Sunday, January 29, 2012

The End of the Birthday Parties

I have to admit: I'm glad we're coming to the end of the birthday party era. I've been doing this for 18 years. We've done—to name just a few— Dr. Suess, Down-on-the-Farm, and space adventure; knights, dinosaurs, and army; Pokemon, fish, and dangerous boys; ice-cream sundae, High School Musical, butterflies.

We've gone to the gymnastics center, the Lost Sea, and Ripley's Believe It or Not. We've done the beach, the waterpark, bowling, camping, hiking, and some of them twice. Or more.

I've made cakes of every shape and size, stuffed goody bags with plastic and candy, and eased hurt feelings at sleepovers. I've agonized over the guest list, wondered when a kid was going to get picked up, and spent hundreds of dollars and hours on celebrating the aging of my children.

My youngest is 11. He's had some fabulous parties, always a couple of weeks before his Christmas Day birthday. But this year I fell to a new low, and I know it's just in the nick of time that the birthday party era is coming to an end.

This year, his "party" fell a solid month after his birthday. Exactly one day in advance, I emailed three friends' moms and asked if they could spend the night. "Sure," they all said. I didn't even tell them what time. I might have said, "We're eating at 6 if they want food." They all magically showed up around the same time (6:30). They dropped their backpacks and ran around barefoot in the back yard. (Yes, I know it's January. He's my third child.) We ate hamburgers. They ran outside again. They got dirty and smelly. They played the Wii and watched a movie. They went to sleep around 1:30. They woke up and ate waffles.

I didn't even make a cake. I stuck two candles in a plastic cup filled with cookies-and-cream ice-cream.

I spent less than $10 for party food: hamburgers, french fries, ice-cream, Doritoes, and root beer. We organized not a single game. In fact, we hardly saw them. We went to bed before they did.

I have not a single picture.

If this is how birthday parties are going to be from here on out, count me in. No more pinatas! No more party games! My days of elaborately themed parties have come to an end, and I couldn't be happier.

Moms of littles, take heart! Your day is coming. In the meantime, cherish every single cupcake and take lots of pictures.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Weekly Wrap-Up

The past couple of weeks have been fairly calm.

Crocuses blooming in late January; daffodils are just about to burst. I'll miss them in the spring. I'm not sure what to think about this weather. I think I miss winter a little, but who can complain about bare feet and crocuses, ever? I like that Duncan ran inside during a run-around-the-house break and said, "Come outside with me!" He made me close my eyes so he could lead me to the crocuses. Someday he will be a good husband. He knows the language of flowers.

Duncan and I are studying China, and Monday was the beginning of Chinese New Year. We found all kinds of activities at Activity Village. Neither of us have been in a crafty mood this week, but we've enjoyed reading about the Year of the Dragon. We finished reading Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze and started on a biography of Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China. We're also in the middle of watching The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, based on the life of Gladys Aylward, and Wild China. Both are excellent and available on Netflix streaming. We decided not to do a lapbook for China since we did such an elaborate Japan lapbook, so we have been really concentrating on map skills. I like to lay our Asia Mark-it Map out flat and have Duncan find different cities, bodies of water, etc. and mark them. Somehow he can visualize it better when it's on the floor rather than on the wall. Seems more hands-on, I guess.

Duncan finally got the word "groceries" right in spelling. That was the exciting academic achievement of the week. Besides that breakthrough, everything continues on as usual—math, grammar, handwriting, etc. Homeschooling seems so easy with just one full-time student. See my Day-in-the-Life post on Simple Homeschool here, if you want to see a typical day.

This was our last week before our preK-8th grade co-op classes start back. Duncan will be taking literature circle, art, creative writing, boys' game club, and Lego club. I just realized that he's not taking a science class; but since he took two last semester, I guess we're OK. We'll do natural science this semester at home.

Laurel is already 3 weeks into her second semester co-op classes. She does fabulously in all her classes: physical science, British Lit, European history, drama, and art appreciation. She's also taking a "just desserts" cooking class. She's already had loads of experience in baking, cake decorating, etc (she made the cupcakes above for a Moms' Night Out I hosted), so this is just a fun class for her. In fact, since the new year began, she's been cooking supper once each week. I can't believe how lucky I am to have someone else preparing dinner in the middle of the week! I could definitely get used to this.

Math continues to be the bane of her existence. Lately I've been throwing in a few Kahn Academy algebra videos for her to watch to hopefully shed some new light on some particular math stumbling blocks. She really does get it; she just would so much rather be doing almost anything else.

We're also going to start working on her personal finance credit. She'll be doing the Money Management badge in American Heritage Girls, which is very similar to the Boy Scouts Personal Finance badge. Kahn Academy has a fantastic series on finance, which looks way more than adequate for a half-credit. I really need to think about German, too. I had planned to start that with Laurel this semester, but the book I wanted shot up in price in one of those weird jumps. I'll have to rethink that.

In the British Lit class that I teach on Fridays, we're learning about poetry and preparing to write a research paper. Analyzing poetry is not my favorite thing to do or teach. As a poet, I was always a bit cracked up and often flabbergasted to hear my poems analyzed in workshop. I often wonder what all these dead poets think of our endless dissections. Still, it must be done. Somewhere in their academic careers, they'll need to at least be familiar with the words rhyme and meter and even iambs. And so I give them a taste of it. On the composition side of things, we talked about quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing, and then practiced a bit of paraphrasing. They have all picked novels for their research papers, and we're going through writing a research paper step-by-step.

In other news, we had a new baby in our family this week!

Soren, my great-nephew, was born last Saturday, the day before my Dad's (his great-grandfather) 87th birthday. My niece and her husband brought Soren and his big brother Judah, almost 2, over to visit yesterday. So sweet to have all these little babies gracing our family! We have still another one to look forward to in March. My brother Stephen, who is two years older than I am, and his wife are expecting their first baby then. He'll be a first-time father at 48! And a very, very good one, I'm sure.

Our co-op starts back in earnest on Monday, with hundreds of kids taking a full day's worth of classes. I'll be teaching literature circle and 2 creative writing classes. That means this weekend will be filled with preparing for a crazy day on Monday!

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-Up

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Day-in-the-Life Post


The first thing I had to do when asked to take part in this year’s “Day in the Life” series was to look back at my post from last January. I wondered how much our daily life had changed in a year.

Well, a lot.

{Come and find out what a typical day at our house might look like over on Simple Homeschool. While you're there, check out similar posts by the other Simple Homeschool writers!}

Monday, January 23, 2012

On the Menu (with Oven Chicken Stew recipe)

The past two weeks have been very delicious. Pinterest provides a treasure trove of new and fresh recipe links, and I've added a few new favorites to my On the Menu list:
  • Spicy Asian Lettuce Wraps: these are phenomenal. Oh my goodness. I wish I had some leftovers right now. My one word of advice: the recipe calls for 2 tsp of red pepper flakes. We like spicy in our house, and I cut this down to 1/4 tsp. That was plenty, although a little more than that would have been OK.
  • Best Muffins Ever: They really are. Our favorite combo is white chocolate and raspberries. Unbelievable and totally addictive!
  • Pork Roast with Apples and Onions: I also added fresh cranberries in toward the end of the cooking time, and it was beautiful as well as delicious.
  • French Dip: This is a fantastic crockpot recipe and serves 8-10 people. I add cheese (provolone, swiss or pepperjack) to the bread after lightly toasting it, and then put the bread in the oven for a couple more minutes to slightly melt the cheese. The meat will melt it the rest of the way.
  • Slow Cooker Carnitas: Another slow cooker recipe that is fabulous. I didn't serve these on tortillas, as the recipe suggests, but just plopped on the plate with a side of homemade applesauce. Yum.
I've also tried a few recipes that weren't terribly exciting. Why is it always the ones that promise "Better than PF Changs!" or "The best I've ever had!" that are the failures?

One I just made a couple of nights ago and will be having again soon is a version of Shove-It-in-the-Oven Chicken Stew. I made several changes from the original recipe, so here is my version. this was a big hit in my family:

Oven Chicken Stew

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into large pieces
2 pounds red or yellow potatoes, quartered*
1 large onion, cut into large chunks
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
4 large cloves garlic, sliced
8-10 mushrooms, sliced
2-3 carrots, cut into chunks
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1/2-1 tsp sea salt (adjust)
1/2-1 tsp black pepper (adjust)
1/2-1 cup chicken broth

Adjust oven rack to near bottom position and heat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix everything except the chicken broth in a large roasting pan or cast-iron skillet. Cover, set pan in oven and roast about 30 minutes. Remove cover, add enough broth to form a stew, stir, and put in oven for another 15 minutes. Serve with warm, crusty bread.
*You may wish to leave the potatoes out and serve this with a side of mashed potatoes.

So here's what's on our menu for this week:

Plus, one night my daughter is cooking and one night we are going to a Chinese restaurant celebration of Chinese New Year!

Linked up on Taste This Thursday, Tasty Tuesday and Menu Plan Monday

Saturday, January 21, 2012


It's one of my favorite kind of nights. My daughter and I just finished watching a movie. I'm still snuggled under a fleece blanket; I hear her tap-tap-tapping on the computer. My taps on my laptop echo hers. The fire is warm. The dog sleeps on the floor; one cat snores on the loveseat and the new kitten is curled on another blanket in the back of the big red chair.

The heat kicks on. A car drives by on the wet road outside. I remember when I was much younger, and 9:30 p.m. was just the beginning of the night. I think about when I was a teenager, and how butterflies took up residence in my stomach almost all the time. Expectation mixed with anxiety, stirred up with a heady dash of excitement. Something was always bound to happen sometime soon.

Another car drives by, and another. I think about my first boyfriend in his red wool letter jacket with the stiff white sleeves, about how we used to go driving around on a night like this. I wonder what we talked about or if we talked at all. I remember how he looked when he was driving, how he sprawled out on the seat, relaxed. For a long, long time after he died, I would catch a whiff of his cologne at the strangest times. I really would. No one else has ever smelled like him. Sometimes it feels like they are still out there somewhere, that 15 year old girl and her boyfriend, who ran cross-country and sang very badly.

The dog growls. My daughter yawns twice. The cat hops down from her perch and stares at me expectantly, then meows once. I think about my daughter, who at 14 is right on the cusp of when it all begins.

For her, I hope for a life like this, filled with the happy confidence of today and of memories stitched together, wrapped up in a warm blanket on a quiet winter's night.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


It is natural for my son to put his arm around his grandmother. Like his father, he is a comforter. He knows intuitively the right moment to reach for a hand and just hold it, to give a sympathetic smile, to put his arm around someone. It is a gift.

The photo is fuzzy, I know; it isn't about the quality of light or clarity of focus. These are two people I love so deeply sharing a moment of grief. He is 11; she is 84. My mother sobs as she looks at her brother's life in photos—we have just left his funeral. Duncan walks beside her, then attaches himself to her. He is exactly what she needs at this moment: a quiet hug, human touch, permission to weep.

Someday, he will have a wife, and she will be a well-loved woman. I know. I am married to his father.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Great Room Redo: Dresser Spruce-up

My Great Room Redo —converting Duncan's old bedroom to our office— is coming along nicely. A few weeks ago I fixed up an old lab desk to what will be my sewing table. Yesterday I finished the dresser that used to look like this:

And now looks like this:

I sanded it, put on one coat of primer, two coats of soft-white door/trim paint, and one coat of polycrylic just on the top. I also bought new knobs at Target. All supplies were left over from some other project, so the total cost of the dresser was about $16—the price of 10 knobs. I could have used the wooden knobs and repainted them, I know, but I really wanted new knobs.

We decided that we really needed another dresser in our bedroom (and it's also WAY too heavy to move very far), so we removed several cubicle units that we were using as a catch-all for miscellaneous items and moved the dresser in. Now the drawers are filled partially with photo albums, baby books, and other memorabilia, as well as our running clothes. I still have some space left that will no doubt be filled soon.

Next up, I need to shampoo the carpet in the room and then figure out what to do with this chair:

When we packed up my Uncle Max's house after his death, we brought nearly all the furniture back to Tennessee to sort through here. This chair is incredibly comfortable, so I rescued it. Now I have to learn how to reupholster. I've been reading all kinds of websites and have lots of ideas. The trickiest part is going to be working around the wooden posts, which are attached to the back and arms and can't be removed. Harumph.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Weekly Wrap-Up

Or rather, "monthly wrap-up." I am lame at the weekly accounting!

In mid-December, there was our long-awaited trip to the Challenger Learning Center on the campus of UT Chattanooga. We spent 10 weeks of classes—with 24 kids in 5th-8th grades—preparing for this trip. Have I ever mentioned what a challenge it was for me, the writer and lover of all things related to literature, to teach a class about, um, space? Mars? Planets? I learned a lot. Some of it from the kids, in fact. The day of the mission itself arrived chilly and wet. As in pouring-down-rain wet, which is not anyone's favorite weather for driving the 2-hour trip to Chattanooga. All our families were driving down separately or carpooling; my co-teacher Donna arrived 2 hours before our mission in order to have lunch and maybe a little shopping in Chattanooga; I planned to arrive 45 minutes early. Just in case.

Twenty minutes down the road, our 18-year-old, home from college, called. "Um, you locked me out of the house." (He sleeps in the apartment that is attached to the house.) He is unable to break in the house. (I should be happy about that, I know.) Back home to unlock the door and we're on the road again with no time to spare. But that's OK, right? Because Donna, my co-teacher, is already in Chattanooga and can meet our students there in plenty of time. Except that Donna calls as she is just about to the Challenger Center and says, "We just got hit by a school bus."

It all ended up OK, really. We arrived just 8 minutes late. The bus incident wasn't as bad as it sounded—the bus just pulled the bumper of their car. And the mission itself? Outstanding!! Here are just a few photos, all taken by Donna. If you live within a few hours of Chattanooga, I strongly recommend that you look into doing a session at the Challanger Mission center! I'd be happy to provide more details about our class if you send me an email.

After our big Voyage to Mars, we nestled into the Christmas season. Having Jesse home from college is so awesome. As a friend once expressed when his came home from college, "My collection is all here." They decorated Christmas cookies, a long-standing tradition in our house. Jesse has left behind the "you can decorate without me" teen years and now happily decorates a few cookies:

Jesse, Laurel, and one of Laurel's friends prepared their second annual Christmas-break meal for us:

This year's Thai chicken curry was oh-so-much better than last year's pumpkin ravioli! And they did all the clean-up, as well.

A few day after Christmas—which was Duncan's 11th birthday—we traveled to Charlotte for our annual New Year's visit to Randy's family. The weather was fabulous, so we spent one afternoon geocaching through a park.

This is our new favorite thing to do on trips or just around town, when we don't have time for a hike in the Smokies. We found the first one fairly easily. The second one was a bit more challenging, and we never found the third one. We hiked around a tortuous bike path in the woods for well over an hour and then searched the spot that the GPS assured us was correct, but to no avail.

But all of our celebrating had a cover of mourning. We had moved my Uncle Max from a facility in Illinois to a nursing home here in Tennessee, where we could be with him daily. But we knew we were losing him. My family, parents, brothers, nieces, nephews all visited him several times a day, and that was a gift to us. He passed away on New Year's Eve.

On January 2 we all headed up to Illinois, 17 of us from here and then one brother from NY and our cousin from Maryland. My Dad, three of my brothers, and our cousin all spoke at Uncle Max's funeral, and it was truly amazing. This is just one of the many displays at his funeral:

If you read my blog regularly, I've posted several times about our Uncle Max, one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation. I miss him.

In between visiting hours, funeral, and burial, we all packed up Uncle Max's house. You can read a bit about that here on Sifting Through a Life. We also took some time to drive by where my grandparents lived—the house I spent many days during summer vacations of my childhood—and to see the new veterans' memorial in the park across the street.

We headed home in time for Laurel's performance in Alice in Wonderland. This was put on by her drama class at our co-op, and it was seriously probably the best high-school performance I have ever seen. And, like most of us, I've seen a lot! I know I am biased, but I was floored.

Laurel was a storyteller and thus was on stage for the entire performance with lots of lines. She was fantastic. The flyer above shows Lewis Carroll with all five Alices, which was a brilliant addition to the play.

That was a week ago. We started back with "regular" school on Monday. Co-op began for high schoolers. Laurel is continuing with second semester of physical science, art history, and drama. Her health and computer courses were just one semester, so she has added in a cooking class. Duncan and I are now studying China as part of Sonlight 5, so we did lots of reading. He also watched a few episodes of Wild China on Netflix throughout the week while I did math with Laurel. Of course we continued on with spelling, grammar, math, geography, vocabulary, and all those things.

We had our first day back with American Heritage Girls and Cub Scouts on Thursday, and my British Lit class resumed on Friday. Except for adding in the K-6 co-op on Mondays (which starts January 30) and the kids' Tuesday performing arts co-op (which begins Feb. 1), I guess we are officially back into the swing of things.

In other homeschooling news, if you have teenagers, check out my article Facebook and Your Teen on The Homeschool Classroom. And I was excited to see that three of my articles were in the Top 10 at Simple Homeschool. While you're over at Simple Homeschool, be sure to check out all the Day-in-the-Life posts. There's nothing quite so fun as peering into the lives of other homeschooling families!

Now if I could just get off the computer and get my house cleaned and decluttered....

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-Up at Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Facebook and Your Teen

For my daughter and most of her friends, getting a Facebook page at 13 was a rite of passage. Chances are, if you have a tween, s/he is looking forward to that day. So what do you need to know if your teen is about to enter the world of Facebook?

{Come on over to The Homeschool Classroom where I provide suggestions for safety and rules of Facebook etiquette to teach your young teens!}

The Homeschool Classrom

Friday, January 6, 2012

Top Ten Reads of 2011

Are you looking for something to read? I always have suggestions over at my SmallWorld Reads blog. Every year, like most book bloggers, I list my Top 10 books and then the rest of the books I read and reviewed during the year. You can check out my Best of the Years page for lists beginning in 2008.

In 2011 I read and reviewed 42 books and probably read a total of 10 others (juvenile fiction read aloud to my kids and/or books re-read for British Lit). This is down a few from my previous years. I have no excuses, other than that I fall asleep more easily than I used to. And so without further adieu, here is my year in books.

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Top 10 Books Read in 2011

Bloodroot by Amy Greene. From my review: "I didn't want Bloodroot to end. I miss it."

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. From my review: "I wish I had another book guaranteed this good to anticipate!"

March by Geraldine Brooks. Based on the character of Mr. March from Little Women. From my review: "Who is the real Mr. March? A devout minister, a coward, an adulterer, a doting father? Ultimately he is not the man his wife or daughters think he is, but he's also not the man he thinks he is."

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. From my review: "Oh my goodness. I laughed sooo hard while reading this book. I was actually guffawing."

My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. From my review: "This novel set during the Civil War was so fabulous, so compelling that I mourned when I had finished it"

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. From my review: "This is definitely worth a read, especially if you enjoy reading around the outskirts of WW2—those unknown stories, the little snippets of lives changed forever."

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Re-read. From my review: "I love re-reading a novel and having it seem completely new."

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. From my review: "Adichie is a phenomenal storyteller and a lyrical writer—my absolute favorite combination."

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. From my review: Focuses on an English butler "whose sole job it is to serve others, even when it means sacrificing—or not being allowed to have—a life of one’s own."

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. From my review: "This is one of those books in which I wanted to keep underlining passages and turning down page corners. Such moments of profundity! Such perfectly poetic descriptions!"

* This is the place where I am supposed to pick out my absolute favorite of the year, but I don't think I can. I can only narrow it down to two. Interestingly, these are both debut novels: Bloodroot by Amy Greene and My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira.

* As always, most of the books I read in 2011 were fiction; however, I do love nonfiction, particularly memoirs, and read a few:

* I added 42 book to my Ever-Growing TBR list, and I marked off 24. (Weirdly, those numbers are exactly the same as last year's.) My TBR list continues to grow faster than I can conquer it. But that's OK. I learned about books from posts on The Sunday Salon, Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books, the Book Review Carnival, from various internet sources, and especially from other book bloggers.

* Below is the total list of books read, minus the juvenile fiction. Each link leads to a review. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sifting Through a Life

My uncles, Max and Henry, with my mother around 1931

It's the pause before, the sacred snippet of quiet that I should be savoring. I should be sleeping or reading or even watching television. In an hour we'll be at the funeral home, arranging displays of a life, a whole entire life of 90 years. In two hours we'll be shaking hands of strangers mostly who loved our person, our uncle, our Max.

Uncle Max, 1943

But I can't rest. For one, the doors are banging open and closed in the hallway of the hotel. But mostly, I keep thinking about sorting through a life, sifting through what is left of someone who has always been a part of our family. Uncle Max is, was, my mother's older brother. He was a bachelor who lived with my grandparents until their deaths. He was a World War 2 hero, having flown 69 missions during the war, including 3 on D-Day. He was a pilot, airport manager, Lt. Colonel, member of the VFW and the American Legion and the Elks Club and all kinds of groups. People loved him, and he loved them all right back.

Uncle Max on the phone with my Dad, who was overseas during the Korean War. That's my mom, my Aunt Ann, and my oldest brother, James. Uncle Max, who roomed with my Dad in college, introduced my parents.

My mother says Max was the custodian of the family. In his house he has drawers filled with letters, cards, documents, funeral registers, tiny slips of paper, Valentines, family pictures, birth and death certificates, quilts, china, uniforms, medals, silver spoons. He was meticulous and organized, clearly labeling nearly everything. He wasn't a pack rat by any means. He was a curator of family history, a keeper of treasures, a recorder of deeds.

My mother and Uncle Max, spring 2010

My brother Peter and my father have done a marvelous job of tenderly taking care of the business of death. They have made arrangements beyond what I can even comprehend. At my uncle's house I wrap a tea cup in newspaper and place it in a box, take down a picture frame, toss out a half-empty jar of peanut butter. With everything I decide to keep or toss, I regret, regret, regret not having written to my uncle more, not having sent him more pictures. Why did I not do that? My husband says that I am too hard on myself, that he was always part of our lives. And he lived a rich, friend-filled life outside of the family.

It's time now. I must pull off my jeans and pull on my black dress pants and boots, try to figure out my hair, brush my teeth. My parents and two brothers and a sister-in-law rest in rooms across the hall. Niece and nephews, cousins, another brother, and my own husband and children are due to arrive soon. The bustle of visiting hours will begin, the stream of people whose lives my uncle enriched coming to say goodbye. Tomorrow, more sifting through his life, the funeral, the burial, the cold walk in the graveyard. Holding my mother's hand, linking my arm through my father's firm one.