Sunday, December 30, 2007

Boy in a Box

Santa was especially good to us this year. The elves must've been paying close attention. But no matter how expensive the gifts get, or how technologically complex, or how inspired, sometimes the greatest pleasures come from the simplest places.

Our big gift to ourselves was a big-*ss honkin' tv. The 3 boyz had been lusting coveting researching them for months.

And all it took was one simple comment to inspire Jonathan to move into the tv box. "Boo, that box would make a great fort! Wanna paint it and cut a door and some windows?"

But why go to all that fuss when the box is tenant-ready, as is. In he moved with his comforter, favorite book, booklight, DVD player, and all the Rocky movies. Oh, and the cat thought it was just grand, too.

The plan was to move in for real, for an indefinite period of time. Great plans were made with great excitement. Until, that is, the idea of sleeping alone in a box in the basement became a bit too scary.

And windows? Nah, peak pique peek holes are better for spying!

What unexpected gifts did you receive this holiday season?

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Thing About Living in the Cornfields....

Mostly, I like living in the country. It's quiet. It's spacious. There's room enough to mow a soccer field in our front yard and have an acre-sized garden (as I did at one time). And we have an ahhh-mazing view to the east and a spectacular view of the constellations.

There is the occasional disadvantage. We were confronted with one the other night.

Rob and I were watching a movie in the basement when the boys came running downstairs to tell us, in an agitated manner, there were people at the front door. Sign #1 that something was wrong - It was late evening, it was dark, and we weren't expecting anyone. And besides, any family that drop by use the garage to let themselves in, and any friends would've called first before traipsing out into the middle of nowhere. Too late for Jehovah's Witness visitors, too late for the Schwann's Man. Too late for UPS, the mailman, or those guys who always want to pave my driveway for "real cheap" with leftover tar.

I sent Rob upstairs, sure it was just my brother coming back for something he'd forgotten. We must've already locked the garage, I thought.

But a few seconds later, Rob was calling me to come upstairs, and his voice was sounding tense. My heart pounded as I took the stairs two at a time. Sign #2 that something was wrong - Rob hadn't let them in. We're hospitable folks, usually more than ready to be good samaritans. But Rob's black belt training in karate taught him reliable criteria for assessing danger. If he didn't want to let them in, there was a good reason.

At the front door was an older woman who rambled on about getting their truck stuck in the ditch. I asked her where it was and she started in on Vague-Answer-Number-One, "Oh, it's down on that road... you know, that one road... the one with the big farm with lots of barns..." Now first of all, this is cornfield country; we're surrounded by farms. She'd have to be more specific. "You know, the road that goes to... oh, what's it called... that one place... that gas station by the lake..."

She rambled on. Hmmm. The road that goes to "that gas station by the lake" is exactly one mile from our house. Not only that, there are no farms with "lots of barns" for 1/2 mile in either direction once you reach that road.

I pondered the legitimacy of her claim when I noticed the other person. At the end of our sidewalk was a boy, in his late teens or early twenties judging by his clothing, who had his hands in his pockets and a hood over his head, masking his face. He was pacing and shifting from one foot to the other. He mostly kept his back to us, and we couldn't see his face. Rob and I began communicating with our eyes as he grabbed the phone to call the tow truck.

A million things went through my head. They were casing the place for a future robbery; it is Christmas after all, and the number of break-ins increases when every house is full of holiday loot. There were others outside, waiting for a signal. Or, of course, they really needed help. Well, if they'd hiked over a mile to get to our house, they could handle a few more minutes out in the cold.

Still the woman was rambling. And then she gave Vague-Answer-Number-Two, a different location for her vehicle. "We walked on that busy road... that one over there..." and she pointed in the opposite direction from the road that goes to the lake.

At this conflicting information, the hooded boy still pacing ten feet away from the door, I went to Brady's room. While Rob kept them at the door, I calmly and firmly told Brady to get his brother and go out the back door and straight to the neighbors' house. I didn't want them here if things got dicey. "But what about you?" he asked. "I think it's ok, I'm just being safe." He grabbed Jonathan and within seconds they'd sneaked out the door and across the pasture.

Then I called my brother, who'd left our house not too long before, and asked him to come back over. Then I called my brother-in-law and asked him to come over. Better safe than sorry, I figured, and I wanted these folks to see that I have people. I didn't call 911 - though I really, really thought about it - because last time we called it took them 30 minutes to arrive. I wanted faster back-up.

All this time the woman never stopped talking. She talked about her cats, her mean husband, and her arthritis. She told me she isn't usually this fat but she has a sweater on. She told me she lives in a cabin in the woods and her son lives in the shed. She told me her son doesn't have a microwave and her brother's wife's in-laws' cousins' friend died. All this time I kept my eye and her and the boy, memorizing their clothing, her face.

As I waited for my back-up to arrive, the woman asked for a soda. Then she started on a new thread, saying, "We're not really stuck... I mean, we probably could've gotten out... but it is a little icy.... I tried a little, but my tires were spinning... but we're not really THAT stuck..."

And that's when she pointed in a third direction and gave Vague-Answer-Number-Three, saying her truck was over "on that busy road... by the farm with barns on both sides of the road..." This, incidentally, was finally some concrete information. I know which farm has barns on both sides of the road and is located on "that busy road over there." That farm is two miles from my house. And there are exactly ten houses between here and there. Ten potential stopping points. Ten options for help. Instead, they hiked two miles in the dark, in the cold, and stopped at my house?

"Did you stop anywhere else for help?" I asked.

"No... no, there were dogs, and we didn't want to scare that one boy..." More rambling. More nonsensical answers. I know every house they passed. I know there are very few dogs. I know most of the houses are lit up, advertised as perfectly good resting points for broken-down travelers.

My back-up posse arrived. We let them in. The tow truck came and took the woman and the hooded boy away. I finally got a small, quick glimpse of the boy's face - I burned it into my memory. Just in case.

My sister called and confirmed that a tow truck seemed to be stopped on a busy road near her house, just a short ways from the farm with barns on both sides of the road.

Best case scenario? The woman is a little "off" and the boy was embarrassed. But you can't ever be sure. We drove to the neighbors' to get the kids, knowing they'd be too spooked to walk home. The neighbors told us how their dog had been on high alert and even scratched his way back out of the barn after they'd penned him up thinking he was barking at a raccoon or something. When we left a short while later, the dog was still perched at the back step, in guard mode.

"He never does that," said the neighbor.

Sometimes I feel a little vulnerable living in the cornfields. We installed an alarm sensor the next day.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Reason for the Season

Whatever your reason for the season...

May your days be filled with love and laughter...

Steady work that inspires and challenges...

Smiles from hot guys loved ones....

And the magical energy of children....

A warm place to sleep....

And friends to lean on....

And silliness and laughter and a bit of home-boy mojo for good measure.

Sending our warmest wishes for peace, love, and laughter to You and Yours - From Me and Mine.

Happy Solstice and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Better Late Than Never

The presents are wrapped, the tree is righted (after an unfortunate tumble the other day), and the mother of all surprises all the laundry is done thanks to the alien beings who abducted my husband and left a laundry-doing man in his place my sweet, sweet husband.

And finally, tonight - better late than never they say - we decorated cookies. We called Grandma and asked her nicely to suck it up brave the 50 mph winds to join us, and warmed the oven.

Brady used the presses on the sugar cookies....

Rolled the dough for the cut-outs...
And then cut out the cookies.

All the while, working incognito in his hoodie. He's 15.

Even Rob, my alien-substitute darling husband, decorated a few, though all enthusiasm was gone after the Packer's *ss beating loss to the Bears. Sorry Honey.

Here's Grandma. She came over in her pajamas. But don't tell her I told you that.

And here I am, painting cookies. Notice I'm not dressed in my pajamas. Not that there's anything wrong with going out in your pajamas. I'm just sayin'.

Jonathan, however, thinks Grandma has the right idea and decorated cookies in his pajamas too. Although come to think of it, Jonathan's been in his pajamas for about 3 days straight.

I think he changed out of them for a short while so we could run to town yesterday (that's called 'an outing' for cornfield folks like us), but as soon as we got home he asked, "Are we home for the day?" and when I said yes, he changed right back into his pajamas.

Ya, I'm talkin' about you, Pajama Boy.

Why, those cookies look good enough to eat!

And just in case you're wondering, the #1 reason I'm not a food blogger still stands... is that a messy kitchen or what?!

H*lls bells, you could lose small children in there!

Friday, December 21, 2007

DO THIS: Tell the Truth

I devoured my latest edition of Life Learning Magazine last night. I was struck by the irony that as I snuggled into Brady's bed covers to read about unschooling, Brady labored at his computer studying for his first-ever high school final. While Brady completed an online study activity, I highlighted quotes like "How should your child be? The way she is." I scribbled frenetic, inspired notes in all available white space on the magazine's pages, while Brady moaned, "I am tired of studying!" So he stopped and spent two hours composing guitar music because we practiced math by figuring out he could not show up for his final and still, if our estimations were correct, pass with a D-.

In the magazine Wendy Priesnitz had an article titled "Learning in the Real World" in which she examines how personal empowerment is nurtured as kids engage in real living. Another article questioned the need for school as the middle-man if the goal of education is to teach kids how to live outside of school. (An aside: For starters, that's not the goal of the school system.) As I read these articles, I'm reminded that school's ideas of trusting children are usually limited to things like controlled choice. As a teacher I once saw this as giving some control to the students, but it was really only an illusion of control. I may have given them the options of presenting orally, making a poster, dressing as a historical figure, or building a model, but in the end they still had to produce something that I chose, and choose from a menu of options I created.

Kids aren't stupid, and that's what adults seem to forget. We mistake disobedience for inability. We connect dots that aren't in the same county much less on the same page, such as deciding a child who won't complete assignments has behavior problems. But in all the hub-bub, we never ask the kids what they think, what they want, what interests them or inspires them. We give them limited choices, and when they don't choose any of them (or don't embrace them with joy or gratitude) we suggest something is wrong with them.

A common suggestion among unschooling circles is to consider whether you'd treat a spouse, friend, or colleague the same way. If you ask something of your spouse and he disagrees so vehemently that he refuses to do it your way, do you find ways to coerce him? Do you threaten him? Do you talk to someone about screening him for ADHD? Or do you allow him his opinion? (And if you don't, that's another matter all together.)

I witnessed an interesting interaction between a child and her parents at a park a while back. The grrrl was eating a sandwich when her sister began to whine that she wanted some of it. The grrrl suggested her sister eat something else from their cooler, but the father asked her to share with her sister.

When she wouldn't, he asked again. Then he cajoled. Then he sternly suggested. Then he began raising his eyebrows when he asked again if she would share. Then he began to grimace when he asked. And then he said, "Now we have to talk," in a tone that typically means "you brought this on yourself." And off they went to "discuss" the issue.

Now, this all went down in a rather calm manner. The man didn't raise his voice. He didn't threaten punishment (though I don't know what was said when they went elsewhere). He didn't sound mean or rude or threatening or severe. Most parents would say he was, if anything, too lenient. But the grrl had politely declined to share her sandwich, and there were plenty of other foods to choose from in the cooler.

She had been sitting quietly, eating politely, enjoying her meal, when someone came up and told her she had to give it up.

When they returned from their discussion, the father announced to the rest of the family that the grrl had decided to share her sandwich.

And the grrl said, very calmly and very quietly, "I did not decide. You made me share my sandwich" as she gave half to her sister.

A minute passed and the grrl said again, very deliberately but again very quietly, "I did not decide. It was not a decision," to no one in particular. She never raised her voice, she never threw a fit or cried. She ate her sandwich in relative calm while the father smiled at the outcome, the sister gobbled up her half of the conquest, and the mother focused on her own meal.

Here's the thing - if we're going to make our children do something, shouldn't we at least be honest about it? If we're going to pull rank, shouldn't we at least assume the responsibility of it? Wear the right hat? When we demand something of someone else and then make them feel badly for not doing it willingly, it's rather insidious.

Perhaps we believe if we phrase it nicely, our young charges will feel delighted at giving the expected answer. But to truly ask, then we are suggesting there are at least two answers - yes and no - not to mention the range of everything in between. But if we ask when we really mean to demand, then what happens? We erode our own credibility for starters. And I dare say it goes downhill from there.

We owe it to our kids to tell the truth. Sometimes my truth includes "because if the kitchen is cleaner, I'll be less likely to cry." And while that too could be coercive, it's usually - by that point - the raw truth. Making demands may produce an obedient child, but what we usually hope for encompasses far more than obedience. To instill compassion and kindness, we have to live compassionately and kindly. There's no other way. And saying one thing when we mean something much different, does not lead down that path.

Many minutes later as we all cleared our lunches, the grrl still sat quietly at her place. And as I left, she said again, to no one in particular, "I did not decide."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cousin Dish

This is Cousin Tricia (formerly known as "Trish the Dish" due to her high rate of success attracting men in our college days). Dish stayed with us for four days, home from Las Vegas for grandma's funeral services and therefore, by sheer luck of timing, our early extended-family Christmas celebration. Now, Dish and I have not spent any great amount of time together since sometime in 1991, when we were in college at UW-Madison together and it was imperative that not a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night go by without painting the town red.

Dish was the responsible one. She actually studied regularly; I crammed at the last minute. She actually went to class; I skipped more than I attended. Dish was a whole lotta d*mn fun, but she had a 'look' she'd give when it was time to reign me back in. Sometimes I didn't know how to find the brake pedal. There were some things I had over Dish, though. I changed my sheets more often than she changed hers, for example. Far more often. I'm just sayin'.

Our favorite drinking man-trolling social establishment was Joe Hart's which, sadly, is no longer Joe Hart's. (I hate it when they mess with my memories like that. Even worse, the Pizza Hut where I waitressed all through college - can you say holy free-pizza-jackpot - is now a parking lot.) Joe Hart's was the sort of place where you could count on the same group of folks to end up, night after night. The whole place erupted into a loud, arm-in-arm swayin' rendition of Piano Man every night. It had a bit of an English pub flair, good food, too small bathrooms, a payphone (remember those?) I used regularly, and was plum full of very nice looking boys to choose from. Which we did. Regularly.

And we had this sort of schtick.. part of it went something like this:

Cute guy: That your friend? She's cute.

Trish the Dish: Of course she is, she's my cousin!

She was my partner in crime, my side kick, my protector, my make-you-laugh-until-your-sides-ache grrrl pal, and the fact that she's my first cousin was a super huge bonus. We had another little schtick that when employed just so, was very effective - we were kissing cousins. Dish liked to use this for shock value, and it wasn't unusual for her to call to me from all the way across the bar, wave me over, lay one on me when I got there, and say, "See?" to whichever guy she was working at the moment; and I'd just smile, shrug my shoulders, and return to the place from whence I'd come. It dropped more than a few jaws over the years, made even more fun by how nonchalantly we did it.

But an important thing to note is we very, very rarely let one of us leave with a guy. For one thing, we very, very rarely found a guy worth leaving for; at least never ones who could ensure more fun than we were having together. We weren't there to land guys, we were there to have fun; and we had the most fun together. For another thing, we took each other's safety very seriously. If Dish wanted to leave with a guy (and I'm talking about even letting her walk to the next bar with him), it was standard that I gave him the once-over, the twice-over, the check under the hood plus the kick of the tires, and I'd have done a background check if possible. We always made sure we got a good look at the bloke, and fired a few probing questions at him. We usually made sure some of our protective male friends got a good look at the guy too, adding a few thinly veiled looks-of-threat that delivered the clear message that he was being trusted with precious cargo - Dare Not Screw This Up Lest You Want to Be Hunted Down. And Maimed. No, really.

The Dish really has a way with people. One year five of us took a bus trip to Florida for spring break. Five hours into the trip Dish knew every person on the bus. Every person on the bus. While I flirted with the cute boys behind me, she went from seat to seat, wriggled herself in, started with, "Hi! I'm Tricia!" and launched into her litany of questions that always makes even the most introverted of folks crawl out for some attention. In Florida we'd walk into a nightclub and without fail, a group of people I'd never seen would hail Tricia like she was an old friend and life of the party. She was both. For years after, we'd walk down the main street on campus and it was common for Tricia to be greeted, me to say, "Who was that?" and Dish to reply, "You don't remember him? He's a psych major from Milwaukee. A senior. He was on our Florida trip."

Of course he was.

But I'm not here to share all the torrid details of our college years together. (That could be its own blog. Come over for tea sometime, though - I've got some goodies!) I'm here because Dish has finally, after all these years, finally, caught up to me, finally, in one certain department. She finally started having children! (Jeez, grrrl, I told you it was fun!)

Look who she brought with her - Baby A!

Look at that face, would you? It's enough to get a grrrl's hormones in a twist.

And here's the thing about Baby A. He's always content like this. And I mean always. Always as in all the time. Morning, noon, and night. Middle of the night, too. And middle of the morning. And middle of the noon. Or something.

Seriously. He's very happy. He's calm. He's curious. As in, what is that thing that keeps flashing in my eyes and why does this lady keep moving it around?

"Hey mom? This lady has that thing in my face again."

I told Dish she could leave him here if she wants. She probably won't, but I offered just in case. You never know. It's worth a try. I've got experience with babies. And we've got lots of fun things to do around here.

And I won't always put him to sleep on the bathroom floor. Just sometimes.

For the record (and for those who have DCFS on speed-dial because of times like this), Dish took him into the bathroom while she showered and he fell asleep. We have better places for babies to sleep in our house. Like in my arms.
We became fast friends, Baby A and me. And thanks to Baby A, I have a new nickname - Cousin L.
Doesn't Baby A look like he belongs here with me? Don't I look good with Baby A on my lap? I think he'd fit in nicely with our family. Here, my niece Maddie (Cousin M) helps me entertain him. Except, he doesn't require entertaining. Maybe we were just entertaining ourselves.

And Baby A even helps Brady study for finals. Brady needed help writing some essays, so Baby A, Dog D, and I came to the rescue. We hung out and took pictures and got to know each other better and discussed which room he'll want when he gets a bit older while Brady studied.

But Baby A, frankly, was a bit disgusted with the state of Brady's study area. He got Brady started on his history essay by asking some leading questions about the geography of Ancient Egypt, then fussed, "I can't work in these conditions."

You can see how Brady (Cousin B) was happy to have Baby A's input. "Hey Baby A, why does my mom call your mom Dish?"

But alas, Jonathan's activity seemed far more engaging and fun. Baby A decided to get in a little video game action.

I think he's gonna fit in just fine around here. Don't you, Dish?


Where you goin' with that baby?



Monday, December 17, 2007

The Art (of Being Single) Project

I remember when my dad sat us kids down in 1991 and asked what we thought about building a lake home. I think we were packing our snorkels before he got the question out of his mouth.

The whole famn damily went to our lake home in northern Wisconsin over the Thanksgiving weekend.

But knowing that it can be a bit wacky having everyone there in the winter, all cooped up in one house, I brought 3 totebags full of art supplies.

We had lots to do.

We did bottle cap art. This is a Klutz kit I bought but lost in the land-of-no-return that is our craft closet. It was a hit, except those d*mn, measly, cheap-*ss kits always come with lots of fluff and very few materials.

We did gaming. There was a video game going on in the basement at all times. That's Jonathan, my husband, and my (single) brother, Matt.

We made cut-origami stars. That was fun!

We hung the Christmas lights outside.
We chopped firewood. The men chopped, the kids hauled, and Brady and I moved the old, dry wood to the front so the new, wet wood could be stacked behind.

And Brady even had to do homework. He took a few breaks to text things like 'my teacher is a rotten cad for assigning a 1000-word paper on Thanksgiving weekend' to his friends. Or maybe that's just what was going through MY head.

But the BIG art activity of the weekend was creating our quilt! I bought a quilt kit from a fundraiser and told the kids we'd all do it together sometime. Participation was required of all parties, though some have been wily enough to get out of it to date. They will be found. They will do a quilt square.

Ana was a quilt square machine. She created about six.

Madelina finished quilt squares faster than I could put them in front of her. She finished about six, too.

Marcelo helped Armando draw the red ski boat on a quilt square.

Jackie did two. Marcel did one. He even sketched his ahead of time, to get it just right. He's a perfectionist like that.

Armando was very fond of blue.

After micro-managing helping everyone else, I finally got a chance to do two.

And mom did one.

Rob even did one but made me pinky-swear I wouldn't show it to anyone. Brady has yet to do his.

And Jonathan finally did his at home. (He was too busy gaming to do one up north!)

Even my little brother made one. That's Matt. He's single. He likes long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and all types of music.

Aren't those quilt squares lovely? I'll post a picture of the final product after it's assembled.

Matt, my single brother who owns his own condo, decorated an 'I' for University of Iowa, his alma mater. He's educated. And single.

Here's Matt cutting firewood with an ax. No hydraulic-powered splitter for this farm boy; he uses raw muscle power. He's very clean, great with kids, and funny. Not that that has anything to do with splitting firewood, I'm just making small talk.

Here are the boyz after a long, hard, sweaty day of manly-man work wood cutting. The two on the ends aren't single. But the one in the middle is. When he's not cutting wood, hauling haybales, marching for world peace, or visiting his mother, he makes a mega-ton good money working for Humana.

Oh, and grrrls? The man does dishes!