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Sunday, November 27, 2005

O Christmas Tree

(Mysteriously enough, my "Add Image" button is working again tonight. I don't know what happened, but I'll take it. And it's a good thing, because I have a few pictures I want to add. )

This afternoon, between church, eating lunch with friends, and awaiting our weekly church home-group to begin, we managed to get all our paltry Christmas decorations out and up. After failing to get ANY good pics of the kids during our Thanksgiving celebration, I made a point of clicking some good ones today.

The weather is in another cold pattern again. Our highs are a few degrees lower than the average lows for this time of year. I guess that means the wonderful snow we have isn't going anywhere any time soon.

While unpacking the decorations that I swear I only put away last week, I came across the "Christmas Memories" journal that a friend had given to me our first holiday with a kid. She had explained using her own holiday journal while her kids were growing up, and what a blessing it was to look back on and reminise over.

Hardly daring to do so, I snuck a peak at when the last entry had been made. I was sure I had missed one or two, what with our move to Alaska and all, but thought I might be able to catch up if I locked myself in a quiet room and thought hard enough about it.

The last entry was 2000. Five years ago. Two kids ago. One major move ago. Sabrina was only eleven months old, we were still a few weeks shy of diagnosing Bruce's anxiety disorder, I was still thinking about returning to the work force. My father hadn't even been gone for six months. It was still fresh; we were still adjusting. Such an enormous transition and time of change.

I was also deep in the midst of questioning my abilities as a parent, and was only beginning to have to discipline my oldest kid. There were a couple funny anecdotes: one in which I suggested that Sabrina fit so seamlessly into our family that at times it felt as if she wasn't even there (no mistake of that now.) The one that really cracked the kids up was a story about two-and-a-half year-old Jack putting himself in time-out after taking a toy from "baby." In a dizzying inward folding of time, Evan's is currently amusing himself doing the very same thing.

How quickly five years can fly. How quickly one year changes to the next. And yet, how much things stay the same. In that old Christmas letter, I asked questions about parenting, like, is refusing to stay in bed and sleep a spankable offense? Five years later, I am still asking myself that same question with Ellie. Also, should I feel guilty using the television as a babysitter? Also the same kind of issue. Having been a parent of little kids for seven-and-a-half years now, I find many of the questions are the same.

Some things have changed, though. I know that letting the kids sit in front of PBS all day every once in a while won't destroy all their brain cells. (Look at the very gifted Jack.) Coming down hard to encourage proper sleeping habits is also a fight worth having. I would not be able to manage four kids without consistent adequate sleep.

These days, I don't beat myself up as much over how to answer the questions. The questions I ponder regarding Evan and Ellie are familiar ones, but I have a longer-term perspective by virtue of their older siblings who have survived and thrived through trying toddler times. The questions I agonize over now regarding Jack and Sabrina, as the forgers of new parenting territory, may also, someday in retrospect, not seem so critical.

Maybe there is a lesson in all this. Answering the inevitable questions is not absolutely necessary. Time has a way of working things out. What once was a pressing issue (i.e. what age to potty-train) becomes irrelevent when the answer is no longer pertinent to daily life.

So, tonight, while I am feeling anxious about Jack starting second-grade tomorrow, half-way through the school year, I need to remember than in five years the tension of this moment will have been smoothed and morphed into a vague memory.

This year, I am going to start up our holiday-memory album again. And I will do so anticipating what the observations and questions of the moment will teach me in the tomorrow, when today has again become the distant past.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Here is our Thanksgiving buffet table AFTER 19 people had eaten. Pathetic, isn't it? Posted by Picasa

This is our backyard right now. Kaylin, are you seeing this? Its fabulous. It was actually lighter than the picture would lead you to believe. They flash makes it seem darker. It's SO fun. I love snow. Posted by Picasa

Turnagain Arm was stunning today. This is the view northward from Beluga Point, which is maybe a 15 minute drive from our house. The mountains in the background are the Alaska Range. Between this range and the trees is the frozen inlet. The tide was on its way in. In the winter, with the ice, the swiftness of the water is beautiful and mezmerizing to watch. We are just a couple weeks from winter solstice. We do get lots of light even during our shorter days. Posted by Picasa

Today at The Bake Shop in Girdwood. Kaylin, we WILL be taking you here. In retrospect, this really is the perfect family portrait, with the Tabasco, ketchup and syrup in the foreground.Posted by Picasa

Dedicated to Elaine, one of my muses, who threatened never to check my blog again if I didn't add something soon....

It may seem a weird excuse for not blogging, but for some reason, the "Add Image" button on this very web page onto which I am typing this is no longer working. I cannot help but feel: what is the use of blogging without a picture to illustrate my current state of mind? I have finally sent a plea for help to blogger.com tech support. Here's to hopin' they can suggest a way to fix it.

Anyway, here is something just to get the juices flowing again.

Thanksgiving was good. (How could I say otherwise, when Elaine, the person to which this post is dedicated, was my guest of honor?) We had 19 people and WAAAAAAY too much food, and I think we spent more time divving up the leftovers between the four families than we did actually eating.

That particular day we had a magnificent snowstorm that was not quite bad enough to prohibit driving, but we all felt warm and cozy and very holiday-ish.
The adults ate on paper plates using plastic cutlery in our living room. High class, huh? All the food was wonderful and it tasted like Thanksgiving. One of our local radio stations started exclusively playing Christmas music that day, so it was all very festive.

Yesterday morning (Friday) the six of us romped together in the snow. If you looked closely at it, you could see individual flakes stacked on top of each other. If you blew on it, it exploded into the air like fluffy, crystalline dust. It was still snowing very lightly, and I was mezmerized watching individual flakes fall on my coat - each tiny and perfect. Magic magic magic.

Later I turned my thoughts towards gift-purchasing....

(I suddenly hesitate to go into too much detail about this process as some of the recipients of those gifts will be reading this.... Don't want to give too much away.)

Let me just say, it was a very pleasant experience, and now I'm almost done. I had plenty of time, and a general idea of what I was doing, and I didn't get too fried.

I headed straight for work following shopping, actually trying to get there early to get a parking space. I start work at 5:30, but last night, literally across the street from the gallery, was the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Town Square, which includes a visit from Santa Claus. Yes, the Santa Claus. (Yet, another advantage to winter in Alaska - we are driving distance from North Pole.) Despite the temperature being only 8 degrees (brrrr), I knew the turnout would be good and close parking would be slim.

That done, I shared with Sam and Becky, the gallery owners, the dream I'd had the night before. I told them I dreamed the gallery was going to be filled with people and that sales would be good. They laughed at me. Becky explained that, actually, with so many other stores having post-Thanksgiving door-busters and what not, the day after Christmas is usually pretty slow.

Even so, I felt optimistic. I leaned against the front door and watched and listened to the ceremony across the street, and after a bit people started to trickle in. Soon, the gallery was full. I was kept quite busy flitting from person to person, gauging their interest level and checking out body language.

In the end, I had a better night than I've had in a long time. Still won't make commission this pay period (unless next Monday is a slam dunk) but still did more in real life than I had in my dream. (This fact made Sam laugh again.)

My biggest sale was to a lesbian couple, and upon returning home I commented to Bruce, "Why is it my best sales are to lesbians?" It really is true. He thinks that when I finally publish a book (dreamer, nothing but a dreamer...) I should title it "How to Sell Art to Lesbians".

I replied, "Oh that's a great idea, considering our last name." (For those who don't know my last name, it contains overt and obvious sexual references.)

Okay. Time to change gears.

On my way up to bed last night, I had a profound thought. I realized that my four kids are like a four-course meal.

Jack is the appetizer. Appetizers are almost always delicious and it's easy to consume way too much of an appetizer at the expense of the rest of the meal. They are just too yummy and go down way too easy when you're hungry. It's hard to imagine a fancy night out on the town without an appetizer - preferably something deep-fried or with cream cheese or garlic.

Sabrina is like a salad. You really can't do without a salad. It's roughage! Salads come in a mind-numbing variety of combinations, and depending on what's in season can differ from each other entirely. I love salad, especially those that are a bit fruity and nutty, with a bit of tart cheese thrown in.

Ellie is a main course. You've been drooling over the thought of surf-and-turf all night, but by the time it gets to the table, you're feeling pretty stuffed. It is chock full of protein, fiber, and starch, which all-in-all, is the perfect combination, but there just isn't that much room left to fully enjoy it. So, you pack the leftovers and take them home, knowing there is plenty to enjoy tomorrow, when you're finally hungry again.

Evan is dessert. Dinner has ended, you are sure you could never eat another bite. But, darn it, you're celebrating, so even if you think you can only manage one bite, you still order the caramel apple crisp, or the burnt cream, or the tiramisu. And when it comes, it is so sweet, and so just right after everything else, that you find you've eaten it all in teeny tiny, oh-just-one-more bites.

Those are my kids.

Today was Saturday, and weather has finally cleared after a great many days of snowy skies (I am NOT complaining, by the way.) This morning it was 5 degrees in south Anchorage, so we decided to go to a warmer locale. In Girdwood the temperature was 15 or so. So we drove down Turnagain Arm, marveling at pearlescent skies, ice encrusted sheer rock cliffs, and rapidly drifting ice-floes as the tide poured in.

Girdwood was pristine and beautiful. The spruce trees were like a picture out of my childhood snow fantasies: ten inches of snow weighing down each branch and twig, so that they appeared like masses of white and green cones.

At The Bake Shop, where we always eat in Girdwood, surrounded by snowboarders and skiers, between the six of us we ate: two bowls of soup, three huge meat and cheese sandwiches, one sourdough bun with butter, and an 11 inch pizza.

When all the bowls and plates were licked clean, Jack said, "Can we get ice cream now?" HAH!

On our way home, we did, in fact stop at the grocery for ice cream - neopolitan for the kids, moose tracks for Bruce, and coffee with crushed heath bar for me. Then we watched "The Polar Express" together, and afterward feasted on Thanksgiving leftovers.

Perhaps tomorrow we'll get around to Christmas decorating.

The final part of "family time" was spent with Bruce and I, in true tyranical form, standing over the kids making them clean their rooms before bed, while at least one child cried hysterically and carried on.

I guess it is part of parent, part of life, that even the best days have "bad parts." I have spent most of my life being crushed by the teeny tiny bits of bad there has been. I don't have much of a backbone. As I try to explain to the kids, when we are responsible, when we keep up with our chores and obligations, there is more time for fun and less reason to feel stress or guilt.

I realized tonight that at least Jack is finally starting to get this message. For Sabrina and Ellie it is still a work in progress (a losing one, from all appearances - though it looked that way even with Jack for a long time). Evan is just now starting to exhibit "terrible two" behavior, becoming increasingly less dessert-like.

Bruce and Jack are finishing up watching "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone" for Jack's first time. I'm glad they're watching it together.

Tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett O'Hara once said. It will have good parts and bad parts. But I am so thankful for all of it.

I hope this is a sufficient enough update, Elaine. I certainly feel as though I've been writing a long time. God bless everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Angry Hornet Baby Posted by Picasa

Invisible Star Runner Posted by Picasa

Tornado Girl aka Chicken Little Posted by Picasa

Shining Lightning Boy Posted by Picasa

A recent picture of Jack and Bruce. Posted by Picasa

Bruce and I met with Jack’s first-grade teachers today during the lunch hour. Also present at the meeting was Jack’s principal. Later, Jack’s former kindergarten teacher wandered in to the meeting to give her two-cents. And later, his new second grade teacher came in for introductions.

Yes, it has been decided. The Monday after Thanksgiving, Jack will move up to second grade.

It was a good meeting and though I felt like we were inconveniencing everyone present, they were all gracious and affirming.

Two years ago, when we decided to wait until Jack was age six to start him in kindergarten, I thought that the pivotal, painful decision regarding his education was done and over with. He would go through school one year ahead of Sabrina, and it would mean that there would be two elementary years when all four kids were going to be in school together. I loved the idea of Evan in kindergarten with Ellie in second-grade, Sabrina in fourth, and Jack in fifth. I pictured Jack graduating high school at the end of his eighteenth year instead of at the tender age of seventeen. I pictured him being the first in his class to drive, rather than the last. I imagined him always have an edge academically, emotionally, and physically. A lot of factors went into our decision to start him late. It was such a nice picture.

So much for MY master plan.

Ultimately, the autumn we moved to Alaska would have been his kindergarten year had we started him at age five. During our move, it was one less thing to worry about not having to pull him from elementary school. This seemed to confirm our decision. And then, once he finally DID enter kindergarten, his emotional sensitivities were still a concern. This also seemed to confirm the decision.

Jack’s kindergarten teacher was in our meeting today, and she made sure to affirm the original decision of waiting, citing that emotionally he was still very immature during the year in her class.

The huge blossoming that took place between last winter and now is mind boggling to me. I never thought Jack would have difficulty academically, but I never dreamed I would be hearing teachers refer to him as “one of the brightest kids I’ve ever taught.”

So now we start down a new path. A new class, a new teacher, new friends, different academic challenges. We are working towards testing for entry into a pull-out gifted program which would start second semester. It will be interesting to see where his IQ comes out when we have that tested.

This process – only a week old, so far – has been an interesting, humbling experience. But it’s only just beginning. No longer will we be able to downplay homework time. Until now I’ve always had this thought: “Oh, he already knows all this so it won’t matter if he slacks off every once in awhile.” Danger, danger! Now comes accountability for not just Jack, but for Bruce and I as well. It also means being the youngest in his class, and perhaps returning to struggles with emotions and physical development. I don’t know.

I didn’t realize how carefully I’d planned out everything until now; how tightly I try to control things. I’ve always wanted to be a go-with-the-flow kind of person. Now is my chance to exercise that a bit. This has been very good for me. I have to admit I’m very thankful this has taken place as a result of a “positive” string of events. I dread to think how paralyzed I would be if things changed direction in a “bad” way. No, I DO know how I’d react. It wouldn’t be pretty.

I have to say that I’m thankful that Jack, and the other kids, will have opportunities to do and learn things at school that they would never be exposed to at home. At home, the children are left to their own creative devices, interacting with each other and their environment. In my efforts to set boundaries on the amount of chaos in my house, I find I establish parameters that restrict what the kids can learn and experience here. When Ellie asks if she can paint, I always say, “You can paint at preschool.” (That’s why we pay them $145 per month.) At home we cuddle, tease, wrestle, and talk about our feelings.

As much as it pains me to admit it, I will never be the kind of mom who drags her kids out into the world for adventures and object lessons. I am the kind of mom who will hand them a book, then discuss it later. We don’t do crafts, we don’t do science projects, I don’t have the patience for art. (At least not so far – it may be different in a couple more years when Evan is four.) I am glad that in school they will learn about things that I will NEVER be good at, or have any interest in.

It is one of my fervent prayers and hopes that my kids will discover, either at home or elsewhere, something to be passionate about. I hope they are eventually exposed to enough athletics, arts, music, and science that in one of those disciplines they will find a niche. For the present, in the case of Jack, I am faced with an exceptionally bright kid whom I can love and affirm and encourage, but on whose behalf I am unable to discover gifts and talents. That is HIS journey, not mine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Our True Identities Revealed

The time has come.

The world needs to know.

We are not who we pretend to be.

We pretend to be who we are not.

Our true identities have been revealed (earlier this week at the dinner table.)

We are…


…fighting the evil Chickenator and his minions, who are trying to take over the living room and front entryway.

We are…

Weather Machine (Bruce): Can turn enemies into weather systems that eventually dissipate in the atmosphere.

Valentine Girl (Linda): Makes enemies fall in love with each other so they'll leave everyone else alone.

Shining Lightning Boy (Jack): Flashes blinding pulses of light into the eyes of his enemies, so they are unable to see, thus prevented from carrying out their dastardly plans. (He is also very fast.)

Invisible Star Runner (Sabrina): With her super powers, she can turn enemies into stars, that twinkle up-above-the-world-so-high. (She shares some responsibility for the enormity of the universe.)

Tornado Girl: aka "Chicken Little" (Ellie). Don't mess with her, or the sky will fall on you.

Angry Hornet Baby (Evan): He has a stinger in his forehead that he rams into his enemies.

Get ready. Our time has come.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Couple of VIces

Back in my younger days, I put a lot of stake in food. This caused me problems, particularly during my five pregnancies (my first baby “didn’t take”, but even by 10-weeks, the damage was done). I am still “enjoying” the consequences of food-love these many years later. However, food, as a general concept isn’t as “important” to me as it once was. For the most part, I eat so I can keep folding laundry. Meanwhile, I console myself with the idea that I’m done EVER being pregnant (a sad thing, as well as a good thing). I need never experience the kind of food cravings I once did (except for four days per month – though there’s really no comparison to NURSING).

Nevertheless, there is one particular food item that still causes me “issues.” Am I alone in having that one thing, that one little item, that in times of stress or fatigue or celebration, wants to sit at the family table, offering solace or congratulations?

I’m sure I’m not, though most might not admit it.

So, here I am, baring my soul, confessing my (possibly unhealthy) obsession with…

Cheese fondue.

I have an inherent weakness for the bread/cheese combination, whether it be quesadillas, nachos, mac ‘n cheese, etc. But, darn it, melt a little swiss with kirsh, wine and garlic and I’m an insane woman. Since we moved to Alaska (though this isn’t a strickly “Alaska” thing) I have used packaged fondue, Appellenzer (I THINK) is the brand I go ga-ga over. It is $8 for one packet of pre-made fondue. You need only reheat it to indulge.

The other day, in an act of selfless love, Bruce brought me Appellenzer fondue, a loaf of como (chewy, dense, a little sour) bread and a bottle of wine from the grocery store. It was about 7:00pm. That particular night we had eaten McDonalds for dinner, so upon receiving my love-gift I declined it.

“Bruce, “ I protested, appalled, “I ate a Big Mac and fries and a Coke for dinner. I COULDN’T POSSIBLY eat cheese fondue!”

I held fast, imbibing only in the wine. At 9:30pm (or was it 10pm?) I had a change of heart.

“Honey, you what sounds REALLY good?…. Cheese fondue!”

But Bruce insisted that it was too late at night for fondue. He said I would never fall asleep. So I resisted, and indeed, that night, I slept very well.

The next afternoon was parent/teacher conferences (PTCs) (about which I have written in general detail in “PTCs”.) Between picking up Ellie from preschool and having to get Jack and Sabrina from THEIR school (it was half-day due to PTCs) I had only 45 minutes to feed both the younger kids and me. A PERFECT TIME FOR CHEESE FONDUE!

My blood-sugar was plummeting, so I can tell you, cheese and bread were sounding MIGHTY GOOD.

I fed “the babies” and then proceeded to my meal. It was absolutely disgusting. I sopped the bread, drenched it, stuffed it with the fondue. The cheese was hot and melty and gooey and strung between fingers and pan and bread and face. I sucked, slurped and inhaled the fondue/bread combo. Oh my gosh. It was SO GOOD. And I was SO gross.

I went to my PTCs feeling on top of the world and fueled for ANYTHING. (See essay entitled “PTCs” to consider the irony of this statement.)

What is it about that certain food item that makes us just a bit crazy? Why why why? I am immensely thankful that not every single thing I eat affects me this way. At one time, it did, and that was taking me down a path I hope gets grown over with bracken and tree-roots for all eternity.


I know a lot of people who simply shrug at food and say “Whatever, “ about it. They don’t care; it isn’t important to them; it’s just fuel enabling them to do what’s REALLY important.

For the most part, that is now the case with me. But it seems that every few weeks, or maybe every few months, fondue calls to me. I feel a similar calling with books.. I experience it when I go on a shopping binge in a thrift store. There is this weird release of adrenaline (?) or some other chemical that makes me feel relaxed, calm, able to cope for another day or two. It’s a little frightening to feel like something so compulsive can be so grounding. Even if normal, this can’t be good.

Well, I’m tired of talking about this. I don’t crave fondue right now. Only sleep. Ut is 11:15pm and I’m quite tired and will end this with just a few more comments.

There is no snow in the forecast. (Bastards.)

Ellie has been dry at night more times than not, lately.

I am less than 100-pages from being done with “Possession.” (What shall I read next?)

I actually sold something at the gallery tonight to the one person that came in.

Last night Bruce and I watched the Johnny Depp version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I LOVED IT!!!! WHY are people so creeped out by it??!! It’s genius! It’s the ultimate pro-family movie! Johnny Depp is an acting genius, and the reason his smile was so weird was because HIS DAD WAS A DENTIST!!!! Duh, people. It’s a small, little, tiny creative device called…. IRONY! (Note how many time HE used the word “weird” in the movie!… the pot was calling the kettle!)

Anyway, I am a huge Tim Burton fan. “Edward Scissorhands”, “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”…. all these and more are such great, original, clever and entertaining movies. No single man could make so many popular movies over so many years if he wasn’t a TOTAL GENUIS.

Get over your fear of death and decay and have a sense of humor.

I can hardly wait to see “The Corpse Bride.”


Parent/Teacher Conferences (PTCs – my definition) took place this week at Jack and Sabrina’s school. My two conferences were respectively at 1pm and 1:20pm last Wednesday.

I dread PTCs. Always have. The first one I ever went to was when Jack was a two-year-old preschooler and was still wearing a Pull-up. Mrs. S, his teacher, suggested I should seriously consider waiting a year to put Jack in kindergarten. She cited poor motor skills and immaturity. I was devastated. I cried all the way home, my world shaken. Ultimately, after three years of sweating it out, Bruce and I decided to take Mrs. S’s advice. Jack started kindergarten at six, rather than five, because of all the concerns about emotional and social immaturity.

Almost every other PTC I’ve ever gone to has been a similarly shaking experience. Away from home, children carry on lives totally unknown to their parents. PTCs are a reckoning of sorts, a time when I get a glimpse of another side of my kids, a side that I may have no knowledge of at all.

Jack’s PTCs have almost always involved the suggestion of an unusual level of emotion and social difficulties. While as he’s gotten older, this is less the case, but I always brace myself for some revelation about my oldest son that I am completely blinded to.

Meanwhile, I have always worried about Sabrina’s PTCs because Sabrina has always been…. different, unique, challenging. At home Sabrina has been challengingly emotional and melodramatic. She spent the two years between 16 month-old and 3 ½ screaming almost every waking moment. There has always been this underlying fear, dating back from birth, that her head isn’t growing fast enough, that she has neurological problems, sensory integration issues, and maybe ADHD.

Sabrina’s PTCs have, consequently, always entailed me entreating her teachers to tell me what is wrong with her and what I can do to help her, followed by Sabrina’s teachers wondering what I’m talking about – Sabrina is wonderful and sweet and progressing just fine. The at-home behaviors I describe are met with blank stares. “Sabrina isn’t like that AT ALL at school… It’s almost as if you’re talking about a different person….” And then I feel stupid, like I’M the one just making it up, being melodramatic and emotional.

After a number of years of never knowing what to expect, I’ve tried to eliminate all expectations at PTCs, but also continue to brace myself for blind-siding revelations.

This year I was especially worried because it is Sabrina’s first year of “real” school. I’ve watched her do her homework, practicing her letters, and in spite of the lined paper used to guide her pencil-strokes, she has struggled with her letters, which clearly suggest underdeveloped fine motor abilities (which, of course, I know naturally develop with time). Also, I was bracing myself for the inevitable discussion about Jack’s sensitivities, crying episodes, and perfectionism.

Jack’s teacher was first. The first words out of her mouth were: “Would you ever be willing to consider moving Jack up to second grade?…..Or, enrolling him in Rogers Park?”

Excuse me? WHAT? Second grade? Rogers Park?

Apparently, Jack is reading and comprehending at a sixth-grade level, and basically already knows everything that he is supposed to learn in first-grade. Mrs. G, Jack’s teacher, feels he cannot be adequately challenged in her class. And, in answer to my additional question, Rogers Park Elementary is a program for “highly gifted” kids, ones with IQs over 143, or those who achieve in the top 1% of their age group. Okay. Wow. DIDN’T see THAT coming. Huh.

We talked a little bit more about this, and she suggested another meeting with Bruce present to further discuss her observations and recommendations.

My head swimming, I guided the kids across the hall to Sabrina’s class for my next PTC. Heavily, I sat down across from Mrs. K and said, “Give it to me straight. What’s the bad news?” Mrs. K was baffled by my question, and said that Sabrina is doing very well, she is “progressing satisfactorily” in all areas, although, like Jack, she has a hard time remembering her street address. She also mentioned fine and gross motor skills still developing. I breathed a sigh of relief. No surprises.

At home that afternoon, I made many phone calls. I was very worked up. All I could think was, “This really screws up my plans for our life.” I had had a picture of Jack in the same class with the same kids - neighborhood kids - all through his school years. He is a grade above Sabrina, and that would mean that for two years, all four of the kids would be at the same school together. I LOVED the idea of this. I loved the idea of all the kids and families in the neighborhood growing up together, hanging out together, eventually dating each other (I can see my brother, Doug, laughing at this). I was happy with Jack being ahead academically, so that he could concentrate on social skills, creativity, and physical education. I love that he and Sabrina hang out sometimes at recess, and that he is across the hall from her, meeting her in the hall after school, guiding her and helping her.

I don’t want to face having to make a decision that Jack doesn’t like and that he’ll resist. I don’t want to face the possibility of him going to an entirely different school clear across town – how do I pick-up/drop-off two kids at two different schools at exactly the same time? What if? What if? What if?

Several days have passed since all this started. I’ve talked to a lot of people and have gotten the ball rolling for “testing” for the gifted program. Meanwhile, Jack has again demonstrated his uncanny ability to pick up on language and math concepts that are well beyond his years, and to engage in abstract reasoning. But he is also still such a little boy, crying in despair over the likelihood of changing grades. In his reading pile are Hardy Boys, Captain Underpants, and Mercer Mayer picture books. He is equally comfortable watching Star Wars and Teletubbies (with his little sister and brother, of course). He can catch and throw a football and plays street hockey, but still writes me love letters that he leaves on my pillow.

What to do with Jack?

Right now, we don’t know – we’re undecided, and will continue to be until we actually find out how “smart” he really is. I don’t want to squander his gifts, but I don’t want him to be pressured either. I don’t want him to feel “punished” for doing well. Neither do I want him to NEVER fail or struggle academically. So, I guess we take things one day at a time. I’ve been told this is all a good problem to have, and after shifting my paradigm over the last couple days, I am becoming more comfortable – maybe even excited – about it.

I am once again reminded that as much as we can have a general idea of the direction of our lives, things can turn on a dime at any given moment. Do I cover my eyes and ears and hope the winds of change will just go away so I can stay in my safe little place, or do I face them and boldly state, “Bring it on!”

I very much want to be “bring-it-on-ish”, but struggle with it. So, knowing the biggest mistake I can make is to be rash, I quietly (or, not so quietly) wait, gathering information, moving forward, and hoping the “right” or “best” course (if there is such a thing) will become clearer as the fog lifts to reveal the path ahead.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Letters from Bolivia

An interesting fellow wandered into the gallery last night. He is in Anchorage on business from southern California. He is involved in the maritime industry, doing something with the Coast Guard; having to decide whether or not to condemn a boat (I imagine, one of the C.G.’s own). We did not much discuss why Jurgen is in Alaska now, but rather his background and personal history.

Obviously, any given interaction in the gallery is brief and only skims the surface of much deeper realities. Our particular conversation spring-boarded when I asked him if he had been born in Bolivia (where he mentioned he came from). He had a very slight accent. He chuckled and admitted he’d actually been born in Germany, where, he mentioned, his Bolivian father had been involved in the Wehrmacht in World War II, and had ended up stuck in Russia for awhile.

My attention was sufficiently grabbed.

Jurgen’s father, who was, of course, Bolivian, and had been born and raised in Bolivia, had, as the oldest son, been sent to Germany to be educated in 1937. Around that time, Jurgen’s grandfather, who helped run steamboat tours on the Amazon for wealthy foreigners, disappeared in the dense South American jungle and was never seen again. About a year later, Jurgen’s father, still in Germany, received a substantial life insurance payout which he used to buy each of his siblings a cattle ranch (which are still active to this day) and to fund the remainder of his education in Germany. It was during this time, that he was sucked into the Nazi mania, though he later told his children he had always known the Nazi movement would end up blowing up in Germany’s face. He was right, of course.

Jurgen’s father survived his Russian ordeal (another amazing story, from what I inferred from the telling roll of his eyes is he mentioned it), and eventually returned to Bolivia with his German wife and six-month-old Jurgen when the Bolivian government “found him.”

So, Jurgen and his parents lived in Bolivia until Jurgen was 12, then they tried going back to Germany for awhile. They were unhappy there, but also unwilling to return to Bolivia where education was inadequate, so they decided to go somewhere in between instead: America.

Through all the telling of this story, I was scratching my head. I was thinking about a book I had recently read called, “Letters from Paraguay” by Lily Tuck, which also explores the history of South America, but this is during the 1860’s, a time when most American school-children are only concerned with our own Civil War (as if it was the only civil war in history). We hear little about South American history, except as it pertains to United States history, or mystery (lost, ancient civilizations with solid gold ziggurats and human sacrifices). Or, in contemporary news, we think about cocaine manufacturing and guerillas. I realized there is a whole other area of the world and its history I know absolutely nothing about.

Meanwhile, Jurgen noticed the book I had opened up on the desk and asked about it. (I’m still reading “Possession.”) This launched a brief dialogue about books. (Fellow readers can always identify each other.) He said he was reading “The Power of One” – had I read it? Yes, I had. Said I had been disappointed with it. He agreed. He then made reference to “The Tin Drum” – had I heard of it? Yes, I’d read it as well. “However,” I admitted, “it’s the only Gunther Grass I’ve ever read.” I told him he was the first person I’d actually met who’d also read “The Tin Drum,” and that I’d only read it because John Irving had mentioned Grass being influential in his own writing. Jurgen nodded and said thoughtfully, “I could see that.” (I love conversations like this.)

I realized something then about books, that I’d never really thought of before. Books and literature have a way of connecting people that would NEVER otherwise have a single bit of common ground. Do you see what I mean? It’s a huge thing. Each little physical book is a brick out of which bridges and shelters can been built.

I confessed to Jurgen that there are certain books by “foreign” authors, such as Gunther Grass, that I just don’t get, I think due to an entirely different cultural context or historical lens. I mentioned that while I “get” British and American literature, I have a hard time with translations from French, German, Chinese and Turkish. The context from which these books are written, flow out of an entirely different shared experience of those respective peoples. Jurgen understood exactly what I was saying, and this segued our conversation in different direction – the problem with America.

He told me a story from his boyhood. When they were still living in Bolivia, his family belonged to a country club. One day, Jurgen’s peers were sitting around drinking Coco-Cola and eating fresh slices of juicy watermelon. Jurgen asked his father for some money so he too could have Coca-Cola and watermelon.

“Are you thirsty?,” asked Jurgen’s father.

“Yes, I guess I am,” answer young Jurgen.

“Then drink some water,” replied his father. “And are you hungry for some watermelon, Son?” he further enquired.

Jurgen responded with honesty. “No, not really, Father.”

“Then you do not need watermelon, nor the money to buy it.”

And that, Jurgen told me, is the problem with America: we go around gorging and defecating (his words, not mine) without even thinking about what we are doing or why we are doing it. He said he loves going back to Bolivia as often as he can, visiting the cattle ranches of his cousins, so that he can be reminded of “reality.”

I admitted to Jurgen that this seems very much to be true. We are a country blinded by our own affluence. I know I am guilty of being blinded by American culture and the desire to hoard my comfort. It is very difficult, and at times very uncomfortable, to genuinely see the rest of the world. It is much easier to stay safe and warm in my little cocoon. Recent world events have certainly cracked the shell a bit, but I plaster it up, slip on some cultural contact lenses and try to make sense of it all in the short-sighted way that I can. My head is crowded with images of bubble-shaped SUVs and wafer-thin televisions. I see the faces of the impossibly beautiful and notorious celebrities. I was thinking the other night in bed (the best time for thinking such thoughts) how utterly small and insignificant people are in the face of the enormity of the universe. How our problems and wars and sufferings, and even our joys, are invisible past the closest microscopic inspection of our remote dust-mote of a planet.

I’m not sure what all this means. Perhaps it is just a reminder to keep life in perspective, to fight for justice and love, and abhor evil in any form. I think of another man I met in the gallery, who once worked with “the dullest, most boring man on earth” who turned out to be one of the key forgers in Stalag 3 during World War II; the forging project with which he was involved would later become popularly known as “The Great Escape.” I also think of the dizzying epiphany I had one summer afternoon, upon flushing the corpse of a freshly swatted yellow-jacket down the toilet. The insect was no longer in my sight, no longer a stinging threat to myself and my children, but as sure as the creases in my children’s palms, that bee, even in its deceased state, was just as real as it had been when balanced on my fly-swatter. Just because it was floating down dark stinking pipes towards the ocean, didn’t mean it no longer existed. It was still there, existing, a part of the continuity of life in the universe, just as I am also a thread of history, tightly woven into the stories of some (my children, my parents) and loosely woven into the history of others (forgers from World War II and cattle ranchers in Bolivia).

(Is this all way too esoteric? Perhaps. Am I reaching too far? Only in my inability to clearly articulate and explain myself.)

We have friends living in Bolivia – Eric and Emily Lizarazu, and their three children, Benjy, Lydia, and Ellie. They recently spent a year living in Anchorage, during which time they were a part of both our church and our church home-group. They have only been back in Bolivia a few months. Sunday we received a new email update from them. It is yet another reminder of a bigger picture. I may rarely think about Bolivia at any other time, but during the last several days, Bolivia has come to me and reminded me that though it may be buried deep in the plumbing of my mind, it is still there, existing:

"In the past 2 years Bolivia has had 3 different Presidential leaders. Two were kicked out due to civil unrest and the inability to please the two dominant groups here in Bolivia, the educated and the uneducated. Bolivia is now preparing for elections in December. Civil unrest is sure to raise its ugly head. We ask for your prayers as this time comes closer. Each group has their party members campaigning, one group MAS means more drugs and very little in the way of laws or rules. They are responsible for stirring up lots of Civil unrest. The sad truth is that they are growing in popularity with their Robin Hood approach to take from the rich and give to the poor. Our trip out to camp [Eric and Emily run a camp for youth] takes us through many villages who support the MAS group.

A new tactic. October through February there seems to be lots of time for celebrations to idols. These idols take the form of "virgins" in the Catholic Church. There can be a "virgin" for any occasion or day of the week. There seems to be a new tactic to raise money for these celebrations. The village people block the road with a rope to make a make-shift toll booth. They stand at your window asking for donations. Their zealous intent is so real. Their anger and surprise at us when we say no thanks and drive off is real as well. The rope and the amount of people are intimidating. If I was alone and not bold like Eric what would happen? How many other Christians are pressured into giving to the idols due to innocence and/or fear?

Life for most poor Bolivians is so hard! It is amazing the depth of struggles the poor of this world face. It is unreal the amount of corruption we hear about and the consistent unjustness of it all.

The village is growing but many still struggle. Many single moms raise 4 or more kids on potatoes and rice. A little boy playing on the camp’s soccer field ran up to us. He simply asked us for shoes or clothes. He was about 8 years old and had wet muddy sore-looking feet. We had to tell him we didn't have anything his size on hand but told him to come back in a week and we would find him some shoes. There was a schedule change at camp and we didn't have time to shop that week so, when he showed up I scrambled to find him something as I had promised. I found a pair of pink flip-flops I use in the shower. With some embarrassment, I took those pink garage sale flip-flops I had brought with me and gave them to him. He was thrilled.What gratefulness! He wore them out of the camp with a smile. Having too much stuff clouds our ability to be thankful doesn't it?

The medical needs of the people in the camp area are incredible. Some simple illness left uncared for until it is too late and they need some drastic care. On several occasions, people come to us asking for money for meds. On other occasions we have been used as an ambulance to carry people to the city. These are opportunities to be a living witness. We hope we are doing our job well and pleasing to the Lord."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Be Still

When Bruce came home from work this afternoon, I was in the middle of preparing our favorite family dinner, homemade pizza. (Evan’s generic word for “food” is “pizza.” He can also say “pickle” and “Cheetos”.) The dough turned out perfect, and the “grown-up” pie was going to have ground beef, black olives, onions, red bell pepper and mushrooms. The kids were happily stuck with cheese. After watching me chop and cook for a bit, Bruce cautiously asked how I had spent my day and how I was doing.

All in all I had a very uneventful and antisocial day. I avoided answering the phone and the door, fully enjoying the peaceful pace my domestic duties. I washed and folded four loads of laundry, cleaned the kitchen (several times), vacuumed the master bedroom, read to Ellie and Evan, sorted through some outgrown kid clothes, and hung a few sconces in the living room. For lunch I made pumpkin soup (passable). While Evan napped, I spent some time with Ellie introducing her to pre-school activity books, and under my tutelage she worked on tracing and coloring circles and squares. Later, under her tutelage, I did triangles.

My answer to Bruce’s question about what I had done during the day was, “Nothing. Why?”

He answered, “Because you seem so relaxed.”

Thinking about this conversation later in the evening, after the kids were finally all tucked in bed, (Evan had issues because we were out of “cocoa,” e.g. milk; water wasn’t cutting it – Bruce had to make a store run to get some before he would settle) I find I am still grappling with that tension that many people have: what does time well-spent look like?

Baking 500 cookies in three days, making scarecrows, purging my oldest son’s room – these are all great things, but they are taxing. If they leave me bitchy and unhappy, is what I’ve accomplished worth it? Or, is tooling leisurely, but productively, around the house, putting the peanut butter in the cupboard on one pass through the kitchen, and hand-washing the wine glasses on the next pass, but not going for a walk, not calling a hurting friend, not volunteering in a kid’s classroom – is that not time well-spent?

I don’t know.

I am not a super high-energy extrovert who goes and goes and goes. That is why I make such a big deal about baking cookies and making scarecrows or even praying out loud in a group. I don’t really want to bother with any of these things. I want to be left alone, with my books, and just be.

And yet, I also want to be loved and cherished and close by those same people who I love and cherish in return. But, truth be told, often I want them to love and cherish me quietly from another room.

I don’t know what this all means. The pendulum swings between wanting to do lots of meaningful activities, helping out and making the most of my time, and just wanting to stay home and methodically putter about the house. Why is it so hard to give myself permission to be a homebody, to admit to myself that this is who I am? I think part of it is guilt for feeling like I’ve already squandered too much of my life not doing enough.

Tonight I was supposed to be at church for another night of group-prayer. I agonized all day about going, particularly because I have to work tomorrow, and Saturday is going to be busy day from purgatory. After the way Monday through Wednesday were, I needed a quiet night. So, using the moderately valid excuses of a slight cold and cramps, I stayed home. Bruce told me he was glad.

Instead of church, I played Junior Scrabble with Jack, tucked Sabrina and an overly exhausted Ellie to bed, then spent 30 minutes rocking Evan and singing to him while Bruce went off for milk.

In the end, I spent precious time with each of my four kids today. I am very thankful for this. Anymore, such an event is a rare occurrence. When I decided not to go to church, I was pretty sure I was going to miss out on something there. Instead, I find I missed nothing, and gained everything by staying home.

Over these past three weeks of group prayer, a theme has been emerging: the need to be still and know who God is. Tonight, holding my son in my arms, I remembered another comment made at the one prayer meeting I attended: the idea that God longs to hold us close and still, in the same way we hold our babies. There I was, missing church, but holding Evie, and I was utterly still (except for the rocking). In a weird way, I really felt like I was having my moment of worship.

I do not want to be frenetic. I want to be peaceful. I want my home to be peaceful. I want my husband and children to be peaceful. I want others to come to my home and feel that peace also. I want out home and my family to be a blessing.

I had one other thought tonight. I still have pretty young kids. I forget this about 100 times per day. Evan is only 20 months old. He still requires daily naps. Three-year-old Ellie is doing a middle-child number right now, aching for my already greatly stretched attention. Both these precious little ones need me, whether I like it or not. When Jack and Sabrina were those same ages I never went anywhere. The truth is, I really do like just hanging around with the kids. I see how fast time is flying by, and I think I might just give myself permission to slow down and savor that time while I have it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Winding Down

Today was not my easiest day ever.

May this be the last mention of marathon baking for a long, long time...

Well, I'm done. The cookies are packaged and ready to be delivered to school tomorrow. From the picture it doesn't look like much, considering the work involved. (Of course, not pictured are the 20-dozen cookies I'm keeping.)

Tomorrow morning I'm sending 14-dozen to school. I'm making Bruce take the kids to school.

I loved (not) Jack's response to the pepperkakar cookies that I slaved over all afternoon. I had warned him and Sabrina on the way home from school that they were still all over the kitchen counters and that they looked wonderful. However, when Honest Jack saw them he said, "Hm. They don't look like much to me." He really didn't mean to totally crush me.

Nor did he mean to totally crush me when he neglected to thank me for not only making and packaging all the cookies, but also helping him make a scarecrow tonight. Yes, a scarecrow.

The, dinner sucked. It was the one from last night that I way underestimated the cooking time for. It tasted worse than dog food (I would know). Bruce politely ate all his and Ellie ate some of hers, but Evan spit it out. (The leftovers will be dogfood.)

I said to the kids, "Look, I don't like it either, but I'm still eating it!"

One bite later, and I was saying, "You know what? It's not worth it. I'm done."

So we're all a bit hungry tonight. But you won't see me filling up on cookies. Yuck!

My "best part" of the day was that, while digging through drawers looking for AAA batteries, I stumbled across much-coveted picture hangers, so I went to town hanging a bunch of dust-covered paintings that had previously been stored under the guest bed. No one noticed.

We are having chilly weather in Anchorage, well below normal for this time of year. The forecast for the next several days are daytime highs of 15 degrees and lows at night around 5. Brrr. Thank God for polar fleece and wool.

Well, I'm going to read for a bit. Try to zone out of too much reality. If I did this every day (there are moms who do) they'd have to put me away.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I was off and running with cookie-baking this morning. After kids were dropped off at school, Evan and I zoomed off to Costco and Fred Meyer for supplies.

Both Evan and I were a bit peaked by out Costco experience, so we split a pretzel and each got a berry smoothie. Why, you are surely asking yourself, did I buy my 20-month-old son his own berry smoothie? Well, I answer defensively, because the mocha freeze might have kept him awake at nap-time.

In any case, we eventually made it home, and after cleaning up purple goo from Evan, his car seat, the car, and myself, I started to think about actual baking.

But first, a couple interesting factoids:
- Star Wars III is now out on DVD.
- I got the very first container of holiday candy canes while at Fred Meyer; fresh off the pallet.
- Costco is selling three-packs of canned pumpkin and four-packs of sweetened condensed milk!
- Gas is down to $2.50 per gallon!
- The high temp in Anchorage today was 20 degrees F (that’s –7 C).

(Sometimes I reread my blog and think, “Is this actually my life?”)

Anyway, I’m fried from cookies. I never want to see another cookie as long as I live.

Today I made:
Peppermint snowballs (remind me never to again)
Dough for chocolate crinkles; will bake them tomorrow
Nanaimo bars
Dough for pepparkakar (does anyone know how it’s pronounced?)

What I still need:
A candy thermometer (for the fudge). (Thought I had one but was unable to find it even after turning the kitchen upside down.)

Added to the list:
Pumpkin cookies or bars (need to use that wonderful canned pumpkin!)

How many cookies I ate today: 3.

I think I’ll bag the Santa cupcakes and maybe even the chocolate chips. After I bake the dough that is currently chilling in the fridge, I’ll probably have enough. Though, I really wanted to do fudge…. Gotta get that candy thermometer!

Does anyone actually care about all this? I wanted to write about all the zany things that happened today, like assembling a dinner that was not going to be done cooking before the kids went to bed. Never mind. Sorry this is so boring, but I’m really tired.

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