Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Pioneer Sampler

I just have to share that we are having a big old time with this book, which we snagged from the library but plan to own eventually:

It's a delightful hybrid of a storybook (following the daily life of a pioneer family living in the woods in the 1840's) and a craft/activity book. One of those precious tomes that captures the attention of ALL three children. Each chapter begins with a story, followed by some supplemental info presented in a more factual yet still engaging manner, and an activity suggestion or two. Just this week, we've made butter by hand, watched beekeepers online (hoping to take them to see a For Real one soon), and -- perhaps my favorite -- tried to beat the stopwatch, seeing how fast we could name then pioneer uses for corn. Are you aware that they used dried cobs for toilet paper? Are you? Huh?

(Contemplate THAT next time you think your "green" brand doesn't feel quite as soft as Charmin.)

Anyway, check it out!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to entertain yourself

... if you're nine years old and waiting in a soporific line at the post office while your parents complete passport applications and swear that they're not abducting you and spiriting you off to Tasmania:
(click to enlarge)

... if you're six years old and live in a place with nary a blaze of autum glory to be found (make your own!):

... if you're three years old, and the weather prevents you from fishing with your homemade pole at the neighborhood pond, and your backyard is one giant mud puddle:

... if you're a mama in need of simultaneous caffeine and comfort while your house looks like this:
(make THIS!)

What's keeping you amused today??? Care to share?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Maybe she means "consciousness"

Caroline: "Mommy? I can't sleep."

Me: "Why not?"

Caroline: "My conscience ... is ... wishing."

Me: "What is it wishing for?"

Caroline: "A pair of glass slippers."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm in a quandary

I just can't decide what the highlight of this weekend should be. Help me, Obi-Wan. You're my only hope.

It might have been dropping off my two guys at a scouting event called Webelos Woods on Friday night, where the Boy Scouts take the older Cub Scouts under their wings and try to impress upon them the utter coolness of becoming a Boy Scout. I just knew they were in for a night and a day of nonstop male bonding, building stuff and getting dirty and singing ridiculous songs. Grunt.
(Fly in the ointment: Three year old thinking I'm the worst mom EVER for not letting her stay with the boys. Well, get used to it, kiddo. I think that particular file will remain open for the next two decades.)

It might have been taking my girls to the pumpkin patch to make their selections. To be honest, I just couldn't work up any motivation for autumnal activities until this weekend. When it's mid-eighties and humid, it's like your seasonal clock is jammed. You're bitterly aware that folks in OTHER parts of the country are picking apples and baking them into crisps, or crunching merrily through piles of leafy splendor, but you just can't quite get into the spirit of things, you know?

Or maybe it was my mother-in-law, whom you might have met in the comments section, taking the girls to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and get ice cream, so I could have a bit of that "margin time" we've recently discussed. I like my mother-in-law. She speaks Desperate-ese. (Bonus: Three year old thinking I'm the best mom EVER for making her a twirly skirt in her absence.)

No wait, I know. It was THIS. This afternoon we were invited to attend the baptism of a young friend of ours. All the ingredients for a perfect occasion were assembled: gorgeous lake, perfect weather, tasty refreshments, 20-30 supportive friends and relatives, and us getting completely lost and arriving twenty minutes late. Awesome. So we're gathered at the shore and our seven-year-old friend Catherine wades out into the water with her father, who has offered up a prayer and a short word on the significance of baptism. Everyone's quiet, reverently waiting. Her father takes Catherine's arm.

Suddenly, loud and clear, one of my children blurts into the silence, "Hey, while you're in the water, can you pick up that glass thing floating around out there? It's going to pollute the lake!"

Okay, go ahead and keep your bubbling, cinnamony apple crisp. I'll just be over here in my corner, giggling nervously and eating humble pie.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Please pass the margin

Have you heard of the concept of margin? I'm not so well-versed, but I believe the concept involves making space in your life, doing a little less, leaving room -- room in your time, your energy, your finances, etc. before you find yourself running on fumes.

I'm feeling the lack of margin these days. There are a couple of witty little posts and long, reflective ones trying to wind their way out, but honesty compels me to admit, right now I got nuthin'. This week I manhandled five passport applications into the U.S. bureaucracy, endeavored to inspire my children to further learning, tutored for four hours, and finally, after feeling like I was spending a disproportionate part of my day walking to and fro in the house picking up stuff, filled with grace for nobody, promised myself to stop that and just for a day, neither clean nor nag. By Wednesday night, I felt myself quivering on the verge of tears during our AWANA club night over my child's "under-performance." Not good.

I had to take ten minutes to stand outside and watch the rain fall. I had to tell the Lord, for the twelve thousandth time perhaps, that I cannot make it and that He must. I had to listen for His reminder that His transforming work in me is just like that gentle rain: unstoppable.

I know my children deserve my best. I know the answer is not to withdraw from them. But I also feel sometimes that they're getting less than my best, because I'm not taking care of their mother. I read a post by beloved author Shannon Hale about mothering and creativity and thought, yes, that part is usually the first to go. But one distant day from now, my children will be living lives of their own, and what will be left? How do you give your family 100%, relishing the work and the joys of the domestic sphere, but also maintain a certain amount of yourself in reserve -- the part that is a child of God and therefore enjoys creating, that wants to go and do and explore?

I believe that children naturally respect adults who take care of themselves, who remain lifelong learners, who refuse to stagnate. Yet meanwhile, they and their surroundings require great care and (often immediate) attention. The default for most of us, I think, is to become primarily consumers and maintainers, rather than producers and delighters. (New word. You're welcome, Mr. Webster.)

Friends, how do you all reconcile this dilemma in your own lives? Has anyone modeled for you that kind of balance?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I met Kate the Great on Saturday.

Kate DiCamillo, that is. And she was FABULOUS. I might even be understating the case a bit.

Here's the scenario: I'd been waiting four weeks for this event, which took place at Bookpeople, our local (huge) independent bookstore. You can't listen to the audiobook version of A Tale of Despereaux, for instance, without falling in love with its author. It simply can't be done. I dare you. So even though our family car was otherwise occupied, Eliza and I rode the bus downtown, walked five blocks past bars full of TX-OU game fans, and secured our seat in the audience, an hour in advance (oh, and I had gone at 9:00 a.m. to get us wristbands, which turned out to save us a ton of time later).

We met our young friend Penelope and her dad there. I had to avert the girls' attention from the length of our wait by reading Babar Visits America to them.

That Babar. He's just so riveting.

Finally, Kate arrived. Y'all, she was so adorable. Not only was she cute in terms of size, but also she was wearing really dapper jeans and cowboy boots. I just think it's important to pass on all the pertinent information.

She read the first half chapter from her new book, The Magician's Elephant. Then she took questions. And I took notes. The highlights of which I will share with you.

Guess what Kate did for a living in her twenties? She worked at Disney World, telling people to "watch your step; look down" hundreds of times a day as they entered Space Mountain (I think).

At age thirty, she decided that if she were really going to be a writer, she needed to actually write. You may think that's funny, but some of us could relate to that logical disconnect in which she had been living. So, she began sending out short stories. Guess how many rejection letter she got before Because of Winn Dixie, her first children's novel, was accepted by a publisher (on its first try, incidentally)?


Yes. As in, four hundreds, seven tens, zero ones. Hurrah for expanded notation!

She bought herself a dartboard and every time one of those letters arrived, she'd tack it up there and hurl a bunch of darts. Then she'd mail that story right back out.

Now, even though she's won the Newbery Award and scads of other honors, guess what she has to force herself to do every single day?


Two pages a day, she does, feel like it or not. She gets up at 5:00 a.m. so she can start writing before her inner critic, the voice that tells her she's fooling herself to think she's a real writer, what she's producing is junk, etc., arises to full consciousness, which happens around 6:30 a.m. And this from a Newbery Award winner!

I asked her whether there was a particular incident that had inspired her picture book, Great Joy (a favorite of Caroline's). She talked about two different experiences of witnessing homelessness as a child and feeling so disturbed by what she saw. She also quoted the sentence that popped into her head to begin the story -- a sentence which eventually met its demise on the chopping block.

A book she called perfect: Charlotte's Web. In an interchange with the audience, she asked why Stuart Little is great, but not perfect. Our friend Penelope pointed out that at the end, we don't know whether Stuart finds what he's looking for. Kate thought that was brilliant. She made Penelope's day.

When we made it up to the front to have our book signed, I commented to her something about the parallel endings of two of her books. She was super friendly and didn't say, "Yeah, DUH!" or anything of the sort. Then I thanked her for the writing advice and she lit up and said, "Are you a writer???" I told her that I had a little collection of those very special letters she had referred to. She looked at me and said, "You MUST read this book," and scribbled this name on a piece of paper. Then she had to graciously tend to the 200 people who were waiting.

She made my day. Maybe my month. Maybe my year. I think Eliza liked the experience too, and we both enjoyed the one on one time, but just between us, I think I did this one more for me. Mom's prerogative.

Long live Kate!

[Edited to add: A reader emailed me to ask about the audio CD of Despereaux. It's the one read by Graeme Malcolm. This is a public service announcement. Finis.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

My thoughts exactly

Saw this in the window of Sur La Table at The Domain yesterday afternoon while taking five wild creatures for an outing:

I, for one, have never been afraid of butter. Butter is a dear friend of mine. How I rejoiced when it was found by Experts to be superior to margarine. Now I have daughters who will eat butter on almost anything.

Who wants to live in fear, anyway?

(P.S. Shhhh ... I love olive oil even more. Don't tell Julia.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Oh pshaw

"Has anyone ever told you you look like Alanis Morisette?" A dad I had just met at a neighborhood back yard party inquired this afternoon.

Huh. Now, mirthful as this may seem, I actually have been told 4-5 times over the course of my lifetime that I reminded someone of Julia Roberts.

I think it's just about the number of teeth we show when we smile. Truly.

I thought about telling this dad (who, by the way, said this in an entirely appropriate manner, after lengthy chatting about sundry topics) that he sort of reminded me of Sacha Baron Cohen.

Then I thought, would that be considered insulting somehow? Mr. Cohen isn't exactly famous for his dashing looks. And when I told my next door neighbor that he resembled a certain very talented-but-not-handsome actor whose last name rhymes with "Shmemerson," he was crushed and started going to the gym. (More or less.) But what if I told some dad, who wasn't the father of my own children, that he looked like, I don't know, Brad Pitt? Wouldn't that just be way, way, over the line?

Sometimes I just wish I could be three again. Life is so simple. You have a thought. It proceeds out through your mouth. People think you're charming. The end.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

And the winner is ...

... CJoy! Here's her story:

My favorite vacation: Leaving my 2 kids at home with my husband and heading to New York City with one of my oldest and dearest friends for 3 nights...Broadway, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Times Square, pizza, tiny hotel room that just barely squeezed 2 twin beds and 1 nightstand from wall to wall. The best of times, in spite of my horrendous cold upon arrival. Definitely the best of times. (Not that I don't love being with my now 3 kids, know.)

I loved her story because it speaks to a very profound and universal truth about motherhood: Most of us need more breaks than we actually get. Most of us pour our time and energies into our darling offspring and, attached as we are, sometimes forget to tend to other parts of who we are -- women, sisters, friends. I'd be willing to bet that CJoy experienced some pangs of guilt upon leaving her kids and driving away to the airport that weekend -- I happen to know that she's a dedicated, conscientious mom. How great to hear that she was able to lay those (dare I say inappropriate) feelings aside and truly enjoy her time reconnecting with an old friend. You've inspired me, darlin'! Now email me your address and a non-odorous Banana will be on its way to you! (

(Anyone want to meet me in New York City?)

Other things I learned from you wise ones:

1. I really, really need to visit Banff and Jasper. Yes. Yes. To hear is to obey.

2. My brother is always combing the 'Net to solve my problems. Remember my car issues? He's totally responsible for the fact that I haven't lost my keys in about six months. No, you can't have him. He's mine.

3. Certain people, after at least 13 years of marriage, really need to have a honeymoon one of these days. Do we need to pass the hat?

4. I want Juliana to take me to Europe; she knows how to do things RIGHT. I think she's a female Rick Steves. (But Colombia will do!)

5. I want to take every single one of you on our trip. Wouldn't that be so, so fun? Now I'm going to run out into the street to see if anyone dropped a winning lottery ticket. I might also see why there is a loud thumping noise coming from the direction of my daughters' bedroom. Catch you tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Them Write Real Good One Day

As you might guess, learning to write intelligibly is a skill high on the list of Important Things My Kids Must Learn. It's ranked somewhat higher than How To Make a Key Lime Pie, but somewhat lower than How to Plunge a Toilet Successfully so Mom Doesn't Have To. Therefore, armed with dewy hopes and ambitions, we plunged into this book when Ian was an impressionable young lad of six.

Notice the cover. I believe the message being communicated here is that a tender young child fresh from God and full of wonder at the world around him will surely embrace daily implantations of nouns, pronouns, and verbs into his touchingly fertile mind.

Friends, bless Ms. Wise's heart, but we just couldn't make it. It didn't take long before I was yawning right along with my kiddos. Something about the scripted "dialogue" and the redundancy of asking my six-year-old boy to repeat the definition of a pronoun just felt too artificial to a mother who likes to hold "school" on a picnic blanket. We tumbled right off that apple cart.

And seriously, does a six year old really need to truly, madly, deeply know that stuff? I am a grammar nazi, and everything I know I either learned from my mother's faithful correction or the English Workshop class I sat through as a high school freshman.

So here's our current, [mostly] complete grammar curriculum. (Although we do adopt the Charlotte Mason's practice of copywork -- essentially, copying out poems and short passages of the Bible and literature.)

1. Very popular around our house. I consider us successful if we get through an entire mad lib without using the word "stinky" for an adjective.

2. This is a game I made up with index cards. (A secret: a homeschooler with index cards is like MacGyver with duct tape. ANYTHING can happen.) It's like Go Fish, except that instead of numerical suits, we have sets of common nouns, proper nouns, punctuation marks, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, etc. Instead of "state the definition of a noun," it's "Eliza, do you have any place nouns?"

I just discovered this little gem, called Grammar Grater. It's a very witty series of free podcasts, each about 10 minutes long, each focusing on a different aspect of verbiage. Example: a vignette about onomatopoeia, recorded at the Minnesota State Fair. We listen in the car. The kids giggle sometimes, but Mom always does, because she's a bit of an eccentric. And that is just an aspect of her personality up with which they simply must put.

P.S. I messed up the date and time of the Bananagrams giveaway in my previous post. It ends Wednesday, October 14, at 11:59 p.m. So send in those vacation faves. Don't be shy!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

An ap-PEELing giveaway

Remember how a few weeks ago I was blathering on about Bananagrams? That fun, fastpaced word game that travels around in the most adorable pouch, like, ever?

I'm giving away one set, here on this blog. Brand new. And all you have to do is leave an entry in ...

A Quiet Spot Vacation Sweepstakes!

Why am I feeling so expansive? Oh, well, it might have a tiny bit to do with the fact that I met this afternoon with a very sweet, very wise older friend, sister in Christ and travel agent who is helping us plan our graduation celebration trip in December. It's true, friends. The Aspiring Professor is finally finishing his course, and less than two months from now, he'll be parading down the aisle in his fancy pants suit while I snuffle back tears, wiping away mascara tracks.

Hearing Pomp and Circumstance does that to me. It's a psychiatric disorder. I'm currently in therapy.

Wait, where was I? Oh yes. The trip and the contest. So, for four years we've planned that when he graduates, we will celebrate by selling some stocks and taking a family vacation. Now we're considering the options, all involving sun and water and adventure (for me) and vegging on the beach (for him). I think we're leaning toward Mexico. Oh, the kids are coming. We will be sure to all don our matching snow white outfits and stroll along the shore hand in hand, all laughing in unison, like good American vacationers in a tropical paradise.

This is where you come in. Leave me a comment telling me either 1) where we absolutely MUST go, or 2) the condensed story of your favorite vacation ever, with or without kiddos. Hey, leave two comments if you want! Enter as often as you like! Tell your friends, your pets, your blog readers, the girl at the Starbucks drive-thru! I'll randomly draw a name after 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, 10/13.

Here, I'll start. My favorite vacation Before Kids was Kauai in 1999 with my husband. Even though it rained half the time, the whole experience was just so far removed from our daily life in the grey underworld of MIT, and the setting so lush and beautiful, that we had an absolute blast. Did the helicopter tour, the snorkel boat trip with a fellow passenger heaving over the side for hours, the whole nine yards. Still have in our shower a large pumice stone given to us by a friendly hitchhiker. No doubt about it: we will return some day, when an airline decides to fly us there for free. With Kids: Probably Fripp Island, SC, a lovely place where you forget your car and zip around on golf carts, dodging deer and toting your boogie board. Did it with the extended fam in 2003. One among many treasured trips to the South Carolina shore.

So tell your story and maybe you'll get to tote along one of these on your future travels, wherever they may be!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Guess who said this on her way to sleep tonight?

"Mommy. You annoy me. But I love you anyway."

No wonder I'm so secure.

(P.S. Watch this with your hanky at the ready. You will remember it during the moments of greatest drudgery.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Daddy needs to start saving

Ever wonder how much your kids borrow their personalities from their birth order? Ever look at your second/third/fourth/sixteenth child and wonder what she'd be like if you were raising her first?

My first child at age 3, watching Winnie-the-Pooh for the first (and only) time:
"Aughh! No! Why is that cake getting all over his face!? Why did he get HIT with that birthday cake?" (Sob, sniffle, sniffle, borderline hysteria.) Click. Apparently Pooh's adventures are just far too disturbing for this sensitive child. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming: Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.

My third child at age 3, watching Star Wars with her siblings (because what am I supposed to do, lock her in her room?): "Darth Vader is a MEANIE! We HATE him!" Pause. "Can I get a light saber for my fourth birthday?"

My first child at age 3: Claire [his best friend] is a girl? Oh, well who knew?! I just thought she was a quirky kid like me! (I'm not putting that in quotes because trust me, the subject of gender just didn't ... really ... come up.)

My third child at age 3 (two nights ago, at the dinner table): "There is a BOY named ASHLEY in my co-op class. And he is SO DREAMY." Big sister: "Really? Do you have a crush on him? Are you going to marry him?" Little sister, beaming: "YES!"

(Today's follow-up: while making cookies, we must discuss the relative merits and general dreaminess of Sir Ashley again. Why exactly does she want to marry him, this 21st-century mom wants to know? "Because he's so ... handsome." [Insert motherly remarks about a suitable husband needing to be kind, intelligent, blah blah blah] "And Daddy said he would buy me some white high heels to go with my wedding dress and veil!")

People. I am sunk.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I made this (and you can too!)

Seriously. I really did. Try not to collapse in a faint.

Not only the outfit, but the model inside. Of course, I had quite a bit of help with that one.

Which brings me to my point. Ahem.

How Sewing and Childbirth are Alike:

1. Childbirth is laborious work.

Sewing is laborious work.

2. Childbirth mystically connects you to millions of women who have traveled this earth before you, drawing you into its productive sisterhood. [Note: I remember thinking this very thing as I paced my front lawn under the stars, laboring to bring forth Eliza.]

Sewing (for one's children, especially) mystically connects you to millions of women who have traveled this earth before you, drawing you into its productive sisterhood.

3. When childbirth is accomplished [and considerable time has elapsed], you're so entranced by the cuteness of the finished product that you forget the words "NEVER AGAIN!" and start to think, "Hey, maybe I could do this again!"

When the sewing is accomplished, you're so entranced by the cuteness of the finished product that you forget the words "NEVER AGAIN!" and start to think "Hey, maybe I could do this again!"

4. After childbirth, you can't help but marvel at the tiny, detailed perfection of what you have wrought.

Um. Sewing is also a pastime.

[Time to give credit: directions for the skirt can be found here, complete with photos. T-shirt was made using a pumpkin stencil, fabric scraps, and something called Wonder Under. Can't help you with how the girl was made. Most of y'all are moms (I think). You've figured it out. Let me know if you make the skirt, though!]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Crowning Un-glory

It was time to deal with a very serious situation this weekend.

A situation that had gotten out of control.

A crisis that simply could not wait another day.

And it looked like this:

That, in case you're going cross-eyed wondering whoa! What the Sam Hill is THAT bit of ugly?, is my hair.

Folks, I am thirty two. Not eighty two. Not even fifty two. But, thanks I suspect to my grandmother, who is entirely lovable in all respects, including her prematurely snow white hair, my mop up top has ... issues.

And so every month or two, I turn to the Aspiring Professor and say, "Darling, it's time." Time for a visit from our friend in the little box.

We mix up a delightful, earthy-smelling bowl of hideous gunk. He smears it all over my scalp. We watch a short movie. The whole experience is indescribably romantic. Some couples canoodle at four-star restaurants. Some couples ramble through Napa Valley on bicycles, stopping to wander through vineyards and sample fine wine. We henna my hair.

I spend about fifteen minutes in the shower watching horrific muddy rivulets run off my noggin and down the drain.

Ta-DAH! I am thirty two again.

(Next up: Battling the Frizz. Stay tuned!)

Friday, October 2, 2009

We been busy

So, you know how we homeschoolers are. In accordance with our reputation, most of us keep our impressionable children either locked in a closet or chained to the kitchen table all day, reciting the times tables.

Here's what our closet interior looked like this week:

Monday: Morning - co-op for the girls. Afternoon - Cub Scout hike and creek cleanup.

Tuesday: Dance (Caroline). Tae kwon do (older two).

Wednesday: Morning - drive Eliza to Round Rock for playdate. Evening - AWANA.

Thursday: Morning - tennis lessons at park. Afternoon - Visit from friends. Tae kwon do. (Kids need exercise. Kids with attentional issues need even more. Grownups with attentional issues need ... never mind. Hm. Paging a personal trainer who will work for food!)

Friday: Friday Co-op. Probably followed by toting extra kid(s) home.

Can I take off the handcuffs yet?

(An aside: moving toward the park for tennis at 0.02 miles per hour with the girls on a bike and scooter, Ian far ahead, I was suddenly visited by the memory of my brother muttering "the patience of a SAINT" a few weeks ago while watching me deal with Her Royal Intractable-When-Tired-ness. I had to laugh, knowing that it's only by the transformative influence of the daily grace PLUS thousands of moments like these that I can boast of anything resembling patience. Shuffling along yesterday, I knew I still had miles and miles to go in that department. Fortunately, neither of those influences looks to run out any time soon.)