Wednesday, December 17, 2014

These are a few of my favorite...

Christmas books for young children.   Here are a few that have stood the test of home and classroom in the last decade of our lives.

On Christmas Eve by Margaret Wise Brown --   No one does quiet like Margaret Wise Brown did. Think of  "Good Night, Moon,"  a book which has been almost parodied to death, but still hypnotizes our children to sleep. I picked up this Christmas book on a remainder table before Mr. Hobson's Choice and I even had children. It's the simple story of children sneaking out of bed to look at the Christmas tree, and Nancy Edwards Calder's illustrations convey the childhood thrills of a house at night.

Arthur's Christmas by Marc Brown --  One of the pre-tv Arthur books, your kids laugh at poor Arthur's attempts to make a great present for Santa  and at all the visual jokes in the illustrations.

The Tub People's Christmas by Pam Conrad --  The Tub People are definitely a specialty taste in children's lit, for those kids who like to draw up to the edge of the precipice in their reading. Still the art by Richard Egielski is delightful. Besides if your kids have already lived through the desperate grief of the near loss of the Tub Child and the mixed emotions caused by the return of the Tub Grandfather, shouldn't your family get to enjoy the quiet blessings of Christmas in this third book of the trilogy?

Santa Claus, the World's Number One Toy Expert by Marla Frazee -- From the artist of All The World  comes this vision of Santa.  Buy it for the generous vision of Santa and the drawings of Santa in seasonal boxers.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost and illustrated by Susan Jeffers -- You may know Jeffers from her illustrations of some of Margaret Wise Brown's posthumously released work, but this one is a classic on its own.  Jeffers takes the beloved American poem and gives it a magical spin for the youngest readers.  Great for family readings on the longest night and for anyone who's been jaded by studying Frost in high school.

Shall I Knit You A Hat? by Kate and Sarah Klise --  For the knitters on your gift list, for illustrations unlike any other since Richard Scarry, and for a lesson in the joys of receiving presents you need as well as those you want.

Look -Alikes Christmas by Joan Steiner -- Want to keep your kid occupied for hours during those periods of Christmas waiting? Maybe yourself, too?  Steiner takes everyday objects and creates intricate Christmas scenes.  Think of pocketbooks as stove hoods, pretzels as chair backs, and lace bras as snow-capped hills.

The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson  -- illustrated by Jon Muth of the Zen Shorts books, this one purely reminds you of all the real Christmas magic.  Do you want to feel again that Christmas Eve feeling?  This is the book for you... and for kids who may just be starting to wonder how Santa can do what he does.  This book will buy you a little time for belief.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas --  Ever read some of those saccharine Nativity kids' stories and think "Where is the earthiness in this very earthy story?"   This book is a great palate cleanser.  I'm still not sure how Vivas takes ethereal watercolors to convey angels in combat boots, an enormously pregnant Mary, and raggedy shepherds.  I'm even less sure how she conveys all that reality without losing any magic. But she does it.  If you buy one religious Christmas book ever, this should be it.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Being Twelve

This Christmas season, having gone clothes shopping for a Christmas Dance dress with the preteen, I am prepared to say what twelve is.  Age twelve begins the era of dissatisfaction.   Age twelve is being sad that your body no longer fits into cute little girl Christmas dresses,  half velour and half glitter, the ones that look like a miniature version of Mrs. Santa's dress.  It is being so sad that you can no longer wear those dresses that you cry in the dressing room.  But at the same time, being twelve is wanting knee high boots with three inch heels.  There's a word for that kind of boots, and it's not one I want to apply to my twelve year old.  It's wanting those boots so bad that every other boot bring tears.

I remember that age and thinking that I would never find pants long enough to cover my ankles, that my gawky legs would be eliciting calls of "high water" in the school hallways forever.  Trying on pants always brought tears in the dressing room.

It behooves me to remember and to be calm in the dressing room.  I wasn't calm on Saturday.  In my defense, I was coming down with a stomach bug at that very moment and would go onto to hurl in the Steak and Shake bathroom not thirty minutes later.  Sidebar:  Steak and Shake is LOW on the list of pleasant barfatoriums.

But age twelve is tears in the dressing room, and I'm going to remember that the next time we're trying on boots.  If fate is kind to me though, maybe we could not do that again until age thirteen?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Elf Makes Me Cranky

Today, I'm going to step out onto the parental limb with a saw and confess that I don't like the Elf on the Shelf.  Everywhere I go, I see that little guy.  I haven't seen him in many houses, but he is everywhere you can buy Christmas goods.  You can  buy a knock-off elf at the drug store.  I'm still living down the trauma of seeing his face fuzzily rendered on some fleece pajamas at Target.  I think if I looked down in the middle of the night to see that  grin on my chest... well, I think the whole family might be wakened by my yells.  He's everywhere, and everybody but me loves him.

My beef with the Elf probably starts from my aversion to dolls.  I feel about dolls the way most people feel about clowns, and the elf takes that aversion up a notch.  Not only does he have the creepy grin and eyes that seem to be part and parcel of doll-hood, but you're supposed to play along with the idea that he moves around your house at night while you're asleep?  No, thank you.  If the "Chucky" movies were being made today instead of in the "My Buddy" doll era, they would definitely star the Elf on the Shelf.

But beyond my (very reasonable and mature) fear of dolls, the Elf on the Shelf seems like a lot of work.  He seems like he's a lot of work that I don't want to do.  And here's where I start sawing myself off of this limb.  I know that a lot of parents love the magic of the elf and creating special memories for their children by switching the elf to creative locations with creative accessories and creative messages.  Parents with Elves, I support you.  I'm glad you're having fun.  To me, the Elf seems like the Tooth Fairy's more quotidian cousin.  An Elf on the Shelf in our house would just mean my waking every morning with the thought, "Dammit, I forgot to move that bleeping Elf again."

For me, Elf on the Shelf plays into the Make Work era of parenting where we find ourselves. For the most part, we parents aren't having to milk the cows to give our kids something to drink, we aren't having to chop the firewood to keep our kids warm, and we aren't having to sew clothes to keep a stitch on our children's backs.  For most of us in the United States, the pure drudgery of childcare has eased in the past century.  Instead of patting ourselves on the back and enjoying a good novel though, we seem determined to do something to make sure that raising kids is as hard as it ever was.  You don't have to actually make the jelly for your kids' sandwich?  Okay, then, let's spend hours cutting that sandwich into shapes and arranging it into a bento box lunch?  You don't have to work 12 hours a day to get your kid an orange for her Christmas sock?  Okay, then let's spend that time moving a doll around the house in creative ways.

See, I'm a bad person.  I'm not seeing the fun of the Elf, just the work.

But if I want to really go deep on my dislike of the Elf and fall right off this limb and onto the hard ground of bad parenthood, I've got to talk about the Naughty List.  I don't like the Naughty List, and I have spent my years as a parent and a teacher loudly telling children that there is no such thing as a Naughty List and that Santa loves and understands children just as they are.  My main problem with the Elf on the Shelf is his role as a narc for Santa.   To me, Santa is a great way to teach very young children about unconditional love.  I'm getting too serious; however, if we want children to believe in universal and loving God, then why do we want to turn the most human thing they can understand as god into a guy with a good and bad list?   If we want them to believe in love in the universe, why do we want them to believe in a faraway, toy-distributing stranger who keeps a ledger at the North Pole and now a doll informant at their house?

No, I'm too serious.  I'm being the killjoy of Christmas here, I think.  Nonetheless, I'll be glad when the Elf fad fades and I can go pick up my prescriptions without seeing him at this time of year.  The Tooth Fairy is all I can handle in terms of my rapidly aging parental memory, and Mr. Hobson's Choice will tell you that I'm even not so good at remembering the teeth.

Monday, December 1, 2014

That Christmas Moment

Among all the other moments of walking out into a field to find the tree, of children singing carols while hanging ornaments, of unexpectedly but perpetually scalding your throat on gulped hot chocolate, there is this one.

This is the moment when, going through a box of ornaments and wrapping paper, you find a last Christmas letter from a friend.   It's the last letter, because your friend died two years ago.  It's the last piece of his handwriting that you will ever see, just a Christmas wish and a question about your new home. You are here to find that paper, along with a tiny Sesame Street ornament that your kids worried after while decorating the tree.  And there's again the bag of sticky-backed bows for wrapping presents.  You can never remember that you don't use bows because your presents all have to travel crushed in a suitcase or car's trunk.  Year after year, you find this bag and who knows if the tape is still even sticky.  Why do you keep it?

And here, too, is the letter with its optimism about health regained, old age staved off, the New Year on its way.

Add another quiet milestone to Christmas.  You've been adding them up for four decades, sitting on Santa's lap and listening for reindeer.  Then there's keeping the story of Santa for littler and littler children.  There's the euphoria of school dismissed the last day before vacation.  There's maniacally wrapping Santa's gifts late on Christmas Eve and then peeking on your sleeping children.  And now this.

It's you here alone in the house, on a quiet afternoon, sorting through the Christmas boxes, bringing some order to those plastic tubs that spend 11 months in the attic.  It's the overhead light, shining on your friend's handwriting on that last letter.   And it's becoming something to look for every year.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Putting away childish things

During the weeks before the Fairness vote in our city council, we learned a lot about the quiet misconceptions Paul had been holding in his mind.  Unlike his older sister who thinks and speaks simultaneously, he stews on issues before speaking up and asking questions.  Who knows how long it would have taken to find out his concerns if the Fairness issue hadn't been a revolving topic at our supper table?

For example, we learned that Paul believed that everyone is assigned a partner when they reach marrying age and that he was really hoping to be assigned a woman for his life mate.  Who was going to be doing this assigning?  That never became clear.  Certainly, not his beloved President Obama:  "President Obama can be the president for mine whole life."  When I told him about term limits, Paul told me that he was sure President Obama would find a way to get around the law.  Who says that the left and right have nothing in common?  Paul shares with FOX news watchers the belief that the President will find a way to seize power.  It's just that what is for them a paranoid fear is for him a cherished hope.

Back to Fairness and marriage, it never became clear exactly who would be assigning him a spouse in 15 years.  The city council?  Lyle Roelofs, President of Berea College?  All he knew was that he was hoping for a woman.  He'd really like to move two of his first grade peers and his married thirty something pastor to the top of the list of possible candidates, but he was mainly concerned that he be assigned a woman.  When I told him that there would be no such assignment, that he would have at least half the say in choosing his wife, and that he could choose not to get married at all, he reacted in shock.  That would be horrible, he told me, because you have to get married to avoid homelessness.

We corrected his misconceptions, but it was okay that he had them, just as it's okay that he continues to be confused about what "gay" and "straight" mean.   As a small white male in a family headed by a heterosexual couple, he inhabits a position of privilege.  It's not at all fair that he has to be reminded about his friends who have two dads or two moms.  His friends don't have that privilege when their communities believe in a god given right to question their family structure.  It's not fair.  Paul gets the gift of not having to give a second thought to adult relationships and sexuality.  He sees his happy parents, he feels secure, and he forgets all about the world of adult romance until the next time the conversation comes up at the supper table.

It will continue to come up.  It's our job to help him learn.  His older sister once held similar misconceptions:  "Men can't be married to men, Mommy."  Now several years older and beginning to embark on the mysteries of attraction herself, she understands that love is love.  She followed the Fairness debate closely and attended some meetings with me.  Similarly, Paul's misunderstandings will fall away as we keep talking and as he grows older.  That's the nature of childhood and of learning about life.

But what is okay for a seven year old is not okay for a 37 or 57 or 77 year old.   After the Fairness Ordinance failed, we have heard from one of the voting council members about his fears of the ordinance.  He is fearful of  people changing their gender identity for the purpose of using public bathrooms with the shortest line.   It's too bad that he hasn't experienced childbirth because then he would know that women don't worry about gender identity when the line for the women's room is too long and the men's room is empty.  We just set up shop and start guarding the men's room.  That's not the point.  The point is that it's a ridiculous fear to think that someone would base their gender identity on a momentary convenience.

It's our family's job to educate our children, but adults are responsible for learning and thinking even past childhood.  If we are stuck in middle age with some of our childish misconceptions, it's our job to figure things out.  For example, I no longer believe that our home microwave is radioactive.  I no longer believe that Hitler will sneak into my bedroom window at night and kill me.  My brother no longer believes that everyone changes gender at age 16, like snakes shedding skin.  We sought out information, and we learned.  I'm happy to say that we were much younger than the fearful city council member when we figured those things out.

The Apostle Paul wrote: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."   Bereans, when we vote tomorrow, we need to put away childish things.  We need to think like adults and vote for adults who will guide our town by being willing to learn, to gather information, and to accept adult responsibility for mature decisions on our behalf.  Let's vote tomorrow, and let's think.

How To Feel Fully Middle-Aged In Just Ten Easy Steps

(1) Notice that you have a gravel driveway. Notice that the autumn leaves are cascading gently upon the driveway.  This seems an idyllic way to discover middle age, doesn't it?

(2) Note that the wind shakes trees' worth of leaves onto the gravel each day.  Reflect upon raking.  Reflect upon sweeping.  Reflect upon raking and sweeping gravel into the grassy lawn.  Reflect upon losing an eye next summer when your lawnmower throws raked gravel into your face.

(3) Buy that which you swore you would never own: a leaf blower.  Go whole hog.  Buy a gas blower because you've noticed that you're not getting any more coordinated as the years go by.  The last two things you need to combine are machinery and trip-able cords.  Tell yourself that you only bought the gas blower because you share a driveway with your neighbor and you are obliged to keep it tidy in the name of neighborliness.  You have only embraced middle aged, middle class American values for the sake of the neighbors.  Wait.  Isn't that the epitome?   Demonstrating to neighbors that you are good enough?

(4) Take a break to go to the optometrist because flinging your glasses off and on to try to read to the leaf blower instructions is the ABSOLUTE LAST straw in your progress toward all American capitalism.

(5) Confirm with the exceptionally attractive silver fox optometrist that you are in fact old and need bifocals to read, not just leaf blower instructions, but also the optometrist's little laminated card that says "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."  Only when he puts the bifocal lenses in front of your eyes.

(6) Discover that bifocals will cost you $600, what with your prescription, your need for high index lenses, and the fact that this optometrist seems to carry fancy frames.  Even though you are never going back to coke bottle glasses and even though you are definitely not getting lined bifocals at age 41,  the idea of paying $600 for a pair of glasses makes you feel like wetting your pants.  Hell, since you're middle aged now, maybe you even do wet your pants a little.

(7) Decide that there's got to be another alternative and weasel your way out of the doctor's office without spending more than a month's mortgage on glasses.   You'll just keep reading with your glasses off and your book two inches from your face.  You did it when you were 8 years old.  You can do it again.

(8)  Go home and google "cost high index progressive lenses."   Then read -- and this is the kicker -- an article on the AARP website about choosing bifocals.  AARP?  Perhaps you should not be feeling middle aged.  Perhaps you should be feeling elderly.  Perhaps you should get lined bifocals.  Put away the internet for another day.

(9) To hell with directions.  Fire up the leaf blower.  It's a two-cycle combustion engine.   How hard can it be?  It's not.  You don't get to be middle aged without understanding a little bit about the difference between "choke" and "run."

(10)   And then, and this is important, notice how much you dig the leaf blower.   You like the way it blows the leaves.  The whirling reminds you of "as dry leaves that before the wild hurricane flies."  That reminds you of childhood.  And even though you vow to only use the blower on the gravel, your mind begins to wander to how easy it would be to just keep blowing the leaves through the lawn into the woods.  You don't, but you think it as you watch the leaves swirl around each other, like they're in a crazy but coordinated marching band, heading together toward the compost.

You smell like gasoline; you can't see up close; you feel poetic about downed leaves.  That's how you get to middle age.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On the Sabbath, she reflected at random


  • So far, parenting a preteen mainly consists of Chris telling me to stay calm and then me telling Chris to stay calm.  Bad days are when we can't talk each other down from reacting with anger.
  • What does this say about us?  Today, in the middle of church, a bad smell arose.  Chris assumed it was me, and I assumed it was him.  It was neither of us.
  • Our pastor's reflection on how to go on after the election, no matter our principles:  "Be hard on the issues, but soft on people." 
  • This is the down time of living intimately with trees.  Literally, down time, as in the leaves are falling down.  And soon, I may be going down in my back.  I raked for a long time today.  I'm going to rake for a long time tomorrow.