Monday, December 30, 2013

The gift of space; the gift of closeness

We've had the usual whirlwind of travel and gifts and family, part of the normal Miser Mom family traditions.  (We've also had a few unusual extra adventures, like a Christmas night trip to the Emergency Room for a possibly-broken-but-fortunately-only-sprained ankle, but we're not intending to add that to our list of annual traditions).

Now I am appreciating two kinds of gifts.  J-son is off visiting the foster mom who raised him before he moved in with us.  These quiet days without him here are an odd reminder of a different kind of "normal", and it's good to remember that life can be like this.  We put a pile of change on the dresser, and we don't worry about where it will go.  I get ready for bed, and I don't have to wander through the house locking each of the cabinets and bed stands.  I wake up, and I do not bother to search J-son's bedroom for the latest contraband.  Even N-son, who loves having a brother in his life, is quieter and more content.  It is definitely a guilty kind of pleasure we are all experiencing.  It feels wrong to be happy that J-son is not around . . . but I do appreciate the tranquility that this particular respite is bringing us.

If one of my gifts is the gift of space, the other is the gift of closeness.  I spent a day or two recently pulling together photographs and souvenirs to make a "memory book" for K-daughter.  Because I first met her when she was 6 years old, I can't go back to birth, but I found some pictures of an 8-year-old version of this kiddo, and I also added in recent events of importance (like the day she got her driver's license).  I must have spent an hour or so at the copy place.

K-daughter knows there are photo albums from her early years, but they might have gotten lost in the upheaval that followed her grandmother's death.  And losing those early photos would be hard on her -- I know from all those foster-care classes I've sat through, that that's one of the more difficult losses that many itinerant kids face.

By making my own album for her, I know I'm rewriting her story.  It's not the story of the kid raised first by a single mom who loved her fiercely and then by a grandmother who had lost her daughter to cancer.   The story that I can tell is the one about the child who appeared magically in our lives, at first on the periphery of our lives, but becoming more and more woven into the fabric of our family so that now she is there at every major moment, every big event.  And as much as I know that K-daughter needs to find the early photo albums so that she can reclaim that first part of her story, I'm so glad for all of us that the second story is the one I get to tell.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ginger-fail house. Yes!

How to begin this post?  How about . . . 
I believe in planning for failure.
or this . . . 
Two years ago, K-daughter and I made a gingerbread house together.  
Wherever this story begins, K-daughter has asked that making a gingerbread house be "our tradition", and so ever since that first Christmas together, it has been.  We use a lovely cast-iron mold that I got as a gift long ago.  But every year, we scratch our heads wondering whether we're supposed to use the gingerbread cake recipe or the gingerbread cookie recipe.  And that quandary comes even before the intricacies of assembling a structure that uses only icing to glue the walls and roof together.  

This year, when the sticky-note advent calendar declared it was Gingerbread Day, I decided to not only learn from my mistakes, but also (here's the difference) to remember what the mistakes would be.  I diligently wrote in my favorite recipe book that we were using a doubled version of the cake recipe this year.

 . . . And . . . it was a disaster.  As my husband said, it looked like an IED hit the house.  

None of the pieces came out of the mold easily, and even the few that came out in one piece didn't look very "house"ish.  Sigh.  I guess we used to use the cookie recipe.  Now I'll know.

We decided to cook the remaining cake batter in a plain old bread pan.  We thought we might make a gingerbread apartment.  Or a gingerbread hut.  But then, K-daughter got creative.
See the drawbridge coming out of the front?  She was so delighted with the castle that emerged that she took pictures and sent them to her friends as we worked.
What a palace!  If you look carefully, you can see a candle in a window turret.
As for the ginger-fail pieces, we broke them up into cookie-sized bits, decorated them, and sent them off with the boys to their church youth group party.
This ought to be enough sugar to keep a whole roomful of teenagers wired all evening!
K-daughter and I decided we actually prefer the loaf-pan method to our mold-and-assemble method, and that next year we're going to make several loaves so each kid can decorate his or her own building/castle/car/rocket ship.

We also decided to keep the mold anyway, for K-daughter's future household.  She said, "I don't want my family to be all about the gift stuff.  I want it to be about traditions."  So we put the mold in a special place just for her and whoever someday joins her.  Make me proud, kiddo!

Huzzah for creative kids!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ooh, ooh, oobleck

Every year, I try to get my kids to mass produce presents (I call this X-mass production).  We've done decorated soap dispensers, to great general happiness.

One year, we did muffin mix.  Another year, we did ginger peach jam.  This year, N-son made his favorite pickled papers.

But then we went to a hip-hop concert that had a kids' fair beforehand, and the kids went crazy over a science museum display of oobleck -- a mixture of cornstarch and water.  And so this week, at home, we had an oobleck fest.

First, the "boring" part:  force the kids to make the cards that will go with the jars of oobleck:
 Then give each kid a bowl with 1 cup of water and another bowl with 1.5 cups of cornstarch.
 The kids add the cornstarch bit-by-bit, stirring carefully with each spoonful they add. J-son is a ham.
At some point, it becomes hard to stir with a spoon . . .
 At this point, it's become a "non-Newtonian substance":  it acts like a solid if you hit it, but like a liquid if you let it sit or ooze through your fingers.  So it's easier to stir by hand . . .
 We add food coloring at this point. At first the color is nearly invisible in the batter.

But it's a lot of fun to slowly and ookily mix it in . . .  

 Here's my favorite picture of the evening: the multicolored hands of my family.

We packaged the oobleck into jars, and we'll be ready to delight our relatives with their own non-Newtonian fun on Christmas.

And bonus . . . despite all the mess that you see floating around in these pictures, clean-up was surprisingly easy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anicius M. S. Boethius and his peeps

The end of the semester comes with a bit of extra time for reading.  I have a fairly eclectic set of tastes -- how-to books, poetry, mystery, economics, anything Dickens -- so this break I've been reading books recommended to me by my nearest and dearest.  (J-son brought me a copy of Hunger Games which he urged earnestly upon me, so now I finally have a bit of pop-culture in me, too).

For the past week or so, I've been curling up with a book my husband had waxed eloquent about.  My husband really only likes long-dead authors, so Hunger Games is way off his list.  But the author and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kicked the bucket in the year 524, so he's well-qualified to take a place on my husband's shelves.

 In some places, this book is just what you'd expect from a 1,500 year-old book of philosophy.  There are places (especially toward the end) where you run into head-scratching traffic-jam sentences like this one:

But if in the perception of corporeal phenomena external stimuli strike and impinge on the instruments of the senses, and corporeal passivity precedes mental activity -- a passivity which stimulates mental activity and calls upon the dormant forms in the mind -- if, I say, in perceiving corporeal phenomena the mind is not passively affected, but judges of its own power the experience subjected to the body, consider the case of beings which in their mode of being are free from all corporeal influence.

(Um, yeah.  I'll translate that one in a mo').  But there is a reason this book has inspired countless numbers of people, including and most notably Dante, and there's a reason it's been published and republished for millennia.  

Boethius had been a high-and-mighty politico in his time, but he wrote his The Consolation of Philosophy while he was in jail awaiting a death by torture.  He had all sorts of reasons to be severely unhappy with his situation.   In fact, the book opens with a poetic lament worthy of Job, very appropriately "woe is me".   But who should then stride into his jail cell, but Philosophy?  Philosophy is not merely some idea or ideal; she's a fearsome woman with an attitude:
At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my beside dictating words to accompany my tears, she [Philosophy, that is] became angry.   
'Who', she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, 'has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside?  They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse.'
Tell it, sistah!

Philosophy doesn't come right out and say "virtue is its own reward" (that would have been Cicero, six centuries earlier), but it's pretty clear that she agrees with Cicero's sentiment.  Philosophy slaps down the fickle femme Fortune, reminding Boethius that we don't get to choose our circumstances, only how we respond to them.  

There's also a rather amazingly sophisticated argument about free will versus predestination.  (For those who care, here's Boethius's take:  we have free will.  How then can God know all we're going to do?  Well, here's an analogy.  Our bodies feel, see, and hear things, but the real essence of being human is that our mind then actively makes sense of these things.  Our minds "know" the world in a different and much higher level than the way our bodies sense the world; in the same way, God "knows" things in a way that's different and higher than the way we "know" things.)

I have to admit that I have a fondness for hysterical sluts (one of my favorite poems to read when I'm in a funk is Tennyson's In Memoriam).  But I'm glad to have spent some time striding fearlessly alongside the no-nonsense Philosophy, too.

(Next up on my list of books to read, thanks to my friends:  Nabokov's Pnin, Rippetoe and Kelly's Starting Strength, and M.T. Anderson's Feed).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stocking, re-stocking, and pre-stocking

This has been the weekend for making springerli, a family tradition handed down from my grandmother to my uncle to me.
Springerli are these wonderful cookies . . . possibly "wonderful" in the sense that you could be full of wonder that anyone would ever eat them.  They were designed, I've been told, to last for months, to sustain medieval German families through the harsh winters and cold springs.  The cookies do indeed last a long time, coming out of the oven as fairly substantial beasts and turning more and more brick-like as the months pass.  Generations of infants in my family have teethed on springerli.  By March, you will need a cup of tea to dip the cookies in, should you want to eat them.  By next December, the cookies will have dried to the point of being suitable for christmas tree ornaments (which is how many people in our area sell them).

The basic idea is that you mix eggs, sugar, flour, and anise together.  Roll the dough out, press it with beautiful wooden molds handed down from an ancestor who loved you, and leave the dough to harden overnight.  The next day, you bake the cookies, package them in airtight containers, and mail them out to relatives all over the country who pretend to be grateful.

And actually, some of us really are grateful for them.  J-son grabbed a cookie fresh and soft from the oven on Sunday morning and asked me wistfully, "can't I have a hard one?".  We love to share the experience of gnawing on a cookie with our incredulous friends.  Of telling stories of toothless children who could slobber at one of these cookies for hours before eventually disintegrating it.  Of finding a hidden stash of springerli in September that were still edible, once you worked a bit to soften them up.

But the point of this is:  you only bake them once a year.  You don't have to pull out the baking supplies over and over.
And so this is also a time of year to be grateful to my former self, the self who one year ago finished up a batch of springerli, but then restocked the supplies of anise and anise extract.  When the sticky-note advent calendar said that this weekend is the springerli weekend, I didn't need to run out and buy supplies, I just grabbed my pre-stocked supplies.
I love re-stocking and pre-stocking.  There are other parts of my life where it's a big help to start over just as I'm finishing up.  For example,
  • Suitcases are a classic organizational example:  what methodical person doesn't know to re-stock the toiletries bag as soon as she comes home from a trip?
  • Ditto for the "church bag".  We come home Sunday, and I immediately sharpen pencils, refill cough drop supplies, and hang the bag so it's ready to grab-and-go next week.
  • Since I run early in the morning and don't want to wake my husband with turning on lights, I keep a bag with a complete running outfit in it.  At 5:50 A.-dang-M. three days a week, I drag that bag into the living room and get dressed there.  I always refill it the moment I come back from my run, so it's ready to go again.
I've always wanted to do more of this "start-as-I-finish" with cooking dinner.  My hero Amy Dacyczyn describes how, in her family, the person who does dishes one night uses that time to get things ready for dinner the next night.  If I were really truly organized, I'd use dinner clean-up time to think about culling our leftovers, pulling stuff out of the freezer to defrost for the next day, soaking beans, or some such.  But the closest we actually come to this is that my husband gets the coffee ready at night, so I just have to push a button in the morning.  Bless that man.

And come March or April, that coffee will go perfectly with a well preserved brick of springerli.  Yum.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sticky-note advent calendar

It's not like I'm about to become the centerfold in House Beautiful or anything, but I'm pretty happy with our new advent calendar.

Yup, there it is on the fridge, right next to the "Mommy Dollar Value Chart".  And yes, it's just a list of things to do covered with sticky notes.  I totally took my Christmas to-do list and pretended like it was fun.
December 1. Put up lights.
December 2. Decorate tree.
December 9. Write our sponsored children.
December 14. Make springerli.
 I interspersed my to-do list with a couple of pre-planned events:
December 8. Christmas Caroling with youth group.
December 19. Driver's license dinner.
 I added in a couple of wacky but Christmassy sounding things (I mean, wacky for us):
December 11.  Make X-mas music together.

 So far, I give this advent calendar a big Huzzah.  N-son in particular loves peeling back the sticky notes and seeing what's in store for the day.  And then he pesters me until we do it.

It's a great way for sharing tasks with the family.  In fact, for the first time ever, I handed the decoration tasks over to the kids.
 They had a blast stringing lights and putting ornaments on our cast-iron tree.  (This time of year, it's a Christmas tree, but other times of year it's an Easter tree or a Halloween tree or some such).

And when the calendar revealed that today was the day for making music together, N-son bugged me repeatedly.  When, Mom?

 Now, I play about three songs on the banjo: She'll be comin' round the mountain, Go tell Aunt Rhody, and Will the Circle be unbroken.  N-son plays drums, with equal amounts of talent and noise (lots of both).  The rest of the family grooves on percussion, with more noise than talent.

But we got down tonight.  We rocked the house to "She'll be comin' round the Christmas Tree".  Next week we'll probably go for an encore with "Go tell the Magi".  I might have to break out the ear plugs.
Yeah, baby!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I hit my children . . .

I hit my children . . . but I missed them more often.  J-son says my aim is miserable.

J-son came home from the Dyslexia Center late last night and called to his brother to come out and have an after-dark snow ball fight with him.  While the two boys suited up, their wily mother dressed quickly and took up an offensive position in the tree house.  When the unsuspecting boys came outside, I had my ambush all ready.

The best thing about a snowball fight is, even if you miss, it's a hit.  I can't aim worth beans, I discovered, but that didn't keep the boys from yelling with glee and running around as I did my best to pelt them both.  J-son responded by making snow balls the size of cannon balls and trying to lob them up at me.

My husband is out of town for two days, so he didn't get to try his arm.  Instead, we had some Mommy-son time, and it was surprisingly like summer camp.  (Or winter camp?)

After the snow ball rout with lots of trash-talking, we wrote letters to our sponsored World Vision kids [and total score! --- I discovered we could send email, instead of snail mail.  That was a blast!].  And we wound down the evening by having a slumber party of sorts in my bedroom, with both boys and the dog sleeping on my floor.

The slumber party was an odd sort of off-shoot from this past fall's problems.  At one point in October, J-son's behavior had gotten so bad at night (this was after we'd tried removing his bedroom door, but before we put an alarm on his door) that I made him sleep on my bedroom floor just so I would know where he was.  To my surprise, he found this comforting and comfortable.  Then N-son got jealous, and wanted to sleep on my floor, too.   So now, every once in a while, as a special treat I let my teenaged boys come slumber in my room.  

I guess you never know what's going to be a hit until you try it.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Adoption update

So, where are we on the plans to adopt a 15-year old kid from Haiti?

I think our last real update on the blog was that we'd heard in May that our paperwork had been submitted to the IBESR (the Haitian governmental agency dealing with adoptions).  Huzzah!

After that, things started getting hinky.   X-son ran away from the orphanage he'd been staying in --- and for good reason: the adults who ran the place were not feeding the kids, and occasionally tying the kids to trees and beating them as "discipline".  Through some little miracle, one of my friends happened to be visiting Haiti, discovered he was gone, figured out where he'd gone to (!), and arranged to have him move to an orphanage run by an amazingly energetic woman, Ann Hume.  

So now he's safe.  Phew!  Here's a picture of X-son and some of his friends all dressed up and ready to go to school on the school bus . . . or rather, on the school motorcycle.  (X-son's in the back).

But there's more turmoil.  The agency we're dealing with in Haiti has been embroiled in scandal and no longer has a license.  The main problem this group has, seems to be telling grand lies, so we've spent much of this year not knowing whether our paperwork has really been submitted or not.  Lots of unanswered emails and telephone calls.   We think now we have confirmation that we're good . . . and we're also switching lawyers down there so that we don't have to deal with that first agency anymore.
When X-son moved in, Ann told the other children living there,
"This boy is different.  He has all his arms and legs".
Ann is an amazing woman with a bunch of wonderful kids.

In the midst of this, we got an email saying that it was time to submit our form i600a (with the US government; it's immigration paperwork).  This form costs about $1K and has a bunch of auxiliary paperwork involved, including a home study.  In November, we got a note back from the Department of Homeland Security saying our home study was out of date; we had until December 10 (tomorrow) to redo it.  And so I've gotten a chance to prove my paperwork prowess.

 As part of redoing the home study we've now . . . 
  • fingerprinted all 5 people in the house for FBI background checks,
  • run criminal background checks on the 5 of us,
  • run child abuse clearances on the 5 of us,
  • had medical tests (including updating our TB tests),
  • been interviewed by our local social worker,
  • bugged a few friends for letters of reference, and
  • provided financial earning information for the past 10 years.

Fortunately, all the paperwork came back quickly, and I mailed out the updated home study out last Friday.  Once that gets over to the immigration folks, then the three oldest of us will get fingerprinted again, this time by the Department of Homeland Security.  
All for this kid.

IBESR usually takes a year or two to process their paperwork.  Once they approve the adoption, there will still be 6 months of work on the US end clearing immigration (the i600a is paving the way for that to happen, we hope).   So we're really in this for the long haul . . . urgent paperwork goes hand-in-hand with patience here. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mommy dollars -- resurrected

I thought my teenaged boys had grown too old and sophisticated for Mommy Dollars.  "Mommy Dollars" sounds like something for little kids, right?  And the boys sure loved them when they were younger.  Fun.  Educational.  But not quite up to teenaged standards of cool, or so I thought.

But the boys -- particularly J-son -- keep asking for Mommy Dollars to come back.  He wants bling to stuff in his pockets.  My magpie child wants to be able to flash cash, even if the cash is pink and purple and orange.  And N-son would be happy to go along.
One disadvantage of a weekly allowance is that -- especially when you're an ADHD kid with impulse control issues -- that a week is, like, forever.  I thought moving from daily Mommy Dollars to weekly US Dollars would provide some valuable lessons in delayed gratification.  But I was premature.  Both boys need more immediate response and reward than the weekly salary.

So, to much hullabaloo, Mommy Dollars are back.
There's a slightly new design, to thwart any attempts to subvert the new system with old Mommy Dollars. But the design of the dollars still celebrates the members of our family.  The sisters are all proud to have their faces on valuable currency.  The dog is indifferent.

The Mommy Dollar system kicks in with a new set of ways to earn moolah (and also, to keep interruptions to a minimum, when to bug me for cash):
$1 feed dog and give him water and tell Mom right away
$2 make bed & clean bedroom floor before school
$5 make dinner (Mom must approve the menu)
$1-$3 write a letter to a relative
Bed-time checks:
$1 bring home school books (CA, Social studies, science)
$1 clean out backpack and hang it up
$1 bedroom floor clean
$1 brush and floss teeth
There are also, of course, ways to spend their cash:

$5 half-hour of TV time
$8 One US dollar. Redeemable only on Saturdays 5-6 p.m.
$1 Bedtime gummy vitamin
$2 (per mile) car ride to an appointment
$1 return phone late (every 10 minutes late, another dollar)
$1 buy back shoes/clothes you leave on the first floor
$8 leave light/radio until morning

I know we'll tweak this as we go along.  But I'm excited to have this fun new project swirling around in our home now.