Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Photo Assignment Poem

Something old
Something new
Something gold
Something blue

Something hollow
Something full
Something shiny
Something dull

Something moving
Something stuck
Something yummy
Something yuck

Something cold
Something hot
Something funny
Something not!

To flesh out the staycation we're having this week at my parents' house with the various aunts and uncles (i.e. my siblings and their spice), each couple is in charge of planning one group activity and one theme dinner. Yesterday we did Kristen and Allen's activities: making steamed dumplings and then completing the above photo scavenger hunt around the house in teams. Then we all brought our cameras, uploaded our photos to one computer, and projected them on the big TV while everyone guessed what line of the poem the featured picture portrayed. Some serious silliness ensued. Feel free to borrow my sister's creative labors for your own family Game Night!

Today we're doing a Yankee Swap and then playing Wits and Wagers, which our family brought. I think a Spain Night is on the dinner menu. An icy wind is howling out there, but if we can find any snow tomorrow, we're headed for the sledding slopes! Have to do something for these snow-deprived children of mine.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On the road againl

[Note: We are actually in southern Virginia right now, but I wrote the following last night. It failed to post because our internet connection was -- well -- shoddy.]

Friends, we are in Memphis, Tennessee, hunkered down at the Doubletree (thank you, Priceline Hotels!) after Day One of Interminable Driving.

Guess what? Turns out it's actually a really shoddy idea to take a road trip on Christmas Day, that is if you actually want to eat hot food for one of your meals.

We found the only restaurant on God's green earth, I mean Memphis, that was open, and it was a stinky, smoky, sports bar, and they kicked my kids out for being under 21. And as it turns out, it's also a shoddy idea to mess with me when I'm experiencing low blood sugar. I might bite your head off. Then you might offer us takeout food and I might cry while waiting for my food because I feel GUILTY AS SIN for biting your head off, and then I might leave you a very generous tip.

The Professor took the kids down to the indoor pool, after they managed to smear ketchup on the bedding and spill tea on the bedside phone and the bottom of his laptop. Good times, good times.

Ah, road travel!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What I'll Remember ...

The fire is quietly crackling behind me ... in the fireplace, that is.

The tears that brimmed, as they always do, during the final scene of It's a Wonderful Life still feel salty on my cheekbones.

Most of the suitcases have been carried to the car in anticipation of tomorrow's long drive.

Here's what I want to remember about today:

- Our gift time, and in particular the kids' enjoyment of each other's handmade gifts. Ian was genuinely excited about the tie-dye socks, and the girls were tickled pink by the embroidery kits. They'll be stitching away the miles tomorrow.

- Our discussion, over coffee cake and omelets, of what it means to bring gifts to Jesus today -- how to give Him our hearts, first thing every morning.

- Driving around this afternoon with Ian, just the two of us, looking for some homeless folks who might like some bags of homemade cookies. Before we left, he said to me, "I don't really want to go, because I just want to stay home, but I know I SHOULD." Yup. Welcome to life. Thirty minutes later, after a surprisingly difficult quest, we were both giddy and cheering out loud upon delivering our last bag. THAT is the best gift I could give him today.

[Related digression: On vacation, I read four books. The best one, one of those you finish and want to buttonhole every hapless individual within fifty yards and shove it into their hands, was Same Kind of Different As Me. Here. I'm shoving it into your hands now. Read it, preferably with your Puffs with Aloe (TM) nearby, and see if you're the same afterward.]

- Eating tamales and chocolate cake with Aunt Kristen, Uncle Allen, and Adopted Aunt Acacia tonight. O the yumminess of homemade guacamole! O the legacy of terrible garlic breath!

My goodness, I can't end this post by talking about garlic breath. How about this instead? In the next couple days, while we are driving driving driving and I am whining to the Professor about the state of my tailbone and saying "Is that kind?" at regular intervals toward the back seat, I hope all of you are spending lots of time sitting on the floor in your pajamas, playing with the wee folk and letting your list of Stuff to Be Done recede far, far behind you. Enjoy the moment, whatever it is for you, and be blessed.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Homemade Gifts

Unlike everywhere else in the blogosphere, I haven't really done any Christmas-related posts around here, and that's for two reasons:
1. The Mexico trip and graduation sort of obscured everything else.
2. We have a complex relationship with the holiday. One that brings us to think and pray things through every year.

In the interest of being straightforward, I'll try to explain it like this. We don't do certain things that are commonly accepted as Christmas traditions in our culture. For example, our family doesn't have a tree, since the Professor and I have issues with the pagan origins of that tradition. We don't do Santa either (although my four year old is a Santa fan, and that is something that falls squarely into the category of Not Worth Making an Issue About as far as I'm concerned. Childhood is the time for childish things. We grow. We move on. We discover silver hairs, far sooner than we would like). We try to fend off the predatory vultures of commercialism that love to hover at this time of year (don't we all!).

Let me be clear: I have no problem with what YOU do or what is important to YOU. Really! Life's too short for legalism of any kind. In fact, I'm only sharing where we are in our journey since it seemed sort of glaring NOT to address it. Shall we consider the issue addressed?

Here's what we DO do.

We do family traditions, taking advantage of the many ideas and opportunities for making special memories together (gosh, that sounded so sappy I just can't bring myself to reread what I just wrote).

We do send out cards and eagerly check the mail every day for those hand-addressed missives from relatives and friends. Thanks, guys!

We do gifts, among ourselves and some relatives.

We do look for ways to reach out to people around us.

We do listen to, and sing, carols. Not so much "Santa Baby" (ew!) as "Hark the Herald Angels" or perhaps my favorite, "O Holy Night." (What's yours?)

And of course, we do Jesus. (Always.)

For our family, we do a combination of bought and made gifts. This year, Ian is making learn-to-embroider kits for his sisters. He'll decorate mini canvas totes with fabric markers, and then fill them with goodies as inspired by maya*made here.

He has been wanting to make a wildlife album for a while, as place to collect his photos of various animals we run across. So I'm giving him a blank album, a pile of photos, and some cards made in Photoshop:
Some time in the next two days, I need to help the girls tie-dye socks for him without his knowledge. Good luck, self!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Little Engine that Could Windsurf

... in which our hero, the fearless Professor, decides to teach himself windsurfing among the waves of the dynamic Gulf of Mexico. Being the self-sacrificing sort, he provides free entertainment for the resort guests lounging on the beach. I love that man. He's just noble noble noble.

OK. I'm on the board. Now I just hafta grab that sail like so ...

Or not.

I am of courage undaunted! Back onto the board I go!

I want my Mommy.

Maybe I need a little lesson? Señor?

Now I get it!
OH yeah!

Friday, December 18, 2009

We are back

Back to home sweet home. The trip exceeded our expectations. Not to say everything was 100% perfect, but certainly close enough for every person in the family to have a fantastic time. The kids were all in mourning about leaving the friends they made, which is something I didn't foresee happening. Here's what we discovered: in December, Mexican resorts are chock full of Canadians! Seriously, it's like the entire continent just tilts a bit like the sinking Titanic and spills some frostbitten refugees into the much warmer southern lands.

We made friends with one super nice family from Calgary with FIVE kids. Just like my family of origin. Guess how long they were staying? Fifteen days! What happened to camping in the rain? I wondered (knowing that's just what my dad would say).

More later.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Trip blip

I bit the bullet this morning and paid my $12 at the front desk so we could have 24 hours of Internet here in the room. It was bittersweet, because as much as I like being connected and feeling like the world cannot possibly go on in my absence (kidding!), there is also something quite delightful about being DISconnected for a week and knowing that the world is trucking along just fine in my absence, thank you very much.

But anyway. I had a brief reflection about the nature of Travel versus that of the Vacation that I thought I'd blurt out. It came to me this morning as we bumped along through the neighboring village of Puerto Morelos, crammed into a vintage, un-airconditioned Mexican minibus with various native persons, my children being quite conspicuous in their a) blondness and b) loud speaking of the English language.

Here's the thing. With a vacation, one should be able to relax as much as possible. This excludes the activities of cooking and cleaning for one's family. The principal decisions to be made should involve, say, "Pool or beach?" or "lemonade or iced tea?" I thank my friend Kate for pointing out this essential element back when we were considering our options. Also, a beautiful setting and at least a decent degree of customer service help quite a bit. (Have I mentioned that we love the Marina El Cid? Because we do. Being unspoiled folks, we feel it's almost paradise. As soon as I find that winning lottery ticket lying in my driveway, y'all are all joining us on a return trip here.)

Travel, on the other hand, requires a greater spirit of adventure. It involves a willingness to experience at least a small degree of discomfort for the sake of genuine contact with the culture one is visiting. It involves a suspension of belief that one's way of doing things in the Motherland is the only way, or even the best way. It involves leaving the resort, preferably by bike or bus rather than taxi or air-conditioned shuttle. And I daresay, one should at least make a stab at learning the language. And practicing it, even if you're tripping over your words and trying to remember the rusty verb conjugations you absorbed in high school.

Either way, I think the secret is keeping the expectations flexible, not demanding perfection and maintaining a sense of humor, even a sense of the ridiculous.

I'm glad this trip's had a bit of both.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Viva Mexico!

Friends. I'm excited, yet almost disbelieving. Tomorrow we are going here. To this lovely resort on the Riviera Maya in Mexico, in a little village not too far, but far enough, from Cancún. All five of us. Because getting through grad school was certainly a team effort.

I've thought about posting a couple quickies during the trip, or afterward, but would that be a desirable thing to my dear readers, or would that be shameless, tacky gloating?

Anyhoo. The number of details to attend to in anticipation of even one week abroad can be unnerving. Without my little checklist, I'm sunk. The brain, it actually starts to buzz. Sparks spew from the ears.

I like Caroline's approach. Just sit yourself down with some paper, a marker and shiny Scotch tape and make yourself an iPhone, complete with some kid games and a calculator. That must be the ticket because I don't see HER scurrying around crossing off lists and running oodles of errands. Of course, she'd better start to scurry because any moment now, I'm going to eat her right up.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What We're Reading

I was really hoping to accompany this post with a few nice book cover pictures, but alas! Trying to download appropriately sized photos from my Amazon Associates page (not so I can earn five cents if you click through and buy it, but so that my photo doesn't say "click here to look inside!") has been more frustrating than ... than ... spreading cold butter on a soft piece of bread.

Instead, I give you this dully illustrated list. If you don't like lists without pictures, I can offer you the nice, reproving lecture that the Tammy Faye look-alike clerk at Hobby Lobby once gave me about the book of Job and how it's all about patience. Wow, was that little chat ever uplifting!

A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain
(Gorgeous high-level picture book about the life of Mark Twain. Ian.)

The Magician's Elephant
(Have been reading sporadically with Lizey. So far less captivating than her others but I just KNOW it's building toward something special.)

Mexico: 40 Activities to Experience Mexico Past & Present (Kaleidoscope Kids)
(Can I just say that I love the Kaleidoscope Kids books? They're fairly bursting with worthy information and fun activities. Also. We're going to Mexico in a few days, and far be it from me to miss an educational opportunity!)

Then, here's what I have so far to read on our trip:

The Lucky One
(I admit! I confess! At certain times, such as vacations, I do like me a bit of Nicholas Sparks. The man knows how to spin a yarn.)

Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together
(Wanted some nonfiction that would also keep me turning the pages. Gal behind me in the Costco checkout line practically swore on the life of her firstborn that I would love this book. Anyone read it?)

Enna Burning (Books of Bayern)
(Um. Shannon Hale. MIGHT have mentioned my love for her writing a time or two.)

My Bible. Because if I don't read it on a daily basis, it matters not what kind of vacation paradise I am in, you do NOT want to be around me. It's just not fun. Don't do it. You've been warned.

For Ian: The Mysterious Benedict Society

For general read-aloud: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles 30th Anniversary Edition
(Fond memories of hearing this delightful adventure in an imaginary world read aloud at night to our cabin full of girls by a camp counselor one summer, and then of reading it to Ian a couple years ago. Now it's the girls' turn.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Please note: If your mom makes you a new headband with a large silk rose attached, you might think it's very pretty. She, on the other hand, might crack up every time she glances in the rearview mirror, because my goodness, that is ONE BIG HONKIN' FLOWER perched on her daughter's head.

But then while you're supposed to be sitting quietly in the very front row at commencement exercises, and you decided that, the heck with all this, I'm going to turn around and entertain the distinguished guests behind me since they think I'm soooo cute, and the man behind you ends up wearing your gigundous flower headband for a few minutes, and the woman next to him shakes with silent hilarity, and your mom is so embarrassed but decides there is absolutely nothing she can do about it because you have prudently sat out of reach, and she's just going to avert her eyes and pretend to have only a passing acquaintance with you -- well, my friend, you have it made. Made in the shade.

(P.S. Does anyone else think -- if I may be so bold -- that the father of our heroine looks Rawther Dashing in his doctoral regalia?)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Big Day

Hey, y'all. Big doings around Casa Diller this weekend -- tomorrow is the day The Professor walks across the stage in his "zoot suit" and acquires an important scrap of paper. I promise to post photos; the regalia is really something else.

Last night the Pioneer Woman was in town doing a book signing of her new cookbook. My friend Sally asked me to accompany her. Oh, how I was tempted, for three reasons:

1. Sally is fun to hang out with.
2. Meeting PW would have been a real treat, two hour wait notwithstanding.
3. A mom's night out is a mom's night out, any way you slice it.

But it was the night of our home meeting (definition: dinner and Bible study around our table), and someone was bringing a guest, and I just couldn't abandon the homefront in good conscience. I gave Sally my reluctant regrets.

You know what? The whole time people were here, I didn't think once about the book signing I was missing. I also didn't think about what a basketcase I'd been that day. There's something about breaking bread -- er, smoked turkey enchiladas -- with the people of God that just fills me right up, with not an inch left over for regrets.

Okay. My mom is here. Presents for the kids have been opened, airplane dramas related, the Austin version of a 30-minute blizzard duly admired, and UP watched with a side order of popcorn and hot tea.

Happy weekend, everyone! Over and out, kisses and hugs,


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Project 365 Redux

Vanessa was over today. We made big plans for documenting 2010 with this gorgeous kit (a great value!) from Becky Higgins. It is, in my little mind, the perfect option for those of us who are either to busy to scrapbook to the nth degree as we would like, or too overwhelmed by the thought of where to start. Hey, Sam? She wants one for her birthday. You're welcome.

Although my scrapbooking hobby has suffered this year in terms of visible output, I've really enjoyed keeping up with Project 365. If you're surprised I've stuck it out, you can't be more flabbergasted than I am. It's been like creating a yearbook, an ongoing family keepsake, the perfect mesclun (as my brother would say) of big events and completely ordinary moments and details.

Today's Picture of the Day:

Goodness, we love the library. We love the mostly-friendly librarians. The way we can walk to the shelf and pull picture books to supplement anything we're learning, from Abraham Lincoln to Mexican culture to dinosaurs. We love the cool events they host. We love their audiobook collection. We love the free-ness of it all.

Except when we discover we owe $20 in fines.

Then, not so much love. More bitterness and self-loathing.

And steely determination to jump back on the Library Elf wagon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I could take Chuck Norris in a homeschooling smackdown

My sister-in-law likes to tell the story of a fellow member of a horse-lovers' email list she's on. Apparently it's a pretty tight-knit community of oft-misunderstood folks, and this one particular member is a real character. Let's call her Buffy.

So one day Buffy was venting to the list about some herculean labor that she had to perform, something involving a multi-ton horsetrailer and a winch and various other details that escape my non-equestrian mind. Buffy was not feeling so competent, was in fact looking for virtual hugs and sympathy and who knows, maybe offers of help, until one member e-barked:

"Buffy, put your big girl panties on!"

This story popped into my mind yesterday as I reflected on our homeschooling experience. There are days when we're humming right along with plans and projects and wonderful read-alouds that touch the soul, like, most recently, Moccasin Trail ), and it's all very fulfilling -- like parenting in general, but more so. Then there are days, or at least moments, when I wonder whether I was tripping on acid when I decided to jump aboard the homeschooling train. Like parenting in general, but more so.

I had such a moment yesterday. It should have been so perfect -- the girls were busy at a friend's house, and Ian and I hunkered down at a coffee shop around the corner, working math problems and then reading (me) and listening to (him) a challenging, beautifully written, steak-and-potatoes book set in the time of the Civil War. I was delighting in the well-developed characters, the diction, the unfolding plot, the superiority of such a book to the dry alternative of a textbook.

But every five minutes, he'd break in to ask how many pages we were planning to read. Pffffft, answered my balloon, wilting toward the floor.

These moments -- they happen. More than I'd like. But less than they could. And each time I'm reminded: It's not about you. My tendency is to take things so personally. To feel rejected, wounded, invalidated, when my glowing moments get thwarted by a short attention span or a mismatch in learning styles or a distracting, I don't know, lightbulb buzz. I want to sulk, to make my disappointment the central issue, as if a child needs to be laden with the burden of meeting an adult's complex emotional needs.

So that's when I put my Big Girl Panties on. Some of us need 'em in size XXL.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mexican Lasagna

Someone asked me to post a few more recipes for dinner ideas. Here's what we ate tonight, with guests. Guests always love this dish, and I think you will do. Unless you're lactose-intolerant. In that case, stay FAR AWAY.

Assemble your ingredients:

1 jar salsa
1 8-oz. container sour cream
3-4 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 head lettuce
12 tortillas, wheat or corn
1 lb. ground turkey or beef, cooked
1 15-oz can refried beans

Layer ingredients in a deep baking dish (I use a springform pan) as follows:

Tortillas (enough for 1 layer)
Refried beans (the whole can)
1/2 jar salsa
Sour cream
Remaining salsa

See what I mean? You practically have to be a baby cow to digest this, but it's oh so yummy!

Cook at 350 for about 25 minutes, until cheese is thoroughly melted. Serve and enjoy.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Love/Hate List

Five Things I Loved from Thanksgiving Weekend:

1. Participating in Operation Turkey with Tim and the kids, and watching the kids' attitudes evolve from "Oh, I guess we'll go," to a willingness to stand in a long line to make plates to "Hey, that was fun; can we do it again?"

2. Sitting around with my mother- and father-in-law after all the Thanksgiving guests had left, watching our friend Chris and a few other Longhorns -- someone by the name of Colt McCoy perhaps -- play the Aggies, watching the kids try on their grandparents' glasses and be highly amused.

3. Going to Homestead Heritage Fair on Friday with our friends the Dixons, bumping into three other families we know (this happens to me all the time, including, very bizarrely, the time we walked out of the Natural History museum in New York City and found, sitting on the front steps, the Dixons, who just happened to be in the Northeast on the same week and just happened to visit NYC that same day and just happened to be plopped on the steps at the moment we emerged) ... watching the Professor help with a mock barn-raising, watching the kids dip candles and stamp leather, hearing young voices raised in harmonious song ...

4. Sitting in bed at 10:00 a.m. Saturday next to the Professor, both of us reading books, with Caroline perched right between us, braiding her doll's hair and singing "Gary Indiana."

5. Working on a scrapbook, my under-attended hobby.

Five Things I Really Could Have Done Without on Thanksgiving Weekend:

1. Losing Caroline at the fair. Actually, someone else lost her, but we don't need to name names, do we? Five minutes of acute parental panic culminated in seeing her trotting toward us with a Texas State Trooper by the hand, very little by way of concern registering on her face. If she wasn't too upset, do I still need to put a quarter in her future-therapy jar?

2. My pumpkin cheesecake being half devoured before I could get the caramel sauce drizzled atop it. Really, really petty, I know.

3. Missing my siblings, their spouses (spice?) and my parents for the first time in four years of Thanksgivings. It was like I kept groping for my glasses, and they weren't on top of my head.

4. Veggies, ranch dip, and whining spilled in the car on the two-hour drive to the fair.

5. Losing our pet hamster, Nufe, to a sudden and unidentified illnesss. O the paroxysms of grief! O the keening! I wrapped my arms around my boy as he held that cold, stiff, furry little body and sobbed out, "He was so s-s-special to me!" Y'all. All I could do was hug and hold and listen and refrain from saying stupid things like, "Now now, it's not worth crying about," or "Come on, shake it off, pull yourself together." I may not be the perfect mom, and I may not always know the right thing to say, and words may emerge from my lips that I wish I could yank back, but once in a while I do know what NOT to say. I know that holding is better than scolding. I know it's best to guard the tenderness of a boy like a brave, flickering flame.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My favorite holiday

Today we're making this*:

Directions here. Adapted for the four gluten-avoidant folks who will be present at tomorrow's feast.

And this.

Directions (and a much cooler version) here. Ours will go on the mantel out in Elgin tomorrow.

And this.

Directions (and again, a lovelier version) here.

Oh, and putting new spark plugs in the van. Good times, good times.

Since we'll probably be busy with cooking, reading our Thanksgiving picture books, riding bikes, and general gluttony tomorrow, I just wanted to note how thankful I am for ALL of you who read this crazy little blog, especially those of you who take a moment to encourage me by leaving a comment (but if you don't, sniff sniff, I'm still thankful for you) -- it means a whole lot to me. May your Thanksgiving time be filled with wonderful tastes and smells, family and friends who make you feel loved, memories to cherish, and a sense of overflowing gratitude.

And not too much football. But that's just me.


*Photo courtesy of Simply Recipes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Well, y'all, it finally happened. The day that has dangled far in front of our noses, like a distant phantasmic carrot, for four long-yet-short years.

The Aspiring Professor successfully defended his doctoral dissertation this morning! I think I am going to promote him to The Professor. Here was his general topic: Developing an innovative sensor to measure the soot output of diesel engines. Don't ask me for any more details. I had to practice that one 50 times in front of the mirror already.

My editor had given me the heads up weeks ago that it might be considered customary for me to bake something for this event, based on her own experience with a defending spouse. Accordingly, I thought to myself, What Would Jenny Do? And of course, I made pumpkin muffins.

Actually, there was a fairly decent spread, especially considering the early hour (8:30 a.m.). I sort of have this paranoia of underfeeding people.

We had a bit of drama when The Prof's laptop was incommunicado with the LCD projector, and they just couldn't make amends. My poor guy was nervous, I knew, and the committee members were gathering, and his parents and I could do absolutely nothing to help him, but finally at 8:29 a.m. someone swooped in with another laptop for him to use. Whew.

He then proceeded to dazzle us all for a solid hour by speaking in fluent Swahili. Who knew? I didn't even realize he has a grasp of that particular language, but I'm pretty sure that's what it was. And he was REALLY awesome. At least, that's my best guess, based on the comments from people in the room who understood Swahili -- i.e., the total population of the room minus my mother-in-law and me.

I did my best to channel Nancy Reagan, smiling adoringly at him every time he glanced my way but no doubt revealing the vacancy behind my eyes.

Then they opened the floor for questions. My mother-in-law was such traitor: She asked a question! The first one! And it was an intelligent one! No fair! I'm not supposed to be the only idiot in the room! I had to give her the evil eye.

(Well, not really. But STILL.)

Then I raised my hand and asked my question, which was, "How did you get to be goshdarn cute in addition to being crazy smart?" At which point they ejected me from the conference room.

(Okay. I know. I think SOMEBODY needs a N-A-P.)

In reality, his advisor did usher all the supporters out so they could grill him like a rotisserie chicken for what seemed like five hours, before spewing him out into the hallway so they could deliberate about whether to pass him. (My guess? They were placing bets on the upcoming A&M game.)

This has been such a journey, a long and winding road full of hidden treasures and sandpits and lessons I hope we have learned and God's manifold grace. And today I heard with my own ears my husband's advisor, not known for wasting a compliment, utter the words, "We're really proud of you." And then his parents said similar things to The Professor and me, and lo, I became a salty puddle on the floor. Right now it all just seems so surreal, and yet so weepily real. And now before the flood begins again I think I will excuse myself to go partake of some celebratory refreshments with my sister and our husbands.

Graduation is December 5! Please send pallets of Kleenex (TM)!

Monday, November 23, 2009


So, last Friday, a Certain Someone in this household turned four.

I'm not sure why she had the audacity to do this, since if I've told her once, I've told her a hundred times that she is my baby and she is NOT ALLOWED to grow up. Obviously, I wield a great deal of influence over her.

This is how the birthday went. I think Hallmark MAY have been secretly filming.

Regarding the doll we gave her: "I'M GOING TO LOVE HER FOREVER!!!"

Regarding the new book given to her at bedtime: "OH BOY! A BIRTHDAY BOOK FOR ME! I'M SO EXCITED!!!"

Regarding her birthday party: "I had the BESTEST TIME EVER!!!"

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I am not making this up.

Oh how NICE for you, you're thinking. How very SPECIAL that you have this totally grateful child who creates such moments of joy and delight for her parents.

But wait, y'all. May I put the case that I have earned this privilege? Let's step back in time, shall we, to another fourth birthday that took place in this household a little over five years ago. It's the one I proudly trot out in any parent-to-parent conversation that resembles a Birthday Nightmare Story Swap. And I win.

So, Ian was totally into Thomas the Tank Engine in those days. And after considerable discussion between my husband and me, it was decided that he would be receiving The Ultimate Gift from us that year: THE ROUNDHOUSE.

Thing is. He'd decided weeks in advance that he wanted a jungle animal birthday party. It was to be The Event of the social season, more or less (well, less, but play along with me here). We failed to realize what precisely was taking place in that quirky brain of his, and just how all-encompassing that theme was intended to be.

So the morning of the birthday, we arrive in his bedroom, glowing, proudly bearing the gift that we just know will elicit yelps of nirvana.

We place it before him. He starts to rip off the paper.

And the second he sees the side of the box, he says …

"Oh. Not an animal. Just the roundhouse."

Y'all. I died. And when I came back to life, I heard, in a dull, repeated monotone:

"Oh. Not an animal. Just the roundhouse."

That unwrapped box sat nakedly in the center of the room with all three of us staring miserably at it, and me thinking, Are you telling me that I could have bought you a five dollar plastic giraffe, and that would have made you HAPPIER THAN THE EIGHTY DOLLAR (MINUS FORTY PERCENT BECAUSE OF A COUPON I HAD) ROUNDHOUSE?!?!?!

Oh, and it gets even better, because at his party that afternoon, he opened a few educational toys carefully selected by his friends' thoughtful parents before tossing each one aside and plaintively calling, "Didn't ANYONE get me a jungle animal???"

I died again. Then I came back to life, and all my friends were laughing at me. But in a friendly, sympathetic, so-glad-I'm-not-you-right-now sort of way.

It all worked out, because not only did he end up enjoying the roundhouse (AND behaving like a perfect gentleman at his fifth birthday party, thank you very much), but I had myself my own little revelation, once my hysteria subsided. The Lord very tenderly reminded me of how often I snub HIS gifts. As a loving Father, He gives me the equivalent of the roundhouse, and I sulk for the Made-in-China hippopotamus.

"Oh. Not a new camera. Just a devoted husband."

"Oh. Not an outing to the ballet. Just three healthy children."

But, there's hope! I'll be turning five any day now!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

One Word Tag

I promised Era I'd do this meme about ten days ago, and in my own personal time warp, I'm right on schedule! Here we go. The one word limit is seriously going to challenge me.

1. Where is your cell phone? Purse?

2. Your hair? Independent

3. Your mother? Empathetic

4. Your father? Spiritual

5. Your favorite food? Omelettes?

6. Your dream last night? Forgotten

7. Your favorite drink? Lemonade

8. Your dream/goal? Travel

9. What room are you in? Bonus

10. Your hobby? Reading

11. Your fear? Bereavement

12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Published

13. Where were you last night? In-laws'

14. Something that you aren’t? Brave

15. Muffins? Carrot

16. Wish list item? DSLR camera

17. Where did you grow up? Massachusetts

18. Last thing you did? Knit

19. What are you wearing? Skirt

20. Your TV? Geriatric

21. Your pets? Hens

22. Friends? Inspiring

23. Your life? Journey

24. Your mood? Thoughtful

25. Missing someone? Becky D. (RIP 11/19/09)

26. Vehicle? Sedona

27. Something you’re not wearing? Jewelry

28. Your favorite store? Target

29. Your favorite color? Purple

30. When was the last time you laughed? Afternoon

31. Last time you cried? Morning

32. Your best friend? Husband

33. One place that I go to over and over? Taekwondo

34. One person who emails me regularly? Tim

35. Favorite place to eat? Steeping Room

People I'm tagging: Stephanie, cJoy, Camille, Anne, Raji, and whoever else wants to do it -- link to your post in the Comments if you please!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Um, not THAT Kind of Abbey Road

We took the week off from homeschooling this week.

That is, we took a little break from our regularly scheduled curriculum (we ended up doing Sonlight Core 4 with Ian this year, with primary-level tie-in books and activities for the girls) to make room for all the other things I knew, and didn't know, were going to transpire this week. I wanted to be able to enjoy a few special things with the kids without feeling the slightest bit of stress about falling behind in our schedule.

(Schedule: (n.) A suggestion for how things should generally fall into place. Useful for staving off chaos. Meant to be disregarded at the nearest opportunity for High Adventure.)

There was Cub Scout schooling*. American Girl club schooling. Hike-in-the-woods schooling. Adventures in Odyssey schooling. Folk concert schooling. Netflix schooling (we watched this). Aluminum-foil-origami schooling. (Yup, Caroline's on a new kick!)

*This included building bridges and catapults at the den meeting, learning together about forest layers here at home, and doing some practical math stuff, like a coin-toss probability experiment and a statistics experiment in which Ian got his sisters and all his Friday Co-op buddies to help him survey people's favorite colors. You've never seen a group of kids so exhilarated over a math problem, all crowded around a clipboard and running around interviewing people, cheering "Green is winning!" or "Blue rules!" It made me think. When I was in elementary school, x number of years ago, I just don't remember it being a cool thing to EVER conduct statistics experiments on the playground. Much as I do occasionally wish for the chance to go to Target unencumbered by three Consumers in Training (I'm sorry, did I say "occasionally?" I meant, "almost daily"), it does seem like a small price to pay for the fact that as of yet, no one's ever made my kiddos feel stupid for wanting to learn something.

So anyway, we're at the folk concert today, sitting at Central Presbyterian for their free Thursday noonday entertainments, and after finishing a toe-tapping rendition of "I'm My Own Granpaw," the guitarist and lead singer inquires in that folksy manner required of folk singers, "So, who here likes the Beatles?"

My son's hand shoots up. I'm a bit startled. We haven't exactly covered the Fab Four in our music appreciation studies. How does he ...

"Honey," I whisper in a flash of insight, "do you mean the insects?"

He nods cheerily at me, like duh. And goes right back to drawing Bionicles on the comment card he found among the hymnals.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Well, I think it's now official

Yes. Fall has arrived.

Someone wondered about The Aspiring Professor's sweater. This beloved item of clothing was gifted to him by his mother, courtesy of Land's End, during our first year of marriage, exactly twelve years ago.

It has appeared every fall since then, the nanosecond the thermometer indicates sweater-worthy weather. It is to him what my post-shower space heater is to me.

We have moved three times and lived in four homes. We have done graduate school, twice. We have produced three children. We have lost two grandmothers. We have seen my family dynamics shift dramatically. We have lived in two apartments, then a large house, then a small house, and in three climate zones. We've gone from one car to two cars to a minivan and a car to a minivan and a bike.

Three things have not changed.

Our Father's love for us.

Our affection for each other.

The annual emergence of The Sweater.

Have any constants you care to share?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Le Weekend

How was our weekend like an onion?

Answer: It had many layers, and left me in tears.

No. Not really. Layers, yes. Tears, not so much.

In brief:

There was learning. The kids and their daddy attended a neat event hosted by ASME at the Children's Museum. He's doing his best to churn out little scientists, but alas, I intend to take them to a poetry slam next weekend.

(Just kidding.)

There was wisdom. My dear friend Vanessa and I put together a tea party at my MIL's house for some moms from our church of various ages and stages. We laughed, we cried, it was better (and more eternally edifying) than CATS. Monthly support meetings to follow, we're hoping.

There was fun. Tim and I both served with the children's classes on Sunday morning. My group of girls is a treasure. His group of boys is a challenge. We love them all -- a humbling learning process.

There was exploration. Needing very desperately to research and write my monthly column for Parentwise, I insisted on taking the family to Waco (stop, ye non-Texans! I know what you're thinking, and it's really a decent place! And that was, what, fifteen years ago?) to the Mayborn Museum. A huge hit. Huge. (Hint: When taking your kids to a museum, always tell them that you're headed for an antique teapot museum. When you arrive at your actual destination, they'll be so thrilled and relieved, that an educational venue of any sort will be like an oasis in the desert of their dread.)

A great weekend, but ... not so restful. Would that explain why Mama was a leetle bit cranky today?

Pass the dark chocolate, please!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hope, the thing with feathers

I had to chuckle, reading this lovely post by Molly of a Foothill Home Companion, because normally I would totally agree with her, but today my thoughts took a different turn.

I was actually ruminating on the times when we parents, we large people who try to give wings to the dreams of the smaller people, have to say "no." And sometimes, we really have very little choice in the matter.

At tennis this morning, my friend Lisa was accosted by her five year old son, vociferously stating (and re-stating) his intent to build a boat in which to take his friends (including my willing daughter) for a ride in the turtle pond. And what was he going to use to build this boat? Sticks. That's it.

I watched the tension mounting as she first humored his idea, then tried to gently break the news that they were going to have to leave the park today without building a four-passenger boat. Despite her best effort, a certain degree of hysteria ensued. This was TREASON! How could the adult world FAIL TO COMPREHEND THE GENIUS OF THIS IDEA!?

(Note: Lisa spent an hour and a half yesterday helping her son recreate the house from UP with a cardboard box and a bunch of helium balloons. Can we agree she's a dedicated and kindhearted mom?)

Oh, friends, how I did relate. With a couple of my kids, I've been through the same wash cycle: lather, rinse, repeat. As much as I try to say yes, (or my personal fallback: "Let's ask Daddy to help you with that pairs of stilts/fishing rod/fill-in-the-blank you want to make!") there are moments when we just run up against the laws of physics, or money, or time, or human capability, or hey, even Mama's patience.

(Once I literally had to drive my then four year old to a John Deere dealer so he could verify in person, man to man with the bewildered clerk, that buying a full-sized backhoe for a proposed project would not fit his budget.)

And we're left to compassionately pop the balloon of these grandiose visions, gently catching the shards and fashioning them into the kind of hope that makes our dreamers dust themselves off and come back for more.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I think it's finally fall

Signs that fall has arrived in central Texas:

(Ever used one of these? It's a foundational step for all sorts of apple-y desserts, or in this case, pioneer-esque dried apple rings. We used one all the time when I was growing up, after Apple Picking, and would often try to jump rope with the long, wet curling strings of apple peel. This is the way Yankee children try to go gently into that long dark night known as the New England Winter.)

Fall here does not entail raking giant piles of leaves to jump and frolic in (oh! the smell of fallen leaves!) or golden days of sharp, clean light that feel like biting into a crisp, tangy apple straight off the bough, followed by great dinnertime gusts that gather you in to hearth and home.

It does mean emerging from summertime hibernation to spend hours in the back yard, urges to forsake the daily lists to ramble in the woods somewhere, and trees dropping their burdens of pecans, acorns, browning foliage, as migrating butterflies swarm seemingly everywhere.

Around here, one token still remains, holding out on us like that last Macoun dangling out of reach. One sign that crisper days yet await us.

The Aspiring Professor still needs to get out The Sweater.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Throw this together for dinner

First, I have to tell you a little story.

A few months ago, I was complaining to my mother-in-law (a hobby of mine) about the chore of meal planning. It was a sunny, somnolent Sunday afternoon, and the child in mine just wanted to curl up in a sunbeam and take a nap, while the tyrannical grownup was insisting that if I didn't plan the week's menu and shop accordingly, did I really think it was just going to plan itself? Huh? Did I?

My mother-in-law graciously refrained from pointing out how this was a problem unimaginable to a large percentage of the planet, a symptom unique to the overabundant time and place in which we live.

Instead, she dug into the mental Rolodex and emerged with a file called "Cooking for the Family," dusted it off, and presented one of her Ideas from a Happily Organized Household.

Here's the idea: Keep a list of thirty meals you can make well and your family will relish. Or choke down. Let's not get picky. Then, just pick things off the master list and rotate.

I adapted, making a list of twenty, because Sunday night is always omelette night and there's always a chance that some night of the month, we just might eat somewhere else. Also, I like to experiment from my Everyday Food magazine, or a food blog, or the recipe list that comes from our Greenling produce box every Wednesday. I'm all about hope and change.

I'm loving the list. No longer do I stare slack-jawed at the calendar, waiting to be hit upside the head with a meal idea, as if I haven't been cooking for twelve years. Most of the meals on the list are winners with most members of the family. Nothing takes too long to cook. There's a delightful mesclun of meat, fish and vegetarian meals. And the list tells me where exactly in my cookbook collection or bedraggled recipe binder to locate the entree in question. Yes, we can.

Tonight, however, I hit the open road, adapting a recipe from my Greenling box, which this week contained serrano peppers. Here's what I came up with. Minimal stove time, minimal dishes, maximum yum factor. Merry Birthday to you.

1 rotisserie chicken

1.5 cups sour cream
1.5 cups mayonnaise
4-5 serrano peppers, roughly chopped
Juice of 2 limes
4 garlic cloves (or 1 TBSP minced garlic)

Cook 1.5 cups quinoa (had a big, protein-packed bag from Costco, happily gluten-free) or a box of short pasta, such as rigatoni.

Blend sauce ingredients. Shred rotisserie chicken, and warm together with sauce over low heat until warm but not boiling. Serve chicken sauce over quinoa over pasta.

This served our family of five plus two friends. Wish I had delectable photos to tantalize you, but alas, my little camera takes shoddy indoor evening shots. Especially in a yellow formica kitchen. Yes, I do all my cooking bathed in a golden glow.

Bon appétit!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Play me that sweet, sweet music

Y'all, I've found the fountain of youth.

On your list of Things To Do Before You Die should be this one: Drive a car containing two nine-year-old boys through heavy Friday afternoon traffic.

It will either:
a) take years off your life -- hey, cheaper than smoking!
b) take years off your age -- hey, cheaper than sloughing off dead cells at a day spa!

As you inch toward a friend's birthday party, plotting to spill the contents of your van upon the poor, unsuspecting host mother, your passengers might:

1. Sing loud greetings of "Merry Birthday!" and "Happy Christmas!" which they will find SO UPROARIOUS.

2. Sing contorted versions of "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells ..." which they will also find SO, SO UPROARIOUS. This will occupy a good twenty minutes, as they attempt in vain to sing, in sync, the entire song without blanking on any of the words. You will be tempted to assist them at times. That's where the years-off-your-age part comes in.

3. Discuss their invisible buttons, known as "ON," "ON ON," and "ON ON ON" (representing varying levels of hyperactivity). Demonstrations of each stage will be given. Need I even tell you that there is no "OFF" button?

At some point, you might find yourself wishing it were legal to drive while plugging your iPod into one ear and enjoying a more zenlike playlist, or something more intellectually fulfilling. You might wish they would allow you to listen to NPR for a while, or even Story of the World.

But then, you may as well surrender. Surrender to the sweet, burbling, at times maniacal soundtrack of a happy childhood.

Resistance is futile.

(Oh, and might I add? Doing all this with serenity could redeem you from the hypothetical scenario in which you left the house that morning and drove three and half blocks before realizing that you'd left one of your children at home. Can I get an Amen?)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Famous People

So my sister, the baby of the family that is, texted me a short while ago to alert me to the fact that she had just brushed shoulder, more or less, with Jenna Fischer, a.k.a. Pam from The Office, at a bookstore at the LAX airport.

Or should I say, Pam from The Office just brushed shoulders with MY SISTER?! Maybe she's texting Jim about it right now. ("OMG, saw tall cute curly-haired Harvard grad browsing the recent bestsellers! LOL!")

Have you ever run into anyone famous? Several years ago, I had my own airport encounter when, while boarding a connecting flight to Austin in Chicago, I turned to glance at the back of the line and there was none other than Ms. Sandra Bullock. No kidding. She lives here, you know.

Probably she was hanging out at the caboose so as to avoid the goopy stares from other passengers walking past her seat in first class as they headed for the cattle cars. But sure enough, there was the gate agent, asking for her autograph. (I didn't have the boldness, in case you wondered.)

Well, guess what, my friends? Due to some weather-related issue, our plane sat on the runway in Chicago for about an hour and a half. And no doubt Ms. Bullock was plied with a couple of apologetic cocktails during her unacceptable wait, but she still had to sit there, enduring a delay just like the rest of us. Weather and control towers just aren't impressed by celebrity, it seems.

It just made me think. Sure, it's exciting to run into these faces we see only on the screen or the magazine covers at the grocery store checkout, mostly because I think we subconsciously doubt that they actually exist in the flesh. But it's also a good reminder that these people have to wait in lines just like us, have to put their jeans on one leg at a time, have their toast fall to the floor jam side down just as often as we do.

And speaking of such things, I just finished reading (a phrase which here means "gave my children minimal attention while taking abnormally long bathroom breaks and cooking with one hand so I could keep my nose buried in its pages") The Actor and the Housewife: A Novel
by Shannon Hale, one of my current favorite authors (I love both her adult and YA fiction (oh, and her website)). Anyone (besides Anne) read it? What do you think? Plausible premise, devoted housewife falling into a friendship with a Hollywood actor? Plausible for the relationship to remain platonic?

Sounds farfetched, and I'm not sure I totally buy it, but once I got past the style, which was breezier than her more poetic YA novels, I just fell in love with Becky Jack, the heroine. The way she dedicates herself to the happiness of her husband and children so wholeheartedly while keeping alive this creative spark (she writes screenplays) and a friendship completely outside the sphere in which she lives, the sphere most us completely relate to ... that part, I think, had me at hello. The way she crafts a life that manages to be ordinary, self-sacrificing, even at some points (no spoilers!) tragic, and yet retain this corner of mystery, this one thread running in stark contrast to the tapestry of domestic life -- it's intriguing.