Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tradition

This past month has been difficult with two of my relatives having very serious health concerns. It's the been the type of health stuff that makes you jump a little every time the phone rings. We always say that this time of year is stressful - and it is! - but this year, I find myself taking a good amount of refuge in traditions of the season.

It was easy to say goodbye to some of the more fussy and time-consuming traditions (those advent calendars!) and surprisingly calming to take part in others (tree decorating!). The holiday cards and letters, with so many bright and cheerful photos, are hands-down my favorite tradition. I treasure every single one. I string them across the room like prayer flags on a rope. I use the cards from last year until the new cards arrive. I can't bring myself to throw cards away. Now that we've collected several years worth of cards from multiple friends and family, it is a true joy to look back over the years. This year, it is especially grounding.

This year has also given me a new perspective on traditions. I think for many years, we've been really busy establishing traditions. This is NOT relaxing or calming work. It's stressful. You haven't necessarily figured out the best way to decorate cookies with children. Or you don't know where and when to go see Santa. Or maybe you don't know where to put the tree, and when you finally decide, you discover you have run an extension cord all the way across the room. There's also The Constant Change Phenomenon of children: this year, for the first year, Noah was a cautious, thoughtful and helpful tree-decorator – until the moment Mattias woke up from his nap and started to help as well. And so it goes:  you're busy planning and adjusting and figuring it all out and trying to enjoy it at the same time. It's stressful.

But then, after several years and repeats, you kind of know what you're doing. It's not just establishing tradition, it is tradition. And maybe it starts to feel calming.

Or maybe you just need the perspective of life-and-death staring you in the face to make you appreciate it.

In any case, Fritz took off from work on Friday, and we're moving in slow motion getting things ready for Christmas over a long, four day weekend. Some cookies, some visits, some hot chocolate, some decorating. It's exactly what we needed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What you can do

There are too many words in my head, so I will only type a few:

You can sign this petition on the US Government's We the People website.

Let's stop condoning these tragedies with our inaction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Saved by Customer Service

About six months ago, Noah fell in love with the Lego City Mine set. He found it in a Lego catalog, which he kept by his bed and picked out of the recycling bin on at least two occasions. I mostly ignored his insistent requests that we buy it for him, because it was $100, which is so much money that I thought maybe I could unload it on some very eager grandparent at Christmas time. As much as I love my kids, I don't have a strong desire to buy them toys.

Surprisingly (or not), my aversion to toy buying is most likely an affliction of being an architect. You see, architects don't like ugly things. And most toys are, well, (garish and) ugly. Beyond that, we architects would always prefer to spend a thousand dollars on a beautiful, functional thing that we love rather than a single dollar on something that is only marginally attractive and functional. If we are forced into choosing between having something mediocre versus having nothing - well, many of us would simply choose to have nothing. We don't readily admit these preferences to the general public because we need you to hire us to design your buildings. But inside we are always thinking, when you compromise on design, nobody wins. Ultimately, we are pragmatists. We swallow our pride in the workplace; we may design ugly buildings so that we can bring home a paycheck. But we're damn well going to bring that paycheck home to a carefully, aesthetically controlled environment.

At my home, plastic toys (and their associated catalogs) have a way of finding themselves quickly demoted to the recycling, while wooden toys are lovingly glued, screwed or nailed back together. I can't resist Haba and Plan Toys, I am still drooling over the outrageously expensive Community Playthings blocks that Noah's preschool had, and I am still scheming to get a Jako-o Stilt House. But Legos, despite being the most well-played-with toy in our house, are still ugly. To add insult to injury: they're all over the floor all the time. Can't we at least leave the aesthetically beautiful toys laying all over the floor?

For many years, Noah played independently with Not-One-Single-Toy he had. This supported my decision not to buy many toys. The best way to get him to play with a toy was to sit right beside him and play with it yourself. So, it made sense to buy only those toys I liked. When Mattias was born, I discovered that some kids actually DO play independently with toys. (I can still hear the angels singing.) But I didn't change my buying habits, because over the course of 3+ years, we'd already managed to have enough toys to keep Mattias entertained. (That and the fact that Mattias has the most amazing imagination.)

Eventually, Noah got Legos, and he started playing with them a lot, even though it wasn't always in the usual way. Lo and behold, he could finally play with a toy independently! That meant - means - a lot to me after all those years of non-toy-playing.

BUT, as Fritz points out, why should we buy more when he can't even clean up the ones he has?

"Maybe you can build a mine from the Legos you already have!" I told Noah enthusiastically for six months every time he asked about it. That's what the Lego block concept is all about, right?

Well, last week, one of the grandparents asked what the boys would like for Christmas. I hopped online to find that Lego City Mine AND - guess what? SOLD OUT until December 28th at the online Lego store. I buy almost everything online. So the next thing I did was go to every website I could find looking for the Lego City Mine. Nada.

Oops.

Remember how I just said I don't have a strong desire to buy the boys toys? Well, that sentiment died a quick death when I realized that there would either be 1) No Lego Mine on Christmas or 2) Ebay Bidding or 3) Overpayment on Amazon involved. Over the course of one day, I watched the price go up by $40. I even searched the German websites. It would be even more expensive to order it from Germany and have it shipped over. Forget the grandparents, I created this situation and I needed to remedy this situation NOW.

Maybe there was still a set at the local Toys R Us? Can't tell from their website. Hey! What's up with Toys R Us? It's like they're not even answering their phone! I thought real people worked at real stores. DON'T THEY KNOW I HAVE URGENT TOY NEEDS? DON'T THEY WANT TO SELL TOYS? I ho-ed and hummed about going to an actual store because I really didn't want to become That Mom chasing down the elusive Christmas gift like her life depended on it. But, shit, all the kid wanted was one stupid Lego set for six months and I FAILED HIM.

Fritz was of the opinion that we could order the set, give Noah a picture of it on Christmas Day and then - well, give it to him when it arrived.

"Really?" I asked. "But he's a FIVE years old! I don't think you should do that to a five year-old."

I swallowed my pride, deposited Mattias at a neighbor's while Noah was at school and drove to the closest Toys R Us.

Guess what? One, single set left. Whew. I immediately snatched it off the shelf and called Fritz to celebrate from my cell phone. There were no registers open at Toys R Us. Didn't they want my money? I was reminded once again why I like to buy things online - I mean, with that kind of customer service, what's the point? But you know what, I think the only reason I managed to get the Lego set WAS their terrible customer service. So there you go, let's hear it for lousy customer service. It saved my kid's Christmas. (Insert eye roll - because, I mean, really, I am That Mom.)

But I won't lie to you: walking to the car I did wonder if I shouldn't list it on Ebay and give Noah a photo of his gift on Christmas day after all.

Since publishing this, Amazon, at least, seems to have found reasonably priced versions and Lego now claims to be shipping on Dec. 22. Whatever, people. Whatever.

Friday, December 7, 2012

With the Luster of Mid-day

My favorite thing about being on regular time/winter time is the early darkness. Especially as a child, when my bedtime was officially early (as opposed to helplessly early, like it is now), I loved being awake when it was dark outside. I've never been a natural night owl, so winter time gives me the chance to experience night and still find my bed before I turn into a pumpkin. Same for the boys.

When you think about it, there are a fair number of official nighttime festivities in the late fall and winter. Like Trick or Treating! Our kids headed out early in the evening this year - I believe it was still light outside. But you could see their excitement and energy build as it got darker. I remember waiting to Trick or Treat until dark when I was a child. It was part of the fun!

For our family, the next traditional evening event is the Saint Martin's Lantern Parade around mid-November. This is an old northern European tradition. The children walk through the streets of the villages, carrying lanterns and singing songs. In older versions of the tradition, children were given sweets by the townspeople as they sang at their doors. (Perhaps a percursor to Trick or Treating?) The legend is that Saint Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and later became a monk. His conversion was marked by the fact that he gave half his cloak to a freezing beggar in a snowstorm, only to later discover that the beggar was Christ. I have no idea what the Saint Martin legend has to do with walking around carrying lanterns, but none of the Germans seem to make the connection either. It's not like we're walking around coatless. Or maybe my lack of connection means my German language abilities are still that bad after 5 years of Lanternenumzug. (They may be.) Nonetheless, every year we gather with about 300 other people walk through Denver neighborhood streets, carrying our lanterns, singing (pretty badly), and taking terrible nighttime photos that never really capture the coolness of the event. It's a markedly unreligious event considering it's the St. Martin's Lantern Parade.

This year, we visited a Winterfest that took place (gasp!) before Thanksgiving. In past years, I've protested going on a matter of principle. It's a newer event in our Denver neighborhood and, from what I hear, every year it gets a little bit bigger and a little bit more like a Christkindlmarkt in Germany. I'm hopeful that some year in the near future we'll be drinking mulled wine with the wurst we're buying from the vendor below. I love this upcoming photo (now removed). It's sort of like Normal Rockwell meets Edward Hopper in photo form. Okay, maybe not. If only all my photos were so inspired....

There are also a great number of light festival venues in Denver. The last two years, we've gone to the Botanic Garden with my aunt.

There seemed to be a particularly high percentage of seniors on the night we visited the Botanic Garden. A few were NOT happy to see Noah and Mattias. In general, I make a point to take the boys to all sorts of more adult-like venues (the art museum, the symphony, nature documentaries at the nearby nature preserve) because I think it's an important part of learning to behave AND these events lack the commercialism that events geared towards children often have. Also, crowded venues filled with children are particularly stressful (for me). Most of the time, I get more compliments and encouragement than disparaging remarks. That was not the case on this particular night, but I shall not be too easily dissuaded from abandoning my strategy.

Sometimes, we don't even need to go out to capture the wonder of the darkness and artificial lights. A few candles on the table at dinnertime will lull the boys into at least 10 minutes of quiet eating and drinking before their attention shifts to blowing out the candles from their chairs.




Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cinnamon Ornaments without Applesauce

I've had some questions about the cinnamon ornaments I blogged about last year. It took me a little while to recreate my steps because somewhere between then and now, I lost the recipe. However, we worked through it today, and I'm happy to give our recipe for cinnamon (nonedible!) ornaments (without applesauce):

Mix together:
1 cup (about 100 grams) cinnamon
4 Tablespoons of white craft glue (Elmer's in the US)
1/2 to 1 cup of water, add slowly!

The dough will hold together nicely without cracking when you have the right amount of water. I suggest starting with 1/2 cup of water and adding a tablespoon at a time, as needed. Roll out dough to about 3/8 inch or 1 cm thick. Thicker ones always look better, to my eye. Use cookie cutters to cut out designs. (I love to nest the same shape cookies cutters and get an outline.) Use a straw to poke holes.


Ornaments will take about 4 days to dry on parchment paper. Flip ornaments every 8 hours, otherwise they will curl. Alternatively, use a food dehydrator. (I'm using a food dehydrator this year, because I'm under time pressure.) Ornaments will shrink as they dry.

There are lots of cute ideas out there for decorating these further, but most of them are still beyond the boys' ability. If I'm lucky this year, I'll get Noah to write his name and the year in white colored pencil on them.

Expressions

Fritz and I looked down the street after dark last night. It was beautiful! Our neighbors have really outdone themselves with holiday lights.

"Looks so good already, we don't have to do anything!" Fritz said. "In fact, if we did put up our two strings of lights, it might bring down the quality of the whole block."

But this morning, I ran into one of those neighbors, who asked me, just out of the blue, "When are you going to put your lights up? I want to see something pretty when I look out my window."

Oh. Right.

***

Noah came home from school one day about a month ago, with a long, elaborate story. The basic premise: lightning had struck at his school during library time. Somebody might have been hurt! All the kids had to go outside for library, so that nobody got hurt.

Huh?

He repeated the same strange story to Fritz.

The day had been overcast, but not rainy. And certainly NOT stormy. And why was lightning striking inside the school? And why would anybody go outside during a lightning storm? What on Earth was he talking about?

We had to wait until the next day, when he brought home his daily "News."

Item 3: Yesterday we had a fire drill.

Ah ha.

***

I went to the doctor for an ultrasound yesterday. It was The One where you can find out The Gender of The Baby. People always ask if I'm going to find out or be surprised. Both, right?! Because you will find out AND be surprised at EITHER 20 or 40 weeks! Anyway, I'm a planner, so I was ready to find out the gender and move onward.

The baby is fine, in terms of health. In terms of being a cooperative little soul? Um...not so much. I had to reschedule an ultrasound for two weeks out to determine the gender. This isn't the first time the baby has exhibited strong signs of independence under examination. I suspect that this child will be holding his or her own against Noah and Mattias, too. I guess that's a good quality in a third child. I guess.

Gulp.