Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Now, when I say "Best Books of 2014," I do not mean the best books published in 2014, I mean the best books I read in 2014.  This isn't the New York Times, people; my sense of self-importance isn't constantly threatening to explode all over you and this post isn't going to be twenty years long.  (I actually love the New York Times.  But the previous statement is still completely true.)

The problem is, even though the majority of what I read wasn't brand spanking new, some of it was still pretty great, great enough to want to not-so-subtly pressure/ recommend you read it, however, what started as a quick, "Here's my favorite five or so books I read this year" listy kind of post quickly mutated into something twenty years long.

For around eight seconds I lost my head completely and thought about cutting books from the list (the horror), but then inspiration struck, and rather than one huge list, I decided to divide the books into smaller, sometimes genre- specific, sometimes completely arbitrary lists of my own design, because that's... well, certainly not shorter, but perhaps a bit more organized, and seeing as tomorrow's the beginning of a New Year I understand mobs of people are going to be obsessed with organization for two whole weeks, right?

Anyway.  Onward!

Fiction by Brits  

To be read with tea, or with coffee and you can just pretend it's tea, because tea is nasty.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Read this one if you want to pull for an older man and his wife and walking and the strangers he meets and England.  I've always loved the idea of a pilgrimage, but then, I love to walk.  Everything happens so fast when you're driving; whereas walking provides time for introspection and it forces you to be in that great healer The Outdoors, plus you feel great when you reach your destination.  Don't believe me?  Ask Harold Fry.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

If you like mystery series or female protagonists who have a working brain or the 1920's- 1930's or, again, England, these are the books for you.  This is one of those where Ms. Winspear makes me love her characters so much that I get exceedingly nervous for them, having to pause and put the book down to take a deep breath when they get themselves into pickles or when there's only ten pages left but they do something stupid; can't they see the book's almost over and they're in danger of being killed off?!  Plus there are close to a dozen books in the series, so if you do love it, you have ready-made reading material far into 2015.

Fiction by Other Foreigners

Is there any way to say "foreigners" without sounding completely hateful?  Because I really don't mean it that way.  I mean, who knew Australians were so funny?  And now I'll stop before Derek has a heart attack, even if my prejudices are xenophilic in nature.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I started this book and stayed up way too late reading into one night and neglected certain halfway necessary tasks the next day just to finish it.  Then I went into my library and wheedled and pleaded until the librarian had requested every other book by Moriarty she could find.  Big Little Lies remains my favorite of this author's books so far, although they're all entertaining; her characters are absolutely endearing, the pace of the books is quick, quick, quick, and the observations on human behavior are en pointe and absolutely hilarious.  

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I talked about this and a few other books in this post, and I'm guessing by now you've heard about this book everywhere.  It's charming.  The characters are lovable.  You won't be able to put it down.  Everyone loves it.  Your library likely has several copies; just go get one already.


To be read while eating cookies, because calories don't exist in Faerie.

Ms. Valente is ridiculously creative in her world building and twisty, turny plots, not to mention her incredible skill with fickle, fickle words.  Perfect escapist fantasy, Adelaide and I both adore this book and the two others in the series; Adelaide recently mentioned that if she could pick one book to go on and on forever, it would be this one, because our daughter has excellent taste.

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle

I read and loved A Wrinkle in Time as a child, and while it remains one of my all time favorites, I had yet to read the Time Quartet before this year.  I'm not really sure why I waited so long, except for the always valid excuse that there's never enough time to read All The Books.  I loved this book: the continuation of a beloved story, its inherent message, and the fact that I can't stop thinking about the way she chose to depict an angel.  Forget halos and gentle smiles and curiously Scandinavian hair and skin; this angel was memorable and somehow feelingly real.  

Historical Fiction

Even those of us who actually liked reading our history textbooks have something to learn from these, and bonus!  There will not be a test when you're done, but feel free to come by my house; we'll bury the kids in Legos and argue about the protagonists' motives over coffee.    

This is brilliant WWII fiction; if you've already read a bunch of WWII fiction (who hasn't?), and you therefore don't need to read this one, I say fair enough, as long as you already know about the use and importance of radios used in the war, you're aware of the part locksmiths played in European museums, and you've never wondered how certain parts of the population- such as the blind-  survived living in Occupied parts of Europe.  A must-read.

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

This is The Help if the The Help had been told from the point of view of a plucky nine-year-old who's a magnet for trouble but still entirely likeable.  She and her comrades-at-arms will have you cheering and crying and hoping that they'll somehow find their way out of the inherent scrapes that come from being an African American, or even being seen with someone with darker skin, in the South in the 1960's.  Recent events here in the real world may leave you the tiniest bit depressed while reading this book, though, thinking that perhaps we haven't come so far after all.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

You are only allowed to skip this book if you can give me a full dissertation on the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.  If not, read this and send me a heart-felt thank you note later.  I did a more complete review in this post, and my feelings have not changed:  this one's a keeper; one of the few books I've actually bought with real live money just so it could occupy a precious space on our bookshelves.

The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

At the beginning of this book you'll be smiling and whispering, "Oooh, this is a good one," halfway through you'll start to worry for the characters and whisper, "Well, I apparently know NOTHING about Russian history," at the end you'll flip through the final pages in bewilderment, whispering, "It's over?  That's it?  After that plot twist?"

Actually, I hope you don't do any of that.  All of that whispering is creepy.


Because people are interesting.

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

Read this one after you've slogged through half of The Goldfinch before remembering no one's actually forcing you to read such a lugubrious tome of a book.  Kimmel is just as smart as Tartt but about a million times more relatable.  From Kimmel's father convincing her they really did adopt her from a band of traveling gypsies to her wry observation that her older brother was a very attractive, angry young man and that girls went nuts over him, you'll wonder why she ever had to stop telling the world at large about her family and innocuous Indiana hometown.  I love this one.

Books You Want to Shove In Other People's Faces

But don't.  People don't like that, I've been told.  

Quiet : The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

This one should by on your Life's Syllabus, if only because it will describe the maddening, befuddling actions of a large part of the population.  I'm a strong introvert, and I was astonished over and over again to have so many of my behaviors identified and explained, but also validated, with helpful coping mechanisms suggested throughout.  My mom thinks it should be required reading for teachers; I would only expand that to anyone who works with other human beings.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Yes, I'm still harping about this book.  Yes, it's about a university professor who develops alzheimer's disease. No, there are no frolicsome wyverns or romps through beautiful lands; they can't all be The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.  But as I no doubt said before, this book feels important, like you're learning to empathize with anyone who's ever been forced to wander down the terrifying path of Dementia, and it's written in a way that you're not forcing yourself to pick it up and keep reading; you're eager to do so.

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp

This is a book to be slowly and thoughtfully ingested, one precious revelation at a time, until you reach the end, and then you flip back to the front and start over.  You'll wallow in little things like grace and compassion and thankfulness, and who doesn't need that?

Monday, December 29, 2014

For Derek's Birthday I Didn't Buy a Useless Antique

Yesterday was Derek's birthday.  The Vikings were gracious enough to grant him a birthday win, I made him a giant birthday cookie, and my mom and Mark, since they were in town, offered to watch the kids while the birthday boy and I went on a date.

We enjoyed a nice dinner out and Derek tortured himself at a golf store, but in between those two we went to the Brass Armadillo, antique mall extraordinaire.  (If you click on that link back there, brace yourselves:  There are painful spelling and grammatical errors galore on their website.  Hear me now, friends:  "Isles" DOES NOT equal "Aisles."  When they write "Stroll through isles of..." I, naturally, picture hopping from island to island of antiques and quirky vintage treasures, not, as I can only assume they mean, walking through aisles of the same.)

The thing is, I love the Brass Armadillo.  It's where I adopted Hermione.  I almost always find super creepy dolls and marionettes to snap pictures of and send to my traumatized sisters.  I found a beautifully illustrated old hardcover copy of one of my favorite books there for two dollars.  (Just like this one, actually.)  When I visit that place, I like to take my time, examining any items that catch my eye (read:  half the things there, taking upwards of two hours.  I recognize that this is crazy.).

But when Derek and I went yesterday, he had a stern talk with me before entering, reminding me that we were on a mission, that we were looking for a specific item, that I needed to focus.  I did spectacularly well the first three steps in the door, until I saw a Christmas tree full of truly tacky old ornaments.  I faltered for a few seconds before muttering "Get behind me, Satan!"  (I couldn't tell if the lady manning the welcome station by the front door heard me or not; interpreting her facial expression was rather difficult due to the bold decision to paint her eyebrows on her forehead.)

Thereafter I was a model shopper, whipping up and down aisles in search of a coat tree, pausing only once in a moment of weakness caused by an antique bed warmer.  This is precisely the kind of thing that calls out to me at antique stores, begging to be taken to its forever home.  I knew Derek would ask ridiculous questions like, "What exactly are you going to do with it?  Where are you going to put it?"  Because "Smile at it," pretty much never satisfies him, I tried to frame some kind of persuasive response.  I mentally appealed to his logical side:  "Use it for its original purpose!"  Unfortunately we don't have a ready supply of coal and I had a sneaking suspicion that Derek would veto potentially burning our children alive, anyway.

Still in search of a loving home.

So it was with great sadness that I moved past the bed warmer, sending out psychological messages of "It's not you but it's also not me, it's my husband," which is probably a common refrain in there; rational spouses ruin all the fun but also save lives.

Thankfully I had this fun little trinket to console me when I got home:

My mom ferried this up to me from my grandma.  If you don't have a grandma who buys you random old stuff at auctions, I feel sorry for you.

It's a small tin grease pot that's a little dusty on the outside but immaculate inside.  It makes me wonder if it was ever used, given its purpose.

Actually, what is its purpose?

There's a removable strainer that sits just under the lid, then another at the inner entrance to the spout.  I'm assuming you pour the grease from your bacon or beef or whatever into the top, through the first sieve, then it gets strained a second time when you go to pour that same grease... where?  All over your food?  (retch)  I don't really understand the need to strain and then pour grease onto anything.  I pour our excess grease straight from the pan into an empty can and keep it in the freezer until it's full and ready to toss.  

Still, I like the look of it, and every time I walk by it I find myself singing "Grease is the word, have you heard, it's the word..."  Plus I just found the exact same thing on an ebay auction; it sold for $26 + $10 shipping, and I can promise you my grandma didn't pay that much.

I've also been throwing lots of smiles in its direction, although I've yet to find a good place for it.  I've had it in the kitchen windowsill, but that's a dangerous location as it's right in Derek's line of sight.  It'll probably end up where everything else does: on one of the piles of books scattered throughout the house.  Hey, it's smaller than a bed warmer, right?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Special Kind of Smart

Last weekend Derek and I got to go play laser tag with some friends.  It was the one thing Derek really wanted to do for his birthday, so his mom kindly came over to watch the kids, and though I've never played laser tag before and really wasn't expecting to enjoy the whole activity, it was for my husband's birthday, so I decided to close my eyes and think of England, as it were, and at the very least pretend I was having a good time while running around shooting fake guns at people.

Well.  It was actually incredibly fun, darting around a big warehouse and peering around pieces of drywall, trying to take out the somewhat obnoxious strangers on the opposing team.

The part that I keep thinking about, however, is at the end, when we were removing the velcro straps from around our foreheads, and the employee said, "Everybody hand me the non-fabric part of the strap, please, there at the end."

I proceeded to do my darndest to take that little piece of the strap off the rest so I could hand it to him, but my gosh, how was I supposed to do that when it appeared to be sewn together?

I wrestled with it for several seconds before looking around to see how everyone else was faring, but it turns out every single other person there had understood his instructions and were holding their headbands by the tips, on the non-fabric end.

Ah.  I see.

I have wondered in the past how it is that so often everyone else understands these things but me, but then I think of my mother and my daughter.

Now listen to me.  My mother is a very intelligent woman.  Our daughter is a very intelligent girl.

My mother is also the person who, when we were out for a walk through a nature preserve while she was visiting us in Connecticut, exclaimed, "I just saw a really old squirrel!"

When I asked how she knew it was really old (never having known before that she was any kind of squirrel expert), she explained that it had gray hair.

Oh, how I laughed.  But also understood.  We only have brown squirrels in Kansas, as opposed to the gray squirrels that inhabit CT.

Then I think about the time I was sitting in a bedroom in our house in Kansas, holding a baby Atticus, and asked two-year-old Adelaide to turn on the light.  She tried but couldn't reach, so I told her to go get the step stool.  A couple minutes later I turned my head at the sound of something scraping against the wall;  our daughter had the step stool stretched over her head, attempting to catch the light switch with it to turn it on, rather than, you know, standing on it.

Or how about when I was a teenager, my mom and I walking out to the parking lot to get in my car, the Little Tercel that Could, and it wouldn't start, which wasn't like it at all.  No air conditioning, no radio or in-dash clock or power steering, but that thing always, always started.  We got out, opened up the hood (which, looking back, is completely laughable- I'm astonished we even knew how to open the hood), then gasped in unison.  There was a gaping hole right in the middle of all the other unidentifiable stuff (that is to say, everything)- someone had stolen part of our engine!  

I'm guessing it was my mom who thought to thumb through the owner's manual to see just which crucial part had been taken, when we found it- that big blank space was where the air conditioner went in cars that weren't completely stripped down.  You know, the one my car never had?  We fell all over each other laughing, and then I don't remember what happened next.  I'm assuming we got out of that parking lot somehow, as I am not presently there.

I must say, if you don't mind looking foolish from time to time, it isn't a bad way to live.  At least we laugh a lot.  At ourselves.  Along with everyone else.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Useful Pre-Christmas List

Today is the 22nd of December.  Three days until Christmas.

Perhaps you're scrambling right now, trying to get everything everything everything done before Christmas.

Or maybe you're a born procrastinator (here!), and you're looking for something to do that will enable you to put off all those seemingly important things you have to do.  If that is you, well, friends, the internet and I are here to help.

A Few Things to Look at Instead of Doing Whatever You Should Be Doing Right Now

(Stop sighing, Derek, Mr. Responsible.  I am providing a service.)

  • In the spirit of Christmas, first up is an article about old suitcases that were found in a now-defunct mental asylum.  They belonged to patients who presumably died within its walls, and each is now a unique time capsule, brought to life by photographer Jon Crispin.  Here's the article my sister originally shared, and here's the original Willard Suitcases website if you want to see more.

  • If insane asylums don't give you the holiday feel-goods, maybe this article by Anne Lamott will, which begins thusly:
"I used to hear in early sobriety that if you had an idea after 10:00 pm, it was probably a bad idea.

I think the same is true about any ideas you may have in the next few days.
Everyone is very crazy. Some of us are better at covering this up than others. Some people will say how cheerful they feel and how much they love the holidays; but these are very angry people. Try not to be alone with them for any length of time."

  • And finally, here's a video Caedmon watched three times in a row this morning.  Derek and I often joke that Cade is a future politician (*shudder*), with his ability to charm the public at large and his penchant for baby-kissing.  He's excellent at saying exactly what I want to hear, such as the following, excerpted from our conversation this morning:  
"Mommy, do you know what my favorite Christmas song is?"

"I don't.  What is it?"

"'Mary Did You Know?' because I like the words."

At that point I was torn between gushing and skepticism- I mean, he really was laying it on a bit thick.  

Anyway, as half the western hemisphere is currently obsessed with Pentatonix, I had seen this video, and decided that just in case it really was his favorite, I'd reinforce it with some lovely a capella harmonies.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just Trying to Save Lives, Here

Earlier this week I got a bad paper cut and discovered that if I'm ever in any real trouble and Caedmon and I are the only ones home, we're both pretty much screwed.

I got the cut while reading a book with unusually heavyweight pages, and while it didn't hurt much, by the time Cade and I left to get the kids from school I'd been bleeding for close to an hour; I just couldn't get it to stop.  Upon disembarking from the bus, Adelaide and Atticus took immediate notice of the blood-soaked kleenex wrapped around my hand, and on the short walk home, Adelaide took what I think was rather perverse enjoyment from musing about whether I had lost enough blood to lose consciousness (I hadn't.  Not even close.).  That, of course, reminded me that we hadn't done any Mom's-Unconscious-What-Now? Drills lately- incredibly irresponsible of me; I fall and accidentally start small fires in our home too often for me to shirk these kinds of duties.

Adelaide and Atticus only needed a brief refresher course on how to use my phone and how to dial 911 and how to call anyone else on my phone, plus what to do if my phone is missing (I can't find my phone half my waking hours.  I used to keep it in my pocket but it kept falling out and into water and under the wheels of my van.  Really, it's safer this way.), which is basically just going from neighbor to neighbor until someone answers the door.  

Caedmon, however, decided to obsess about which house he was going to first, what technique he was going to use to bang on their door, and whether or not there might be any cookies in each house that could possibly be shared with him.  When receiving a tutorial on how to call 911 on my cell phone, he wouldn't stop gazing fondly at the photo of himself that is my phone's wallpaper to listen to his sister's impatient instructions.  I'd like to think she would have eventually gotten through to him, but Atticus started crying, apparently getting freaked out because I'd been lying unresponsive on the floor a bit too long for his comfort, especially when blood started to pool under my outstretched, limp hand.  (Hey- when you're doing Mom's-Unconscious-What-Now? Drills you go big or home.  And by "go big" I mean collapse as realistically as possible and answer zero questions from your useless offspring, because how else will they learn?)

I did eventually stop bleeding, but haven't made much headway in the days since while trying to educate our youngest in the ways of Saving Mommy's Life.  He does well with the practice EpiPen (aside from that one little incident of pretending to stab it in my temple- but we agreed not to bring that one up), and I know I can count on him to at least save himself by running to a neighbor's before getting distracted by toys or dust motes, but he's never going to be on one of those recorded 911 calls where the plucky preschooler calls in, saving their guardian's life.

And just a little side note:  If you're having trouble teaching your kids to care enough about you to dial 911, do yourself a favor and DO NOT google "dog calls 911" because apparently ALL DOGS love their owners more than Caedmon loves me.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Boy, Oh Boy

I keep seeing these memes that say things along the lines of, "I was a much better parent before I had children."  They inevitably have a bunch of comments from people who apparently had all kinds of plans for their yet-to-exist children like teaching them exclusively from the Laura Ingalls Wilder canon and feeding them only pre-masticated food.

This is an interesting concept to me.  I never planned on having children, and in a way, I feel I really lucked out.  I had no grand visions as to what kind of mother I would be, no crazy idealistic expectations for myself.  This made finding out I was pregnant with Adelaide somewhat stunning, but also extremely helpful, as I only had about 7 months to form hazy ideas as to just what to do with a tiny human being, and I think I was in denial for about half of those.  The only two pre-determinations I made were:  that I would definitely go back to work after a short maternity leave, and that I would not breastfeed, because hello, WEIRD.

Then Adelaide came out all long and skinny and precious and I realized that I could never trust her with anyone but myself (I have since relaxed on this stance a bit, it's only taken me 8 1/2 years!), and all these doctors and books told me how beneficial breastfeeding was and I was like a kid faced with vegetables saying, "Well, okay, I guess I'll try it BUT I'M NOT GONNA LIKE IT."

Five years later we'd had three children, I never went back to work, and three of those years were spent nursing hungry, hungry babies.  It turns out I know nothing, but then, I always knew that.  (That's right:  I always knew that I know nothing.  Good luck wrapping your brain around that statement.  I can't even make sense of it; all I know is that it's true.)

You would think that, after having one little girl-child, proving that I can be a parent and that thwarted plans can, in fact, be quite wonderful, I would take finding out I'm pregnant with a boy right in stride.  You would be underestimating just how neurotic I am.

What on earth was I supposed to do with a boy?  I envisioned tentatively placing offerings of G.I. Joe's and, I don't know, sticks or something, in front of him, because that's what boys play with, right?

Well.  It turns out boy babies are pretty much like girl babies in that they like to be snuggled and smiled at and fed constantly (that last one may just be our babies).

A few years and two boys later, I wish I could go back and tell 2008 Kristy to just relax, already; a couple cases of Legos, maybe a sword or two, and some heavy duty grocery bags for mountains of food to be consumed each week are your only real necessities.  (Wait.  Also lots of laundry detergent.  And stock up on nice jeans at any and all garage sales because boys wear holes in the knees of pants just by looking at them sideways.  And you'd just as soon burn your dollar bills in a merry bonfire as buy nice furniture; get that padded ottoman at Big Lots because your boys will destroy anything they touch and you'll feel a lot less angst over stuff that was cheap to begin with.  And don't throw that craft stuff away!  Boys like crafts just as much as girls!  So... maybe there are lot of things I'd tell Past Me.)

Other Boy Things I was not expecting:

They will pretend to fly all the time.  All. The. Time.

Did I mention the Legos?  Because it's best if you just make your peace with Legos now.  

The most inexplicable things will make them sad, like their older sister carelessly delivering the crushing news that No, they will never be older than her, even when they're all adults.  This will cause intense devastation for tens of minutes.

Daddy.  Daddy is not just a person, he the culmination of all that is good and holy in this world.  He is the answer to every question.  What do you want to be when you grow up?  "Batman.  And Daddy."  What do you want for Christmas?  "Real tools.  And Daddy."  What was your best thing about today?  "DADDY!"  

I also wasn't expecting to really have much in common with this strange species living in my house.  I know next to nothing about sportsing and all that strange running around after balls they're wont to do.  I still can't comprehend how they're seemingly born with the curious ability to make sound effects with they're mouths, from gunfire to explosions to brakes squealing.  They're an entire race of small, dirty beat boxers, whereas my best expression of a car is to go, "putt-putt-putt-putt."


Atticus loves jigsaw puzzles.  This sounds trivial and maybe a little boring, depending on how wrong you are about puzzles (i.e., you either love jigsaw puzzles or you're wrong), but I also love jigsaw puzzles.  When you're talking about a boy who loves golf and cars and building things and a mother who may or may not find most of those things stupefyingly dull, jigsaw puzzles become something that makes me say, "YOU LIKE JIGSAW PUZZLES, I LIKE JIGSAW PUZZLES: WE ARE PRACTICALLY THE SAME PERSON!"  Atticus and I also agree that Mornings Are The Devil, grudges are absolutely allowed even after the game of Sorry! is over and a winner has been declared, and you should always wait to eat the best bite of food on your plate last.  Caedmon and I both really like Caedmon.  WE ARE PRACTICALLY THE SAME PERSON!

As my boys would say:  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.  (You must say this like they do, in a serious, even nonchalant tone of voice; they sound like they're channeling Samuel L. Jackson when uttering this playground declaration.) 

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Whole Christmas Truth and Nothing But

I have a proposition for all those people posting holiday recipes and winter wreath tutorials and lists like "Top 10 Christmas Traditions To Make All Your Acquaintances Feel Completely Inferior," (in other words, half the internet right now):  

You go ahead and post all those crazily photo-shopped pictures.  Tell us what your ornery elf on the shelf got up to last night, show us your gorgeous Christmas carol-themed chalkboard art, and don't forget the close-up of your seasonal designer coffee drink.  People like me eat that crap up.  I love it all.  The only thing missing, for me, is the complete picture.  From now on, my humble request is that you show all the pretty little parts of your holiday season, but then go ahead and tell me the cost.  What's the trade-off?  When you spent three hours weaving that burlap and pine needle swag, what did you give up?  

For instance:  All this charming Christmas book tree cost me is three baths.  Sorry, children, I know it's bath night, but I was too busy stacking books juuust so and trying to get these danged lights to do as they're told.  Sometimes the price you pay for Mommy having perfect Christmas decorations is a reputation for being the smelly kid at school.  You understand.  


How about this tin pail of pine boughs and sparkly berries?  

It's just lovely, makes me happy every time I see this simple little display in our downstairs bathroom.  Any time our boys go into that same bathroom, however, I find myself straining my ears, listening for the sounds of liquid hitting metal, as this is a bucket in a bathroom with plants in it and our boys are like boys everywhere in that a strange, almost magnetic force seems to exist between their crotches and things ripe for peeing on.  Right after I got all the branches and berries arranged with perfect greenery-to-berry ratio I had to take each boy, one at a time, make them face my newest Christmas pretty, and sternly say, "DON'T PEE ON THIS," which made me scrub my hands up and down my face and ask What is my life? 

How about this beautiful Hallmark moment?

For as long as I can remember, my mom bought my sisters and I each a Hallmark ornament at Christmas time.  Now that we all have children of our own, she buys each grandchild an ornament, which means our children all have sweet, growing collections courtesy of their generous grandma.

The ornaments arrived in the mail yesterday.  After finishing their chores, they were allowed to open and hang their newest Christmas decorations.

Of course I would love it if the moment ended here, with each child enjoying their gifts, perhaps hanging them all on the tree in perfect sibling harmony.  That didn't happen, of course, because children ruin everything.  Maybe not everything, but certainly Hallmark moments.

"I want this branch!"  "I put mine on that branch first!"  "I said I was using that branch!"  IF ONLY THERE WERE MORE THAN ONE BRANCH ON WHICH TO HANG THEIR NEW ORNAMENTS.  "But this is the best branch!"  "Mine's already on there, you pick another branch!"  "Why should I have to pick another branch, I told you this one's mine!"  IF ONLY THIS WERE A MASS-PRODUCED FAKE TREE WITH ROW UPON ROW OF IDENTICAL BRANCHES OH WAIT IT IS.

Salt dough ornaments for their teachers:

Not pictured:  The one with a bite taken out of it.  Caedmon walked right past the container bursting with actual cookies, favoring the hard, dried disk of salt, flour, and water, with some ink for added flavor.  Also not pictured:  The bite of ornament our son spit out on the laundry room floor, three feet from the trash can.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year, isn't it?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Comedy vs Tragedy vs Fierce

Last week, both Atticus and Adelaide had their schools' winter concerts.

Obviously thrilled to look out and see a packed house.

This is the fourth year we've had the pleasure of watching our daughter perform in these little vocal exhibitions, and it's always been enjoyable.  Getting up and singing in front of a large audience isn't really Adelaide's cup of tea, but she dutifully learns the songs and performs them with reliability if not gusto.

The expression on her face for 98% of her time on stage.

She had a small speaking part this year, which she recited perfectly.  Bravo, Adelaide.

Since Atticus is in kindergarten, this was his first year to stand up in front of all those people and sing.  He's watched Adelaide alongside the rest of us for the past several years, and I thought that perhaps he would follow his elder sister's lead and give us a perfunctory performance.




Ours is the one acting like he's lost his mind, right next to the sweet girl who's probably wondering if she should stage some sort of intervention.

All his wild gestures and barely restrained enthusiasm were so entertaining to watch, although it was a little disconcerting to be the parent of the stage ham; we've certainly never played that role before.

I feel like Atticus and Adelaide belong on those drama faces- you know, the comedy and tragedy things.

Yes, those!

But then which will Caedmon be?

It's hard to say.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Of Mind Games and Manipulation

I need all of you today.  Every last one.  (Every last one except you, creeper, who keeps finding our blog by searching for "kids sleeping feet."  Your services are not required.  Begone.)

The rest of you, gather round.  I want you all to pretend you were good at group projects in school even though those were the days you knew you should have held the thermometer against the bathroom light bulb to fake a fever.  (All together, now:  Group projects were the worst.  Who knew that working together would lower the collective IQ of all these people your grade suddenly depends upon?  And by the way, I was an absolute jewel to work with in those settings.  I definitely didn't close my eyes and massage my forehead in lieu of screaming "GET THERE FASTER!" a la Chandler Bing at my classmates, nor did I silently cross out every other word in thick black Sharpie on the piece of shared butcher paper we were supposed to be using for a brainstorming session because misspellings are against my religion.  The only class in which group work should be allowed is upper level Spanish, because it takes every single brain available to figure out when to use subjunctive verbs and to make sure you're not calling the Pope a potato.  But I digress.)

Here's the problem I need every last one of your minds to noodle over:

I think Adelaide is messing with me.  But she might not be.  Except she probably is.  Or not.

A little back story might be helpful.

A few years ago, Adelaide got off the bus all upset because several kids had been tossing a dirty, dirty lie around about Santa Claus.  Namely that he doesn't exist.

She asked me why they would say such a thing.  I hemmed and hawed and tried to distract her with shiny things and cookies but she kept pressing me.  I tried "If you don't believe you don't receive," but because she is inconveniently bright this was an unacceptable response.  She hounded me so much I tried filing harassment paperwork with management, but it turns out I'm management and have no filing system.  All this ended with me admitting that All right, FINE, there is no, no, NO SANTA CLAUS,  ARE YOU HAPPY DAUGHTER?

She wasn't happy.  She cried.  I was exasperated but relieved that she finally knew.  I gave her a stern lecture on not ruining it for her brothers.  The earth once again spun on its axis.

But now?  Now... she's acting like she believes in Santa again.  At first I thought she was just putting up an altruistic front for the benefit of the two younger believers in our house.  The other day, however, I said something about a gift she had received from Derek and I one Christmas, and her response was, "What?  I got that from Santa, remember, Mom?"  And I just kind of looked real hard at her, trying to divine her thoughts from her facial expressions, but MY GOSH her face is all innocence and earnestness.

She's in third grade, which is definitely in Santa-Disbelief Territory, right?  Except that she's more immature than her classmates in certain ways, one of which is continuing to play make believe games, and isn't Santa the ultimate Make Believe Game?

But... we talked about this.  She knows he's not real.  Doesn't she?

So now we're at the point where I'm asking her all kinds of testing questions like, "Isn't it funny how Santa always uses the same wrapping paper I do for all the rest of the gifts under the tree?" and "I find it extremely curious that Santa's handwriting and mine are so similar you might even call them IDENTICAL."  But then she comes back at me with, "Mom, Santa's been doing this for centuries, don't you think he's intentionally using the same wrapping paper parents do, and by now he's got to be some kind of hand writing expert to mimic each parent's handwriting, all just to throw the older kids and adults off."  She continues on in this vein in such a calm, reasonable tone of voice that I find myself looking at gifts I'm 99% sure I purchased for the kids last summer, but hang on, my memory of buying this lip gloss set is actually pretty darn fuzzy and I don't really recall getting this toy for Atticus at all ohmygosh SANTA?

So, tell me, friends and comrades minus sleeping-kids-feet guy:  Is my daughter even now laughing at me on the school playground while she devises her newest strategy to undermine my hold on mental wellness?  Should I be searching her room for notes titled something like "The power of suggestion and my mother's psyche:  A case study."  And most importantly- SANTA:  REAL OR NOT REAL?

Look at her, lulling you into a false sense of affection, like all she's doing is reading To Kill a Mockingbird and eating oatmeal like our own little eight-year-old old lady.  DIABOLICAL.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Our Favorite Christmas Picture Books

Each December, we have a giant pile of Christmas books sitting in our window seat, some we own, some from the library.  Anymore there are so many books to choose from at Christmas time, and while most of them are fun, very few are anything I'd consider spending money on, with the exception of the following four:

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, Illustrated by Rachel Isadora

We're going to start with a book that isn't even really a Christmas book, because that is how Crislers do.  It's set in 19th century London on New Year's Eve, and if bittersweet is your thing, then this is the book for you.  This was a childhood favorite of mine and my sisters, which for a long time caused me to assume we were all three kind of messed up, but now every time I pull this one out of the Christmas book basket all our kids whisper, "Oh, I love this one," but really, what's not to love?  Neglected, battered children?  Check.  Starvation to the point of hallucination?  Check.  Orphans freezing to death?  Check-check.  Yet somehow, despite all that, this story is gorgeously hopeful, and this edition in particular is very poignantly illustrated.  Just don't even open the front cover without a Kleenex in your hand.

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry

Tied with The Little Match Girl for First Place Favorite in our house is this rhyming, happy little book, because sometimes you need a little 1963 frivolity after confronting the harsh realities of 1845.  It starts with Mr. Willowby's too-large Christmas tree, whose top is cut off, with each subsequent lopped-off-top being handed down to increasingly smaller creatures to decorate their own little homes, ending with Mistletoe Mouse and including Miss Adelaide, the upstairs maid.  (Our own Adelaide and Atticus always enjoy this little coincidence, while Caedmon is happily baffled each time I read out the name of his sister in a book.)  If you like your Christmas books charming and lively that will draw in kids both big and little, this one's for you.

Who Was Born This Special Day? by Eve Bunting, Illustrated by Leonid Gore

A sweet, poetic story about the Nativity that our children loved as small children for its text, but we all continue to treasure for its dreamy illustrations.  Really, the photo to the left doesn't do it justice; if you ever see this book in a library or bookstore, pick it up and thumb through it.  Perfect for communicating the wonder and splendor of the Christmas story.

The Christmas Candle by Richard Paul Evans, Paintings by Jacob Collins

This time of year, despite our best efforts to communicate the season's inherent message, we often find our children to be more preoccupied with presents and sweets and pretty much anything that revolves around their own little selves.  This story- a parable, more than anything- helps illuminate our own selfish desires and the importance of treating every stranger as our own mother, each person in need as our own sister.  The illustrations opposite the text of each page are the perfect counterpart, haunting yet also feeling like something you might like to tear out and hang on your wall.  This one's more suited to older children and any adults in your life (hint: all of us) who could use a reminder of what we're called to focus on.

Any strong feelings of your own about which holiday picture book you love and I thoughtlessly left off of my list?  Tell me your favorites, I'm always looking for recommendations!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Excuses, Excuses

I know I said I'd do a festive, snappy post yesterday on Christmas books but as it turned out yesterday I got out of bed to bathe one of our puke-sodden children, crawled down the stairs to throw another puke-doused comforter in the washer, then slept the rest of the day while our children somehow completely destroyed our house while sick.  They're just gifted that way.

Today I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch and considered it a triumph.  I also did the dishes- twice- and am currently recovering from that latest bout of domesticity.  I should be ready to do something else in about an hour, provided it's not as physically arduous as those dishes were.

Hopefully that Christmas book blog will just sort of, I don't know, write itself, and will also magically self-publish tomorrow, because this whole typing thing is exhausting, and is interrupting conversations between Adelaide and I about whether we feel a tighter mother-daughter bond after puking side by side.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Am I Allowed to Talk About Christmas Yet?

It's December 1st, and that means I can finally express my intense and undying love for All Things Christmas without having hostile scrooges be all, "Um, exCUSE me, what about a little thing called THANKSGIVING?"

Look, I like Thanksgiving just fine, but for me, November is like a month-long build up of delicious Christmas season anticipation, where I get to listen to Christmas music but not put up Christmas decorations (hey, man, you got to have some kind of completely arbitrary boundaries, right?), and Thanksgiving is really more of a celebratory feast to kick off the commencement of CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS CHRIIIIISTMAAAAS.

I acknowledge that this is just a tiny bit annoying for some people.  I also don't care- not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.  (There, a non-Christmas movie quote for any Christmas haters who have mysteriously made it this far.)

Really, though, I'm not sure there's a single thing I hate about the Christmas season, and that right there is a miracle akin to the birth of the Messiah (a symptom of my insane excitement for this season:  tons of hyperbole).  Even the Elf on the Shelf, which I find to be extremely creepy and which other parents seem to spend astonishing amounts of time and creativity on, even that is fun for me to read about when other people are doing it for their kids, provided that little fiend hasn't slithered his way into my own house.  (All I can think of when I see Elf on the Shelf is that little creature thing in Cat's Eye who is trying to suck the breath from a little girl every night and lives in the wall; the Elf has to be the effeminate, Marfan syndrome-stricken younger brother of that thing, and we don't have a cat to protect our children, so no Elf on the Shelf for us.)

ANYWAY.  Because of this swirling vortex of Christmas cheer, you can expect a lot of slightly manic posts this month (starting tomorrow with my favorite Children's Christmas Picture Books, because I am afflicted with very strong opinions on this topic), featuring even more caps lock than usual.  I'M SO EXCITED.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Not Actually an Anglophile

I don't know if you've heard, but there's an American holiday coming up tomorrow.

I've been feeling a little guilty about my level of patriotism lately, as Derek and I have been spending our evenings engaging in things that lean a bit more British:  We've been watching the BBC show Midsomer Murders, an English crime-drama (but still humorous) type show that Derek has identified as a kind of precursor to the wildly popular Sherlock (which we also love, but apparently Brits produce television episodes at a rate of around one per year, so we're patiently waiting for the next season with the rest of the world), which isn't bad in and of itself, but the other night I found myself alternately watching a British show while reading a book set in England (Maisie Dobbs, it was terrific), then the next night watching the same show while sewing a Gryffindor scarf for my cast iron chicken named Hermione (boy, if I had a nickel for every time I've said that, right?).  Plus I've spent the past week quashing a rather wild urge to bake scones.

Look how warm she looks, standing guard there over our snow shovels.

All this makes me feel like I need to meditate upon the image of a bald eagle, or maybe go throw some tea in the puddle in our backyard or something.

I think I'll settle for this:

I won't judge your pre-Thanksgiving madness mess if you won't judge mine, mmkay?

Homemade (by Adelaide, no less) pecan pie.  It's taking everything in me not to take a fork and demolish this baby right now, before any of my family or guests have a chance to partake.  But I'm an American, and sharing is totally American, right?

The Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneux

Oh, wait...