles that brought us the Bush Lite administration and would not be able to reverse the fundamentally screwed up course the nation has been on since January 2001. And his selection of a willfully ignorant ideological hack for a running mate only confirms the thrall in which he is held by the Dan Quayle wing of the party and casts severe doubt in my mind as to McCain's independence and judgment. But he has a decent track record as a grown-up, and I think that he would respect the Constitution in a way that has been singularly lacking of late. I disagree with many of his policies - not all; I am enough of a centrist that there is quite the mishmash of liberal and conservative within my own views - so I will not be voting for him. But even if he wins he would not be the disaster that our current Fearless Liter has been. Even McCain would be an improvement. I realize that this is damning with faint praise - for crying out loud, we'd have been better off with a 2lb bag of carrots in the Oval Office than George W. Bush - but even faint praise is praise.

On the flip side, there is Obama. He is bright, articulate and thoughtful. His ideas are well within the historical American mainstream (contrary to the old-style smears out there accusing him of "socialism." So early Cold War! I keep waiting for people to call him "pinko"), well thought out and on point. Further, he seems to have actual ideas instead of just the political appeals to our baser fears that have characterized his opponent's campaign. And his running mate, while not ideal, does not strike fear into the hearts of responsible adults at the thought of him being elevated to the top job should some nutjob decide to shoot the President, as happens all too often in this country.

More importantly, Obama would have less difficulty than McCain in repudiating the steaming pile of waste under which George W. Bush and his cabal of slime merchants have covered our Constitution, our government, our history, our future, our international standing, our moral capital and our traditional values. It is time to acknowledge the fact that the policies of the last eight years - indeed, the policies followed by the modern American conservative movement in general since 1980, ever since the neo-cons and the evangelicals took over - have failed. They have failed without exception, without pause, and without hope of recovery. It is time for conservatives to retreat and figure out who they really are and what they really stand for, to find some ideas that work, and to go back to having policies instead of just politics - something liberals had to do after their own collapse into failure between 1968 and 1979. Conservatives have always insisted that "ideas matter," and that "facts are stubborn things." They are correct. The fact is that their ideas - the unAmerican mewlings of the Religious Right and the ivory-tower theories of the neo-cons (and, speaking as an academic, I know "ivory tower") - have proven themselves bankrupt as guides for governance, and the fact is that the country is measurably worse off in almost every meaningful way since they took over. They can check the excesses of liberals - for excesses there surely be - but it is hard to govern well when your entire philosophy is based on the idea that government is inappropriate.

So vote. Vote your conscience. Vote your interests. Vote to support my position. Vote to spite me. Vote to ensure that whoever gets in represents the will of the American people and not a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court. Vote for your candidate - if it is not my candidate, I promise not to take it personally. But vote nonetheless. It matters.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Hail All Hallows Eve

Halloween is always a big time around here, and not simply because of the inordinate weight that midwesterners tend to place on this holiday. Nor even is it because of the inordinate weight that we tend to put on afterwards, given the blizzard of sugar that descends upon us. No, it's because Halloween is really two holidays here, both of which revolve to a significant degree around, well, sugar. Not only is it the annual costumes and treats day, but it is also Lauren's birthday, and believe you me she makes sure we're as excited as she is.

Our Halloween was a long time coming this year. The Michigan Mosquito Festival was an enjoyable kick-off to our holiday, for one thing, and we made several trips out to the pumpkin patch to get things jumpstarted closer to home. The house was festooned with gourds of all descriptions for most of September and October, and there were even a couple of small pumpkins which Tabitha and Lauren drew scary faces upon with Sharpies. We set them out on the porch, but the election volunteers kept knocking anyway.

The holiday got started in earnest last week, though, with the Trick-or-Treat run at Not Bad President Elementary School (because you know, what this holiday really needed was another opportunity to collect more sugar). I am the Room Parent for Tabitha's class (I volunteered for Lauren's class too, but kindergarteners are so much more volunteer-ready than 3rd-graders and there were a lot of parents who signed up for her room; I was the only volunteer for Tabitha's class, though. Lauren is still bummed out by this), so I was in charge of recruiting another volunteer to stand with me while the kids marched by and hand out candy on Wednesday night. We got the girls into their costumes - a black cat for Tabitha, a white mouse for Lauren, accurately reflecting some of the household dynamics around here - and set them loose. Kim volunteered to hand out candy at Lauren's room, so they got to get candy from both of us. It was quite a parade, really - a lot of the teachers showed up in costume, and several hundred kids made an impressive but not altogether successful attempt to absorb the mountains of candy that had been donated.

Then the kids were off school for two days. They said it was for some sort of educational purpose, but really it was because the school district didn't want to deal with all those kids on their sugar highs. An entire school full of kids vibrating at those frequencies is enough to tear bricks from their mortar, and in these economic times finding repair money is not easy. Better to let them vibrate at home, where you don't have the critical mass of kids needed to damage infrastructure.

On Thursday we finally got around to carving the two big pumpkins that we had ordained for sacrifice to the bright orange god of pumpkinhood. The girls are old enough now that we let them handle a lot of it on their own, and they had a good time. It was a lot like the zucchini boats, only more so - there was much Drawing Of Designs, followed by Cutting Of Outlines and the inevitable Scooping And Flinging Of Internal Ick. Nothing a good garden hose couldn't wash away, though. We put them out on the front porch, and there they remain - unsmashed by teenagers, unable to scare off election workers, but silently taking it all in with their gaping smiles and quizzical expressions. Joe the Pumpkin lives.

The Pumpkinectomy goes well.

Perhaps too well...

Though with excellent results,
provided you are not the pumpkin yourself

On Friday got our traditional Halloween visit from our friend Dave, who handles candy distribution while we take the girls out and about. We promised him dinner, but I manage to immolate all of the burgers on the new grill (and I do not exaggerate here - I left them to warm on the top rack and when I got back they were on fire. Still getting the hang of this "cooking" thing, I suppose). We once again stuffed the girls into their costumes - ears, outfits, facepaints and all - and set out about the neighborhood.

There is something unspeakably wonderful about a holiday where you are encouraged to go up to people in their own homes and demand that they give you treats. It's inspiring. It certainly made the girls want to hit every house in the area code. We tried, but there is a time limit on trick-or-treats (or "chucker-treats" as Lauren insisted on saying for the first part of the journey - when Kim corrected her, she ran up to Tabitha with the news: "Guess what!" she cried) in our little town, so there was only so much we could do. Not that they didn't end up with full baskets and even more full tummies - only a true grinch would try to limit candy consumption on Halloween night. There's time for moderation the other 364 days of the year.

Lauren got even more candy than Tabitha, as usual. In part this is because she can eat peanuts and tree nuts, so she has a wider field of action than her sister. More to the point, it is because Halloween is her birthday. "Chucker treat!" she announces at each house. And then, "today is my birthday!" The victim then turns to either Tabitha, standing beside her sister, or me or Kim, standing out on the sidewalk, and we confirm this fact for them. "Oh," they say. "Have another treat, birthday girl!" It's a righteous scam, dude.

We decided that trying to hold Lauren's party on the day was not going to work. This isn't a big problem in our family, given the Movable Feast Tradition that we subscribe to: holidays happen when you've got time for them. My birthday, hard up by Christmas, is not something that anyone (including me) wants to celebrate on the actual day. So we wait until we're all recovered and have some breathing time, and it works much better. So Lauren's party was on Saturday.

Recognizing that trying to clean the house for this would be a lost cause, we decided to have it at the museum that I used to run. The new building that I spent most of my time there shepherding through to near-completion has a room specially designed for small events - big, open, and well-lit, with beautiful green floors and a kitchenette. So Lauren invited a bunch of her friends and family, and the party was on! It was a costume party, so once again Kim shoehorned the girls into their outfits, and we moved our supply train up to the museum for the festivities.

It was a fun party - Kim made a special cake that Lauren and Uncle Geoff had designed (it was really good except for the fondant icing, which even the kids agreed was much better looking than tasting); there were games such as "Pin the Face on the Pumpkin," and the crowd favorite, "Turn Your Friends Into Mummies With Crepe Paper." There were nice presents and good times. Who could ask for anything more?

Lauren and her friend Claire, we think.

Kim brings out the cake, to great applause.

That night, for the second night running, I read A. A. Milne's poem, "The End" to Lauren. It seemed appropriate.

"When I was one, I had just begun.
When I was two, I was nearly new.
When I was three, I was hardly me.
When I was four, I was not much more.
When I was five, I was just alive.

But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six now, for ever and ever."

Lauren is happy to be six, but she says that it doesn't feel all that different from being five, nor does she want to stay six for the rest of her life. She's got a good perspective on things, I think.