Six things my sons have never seen me do (and two they have)

I was in the basement the other day, folding Mt. Laundry as usual, when my eye fell on the ironing board in the corner. I wondered when the last time was used it. I gazed at the rather crinkly blouse in my hand, and wondered how long it would be until I used it again. (Certainly not at 11 pm on a Sunday night!) Then it occurred to me that my sons had never seen me use it. Not once. It was unlikely they even knew what it was for.

What other things are there that I know how to do – that I was carefully trained for by patient parents – that my sons have never witnessed in their memory? As I gradually eroded Mt. Laundry, I compiled a list.

Iron clothing
I remember my mother in the living room on a Saturday night, ironing my father’s work shirts: collar, sleeve, fronts & back. I remember being taught how to do it myself – the hiss as you pulled the iron upright, the spurt of steam to ease out a particularly wrinkled patch and the moist warmth of the rapidly cooling cloth as you pulled it onto a hanger to join the rest. My husband wears button up shirts to work every day, but I discovered the wonders of “no iron” shirts. One or two of my shirts ought to be ironed. In response, I never wear those shirts. And even if I unburied that old ironing board and exhumed the iron we bought when I got married… I do my laundry segregated in a laundry room in the basement. (One of the few joys of doing the laundry is you get to watch WHATEVER YOU WANT ALL BY YOURSELF while you fold it.) So my sons would not be introduced to the phenomenon even then.

Clean the house – including vacuuming & dusting
I work full time. Lately, full time has been even fuller than 40 hours a week. I also have a 1 hr each way, each day commute, and I travel for work regularly. Once home, I cook for my family, do aforementioned laundry, schedule our summers, pay the bills, raise two kids, volunteer in my church and enjoy a rich social life. Sometimes I even make it to the gym to work out! About the time Grey turned two, cleaning the house on a glorious Saturday morning, I wondered how much it would take to hire cleaners to come once every two weeks. I have barely turned on a vacuum since that glorious day.

Now, I know *how* to clean a house. I can mop. I can vacuum. I can dust, and wash windows. I can polish. I’m not amazingly great at it, nor is it a great source of pride to me. But my sons have never seen me spend a Saturday morning truly cleaning the house. Magic fairies (we call them “the ladies” which is questionably accurate) come and make the house smell great and change our sheets and scrub the floors. I threaten the kids to pick up their room with the reminder that “the ladies” are coming and anything left on the floor will inevitably get put into a random bin. I think that – unlike ironing a shirt – cleaning a house is actually an important skill for a kid to have, so I’m trying to figure out how I’ll teach them this vestigial skill of mine before they become responsible for their own houses.

Lest this list get to be a list of ways in which I am not a housewife, I thought I’d add in one other thing that I would like to do, and don’t. Since I tore my meniscus night on four years ago, I’ve noticed I’m very physically careful. I have a back which is a challenge, and a zombie left knee, and I’m often sore and achy. And so… I don’t jump. I just don’t. I don’t hop or leap or generally move quickly. I’m active – I hike and climb. You wouldn’t think of me as a sedentary person – but I wouldn’t (for example) jump on the trampolines at Skyzone, and I often bow out of activities that require cutting and dodging. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever rediscover my courage and flexibility, or if this will become who I am.

Sew a button – or anything
In Jr. High and High School, we were fortunate to have vocational education. There was a well appointed “Home Ec” classroom and quite an extensive shop with gear for woodworking, machinery, CAD and other practical applications. (Fun fact: my computers credit in high school was actually in CAD drafting.) In a sign that the ’50s were still going strong in that neck of the woods at that time, by default in Jr. High the girls would get one semester of Shop with Mr. Jones and three semesters of Home Ec with Mrs. Muir. I suffered through my required first semester of Home Ec, learning how to bake a biscuit and sewing an apron (seriously – an apron!?!?). I learned enough to sew a seam, thread a bobbin, put on a button and read a pattern. But although I cook often and regularly, clothing now does not reward the effort of sewing. It costs considerably more to buy fabric and sew it yourself than to go to Kohl’s and get something.

I particularly thought of this because Thane made a puppet in Cozumel and LOVED sewing it. Loved it. I think he’d really enjoy learning some sewing, but I’ll extremely ill-suited to teaching him. Also, let us speak of gender neutral options that exist in sewing kits. (HINT: THEY DON’T!)

After my first semester of home ec and my first semester of shop, I knew which one I preferred. There could not be a RULE that said girls couldn’t do shop instead of Home Ec and so I happily spent 8th grade as the one girl in a class of 26 guys learning how to put together a lawnmower engine and turning a bowl on a lathe.

Sit down & write a letter to my mom
I have loved writing letters for my whole life. I still do. I have boxes full of papers and envelopes, and stacks of pencils. I have written hundreds of letters in my life – to my uncle, or my penpal on the Island of Sumatra that I once met in Olympia and wrote to for years. I wrote letters in codes. I wrote them backwards. I wrote them and then cut them up to be a puzzle. I wrote to people I knew well and people I’d never met.

I remember my mother writing letters too. She wrote to her mother, mostly. I remember the envelopes with the return address from Zaire and lovely block pattern that were filled with regular missives – daughter to mother – and the return envelopes that came with beautiful cursive addresses.

But. Well. My mom reads my blog, right? And sometimes I call her on my way home. Periodically I send her emails or comment on her G+ postings. Once a year – on Mother’s Day – I write her a letter. (HINT HINT SIBLINGS!) But to my sons, that letter is indistinguishable from goofing off on Facebook, or being at work, or playing Minecraft. It’s just mom on her computer, again.

Chop wood
For a period growing up, our home was heated by wood. (This was true of many homes around us, and remains true for some.) My father, the archetypal good Boy Scout, knew all about the cutting, splitting, stacking and seasoning of firewood, as well as the tending of fires. I learned this art on hot August afternoons where there was no where I’d rather NOT be than in the “back forty” splitting, stacking & hauling with wood chips in my hair and splinters in my fingers. We’d get a cord or two of logs delivered off a local logging truck – which were were NOT allowed to play on lest they shifted. Then we’d gradually cut our way through them, trying to make sure no one got crushed or chain-sawed up or had an axe head fly off at them.

The Easter I was 13, my grandfather gave me my very own axe. (A Boy Scout axe, light and sharp, with a blue handle and gilt writing.) I know how to aim an axe, how to heft it. How to condense the space between your hands as the head flies towards to wood. I know where not to stand when someone else is splitting. I know what to do when the axe gets stuck. I know when you’ll need a splitting maul instead, and how to construct a woodstack that will be a pride to you among your neighbors. (Actually, I’m not really sure we ever got that right. I for one did not care about the opinion of my neighbors on my wood stacking abilities.)

Ah, the things that I learned to do that are of a time past. I doubt I will ever regularly iron my husband’s shirts during M*A*S*H episodes, sew a summer dress, heat my house with wood or spend an hour every week to write my mother a letter and put it in the mail. (I may eventually have to clean my house again, and I hope some day I’ll get to jump!)

But while my housewifery is clearly being called into questions, there are a few arcane arts I preserve. I often feel – when I do these things – like an archivist or a wizard. I think very much of my ancestors while I do these things. I remember their hands at work at these same tasks.

Bake bread & pies
There was a period of my life when my mother decided to bake all our bread. This was particularly true when she was struggling with her carpal tunnel syndrome. She said that working the dough made her hands feel better. I remember the countertop kneading, the distinctive slap as she’d shape the loaves. I certainly remember how delicious they were. (She usually made 2 small loaves, one of which was mine by right and tradition.) I mastered my mother’s recipe (although I make it much more rarely since my husband bakes bread for us weekly!) and still enjoy that same slap on the loaf!

I also learned to make her pies, although in all truth I have never mastered quite that pinch of the crust that she makes look so effortless. Also, it took me like 9 years to get my crusts to come out round instead of square.

My sons have stood in the kitchen and watched me in my apron – flour on the tip of my nose – wresting with dough. Just like I watched my mom. But better yet, they have also watched their father do the same!

Put up a batch of jam
I usually do this after they’re in bed, truthfully. But they have watched me transform a bushel of apples to gleaming jars of apple butter. I picked the crabapples during their soccer practice which I turned into delicate pink crabapple jelly. I remember my great grandmother’s crabapple jelly, made from the tree in our back yard. Every time I hear the “pop”! of a jar lid, I remember. And hopefully my boys with find the sound a keen source of memory too – connecting them through shared memory across generations.

So, what do you no longer do? What do your children not realize you even know how to do? And what relics of bygone eras do you hold firmly to

Ernie and the Tiger’s Eye

Between the ages of 6 and 9, I lived in a small, remote farming town in the desert/agriculture side of Washington State. The sign as you entered Prosser proudly proclaimed that it was a friendly town with friendly people.

One day I hatched a scheme to scare up some additional pocket money for penny candy at Bonanza 88. I and my best friend Jasmine would draw pictures and go door to door selling them. Now keep in mind that my art skills then were roughly as good as my art skills now. Which is to say that I still can’t draw worth a darn. In a flurry of activity we drew 15 or 20 artistic renderings with crayon on pieces of paper. Then, methodically, went door to door across the whole block – we two little girls.

I’m guessing we failed to ask permission on that one.

Happily, this story does not end up with years going to therapy or my body in a ditch or anything. We had a perfectly lovely time. Some people weren’t home. I have in my memory the face of an immigrant family, completely bewildered by this underage door-to-door salesmanship. Two of the houses I remember particularly. One of them was white, and had snap-dragons lining the walkway. I paused on my way up to make them snap. At home was a grandmother-type, by herself. She had a blue cut glass bowl of ribbon candy – old and sticky – on her table. We stayed quite a while there. I believe she had popsicles. I’m sure she rounded up quarter for us, so we left her house satisfied entrepreneurs.

The last house we left was only three or four doors down from my house. It was blue – a slate blue – with a red door. It was a two story house – unusual in our land-abundant, ranch-heavy town. I suspect it was one of the oldest houses in town. In it was Ernie. Ernie and I formed a strong friendship. He was very old – I believe he was a WWI vet. And his house was filled with all manner of fascinating things. Ernie never moved from his chair between the front door and the kitchen, but he knew exactly where every single object in his house was. Jasmine came with me that first time, but I went back by myself many times.

Ernie’s basement was a hall of wonders. There were mounted heads on plaques. He had a hand-turned crank that lit a light. There were cupboards and drawers and cubbies – all neat and organized and lovely and full of nifty things. Ernie must have delighted to play the classic old guy trick of giving me a tiger’s-eye and telling me I had to keep it with me at all times to fend off tigers, and going on about how well it had worked for him. If I headed up the stairs to the now-still bedrooms, there were daintier things telling of a bygone time when daughters and wives had populated the house. My favorite, on the stairs, was a popup book of gnomes. When you pulled the handles, all manner of funny (and scandalously inappropriate to my mind then) things would happen. Ernie would send me on a quest to a particular room, and have me either look at something there or bring it back to him. Then he would tell me stories about it.

I suspect that Ernie lived an accomplished and interesting life, of which I saw the briefest pages. I’ve loved old codgers my entire life, since I was a young girl, and Ernie was the finest vintage of old codger. I do not remember saying goodbye to him. I wonder if I disappeared? If I told him I was leaving? If I just stopped coming? If, perhaps, he didn’t answer his door one day? I don’t know, and will likely never find out.

Of course, this idyllic turn of entrepreneurial zest somehow did not meet with maternal approval after I got home with five quarters and a bunch of stories. I was *supposed* to be playing at Jasmine’s house, not wandering the block as an itinerant artist. My ear was mightily bent on the topic of “talking to strangers”. (“But mom! He’s not a stranger now!”) But I was chastened, at least temporarily.

Thus it was when, a week later, I seriously hurt myself a mile away from home while with my sister, I walked that entire mile – bloody, with gravel deeply embedded in face, hands and knees – turning down all offers of assistance from kindly grownups who offered to call my mom, explaining through pouring tears that “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers or go into their houses.”

You may all take a moment, friends, to have great pity on my mother.

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary

Thane sets out the cookies for Santa
Thane sets out the cookies for Santa

It was midnight when my fellow-Santa and I laid the final touches around the tree. The cookies artistically partially eaten. The massive stuffed animal with the bow. The careful interspersing of presents – the ones from Santa outermost to indicate the jolly old elf had laid them there himself. We were weary from a lovely long day of cleaning, cooking, preparing, and caroling at our church. Our children had fallen asleep in record time. We’d had a lovely chat with some old friends in the neighborhood, and now we were ready for repose. We lingered, looking at the tree lights, looking forward to the morning’s joyous faces.

Ready for the morning!

The next morning at seven, I thought I heard some noise downstairs. “Aha!” I thought. “My children bestir themselves. Perhaps they’ve started to open their stockings! I don’t want to a miss a minute.!” I shook my beloved awake and headed down the stairs, muzzy-minded.

To my shock – my horror – a scene of wrapping mayhem lay below me. My sons were in the midst of a piranhic frenzy of quiet unwrapping. Well over half their gifts lay strewn around in the shards of wrapping paper littering the floor.

STOP! STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP! I sat on the stairs, weak-kneed, as they looked up at me with confused faces. “This,” I said to my similarly week-kneed husband, “May be funny later. Maybe.”

Perhaps this was the culprit of the Great Christmas Mayhem!
Perhaps this was the culprit of the Great Christmas Mayhem!

After a good number of deep breaths, a pot of coffee and a very long explanation to the children that we open presents TOGETHER like we have every Christmas for their entire LIVES, I satisfied myself that there was an excellent chance that Grey really believed he was being kind in letting us sleep in. We talked through the presents they had already opened, and slowly enjoyed the rest together. We did enjoy ourselves, once our hearts got back to a normal tempo.

I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture of the carnage, with the sweet, innocent confused faces wreaking it.

This is what most of this week has looked like around here

Twelve hours later, my brother, mother and father had all arrived in my house, bringing loot and Christmas cheer with them. As I worked on the roast lamb, I became increasingly uneasy with my menu. The lamb, with carrots, celery and parsnips, had seemed a quintessentially British dish, well served with Yorkshire Pudding and Christmas Pudding. But there was tomato sauce. The veggies were cubed small. And spice numbers 5 and 6 were turmeric and saffron. These are not British spices. On further review, the dish was downright Indian. So I scrapped the Yorkshire pudding and substituted rice, and I’m delighted to report it was absolutely the right call. (And a delicious recipe to boot!)

A beautifully set table with lovely people
A beautifully set table with lovely people

I likely warned my family 10 times that night that I would not be offended if the Christmas pudding turned out to be inedible. It seemed unlikely to be good. 4 cups of raisins and only one each of flour and sugar? Dates and citrons? Suet? This incredible double boiling maneuver – done twice? I’d be lucky if anyone ate two spoonsful. The hard sauce – equal parts butter and powdered sugar – might be eaten straight. But I doubted even it could rescue this unlikely looking concoction. I poured the brandy on with liberal hand and set the pudding to blue flame, lasting far longer than I thought it would and bathing the wide eyes of my son in eerie light.



And so has this time with my sons and my husband, my mother and father and brother been. I hope you, too, have had a joyful and restful holiday!

I have pictures of our Christmas celebrations here.

Also, since all the Christmas Cards that will be sent have been sent, you can see pictures of the great photo shoot we had this autumn here!

A fine and pleasant misery

“Modern technology has taken most of the misery out of the outdoors. Camping now is aluminum-covered, propane-heated, foam-padded, air-conditioned, bug-proofed, flip-topped, disposable and transistorized. Hardship on a modern camping trip is blowing a fuse on your electric underwear, or having the battery peter out on your Porta-Shaver. A major catastrophe is spending your last coin on a recorded Nature Talk and then discovering that Camp Comfort and Sanitation Center (featuring forest green tile floors and hot showers) has pay toilets.

“There are many people around nowadays who seem to appreciate the fact that a family can go on an outing without being out. But I am not one of them. Personally, I miss the old-fashioned misery of old-fashioned camping.”

Patrick McManus – A Fine and Pleasant Misery

Below the deluge

Gazing over the scene on Saturday morning, I gazed around contentedly. “Patrick,” I thought, “Patrick would be proud of me now.” Mr. McManus was quite an influence on my young mind. He and I had briefly lived in the same part of the country: his high school football team had played against the town my brother had been born in. But I had been an itinerant through Idaho’s panhandle, and he. Well, he belonged there. But it was from Patrick that I learned that it was the nature of a rope to be 6 inches too short. Patrick taught me that any time my husband asks for some expensive hobby gear, the right answer is always, “At least he doesn’t like bass fishing”. I have learned from this old sage from the time I was about Grey’s age and found a stack of his books in my grandfather’s cabin in the woods of Washington State.

But the last few years, I felt like I’d been letting old Pat down. I mean, White Lake State Park is a nice campground. Far too nice. I mean, the Sanitation center has flush toilets and coin operated showers! Running water! A nice little store. You can get pizza delivered, for heaven’s sake. And we sleep on an air mattress. I can feel his disappointment from here.

This camping trip, though, I was making up for it. I stood under a patchwork of tarps, held together by a labrynthine network of ropes that were all 6 feet too long (my husband likes to do things with his own flair). The rain made an incessant, staccato beat – drowning out the call of the loons. The wind was picking up, driving the sheets of water further under the tarp. And it was about fifty degrees, but the forecast called for it to get cold soon. All in all, it was a fine and pleasant misery, and I was content. I puttered around, humming, “It is Well With My Soul”, deeply satisfied.

When I made reservations last year, I accidentally made the Memorial Day reservation an extra day. Gazing at dreariness of November, I figured that was just the thing. I imagined lolling by the lake, regaling each other in front of the fire and perhaps even practicing my guitar and being discovered as an astonishing new talent. I kept the five days, and took Tuesday as a vacation day. As Memorial day crept closer and closer, I started getting nervous. It looked a little soggy and cool. But, I reasoned, it had rained every camping trip of the first year we went camping, when Thane was nine months old. I bought better-rated sleeping bags and cast my faith on the Lord.

This wasn’t accurate. It got colder than that, and rained more.

And lo, it wasn’t as bad as it had looked a few days prior. No, it was much worse. Saturday was horrific by camping standards. It was about 50 degrees and bucketing. One began to worry about flooding. We didn’t have a tarp over the fire, so breakfast that morning was courtesy of Dunkin’ Donuts. “Hey boys!” I called. “Let’s go swimming!!!” “Moooooooom! Stop lying!” “Nope. Go get your swim suits.”

Well, what Patrick McManus doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

It cost a bundle, but it was worth it to be warm.

We went to Kahuna Laguna up in North Conway. It was actually very fun. I discovered that thanks to his swimming lessons during afterschool, Grey was now a good enough swimmer to be released on his own recognizance in a controlled environment with lifeguards, so we did just that. This left one grownup able to pursue their own agenda. The fourteen year old boys running the fastest water slide started giving me a funny look after my fourth run… but what good is it being a grownup if you can’t run the big, fast waterslide?

After three or so hours of swimming, Thane started crying because his foot hurt. Now, if you know Thane you know that broken bones would most likely be shrugged off in the right circumstance, so this was suspicious. He was presented with chicken fingers, which he verbally disdained. Then he bolted three of them, slurped down 10 ounces of lemonade, and collapsed on me solidly asleep. I held his incredibly tall, strong, long, active boyness for over an hour, losing sensation in various body parts. And I thought as I held my golden-haired son, quiet on my lap, that this was very likely the last time one of my sons would ever sleep in my arms. Long-lashes against ruddy cheek, I did not begrudge the failing circulation in my legs for the gift of that last time – known and recognized.

That night, Adam and I played BattleLine on the picnic table – cold and far from the fire that spit against the falling rain. The peace of our evening was only periodically disturbed by having to yell at the kids to GO TO SLEEP ALREADY twenty or so times.

Having fun together – regardless of location – since 2007.

Finally, the weather turned the next day. Yes, it started getting windy and dropped to about 45 degrees. Leveraging un-Patrick-approved powers of technology (indeed, one of my friends started making fun of my Facebook updates of misery), I arranged to meet our next door neighbors from home at the Meredith Children’s Museum. Now, this museum might not seem like a great museum to someone without children. But here’s the thing… there were NO SIGNS telling you what not to do. Instead, everything was fair game for kids to play with. And oh they did! The Rube Goldberg Room, the Castle Room, the Bubbles and Puzzles room. It was GREAT. It was full of things that actually appealed to kids, instead of things that appeal to grownups misunderstandings of kids. I’m definitely adding it to our list of things to do when it rains.

Even the bigger kids really got into parts of it.

We went out to lunch afterwards. Grey and his best friend wandered off by themselves. We found them playing cards together, and just left them to it. Who knew they played cards? Thank you, afterschool, for teaching them useful things!

I’m not even sure what the game was!

That night, returning to our campsite, we luxuriated in the tarp over the fire, which helped to more efficiently direct smoke into our car. The rain had also discovered a new trip and was coming in sideways. One thing I love about camping is how you get to bed so early! 9 pm!

To be continued…

If you want to see pictures, I’ve uploaded some here: A portion of the pictures

Great Spas of the World

One of my favorite kinds of pampering is to get a massage. It was regular massage which finally put an end to my chronic back pain – I get monthly myofascial and deep tissue massage at Skin to Soul in Stoneham (which I would strongly recommend to anyone local!) Wheen I go on vacation, I really enjoy checking out unique (and reputable) spa locations.

Last week this time I was sitting in a Scandinavian Spa overlooking the St. Lawrence river in Montreal, and thinking about some of the other, really cool experiences I’ve had. I decided to pretend I was a World Traveler and offer to you a guide to some of the most interesting and best experiences I’ve encountered!

We took a nice nap on those bean bag thingies
We took a nice nap on those bean bag thingies

Montreal Quebec: Scandinave Baths – Les Bains
The concept of the Scandinavian spa seems masochistic. First, you get really, really hot in a sauna. Then you go jump in an icy lake. Maybe you have to break a hole in the ice to get in. Then you repeat the experience. I’ve never done this before – I kept getting lost at the “icy lake” part. But a visit to the baths on a frigid and windy April day in Quebec seemed like just the thing. I signed my husband and I up for an afternoon massage and carefully read the preparation instructions (bring your own swimsuit!).

The spa (and there are several spread across Canada, in case you’re interested) took that original Scandinavian theme and expanded on it. First, there was the fluffy white bathrobe and high tech locker locks. (Magnetic waterproof bracelets!) Then there were the signs abjuring all to complete silence, or at least muffled whispering. The spa itself was filled with the sound of crashing water from the hot-water-fall. There were three hot spots, two cold spots, and lounges full of medium-temperatures, comfy chairs and dim lighting. There was also a very expensive juice bar, in case you got hungry or thirsty for something other than water.

The three hot spots were a full-swimming-pool-sized hot tub with aforementioned hot-water-fall. You have never seen such an expanse of 120 degree water before! For the non-immersed, there was a Eucalyptus steam sauna, where every ten minutes or so the walls vented fragrant steam. It was HOT. Finally, there was a standard dry sauna. The goal was to stay in the hot rooms until you were entirely too hot. Then – on to the cold! There was a very small pool – even smaller than a hot tub but deeper. And there was an enclosed, motion-activated shower. You popped into one or the other – for just a moment – to cool off your skin. (You were encouraged to get out before your overheated core temperature was affected at all.) Then, you moved to the resting area where there was lounging and a juice bar and comfy chairs to drowse until you got a bit chilly (aka your core body temperature got back to normal) and/or your heartbeat returned to normal, then you did it again.

We started off with one cycle, then got a massage, and then I did two more cycles. That all took like four hours. Four hours of quiet. Of just sitting and not doing anything. Four hours of not really focusing your eyes because it was steamy and not really having to stay awake if you found staying awake hard. I took a nap snuggled up on one of the chairs with my husband.

It was great.

This completely private hot tub looks out over a beautiful forested hill
This completely private hot tub looks out over a beautiful forested hill

It brought to mind another hot-tub/massage experience, though. This one as culturally different as possible. The Scandinavian Baths were all high tech and high price. I joked to Adam that we were soaking above our class, and in truth I felt surrounded by the monied elite (which was probably exactly the image the spa wants to cultivate). One of my very favorite places to visit is Wellspring. Based in the foothills of Mt. Rainier – just a hop and skip down the road from the National Park Entrance – is an organically grown haven. It started with a woman and a dream. Sunny learned massage. She built a massage cottage, and a hot tub. It burned down. She built it again. And another. And other cabins for people to sit in with each other and nature. Trails grew out of her hideaway. Labrynths were made. Her latest great moment is the discovery and appreciation of a natural grotto, which Sunny has carefully cultivated with a near-druidic eye to be a place of celebration.

The grotto is even more beautiful than this picture shows
The grotto is even more beautiful than this picture shows

Surrounded by peace and joy, and then there are the hot tubs and the massages! When I go home, I sign my husband and I up for a pair of massages. The best of the hot tubs overlooks a superb Northwest forest hillside, with a rippling brook in front and a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees up to the sky. It is perfectly private there, and the hot tub is quiet. We take turns soaking and looking and being while the other person is getting their massage (and their catch up session with Sunny!) It is entirely wholesome and relaxing and joyful – and full of the spirit of the Northwest.

My sister and husband honeymooned there. I’d love to pass a night there, but it seems a little silly when my parents live 12 miles away. Maybe some day!

This captures it pretty well, actually.

The last, and most culturally distinct, of the great Spas I Have Known, were the Turkish Baths at Cagaloglu (pronounced Ja-la-lu). These held on to a cultural tradition going back to early Roman times of communal bath-houses where the purposes was to get clean. It was a three hundred year old bath house, made in marble with ancient steam pipes heating vast slabs (slightly too short for modern women).

I wrote about it in great detail, but I often find my my leaning back to the silver ewers and taps, the hot marble, the provocatively protected skylights and the old Anatolian women scrubbing my back.

So to summarize: I recommend you visit them all. Tell them I said “hi” and I’ll be back as soon as I can!

Also, just for my husband, I give you this. My eldest son declares this his favorite movie, above even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Star Wars. We don’t waste weekends around here!


My home jersey number was 12.
My home jersey number was 12.

I’m sitting on the wooden floor of a gym right now, listening to the distinctive percussion and squeaks of a basketball practice. The practicees in question are between 6 – 8 years of age. For many of them, it’s their first time with a basketball. Others can, with calm collection, make actual baskets on full height hoops. This is the tenth and final session – I’ve signed Msr. Grey up for another basketball session at the Y next session. But already I think he’s better than I was in Jr. High. He can dribble (kind of), pass (kind of) and shoot (kind of). He doesn’t know the rules of the game, but that will come.

Depending on why, how and when you know me, it may come as a vast surprise to you that I played basketball. In fact, not only did I play basketball, I played at the State level. (A Very Big Deal, in case you’re from a more urban or non-American childhood.) I started Jr. High as a three sport “athlete”. I played volleyball, basketball and track – in addition to my rather extensive musical activities. With volleyball, I only lasted through jr high, although I was a line judge through high school – respected enough they brought me along when they went to state. With track, I ran the mile, the 100 meter high hurdles, the long jump, the triple jump and the relay. I was terrible at the running, and middle of the pack at the jumping. I lasted to sophomore year of high school. I was part of a state relay team, and was part of the handoff that dropped the baton. I took full responsibility.

But I lasted longest in basketball, and liked it best.

Lest my litany of athletic accomplishment make you think you have misjudged me, I promise you haven’t. I was a TERRIBLE athlete. None of it came naturally. I had no prior exposure to sports. I didn’t know even the most basic rules of sports games. Things that were part of the culture and nature of my peers had passed me by. I recall in a certain little league game, I skipped third base on a good hit because it seemed more efficient to run straight home. And although I was healthy and somewhat active, I was not at all athletic. I still am not at all athletic.

But I think athletics taught me some of the most important lessons I learned in high school. First, it taught me how to be terrible at something I tried hard to do. I mostly did things that came easily to me. Academics were never my problem. Like most people I focused on things I was good at and convinced myself that things I was bad at were less important and less valuable. I think it’s very easy to put your head down, focus on your areas of competence and ignore your areas of weakness. It helped that a certain segment of society agreed that academics were more important than sports.

But because my school was so very small (There were fewer than 120 kids in the high school. My graduating class was HUGE with 42. Two years prior, we’d graduated 28.), and so very athletic, there was somehow enough peer pressure or something to convince me to attempt to challenge my weakness, and study an area in which I was not interested. But with basketball, I was terrible. I had no natural advantages and several significant disadvantages. I couldn’t shoot, had ball handling skills worse than several of these kids I’m watching now, got tired running and generally struggled.

But I practiced, and practiced. I played with the boys at lunch (to their vast chagrin). I ran the lines hard. I tried to force my uncompliant body shoot from the knees, follow-through, know the ball. I got playing time because the school was so small that everyone got playing time. I progressed from the worse player on the team to only the second worst player on the team. Despite my massive incompetence, there was a lot of pressure to sign up for the the team because – truly – we were on the edge of not having enough players to HAVE a JV team. My coaches went from annoyed to bemused to fondly affectionate as the years clocked by. Over six long years, I became a part of the team.

In my final basketball memory, we were in Spokane at State (where the Morton/White Pass girl’s and boy’s basketball teams are right now, as a matter of fact). It was our third game. After having won the first two, we were against a local team and I don’t mind admitting that the refs were horribly biased. It would have been a tight game anyway – they were good – but after our top scorers* fouled out we had no chance. You are allowed to bring 12 girls to the game. Our team only had 11. So I was there – at the bottom of the bench – living and dying with every pass up and down the court. My grandfather and dad were there – my grandfather actually put my paralyzed grandmother into respite care for a weekend so he could be there, for me, at the state tournament. And Mr. Henderson and Mr. Coleman – losing one of the biggest games they’d coached – grinned and looked at me and told me to get on the court. There were 1:47 seconds left, and in that time they ran all the plays around getting me a shot.

I missed one and committed a foul and am IN THE BOOKS at the state tournament. I had earned (and been given) a place where I was not gifted, capable, advanced or impressive. I had conquered my weakness, ignorance and inability with great effort in order to accomplish medoicrity. I would never be GOOD. But I was there, and it was good for me indeed.

It may be that I am taking that experience of being terrible away from my son with these early lessons. He’ll never feel quite as out of water as I did, and in his image of himself, he is athletic. But I can’t say enough about the importance of trying really hard to do things you’re terrible at – so that you can understand what can be accomplished by hard work, and what you were given as a gift. I had spent years feeling smug in classrooms as the kids next to me struggled with things that came easily to me. I needed the gift of humility that came with then going to practice and struggling with things that came easily to them.

*One of the very best – well top three – of the basketball players on that team was Brandy Clark. I remember her primarily as an astonishingly good 3 point shooter. She could get 7 of 10 from the three point line, even under pressure. She was an awesome weapon – with a thick ponytail and a big smile. I didn’t even know that she PLAYED guitar. To me, she was primarily a great athlete and nice person. Her song Better Dig Two just won a Country Music Award and is topping the Country Music Charts.

Another of the great players on that team – Sarah – was an astonishingly gifted all around player. She was fast, tall, had amazing hands, and could really shoot. I’ve since seen pictures of her on Facebook with another Morton Grad… at the White House Christmas party standing next to Michelle Obama. I remember Sarah thanking me, my senior year, for helping her see “brainiacs” in a more sympathetic light. She told me she respected me. It meant a lot.

I sometimes ponder how incredible and lucky it is that I have spent so much of my life surrounded by such incredible people, even if we didn’t know it that winter in Spokane when we were 15.

Christmas Letter 2012

I send out a number of Christmas cards every year. Many years I include a Christmas letter, so that I can focus on writing a personal note in the card instead of an update on what’s happening in our lives. As frequent blog-readers, all y’all (Hey, I’m in Georgia right now! It’s allowed!) know most of this stuff anyway, but here it is!*

Adam laughed for 10 minutes at the thought of including this annual Christmas photo in the card we gave to our garbageman.

Dearest Friends,

This year feels like it stretched out long and full – like a cat in a sunbeam. The year has been full of moments caught and enjoyed. After a two year tenure at a life sciences company, I switched to become a Solutions Architect at a software company that creates software. I took the job for more than just a great title, and have been incredibly busy and very satisfied. Adam is still with a healthcare non-profit and among other things has had fun working on mobile applications.

As our sons grow older, there’s also been a little more time for other things in our life. I had started Grey on guitar lessons, but he did not enjoy them. During one frustrating lesson, I took over for him. Now, nine months in, I’m getting pretty decent. I can read three kinds of notation and play several songs almost in tempo. It’s a completely different skill than trumpet, and downright exhilarating to learn! I also continue to blog at, and started a new blog at .

Adam and I spent our twelfth anniversary idylling in Ashland Oregon. We watched Henry V in the Elizabethan, followed the political trials of Lyndon B. Johnson, played “Lords of Scotland” while eating pizza next to Lithia Creek, and white water rafted the Rogue (which was awesome!). The boys didn’t miss us at all as they went to Camp Gramp with their cousins. The winter was mild and easy. Spring was short and sprightly. The summer was full of camping, canning and beaches. The fall was birthdays and apples and games and storms.

The only cloud on the year was the loss of our two kitty cats. Magic died in the spring of old age, leaving a legacy of love and cat hair. Justice – an indoor/outdoor cat with a strong penchant for adventure – died with his boots on during his adventures. I’m grateful that he was able to come home and rest in the back yard he once prowled. They are both missed by large and small in our home.

Grey began first grade this year. He continues as a strong reader with a particular preference for those odious books intended for pre-adolescent boys (think “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Captain Underpants”). Happily, he also branches out into less nauseating literature, such as “Alice in Wonderland”. The great passions of his 7 year old life are Legos and drawing cartoons. The cartoons are quite good. He’ll come home with stacks of “collectible cards” he and his friends drew at after-school. He does an amazing job of following Lego building instructions, and his room is practically carpeted in Legos. He is still in aikido, and has earned his green belt.

Fortunately for filial peace, Thane is also completely Lego-obsessed right now. I swear he wills his four-year-old fingers to the fine movements required to work with “little Legos”. He spends an astonishing amount of time for a child his age creating objects. I even caught him successfully following the instructions to create a kit. He’s not reading yet, but still loves to be read to – especially books about his beloved Scooby Doo. He’s silly and sweet. He likes to pretend he’s a baby bird. He still considers Puppy (a bunny rabbit) his best friend. I’m savoring the last lingering babyness with all my might.

We have had a wonderful year, with bright horizons for the coming one. We hope you, and your family, are the same. Merry Christmas to you all!

Brenda, Adam, Grey & Thane

*Some information changed to preserve internet anonymity!

Puzzle Master

Thane and Adam puzzle by the light of the tree
Thane and Adam puzzle by the light of the tree

I’m not a huge puzzle-doer. Years have elapsed without my doing a single puzzle. But this time of year, I get the urge to do puzzles. It comes back to family. You see, this is the time of year when I have multiple, unscheduled days with people to whom I am related. My sons are no longer in need of constant babysitting, nor have that toddler’s impulse to destroy all that is laid before them. (Although they are forces for chaos and entropy – you should see what happens to a formerly clean room SECONDS after they enter it.)

My family, during my teenage to young adult years, would often do a big puzzle when we all came home from our far-flung lives. There was the massive medieval sayings puzzle (still a favorite!), the three golden magi puzzle (so much of the same color!) and others lost to the mists of time. The glorious thing about a puzzle during the holidays is what it does for the family. Done right, the puzzle is in a place where people pass and invites them to linger. One person sits down to see if they can finish the horse’s head, another person joins them. They sit together, in companionable silence, or chatting. There’s no pressure to “make conversation”, but the conversation likely ebbs and flows. They are not trapped behind a screen or page – mentally isolated from the others around them. But neither are they thrust into the chaos of the activities that swirl around the holidays. And when the holiday is finished – if the puzzle is too – there is a shared sense of purpose, activity and accomplishment. And there are a wealth of small, shared minutes together.

I realized this, of course, when I had a baby and such an activity became impossible. Sitting quietly became an aspiration. Small pieces that could be lost? Inviting tragedy. I longed for the chatting and conversation and the careful piecing of puzzles.

My brother was born on December 20th. My grandmother came to stay that Christmas during my mother’s wait. Family legend is that when my mother went in to labor, she refused to go to the hospital until the puzzle was done so that my grandmother wouldn’t fret. As a consequence, the delivering doctor barely beat my brother to the hospital. (Hey mom – what puzzle was that? Did you save it?)

Impossible puzzle with bonus: a picture of me I like!

This Thanksgiving, I thought it was TIME. My four year old, who might be the Destroyer of Puzzles, is actually a great puzzle aficionado. (He calls himself the Puzzle Master.) Indeed – he’s a bigger contributor to even a 1000 piece puzzle than you might consider likely for a preschooler. At Thanksgiving I reviewed the scant grownup puzzle options in the cupboard. There was a 600 piece mosaic puzzle, a thousand piece snowman and a 400 piece satellite photo of our neighborhood. I’d been looking forward to doing the neighborhood one, and figured I could have some fun roping my neighbors into joining me, so pulled it out.

OMG. It was the hardest puzzle ever. The colors were practically identical. The pieces were barely differentiated in shape. It was the Bataan death march of puzzles. We had many “false positives” that were extensive to unwind, and nearly went blind peering over the puzzle. Adam and I stayed up WAY TOO LATE one night to finally finish it. Such a sense of accomplishment! We took pictures. Which was good – Grey accidentally destroyed it the next morning looking at it.

This Christmas, I planned ahead and bought a (hopefully much easier) thousand piece Christmas scene. We’ve set it up just off the living room next to the “gold tree” with floor pillows. The family wanders past and does a section, then wanders off to play. My sweet Thane – prince of puzzles and shapes – sits next to me and pieces together the scenes. He needs help organizing the pieces to get sections together, but his sense of shape, color and fit is astonishing. We sit next to the glimmering tree and sing Christmas songs together, chatting.

The cycle is renewed, the wheel turns, and the new generation takes up the strains of the old.

Alex, Adam and Thane consider the puzzle
Alex, Adam and Thane consider the puzzle

Welcome Yule!

Christmas arrived abruptly on my street today. It felt like a scene in a Suess/Rockwell/Orwell tale where walking down the street shows happy families trimming trees in window after window. Wreaths appeared on one or two doors. They will appear on many more as soon as the enterprising young Boy Scout who sold to at LEAST four of us on one Sunday afternoon returns with his wares. (Rockwell, I’m telling you.) We’re all just trying to get it done before the Stoneham town Tree Lighting and Trolly Ride to the Zoo Lights. (Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up folks. The Town Council is contemplating a skating rink on the town commons, as soon as they can figure out who will pay for maintenance.)

Anyway, as my Thanksgiving redux involves massive insights like “turkey is tasty” and “pie is good”, and Grey had a medical procedure which is fine and everything’s good. But let’s just say that I really love Dr. Yu – a urologist at Children’s Hospital Boston. Great guy. Top notch doctor. Enough said for the internet.

This year's tree. Thane really wanted colored lights.
This year’s tree. Thane really wanted colored lights.

I figured that for your entertainment, I might talk about a few of the ornaments that adorn our Christmas tree. Our ornament collection started at college graduation, when my parents and his packed up our childhood ornaments for us. In my family, in our senior years we were given leave and budget to recreate the family Christmas tree. I recall I bought some ornaments… but mostly I liked the tree the way it was. After marriage, Adam and I bought a bunch of glass bulbs at the now defunct Ames (many of which bulbs still survive), and had a few nice ones given to us as wedding presents. We’ve continue to add to the collection (in part by stealing them from my mother-in-law). I also like to try to pick up one a year. And of course, we are now adding clay and pipe-cleaner ornaments crafted by my sons.

My silver snowman
My silver snowman

This is a silver ornament my father’s parents gave me at my birth. (Or, well, one presumes sometime well after my birth, since my birth was in September on another continent. I do not remember the actual giving well.) Each of us had a silver ornament: my sister a reindeer mobile, my brother a teddy bear I think, and myself this snowman. For a significant portion of my life, I believed this ornament – crafted of the precious metal as it was – my single most valuable possession. I was obsessed with the “kid living on their own” concept (a la “Box Car Children” or “My Side of the Mountain”) and this astonishingly valuable piece of silver was often my mental ace-in-the-hole to be pawned off for real estate, or a bucket and seed corn, or moccasins… you know. What the moment needed. I used to really like polishing it. When I got older, I used my trumpet polishing cloth. I think I did that as recently as last year. My grandparents are gone now, but their birth-gift still hangs on my tree in a place of pride (even if I don’t stake my retirement on it).

Origami star

At some point in his youth, Adam met with a man who had done the origami Christmas tree for the White House. This star was part of that tree, and at the time my husband learned it, few people knew the secret of this fold. Adam has been patient with me since then. I love holographic paper, and the growing collection of origami holographic stars on my tree does nothing but please me. About once a year I’ll find a scrap of particularly pleasing paper, and beg him to make me a star. He usually obliges. Both sides are lovely. Some of these stars are now ten years or more old.

Keitha - 1973
Keitha – 1973

I am not sure if other people use their trees this way, but we store some of our most important – and most painful – memories on our Christmas tree. This ornament is the most important one on the tree. The inscription reads, “Keitha – 1973”. Keitha was Adam’s older sister, born terribly premature, who lived only a few hours. This little angel, holding its little bell, reminds Adam and I (and now our sons), that she was here. That she lived. That she was loved. And that she is missed. I’m not sure if, without this annual reminder, my sons would know they had a little aunt.

I also have an ornament – not quite as perfect – that I first hung on the tree the year I miscarried two.

Bicentennial Baby
Bicentennial Baby

I wasn’t the only one with special ornaments. This is a baby-ornament of Adam’s. My sister was also a bicentennial baby, and I remember being jealous because it seemed like a big deal to be a bicentennial baby! Adam’s ornament reminds us all of how special he was. How far away it seems now!

I have actually looked for special ornaments for my nieces and nephews when they were born. You know, silver preferably. Enduring design. Engraveable. Seriously – this has been impossible to find. The best I could do was pewter. (I didn’t WANT pewter. I wanted SILVER.) My sons have Swarovski crystal snowflakes from their grandparents, which are lovely. Actually, Grey’s snowflake might be my single favorite ornament on the tree for how it catches the light, but it doesn’t photograph well. I consider it a loss. Look people! I want to buy something expensive? Does no one wish to take my money? Guess not.

So, what are your favorite ornaments? Which are most deeply sentimental to you? Do you have styles of ornaments you particularly like or dislike? (Blown glass? Dinner-plate-sized?) Do you keep your deepest memories shinily on display on your Christmas tree?