Monday, December 27, 2010

Blogging vacation

I am taking this week off from blogging. See you in the New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas walk

Rick arrived home a little bit early yesterday and I had some Christmas cards I wanted to get into the mail stream before 5 p.m., so I used his early arrival as an excuse to walk to the post office rather than drive. I knew the kids didn’t want to go with me, but once he was home, there was no reason for me not to go by myself.

It was a chilly evening, but I was bundled up. On Bedford Road there was the usual cascade of rush hour traffic, but on the footpath that winds alongside the edge of the woods, I was safely removed from it. In the Town Center, the pace of traffic was calmer. Lights twinkled from the windows of the antique houses that ring the rotary. The library parking lot was still half-full just minutes before closing; it’s typical in this town that a good portion of the population was apparently preparing for a long holiday weekend by loading up on books and DVDs.

In the backyard of the house next to the library, a bonfire was burning. I’m not sure this is really allowed, but it was obvious that a good time was taking shape, and I admired their creativity in lighting a big winter fire. Six or eight people were gathered around it already, with more making trips in and out of the house, calling to each other, offering help with this or that. I breathed in the sharp smoky air that drifted off the flames as I kept walking up the hill past our church and past the town Christmas tree. It seems like just days ago that I was presiding over the refreshment table for the town tree lighting, but that was actually the first week of December. This month always passes by so quickly, no matter whether you find the pace exhilarating or frantic. With its unbroken sequence of gatherings and performances, public events and private parties, December always rushes along.

I walked past the school, the parking lot already empty less than two hours after the closing bell. Even the custodial staff was gone; the buildings were closed up tight for vacation. It’s satisfying to know that everyone who works so hard to make the school day run smoothly, both literally and figuratively, is somewhere else now, taking much-needed time off.

I headed down the Church Street hill past the playing fields. The grass was shorn and frosty. All fall, there’s a steady stream of soccer players on those fields, from the toddler groups playing “Sharks and Minnows” at eight o’clock on Saturday morning to the South American nationals who use the field after their work day ends and play well into the evening. Soccer ends at last once the holiday season starts, and the fields looked abandoned.

At the base of Church Street I passed into the cemetery. DPW trucks must have been doing maintenance earlier; the powdery snow on all the pathways were well broken in already with tire tracks, so it was easy to walk despite the inch or two of slippery new snowfall. Even in the gathering darkness, I could see how many gravesites were adorned with Christmas decorations: small trees, wreaths, even the occasional ornament. I wondered what they do with those little evergreens after Christmas. A bell tinkled in the breeze from a nearby cluster of stone markers.

At the far side of the cemetery I exited back onto Bedford Road and crossed back onto the footpath. I’d been walking for 45 minutes and was almost home. For reasons I couldn’t explain, this early evening walk felt more to me like Christmas than any of the festivities that I’ve taken part in this month. I’m not sure why that is; to me there’s just a certain congruence in marking Christmas through a quiet meditative walk, absorbing the winter’s hush. And as much as I enjoyed the town tree lighting, the church pageant, and a couple of great parties this season, after my walk yesterday, I finally felt ready for Christmas. More than anything else, that walk had put me in the right frame of mind to begin a holiday of peace and love and goodwill.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Candy time

Today is the kids’ last day of school before vacation, and last night I was engaged in a favorite ritual that I’ve been doing some variation of for almost as long as I can remember: preparing teacher gifts.

Actually, there’s been a lot of variation. When I was Tim’s age, my mother made gifts for my teachers, just as I do now for my kids. She made breads or coffee cakes wrapped in Saran wrap with brightly colored ribbons, and I felt a warm sense of pride as I deposited them carefully on my teacher’s desk that last morning before vacation. By high school, I was making my own baked goods for favorite teachers and academic advisors.

Once I finished college and started working, the tradition resumed with office mates. I hit on a holiday gift specialty when I was in my early twenties: truffles. Or what I – and the recipe in the circa 1950s cookbook I found it in – call truffles. My elder sister, a purist when it comes to any kind of culinary claim, would point out these really aren’t truffles for reasons I can’t define, but I’m sure she’s right, as they’re too easy to make to deserve that elegant a title. Nonetheless, recipients love the truffles.

After Rick and I were married, we conducted the gift-giving ritual together, and our guest list was growing. I remember one year when our entire dining room table was covered with little cardboard boxes shaped like Chinese takeout containers and decorated with holiday prints as Rick and I got organized to bring gifts to our office mates on that last work day before Christmas. I worked in a department of nine; Rick had even more co-workers than I did. We rolled truffles by the hundreds in those years.

And then Tim was born and along with gifts for the workplace we had gifts for daycare teachers to consider. I started expanding my repertoire. A mere dozen truffles were fine for our colleagues, who really didn’t expect a gift at all and didn’t necessarily give one back; but that didn’t seem sufficient for the daycare teachers who devoted hours every day to Tim. Thus began the basket tradition: I bought big festively decorated wicker baskets or bowls and filled them with a variety of goodies: the original truffles, but also maple scones, spiced nuts, Cheddar shortbreads, molasses cookies, peanut brittle, peppermint bark, banana breads, cranberry muffins.

And so it continued once Tim and then Holly started public school, though the contents varied from year to year, and so did the numbers we needed to produce. There have been some years when both of the kids had a teacher and a teacher’s aide, and last year Tim had two main classroom teachers plus a classroom aide. The kids can hardly carry the bounty.

But it’s so much fun, even as I acknowledge to myself that I probably enjoy the ritual of preparing the goodies and assembling the baskets more than the recipients could possibly enjoy the contents. Now the kids help by writing labels for each little bag or packet.

I have to admit too that I toned it down a notch this year. The array of sweets and savories, breads and muffins and nuts and cookies, was always impressive, but it started to seem a little overwhelming. So this year I focused just on candy-making, which is my favorite anyway: each teacher will get peppermint bark, peanut brittle, toffee, and of course the truffles. Since those early married days, we’ve never yet gone a year without making truffles.

Last night we set up the assembly line. Holly wrote out labels; I packaged the candies into decorative cellophane bags; Tim sorted them into boxes. The number of recipients is a little less staggering this year: one teacher per child, plus the bus driver; and Rick wanted to bring gifts to three administrative staffers at his workplace.

I’m self-employed now, which means I get to gift myself. My gift is all the broken or misshapen pieces of candy that didn’t make the final cut into the boxes. It’s a wonderful tradition, but after two weeks of nonstop candy making, I’m glad we’re done for the year. I hope the teachers know how much we appreciate them, far more than even my chocolate truffles can reflect. And I hope members of their families, if not they themselves, harbor a serious sweet tooth. I think they’ll need it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wrapping bee: The wrap-up

I understand that “new tradition” is something of an oxymoron, as is “first annual.”

But yesterday evening did feel like a new tradition and a first annual, because it was so much fun and met a need and augmented the cheer of our holiday season. And oxymoronic or not, those factors do seem to me like the ingredients of a new tradition.

Wrapping Christmas gifts has long been a bit of a sticking point in our holiday routines. Even before we were married, Rick and I were in the habit of staying up late on Christmas Eve to do our wrapping together. This is not the best way to spend Christmas Eve. The work is tedious, the practice is superficial and the timing ensures that you won’t get to bed at a reasonable hour. We always wake on Christmas morning tired rather than refreshed, and not because of meaningful holiday-related rituals or festive celebrations running too late the night before but just because we weren’t organized enough to get the necessary chore of wrapping out of the way sooner.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to make it different, especially after we started the far more fulfilling Christmas Eve tradition of hosting my sisters and their families as well as my parents for Christmas Eve dinner. We’d go to church in the late afternoon, have a wonderful evening of conversation and food and fun – and then after the dishes were washed, it was time for Rick and me to start wrapping. That’s just not the right way to head toward the mythical hour of midnight on December 24th.

A couple of years ago, a seemingly insignificant line in an article about Christmas baking caught my imagination. The article described a variety of homemade gifts that you could prepare several days before Christmas – “So that on Christmas Eve, you can put your feet up and wait for Rudolph,” the writer concluded. I loved that image: being enough ahead of schedule that I spent Christmas Eve, or at least the part after the dinner guests left, just relaxing. Or reading. Or sleeping.

But I was never able to make it happen.

And then I had a spontaneous exchange with a friend earlier this week. “We should have a wrapping bee,” I wrote to her. “Just get together for an hour and get all our wrapping done.” Not only did she like the idea, she was available the same night I was, and so was another friend of ours.

So last night we had the First Annual New Traditional Wrapping Bee. It certainly wasn’t an hour – closer to three and a half. But we did it: we got all caught up on our wrapping. I have three or four gifts to pick up today and I can wrap those tonight and then I’ll really truly be wrap-free by Christmas Eve.

Not only was it efficient, it was such a good way to visit. I heard about one friend’s Thanksgiving trip to London and another friend’s perceptions of her son’s new school: we talked about everything from peculiar habits our mothers have to reasonable responses to bullying. We talked about books, vacations, and of course the gifts we were wrapping. We made our way through a bottle or two of Chardonnay.

So for me, the evening bore all the hallmarks of something I certainly want to make a yearly occurrence. The conversation with my friends nourished my spirit; the activity filled a necessary practical need. On Christmas Eve, I’ll put my feet up and wait for Rudolph, and I’ll think very warm thoughts about my two Wrapping Bee buddies and how great it is to start new traditions together.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The season's first snow

For the past few years, we’ve had snow in early December. This year the snow is later to arrive – enough so that I’m actually hearing people lament its absence, and not just people under the age of 12. Even adults are eager to see some snow, it seems.

Myself, I’m on the fence. I love seasonal weather whatever the season. I like sunny warm days in May, blazing heat waves in July, dank humidity in August (really, I do!), crisp cool air in October, and blizzards in January. And I like picturesque snowfalls during the holiday season. But this year, the delay in snow hasn’t bothered me at all. In fact, I’ve found the cold dry weather of this month strangely satisfying: the chilly frozen edge of winter without the mess of snow and ice and slush.

My children say the opposite: “If it’s going to be cold, we might as well have the fun of some snow!” Tim grumbles. And intellectually I understand his argument, but somehow I’ve found something very manageable this year about the cold air without snow. No snowplows or skidding to worry about on the road; no clumps of slushy grit tracked into the house. No endless searches for the kids’ boots and hats and waterproof mittens every time they go outside: gloves are still necessary on these chilly days, but their sneakers handle the dry frozen ground just fine.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement as the lightest of flurries began to sift down from the sky mid-afternoon yesterday. Just a handful of flakes, then still air again, then another handful of flakes an hour later. “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” the sky seemed to be saying, until dusk, when the snow began to fall more steadily.

It’s still just a moderate dusting and not a real snowstorm, and in a way, this might be the best kind of winter weather of all. A light snowfall cascading over barren fields and dry roadway: all the beauty of the fresh white flakes without the trouble of real snowdrifts and accumulation. It’s a fine way to start the season, as the Winter Solstice dawns. A fresh white covering of snow, but no talk of school cancellations. The winter is just beginning; no doubt we’ll have plenty of weather to contend with in the weeks ahead. Even those winters that supposedly set records for high temperatures and lack of precipitation have one or two good blizzards and a couple of snowdays, or at the very least delayed starts to school.

We’ll be searching for ice scrapers and parkas soon enough. For now, it’s wonderful to walk outside and feel the feathery touch of new snow, falling ever so lightly for the first time this season.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tractor 101

I had a teacher in high school who believed so strongly in the importance of adults continuing to learn that she studied a new language, instrument or skill every year just so that she would never forget what it felt like to be a beginner. This month, I had my own opportunity to put into practice the belief that one should never stop developing new abilities when my father asked me if I’d be interested in learning to use the tractor.

It’s a small tractor that Dad uses to maintain the grading on our shared half-mile-long driveway and also to plow snow. I’d never so much as set a finger on any part of that tractor, and it was hard for me to imagine taking on something so mechanical, where I consider myself not at all a mechanical person by nature.

On the other hand, my father is in his seventies and it’s not a bad idea for him to offload some of the physical labor around the farm. So I agreed to try.

The first step, he told me, would be to read the manual before our first lesson, which we agreed would be the forthcoming Saturday. I pictured the instruction pamphlet that comes with most of my new electronic devices these days: an eight-panel folded sheet of paper, along with a card-sized “quick start” step-by-step guide for people who can’t be bothered to read all eight panels. I didn’t expect the manual to weigh as much as my children did at birth, but there it was: my reading material for the week.

The job of perusing it became a little less daunting when I realized that the manual was printed in three languages, so in fact I had to read only one-third of it. Not only that, but Dad told me I didn’t have to worry about the maintenance sections, since he takes care of that, and he also gave me the somewhat inscrutable pointer that I could ignore anything referring to “PTO’s.” There’s a section in the tractor manual devoted to parent-teacher organizations? I mused. Although that sounded a lot more like my domain than the maintenance part, I was grateful for any of the three hundred pages I wouldn’t have to read, so out went the PTO sections as well.

And I became even more confident when I saw that the very first instruction following the safety rules was how to “preheat” the tractor before starting the engine. Yes, the manual really did use the word preheat. I’ll be right at home in this world, I thought cheerfully.

Our first lesson was the first Saturday in December, and it went surprisingly well. I graded the entire driveway twice – which means pulling a scraper blade behind the tractor to even out the contours in the dirt and gravel – and then did the same thing the following Saturday. This past weekend was my third hour of tractor practice, and this time Dad wasn’t even home to oversee the start-up procedure.

Nonetheless, it went without a hitch. In fact, I discovered something useful on the third session: previously, when I thought I’d been switching into second gear, I’d actually been going into fourth, which explains why I thought the tractor had only two speeds: glacial and bat-out-of-hell. Turns out second gear is easy and comfortable, not quite so much like watching paint dry as first gear but not as heartstopping as fourth, so it was a discovery well worth making.

As I see it, having successfully completed my third session of tractor work, I’ve essentially completed Tractors 101. To draw upon an overused phrase, it’s not exactly rocket science. Although my dad has been highly complimentary of my ability to pick up this new skill, it’s not that different from driving a car, and fortunately I learned to use a standard shift back when I was sixteen. Speaking of those early driving days, my only regret so far is that never yet has one of my friends passed by and seen me while I was driving the tractor. Like a sixteen-year-old with a learner’s permit, I’d really like to get a little admiration from my non-tractor-driving peers for this new feat.

There are a lot of things I like about driving the tractor. I like proving to myself that I can learn something new, even as I acknowledge it’s something pretty easy. I like spending more time outdoors. I spend a lot of time already every week walking and running; even if I’m a little guilty about the pollution and fuel use associated with driving the tractor, I can’t help getting some enjoyment over the fact that this is a way to be outdoors without expending much physical exertion. And it’s just fun to perch high atop the tractor as it rumbles along.

The next step is to learn to plow snow with the tractor. That might turn out to be more of a challenge. But right now there’s no snow in the forecast and I’m just relishing my new Tractor 101 skills as I go up and down the driveway every Saturday. If you pass by and see me, be sure to wave, because I’d really like to show off a little. Being handed the keys is still a thrill, almost thirty years after I first took my parents’ car for a spin.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Secular reflections on Advent

Advent in the religious sense was not a concept I was familiar with as a child. I knew about advent calendars – my sisters and I shared one every December, some years with pictures and some years with chocolate – but I thought they were just a way of literally counting down the days to Christmas, meting out the excitement and anticipation. This made plenty of sense to me; I can also remember years when my sisters and I counted down the hours until our birthdays on the day immediately preceding it, and this felt the same, though on a different timeline.

Only recently did I come to understand, or at the very least catch a glimmer of understanding of, the genuine symbolism of Advent. When my children and I started attending the Unitarian Universalist church here in town about seven years ago, I heard the words spoken over the lighting of the advent candle each of the four Sundays before Christmas, and understood for the first time that Advent wasn’t just counting down the days until Christmas burst on the scene but rather a profound observance of waiting, hope and expectation.

This year, Holly and I were invited to be the Advent candle lighters for the very first week of Advent. Holly lit the candle, while I read the traditional words: “We light this first candle for the Hope of Advent. May it kindle in us hearts full of expectation.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of Advent ever since that last Sunday in November. The weeks before Christmas do indeed have such a sense of wondrous expectation. There’s still the spirit with which I understood Advent from the advent calendar when I was Holly’s age, of course: the wondrous expectation of Christmas presents – both giving and receiving – and the arrival of Santa Claus. And at the other extreme is the wondrous expectation of devout Christians: awaiting the birth of their Savior. But many of us fall between those two endpoints. We are waiting to see how our holiday expectations may or may not be met: whether the family gatherings or vacations will go as we hope, whether the parties will be as merry as planned, whether the meticulously purchased or crafted gifts will be received with delight. Some are waiting for the return of a family member: from college, from far away, from military service. In the case of our minister, whose first grandchild was born earlier this week, the Advent was literal this year: she and her family were joyfully awaiting a birth as the weeks of Advent unspooled.

To me, the air itself feels full of quiet waiting. Not necessarily waiting for something wonderful and thrilling, but for something unknown. It’s been very cold this week, and there’s no snow: the ground is hard and amazingly still. The earth seems to await snow, in the same way that there are people right now awaiting news, information, reasons for optimism, answers. And it confirms that the process of waiting can be in itself a spiritual act.

Contemporary spiritual writer Edward Hays, author of A Pilgrim’s Almanac, wrote this: Life is a constant Advent season: we are continually waiting to become, to discover, to complete, tofulfill. Hope, struggle, fear, expectation and fulfillment are all part of our Advent experience.

Yes: that’s true all year long, and for the four weeks preceding December perhaps most notably. The earth where we are right now is still, cold, and quiet, and there are many things to anticipate, to await, to wonder if they will arrive.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How party games are born

One trait both my sisters and I share is the propensity to laugh so hard we can’t talk even as we try to talk anyway because there is always someone present who wants to know what’s so funny. One sister’s husband has simply given up: when she starts trying to tell him a funny story and is overcome to the point where he can’t make out the words anymore, he simply says, “Call Nancy and tell her.”

It’s not usually my kids who make me laugh this hard, but last night it was. They have an advent calendar in which each door yields one couplet from Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and yesterday they were up to “As I drew in my head, and was turning around, Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.”

Except Tim read it aloud as “As I drew on my head,” which I found inordinately hilarious, and when the kids understood what I was picturing, they joined me in a spirited discussion of how accurately you could draw on your own head. While I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner, we came up with a rough plan for a game somewhat like Pictionary. Using a write-on/wipe-off white board fastened to a baseball cap, one player picks a card telling him or her something to draw. That player then tries to sketch the object on his own head while wearing the whiteboard hat, and the other players have to guess what it is.

What the kids and I concluded is that we really don’t know how hard this would be, although we suspect it would be fairly tricky: like drawing with your eyes closed, except with the added disadvantage of working at an irregular angle, ergonomically speaking.

I couldn’t stop laughing; the kids thought the concept was interesting but not nearly as funny as I did. “Let’s play it on New Year’s Eve!” Holly suggested, knowing we’d just made plans for that night to get together with another family.

“Let’s play it on Christmas Eve,” Tim countered. I opined that the people we’re planning to celebrate Christmas Eve with are among our newest friends; a game like this might summarily end the budding friendship.

“No it won’t,” Tim said confidently. “They’ll tell other people about it, and soon everyone will want to come to the Wests’ house to play the Stupid Whiteboard Game.”

Calling it that made the whole idea all the funnier to me, and by that point I was laughing even harder while the kids lost interest in the discussion. Holly went upstairs to hold an imaginary study hall for her imaginary class (this is standard for the after-dinner hour). Tim had homework to finish. Rick was cleaning out the showerhead. I was on my own to giggle my way through the rest of the dinner clean-up, still curious about how the Stupid Whiteboard Game would work out in reality. I guess on New Year’s Eve if not sooner, we’ll find out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bacon, deadlines, and work-life harmony

A few years ago, when I was working full-time in the corporate sector, there was plenty of compartmentalization in my life. Very few elements of home and family seeped into my work arena. And vice versa. I kept a small framed photo of the kids on my desk, but I did not talk to them on the phone while I was at work, I didn’t leave early to pick them up, I didn’t tell many stories about them to my colleagues. Because Rick was working from home during those years, I almost never even stayed home from work for a child’s sick day or snow day. At the same time, I seldom brought work home; my work life stayed at the office, just as my family life remained at home.

It’s a lot different now that I’m a self-employed writer. On one level, the overlap between work and home is literal: my office itself is within my house, and I spend the workday at home. But the nature of my work has changed as well: a lot of my writing involves either my immediate family or our community. And since I’m working for myself, I don’t mind admitting it when an editor calls and catches me at the school plaza at pickup time rather than at my computer.

Yesterday, the commingling was a bit extreme even by my standards, though. The kids had an early release day of school, which meant I had to fit my usual seven-hour work day into about half that time. By 12:30, Tim and his friend Will were in our kitchen and wanting lunch despite the fact I was on deadline for three or four different stories. For a Globe article, I needed to interview two local kids who are planning a service project in Guatemala; the only time one of the parents could bring them over to talk with me was five minutes before Holly’s bus was due at the bus stop. So rather than interviewing them from the comfort of my desk, I met up with them at the end of the driveway. They piled into my car, where I posed questions and scribbled answers. Holly’s bus arrived before I was done; Holly too squeezed into the car with me, the two other kids, and the other mom, and waited patiently until the interview was over, then asked me to drive home quickly as she urgently needed to go to the bathroom.

But the mom in the group still had more details about the trip to share with me, so she said she’d follow us back home and talk to us there. Which was fine except that I needed to make lunch for Holly. When we got home, Tim and his friend Will were finishing their own sandwiches, which I’d made before heading out to the bus stop. On early release days, which come only once a month, it’s a tradition that I make the kids bacon. Holly asked for chocolate milk; I figured that was a quick and easy way to satisfy her hunger temporarily while I finished taking notes for the story, and tried not to cringe at the fact that another mom as well as four middle schoolers observed me giving my eight-year-old the not-so-nutritious lunch of bacon and chocolate milk.

Then the doorbell rang; it was my friend Anne Marie, who wanted to buy a signed copy of my book. With her was her son, home from his first semester of college. So they came in, and I needed to find a good pen for signing, and the other mom I was interviewing wanted to hear how Anne Marie’s son liked Northwestern, and Tim and Will wanted to know what they could have for dessert, and just then my sister called to ask about gift possibilities for the kids. I answered her quickly, hung up, and then the phone rang again and it was a Globe editor asking for some clarifications on an item I’d submitted earlier in the day about next year’s school budget.

An hour later, everything was a lot calmer. All our guests had left. Tim and Will were playing a game upstairs, and Holly was in her room talking quietly with invisible people, which is a typical activity for her when she gets home from school. I cleaned up the kitchen, filed a story, and confirmed the budget details the editor had asked about.

Compartmentalized, I was not, but it was fun in a chaotic sort of way. “Bring-your-kids-to-work” day isn’t an operative concept when you work from home; but “Bring-your-life-to-work” day is just as good a substitute. Between bacon and deadlines, I managed to satisfy everyone’s requests, at least for a few hours, plus I signed and sold a book. It’ s a good way to work, and to live, and yesterday life-work balance wasn’t a problem for me: it was all one big vibrant pulsing mix, and I was enjoying every minute of it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New books for Holly, an e-reader for me

Holly had a sparkle in her eye as she stepped off the bus. “The book orders came in!” she burst out as I greeted her.

She showed me the two books she’d ordered earlier this month, and her excitement was palpable as she ran her hands over the covers. One was a chapter book about a dog who covers some remarkable distance under unimaginably adverse conditions – plague, draught, monsoon, nuclear holocaust – to get home to its owner; that’s a story you can never hear quite enough. The other was a kids’ almanac, hundreds of pages of facts about things like presidents’ birth dates and the topography of various countries. Holly’s little fingers were almost twitching as she starting paging through them even before we left the bus stop.

I knew how she felt. The sensation of new unread books…there’s just nothing quite so thrilling. Anything could happen inside of a new book. Anything. Whether it’s the moment that you’re stacking them on the counter at the bookstore or packing them in your suitcase to bring on vacation, the sight, smell, feel of new books carry promise beyond measure.

And yet I’ve recently gone over to the dark side where the sensory pleasures of new books are concerned. I bought a Kindle six weeks ago and am utterly hooked. It’s true that you don’t get quite the same thrill as looking at a stack of paperbacks, but there are other advantages, and until I saw Holly’s eyes sparkle over her new books today, I didn’t miss real books at all.

Because with a Kindle, I feel a little like Scarlett O’Hara holding up the onion and crying out “I’ll never go hungry again!”, only it’s “I’ll never go book-less again!”

My sister is one of those people who literally never leaves the house, or probably even any room in the house, without a book in hand, so whether she’s waiting in line at the bank or watching her daughter’s swim meet, she has reading material at the ready. I’m not good about that. I always hit one extreme or the other: if it’s just a short trip, such as picking up a child at a birthday party, I don’t think to bring anything to read and end up sitting silently in the car for ten minutes waiting; but if it’s a long trip, like a week of vacation, I go overboard, bringing everything I could possibly want to read during that time: a novel, a work of narrative nonfiction, a new handbook for runners, a couple of weeks’ worth of newspapers, a few issues of the New Yorker, a recently published cookbook. If I’m lucky, I might get through one or two of these while I’m away. But I can never decide ahead of time what I might want to read, and I have an inordinate anxiety about being far from home and wishing I’d brought something different to read, so I bring it all.

But not anymore. With the Kindle, I not only have all the reading material I want no matter where I go – newspapers, magazines and books – but also I no longer have to remind myself that just as my sister has always known, no trip is too short for it to be worth bringing a book along just in case. Everything that once was a waste of time is now a reading opportunity: the line at the supermarket, the wait for Holly’s bus, the time it takes Tim to get his hair cut. Last week I was responsible for serving refreshments at the town Christmas tree lighting and had to stay inside watching over the hot cocoa while the crowd waited outdoors for Santa; in the eight minutes it took for the antique fire truck to arrive bearing the guest of honor and his elves from the fire station, I finished two stories in the New York Times Magazine.

So while it’s true that the look and feel of a new book are a thrill, the convenience of the Kindle is pretty hard to beat, at least in my estimation. I’m happy with my choice. And yet I was also happy to see Holly’s delight today poring over her book order selections. Probably nothing can instill a love of books quite like the material objects themselves. So I’m glad that for her, the genuine article still matters.

Monday, December 13, 2010

O Christmas tree, no Christmas tree....

“Just don’t say anything about it at school,” I cautioned my children. I was fairly sure that if their teachers heard about our December scheme, they would suggest putting my kids on the school’s free lunch plan.

But it wasn’t really a matter of economic hardship that inspired us to try skipping the Christmas tree this year. It just seemed that there were several good reasons to take this seemingly radical step. True, we usually spend about $70 on our tree – we have a big house with big rooms, and it’s hard to go with something that feels out of proportion to the space where you plan to put it – and this is a year that we’d rather put the $70 toward Christmas gifts. But we could have looked for a tree costing half that much. We could have even gone outside and found one to cut down or transplant: although the forests surrounding our house tend to generate spindly needled pines that look more like the one in Charlie Brown that the densely branched, triangle-shaped Douglas fir of a Christmas card image, there have been several years in the past when we’ve chosen a tree from the nearby woods.

The cost was a factor, but there were other reasons too. Christmas trees are messy, leaving needles all over the floor, both from when we first bring it into the house and when the needles begin to fall off. They need to be watered regularly and even so can seem like a bit of a fire hazard sitting in the corner of the living room.

And much as we support the idea of buying local, we spend less if we drive to another town for our tree rather than buying it right in town – but none of us really felt like doing the drive this year.

“How about we skip the tree?” my husband suggested nonchalantly.

I expected the kids to be horrified. No tree? “Is it even Christmas without a tree?” I imagined them saying, certain the kids’ disappointed faces would drive us straight into the car heading to our favorite nursery, checkbook in hand.

But to their credit, the kids were circumspect. “What about all our decorations?” they asked. Every year we set aside much of one December weekend to pulling plastic storage bins down from the attic and unpacking decorations together, one fragile piece at a time.

“We can still put up decorations,” my husband assured them. “We just won’t necessarily hang them from tree branches.”

“What about lights?” the kids asked next.

“We’ll wrap lights around the ficus tree by the living room window!” Rick suggested.

“Decorate a houseplant?” Holly asked, looking over at the three-foot-tall ficus tree. “But that means….”

I braced myself, imagining all the different icepick-to-the-heart ways that Holly might finish that sentence. “But that means…Santa won’t visit us. But that means….it’s not really Christmas. But that means….we’re not celebrating right.”

“But that means,” Holly continued, “that I’ll be able to reach the top of the tree and put the star there without any help!”

So Holly, unassisted, placed the tree’s singular ornament at its apex. And then the kids went on to spend just as much time this year decorating as they normally do. They strung cranberry chains along the banister, placed candles on all the tabletops, suspended mistletoe from the upstairs railing. Then they went around the house hanging ornaments from other surfaces: the edges of tables and counters, windowsills.

When they were done, the house looked beautiful, just as it does every December: luminous and sparkling with small pretty objects sprinkled throughout the house. And while it’s true that we have no scent of pine in the house right now, it’s a small price to pay for not having needles strewn across the floor.

Last week a friend asked me if I had any suggestions for how she could simplify the holidays as she tried to balance the needs of four children ranging in age from four months two nine years. “Primarily, make sure you discuss with the kids which traditions matter most to them,” I told her. “Be sure you’re not doing anything just because you think it matters to someone, when in fact it really might not.” Or, as the company I used to work for often said, “We have no sacred cows.”

If anything was a sacred cow when it comes to celebrating Christmas in our household, I would have thought it was the tree. And yet when Rick suggested we try going tree-less – less expensive, neater, and more environmental – everyone jumped on board. We’re not ready yet to make a permanent change. Next year it’s quite likely we’ll decide we want it back. But this year, we’ll gather around our ficus tree, lit with tiny yellow lights and perched on a gold tree skirt with presents encircling its base, and celebrate the holidays as merrily as ever. Holly has been singing all weekend, “Deck the halls with Tim and Holly!” And indeed, that’s what we did. We decorated the halls, and it all looks beautiful. Different from past years, but beautiful nonetheless.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Diorama drama

Another Native American diorama, done.

I know, I know, it’s supposed to be the kids doing the work. And in general, it is. Sort of. For the most part.

But I can’t feel too guilty. While it’s true that none of Holly’s clay horses could have stood up if I hadn’t made some critical structural improvements to their limbs, the bar has historically been set fairly low in Carlisle as far as third graders doing all their own work on this project. Everyone seems to concur that this is a family endeavor, even as we all claim the kids did it almost entirely themselves. Yes, another adult who looks closely enough at Holly’s horses might guess that I had a hand in the sculpting, but was I really supposed to believe back when Tim did this project that a classmate of his had the technical skills to rig up a fully functioning irrigation system with the clever use of an aquarium pump?

All of us parents bond at this time of year as we gripe about how much time this project has taken our children – and us. “That decides it, I am definitely not having a third child!” one of my friends snapped last week after helping her son put the finishing touches on his project. Native American dioramas as a form of family planning? I mused. Apparently for some people.

Although when you see the finished results it’s hard not to get a little bit snide –wasn’t the dad of the kid who built a three-tiered earth house profiled last year in Architectural Digest? – I’ve come to realize that this really isn’t a matter of competition among families. The adults get involved because it’s just so much fun. How many chances do we get to pull out the modeling clay and fashion little people, animals and structures? When in my regular work day do I get to design a lagoon in the Florida Everglades or splatter red paint to represent the blood of a successful buffalo hunt?

Ever since Holly and I started the project two weeks ago, it has become a daily activity, one step at a time. We gathered grass and glued it onto the floor of our cardboard box. We cut up felt to simulate a buffalo hide tepee. We molded a little fireplace, and placed next to it a little woman cooking a buffalo steak on a spit. It was like playing with a dollhouse again, losing myself in a world of miniatures where I could make things happen just by crafting the pieces.

And because earlier this fall Holly and I read the wonderful novel The Indian in the Cupboard together, I have to admit I secretly hoped when I slipped into Holly’s room during the day to check on the diorama that I’d find our little brown clay people had mysteriously changed positions since we last worked on them.

But unlike the magical Iroquois chief who is transformed from plastic to alive in that children’s book, ours stayed just as we left them, and that in itself posed something of a challenge. One of our Pawnee fellows was perfectly poised on his horse, aiming his toothpick arrow at his buffalo bounty; but the second man must have been out of balance somehow, because no matter how much we tried to rearrange him, he always seemed to be pointing his toothpick arrow at his hunting partner rather than the buffalo. “It’s Dick Cheney!” my husband exclaimed when he came in to check on our progress.

Today, we’re all invited to school to view the results. I’m excited to see what the other families came up with, but I’m not sorry to think I won’t have to do this project again. I had fun three years ago helping Tim re-create a Seminole scene in Florida; I had fun this year crafting the Pawnee on the Great Plains with Holly. But I’m ready for a rest from school projects.

And friends with older kids are already sending me dire warnings about the notorious Ninth Grade Leaf Project. I wonder if we could get our hands on a copy of that now, just in case we want to get a head start on the competition. No, I don’t really mean that. It would be far too unethical and send a terrible message to my children. They need to learn to take pride in their work, regardless of its quality. And so for today, Holly and I will both celebrate our lumpy buffalos, tippy horses, and men who can’t shoot straight.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Early-winter running

Suddenly, it’s cold.

Not cold by Far North terms, and not even cold by winter-in-New-England terms. But cold for late autumn, which it technically is for another twelve days or so. I’ve been waking before dawn this week to temperatures still in the twenties; even in the middle of the day the mercury doesn’t hit forty. For early December, that’s chilly.

And I’m a little alarmed by how hard I’m finding it to adjust to cold-weather running, even for the twenty-five or thirty minutes I’m out doing my daily weekday two-miler. I’ve run in far colder weather than this, I remind myself. I’ve run in single-digit wind chills, blizzards, frigid temperatures. Two years ago, during a January weekend in northeast Connecticut, I ran five miles on a morning so cold my eyelashes froze.

This isn’t like that. Not at all. But somehow after the nine months of spring, summer and fall, I’ve forgotten the feeling of a chilly wind on my face, a cold breeze blowing down my neck. Even temperatures in the twenties feel startling to me right now.

But I know I have to get used to it. Winter hasn’t even begun yet, and with more than 1,200 days of consecutive running under my belt, I’m not planning to stop this winter unless unforeseen circumstances make it necessary. The cold weather is just setting in; I need to remember all over again how to layer the fleece and forge ahead into the wind. I need to renew the mindset that it’s good to feel a frigid wind as you start out because that means it will be behind you on the return, and I need to get reacquainted with the itchy, damp feeling of a sweaty wool hat on my head.

Besides, there are positive aspects to this cold snap. Once I’ve settled into the rhythm of the run, I find it invigorating. There’s a pure, icy edge to the air that makes each frosty breath feel cleansing. And the frozen ground is firm under my feet, even on the sections of the driveway that are muddy once the temperature rises into the forties.

So far, no snow has fallen, and that’s fine with me too. Snow is so pretty, but I’m not fond of the wet or slushy or slippery aspects of running in the snow. But that will come too in time, and then, just as with the cold, I’ll struggle with it at first, then remind myself I’ve coped with snow plenty of times before, and then gradually re-acclimate myself to its challenges and pleasures: the feathery fluffiness of snow beneath my running shoes, the muffled squeak as I run in tire tracks, the soft thump of running in powder.

Before I was a “streak runner” committed to running every day, I used to take the whole winter off. I’m glad that now I try to run through the cold and the snow. It’s challenging. It’s invigorating. And it reminds me that every condition – in running and otherwise – has its positives and negatives, its challenges and rewards.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It takes a child (or several) to raise a village

To be sure, there is wisdom in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. But last night at Carlisle’s Christmas on the Common, I couldn’t help but think it also takes a child to raise a village.

For the past several years, I’ve been on the serving crew for this annual event, meaning that I arrive early and help arrange cookies on platters and get the hot chocolate urns in place. While the audience is outside singing Christmas carols, admiring the town tree and awaiting Santa, I start pouring hot chocolate into Styrofoam cups to be ready for the crowds as soon as they pour in after Santa’s arrival by firetruck.

I used to feel important in this role. Not only did it involve the aforementioned tasks but also overseeing a small team of grade school aged children who every year asked to “help” at the event. Part of the work of the small crew of adults present was to supervise and oversee these young helpers.

But last night, I noticed something: the helpers I’d been working with for the past few years can pretty much run the show on their own now. They no longer need adult supervision and instruction; in fact, they no longer need adult assistance at all. Middle schoolers now, they know the ropes.

So they do their part by providing labor for the event, and the little kids, the grade schoolers and preschoolers and toddlers, do their part by adding enchantment to the evening. They stare at the tree, sing the carols, and watch with mouths agape as the processional heads up Church Street: first the police cars with blue lights flashing, then the antique fire truck, with Santa waving and his five elves posing. The kids cheer and yell, and then they pour into the church hall for hot chocolate and cookies and photos with Santa.

It’s a quintessential old-fashioned small-town event. Everyone who attends has a wonderful time, and it’s the kind of evening that underscores the ways in which Carlisle can sometimes – though not always – feel like a cozy village. But these events wouldn’t occur without children present, the younger ones and the older ones alike. So in that respect, it takes children to raise a village.

I don’t mean to suggest that communities without children don’t have their own rituals of cheer. Retirement communities, subdivisions restricted to adults, college dorms, even nursing homes and graduated care facilities: they too have their times of merriment. But in a case like this, it’s the children who bring the community together. During my stint serving hot chocolate alongside the middle schoolers who were really doing most of the work, I saw among the revelers three adults who do not have children. In a small way I was surprised they attended, but also not; it was a jolly evening for everyone. But it made me think about how the presence of the children had drawn out even these non-parents to join in the fun.

So it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes children to make a village. Community, in the most meaningful sense, happens best when all ages work together. Last night, that included babies to be admired; little kids thrilled by the holiday mood; older kids happy to help out (and happy to posture for each other as they did so); adults to pull it all together. At times like this, we are a community with the spirit of a small-town village. And sometimes it takes children to make that happen to its best potential.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The three o'clock mingle

I’m usually good at issuing a guilt-free “no” to my children. Amidst a generation of parents who are often accused of being unable to give an unequivocal negative response, and a generation of young children whom onlookers occasionally call “attorneys-in-training” for their skill at negotiating, I’m a stark voice of dissent among my parenting peers. It’s not that I enjoy disappointing my children any more than any other parent would, but for the most part, I can justify my negative responses to them with a simple explanation. Disney cruise? Too costly. Stop for a quick snack at Burger King? Can’t bear the fat content. Stay up late to watch Monday night football with Dad? Not if you want to do well on tomorrow’s math test.

But one question that arises in our household does generate a little bit of uncertainty for me: the kids’ recurrent request that I pick them up at school.

That’s a tough one. Most of the time I don’t want to, but unlike snacks with trans-fats or violent movies, I don’t have a really compelling reason behind my “no.” I have only “Because I don’t feel like it.” And I’m ambivalent as to whether a petulant “No, I don’t wanna” is a legitimate answer for a parent to give a child or not.

What my kids don’t see is that picking them up at school isn’t simply a short drive for me; it’s a social event for which I sometimes just don’t feel mentally prepared.

In Carlisle, picking a child up at school entails parking on the street and then walking a short distance up to the school plaza. In some ways, I love this arrangement: the idea of driving up to the curb and having my child hop into the car isn’t appealing to me at all, inasmuch as it represents just another emblem of our drive-through culture. I like the fact that we’re forced to walk and mingle.

At the same time, there are afternoons on which I just don’t feel ready for mingling. Carlisle is a small town, and I consider myself lucky to have so many friends and acquaintances. But a lot of days, the prospect of driving up to school gives me the exact same feeling I get when I’m dressing before a cocktail party. Experience reminds me that I’ll have fun once I’m there, greeting and chatting and meeting people and renewing old friendships, and yet the thought of walking in the door fills me with anxiety. Whether it’s a Saturday night cocktail party or the school plaza at three o'clock, certain anxieties prevail. What if when I arrive, everyone else is already engaged in conversation and no one talks to me? What if I don’t remember an acquaintance’s name, or run into someone whose last email I ignored because it was a request for some favor I didn’t want to do, like helping with a classroom papier-mache project?

Fortunately, both of my kids are generally happy to take the bus home. So once a week or so when they do ask to be picked up, I can usually psyche myself up sufficiently, reminding myself that after a long day of solitary writing, it’s actually fun to run into friends and acquaintances up at the school. I’m not the only self-employed or stay-at-home parent for whom the plaza is occasionally the only truly social event of the day, and it can be a quite convivial atmosphere, at least before the frigid days of winter arrive.

But for the most part, I tend to stick with “no” on this one. As taxpayers, we support the schoolbus system for a reason, I tell my children. It’s more environmental, and we don’t want to put the bus drivers out of a job, do we?

What my children don’t realize is that in another couple of months it will be a moot point. Our school is planning major construction starting this winter, and the result will be a redirected traffic flow and a reduction of parking spaces that will make it much more complicated to pick children up, deterring all but the most resolute parents.

And then? Well, naturally, I’ll tell my children that of course I’d pick them up if I could – but our obligation during construction is to avoid driving to school unless absolutely necessary. So it won’t be a “no” at all, and certainly not a guilt-inducing “Sorry, I just don’t want to.” For once, I’ll feel entirely justified in my recalcitrance.

Still, missing out on plaza pick-up time will significantly diminish my social life. It’s possible I’ll spend the whole winter and spring working all day and not doing any chatting or visiting at all when my work hours end. I’ll just have to hope that a few friends stop by as I wait for the kids at the bus stop, alone with my thoughts and free of my social anxieties for the time being.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Another year's holiday concert reminds me of how much music matters to the holidays

I hadn’t thought much before yesterday about the role of music in the holidays, but at some point during last night’s holiday concert at church, or maybe earlier in the day when I was listening to liturgical Christmas choral music on the radio while driving, I thought about how music was once considered one of the holiest ways to mark the presence of the spiritual and the belief in the Divine. The early Christian choral music I heard on the radio was written out of a sense of profound celebration. Music isn’t merely an element of entertainment marking holiday gatherings, I then remembered; it is in fact considered a means of expressing witness to the Divine.

The church concert last night included some elements of early Christian music and some elements of the more popular forms of holiday music: standard carols, jazz arrangements, a run-through of Jingle Bells that included all the children in the audience shaking various forms of percussives. It was a wonderful program, just as it is every year, and as I sat there I was conscious of the ways in which the concert carries its own set of milestones and markers of the passage of time. Two 13-year-old girls sang a duet beautifully, and as I listened, I could remember one of them singing in the family choir back when she was a kindergartner, and her earlier solo performances when she was 7 or 8, but I could also remember the very same duet she sang with a friend last night being sung years ago by a young woman who now attends a performing arts college program in New York. I remembered choir members and instrumentalists from years past who have died or left town, and sitting next to our minister reminded me of her predecessor, who loved holiday observances including this annual concert and died prematurely soon after leaving our parish.

But I also remembered how my own family has changed in the years I’ve been attending this annual concert. When we first moved back to town, I took Tim to the holiday concert with me; he was just three years old and a little too restless for my comfort. Holly came with me for the first time when she was two; something about the candles and the music had the effect of putting her into a sound sleep on my lap for the duration of the concert that year. The year after that, she and I had to sneak in and out of the Sanctuary at least three times during the one-hour program because she was at the peak of toilet-training, and it wasn’t going all that well.

Last night, there were other babies and toddlers whose parents were like I once was: far too preoccupied with keeping their small children quiet and calm to enjoy the program much at all. I knew how they felt, though: in those early years it seems so important to expose children to the special spectacle of live holiday music that you try hard to make it happen even when all evidence points to the fact that they probably just aren’t ready yet to sit through a program not specifically geared toward preschoolers.

But I’m at a different stage now. Tim opted not to come at all; at 12, his own interest in watching football overrules the novelty of being out at night, not to mention any priority on having time with Mom. Holly did come with me, but shortly after we sat down she moved to sit with four friends of hers. Suspecting that five 8-year-olds sharing a pew during a performance might not be such a good idea, I issued some stern words about behaving well; but I need not have worried; the girls all behaved beautifully, listening with rapt absorption except during the audience-participatory Jingle Bells, when they shook their maracas and bells along with all the other kids.

Some things haven’t changed; Holly still needed to leave halfway through to use the bathroom. But unlike during the memorable season of toilet-training, she slipped out on her own, after whispering to me where she was going; and upon returning to the Sanctuary three minutes later gave me a cheerful thumbs-up.

The experience reminded me that holiday significance doesn’t always appear where you most expect it. I would have expected to be most reminded of the passage of time when choosing our Christmas card picture, perhaps, or in selecting gifts for my kids, or maybe even in what we chose to do on Christmas Eve. (Do we still have to leave out beer and cookies for Santa? Really? Even though it’s just more dishes for me to wash?) I wouldn’t have expected being an audience member at a concert to have so much meaning to me. But the concert was wonderful as always, and meaningful as always. And I will try to remember in the future that music deserves a prominent role in our holiday traditions.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Making latkes

Once a year, I make latkes. And normally not very well, either. I try, but the mushy, slightly soggy lumps that I’m able to pry out of the frying pan, leaving a thin coating of crispness stuck behind, have never reminded me one bit of the latkes that were a favorite food during my childhood. Back then my parents had a square metal electric frying pan that stood on the counter on its little legs, cooking potato pancakes to perfection after my mother had mixed the ideal batter. My yearly efforts didn’t even seem like distant relatives of those savory golden moons.

We don’t really celebrate Hanukkah other than stopping by my parents’ house once or twice during the eight-day holiday to witness their lighting of the menorah, and I usually don’t even think about latkes until I hear someone else talking about this.

But this year was different. A week ago, as I was drafting my weekly arts column, I included an item about a children’s museum that was hosting a Hanukkah party, and I started thinking, “Mmmm….latkes. This year I’m going to do it right.”

I didn’t do a lot of research, but through a stroke of serendipity, I got the date wrong: I thought Hanukkah started Thursday night rather than Wednesday night, and it was Thursday that I targeted for a latke dinner. The reason this was so fortuitous was that friends were posting on Facebook all day yesterday about the relative successes or failures of their latke-making efforts, and so even without setting out to do research, I was picking up helpful hints as the day went on: leave plenty of time for draining the grated potatoes, and use safflower oil heated to a very high temperature for optimal frying.

Ultimately, though, I think what made my latkes so successful this year was that I took all the time I needed to complete each step. In the kitchen, I have a tendency to scrimp on time, and my nonchalant willingness to improvise can cross over far too quickly into out-and-out sloppiness. Peel the potatoes? Who needs it! Grate the onions to a uniform size? Hey, the Maccabees had no Cuisinarts – just randomly chop! Applesauce? Sorry, didn’t think of it. Come on, latkes don’t really need applesauce, do they?

This year I started earlier and went through every step. I don’t mean I started days earlier, like the Orthodox Jewish housewives of a bygone day. I just mean I started an hour before dinnertime rather than the usual twenty minutes. I peeled every potato. I set the mixture in a colander over a bowl covered by a plate weighted down with a large can of broth in order to drain most effectively. I even chopped two apples, threw them into a saucepan with a little water and some sugar, and stewed them into applesauce. I didn’t cut corners.

And the payoff was irrefutable: by dinnertime an hour later, we had a platter of the most gorgeous, golden-brown, crispy, flat latkes I had ever seen. Even better than those I remembered from childhood (but that may have simply been because they were on a plate ready to eat rather than shimmering in my imagination).

From now on I’ll do this every year, I thought to myself. And I’ll do it the same way, too. I’ll leave enough time for every step.

It made me think about how one aspect of the holiday season that many of us tend to gripe about is all the cooking and planning. In general, no one needs more complicated rituals to add to their holidays. But this felt different, somehow. Unlike the arduous task of making homemade gingerbread houses rather than buying the pre-fabricated kind for the kids to decorate, this felt worth every minute I’d put into it. In the end, my latke-making didn’t feel like another stressful holiday exercise but rather an act of spiritual observance, almost. I’d taken time and care with every step along the way and created something wonderful, just as I’d done the night before in making chocolate truffles for gift-giving and would do later in the month when I chose photos for our annual photo calendars.

Ultimately, these are the holiday rituals worth retaining: those that soothe our souls and reassure us that the time we took and the attention we paid yielded beautiful results. Many of my friends have been searching for ways to make the holiday season less complicated and more enjoyable. And on the surface, making homemade latkes may not seem to be the answer. But I think yesterday it taught me something important about which holiday traditions to prioritize: those in which taking time to do it right seems to yield its own reward. As my family and I bit into our hot, crunchy, crispy, chewy latkes, I tasted every second of work that had gone into them. And at the same time, I knew I’d started a ritual that I would find worth keeping.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's time to make the candy

For a variety of reasons, I admit that I was resisting the arrival of December. I wanted fall to last forever this year. I even dreamed over the weekend that I was teaching a kindergarten class; the children were insisting it was time to decorate the classroom tree while I was trying to tell them the activity for the day would be carving a pumpkin. (The fact that our public school system would allow neither of these activities in the classroom had little impact on my subconscious.)

Nonetheless, December arrived without my permission and in spite of my pervasive anxiety that in myriad ways I’m not ready for the holiday season.

And then yesterday at the supermarket a little spark went off as I stood in the baking aisle. You may be feeling really resistant to the idea of shopping and wrapping and getting ready for the church pageant and helping at the Greens Sale and planning the Christmas Day schedule, a voice in my head said, but don’t forget about making candy! That’s always fun.

Right. That is always fun. In fact, it’s one of my favorite yearly traditions: filling up my kitchen with the aromas of melting butter and chocolate as I arrange ingredients all over the countertop and turn out pan after pan of confections: chocolate truffles, nut brittle, peppermint bark, toffee, peanut butter balls.

So I stocked my grocery cart with nuts, chocolate chips, corn syrup, all the ingredients I’d need for this annual practice. Candy-making is one of the things I love about the holiday season. I love how easy it is to make all these different candies, and I love the fact that unlike cookies, candy-making is still seen as a novelty, something unexpected and unusual. It’s also both easier and neater than baking, in my opinion: no flour settling in a fine dust over every surface; no cookies cooling on racks. Most of my candy recipes take minutes to stir up, and use fewer than half a dozen ingredients.

So last night I swung into action. By the time I went to bed, one hundred cocoa-dusted truffles were cooling in the fridge. And this was only the first day of the month. True, I have nothing to wear to holiday parties this year and I’m feeling a little sad that both my sisters will be in Europe rather than at our house for Christmas as they and their families usually are. But my kitchen is already filling up with candy, and just falling into the familiar rhythms of boiling and stirring reminds me of this most beloved yearly tradition.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A work in progress

Holly’s light had been off for fifteen minutes when I went into her room to tuck her in one night earlier this week, but she was still awake. “Mommy!” she exclaimed in a breathless whisper as I leaned over to kiss her goodnight. “I just came up with the best idea for my next book!”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Well, this is how the back cover will read,” she said, and rattled off a couple of paragraphs of nearly camera-ready blurb text to summarize her imminent work-in-progress.

I was simultaneously empathetic and envious. How well I know the feeling of inspiration striking, that electric buzz when you hit on the perfect idea for your next essay or article or book. But I also know how different it is at my age than hers. After two decades in the profession, my moments of brilliant inspiration are inevitably tempered by the reality of what experience has taught me. “That’s going to be really hard to research,” my conscience tells me. Or “You’ll never be able to find sources to talk to you about that.” Or “Okay, but what happens after the first three chapters?” Or “That could work if you actually had six months to spend in Southeast Asia. Which you don’t.”

But for Holly, there’s no tempering of reality. For her, there’s just that white-hot spark of inspiration. And falling asleep after it hit didn’t dull the impact at all for her; the next morning after breakfast she used the twenty minutes between breakfast and bus to start jotting notes about her characters, and she worked on it further after school. Now she’s two chapters in.

She may or may not continue with equal enthusiasm. A year ago she completed her first so-called novel, a 67-page, 17-chapter middle grade story about a ten-year-old girl and her adventures with home, school and friends. She composed that book in a fairly unusual way: lying on her back on the rug in my office, gazing up at me through the transparent surface of my glass desk while I sat at my computer taking dictation from her.

Since then, a couple of subsequent projects haven’t gone as smoothly. She’s had that problematic experience with which so many novelists are familiar: an idea that seems great at the starting gate turns out to just not have legs. She’s done four or five chapters only to realize the plot just isn’t going anywhere.

But she’s new to the practice of writing, and her enthusiasm remains unadulterated. So when she whispered through the darkness that an idea was hatching, I could sense her excitement. I remember being eight years old and staying up long after bedtime to work on a story that at the time seemed absolutely world-changing to me.

And in truth, I still do that sometimes. I still hit on an essay idea that I’m convinced will justify the late hour I’m staying up to working on it. “It won’t bother me in the morning if I’ve had only four hours of sleep; I’ll be so excited about what I wrote that I’ll feel fine,” I tell myself.

Not true when morning comes, of course. But nonetheless, I understand exactly how Holly feels. For someone who loves writing – whether it’s Holly, or me, or millions of other writers of every age and every walk of life – there’s nothing quite to electrifying as a great idea. I wish that I too had come up with an idea for my next book this week, but I didn’t; I’m still in the recovery phase from the last one.

Still, witnessing Holly’s excitement reminded me of what a great feeling it is. And it will come again, I know. For me as well as for Holly. Both of us still have a lifetime of writing to get to.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Friday and Transcendentalism

Two items arrived in my email inbox before dawn on Thanksgiving morning. One email was from A Network for Grateful Living, which sends me daily words of inspiration. It said this: “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One,” a quotation from Transcendentalist (and fellow Unitarian) Ralph Waldo Emerson. The other was from Walmart and said this: “Shop Thanksgiving Day Online Specials Today & Plan Your Friday Store Visit‏ (Our biggest event of the year starts at midnight).”

I went from one to the other, a little bit bewildered by both, trying to decode the message the universe was sending me by stacking these two emails one on top of the other.

“Within us is the soul of the whole.” In just those few words are all the reminder anyone could need that flat-screen TVs and diamond bracelets really do not need to factor into our observances of the season of Nativity. I so resist the concept of Black Friday, shopping at 4 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving (or, as seemed to be the case this year, at midnight just as Thanksgiving was ending), and in some ways the whole notion of holiday shopping. It’s not a tradition I was brought up with: we did celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, and we did receive wonderful gifts, but no one ever focused on the shopping aspect of it. Knowing my relatives, most of it was probably done by catalog even decades before the days of online shopping.

At the same time, categorically knocking the whole tradition of holiday shopping is a little too facile, I’m come to realize. My 8-year-old daughter looks forward all year not just to receiving gifts but to planning the gifts she’ll give. She spends the last week of November huddled over her desk listing ideas for what she can make for each family member. “Mommy, do you think Grandma and Grandpa would rather have cookies I’ve baked or a poem I’ve written?” she asks me, her brow wrinkled intently. “What’s Daddy’s favorite color?” she asks, wielding a fistful of markers. And while this isn’t shopping per se, it’s not entirely removed either: we don’t harvest our own cookie ingredients or make our own crayons and paper, after all.

Moreover, dismissing the big-box stores and their fliers as the ugliest sort of consumerism is a shade too myopic for me. In years past, I rigorously promoted the idea of Buy-Nothing Day, the anti-materialism movement urging everyone to avoid all stores and commerce on the day after Thanksgiving. And I still do observe that tradition myself, partly out of idealism and partly out of the wish to avoid crowds, but it’s not quite so easy anymore for me to condemn those who do shop. Many people’s jobs depend on shoppers. Not just the cashiers and shelving staff in the stores but the workers at the manufacturing plants who provide the goods, the custodians who clean the store at night after closing, the security staff who patrol the parking lot all depend on shoppers appearing on their doorstep. If I met a single one of those people individually, I surely wouldn’t wish unemployment on them. Yet their income depends on people who, unlike me, support the idea of rushing to the superstores to hit the post-Thanksgiving and December sales.

Like almost everything, it’s not a black-and-white issue. As Emerson said, “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One.” There is not a single thing more we need to acquire: not electronics, not toys, not even books containing the ideas of Emerson, to follow this logic to its end. And yet the superstores have their role to play as well. I wouldn’t want to go shopping, but those who do serve a function in keeping others afloat. I’ll postpone any holiday shopping until as close to Christmas as possible, and I’ll make whatever gifts I can from home, but I’ll also remind myself that there are so seldom easy answers. Holiday shopping, in that respect, is no different from any other aspect of my life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Changing plans no impediment to having fun

The plan for Friday afternoon was straightforward when we formulated it first thing Friday morning. When my sister Sarah is visiting from her home in D.C., as she was over the holiday weekend, my kids and her kids want to spend as much time together as they possibly can – well, Tim at the age of 12 tends to remove himself from the action fairly early on, but Holly will happily play all day with cousins Hannah, who is 8, just like Holly; and Andrew, two years younger – and we were doing all we could to accommodate them.

“The kids can play at our house while you go to aerobics class,” I said. “I’m going to go for a quick two-mile run, then I’ll make them lunch, then we’ll go to the audience-participation screening of Mary Poppins in Arlington at two o’clock.” Perfect plan.

A plan, indeed. Change number one: When I told the three kids I was heading out for a short run and would be back in 25 minutes but that Rick was there if any emergencies arose, they announced they’d just finished the final rehearsal for their hastily choreographed musical revue, “Teenage Conversations.” And since I was their only likely audience member, I couldn’t go running until I’d sat through a performance.

So I sat down at Holly’s desk chair and clapped at the appropriate times as they ran in and out of Holly’s closet, sang, danced and yelled for fifteen minutes or so. “Okay, guys, off for my run!” I then announced. “Back in 25 minutes!”

Change number two: As I was lacing my running shoes, my parents called from next door to say they’d just returned from the slaughterhouse with several hundred pounds of beef – formerly known as Rollie – to unload into the freezer. I headed next door to pitch in, but by that time my sister and her husband were already helping out, so they didn’t really need my participation. I left on my run, and when I got home 25 minutes later started making the kids’ lunch.

“Mary Poppins?” they said dubiously when I told them what we had in mind for the afternoon. “Can we see ‘Tangled’ instead?”

It was fine with me. Change number three: I went to to see where and what times ‘Tangled’ was playing. Plenty of choices. I told Sarah about their request and we decided on Maynard at 4:05, which gave us a couple more hours before we had to go anywhere. “Will you take us up to the playground?” they asked. That too was fine with me; the weather had turned out much less rainy than was forecasted, and some time outdoors would be good for them before sitting down at the movie. Sarah said she’d go too, so we piled into the car.

Change numbers four and five: As soon as we started driving to the playground, Andrew needed to go to the bathroom, so we stopped at the library. No big deal but sitting there waiting for him gave Hannah time to decide she didn’t want to see the movie anymore. No problem, I said, we could drop her and Sarah off at home after our playground visit, and I’d take Holly and Andrew.

By the time we’d stopped at the ATM – the Maynard theater is cash-only – we had barely ten minutes for the playground, but we still thought it was worth it. Any fresh air and exercise at all is a worthwhile investment in a kid’s day, in my opinion. So the kids power-played for ten minutes, then back into the car, where Hannah decided she was willing to join us for the movie after all.

Change number six: when we arrived at the theater, the movie was sold out. (The Maynard theater is an independent cinema and doesn’t do on-line ticket sales.) That’s okay, Holly said; let’s go somewhere and have a treat. Fine with me, Hannah agreed, since she hadn’t really wanted to go anyway. We headed to West Concord and Nashoba Brook Bakery, where we spent a most enjoyable 45 minutes with pastries for the kids and coffee for Sarah and me. The kids found a little table to sit at on their own; Sarah and I found upholstered chairs nearby, and we all relaxed and savored the moment.

As we drove home in the pitch black darkness that signifies five o’clock in late November, I noted that we’d still be in the movie if we’d been able to get tickets. It was kind of nice to be already heading home, though we probably would have had fun at the movie as well. Regardless, the kids had performed a show of their own design in the morning, played for a little while on the playground, and had fun at Nashoba Brook Bakery; I’d fit in my run; Sarah had done an aerobics class and helped my parents unload a beef shipment; we’d had an unexpectedly long and pleasant visit over coffee.

So nothing turned out quite like we’d planned, and yet it was a great post-Thanksgiving day. The kids played together all day, just as they wanted to. No one was disappointed with all the changes, least of all me. What I wanted most out of the day was a chance for all of us to spend some time together. Six or more changes later, that had been accomplished. We’ll do the audience-participation Mary Poppins show some other time, and ‘Tangled’ too. For Friday, what we ended up with was plenty for us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving vacation!

On a blogging hiatus until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and happy Thanksgiving weekend as well!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, as performed by the third grade

Yesterday morning I attended a Thanksgiving play in Holly’s third-grade classroom, a 13-scene musical drama that gives every child in the class the chance to play the part of a modern-day grandparent, a Pilgrim woman, a 17th-century Wampanoag tribesman, an ear of corn, or some other critical role in the Thanksgiving story.

It was a good production, just as it was when Tim was in the same play three years ago. From my perspective, it seems to reflect a vital if somewhat fabled narrative from U.S. history in simple but honest terms, and aspects that are sometimes overlooked, such as how miserable the Pilgrims were during their 66 days at sea and how difficult it was for them to survive their first New England winter, will likely stay in these kids’ memories as they learn more about U.S. history.

In a way, productions such as this one seem kind of anachronistic. By today’s standards of diversity, the traditional tale of Pilgrims learning from Native Americans, or “Indians,” how to plant crops, seems a bit quaint; it’s more typical at our school to see a depiction of a little-known Serbian folk tale than something as traditionally American as the Thanksgiving story.

But I’m glad this pageant hasn’t gone the way of Christmas, considered too Eurocentric and Christian to hold a place in the school setting. As Holly’s teacher pointed out to us, putting on a classroom play deploys all kinds of skills and lessons. On the most basic level, there was history in learning the story, art in designing the scenery, music in practicing the theme song. But there was also poise in learning to deliver lines effectively, group cooperation skills enhanced by working in sync with classmates, patience in waiting for other kids to deliver (or remember) their lines, even the skill of flexibility, embodied by two children who took on extra lines and jobs in yesterday’s performance to cover for an absent classmate.

Like most public schools, ours focuses a lot these days on benchmarks and data. Measuring the knowledge developed by spending three or four weeks preparing a play is harder than measuring math acquisition or reading comprehension, and yet to spend a half-hour in the classroom watching these twenty kids perform is to realize how much happens in their minds as they work on this kind of undertaking. Not least is the fact that their own teacher wrote the play and its theme song; for a child like mine who says – at least for now – that she doesn’t really like being on stage, it introduces the idea that there are other roles besides acting within the wider realm of drama – playwrights, lyricists, costume designers – and that creativity takes on myriad forms.

I appreciate the chance I had yesterday to attend the play. Not only is it always fun to see Holly and her classmates working on something together, but it’s good to be reminded even in the simplest terms possible of the events that brought about modern-day Thanksgiving. By this evening, I’ll be elbow-deep in stuffing and pumpkin pie filling, with still more to do tomorrow morning before dinner is ready to serve. It’s easy to get lost in the culinary details of Thanksgiving dinner. Moreover, on Sunday mornings throughout the year as I rush to get ready for church, I hardly ever stop to think about the fact that going to church is a choice I’m able to make. Thanks to my visit to the third grade, I’ll be thinking about those poor seasick Pilgrims and how profoundly important religious freedom was to them as I chop onions and set the table.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The annual late-fall debate: Flannel versus cotton

Some days are still unseasonably warm in mid-November, the air almost humid at times and a good twenty degrees above freezing, but the chill of winter is gradually encroaching. This means it’s time for the yearly marital debate in our household: cotton versus flannel.

It’s a fairly sure thing, year after year, that we’ll barely have cleaned up from the Labor Day barbeque and grown accustomed to the kids’ new school schedule before Rick starts talking about making up our bed with flannel sheets. I’m usually able to dissuade him another couple of months, but by this time of year I start needing to work a lot harder to make my case. Once the air is truly chilly at night, Rick becomes insistent: time for flannel, as well as forced-air heating on all night.

He likes the warm and fuzzy feeling – literally so, in this context -- of crawling into a bed with what I consider unnaturally warm sheets. I, on the other hand, like to slide between cool smooth planes of cotton. Sure, it’s chilly for a few moments when you first get in, but body heat warms up the cavity between comforter and mattress quickly, and I absolutely love the feeling of a warm bed surrounded by cool air. I’m perfectly happy to leave the thermostat at sixty overnight throughout the winter.

But it’s hard to argue with a spouse who says he’s cold. No one wants to deny their loved ones the luxury of a comfortable sleeping environment. And yet it’s a difficult sacrifice for me to make. Being too warm while I sleep isn’t just a matter of comfort; it actually gives me anxiety dreams – you know, the “I never signed up for this class so why am I sitting here taking the final exam” type -- and sometimes even nightmares. Literally from the first day we change over from cotton to flannel in the late fall until we change back in spring, I can expect to have stress dreams on almost a nightly basis.

And yet it strikes me as curious that something as external as air temperature – or skin temperature – can have such an impact on my psychological well-being. Dreams, after all, are what’s in our subconscious struggling to find a voice, aren’t they? So why should my subconscious be more troubled if we change the sheets than if we don’t? Or, conversely, how do those anxieties remain so well suppressed during the seven or eight months of the year we sleep in cotton sheets? And if in fact my subconscious writhes with troubled thoughts, isn’t the flannel serving an important function by helping me to exorcise them?

I don’t know. I just know cool cotton feels good to me and fuzzy flannel pleases Rick. “Sheets” may have a variety of metaphorical meanings in the context of marriage, but I don’t think this is meant to be one of them. And it’s hard to figure out a solution: should he be cold all winter, or should I suffer from troublesome dreams?

Last year, Rick surprised me with a clever attempt at compromise. He made up the bed with flannel and then laid a cotton sheet, folded in half lengthwise, along my side of the mattress over the flannel. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than usual. I’m game to try that again this year. I think my anxieties will still somehow find their way out if they really need to, and I’ll have at least a fighting chance at a good night’s sleep. Marriage? Complicated. Bed linens? Straightforward. Or at least one would think so. But linen choice, like marriage itself, requires compromise. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sound effects

I didn’t think there was much more I could write about running. I’ve been running for 26 years now and writing about it nearly that long. Having just finished writing a memoir about running, I felt a little bit as if the well had run dry. I honestly thought I was done with the topic, from a literary perspective, at least temporarily.

Then yesterday while I was out running, I noticed the sounds. And I recognized right away that I’d never written about the sounds, because I’d never before given any thought to the sounds.

Midafternoon on a chilly mid-autumn day in Carlisle, as I ran four miles along the back roads, through the center, and home via the Bedford Road footpath, I heard all of this:

My feet thunking on the asphalt of the roadways
The scritch-scritch of a rake against pavement as I passed a neighbor raking her driveway
Gravel crunching under my shoes on the footpaths
Cars whooshing up behind me
The scuff-scuff of my feet against the packed dirt of our long driveway
The wind schussing through the dry brown leaves left on the trees
The tump-tump-tump of another pair of shoes as a runner passed me
Multiple geese honking in a high-pitched clamor from their pasture at Kimball Farm
The mid-pitched conversation between two bicyclists and their whirring tires as they sped by me
The church bell striking three o’clock

This was a quiet afternoon. Weekday mornings, when I usually run, are louder, with the roar of school buses, the steady thrum of continuous traffic, the heavy engine sounds of trucks; but the automotive sounds are so loud at that time that I miss out on everything else. Yesterday afternoon, the sounds were in balance: cars, wind, running shoes, geese. All the elements of a quiet Sunday afternoon worked in harmony to make up my soundtrack – and for what seemed to be the first time in 26 years, I noticed the sounds of my daily run.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Seven steps to stress-free; one step to joy thinks it knows what I should read. And so it regularly gives me recommendations. I understand where these recommendations come from – most of the time. They come from an algorithm that relates books I’ve not purchased to books I have purchased, or at least viewed. Or else it makes connections based on gifts I’ve ordered for other people that have no relation to my own interests at all: for example, three years ago I bought my brother-in-law a home-brewing kit and I’m still getting recommendations from Amazon that I buy “Make Moonshine by Midnight” and similar quick-help guides to homemade spirits. My son likes fantasy fiction, so plenty of covers featuring dragons and knights march across my Amazon home page. And, like a lot of people, I took a quick peek last week to see what all the fuss over Amazon’s suddenly questionable sales standards involved, so I will apparently be getting recommendations for how-to books that, if the instructions within were followed, would probably land me in jail.

But sometimes I’ll see a recommendation that is neither quite so off-the-wall as the moonshine handbooks nor quite so obviously targeted as a new novel by a writer whose last book I bought. And then I just look at the title and say, “You think I should read that? Yeah, maybe. I suppose it might make sense…”

This was the case when earlier this week Amazon’s recommendation for me was “Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity In Life.”

“Addicted to stress?” I mused, puzzled. “I’m not addicted to stress. I’m not even that stressed.” Sure, I have plenty of plates to spin at once, from work assignments to the kids’ activities to volunteer tasks to household upkeep to planning for the upcoming holidays. But stressed? Not overly. And, moreover, addicted to stress? I don’t think so.

Yet the title made me wonder. Seven steps to reclaim joy and spontaneity in life? On the one hand, that sounded like a lot of meticulously prescribed steps in order to reach spontaneity. (Follow all of these steps but then forget you ever followed them, because the important thing is to reach this state without trying.) On the other hand, joy and spontaneity in life? Seven steps seems like a rather small price to pay for that desirable outcome.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I was truly stressed or just busy, and I couldn’t decide whether I was lacking joy and spontaneity or, like most people, just have a few unsatisfied wishes and a few unmet goals. Then I received my “Word for the Day” email from an organization called A Network for Grateful Living. This isn’t really a word in the sense of a vocabulary word; it’s a quote. And on that particular day the quote was this: “O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”

That’s by Henry David Thoreau. He did not use the word stress. He did not suggest seven steps. Just as he went to the woods to live deliberately, he made joy a simple thing too: “my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.” Somehow that quote told me I didn’t need seven steps, or a book, to find my joy. I just needed to remember these essential words from Thoreau: joy, the concept as well as the word itself, is to be found inside of enjoyment. Remembering to take pleasure in all we have, rather than stressing out about all we need to do, is the best stress-reliever we will ever find. No seven steps. No steps at all. Just remembering to be joyful is joy enough, and I was so glad to be reminded of these words at just that moment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Because time would not stop for me...

The subject line of the email from the cooking website caused my eyes to narrow as it flashed across my inbox yesterday afternoon. “Thanksgiving menu: it’s not too late to start planning!”

Of course it’s not too late, I muttered to myself irritably. It’s not even close to being too late! Thanksgiving is still eight days away.

But in truth, I know it’s also not too early. In fact, I myself should be planning my Thanksgiving menu. And on some level I am. Kind of, In the back of my mind. But not with the zeal I usually plan Thanksgiving.

And when a friend said today that she was already humming Christmas carols and basking in a Christmas mood, I told her I was still in an October mood and working hard to get to a Thanksgiving one. I’m doing everything I can to make time stand still, and yet strangely enough, it’s not working.

I just feel that this autumn is going by too fast. There’s no reason I feel that way this particular year, except that this autumn has allowed me to become so immersed in my writing and the kids’ new school year and some new article ideas and the publication of my book and getting to know the area around my parents’ new vacation home and a host of interests and activities to which fall lends itself. And all of that somehow seems to come to a screeching halt once the holidays approach. New school year? Try Thanksgiving vacation followed three weeks later by winter break, with report cards in between the two to remind you that the year is already exactly one-third over. One-third over? But I’m just getting used to the idea that Tim is in middle school. I don’t want to hear that seventh grade is already looming. I want it to be the first week of school for as long as possible.

But it’s not, of course. It’s seven days ‘til Thanksgiving. I love cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve done it yearly since 1999 with only one exception. For that matter, I like cooking and menu-planning at any time of year. It’s not the domestic side of the situation that’s causing my agitation this year; it’s simply the chronological part. Winter holidays? Really? But I was so happy watching the leaves change.

It’s inevitable, and fall more than any other season seems to bring out the resistance in many of us to see time pass. So I’ll keep writing, keep finding time to walk in the woods, keep up everything that made this fall such a resonant time for me, and also nudge myself onward to the preliminary steps of holiday planning.

After all, no one says that has to mean six different pies on the Thanksgiving table or hours of Christmas shopping at the mall. Holiday season can mean whatever you want it to mean, including writing, reading and walks in the woods. But regardless of what it may mean to different people, simply as a function of the sun rising and setting, Thanksgiving will soon be here, and I have a menu to plan. Fortunately, as the email I received yesterday assured me, it is indeed not too late.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I need a recipe...

My sister was laughing as I answered the phone. “You’re not going to believe why I’m calling.”

I knew immediately. “You need my recipe for mud pie cake.”

It’s an ongoing joke with us. For the past thirty years, every place she has ever lived, she’s called me for the mud pie cake recipe. It’s an inexplicable coincidence that this is the one recipe she never remembers to hold on to, though perhaps Freud would point out here that there are no accidents. She and I both love to cook; there are literally hundreds if not thousands or recipes she could be calling me for. But it’s always the mud pie cake recipe, which has been in our family for decades, a moist chocolate cake with a name that amuses kids.

The first time was when she was a teenager doing a summer homestay in Switzerland. There was a birthday in her host family, and she wanted to impress them with our trusty family recipe for this most all-American of treats: basic chocolate cake.

She called for the same recipe from Ohio when she was a freshman in college. Then there was the call from Austria while she was an exchange student. The mud pie cake recipe followed her around the globe – through Europe and then back to subsequent residencies in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where she and her husband and children have more or less permanently settled. Since they’ve lived there for so long, I assumed the recipe was safely stashed at last and I wouldn’t be getting any more calls. But no, they still travel, and wherever they go, she gets the urge to use the kitchen, and for some reason remembers to bring along every recipe she wants except for this one. So in the past five years, I’ve gotten the SOS call from locales including southern France, Colorado, and Indiana. Now they’re spending a sabbatical year in Germany, and sure enough, she wants to bake a cake.

Yesterday she claimed that as I read her the recipe, she was transcribing it into an electronic file on her laptop and would therefore never need to ask me again. I’m skeptical. If it was that easy, why wouldn’t she have done this years ago? No, there has to be something more nuanced about it. It’s not like we ordinarily have a hard time talking. We discuss our kids, books we’ve read, our parents and their idiosyncrasies (by the hour, believe me), gifts to jointly give our other sister, exercise programs, the weather. We talk about all kinds of things. And yet it’s the cake that keeps her calling.

This cake recipe has been in our family for a very long time. Unlike many cake recipes, it’s absolutely foolproof; there’s nothing delicate about it. I remember making it in playgroup under my mother’s guidance when I was three years old, and I used to make it for bake sales in junior high. I don’t know much about the cake’s history, but because the recipe includes no milk or butter – no dairy products at all – as well as no chocolate in solid form and no eggs, I suspect it was a Depression-era recipe that bakers invented in order to make a cake out of inexpensive, readily available ingredients. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the taste: it’s moist and delicious, as well as really fun to make, especially for kids. “Water the garden!” my mom used to say back in playgroup days as each child had a turn to add one of the liquid ingredients and then stir. Now I make it with my kids, and both my sisters make it with theirs.

If it guarantees regular phone calls from my sister, no matter where in the world she happens to be, then I actually hope she never does remember to bring the recipe with her – or, worse, memorize it. I like these regular phone calls from across the globe. Mud pie cake batter: the ultimate sororal glue. In our family, anyway.

For those who are curious about this baking tradition, here’s the recipe:

Mud Pie Cake

1 ½ cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350. Combine dry ingredients well in a large mixing bowl. Then stir in remaining ingredients one at a time, mixing well after each addition. (You can do this with an electric mixer or by hand.) Pour batter into a greased 8-inch or 9-inch cake pan or brownie pan. Bake for about 30 minutes.