Thursday, December 31, 2009

Weekly Giggle #9

My favorite list of New Year's Resolutions comes from Trixie the Golden Retriever, author of the wonderful book Life Is Good. Trixie was owned by writer Dean Koontz, who continues to channel Trixie's wisdom in Bliss to You, a book Trixie dictated from the afterlife to share her insights and raise money for Canine Companions for Independence.

Here are Trixie's resolutions:

1. Be furrier.

2. Wag tail more.

3. Recommend all Dad's books at next Mensa meeting.

4. Say nice things about cats even if every time say nice things will vomit.

5. Avoid say nice things about cats immediately after eat frankfurters.

6. Get own newspaper subscription so don't have to read Dad's and get drool on food pages before he reads 'em.

7. Find out if other book writers besides Dad live in neighborhood, then pee on their lawns.

8. Register and vote like good citizen.

9. Pick up after myself with blue bags.

10. Put blue bags in garbage instead of in Dad's shoes, no matter how funny would be in shoes.


How can you be furrier and wag your tail more in the new year? What are your resolutions? Please share!

And have a happy, safe, laughter-filled New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Really Matters

Janus, the two-faced god of gateways in Roman mythology, gives us the word January, as well as the word janitor, which originally meant gatekeeper or keeper of the keys. Anyone else thinking about Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vinz Clortho the Key Master from Ghostbusters right now? Tell me I’m not alone here.

Janus looks forward and backward at once, anticipating the future while still considering the past. As do all the ancient gods, Janus represents a very real and deep impulse in humans, and what better time of year to reflect on the past and anticipate the future than the depths of winter, when, really, what else are we going to do?

In the media, lists reign this time of year. Top Ten News Stories. Top Ten Movies. Top Ten Scandals. Top Ten Best-Selling Books. Top Ten Athletes. Celebrity Deaths. Celebrity Babies. Celebrity Divorces.

While these lists may be mildly entertaining to read, I’m more interested in a different perspective on the year past. Nance in Reno sent me a link to an NPR commentary by David Stipeck, who asks his listeners to consider the following question: “How did I do in the areas that really matter?”

What really matters? Financial success? Popularity? Celebrity? How many times Tiger cheated on his wife? Those lists in the newspapers and magazines and websites have it all wrong. What really matters is more personal and individual, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in places of peace and freedom. What really matters is how we treat others, how we help those who need it, how we make the world in our small spheres of influence a better place.

Back in the Dark Ages when I was a teenager, I came across a list of things a person should do every single day to be happy:

1) do something good for your body,
2) do something good for your mind,
3) do something good for your soul,
4) do something good for someone else,
5) do something good for the world.

At first glance, the list seems pretty self-centered, but without a healthy body, mind, and soul, how can you do something for someone else or for the world? This list pretty much covers what really matters: our physical, mental, and spiritual health; our kindness and compassion to others; and our duty to make the world a better place.

Let’s get back to Stipeck’s question: “How did I do in the areas that really matter?” I’m going to share my answers to this question but invite you to think of your own answers and, if you are comfortable doing so, to share them in the comments.

My body got short shrift this year. Going for my annual ride in the stirrups a few weeks ago made me realize how little I’ve exercised and how much junk I’ve eaten. Looking back in this case shows up my failure to attend to something that really matters. Looking forward, I must do better.

My mind flourished, largely because it has always been hyperactive and demanded large chunks of my attention. Sometimes, I wish it would just shut up. Maybe then I would exercise more.

My soul, however, got quite the refreshing workout this year. I took a Disciple II class at church and learned more about my faith than ever before. It made me hungry for more, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next year-long class that will start in January.

Looking outside ourselves to others’ needs is reflexive for parents, but now that my children are older and don’t require the intensive daily care required to keep infants and toddlers and preschoolers from killing themselves, I have tried to look a bit farther out. My focus is, of course, still close to family and home, but my church and community provide plenty of opportunity to help others and the world in ways that matter.

Mother Teresa said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” Smart lady, don’t you think? There are ALWAYS small things to do with great love…so many, in fact, that this can seem an impossible task. What possible difference could a couple of hours volunteering each week at the school library make in the grand scheme of life, the universe, and everything?

Well, if we were alone in the universe, this point of view might be valid. But we’re not alone. There are billions of us.

The Cake Wrecks blog demonstrated the power of many people doing little things in its charity push this Christmas by asking its readers to donate $1 a day for twelve days to twelve different charities. At last count a few days ago, the effort has raised over $75,000 for charities large and small.

That’s a lot of cake.

The message here is powerful. If we each do our little bit of work to help others and the world, we’ll make a big difference in the way the world works.

A bunch of simple, small things add up: recycling, turning off lights, driving less; voting and staying informed on issues affecting national, state, and local government; sending money to worthy charities doing work abroad and at home; buying a meal for the man with a sign outside McDonalds or giving diapers to the man whose grandchild needs them; serving meals in a soup kitchen; paying the toll for the driver behind you; smiling at a stranger; acknowledging others’ efforts. The list is easy and endless, so dive right in wherever it feels right to you.

Stipeck says that our good deeds have “probably made a greater impact than we ever realize.” Sometimes, our good deeds are acknowledged and we feel a glow of satisfaction. Sometimes, people discourage us from good deeds, citing charity rip-offs and lazy malingerers and thieves who take advantage of our charitable impulses. Sometimes, our good deeds are not acknowledged, and we may feel angry about that and stop doing them out of spite.

As we look back at the past year, let’s do what Stipeck says. Let’s celebrate our successes and acknowledge our failures as learning experiences prodding us in the right direction. Let’s have faith that our good deeds--large or small, rewarded or unacknowledged--did make a difference.

On January 1st, let’s channel our inner Janus. Look back on what really mattered in 2009 and forward to what really matters in 2010.

As for the rest, let it be.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Gratitude Journal #26

Today is the last gratitude journal entry for 2009, so my gratitude reflects back over the whole year.

Mostly, I am grateful for love. It takes infinite forms, and it inspires everything from small, simple acts of kindness to great sacrifices. Thinking of love makes me grateful for so much:

*The online community at Splitcoast for being awesome and supportive and wonderful.

*My friends and neighbors close to home who have done so much, and for my friend who moved away this year but is still close in my heart.

*Friends far away whom I haven't seen in years but who still show love to me and receive love from me in ways that really matter.

*My extended family, which has been through a lot this year, including grief, struggles with substance abuse and depression, premature birth, retirement, moves, houses that aren't selling, job changes and job stress, and a heart attack.

*Everyone who reads my blogs: family, friends, and strangers, and especially those who comment or send me emails. You have no idea how wonderful it is to put words out here on three blogs and realize someone is reading and enjoying and being inspired by them.

*Visits from family and visits to family.

*My children who amaze me daily with the miracle of life.

*My husband who feeds me, loves me, and puts up with me.

*My church and the people in it.

*My God, and His willingness to dwell in the hearts of ordinary people with a love that passes all understanding.

Welcome, new year! You are now perfect, full of potential, and a wonderful expectation. May we be able to see your beauty and the good you bring, and may we have the strength and courage to face whatever challenges you place in our path.

A request to those who pray: My uncle Herb had a heart attack yesterday. He's in the hospital, but according to the cardiologist, it was a very close call. Please offer up prayers for him and my aunt Sylvia as they deal with this terrible thing.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Words, Words, Words for after Christmas

"Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it's Christmas." Dale Evans Rogers

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Haiku

Christmas Eve

Candlelight service
sermon on things going wrong;
pastor is prophet.

The Wii does not work,
scene rated R for language
late night Christmas Eve.

Daddy is a grump;
mommy needs a vicodin.
Ho ho ho. Bite me.

of disappointment and loud
winds make sleep a dream.

Christmas Morning

Asleep (finally),
then Jack’s face inches from mine
“Mom, it’s Christmas Eve!”

“No, hon, it’s Christmas
morning and time to open
your gifts, minus Wii.”

The jolly elf leaves
laser tag and spark scooter.
Santa saves the day.

Snowfall of tissue
and wrapping paper litters
the floor—White Christmas.

Children bicker, play,
Bicker, laugh, bicker, bicker,
Play, bicker, “I’m bored.”

Self-discipline goes
Up the chimney as roast beef
Goes straight to my hips.

Doesn't matter now.
Soft glow of the Christ candle
brings peace, joy, and love.

Angels say fear not,
Good tidings, great joy, a sign.
Hark, herald angels.

Note: I'm not a poet, but I can count syllables. Haiku is highly formal with lots of rules I chose, respectfully, to ignore. I hope I don't offend any haiku purists with my silliness.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good News of Great Joy

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David;) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them. Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:1-14

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lost and Found

Last week, George had a dream about losing Jack. He told me about it before heading off to work. “We were in this huge space, like a mall, and Nick alerted me to the fact that Jack was nowhere to be seen. You weren’t there. I was totally freaking out until I found him near a row of doors, with some lady tying him to a pole. I felt such unbelievable relief when I fell to my knees and gave him a hug.”

Isn’t it odd how, in dreams, things like strangers tying lost kids to poles are perfectly normal? I once dreamed that a potato was growing out of my knee. This evoked only mild curiosity in my dream self, but upon waking, I wondered if I needed to see a shrink. What would Freud do with that? No wonder I have insomnia.

Today, George and I took the boys to the Cincinnati Museum Center, which houses several different museums, including a really fun Children’s Museum. A few weeks ago, we saw an advertisement for a new Egyptian mummy exhibit. George and I both love history. Nick is interested in ancient Egypt. How could we resist?

We arrived early, saw most of the mummy exhibit, watched the Omnimax film Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs, and went to the atrium café to eat. After lunch, we planned to finish the mummy exhibit, and then go to the Children’s Museum. Jack just wanted to go to the Children’s Museum. When we all finished eating, George and Nick carried the trash to the bins across the dining area, and Jack and I followed them. When I reached George, he asked, “Where’s Jack?”

“Right here,” I replied, gesturing to my left where he was a second before.

Only he wasn’t there. Jack was gone.

Those of you with children can imagine (and may, in fact, have experienced for yourselves) the panic we felt: the pit in the stomach, the rush of adrenaline that makes you feel like you’ve just jumped off a bridge and suddenly realize you forgot to attach a bungee to your ankle. Yeah. That same horrible feeling George had in his dream, only this was real.

George sprinted for the door to see if someone had taken Jack outside while I continued searching the huge, crowded atrium. George came back inside just as I started looking for a security guard. Figuring that Jack may have gone to the Children’s Museum downstairs, George sprinted down the escalator while I briefed the security guard.

“We’ve lost our son. He’s seven and has autism.” In that moment, it dawned on me that Jack does have autism and might not be able to tell someone he was lost. He’s never been lost before, and I had no idea how he would react.

I gave a description of Jack’s clothes and hair, which the man relayed on his radio, announcing a Code Three. He was so calm, and it didn’t dawn on me until later that he probably deals with Code Threes regularly, seeing as he works security in a Children’s Museum. For me, I just appreciated his level-headedness as he moved across the atrium straight to the photo kiosk near the trash bins. I hadn’t even noticed the kiosk, but we'd all walked right past it on the way to the trash bins.

Jack loves photo kiosks. The guard found Jack’s coat inside. But where was Jack?

The guard, Nick, and I crossed the atrium to check the other photo kiosk, and as we passed the hallway to the Omnimax theater (where I’d searched fruitlessly earlier), I saw Jack walking beside a woman pushing a stroller.

“Jack!” He saw me and ran into my arms. As we hugged each other, the woman pushing the stroller said, “He told me he needed help. He said he was lost.”

“Thank you,” I said, unspeakable relief in my voice. I turned to Jack and said, “I was so scared, honey! Why did you leave me?”

“I’m sorry, Mommy. I got lost.” He was surprisingly matter-of-fact about it.

“Don’t EVER do that to me again. Stay right by me.”

“Are you angry, Mommy?”

What do you say in these situations? What I wanted to say was, “Yes, I’m furious you scared me so badly, and when I’m done hugging you, I’m going to KILL you!” I figured that might be a tad hysterical and got a grip on myself. “No, I’m not angry. I was scared, and now I’m happy you’re back. And I’m proud of you for telling a grown-up you needed help. That was the right thing to do.”

I thanked the security guard and realized that George was downstairs still in full panic mode. I held tight to Jack’s hand while he, Nick, and I headed downstairs. We met George halfway down and his relief matched mine. We continued downstairs, where I found a bench, sat down, and tried really hard not to sob hysterically. I was shaking and queasy.

Jack said, “Mommy, I’m sorry. Am I in trouble?”

“No, you’re not in trouble.” I pulled him onto my lap and just held him until I could stand again. We spent a few more hours in the museum, bought souvenirs, and headed home.

This evening, George said, “Every time I looked somewhere and didn’t see him, I sank deeper into a pit of despair.” He posted about the horror on an internet forum, and a woman shared how a similar episode with her first born triggered premature labor of her second. I believe it.

Jack says he wasn’t scared while he was lost; he says he just needed to ask a grown-up for help. George and I, on the other hand, are having a tough time shaking the panic. I have to suppress sudden urges to burst into tears. He keeps mentioning how horrible it was. We both feel that we lost ten years of our lives in that ten minutes Jack was missing.

Fortune’s Wheel, a powerful image in medieval literature, turns constantly, making happy people sad, and sad people happy. One doesn’t expect a full revolution in such a short period of time, however; it’s extraordinarily disorienting. But we’ll calm down eventually.

After all, what was lost has been found. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Weekly Giggle #8

Jack: Will you play hide and seek with me, Dad?

George: Sure, pal.

Jack: OK. I will hide under the bed and you will find me!!

After several iterations of hide and seek, with Jack hiding under the bed every time and shouting with incredulity, “You found me!!” ...

George: Jack, you really should hide someplace else; I know where you are hiding every time.

Jack: I know what you’re saying Dad, but I just love hiding under the bed.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Gratitude Journal #25

Today, I am grateful for so many things:

*Professor Lee Patterson, who kindly commented on my essay "What Should I Read" (It was very childish of me to squeal when I saw his comment, wasn't it?)

*Christmas break and happy children

*Christmas cards and letters from friends and family, and emails from readers I've never met

*All the gorgeous cards being posted at SplitcoastStampers

*Christmas lights and candles, and the amazing glow created when I take off my glasses...being nearsighted has advantages!

*Cookies and Susan Food (A.K.A. chex party mix) from my MIL

*Talking with neighbors and making plans to welcome new ones to the neighborhood

What are you grateful for today?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Balancing Act

This is my fourth Advent post. To read the first three posts, click here, here, and here.

In church this morning, singing the old hymns with a smile on my face and hardly ever looking at the hymnal, I realized how important repetition is to the celebration of Christmas. We repeat the same hymns, make the same cookies and Christmas dinner, read the same Bible verses in the same translation, hang the same ornaments, buy a tree from the same place or put up the same artificial tree, go to the same services, and pray the same prayers. We receive comfort and peace from the annual repetition, but we run the risk of becoming complacent and taking the things we repeat for granted, too.

At my previous church, we sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (all verses) every Sunday of Advent—and one Sunday we actually sang it twice. After a few years of this, I came to despise that song and still wince each time I hear it. It killed my Christmas joy and made my heart shrink just like the Grinch’s. Too much of a good thing, and you lose the point of it.

On the other hand, how many times have you heard a Christmas carol performed with a slightly different beat from the traditional version, such as a Muzak version of Joy to the World? What is your reaction? Probably annoyance, if you’re anything like me. Your expectations aren’t met, and disappointment results.

When the shepherds heard the heavenly hosts at the first Christmas, the experience of the Greatest Gift was fresh and new and wholly unexpected. Honestly, who would have thought the old prophesies would be fulfilled by travelers in a stable in an overcrowded town during tax season? I don’t think anybody expected that. Mary and Joseph sure were amazed, and the shepherds marveled at angels speaking to them—lowly and poor and socially scorned—of good news of great joy for all people.

Every year, Christians are called to perform a balancing act at Christmas: to have the comfort and peace of the same old and blessed story, and at the same time to hear that story with fresh ears and hearts as did the shepherds. But we can’t stop there; the shepherds didn’t. To keep Christmas, we also need to share that story with others.

I invite you to share in the comments how you keep Christmas fresh and new in your heart each year. How do traditions actually help you do that? If you’ve become complacent, how can you sing a new song this Christmas and share once again in the good news of great joy?

I’ll go first. Reading Luke 2 in the King James Bible has always felt fresh to me, mainly because I simply don’t read it any other time of year. Since I started using a different translation for Bible study a few years ago, it’s particularly fresh each year. Also, putting out the nativity set my mother made keeps the story fresh for me, especially because Baby Jesus is missing a hand as a result of a little too much love, probably from my cousin Kathy, decades ago. Finally, rather than give to the same charity each year, we mix up our giving.

Now it’s your turn to share!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Words, Words, Words from Holbrook Jackson

"Happiness is a form of courage." Holbrook Jackson

Battle Cooking Light

What started off as a simple, exaggerated-for-effect observation about George’s cooking—“You are simply incapable of cooking light”—turned into an Iron Chef Raihala challenge, as I reported last week. George’s reaction should not have surprised me because years ago, when he was young and rebellious, his mother told him to choose a career that was safe so she wouldn’t have to worry about him. He became a combat aviator in the United States Air Force and went to war twice.

Yeah, that’s safe.

Anyway. My comment that he couldn’t cook light threw down the gauntlet for Iron Chef George, who took on Battle Cooking Light with determination but also with a certain level of waffling which didn’t surprise me in the least. At first, he decided to try a mole sauce with chicken. For those who don’t know, a mole (pronounced mo-lay) includes a bit of dark, unsweetened chocolate to add richness and flavor to a savory, spicy, nutty sauce served over rice.

In general, one doesn’t think of a mole as light, but George could have made it light by using fewer nuts (he used toasted almonds), very little oil, and lean chicken. It would still be rich, certainly, but at least relatively low fat. Then we had this conversation:

George: Oh, you didn’t get boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

Me: No, these were cheaper. Do you want me to run to the store?

George: No, I bought two packages of boneless, skinless anyway. I guess I’ll use one of the boneless, skinless packs and the one with skin and bones. It will give the dish a nice flavor.

Me: But you can easily peel the skin off the thighs.

George: No, it’ll give the dish more flavor if I leave the skin on.

Me: But then it won’t be light.

George: No, maybe I’ll cook light tomorrow.

Me: I knew it!

George: If you blog about this, I’ll boil chicken breasts and serve them over plain white rice tomorrow night.

Me: I don’t have time to blog about this until late in the week.

George: You are evil.

So on Saturday, the mole definitely didn’t get a light make-over. It had EXTRA chocolate and almonds, chicken skin, and George knows what else.

Excellent flavor, not so light. No victory for Chef George in Kitchen Stadium.

Sunday, George decided to make a light stir-fry with lean beef and asparagus over noodles. The flavors were strong and spicy, the beef and noodles were satisfyingly filling, and the dish was definitely not fatty. George thought he’d need to use more than two tablespoons of oil (carefully measured) to cook the beef but found the lighter version worked fine. He even decided that his other stir-fry specialties could use less oil without sacrificing flavor, which can only be a good thing for our waistlines.

Chef George wins in Kitchen Stadium, defeating the doubting Susan who is forced to admit she was WRONG! He CAN cook light!

What isn’t good for our waistlines is the sad fact that cooking a light meal seems to have a rebound binge effect on George. He proved he could do it, but this weekend he’s talking about roasting a whole chicken wrapped in bacon and then wrapped in pizza crust. At least he’s not talking about wrapping it in puff pastry and deep frying it.

Now THAT would be high fat.

See you at the gym, folks. It’s my only hope.

To read George's version of this story, please see his blog, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Feeling the Joy

This post is #3 in a series of Advent devotionals. To read #2 and for a link to the first, see this post.

For the third week of Advent, I spent a lot of time contemplating joy. Traditionally, joy is the theme for this week, but much of the story of the nativity doesn’t really invite joy, does it? Herod was scared, scary, and dangerous. Mary was pregnant and could have been ordered stoned to death by Joseph; no doubt she endured a lot of scorn and derision from the community and perhaps even her parents. Poor Joseph must have been treated as a cuckold.

And it was tax season. Where is the joy in that?

Well, a few people in the middle of the story knew the truth, and in that truth, there was great joy. Mary tells the angel of the Annunciation, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Can you imagine the faith and trust behind that statement? It always makes me shiver when I read it. Then there’s Elizabeth, Mary's aunt, whose unborn son jumped in her womb with joy in the presence of the pregnant Mary. Their welcome of her prompts Mary to say, “[M]y spirit rejoices in my Savior.” The angels shared “good news of great joy” with the shepherds, and the shepherds passed it on. The three wise men “were filled with joy.”

But every time joy is celebrated, it’s balanced with fear and danger and ominous foreboding. Simeon praises the child Jesus but then tells Mary, “…a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” The wise men visit and give great gifts (one of which was associated with death and embalming), and then Joseph has a dream warning him to flee to Egypt.

And it was tax season. Did I mention that?

Right now, we live in a world where fear and panic and crisis threaten to overwhelm us. We worry about job security, retirement funds, war, mortgages, politics, taxes, and even celebrity infidelity. All of these (well, except the celebrity infidelity) are very real worries for many of us. The story of the nativity, however, is at least in part a story of the joy that comes through faith even when the world is unpleasant or even downright dangerous.

My wish for us all this season and in the coming year is a wish for joy. What gives you joy? How do you find joy when life gets tough? How can you share it with others?

Weekly Giggle #7

Saturday, after Nick's swim lesson, I took the boys to the local library to check out a book and movie each. Jack checked out a Thomas the Tank Engine book and Thomas the Tank Engine movie...because Thomas has ruled his life since he was two years old. He's now seven, by the way.

At the dinner table Sunday night, we were discussing the Advent wreath after lighting three of the candles. This week's candle symbolizes Joy, so I asked each person what gave them joy.

George: My family gives me joy.

Nick: My family and friends.

Jack: God! No. Thomas. I love Thomas.

At least he thought of God first.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Gratitude Journal #25

Today, I am grateful for

--a husband who turns into a chef every weekend

--my friend Karen for leading such an inspiring Advent study


--old dogs

--the US postal service

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Words, Words, Words from Barbara Kingsolver

I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's experience of moving to an old farm and eating only locally produced food, including food they grew themselves, for one year. I could never do this because every plant I touch dies, plus no way, no how am I giving up chocolate and coffee, even to save the world. But I completely related to the scene she describes of a walk with her daughter in April after a very dreary and depressing March.

"These flowers are gifts from a previous century, a previous dweller here--a tale, told in flowers, of one farm wife's fondness for beauty and this place. ...[T]he show begins modestly in April with her tiny Lenten roses, white-petaled snowdrops, and the wildish little daffodils called jonquils that have naturalized all over the grassy slopes. As Lily and I walked single file up the path to the greenhouse, I noticed these were up, poking their snub, yellow-tipped noses through a fringe of leaves.

"'Oh, Mama,' Lily cried, 'look what's about to bloom--the tranquils.'

"There went the last of the needles of ice around my heart, and I understood I'd be doomed to calling the jonquils tranquils for the rest of my days. Lily is my youngest. Maybe you know how these things go. In our family, those pink birds with the long necks are called flingmos because of how their real name was cutely jumbled by my brother's youngest child--and that was, yikes, twenty years ago."

In our house, we call backpacks packpacks, yellow lellow, pine needles pine noodles, and pianos pinanos. There are others that don't pop immediately to mind. If "you know how these things go," I invite you to share your family's child-induced linguistic fun in the comments.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cutting Facets in the Gemstone of Life

Jon Katz writes a blog called Bedlam Farm Journal, where he shares his meditations on animals, writing, photography, and life in general. Recently, he’s written a lot about change and growth and countering the negative vibe in the media. A few months ago, he wrote,

“Like many culture debates, discussions over Positive Thinking have been hijacked by extremists, opportunists and professional depressives. People argue that you can get what you want by wanting it. Others that the world is a dark and evil place, and that should never be forgotten.”

Polarization by extremists is ubiquitous; we see it in politics and in breast feeding, in religion and in parenting, in education and in science. Extreme positions make me nervous. I’m happiest in the middle, sitting happily on the fence, enjoying a view of the big picture, yet vulnerable to attack from both sides. I’m the one trying to negotiate a compromise, find common ground, and shift perspective to a happier place where we can all get along. Naïve, yes, but that’s my interpretation of Positive Thinking.

Like Katz, I don’t think you can get what you want by wanting it, and people who deny there’s anything wrong in the world are lazy and saving themselves the bother of making the world a better place. But those who focus only on the bad, on how everything is going down the tubes, on how the End is near, drive me batty, too. They are whiners who are also lazy and saving themselves the bother of making the world a better place. What’s the point, after all?

Opportunists take advantage of these polar impulses of humanity. Self-help authors and talking heads strike the mother lode when they get Oprah-fied, and mass media freaks people out in an effort to win audience share. Technology means we are bombarded with these polarized messages constantly.

A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Elizabeth Bowen that struck me as profoundly true:

“If you look at life one way, there is always cause for alarm.”

I encountered a lot of “professional depressives” in academia, where hyper-specialization dangerously narrows people’s perspectives on the world. An English professor at Duke, Dr. J, once told me I could NOT double major in chemistry and English because the two subjects had nothing in common. I made sure never, ever to take a class with him. Professor J’s perspective was sadly limited, like the palette of a man who will only eat sour food. More than two decades later, my fascination with science remains strong, even if I didn’t make a career of it. I find a lot of philosophical common ground between science and English these days, and both have made it easier for me to cope with being the mother of an autistic child.

One of my graduate school professors, Dr. H, felt that any literary theory other than the one he preached was not only misguided but terribly wrong, and he graded students accordingly. His class was not a place for intellectual growth and open exchange of ideas.

But another of my graduate professors did promote intellectual growth and open exchange of ideas. Dr. Nancy West, a Victorian literature scholar with a strong interest in media studies, once shared a simile with me. A piece of literature, she said, is like a gemstone; each different literary theory cuts just one facet, but what really makes a gemstone sparkle is lots of facets. A piece of literature means more, sparkles more, when it's looked at from multiple perspectives.

Isn’t that a wonderful image for life? When we consciously look at life from lots of points of view, we see it better, it sparkles more, and it is much more vibrant and interesting.

Consider this thought experiment. First, imagine the feeling of standing in a mountain meadow with land rising up above you and falling down below you. Are you there? Can you feel the sun, hear the insects and pikas and birds? Can you smell the wildflowers and grass and the spongy moss under your hiking boots? Can you feel the cool mountain breeze ruffle your hair?

Next, erase the mountain scene from your mental eye and imagine standing on a beach with a sand dune behind you and the whole wide ocean in front of you. Can you feel the sand between your toes and the warm breeze whipping your hair and salt spray sticking to your skin? Can you hear the seagulls and the waves, and see the skittering of crabs and fountains of water shot up from the sand by mollusks? Can you smell the salt and sea wrack?

Now, can you tell me which view is right?

You may have a preference, of course, and be drawn to one more than the other, but both of these views are part of the gemstone of the world. Is one right? No.

I only know Jon Katz through his blog, which means my acquaintance with him is seriously limited, but I think he’s sitting near me on that fence in the middle. When I wrote him an email to express my appreciation for his blog and to share Dr. West’s gemstone simile, I did not expect a response. Katz is a published author with a huge blog readership. On his blog's contact page, he clearly states he cannot read, much less respond, to all the messages he receives. To my delighted surprise, however, he graciously replied to my email.

Our brief email exchange isn’t the sort of scintillating philosophical discourse others would pay money to read, but it was very satisfying nevertheless. If the Internet is good for nothing else, it allows people to connect briefly, find common ground, and move on in the certain knowledge that they are not entirely alone. Katz’s life has been very different from mine, and he’s in a completely different stage of life. But we’re both thinking along the same lines.

I’ve also gathered a new tidbit in my growing collection of evidence to support my belief that fence-sitting is a healthy place to be because the view is divine. In his reply, Katz wrote:

“I think academics have the same problem journalists and many writers do. They only talk to each other. One thing I love about where I live is I can't get away with that. I have to talk to farmers and sheriffs and pastors and unemployed highway workers and that keeps me a bit in perspective, I think. I think of the world as a collection of tents, and I am not welcome in most of them, which turns out to be precisely where I belong.”

Too often, we get mired in our own narrow point of view, stuck in our own tent. Our perspective gets distorted by that narrowness, and we have to work hard to open it up, look around, and realize that everyone isn’t seeing the world the exact same way.

In the process, ironically, we realize that we’re not all so different either.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cooking Light

George cooks Friday, Saturday, and Sunday dinner, often inventing or improvising recipes in our own private enactment of Iron Chef. I rarely cook. I reheat his leftovers. I am happy with this situation, but both George and I have put on a bit of weight lately. Sunday night, George invented a meal which he intended to be light, but it ended up being floured catfish fried in butter and topped with spicy pecans that were also fried in butter with a huge side dish of spicy sweet potatoes fried in, you guessed it, butter.

In fairness, George insists that the proper term here is sautéed, not fried. Looked like frying to me. George said, “That’s because you don’t cook. You just reheat. You don’t know the difference.” He has a point, but sautéed is just fancy French for fried, as he confessed later. Here is an actual conversation after that buttery catfish meal to give you a taste of culinary life in the Raihala household.

Me: George, you are incapable of cooking light.

George: Yes, I can!

Me: No, you can NOT.

George: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because I never have. Name that movie I’m paraphrasing.

Me: Princess Bride, of course. And that’s my point. You’ve never done it because you’re not capable.

George: I’ve just never tried to cook light. I’ve tried to cook delicious. Besides, beans and rice was my idea.

Me: That’s not cooking. That’s making rice, heating up canned beans, and mixing them together. The recipes you invent are never light. Besides, I’m always the one fixing beans and rice, not you.

George: I made light oatmeal cookies when we lived in Boise.

Me: Yes, I suppose you did. [Note: We left Boise in 2000.] But you are not capable of cooking a light meal.

George: You are trying to use reverse psychology on me. You’re challenging me.

Me: No. I truly believe you are simply incapable of cooking light.

George: I made you a delicious salad a few months back.

Me: It was wilted with bacon fat, had a pound of crumbled bacon on it, and an egg fried in bacon fat. NOT light.

George: You are evil. I’m going to make you eat turkey. Next weekend, you’re eating light. I don’t know how, but I’m going to do it.

Me: No, you won’t.

George: Yes, I will. How many meals have to be light? Just one? Surely just one. One would prove you wrong.

Me: True. But you can’t do it.

George: Yes, I will. But just once, to prove you wrong.

Ever since this conversation, George has asked questions like a lawyer looking for a loophole. Who decides what’s light? Do you mean light in calories or just taste and texture? Is bacon light? How about goat cheese?

We shall see.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Gratitude Journal #24

Today, I am grateful for so many things.

*Santas who make the HO HO HO sound like genuine laughter and who embrace the Spirit of Christmas.

*Tree farms, because they take some of the guilt out of murdering trees.

We've gone to the same farm every year we've been in Ohio because it has free hot chocolate just for Nick and a model train set up just for Jack. And real reindeer. Oh my.

*Monday morning snow (the first snow of the year), because my younger son is outside, in the early-morning dark, wearing boots and a coat over his pajamas, and singing in joy.

What are you grateful for today?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Home by Another Way

This post is #2 in a series of Advent devotionals. To read the first, please click HERE.

James Taylor sings a song called Home by Another Way, loosely based on Matthew 2:1-12. Let me quote the first stanza of the song if you’re not familiar with it:

Those magic men the Magi
Some people call them wise
Or oriental, even kings,
Well any way, those guys
They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way.

It’s not explicitly a Christmas song because Taylor uses the Magi’s journey “home by another way” as a metaphor for trying to get safely home from whatever journey we are on. He sings, “Maybe me and you can be wise guys too / And go home by another way.”

Every year during Advent, I listen to this song because it reminds me that Christmas has a new Herod these days. The commercialization of Christmas has turned our attention away from the celebration of Jesus’ birth to the celebration of stuff and stress. The song goes on to warn:

Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He’ll comb your camel’s fur
Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

Instead of enjoying our stay with Jesus, we start worrying about gifts, money, shipping deadlines, and big to-dos. We stress and fret and worry and snap at sales clerks and tell people how busy we are and whine about how many dozens of cookies we have to bake. We compete with our neighbors to see who has the biggest inflatable snow globe and who spends the most on their kids’ presents.

I used to think it mattered how much time I spent on Christmas preparations. That was my pride at work. Other people didn’t do as much, didn’t log as many hours, which meant they didn’t do Christmas as well as I did. One year, when most of my husband’s Air Force squadron was deployed overseas for the holidays, we decided to have a big open house Christmas Day for those left behind and their families. I baked and bought and prepared and decorated for 50 guests because 37 had RSVP’d and some said they might bring friends.

Only seven people showed up, one just two months old. As you might imagine, he didn’t eat much.

Two families went home with enough leftovers for a month, and I was left with a new perspective on Christmas, one that’s taken me safely home (at least metaphorically) every Christmas since. I focus not on doing what Herod says, but on going home another way. Last year, I didn’t bake a single cookie because it felt like a chore rather than a joy. You know what? It was still a great Christmas.

I need that yearly reminder, though. The enticements of commercialized Christmas are pervasive. The last verse of Taylor’s song hits a bit close to home for me:

… Herod’s always out there
He’s got our cards on file
It’s a lead-pipe cinch if you give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile

How is Herod calling you this Christmas? How can you opt out of his scheme and make Christmas a wonderful celebration by taking another way?

I couldn't find a video of James Taylor singing this song, but HERE's a performance by Fr. Erich Fechner.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Weekly Giggle #6

Jack [in plaintive tones]: Mommy, I want you to make it snow today.

We're going to chop down a Christmas tree. Last year, snow made our annual chopping expedition particularly beautiful, and Jack, with his amazing memory, wants to have the same experience this year.

Wouldn't it be GREAT if mommies could do anything--even change the weather?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Random Raihala

Here are some random observations from the past week of holiday fun. Enjoy.

*George is an awesome cook.

*A small boy can create a tsunami in a bathroom and still completely deny responsibility even when there’s a witness. BTW, water stains on downstairs ceilings CAN dry to invisibility, if you’re lucky like we are.

*A random sales associate at Best Buy knew everything I didn’t about the Wii and was hugely helpful. (Dang, Best Buy should pay me for this!) Yes, we ARE the last family in our entire freakin’ neighborhood to buy a Wii. I can’t believe we’re caving on this one. Please don’t judge me.

*Our kitchen table can hold approximately 248 cook books and cooking magazines without collapsing. I kept moving the stacks to the book shelves, and my mother-in-law and George kept moving them back to the table. Like mother, like son, I suppose. Given the quality of cooking the two of them produced, I am obviously not complaining. It’s just an observation.

*The Bon Appetit Special Collector’s Edition: Provence has disappeared in our house. A reward will be offered to anyone who finds it before George expires from despair.

*Four adults in one week produce enough empty beer and wine bottles to fill up the recycling bin and make it mildly embarrassing to put the bin out on trash day. What will the neighbors think?!?

*The movie Fantastic Mr. Fox is deeply, deeply weird. Christopherson is a stupid name for a fox. I practically fell asleep, but George remembers that Whack Bat ends when someone calls “hot box.” Dudes have the oddest ability to remember stupid sports facts, even when the games are made up in deeply weird movies.

*Hiking in the woods on a sunny fall day is a combination of sheer joy (sighting a deer bounding through the underbrush) and sheer parental frustration as boys bicker (Mommy, Jack kicked me! Mommy, Nick pushed me! Don’t touch me! Mo-ohmmmm! I’m tired. I can’t take another step! It’s too steep! I want to go home!). You’d think we were force-marching them up Mt. Everest. (Give me oxygen!!!!) Papa saved the day by taking everyone to McD’s afterwards for french fries. Papa rocks!

*The microscope Nick got for Christmas last year is super cool. It has a light aimed down at the slide so you can look at opaque objects. Nick and Grandma share an interest in rocks, so they looked at Nick’s mineral collection under the microscope. There’s no humor in this, but it was highly cool, in a geeky, geological sort of way.

*When people say they don’t want biscuits, they lie.

*Bacon laid on the turkey curls up at the ends so it looks like Pippi Longstocking. Combine it with the gravy-making genius of Grandma, however, and you get the best gravy EVER IN THE HISTORY OF GRAVY. Burp.

*George tried growing a goatee over the holiday. I do not like facial hair on a spouse as it reminds me of kissing my mustachioed grandfather…can you say, “Ewwwww”? Yeah. He doesn’t care what I think on this issue, but he finally got annoyed with it catching on his pillow as he tried to fall asleep and shaved it off. Thank you, George. Now he’s either lazily not shaving his cranium or letting his hair grow out (can’t make up his mind on that one), and I pointed out that his peninsula of hair (you know, the one in the middle of the forehead that has receding coastline on either side?) has disappeared. He pointed out that it had, in fact, not completely disappeared and can be felt, though not seen, at this point. If he keeps growing his hair out, he’ll have a sad little island of hair surrounded by bare skin right on the top of his head. My increasingly gray hair seems less a problem in light of his hair woes, don’t you think?

*If you turn off the heat to open windows to air out your old-food-scented house and decide two minutes after opening the windows that it is too cold outside and a Yankee candle will have to suffice, you really ought to turn the heat back on. Otherwise, you will awaken the next morning to a 60 degree house. Just sayin'.

*Thanksgiving is a great holiday. It deserves not to be lost between Halloween and Christmas.

*As we tucked the boys in tonight, I realized there are now only 23 days until Christmas. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!!!???!!!???

*I need a hug.

Gratitude Journal #23

Today, I am grateful for

--Advent, with its glow of anticipation and joy

--Lovely visits from family

--Being able to pay my bills (what a blessed pain in the backside that it!)

--My favorite secular holiday song by Jimmy Buffett

What are you grateful for today?