Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Days of In-Between

I love these days of in-between, the slice of quiet between the Christmas bustle and the coming buzz of New Year's guests. It's a quiet, gray, drizzly morning, but the Christmas tree in the corner and the fire make everything cozy, make one just want to linger. Forget the counters that need cleaned and the carpets that need vacuumed in anticipation of company. This morning is all about the in-between.

In the in-between time, the decorations stay up but the boxes and bags get carried away. Dinners are mostly leftovers, or in the case of a family with birthdays on the 25th and 26th, dinner out at the restaurant of one's choosing.

Duncan, who turned 13 on Christmas day, chose Flaherty's Irish Pub. He loves their fish and chips. The server spilled tartar sauce on Laurel's boots and gave us a free dessert. We brought our leftovers home to eat the next day, again avoiding having to cook an actual meal.

Dinner on another in-between day was funnel cakes and kettle corn at Dollywood. It was a chilly, sunny day, and thousands of other people thought it was the right day to get the last out of their season passes, too. I sat on benches and re-read The Book Thief while Randy and the kids waited in lines. It is strange to be in Nazi Germany one minute and then to look up and  watch passersby who are so happy they bounce and swing. I did ride the carousel and the bumper cars, and I thought about how much nicer it is to go to Dollywood with teenagers instead of toddlers.

We anchor ourselves, Randy and I, on these in-between days.
"Today," he announces, "is December 27, 2013."
"Is it Friday?" I ask.
"It is," he assures me. "I took the trash out this morning."
These days feel like luxury. We linger over breakfast together, reading random bits of internet news to each other. We put whipped cream in our coffee and justify having apple or pumpkin pie for breakfast.

We revel in having our oldest home in this in-between time, home not just from college but from a semester in Italy. He mostly hangs out with his friends but they check in a few times each day, playing a few video games with Duncan or coercing Laurel into a round of Just Dance. And they'll come for supper if it's something other than leftovers.

They came last night for fettucine alfredo and artichokes. We won these nifty butter warmers in a white elephant exchange. Someone's junk, our treasure.

In the in-between time I grow sluggish. Showering and putting on real clothes seems superfluous. What is there to do, really, but read and watch the birds at their new feeder? In between spells of utter laziness, I iron a few shirts, put away wrapping paper, water the crinkling poinsettias. I think about how this year, for the first time in 20 years, there are no new toys to pick up, no Legos to step upon at night. We are a house filled with teenagers and young adults. We are in between ourselves.

After a few days of in between, to be honest, I am ready for what's next. I love the anticipation of company, of good conversation and meals cooked together. I am ready to find a cute outfit and put on boots, wipe down the counters and vacuum the floors. Family and friends will be here tomorrow and for the rest of this week, and I'm ready. In less than a week we'll be hauling the tree to the curb and packing up ornaments; I'll be forcing myself into lesson-plan mode and thinking about what to cook for supper. But I'll be ready.

This in-between time is good for the soul, good for anchoring oneself and reveling in the beauty of simplicity, the luxury of unconstructed days. In between.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Books That Make Me Cry {Repost}

{A repost from 2009 that still holds true today.}

The mark of a good Christmas book, for me, is that it makes me cry. We have a good number of children's books for Christmas, and I try to add a new book each year. We have some of the essential ones like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, popular ones like The Polar Express and some silly but sentimental ones like Mercer Mayer's Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, starring Little Critter. Some of the books we give the obligatory seasonal read and then put back on the rack.

But I have my favorites. These are the books that, without fail, make me cry at some point. My voice catches, a child's head pops up and looks at me and says, "Mama! Are you crying again?" I can't help it.

1. The Tale of the Three Trees (retold by Angela Elwell Hunt): This book ties it all together—Jesus' birth, life, and death—in a simple but eloquent story. I get choked up on almost every page.

2. The Story of Holly and Ivy (by Rumer Godden): This one takes us a couple of reading periods to get through, but it is so well worth it. This is the story of an orphan who wants a grandmother, a doll who wants a home, and a woman who wants a family. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

3. The House Without a Christmas Tree (by Gail Rock): I loved this TV special when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I'd ever read the book until a few years ago when I picked it up at a yard sale. Now my daughter and I read this story annually of a girl who begs her father for a Christmas tree, and I always cry at the end.

4. A Wish for Wings That Work (by Berkeley Breathed): Is it weird to get weepy over a book about a penguin named Opus? I can't help it; there's something about Santa saying, "Ho, ho, ho, go!" to a penguin whose wings don't work that brings tears every time. Also, this was one of the books we bought for our oldest for his first Christmas, so it's extra sentimental.

5. The First Night (by B.G. Hennessy): This short book starts off with one of my favorite Bible verses: "And the World became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) and proceeds to tell the birth of Christ in simple but poetic text. I especially love the rustic look of the paintings, done on butternut wood and shaped with a jigsaw. It's the simplicity of a birth—of a new life—that gets me every time.

And so those are my Top 5 favorite Christmas books. I have to add another one that takes awhile to read but is so well worth it: The Christmas Doll by Elvira Woodruff. This one isn't for the youngest readers, but 9 and up will love it.

Do you have one that makes you cry? If so, leave a comment and I'll check it out! Here are a few collected from comments:

The Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant
The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston (I can't wait to check this one out!!)
Jotham's Journey (This one's been on my to-read list for years!)
Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: How to Interact with Professors

What do you want to be when you get to college? One of the masses—a nameless face among hundreds or thousands—or someone whom a professor can call by name, offer personalized guidance, and write a great recommendation for later?

Interacting with faculty is something that some students naturally do well, some students do poorly, some students avoid, and some just never consider. Making an initial good impression can have subtle benefits of which a student might not be aware. A student who interacts with the professor (e.g., by coming to office hours or asking questions) is more likely to be remembered. A professor might be more likely to respond to that student in depth rather than superficially and may be more likely to give him or her the benefit of the doubt (e.g., if a student misses class).

But more importantly, making a good impression with a professor can lead to a relationship that benefits the student's overall college (and post-college) success.

So how does a student interact with his or her professors? First, all four faculty members at our "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew"roundtable agreed: be respectful. Whether it's by email or in person, treat your professors the way you want to be treated. Never, ever convey a sense of entitlement. Remember that professors have lives outside of the classroom. Don't expect an instantaneous response when emailing a professor, especially after hours or on the weekend.

Our panelists gave more specific advice both inside and outside the classroom for positive interactions.

Interactions in the classroom

• Sit in the front of the classroom, never in the back. Not only are faces visible to the professor, but students can answer and ask questions easier when sitting in the front.

• Ask questions. Don’t feel “uncool” if you need to ask questions. Most professors prefer that you ask questions during class than after class, both for the benefit of the other students and because the professor has someplace else to go after class.

• Answer questions. Don’t be afraid to answer questions when a professor asks. If you know the answer, be bold enough to raise your hand and answer. It helps the flow of the class. Interactions with your professor helps you stay engaged and thus remember and understand more. (Dr. M. interjected here that students who constantly raise their hands shouldn't feel offended if a professor passes him or her over sometimes so that other students have a chance to answer.)

• Express interest in the subject of the class. Tell professors about articles you've read or experiences you've had that have to do with subject you’re learning. It helps the professors get to know you better, and may also help you in the future.

Don't text, talk, fall asleep, walk in late, leave early, etc. Being rude will get you noticed—but not in a good way.
Show respect. Address your professor as "Dr.," "Mr./Ms." unless he or she specifically asks you not to. Never address him or her by his/her first name unless s/he tells you to!  Also, be respectful of your professor's views and your fellow students' views. Don't assume everyone holds the same worldview as you do, and don't assume you are right and "they" are wrong. College is, after all, about expanding your mind, being challenged, and learning from others.

Interactions outside the classroom

Respect—and take advantage of—their office hours. Meet with them during their office hours. Don't show up in the middle of the day and expect them to drop everything to meet with you. Office hours will always be posted on a professor's door and in the syllabus.
Ask for help.  If you need help, go to office hours and don’t wait until it’s too late for help. Ask early in the semester for help. Be able to explain what you’re having difficulties with. Don’t just say “I don’t get it.” The more information that you can provide with what you don’t understand, the better your professors can help. Prepare your questions ahead of time of what you’re going to ask your prof.
• Join or create a study group. Some of the most successful students are the students that interact with each other.
• Communicate respectfully. Again, check the syllabus to see how your professor prefers to be contacted. Use correct grammar in email and texting correspondence and address your professor properly (see "Show respect" above). Do not begin your email with "Hey" or worse, "Hey, dude." (And yes, my husband has been addressed as such by students more than once.) Do not call your professors on the weekend or after business hours unless s/he has explicitly given you permission to do so. Also, sign your name at the bottom of your email! Professors don't necessarily know who belongs to what address.

All our panelists emphasized that forming a relationship—being known to and by—with professors is key to college success and also to success after college. Never be afraid of introducing yourself to faculty members. Don't be annoying, but never think of them as the enemy. They want you to succeed and to really learn from them and from your fellow students. College professors love what they are teaching! Think about it this way: most of them have spent at least 5-8 years in graduate school specializing in their subjects so that they can convey the material to you.

{This is #4 in the series: "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#1: Write Well.

#2. Read the Syllabus.
#3. Be Responsible.
#5. Study 
#6. Get Involved}