A life full of remarkable events

Random picture, because this topic does not lend itself to photography
Random picture, because this topic does not lend itself to photography

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend and I said, “A remarkable thing happened to me the other day!” With a loving exasperation in his voice he replied, “Of course it did. Remarkable things are always happening to you.”

“Huh.” I thought. “Is that true? And if it is true, why is it true? And if that is not true, am I causing people to think I’m more exciting than I am?”

I remember when I was a young girl, just WAITING and YEARNING to be in the midst of scintillating adventures, just like my older sister. I mean, around her people said the funniest things with the best timing, and there were remarkable happenstances and meaningful events and symbols. Obviously the world was a more interesting place when you were [two years older than I was]. Then one day, at the edge of the age of innocence, I heard her tell someone else a story about an event that she and I had both been to together. And it sounded so awesome – so much cooler and sophisticated than the standing around doing little and feeling awkward and out of place that I remembered. Then I realized. I was never going to get old enough that my life would be as exciting as hers. The difference was not that she lived in some glamorous world – it was that she was a much, much better storyteller than I am. (Still is, truth be told. All of you should bug her to resurrect her blog writing. Until then we’ll all just have to content ourselves with her book reviews.)

In some ways that’s what an online journal, or blog is. It’s a distillation of the good parts, with an editorial judgement leaving the trivial, mundane and unpleasant on the cutting room floor (unless they’re funny). The blogs that tell the reader a narration of “what happened in my life today” – unless you are Samuel Pepys – are for the most part only of interest to those who already know (and love) the writer. I’ve written one of those too. This kind of blogging is taking a moment (preferably with pictures) or an idea (preferably with pictures) and writing a sort of modern-day essay on the topic. My best blog posts have theses that I develop and conclude. Sometimes there are more than one. This one has two. See if you can find them. But anyway, unless my misfortunes are really funny or thought-provoking, I don’t tell you that I had a lousy commute today, or I’m trying to schedule my laundry a week in advance looking towards my next free night, or that I ran out of patience before bedtime hit tonight. Instead, I spin an entire story – up all by itself for a week – about the 15 minutes we sat on the lawn waiting for the parade of bats and making up stories about the pictures in the clouds. Or I tell you about what it means to me to have finally graduated to “bad guitar player”, who can play “Scarborough Fair” and “They Call the Wind Mariah” on the guitar. (I got taught the F chord today, for those of you following along on Facebook.)

I try to tell you fun stories. (With pictures.) And to tell stories, you must live stories. To write this way about your life is harder (unless you are Emily Dickinson) unless you are out doing stuff, preferably new stuff, often. I have always had a bent towards adventures – big and small. My children feed in to my desire to go out and do things. It’s a long, long day when we’re all home all day. In fact, I’m not sure I remember the last time that happened when no one was contagious. But part of how I experience those adventures is in the role of a narrator – your narrator. I see and adventure, or a journey, or a beautiful moment not only as a participant, but as a recorder. This might seem to cheapen the experience, but for me it actually deepens it. Without the writing down (and being reminded later when some random Google search brings the post back up), and the pictures… the memories become indistinct and no matter how lovely, they fade into the golden wash of these young-child-years. I’ve lost more beautiful moments to that indistinct fog than I care to count.

But I’ve saved from the compost of memory so many others; carefully canning them with words and a sweet jelling of photos. A little pectin and pressure, and I’ll enjoy those memories for years. Yes, they’re idealized. I throw out the bits I don’t want to keep by not writing them down. No, my life is not that perfect/organized/sophisticated/profound. And yes, perhaps my life is a little more adventurous (and a little more photographed) than it would be without the motivation of putting it all down here afterwards.

For mother’s day, my eldest son made me a huge card with a silhouette on one side, and a personal letter from him on the other. I must say that he hit on the parts of being his mom I think I do best:


America, Libya, War War War

Like people around the world, I’ve watched the unfolding events in the Middle East with an uncomfortable combination of pride, hope, fear and confusion. None of us know if we’re watching the American Revolution, the French Revolution or the Cuban Revolution sweep across the historic sands. Those involved don’t know. They stand up to announce that they are unsatisfied with what they have, and that change must happen. Change will happen. We hope and pray that it is a change that leads to freedom, liberty, stability, education and joy for the people involved.

Now as the eyes turn to Libya, I keep finding myself brought back to my first or second grade year. I remember much more of the playground at the school that year than I do of the classes. There were huge concrete pipes and tractor tires set into the ground. There was a large grassy fenced in field. Jump rope was popular, and with it the jump rope songs that mysteriously pass down from generation to generation of braided-haired girls.

Sometime, I think in early spring or late winter, the rumor began on the playground that we were going to go to war with Libya. The dark, uniformed figure Gaddafi was set as the villain in the playground make-believes. The boys became bombers – arms spread wide circling around the uneven soil. Their well-rehearsed rat-a-tat-tat resounded across the monkeybars.

We girls, with the rhythms of the jump ropes, became the propaganda machine. I still remember (I wonder if I am the only one to remember) the modified chants we came up with. The first was simple: “America, Libya, War War War”. It was almost gleeful — egging on our government and soldiers to glory. The second was rather more creative, and alarming from the point of view of a peace-loving mother (as I now am).

(To the tune of “Say say oh playmate”)

Say say oh soldier,
Come out and fight with me.
And take my cannons three,
Climb up my poison tree!
Slide down my razor
Into my dungeon door
And we’ll be jolly enemies
Forever more more more.

Who wrote this? Was it me? One of the bigger kids? Was it an incredibly local phenomenon, or was this song spread through the network of cousins and old friends across four-square and hopscotch groups? I was like six or seven (which might help explain the scansion on the second to last rhyme). Why were we jumping to self-made battlecries? I find it even more perplexing now, with the help of Wikipedia. This must have been 1984 or 1985 — I was in a different school by 1986. Export controls seem insufficient reason even for fertile childish minds to leap ahead to war and enmity.

Decades have passed since then. I have gone from a child to a mother of a child about the same age. We’ve gone to war several times since then, but never with Libya. Still, that old colonel stands, unpromoted to the last, and declares that he will die a martyr rather than relinquish the smallest part of his power, while a wave of freedom-fighting rebels gathers to crash against the walls of Tripoli — there to be spent, to triumph, or to begin the long siege. None of us know where it will end.

Will my son remember? Will the name Gaddafi mean “the enemy” to him as well? Has that moment already happened, but with the Taliban, or Saddam? Do they sing war-songs in their private play in his school?

What Santa is packing in his sleigh

Grey's letter to Santa
Grey's letter to Santa

My son is four years old this Christmas. If you are old enough to find your way to this blog, you’re probably old enough to be told the truth. I was four the year I found out that Santa isn’t quite as corporeally real as we pretend. When I was three, many years prior, I had a desk that had gotten left behind when my parents packed us into a station wagon and drove from Atlanta to California by way of Canada. Mom and dad were never too keen on that “Fastest way between two points” stuff. I digress. I yearned for this desk. (Full disclosure: I STILL yearn for that desk in some tiny part of me and am working very hard not to buy Grey a desk-like-object because the four-year-old in me wants that desk.)

Anyway, it was made abundantly clear to Santa (and daddy) that I wanted a desk for Christmas. My sister and I shared a room in our small house with the walnut trees outside. Christmas Eve came, and two very excited young girls gabbled and bounced sleepless in their beds. I had nodded off when my sister woke me up. A sound of thumping was heard through the wall. “He’s here. Let’s sneak a peek.” And so with infinite subtlety, we snuck open the door and poked rumpled blonde heads out to see the Man Himself.

And there was my poor father, nursing a stubbed toe from placing my desk under the tree. We understood immediately. The door was quietly closed, and we retreated to discuss strategy. We agreed on a pact of silence.

I don’t know how old I was when my PARENTS figured out that I had figured out what the game was. It never made it any less fun to play, but I’m glad they didn’t pretend any harder than they did. I would’ve known the lie. Because I wasn’t really looking for inconsistencies, I hope my parents didn’t have to work too hard. (No buying special “Santa” wrapping paper, for example.)

I’m thinking of it this year, of course. Grey wanted to know if he was sitting on the REAL Santa’s lap. I assured him without hesitation that he was. He announced to me the other day that he’s figured out his goal career. He wants to be one of Santa’s Elves and make presents. He’s ok with the uniform constraints, but admits that he might miss me every once in a while. (All humor aside: it was surprisingly well thought out with the data he had. He had considered quite a few consequences and outcomes of this decision!) We are at the very height of Santa-joy: old enough to make cookies, young enough to not consider the physics of Christmas eve flight.

I’m also doing the last minute planning for the presents. I probably need to do a present-review and see if I’m sadly lacking in any category. You know, are there books, crafts, obnoxiously noisy plastic toys, stocking stuffers, and most of the items on his and Robby’s Christmas lists? In future years, I’ll need to make sure I have present-parity between the boys.

One of the things I’m doing for both boys this year is new-to-them toys. Thane will be getting, wrapped up, some of the toys I set aside years ago from Grey’s room. Why not? The only difference between those and a new toy is packaging. Grey will be getting his first real Legos. We have roughly 30 – 40 POUNDS of Legos from my husband’s childhood. Seriously. A huge duffel bag and a big plastic garbage bag FULL of teeny tiny Legos. At current market prices, that quantity of Legos would cost thousands of dollars. (Seriously, have you SEEN Lego prices lately?) I got overwhelmed by them, and just picked out a nice pile for him.

The more I think about it, the more I think I’d like to give the boys all their presents without packaging. In our culture, packaging marks the difference between “New Presents I Bought For You” and “Presents Of Unknown Provenance”. When my mother-in-law scores a real find for me in thrift stores, she’ll often say, “And it still has the tags!” since that proves that it’s new. When we give gifts we use that packaging as a marker of newness. It actually gets in the way of the gift experience, though. “Wow, a truck! OK, now give mommy 20 minutes with wire clippers and you can play with it!”. It also conditions our kids to think that proper gifts come with original packaging and proper gifts are new.

I don’t want that. If my son was holding out for new Legos, he’d get about 15 of them for $30 bucks. (Seriously, this set has under 300 pieces for $150 bucks and is not that unusual pricing-wise.) By being ok with pre-loved Legos, he’ll get a big bag for, um, free. I would like that to hold true as my sons get older, too.

I think I’ll make it a point for things that are unlikely to be returned (no sizing issues) to remove the packaging before wrapping it. Yes, it means my sons won’t know when the toy they’re getting is new. But hopefully it means that they’ll evaluate their toys on whether or not it’s fun to play with, and not whether anyone’s ever played with it before. In some tiny way, perhaps that will help dial back the commercialism of Christmas.

What do you think? Do you always keep new toys in their new packages? How hard to you work to maintain the Santa mythos? How old were you when you found out? How did you take it?
Grey's letter to Santa

Daydreaming of Raspberries

This was a weekend of two daydreams — although the weekend was a wonderful dream in it’s own right.

Raspberries — wherever we’ve lived my mom has planted raspberries. (Man, it sounds nostalgic when you say it like that). My parents have a huge plot of raspberries where they are — which is constant need of weeding. It’s the only thing mom ever remembers to water. Every year, there are massive amounts of raspberries to be gathered. Mom and I would make raspberry jam together — even if we could only do so in the very brief vacations I came home. I would often go out and pick the raspberries in the cool of the morning, where the dew still clings to the part of the lawn not yet touched by late-rising sun. It’s impossible to pick raspberries without eating some, and they are always bountiful in flavor and soft on the tongue. It’s also impossible to pick them properly without getting your arms scratched up and berry-stains on the knees of your jeans… with sad berry corspes caught in your toes. But that’s another story. Once I’d worked my way down the line of raspberries and back, I’d usually have more than enough for a batch of jam. The amount I’d pick in a morning costs about $20 here, probably because raspberries are hard to pick and transport.

I’d bring them inside, and we’d rinse them. Then we’d start to squish them with the back of forks in glass pie plates. This is a tricky manuever, since the goal of a raspberry is to turn you red with a permanent stain. But unlike strawberries, it’s highly satisfying to squash raspberries with a fork. They go splat very easily.

4 cups crushed raspberries
7 cups sugar
1 teaspoon margarine (to keep a skin from forming)
1 packet CERTO pectin

The sugar/raspberry combination becomes liquid almost immediately. The margarine floats on the top of the mix for a long time, until the the mixture becomes hot. You have to stir for a long time — always longer than you think. And then things all come together at once. It hits a rolling boil and you dump in the Certo and stir like crazy for 60 seconds. Then you take off the heat. A brief fast moment to skim any skin that did happen and then I would pour into the jar (still hot from the dishwasher) with a big ladle, and then transfer the funnel to the next jar. Mom would wipe the jar lid with a hot dishcloth (attempting not to burn herself), and then pull a jar lid from the boiling water with two forks (attempting not to burn herself), put the lid on the jar and screw it tight with the threaded lid-holders (attempting not to burn herself), and then turn it upside down (attempting not to burn herself).

And then you’re done. You pour any that’s left over into a bowl for dad to have with his toast. You start to clean up from the carnage of fast-moving jam splatters. You sit at the kitchen table talking about something, or maybe getting bread started. And then you hear the first one… ^pop^. Jam makes a distinctive noise when it seals, cooling enough to contract and make the lid convex instead of concave. The pop is the sound of success — of jam that will sit in the cupboard and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Jones camping cookies. I love the sound of jam sealing.

I would really like to make raspberry jam this summer. Raspberries cost more than gold, unfortunately, when purchased commercially. I planted raspberries, but they are still small, weak things — and probably will never thrive before I have to move. I called some u-pick places and there are very few summer raspberries — mostly they have an autumn pick here. But hopefully, come mid July, I will be able to live out this fantasy (with my husband ably standing in the place of my mother in the trying not to get burned department).