Monday, December 31, 2012

End-of-Year Accounting

First things first:

This year I am

happier - definitely, although I am aware more than ever of how temporary a state this can be;
richer - no home improvement projects embarked upon this year, always a bonus for the wallet;
fatter - probably. I don't really keep track. I've been running the same miles as ever, but my metabolism is slowing down. Also for the first time ever I've been buying half and half on a regular basis (it makes oatmeal so yummy).

Other notes:

My symbolic activity for the year has been building rock walls. A) It's my new hobby: give me a pile of rocks, a loose slope, and a free day, and I'm perfectly happy, and B) it's the best-fit single concept for how I've approached life this year. Let the world do its terrifying thing outside: I'll slather on sunscreen and retreat to the back yard to build some walls, or self-soothe by admiring what I've already built. I'll straighten up after a morning of sorting and shaping and realize that I am what can only be called happy, and it's the best I've felt in weeks. It works against cancer, dumbass politicians, tense elections, kids growing up, mass shootings, global warming, too much baseball - really, anything.

Also, less symbolic: this has been the hobby that has tempted me toward stealing: I don't really covet many possessions of other people, but I do covet their rocks (and they're just lying out there! in the yard! neglected!) So far I have resisted. We did pick up some rocks that had been dumped in a vacant lot by the people doing construction in the lot next door: this felt morally okay. (Silas, in the back seat: "Are they stealing?" Helen, in tones of angry resignation: "YES.")

Report on previous year's activities:

I. Resolutions - verdict 2012

I started the year with these resolutions:

1. Remember birthdays and note them. Especially extended in-law relatives.
Success. That reminds me: Uncle Dick's birthday is approaching soon.

2. Check all investments quarterly; also check credit card balances monthly. Make changes on investments when it seems necessary.
Welllll...this one started off well but tapered off in June.
3. Make the phone calls. Last year I had at least three projects in which I had the contacts all lined up, but I never made contact. This year I will make contact. In other words: FOLLOW THROUGH. I’m going to show FOLLOW THROUGH.
Success and not, in equal measures. I managed to make phone calls and follow through enough to write an article for a national publication (go me), but the elation of this was tempered by some notable areas where I did not follow through, both with later writing opportunities for this same publication and for other obligations. I'm almost wondering if what I need to do is strike a balance between following through, which is good for my karma, and just accepting the fact that I am less ambitious and driven than I sometimes wish I was.

4. Hike once a month.
Hiked every month but May. Did count my runs on some months, though (which, since I ran in May, probably means that I "hiked" in May, too).

5. Print out more photos.
Hmm. This is one of those resolutions I forgot until I looked them up just now. So: fail.
6. In general: connect more; reach out more. 
Definitely better on this front - I went to a handbag party, a wine party and a jewelry party, three things I would have just turned down without thinking two years ago. I looked up a couple of old friends and took them out for dinner. Tried to get in the habit of emailing people I care about more regularly. We've started having dinner/ drinks with a couple neighborhood families on a monthly basis: this rocks. Even if there's a little too much back room celebrating of new legislative freedoms granted by the people of Colorado among some of the other families.

II. TBR Challenge

A. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto - The highlight was Clark's spelling, of course, but the journey itself across an absolutely unknown (to them) continent was pretty interesting, too.

B. Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose - Provided excellent context for (A), and was enjoyable in its own right.

C. The Ohio Frontier, R. Douglas Hurt - Exhaustive, particularly of public-record-type information, but slightly.

D. Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville - I liked this, but it kicked my butt. I ended up reading Little Heathens instead.

E. Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish - memoir of growing up in rural Iowa during the Depression. Think Farmer Boy crossed with Cheaper By the Dozen. Fun and informative (although my dad, who grew up in rural Iowa a decade later, was suspicious about some of the details, esp. regarding lack of indoor plumbing and electricity).

F. The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen - Sleeper hit of the year, for me. The first two chapters have always put me off, but once I got used to their patrician rhythm this story of a man trying to come to terms with his wife's death by heading into the Himalayas in winter.

G. Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, Alan Berger. The epigraphs were the best part. The book itself was poorly produced, so that it started falling apart as I read, and the text was both insipid and incoherent ("with drosscape, a new paradigm is cast" - what does this even mean? How do you cast a paradigm? Is it like dice, or a porcelain figurine?). However, luckily I own the book, so that I can comb through the epigraphs and use them as a reading plan.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


The holiday is (almost) over, the relatives have gone home, I've started to think a little too panickedly of work issues: must be the eve of the year. Today M. and I sat down and put all the baseball, violin, work and ski events into the calendar, and that pretty much brings us up to July, schedule-wise. Sigh. I'm grateful, of course. How can I not be? But it wears me down.
Christmas Eve fondue.
This week has been a nice respite, however; my parents and sister made the long bleak drive across Kansas (a big shout-out to them - thank you, family!); many other relatives came by, and with just a little before-hand phone coaching and quiet admonitions to self to Calm It The Hell Down, we emerged on the other side of the holiday without any scenes, storming-outs, bitterness, or hurt feelings. That I know of, anyway. And everyone still seems to be speaking to us. So, toasts all round!
Fondue add-ins.
We all went to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum - our first foray into Culture as a family since last year's trip to the Theater. It was remarkably successful. The kids listened to the audiotour obediently; they looked at the pictures; when I took a quick spin through the rest of the museum with Mr. Silas he was reasonably attentive, although he kept saying "i don't get it." We were in the contemporary wing, though, so I didn't get most of it either. "Listening to your feelings as you don't get it is basically the point, I think," I told him.

Totally unnecessary additional cookies (eaten with relish by all).
I am starting to taper down my daily feats of eating, mostly because we have eaten all the pies, stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes, cheesy onions, sticky buns, roasted nuts, candy and so forth that were left in the house in the wake of the festivities; we still have some Christmas cookies, but we should be through with them soon. The wine is a different issue altogether but at least it is bottled.

Stockings are hung.
After everyone left, we went to see the Pompeii exhibit at the nature and science museum. It is spectacular; you walk through the informative but tame front rooms, filled with artifacts and culture and the operations of daily life, and then you hit the floor-to-ceiling video screen showing a video-cam of the city of Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius - starting out with sunny blue skies in the morning, the first eruption at noon, and the gradual destruction of the city in the hours that followed (the sound track! my god! the dogs barking and the babies crying - and then everything not barking or crying anymore, just rattling and wind sounds). Then the room full of plaster casts of people and animals caught in the ash. Coupled with reading about the French Revolution and certain events happening nationally and personally, my mind has been focused lately on mortality and the Sudden End of Everything.
Even Santa waits spellbound for Christmas to arrive.
And so: Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Or, happy new beginnings, again. One of my resolutions - to be posted shortly - is to post more. Likely this will fall by the wayside eventually, but I like writing here and find it useful.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Better just post

It's been a busy coupla weeks. You too, you say? Not any kind of excuse, you say? Sigh. I know it. But still.

First, I went to Spokane for work. I managed to get three hour delays in both directions  -which, sucky, etc, but on the other hand I always overpack in the book department and so I managed to finish one book (Four Souls), get halfway through two others (Parrot & Olivier and Little Heathens), and finish all of the editing I brought along and draft the report article, all while sitting in increasingly uncomfortable airport chairs and borrowing airport Wifi.

Pretty much the moment I stepped off the plane in Denver it was time to go to this:

Run kitty.

And then almost immediately after we drove to this:

Our Christmas tree in its native habitat.
The photos don't really give a sense for how bloody cold it was up there, especially since the day before it was 50 degrees and we were wearing T-shirts (the day before, that is). OUR BODIES ARE NOT READY.

All things considered, though, I'd rather cut a Christmas tree in wintry weather than in shorts and a sun hat.

Nine degrees. NINE.
Luckily you don't have the audio, which is big brother offering a lot of unsolicited advice.
So we hauled our guy home and set him up and also got the outdoor lights up and now it's all lovely and festive. I was hoping to get a photo of the dressed tree in here, too, but - well, I thought I'd better just post.

So Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Here's what we did on Thanksgiving:

Then we took the bus to the ski area and messed around on the carpet of snow they had laid down at great expense to themselves and the environment. You'll note the sum total of the natural snow in the Winter Park region there in the photo behind Helen:

Then we came back to the rented condo and had Target's Thanksgiving in a box. This is much better than it sounds and we just had the last of the turkey leftovers last night, in soup.

We added a new twist to our three-year-old tradition this year, in that we invited some of the relatives we started the tradition to get away from. One of the many things I am thankful for this year is that it was fine. We completely avoided any discussion of politics, healthcare, child rearing - or, well, anything else. Things got a little testy in the kitchen, but that was mostly due to the lack of elbow room. I stayed gracious (no, really!) and M. only had to do that "calm it down" hand motion at me once during the whole three days.

It was good, and I really am thankful for so much. I'd list it all except that I have limited gigabytes and also I am a little superstitious about laying out all my goods online for the fates to take.

Completely throwaway side note: I found one of our photo albums face down in Si's "man cave" in the basement, and when I went to pick it up, tsking to myself, I noticed that it just happened to be open to a page with a photo of two friends of mine from a visit to a natural hot springs many years ago. Many, many years ago, back in the days when young women went au naturel in this situation. I did a few rapid calculations - man cave; recent playdate with a new friend from middle school; rather eye-popping photo - and made the very prudent decision to remove it. Then I reconsidered: I like having this photo scattered in among all our sober wedding photos and random "watch me stand on one foot beside the pickup" photos. Once we, too, were careless and carefree and wild and fun and this is what we did.

However, after sleeping on it, I decided that my first impulse was the correct one.

I also am a little nervous, because that photo - of two women I've completely lost touch with and am unlikely to ever see again - had a companion photo, one that features a person that Si and his friend might recognize even though it was taken 20 years ago. And I have NO idea where that photo has got to.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Wind sprints

These two photos

I've been going along with Si to do his wind sprints (which reminds me: Si has started working on track stuff again, in response to parental pressure to DO SOME KIND OF EXERCISE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD) and whatever we are doing must be working, because my legs are SORE. And I say this as a lifetime runner. A lifetime slow runner, but still. The two of us are improving.

pretty much sum him up right now. Especially if one involved guns and/or gaming.
It's been making me think about one of our perennial frets about Si - that he doesn't work at things - and trying to reconcile it with this idea that kids know how they themselves learn best and will show you (by learning that way) if you are willing to watch.

It's an idea about which I'm skeptical but which I can't seem to put down, especially since it hits a harmonic resonance in my own personal philosophy, which is that a kid's job is to grow up and a parent's job is to help them do that - to help them become the person they're supposed to be. Which, since none of us can see the future, involves a lot of observation. The watching, in this philosophy, is more critical than the shaping or correcting.

So when he wakes up at 7 a.m. and immediately, before breakfast, starts pinging around on his iphone game collection, is his future self crying out for discipline and correction, or should I observe this learning style objectively and let it go unremarked?

[Note: it did not go unremarked. I told him to turn the phone off. "No faaaair!"]

When I see on the class calendar that there's an algebra test coming up next week, should I say something, such as, for example, "Yes to the playdate but only after you've done some problem practice for your test," - or is that just indoctrinating him in the test-based education model, which will teach him to be helpless in the face of his learning needs unless he is preparing for a test?

[Note: I told him to practice for his algebra test. He doesn't have a study worksheet, so he went online and found practice problems in the subject area. Not a bad use of initiative and problem-solving skills, even if it is in service of doing really well on tests.]

It's a dilemma. He's smart. He's conscientious. He loves to be seen as smart and successful and wants, like most kids, to be rich (riiiiich!) And nine times out of ten he will shrug and give up when faced with a task requiring complex effort. He's designed to fall for get-rich-quick schemes, I sometimes think, and it seems criminal of me as a parent not to counteract this tendency - by proselytizing for the good old Protestant work ethic, by inculcating good study/ life habits, by limiting noneducational monitor time, by saying, as our personal daily mantra, "not until you've finished ___."

 Well, okay, fine, if you put it like that. However, other times I think what I'm really doing is wanting him to be a different sort of person: a quester and a researcher, a searcher after truth. I don't want him to just study for the test: I want him to ruminate on the meaning of the problems, and why we do math, and what is life all about, anyway? But he's really more of a life is good, let's finish this up and break out the beer kind of a guy. An efficient worker, one who, like myself, prizes his downtime, his home life, his quality of life (and thus the quality of his monitor graphics). He likes to bake, read quality escapist lit, pit his wits against the computer game and curl up by the fire: he's a hobbit, not a wizard. Is that so wrong?

No, of course not. Not wrong at all. Just...

...and here's where I start to see a problem in my approach. I've never been particularly interested in parenting books, but I'm suddenly checking them out in stacks, hoping to come up with a useful set of standardized rules that I can quick substitute in when my aspirational parent starts to say, well, shouldn't he be....?

Because the answer is no. He shouldn't be. He is who he is. And thank the stars above for my sweet, prickly, stubborn mid-size guy who only occasionally points his nerf gun at me and pretends to fire.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday favorites

1. Favorite month. November marks the start of real fall: no more silly warm days, brilliantine skies and frivolous scarlet leaves. Time to think about mortality and the ultimate random nature of all things: my favorite month. At least while I am in it. Plus there is the little reprieve at the end that reminds us that molecular disassociation aside, the real purpose of life is a full turkey dinner eaten after a long day of skiing in the company of family and friends (even if not all the family and all the friends.) That reminds me: it's time to book a condo for Thanksgiving.

2. Favorite holiday. Er, not Halloween. I am intrigued by the Day of the Dead (more on this here), but it is not really mine to celebrate.

Aside: Pros and cons of instituting new holidays/ traditions

Pros: Step outside your comfort zone
         Find rituals that address needs not covered in current holiday plan
         Feel pioneering and multicultural
         The creation of new traditions is a beautiful thing (according to parenting magazines, anyway)

Cons: The artificial quality emphasizes the absurdity of all holidays
          Feel like a dork
          Feel like an impostor
          The kids keep asking why are we doing this?
          So do I.

3. Favorite meal this week: the delicious pork and pepper stew my Mom made when Si and I flew out to visit them last weekend, or possibly the accompaniment, pasta and mushrooms made with the succulent fresh oyster mushrooms they picked on the walk we took. Man, oyster mushrooms are good. They make me revise my previous stance on mushrooms as food (which, succinctly: eh). On the same walk we stepped down to the muddy shore of a pond where there were hundreds - well, scores - of dime-sized froggies.

Second aside: I have mentioned before that there is a woeful lack of frogs in the lives of my kids. The frogs probably don't mind this, but it makes me ache a little that we don't live in a place where the perennial absurdity that is a frog can be a common experience. It's partly a climate thing: the high plains is not kind to amphibians. But it's more a situational state: it's because we live in the suburbs, near a creek and a marsh. Our waterways are frogless. And, possibly not coincidentally, largely kidless as well.

4. Favorite book I'm reading this week: The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Short, clever, damning yet generous and manages to open a drafty window on a different world before it slams shut at the end. Close runnerup: A Visit from the Goon Squad. I'm often leery of obvious experimentation - okay, we get it, you're brilliant - but here it is funny and it works.

5. Favorite powerpoint. The one in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Obviously. When else is a powerpoint presentation even going to be mentioned, actually. Which makes me wonder about the realism of using powerpoint for personal expression the way she does here - unless you think of it as a revived technology, some remnant from the past dragged up and put to new and vastly better use. That does happen.

8. Favorite work thing: that niggling nervous tummy feeling of always being late and behind the ball. Oh, wait. Different list.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday favorites

1. Favorite book I've been reading this week: The Little Princess, to Helen at bedtime. This is actually one of my favorite books of all time, and I look forward all day to reading it, even as my adult mind keeps getting tripped up by some of the details (what part of two adult men spying on a child through her window, and then sneaking into her room as she sleeps, is NOT CREEPY? Also, the happy ending where the rich youngish man finds the love of his life in, I mean becomes the legal guardian of, his dead business partner's 11-year-old daughter - well, it's great and all until she wants to be a grownup with HER OWN LIFE and get married and stuff, and THEN WHAT HAPPENS?)

2. Favorite meal: a made a pork chop thing with red cabbage, and a crock pot chicken and yam thing that I didn't even get to eat because I was so busy going to a wine-tasting tupperware party up the street (my life can be SO HARD sometimes), but I think my favorite thing this week was the lentil salad with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes that I managed not to burn. Needless to say I was alone, all alone, with my privileged bowl of lentils in the corner. Everyone else ate cereal and cheese quesadillas.

3. Favorite weather this week: it snowed on Thursday, real snow that stuck on the ground and everything. We built a fire and lay around reading books/ building Minecraft thingies (sets? scenarios? I don't even know).

4. Favorite work run. This fall I've been doing runs at work. These are way, way better now that the temperature at noon is no longer 92 degrees in the shade. It's still a barren, bleak, warehouse-filled landscape, though, and while most days I run over and do laps around the windy expanse of soccer fields, once a week I give myself permission to drive to the bikepath and run along Cherry Creek.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mississippi Hot Dog

Helen started taking violin lessons in September. She'd been pestering me about it for six straight months, and since I am a clever and responsible parent I waited until I thought she was sure--ha, ha, kidding. Mostly I just couldn't bear the thought of introducing yet another freaking activity into our roster of Things To Do. Also, the money. Also, it involved phone calls. So it took me a while, but finally I managed to break the task down into doable chunks and complete each one until ta-da, lesson time.

Now, those of you who know me in real life are probably saying, "And so, Melospiza, how is it being on the other side?" For lo, as a minor, violin playing was pretty much My Thing, especially by the time I got into the identity-crucial teen years. I didn't do sports, I had an awkward social life, my grasp of academic subjects was tenacious but perfunctory - meaning I was able to allow that occasionally, other people at my school might be better than me and I would not die - but violin, that was me. It was my baseball and swim team and math meet all rolled into one hugely time-consuming and expensive endeavor.

(And then I got to college and quit, with a mixture of grief and joy, but that is another story.)

And the short answer to your question is: good. It feels really, really good. After a brief deliberation, I signed Helen up for Suzuki lessons, which was my background (rather insufferably so - I remember one of my friends snapping at me after yet another comment about something violin-related, "Suzuki isn't god!"). We're learning all the same songs and exercises that I learned, so the first time in this parenting thing I feel like I know what's going on. It took me about five years to know or care what a DRA score is or what sort of baseball hit is most desirable, but I know from Mississippi Hot Dog (which they call Mississippi Stop Stop now, but I've been able to come to terms with that). I know all about tone and straight bows and how to hold your elbow when playing on the A string and what a good left hand position looks like, and I can talk shop with a casual fluency that eludes me in all other areas of my children's endeavors.

It also helps, and is gratifying, that Helen likes it. She's a practicer, so the Suzuki method suits her personality, as I knew it would. Every component is broken down into small tasks that can be practiced for a set number of times at home; advancing to the next task, whatever it is, is a delightfully big deal. "I think you'll get to move on to the A STRING next week!" says her teacher, with a proud and happy smile. I used to love this part (I wish I had that kind of cheerleading in my current life: wow, you did that Mail Merge REALLY WELL! I bet that next week you'll be ready to do the WHOLE BATCH!) (Or on second thought, maybe that would just be depressing.) Helen loves it, too.

It's also a welcome contrast from baseball, where there is a wearisome emphasis on Talent and Your Son Has a Great Swing and etc., with an equally wearisome carping on how the boys are expected to "practice this at home" (practice what?  how many times? for how long? what's reasonable to expect?) Soccer and swimming are like this, too. I think it's partly that many of the adult professionals in sports are there because they were talented enough to overcome uneven coaching, so they tend to believe in the talent god. There's also the fact that it's hard to practice in-game performance at home.

Anyway. I'm really glad we're doing it. I hope that my enthusiasm doesn't outlast Helen's, although I know I can't expect the same outcome I had. But right now it feels like we've opened a wing of my house that had been closed for years.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Favorites

1. Favorite time of day. Morning, obviously. Always. But this time of year I like it especially: I get up when it's still dark and write, and then either go for a run or drive to work as the sun is rising, so I'm glutted with sunrises these days. I love it. It's so much better than my habits from the past few years, where I was running in the dark half the year and in the shower, I think, for the sunrise.

2. Favorite read of the week: I'm working my way slowly through The Hemingses of Monticello, which is about the family of slaves who were both Thomas Jefferson's unacknowledged inlaws and his companion and children. This is pretty much the perfect book for me right now: I spent the first half of the year immersing myself in the life and world of Thomas Jefferson, and dreaming of how to create my own private Monticello (which I'm still ambivalent about. I think people who create utopias tend to use the people in their lives as building blocks, and men who create utopias are especially dangerous this way). Now I'm reading about the invisible secret of Monticello, made visible. Much of the book is obviously speculative, but it's such smart and carefully researched speculation that it hardly matters.

3. Favorite meal of the week: chicken soup (made with leftover roast chicken) with basil pesto and rolls made with leftover mashed sweet yams. We've also had a lot of dessert: both Helen and Silas dedicated themselves to dessert projects this week. Si made a recipe he'd found on the internet, cupcakes with tombstones on them (well, two of the cupcakes had tombstones. Then he decided that was way too much work and the rest just have frosting.), and Helen made a recipe she'd found in a craft book, sugar cookies with food color paintings on them. She also made a T shirt with a pink zebra painted on it in fabric paints. They're both so crafty, those kids, although Si is still a follow-the-instructions-to-the-letter kind of guy, while Helen feels free to improvise.

Other than that it's been kind of a hard week, for no especial reason, except that I've had five bad hair days in a row and the kidnapping in Arvada has been bringing me down and I'm in kind of a personality head butting with someone at work (who is not in my department, so it's not really a crisis or a constant problem, just a disappointment to realize, again, that I am not liked by all people all of the time even though I SHOULD BE BECAUSE I AM A TENDER PRECIOUS SNOWFLAKE AND ALSO BRILLIANT.)

Anyway. The yard is adrift is golden glowing yellow, so there's that.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Another Sputtering Return of the Friday Favorites

1. Favorite moments of the debate (note: this was the first presidential debate I have watched in 20 years, not counting SNL. I might wait another 20 years before I watch the next one.) Was it when Silas, turning away from the evening's Educational Entertainment, emerged with a carefully chosen alternative viewing choice? Or when he realized that no, sorry, we weren't going to turn off the debate to watch Spongebob? Was it the end, when it was finally over? Was it forty minutes before the debate started, when Helen and I were driving home through deserted streets that were gray with dusk and blooming with big dimly orange puffs of autumn ash tree - the debates were held here in Denver, not far from our house, and the interstate closed at 5, so it was like a little holiday time at the end of a busy working day. This one, I think. This was my favorite moment. Before they started.

2. Favorite part of the season. Every fall I think about Kenko's injunction that "branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration" - and then I think, nah. The fall leaves at their red and gold peak thrill me much more than a pile of brown leaves on the ground, even if that means I am privileging a certain moment in the eternal flux of the universe. There will be plenty of time for austere beauty in November. Today I remain resolutely delighted by the first flush of golden ash and bitter red sumac. This right here is my favorite moment of fall.

3. Favorite book I read in September: Finders Keepers by Craig Childs. This book hits on pretty much everything I struggled with when I lived in southwest Colorado and made my living (such as it was) walking the National Forest looking for pottery shards and rock flakes. I hated how anytime we found something interesting our job was to seal it in a plastic baggy and ship it to a big artifact storage locker. I hated the feeling of salacious pleasure I got anytime we poked our noses into something that was once private. I hated how I couldn't just slip a pretty little shard into my pocket, no matter how much more I'd appreciate it than the artifact storage locker.

4. Favorite mood for the week: recovering invalid. Between the sewer mess, the melancholy fact of fall, and the trip for work to Las Vegas (whoo boy) (it wasn't like that, just DULL), I am feeling the need to treat myself like a delicate Victorian convalescent this week. Someone who needs to lie about in the sun wrapped in lots of clean linen, being administered medicinal doses of tea and fresh air. So I took yesterday off. I volunteered in Helen's classroom this morning (which was awesome. I will definitely do this again.) I slept in two days this week.

5. Favorite dinner I made this week: make-your-own tacos. I cooked the beef with a new chili powder I picked up on a trip to the Littleton Penzey's: this is actually the first time in my cooking life that I have deliberately purchased a spice mix and to paraphrase a friend, I will need to live forty more years in order to make up for forty years of not using spice mixes. The mix is delicious. I think it has sugar in it, and possibly powdered heroin. It is so, so yummy.

6. Favorite work thing*: my personalized stationery. I like it so much that I hoard it: no ordinary to-do lists for this stationery, no sir. Only the biggest and most important lists go on this stuff.

*I have been feeling insulted and put upon lately by the fact that I need to work. This is not a feeling specific to my particular job, which happens to be going fine, but an irritation at a basic life condition (namely, that I am not independently wealthy; or possibly that the world has not chosen to pay me for doing what I like to do. Harrumph.) However, I am going to counteract this feeling by listing my favorite work activity each week. Identifying details will be redacted, obv.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Great, and yours?

So, how was your weekend, this beautiful last weekend in September? Did you go apple picking? Ride a bike through the first stunning bursts of fall color? Put your garden to sleep? Doze in the sun?

Ha ha, I have you all beat: I got to clean raw sewage out of the basement. And carry everything non-sewagey out onto the porch. Then scrub the floor with bleach. Now our house looks like an episode of Hoarders: But Where Will They Keep the Board Games? Also, my knees hurt. Also, I still have half the basement floor to scrub. Augh. Damn house.

Actually, I have an odd confession to make: except for the raw sewage part, and also the argument that ensued upon the finding of the sewage*,  it wasn't so bad. Cleaning the basement was not at the top of my list of things I wanted to get done this weekend - but it wasn't on the bottom, either. I mean, I wasn't planning to bleach the damn thing. But there was some serious organizing that needed to happen down there. And, uh, still needs to happen, only now it needs to take place with objects stored on the couch, the front porch, and the back porch. But taking everything apart is a critical first step, and that step is DONE. Also, there's no hesitating about chucking a beloved childhood toy when it's soaked in sewage. It makes the weeding out process go really, really fast.

Also, I was the only one with the time to do any scrubbing (exams to grade! so sorry!), which meant that out of guilt M. took care of all the parts that I loathe about this sort of event: the calling and the hiring, and the making decisions about the Solution. Usually we share this part, and I haaaate it. I hate calling people on the phone. I hate making decisions like shall we spend $5000 to do a partial fix, or go all the way and spend $10G to Do It Right? And most of all I hate Talking It Over. I don't want to talk. I just want to jump to a conclusion, stick to it, and run away and pretend we never had that $5000 in the first place.

So anyway, our basement is now really, really clean. Even cleaner than the last time. Except for the parts I haven't gotten to yet, and also the old uncomfortable futon that we've taken to affectionately calling the pooton. (Ewww.) Out it goes, as soon as it's dry enough to lug upstairs without contaminating the whole house.

*Bonus marriage gossip tidbit: One of the most common marital arguments in the Melospiza household involves how we respond to calamity, and, related, how we think the Other Person should respond to calamity. I tend to expect M. to use Pa Ingalls as a blueprint: "Where there's a will, there's a way!" "All's well that ends well!" Which, barring expletives, is pretty much how he does respond. Eventually, and minus the whistling and the extra-soulful fiddle-playing. But he first blames everyone under the frigging sun for the calamity, in language that would singe Pa's eyebrows. It drives me crazy and also, ironically, to the use of non-Ma-approved vulgarity of my own.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

6th Grade

 As I've mentioned, Silas is in 6th grade this year, which is revelatory in many ways, not the least of which (so far, after three weeks) is that 6th grade can actually not suck. I'd heard this from other people; my sister-in-law, in fact, said that middle school was her favorite part of school, and then added, peering down to where I'd fallen on the ground, that yes, she'd heard that was pretty unusual.

This is pretty much his approach to life right now.
What most people say about middle school, actually, is that it doesn't matter where you go, large academically challenging school, small intimate school, personally designed and tailored just-to-you school, middle school is hard. It's the time of life. It's just difficult, and also your companions are difficult, and also your parents start getting on your case in the weirdest ways.

But in my experience, it's especially hard if you go from a small comfortable school to a large suburban school, so I was worried for my little snowflake, both for his actual anticipated anguishes and also for things he wouldn't know better about, like those hard-edged big middle school teachers for whom subject material is just so much meat to be squeezed through the heads of this year's crop of meat grinders.

I may have been projecting a little. 6th grade happened to be the worst year of my life. (And I'm compelled by fate to add a hurried so far, just in case, because if that's as hard as I have it, I'm well aware it's pretty good.) But there are areas of convergence in our circumstances: see previous paragraph.

The social elements are still subject to change, of course. Right now things are golden: packs of friends and acquaintances roaming the three or four local neighborhoods on the weekend, walking home from school, stopping at Panera's for smoothies and baked goods. I assume the law of middle school averages means that there's a bad stretch waiting up ahead, but in general, the setup reminds me of the occasionally tumultuous-but-mostly-settled pack of friends I had in middle school, once we left the big urban suburb and came back to Ohio.

The academic elements seem, however, much better. On the one hand, I don't think Silas cares. I myself, when I was closer to the age in question, confidently asserted that it was impossible to learn anything in middle school so you shouldn't even try. (Oddly, I was concurrently criticizing my smaller and much much more pleasant 7th-and-8th-grade middle school for being not rigorous enough. We were learning both algebra and Latin and in our English class read Beowulf and the Iliad.) (Teenagers, man.)

On the other hand: whew.

 They will read real books this year. When I said this, happily, to Si, he said, "What does that mean?" Fair enough. They will read The Red Pearl, The Call of the Wild, A Comedy of Errors. That's what I mean by real books. They'll also read Julie of the Wolves, which comes close. (What do I mean?)

The main things I remember about 6th grade English are that the teacher played in a rock band and kept pointing out that Sting also played in a rock band and taught English; that he spent the entire class, every class, sitting at his desk facing us in our desks, and that he had a thing against one of the students in the class and devoted some of every class period to humiliating him (nice.) We wrote a few stories and must have read a few, too, but I don't remember them; I'm pretty sure we didn't read any book-length books. We mostly studied grammar, and spelling, and sat in embarrassed silence while Mr. Manning lobbed mocking diatribes at poor X.

The other classes were better than this, but not much better. So when I am glad, so very, very glad, that the academics in the middle school seem both serious and like they recognize that there can be joy in learning, that is what I mean.

 Si has also been expanding his extra curriculars. Last week he snapped this photo of the first-ever chocolate cake he baked; he also made mini pizzas for lunch for himself and Helen. (I know, right? I'm afraid even to talk about it in case he hears the note of crowing satisfaction in my voice and shuts down the bakery for good).

Sticky and delicious.

So far, then, 6th grade has been one long compelling argument about why we live where we live, in the expensive part of town, far from the mountains and neighborhoods and, well, vibe that we like. This is not an argument that I like or even quite believe in, but so far it has been pretty hard to find any evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mesa Verde

So, a belated report on the late-in-the-summer vacation we took over Labor Day. Remember: our first camping trip of the year (boo). Also, I have been agitating to visit Mesa Verde for YEARS. Five years, in fact, which was the last time we visited Mesa Verde. (The kids were too small to appreciate it then. Also, it was winter and we didn't get to go on a guided tour.) (I also agitate a lot for guided tours, since M. has a low opinion of them and I happen to think they're worthwhile and also have fond memories of them from when I was a kid.)

So, maybe I had a lot riding on this particular little mini-vacation.

It didn't begin well:

Si's makeshift shrine to Costi.

It was a cloudless sunny day across the entire state, I swear. However, we pulled up to the campsite in this:

Imagine also being starving.
I began to think maybe I had pushed the vacation gods a little too far. I had vacation hubris. I had overextended myself, and now the entire family was going to pay.

Fortunately, it is the desert and the next day dawned warm and sunny. The kids threw themselves into it, as I always knew they would which is why I wanted to come in the first place. It was very gratifying. The adults enjoyed it, too.

We took the "Adventure Tour" with the two 30-foot ladder climbs. I worried about Helen - silly me.

We went on not one, but two guided tours. The kids, poking through the oakbrush around our campsite (okay, fine, shooting each other with airsoft guns), found a kiva.

No matter how many times I see these, I'm always stunned.

We commemorated our trip with lots of gift store purchases, and for once I didn't panic over the Spending of Money. It was a great trip.

Not the kiva we "discovered," but cool nonetheless.
The only low point, other than pulling up in the rain, was that not one, but two (2) separate people on two (2) separate days asked if I was buying something for my granddaughter. Helen. Who is, for the record, seven.

I would have had to be 13 when I had Helen's mother. Or possibly fifteen.

Then M., trying to reassure me, said, "No. You don't look like a grandmother. It's your hair."

My hair?

Wearing a youthful baseball cap. To cover my aged hair.
Still, a very good trip, fuller than it seems possible it could be.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bye bye

 We lost a good friend and loyal barker on Saturday. Thirteen years old and still going strong, felled by what the vet thought was probably a stroke.

Costilla in better days.
The house is so quiet when we get home. I'm still not quite sure she won't be coming back.

Costi, Costico, Costillymostilly, Costernica, Coco, Tida, Coast.
She was thirteen years old and endured the incorporation into the family of not one but two children, whom she came to love in her sweet but understated way. Si's already made a shrine of her food bin, draped in her blanket and with a photo on top. He's taking it hard. Helen is mostly alert not to make him more sad, "because then he starts sniffing."

Costilla, July 4, 1999 -September 1 2013. A good dog.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

One week down

So, School started.

There's the awesomeness: middle school is like a whole different game, not only in terms of the obvious, classes and lockers etc. (they get to read Call of the Wild! and also other things), but also in terms of expectations for parents. It's sort of assumed that we have lives outside our parenting responsibilities, for example. There's an activity bus. If Si stays late to talk to a teacher (they have after school hours, which are called, disappointingly, intramurals) (his favorite part of elementary school was the optional gym class they got before school one a week, also called intramurals), or to run track (ha) or any other scheduled activity, he can just hop on the activity bus. It drops him off a million miles from our house, according to him, but still: hot dog. Even Events are this way. Si is joining the Math League: I got a little tense, reading over the schedule of meets, until I noticed the fine print: they take the bus. And the bus brings them back to the school at 5:30, 5:45. At that point we do need to pick them up, but 5:30 is a time even my we-want-your-shining-faces-in-your-desks-for-8.5-hours-a-day workplace can accommodate.

It's like the independence I've been pushing for since 2005 is finally here.

I guess I'm supposed to feel sad, and I do (always), but not for that.

Are we in the wilderness? The high plains of Colorado? The African Savannah?
Another awesome thing is that M. and I sat down as a team and decided which days I was going to go in to work late so that I could walk Helen to the bus stop, and which days he was going to do this and I would leave early and get back in time to be here for the kids when they get home. We've needed to do this for two years, so it's nice to have it done. No complaining, no scrambling: we just do what needs to be done.

Then there's the not-awesomeness. Si's new independence is accompanied by actions favored by evolution to hasten the separation between parents and children. He argues everything, particularly if it comes out of M's mouth. He bewails things a lot. Yesterday I got a tearstained call at work (I kind of dread getting calls from home): "Dad is abusing his power as Dad." Oh, dear - what's going on? "He says we need to clean off the table AND outside. Because they're a mess. He says he can't sit down. You need to come home right away."

"That actually sounds pretty reasonable, kiddo." More tears.

Sigh. And the homework has had moments of intensity, already, and it's only the second week of school. And my other child: she goes to school. Sometimes I hear about it. I haven't seen or heard a single thing from her teachers, however: not a flier, not a note, nothing. When I ask her what her favorite part of the day is, she says, Art class. A girl after my own heart.

("You get to start intramurals this year, Helen!" Si told her joyfully. When she gave kind of a roll-the-eyes response, he said, "But you've GOT to do intramurals. It's like gym class! Before school! You get to play games!" Still nothing. I finally had to chime in, "When I was in school, I didn't like gym either. In fact, it was my LEAST FAVORITE class." And Si looked at both of us in total bafflement.)

Nope. Botanic Gardens. I suppose one tipoff might be that there is a trace of green in this grass.
Awesome and not awesome: more or less like regular life. I do feel like we've clawed our way to the second level of parenting, though. For better or worse. 

Monday, August 20, 2012


The kids went back to school today and appropriately for my mood it's overcast and fuggy. It used to be the start of the school year was an enlivening time for me - apples, sweaters, sharp pencils and new classes - but the past two or three years it's leaned more toward sober and pensive, with perhaps a big dollop of self pity (on which I am trying to cut back, so bear with me). Today I am definitely feeling sober and pensive, with occasional dips into the black bile. Just dipping the toe, though. Rather than bolt into white-hot rage when, say, some unmemorable lawmaker says something breathtakingly stupid and cruel (That's what unmemorable lawmakers do, I remind myself sternly. It's like painting their drab house pink in the hope that it will stand out from the 90,000 other drab little houses on the market), I just get irritable. Rather than feel weepy and mournful on a morning when my son starts middle school, I just make him an honorary First Cup of Coffee (sweet, and half cream - I'm not sure if these make the habit more pernicious or less), take a picture of his impatient self, and feel, well, rather more wrinkled and middle aged than not as he heads off to the bus stop. And I try strenuously to put out of my mind my unfortunate breakfast reading, which centered on middle school power plays. Augh. I tell myself with rather more bravado than conviction that Si's still too young for all of that. Or too oblivious. And I mean that as a compliment: obliviousness is a powerful social coping tool, one which I have kept sharp and well-polished.

I told him not to smile for this one. He's actually very excited.

Later this very morning, in fact, I bring it into play at the elementary school bus stop, when a gaggle of bus mothers from the neighborhood stand around chatting and their topics are: a) how underestimated their children are at school (our beloved school, which admittedly is bursting to the seams with Exceptional Children); b) how very very awful teacher X is and how both they and their children were thankful that they hadn't gotten teacher X this year (Teacher X was ours last year, and while he was not without flaws, I thought he was sweet and gentle and fine); and c) crazy ex-husbands shacking up with crazier girlfriends.

Also very excited. And maybe got a up a mite too early.

Ai yi yi. It reminded me why usually I say a polite hello and bust obliviously on home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

On the brink

Last week, we had nine boys with guns over to celebrate eleven years of this guy:

Even at this age, Si's favorite thing to do was throw things.

It was a fitting tribute. Equally fitting is that his job for the next eleven years is to pick fluorescent airsoft ammo out of the lawn and garden. He was game for the first day, and stoked that he'd managed to trick Helen into helping (two minutes in, however, she quit - "I didn't know that this was going to be boring!" and he's been miserable, but committed, ever since).

On Monday, he starts middle school, the first step toward his much-anticipated adulthood. He regularly points out all the things that are proof of his ready-to-be-independent status: he can cook for himself (smoothies and chocolate milk), he is too old for a babysitter (cough not cough), he can earn money to pay for his own entertainment and consumables (from us, though. I'm still hoping he adds an external revenue stream to his earnings sometime soon.)

Character traits: goofy
I could go on about his usual personality markers: baseball, math, games, the newish interest in (fake) guns. The way he is at heart a bookish kid who, through baseball and games, has positioned himself squarely among the jocks. The way he is basically shy and respectful but has an unexpected flair for performance. How when M., reading out loud from a magazine, said "Having confidence and asking questions are not being rude," Si jumped up with a light of revelation in his eyes and said, "That's good to know! I'm always worried about seeming rude."

But with a sense of responsibility. And of beleaguered oppression.
In the past few months he has discovered radio and developed the regulation eleven-year-old taste for mass-produced music. While I am sorry that Beethoven is no longer in the hizzouse, and I am probably approaching my lifetime limit for 97.5 The Party, it's fun that he can take charge of this aspect of himself. It's gone along with some more inspiring acts of independence, too: he decided, in response to seeing his baseball friends buckle down and train, that he needs to improve his running speed. All month we've been going to the middle school track after dinner and running speed intervals and endurance work: this is probably the first time he's taken initiative in self-improvement, and it's good to see. As the kids and I drove home from the track last night, with them dangling their arms recklessly from the open windows and party music blaring, it felt like the new normal: life with big kids.

Not afraid to take a break.
It felt pretty good.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Last Days of July

1. Last week we drove across Kansas twice and I spent the whole time coveting the 4-foot high sandstone fence posts of Post Rock Country. Normally I do not understand statements like "85% of people would steal from you if they could" (really? I'm one of the 15%? I'm embarrassed to even look at other people's family photos on display when I'm dogsitting for them), but perhaps it is because other people do not have the right stuff. Apparently I am perfectly capable of starting to plot ways to sneak off with post rocks. (Step #1: have enough room in the car.)

2. I also spent some time trying to figure out how to trick my family into spending our next vacation visiting the Tallgrass Prairie National Scrap and the El Cuartelejo ruins in southwestern Kansas. And Bent's Old Fort. I have been trying to convince everybody that they want to drive five hours into flatland Colorado to visit a national historic site for approximately 5 years, though, so. Maybe this will be my year.

3. City Museum in St Louis? Is possibly the coolest place ever. Look for me to be futilely buying bags of quikrete in the hopes that some morning I will wake up able to create elaborate serpentine treefish out of concrete.

4. Frogs. My kids don't have enough frogs in their lives.

This creek, this action: the best time of my Ohio summers
5. Places we've watched the Olympics this week: my parents' TV in Ohio; nailed-down TV in the Super8 motel in Lawrence, Kansas and that was SO NOT a bedbug I saw; internet-accessed highlights on the iPad on I70; home. Home home home.

Seven Days of Refusing to Be Photographed
6. Other activities of note: badmitton; volleyball (uggghh); croquet (this activity caused the most sibling strife. That and the mysterious Nanner No Tagback game that somehow involves Penske trucks and yellow cars and screaming); listening to Alice in Wonderland in the car; tick checks; geocaching; making dinner with my mom; reading; napping (napping!); running through the woods; life list wildlife sightings (kit fox; live possum; screech owl in the wild) (that last one was a wildlife hearing - click the recording in the link).

Croquet also caused grandparental and parental strife. We were all too MEAN.
Other than the drive across Kansas AND Missouri AND Illinois AND Indiana, the only drawbacks to the trip were the inadequate drive-day-to-vacation-day ratio, not enough time with my sister, cross-trail spiderwebs while running, excessive heat, and the sense that this may be the last time we ever get to do this with everything okay.

But everything is still gathered on the precarious knife edge of okay. So for now we can continue.