November 29, 2008

More Gift Book Ideas

I did a post about Black Friday Book Deals on Friday, but they still seem to be at those deal prices today, so perhaps they are Black Friday WEEKEND Deals? Well, whatevs.

Today's post is more gift books, but while yesterday's was all about Awesome Deals, today's is just Good Choices. Yeah, maybe I should have done them the other way around.

And when I say "Good Choices," I guess I kind of mean "Good Choices If You Are Shopping for Swistle---or WERE Shopping for Swistle Back in Time, Because Now She Already Has These."


...Let's start over.

Today's topic is books that might make good gifts. These are books that seem to me to hold at least some interest for a wide range of people, as opposed to, say, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Sixth Edition, which, you know, for the right person would be GREAT, but for anyone else it's...uh...that is, just saying, don't put it on my wish list.



Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World ($10 down from $15) is one of the most mesmerizing books I have ever read. Even Paul's sister, who doesn't like to read, loved this book. It's a bunch of...found stuff. Like notes. Shopping lists. Pieces of torn-up love letters. Photos. Crazy posted notices. Sketches. It will make you die of curiosity to know more, More, MORE about the people who wrote them or lost them. It will also make you look feverishly for scraps of paper on the ground. If you want a good gift for about $20, get it and also get Found II ($11 down from $14), the second volume.




Speaking of dying to know more, PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives ($18 down from $27) will have you practically climbing the walls. People wrote secrets on postcards and mailed them in; the book is half artwork, half wall-climbing revelations. The book is large and heavy and hardcover, and looks impressive and fun and interesting. Like the Found books above, it'll get passed around while the rest of the presents are being opened.





What It Is, by Lynda Barry ($16.50 down from $25) is another large, impressive hardcover. Just about every square inch is COVERED with doodles, bits of writing, questions, instructions, writing assignments, helpful hints. This is the book/workbook version of a class Lynda Barry teaches on "writing the unthinkable." It would be a great gift for anyone who likes to write or wants to write, but it would also work for anyone into self-analysis or dreams or art.




Pretty Little Mistakes ($10 down from $15) is a choose-your-own-adventure book for grown-ups. And I do mean for grown-ups: don't go giving this to your teenaged niece unless you want her parents smacking you into next winter for the, um, racy themes. At the end of each short section, you get to choose what "you" do next: do you help dig the grave, or do you run away? do you go home with the bartender or do you go back to your apartment alone? do you go to Brazil or do you go to Palm Beach? Each path leads to your death---either premature or at a ripe old age. It was some of the most fun I'd ever had reading a book, and I read it and read it and read it until I'd tried every single option. It's a paperback, but a largish and pretty one with a fancy (cut-out in the center) cover.

Fair warning: my mom tried it and read one path and then wasn't interested in trying another. She didn't like the way the character made choices she (my mom) would NOT have made, and she didn't like being told that "you" (she) did things. We agreed we would have preferred it if the book picked a name other than "you" for the character, something more along the lines of "Do you think Anne should go home with the bartender, or do you think she should go back to her place?"




You know how everyone is constantly talking right now about spending less and cutting back? The ones who really mean it might enjoy a copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette ($15.50 down from $23). I love love love this book and have read it again and again---as much for fun as for tips. It is packed to the gills with tips and sketches and recipes and explanations and tests and experiments and patterns and ideas, all on the theme of saving money. She takes it WAY farther than I would, but I just pick out the tips I actually want to use and enjoy reading the others for fun (people...MAKE underwear?). It's a paperback, but it's HUGE: almost a thousand pages, and in the big-paperback size (9ish x 7ish) not the romance-paperback size.

Caution: it's a TEENSE risky to give someone any kind of self-improvement book. There can be the implication that you think they SHOULD CHANGE. Mothers-in-law probably should not buy this book for daughters-in-law. Probably no one should buy this book for people who spend noticeably more than they do.




Along those same lines is Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior ($23 down from $35). It's a great book: a nice fat impressive hardcover, and so funny and so smart and so fun to read her answers to all the "Dear Miss Manners" letters from readers. But...there is a slight risk that someone will think you are giving them a book on manners because they, er, NEED it. Mothers-in-law should definitely not buy this one for daughters-in-law, especially if mothers-in-law have harped on the subject of thank-you notes in the past.

November 28, 2008

Black Friday Book Deals

Okay, so I am a little behind, and Black Friday is almost over. [Edit: I'm clicking through on Saturday and still finding the deals active.] But geez! I'd think TWO adults with five children would be easier than ONE adult with five children, but actually it is not turning out to be. We did get the tree up, though, and decorated (with children's help, so it was an Excedrin Afternoon), and I put lights on a tree outside, and also I ate a lot of leftover pumpkin cheesecake, so I guess it was a productive day after all.

I like to give books as gifts for many reasons. Actually, I'm not going to waste time talking about those reasons, I'm just going to list some of the books that look like good gifts from the Amazon.com sale. Get $25 or more of them and the shipping is free.



Castle, $8 down from $20. We have this ourselves, and I also have one on the gift shelf for the next birthday party one of the kids gets invited to. It's an AMAZING pop-up book: I'm not even interested in knights and castles but I've looked through it several times.




The Mitford Bedside Companion, $11 down from $27. My mom says she finds the Mitford books very soothing---good, happy, mild reading. I might get this for my mother-in-law, since she likes that kind of book.




America at Home, $16 down from $40. Photography books make great gifts, and they're fun to pass around during awkward family gatherings. Keeps the conversation going. This one looks like the heart-warming kind you could give to ANYONE.



New York Vertigo, $16 down from $40, an EDGIER coffee table book than America at Home. Apparently this one will make you dizzy: the description says the photographer "scaled walls and scoured rooftops"---or something like that, I've lost the page and don't feel like double-checking.




Return to Fairyopolis, $8 down from $20. Ooooooooooooo, I want this myself. (If the child you're buying it for hasn't read Fairyopolis, you can get it for $13.50, so that's both books for close to $20.)




The Annotated Secret Garden, $14 down from $35. This would be great for anyone who loved The Secret Garden as a child. Paul has The Annotated Alice (same idea, but for Alice in Wonderland) and it's a beautiful gift-book-looking book.




Pirateology: Guidebook and Model Set, $7 down from $18. I wish my kids would get into these "ology" books, because they really appeal to me.


These deals are just for today, it looks like, so if you miss them---well, that's what you get for spending QUALITY TIME with your FAMILY. [Edit: The deals are still working today, Saturday, in the morning.]

First of Many Holiday Shopping Posts

Do you realize it is, like, four weeks until the winter holidays? Ha ha, like I know anything about any winter holiday except the one we celebrate in our house (Secular Christmas). But they're, um, all at approximately the same time of year, right? And so all of us can unite in our common panicky feeling, because The Holiday is coming soon for all of us?

I find the panicky feeling MOSTLY pleasant, because I enjoy shopping and I enjoy buying gifts. I spend kind of a lot of time doing it, and feel disappointed when I'm done. I'm afraid this means a lot of SHOPPING TALK around here in the near future---but fortunately, only about four weeks of it! Because there are only about four weeks left! No, sorry, don't panic!

I have several general suggestions to start with. I do almost all of my shopping at Amazon.com, so I'm afraid the tips are mostly SKEWED in that direction.

1. Visit or subscribe to Want Not. Mir keeps track of the deals and who's got free shipping and who's got coupons. I've gotten so many good buys because of her.

2. Put anything you're considering buying at Amazon.com into your shopping cart (or the "saved items" area of the shopping cart). Whenever you go to your cart, it'll let you know which things have gone up or down in price since the last time you went to your cart. This has gotten me some unexpected good deals: sometimes the price of something drops very low for a day or two and I never would have noticed if it hadn't been in my cart.

3. A bunch of Amazon.com items (certain books! certain kitchen items! certain other assorted things! there is no way to predict it!) qualify for a "4-for-the-price-of-3" discount: mix-and-match any four of these items and you'll get the cheapest one free. Well, that means you want to be a little careful not to order items costing $20, $20, $20, and $4, because you'll get the $4 one free. Furthermore, if you are ordering EIGHT items that all qualify, you'll get the cheapest TWO free: if you've got items costing $20, $20, $20, $20, $10, $10, $10, $10, you'll get two $10 items free. But if you place two separate orders, one for the $20 items and one for the $10 items, you'll get one $20 and one $10 free. So LOOK SHARP, people!

4. Many Amazon.com items qualify for free shipping if you have an order totaling more than $25. So, you know, don't place a $22.47 order and pay $12 shipping on it. Depending on how much shopping I need to do, I might place an order every time I hit the $25 mark---or I might let it pile up so I don't get stranded at the end with a small order that I can't get to $25 without adding, say, four pounds of chocolate-covered dried cherries. Just for example.

5. Also, the free shipping option can be slowwwwwwwwww. Like, 2 weeks slow. So it's a good idea to order early if, like me, you hate paying for shipping.


There. I had one more Amazon.com tip, but I've forgotten it. If I remember it, I'll mention it in one of the next million shopping posts.



Also, this morning I got an email from The Land of Nod, which is Crate & Barrel's kid store. They have a free shipping deal through Monday on all non-furniture items: use code RUDOLPH. A lot of their stuff is not in my price range ($30 for a "stocking stuffer"?), but I'm planning to sort through anyway. It's hard to resist free shipping, and this personalized ornament would be a cute teacher gift, and even I like playing with these six puzzles in one puzzles. Here are the gifts under $10 and here are the gifts $10-25, and here are the gifts $25-50. (But watch out: you can buy this Melissa and Doug birthday cake toy from The Land of Nod for $24.95, or you can buy it from Amazon.com for $11.99.)

November 27, 2008

Turkeys

Urk, I am so full. We had dinner at my parents' house. They provided turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, french-cut beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce, rolls, drinks, cherry pie, ice cream, and cookies. We provided seven people and a Jell-O salad.

Does this seem FAIR? Does this seem RIGHT? We breeze in with our bowl of Jell-O, leap on the feast like poorly-trained puppies, and then breeze off to meet the bedtime deadline while my parents hobble into the kitchen to manage the mountains of dishes and molehills of leftovers, dry-swallowing Excedrin and wondering if four weeks is enough time to prepare for another holiday dinner with us.

Next year maybe we should try a lunchtime Thanksgiving rather than a suppertime Thanksgiving. After we eat, Paul could take the kids outside to run off some of that, um, youthful energy, while I help in the kitchen by nibbling up the leftovers so they don't have to be put away. Or maybe we should have Thanksgiving dinner after the kids are in bed. Or after they've left home.

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Recipes; Holiday Shopping Budgets

I made the Chocolate-Crusted Pumpkin Cheesecake today. I make it every year. I made it this year even though my parents said not to bring dessert because they were making a cherry pie. I won't bring it, but I still made it. Now the whole PAN can be leftovers!

Tomorrow I'll make the cranberry-raspberry Jell-O salad. Mmmmmmm.

Hey, listen. Linda and I are going to be doing gift-idea posts over at Milk and Cookies, and I also plan to pass along good deals here on this blog. But what I need to know is, what price range are we talking about? I don't want to give you a bunch of $10 deals if you think of those as stocking stuffers, but I don't want to discourage people by talking too much about $100 deals. What are you planning to spend this year for your sweetheart? for each kid? for your parents? for your in-laws? for your friends? $10? $20? $50? $100? As little as possible? If you feel shy talking about money (_I_ always feel shy talking about money), you can go anonymous.

November 25, 2008

Reader Question: Houses for a Big Family

Kristine writes:
My husband and I are looking to move to a new area of the country, and although we don't have kids now, we're planning on at least 3 kids, probably 4. We're hoping to take advantage of the housing/economic crunch and buy the house we're going to live in for the next 20-odd years, rather than getting a teeny starter home. Any advice on "must have" or "wish I had" features when it comes to a big family?

Ah! Yes! I HATE to move, and so when Paul and I bought our first home, we were looking for a home that we could live in until we, um. Died. Or whatevs.

And what we did was, we bought a house with POTENTIAL. It's a 3-bedroom 1-bathroom raised ranch (also called a split-level), so it was listed and marketed as a starter home. But my dad, who is Very Handy (the kind of Handy that can, like, build a garage) took a look at it and what he saw was the unfinished basement. In a raised ranch (or split-level, have it your way), the basement is only partly under the ground. The basement can still have regular-sized windows, like a regular floor of the house. That meant that what we were buying was an 1100-square-foot house with the potential to be a 2200-square-foot house.

Furthermore, it has a good empty back yard, so theoretically we could build OUT if we wanted to, though I don't think we will. I guess we could put on an upper level if we really wanted to---though again, I don't think we will. We could add a garage out to the side, because there's space there too, and that's something we probably WILL do some day, so we can go from the car to the house without slipping on ice and breaking our elderly hips.

The house also had a porch built on a house foundation instead of an a porch foundation, which is something I never would have noticed but the inspector went nuts over (the happy kind of nuts, saying, essentially, "OMG SQUEE! You could totally convert this into house-space!"). This meant that when we thought, "You know what would be awesome? A dining room!" we could enclose the porch.

Of course, if your dad isn't Very Handy, this plan might not work for you. It's worked for us because my dad contributes his labor free of charge, and so when he makes a change to our house we only have to pay for the supplies. If we had to pay for the labor, we wouldn't have a dining room OR a semi-finished (2 bedrooms, a linen closet, and a family room) basement.

In that case, we still would have ended up here, because this was the most house we could afford. But if we'd had more wiggle room, I think I would have looked for two bathrooms. It is a major pain to have to wait in line or to have someone dancing outside the door waiting for you, and that's with three of us not potty-trained yet.

I'd also be looking for something that wasn't Too Big. That seems like an odd thing to do, but it's not going to be ALL that long before the kids are gone and Paul and I are here by ourselves again. It'll be nice at that point to just close off the basement except for when we have guests, and go back to our "starter home"-sized house.

So! Those are the two things---no, three things---I think are good to look for in a house for a larger family:

1. Potential (room to expand)
2. Not Too Big (can still live here after the kids leave)
3. Two bathrooms

Oh, wait! I have one more thing! Look for a good driveway! Or room to make the driveway bigger! When the kids are older and there are more cars/drivers, it's nice not to have to park on the lawn, or have to have everyone move his or her car every time someone wants to go somewhere.

4. Good driveway, or good driveway potential

Oh, wait! Another thing! The YARD! Oh, heavens, the yard. It's so nice if it has a yard big enough to KICK EVERYONE INTO. The house can get so loud and so nuts, and it is wonderful to be able to just go *BOOT* and send everyone to a relatively safe, enclosed back yard.

5. Yard

November 24, 2008

I Ate an Entire Bowl of Oatmeal

I need to make a public apology. I said some things about steel-cut oats that were neither nice nor fair. I believe I said "YUCK." Considering I'd tasted them plain, that was as unfair as cooking up a batch of plain spaghetti noodles and declaring them "bland." I hadn't yet seen the beauty of steel-cut oats, which lies in their ability to convey other, more delicious substances to the mouth in a Trojan Horse of health and goodness and fiber.

This morning I tried The New Girl's suggestion: salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, and milk. And for the first time in my life, I ate an entire serving of oatmeal. Serious!

First I followed the package instructions and brought 1-1/2 cups of water to a boil (I added salt because The New Girl said to---I just went shake-shake-shake, like when salting vegetable water), then added 1/4 cup steel-cut oats. I let them simmer uncovered for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then I added....well, I added a lot of brown sugar. I didn't measure, because I find that measuring sugar makes me feel bad. But looking at the brown sugar baggie, which used to have 1/4 cup sugar in it, I'd estimate I used well over a tablespoon, and probably closer to 2 tablespoons. SHUT UP! I ate OATMEAL!

Then I added a hearty shaking from the cinnamon-sugar shaker, which I make heavy on the cinnamon but it also includes sugar, so, um, more sugar into the oatmeal. And then I put in a slosh of whole milk.

And it was YUM. I still encountered a few areas of Unpleasant Gooeyness, but not many. And now I feel all energized and cheery from all the sugar whole-grain oats!

November 21, 2008

Ah, Geez, Another Recipe?

This morning I tried steel-cut oats for breakfast. They sounded so yummy on WantNot. And I will say this: they are better than rolled oats. And they left my tummy feeling warm and happy and satisfied. Plus, I felt so righteous and healthy for eating them.

But YUCK. I started adding things, trying to make them taste better. A little sugar? A little peanut butter? A little cocoa? And before long I was thinking maybe I should just go ahead and make No-Bakes instead. No-Bakes are the kind of recipe where if you make them and bring them to an event, everyone will be like, "HEY!!! I've had these!! I didn't know what they were called and couldn't find the recipe!! YOU MUST GIVE ME THE RECIPE!!"


No-Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter or margarine (I like to use butter, but the original recipe I have calls for margarine)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup peanut butter (creamy or crunchy; I prefer creamy)
  • 3-1/2 cup rolled oats (regular or quick; I prefer regular)
  • 6-7 tablespoons baking cocoa (I go for, like, 6-1/2)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla (I use the cheapie imitation stuff for this, not the real vanilla extract, because a TABLESPOON??)

In a medium saucespan (a 2-quart is big enough, but a 3-quart will give you more stirring room so you're less likely to slop over the edges), bring the butter/margarine, milk, and sugar to a boil. Boil for a minute and a half, then remove from heat. Add everything else and stir it up. Spoon mixture onto waxed paper in cookie-sized lumps. Let cool/set.


See, look at all the OATMEAL! Your cookie size will vary, but when I make them I get about 24 cookies to the batch. There are 3.5 cups of oats in the recipe, and there are 16 tablespoons to the cup, so that's 56 tablespoons of oats divided by 24 cookies, or well over 2 tablespoons of oats per cookie. The butter might look intimidating, but it's only 8 tablespoons in the whole recipe; there are 3 teaspoons per tablespoon, so that's 24 teaspoons of butter divided by 24 cookies, or 1 teaspoon per cookie. I have more butter than that on a slice of toast, so that amount of butter doesn't scare me. And there's half again as much peanut butter as butter, so that's 1.5 teaspoons of peanut butter per cookie, and that doesn't scare me either.

Of course, these are a food allergy NIGHTMARE. Peanut butter! Dairy! I haven't tried it, but I suspect you could make them with a non-dairy milk, and you can go for margarine rather than butter. I made them without peanut butter once when I was out of peanut butter, and I made the notation "OK wo/PB" so it must not have been a disaster. I also see a VERY old notation next to the margarine/butter that says "can be halved." That seems...unlikely. But there it is in my own handwriting. I wouldn't halve the margarine/butter, though, if you're leaving out the peanut butter.

November 19, 2008

Gift Season Pre-Panic

I think giveaways are so fun. But I get all CAUGHT UP in the excitement of doing one, and then afterward I think, "Yes, but I could have kept that for MYSELF." I'm doing a giveaway at Milk and Cookies for a $10 Barnes & Noble gift card. That would be a nice teacher gift. If someone named "Thistle" wins it, you'll know I had a change of heart about giving it away.

Would you indulge me in a brief panicky rant? I'm getting stressed/excited about gift season. There are so many DEALS to wade through. There are so many DECISIONS to make. I think, "YES, I'll do THAT!" and I get halfway through the order process---and oh, if I spend another $10 I'll get a $20 gift card for free. Well, that's worth it. Except I can't find anything that's about $10. Well, okay, so here's something that's $15: it's still like saving $5 and getting the $15 item for free. Well, if I can find a use for the gift card. Then: oh, if I add another $5 I'll get free shipping, and shipping is $11.95 so that's definitely worth it. Except I can't find anything that's about $5. ACK.

I am trying to COOL DOWN and not stress so much. I've read a few articles lately that advise spending more time with family and friends instead of spending money, but time is in short supply as well. And when those articles say "time," they often seem to be selling accessories: special popcorn bowls, special DVDs, special household decorations, special dishes, special recipes with brand ingredients. I mistrust their motivations, even if their message is a good one.

We tried to lower the stress by getting a Wii as a family gift (I can't believe Amazon still has them in stock, but as Paul said, Nintendo would be pretty dim if they continued their fake shortage into the holiday season), so technically the kids' gifts are all taken care of, but Paul and I keep seeing things that would be SO GREAT for one kid or another kid, so that adds stress after all: do we buy more, or do we stick to our plan? What if one of us is more worried about money than the other of us? What if one of us thought the arrangement was that the Wii would also be OUR gifts, and the other of us didn't think that was part of the arrangement at all and is completely dismissive of that idea?

Plus, the stockings! Last year, three-fifths of the kids were still too young to care, so it was no big deal. This year only one-fifth is too young to care, so if I find a good stocking stuffer for $1, that's suddenly $4 for only one teeny thing in the toe of each stocking. This could add up.

And the in-laws. GEEZ, the in-laws. Every year I decide I'm NOT buying my father-in-law ANYTHING, that's IT, forGET it! He never sends us anything or even acknowledges receiving our gifts, so why keep doing it? But then I relent: I think that just because HE'S an ass doesn't mean I need to change MY behavior, and I think it's right to get my children's grandfather a present at the holidays. This year, though, I might seriously be done. I look at our finances, and it seems to me that "present for absentee ingrate" might rank lower than "braces for eldest child" or "heating bill." Or even lower than "games for the Wii."

I think I'm just going to do gift cards for my sister-in-law and mother-in-law. I get the feeling I miss the mark every year with their gifts, and it's getting less important to me for them to think I spent time and thought on them, so I'm thinking gift cards would make us all happier.

Thank you for allowing this panicky interlude. Feel free to do a little panic-commenting if you want: it really does make a person feel better.

November 17, 2008

Not as I Do

Last night Paul and I were sitting side-by-side at our computers, and he said, "GEEZ, there is A-1 sauce all OVER my monitor!" And I said, "?" and he said, "Don't Twitter that." And then I said, "?" and he said "Don't Twitter THAT, either." So I didn't.

What I did about the Rob situation (the one where he said he'd completed two out of three in-class writing sessions without yet choosing a SUBJECT) is first I helped him choose a topic, and then I told him to tell his teacher what was going on. My mom's a teacher and I grew up hearing the teacher's point of view, so now I'm over-sensitized to it to the point where I don't even want to COMMUNICATE with the teacher in case I accidentally imply that I think my child's inborn flaws are her fault.

And in this case, this is an inborn flaw of Rob's I've been struggling unsuccessfully with for YEARS: he'll sit there trying to think of "the perfect thing," and so he doesn't think of anything, and the longer he thinks about it the less perfect all the options seem. His first grade teacher mentioned that he would sit during Journal Time getting increasingly stressed and writing nothing, so he and I worked for the entire school year on "just writing what comes into your head, rather than Questing For Perfection." We made some progress at the time, but when we worked on it again this past summer (I work on it with him each summer, to keep from losing ground) he was all Attitude about it, writing stream-of-consciousness stuff including all the words to the song "B-I-N-G-O" and the numbers 1 to 100, so I kind of threw in the towel and figured it's good he's good at math.

Let's see, where was I? Oh, yes: so I told him to tell his teacher he hadn't yet started on the assignment he was supposed to have 2/3rds completed. For one thing, I couldn't think of a way of telling his teacher myself. For another thing, this is the kind of problem he needs to work on NOW, so that maybe he won't flunk a college history final because he's too shy to go up to the teacher and say, "Hey, I don't understand what you mean by that essay question," which I'm not saying I know anything about but GEEZ why didn't I just ASK? I mean, teachers don't BITE.

He was really nervous about telling his teacher, but I was all "Do as I say, not as I do," and so he did it, and he came home from school saying he was SO RELIEVED. His teacher apparently said, "Okay," and then she checked all 20 kids' work and found that Rob was not the only one who was a little behind, and so she's giving everyone an extra 45-minute writing session, and also Rob said in one session he got everything done up through the rough draft, so all he has to do is the final draft. Woot. And I can't donate blood this month because I sweated out too much of it over this.

November 15, 2008

Purple Unicorn

I was watching We Don't Live Here Anymore, but I get uncomfortable when a movie tries to indicate marital/life dissatisfaction via crying children, messy kitchen counters, messy hair, spitting out toothpaste, cereal bowls on the table, fighting children chasing each other through the clutter as the parent pleads ineffectually for them to stop, etc. It gives me too vivid a picture to superimpose over my OWN life, which seems happy until I see the elements of it used in film-making to indicate unhappiness. So I thought I'd take a little break.

Paul was talking with Elizabeth and Edward about Christmas (they don't really remember last Christmas), and it came to light during this conversation that Elizabeth was confidently expecting to receive a unicorn. And not just "a" unicorn but a PURPLE unicorn. Paul tried to delicately extract more information, such as WHY she thought she was getting a purple unicorn, or such as how she knew about unicorns since as far as we know we've never mentioned unicorns before, but he got nowhere except to reaffirm that the child didn't just WANT a purple unicorn, she ASSUMED a purple unicorn. Like, obv, Christmas = unicorn.

This reminded both of us of two Christmases ago when William was in kindergarten, and he revealed to Paul that he was looking forward to the nutcracker he would be receiving for Christmas. This was the first Paul and I had heard about it. So the next day (which was the day before Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve is the day we celebrate Christmas, so basically it was Christmas Eve if you follow me), I went out to Target with William and was all, "Oh, hey, look at these nutcrackers, is this the kind of thing you're, um....?" and it was a good thing I DID because Paul and I were thinking of a The Nutcracker kind of nutcracker, like this guy:


but William was thinking of this:


I found a gift set that came with a nutcracker and an assortment of nuts (but no scary dental-looking picks), and I brazened it out: I put it in the cart under something else, and bought it right in front of him, counting on his humming-along-obliviously personality to carry us through, and indeed it did. As soon as we got home I wrapped it and "Oh look what's that over there"d it under the tree, and it was the hit of Christmas and I had to buy another enormous bag of nuts for him to crack open because he'd gone through all the ones that came with the set. And happily for me, he didn't even want to EAT the nuts, he just wanted to crack them open, so I got a child bringing me a fresh bowl of snacks every hour or so while I sat there reading my Christmas present books in peace because he was so totally absorbed in the cracking.

With this experience behind us, Paul and I felt motivated to find a purple unicorn. We don't think of Christmas as an opportunity to fulfill a child's every material wish, and in fact we generally find it a useful opportunity to cruelly/kindly teach children about how we don't always get what we want, but there is something particularly irresistible about a child who doesn't understand this yet and who wants something so reasonable.

I went online and found a purple Beanie Baby one that was $15 ($15 for a Beanie Baby?) plus another $5 for shipping ($20 for a Beanie Baby?), but then I found this much larger unicorn for $15 with free shipping:


It's a make-your-own, but I'm just going to make it myself and give it to her already-made. For one thing, she's too young to even want to make it herself, and for another thing, I am not the right kind of parent to assist with that project, because I am not relaxed enough to watch a child stuff twice as much stuffing into one leg as into another, and also because I find the whole thing really gross: you get a limp animal skin, and it seems DEAD, and then you're supposed to coach the child to mess around with the skinned animal's new, fake innards and implant a "wish" and so forth, and you know FORGET IT. I'll do it myself and spare her the dead unicorn skin and me the uneven stuffing.

November 14, 2008

Fourth Grader

I don't mind telling you that Rob has been driving me CRAZY recently. It is some comfort to be able to swap stories with my friend of many years Astarte, whose fourth-grader is pulling some of the same pre-adolescent stuff. Rob has been sighing, eye-rolling, door-slamming, talking about how things are NOT FAIR, acting like I am the only mother in the world crazy enough to insist on at least every-other-day showering, etc.

Also, we have forgetfulness/carelessness issues. Almost every day SOMETHING is forgotten at school: his coat, his lunchbox, his clarinet, his homework folder. He left his clarinet at school for THREE DAYS last week, then came home saying, "The good news is, I remembered my clarinet! The bad news is, I forget my lunch box. And my coat."

This week it came to light that he had lost his clarinet practice book days and days ago, and had just been TOODLING AROUND during practice time, and that furthermore he has not been practicing the songs even when he DOES have the book, and also he's been including the setting up and putting away as part of the 30 minutes he's supposed to do.

So since he wanted to act like he didn't understand he was supposed to use his PRACTICE BOOK when he PRACTICED, I've been sitting with him during practice time to make sure actual practicing is taking place. I'm not musical and can't read music, but even I know that when you play music you're supposed to play it on a beat, not "as fast as you can"; and that if you don't know the whole song, you can break it down into smaller parts; and that if you have a song to learn you should PRACTICE PLAYING IT as opposed to saying, "I don't know how to play it." In just two sessions with a non-musical coach he's gone from "Hm, maybe the poor guy has inherited my musical ability" to "Hey! He can play SONGS on that STICK!"

But here's the situation that's stressing me out most of all. He told me yesterday that in school this week they're doing a writing exercise in class, where they do three 45-minute sessions (one per day) on a larger writing assignment, with an outline and a draft and a final copy. They've done two of the in-class sessions so far, and he has NOT YET CHOSEN HIS TOPIC. This makes me hyperventilate. I think, "Why didn't he tell the teacher he's having trouble??" and "Why isn't the teacher CHECKING at each stage of this new thing??" and "Why doesn't he just PICK A TOPIC???" and "OMG is he seriously just sitting there staring into space while everyone else is writing??" and "What is he going to do NOW??" Today is the last 45-minute session, and he said to me that he was pretty sure he could just do the final copy. Yes, but he's supposed to be learning outlines and drafts, and also he STILL DOESN'T HAVE A TOPIC.

It is very hard to know where to draw the line with these things. At what point is is, "Well, he needs to learn to sink or swim; I'm not going to be able to nag him about his homework when he's in college," and at what point is it, "He's in fourth grade and still needs to be taught good work habits"? And then I look warily at the FOUR MORE CHILDREN I'm going to have to go through this with.

Don't be ridiculous: I'm always going to be a cute baby, not an eye-rolling pre-adolescent.

November 13, 2008

Wheeee

Oh my goodness, I seem to have bought a Wii.

Now what?

November 12, 2008

ZOMG SPROUT ALERT!

Do you remember the wee little tree kit I bought in the Target dollar section? It was really fun to buy it and set it up and plant the seeds, but I assumed it would come to nothing but disappointment: I've planted evergreen seeds twice before, and both times they've done nothing but add their wee quantity of nitrogen to the soil.

But this time! LOOK!


Not just one sprout, but TWO! The first sprout to come up is in the center, and then the other sprout is that teeny bit of white at 11:00. AAAAAA!!!! Spruce trees! Baby spruce trees!

********

On an unrelated topic, I'm supposed to be working on my wish list for Christmas. (My family shops early.) What should I put on it? What have you bought or been given lately that's provided great satisfaction? (Like my spruce sprouts!)

November 11, 2008

List of Happy

Kara's gratitude blogging has been rubbing off on me: reading her list every day gets me in the habit of thinking what things I'd put on my own lists, if I were making daily lists. I will make just ONE little list:

1. a child who went back to sleep in his crib after falling asleep in the car

2. clouds that look like things

3. postage stamp choices

4. pregnant friends

5. newborn-sized clothes, in pink/purple/butterflies/flowers

6. graham crackers and goldfish crackers

7. clean towels that don't have any lingering mildew smell

8. Lindt chocolate on clearance

9. finding a new source for postcards

10. still being friends even when we disagree---mwah!


Do you want to play, too? Add to the list in the comment section!

November 9, 2008

Childhood Bedroom

I just finished watching the movie P.S., which by the way has me thinking about Topher Grace in a WHOLE NEW WAY, since my previous acquaintanceship with him was limited to That '70s Show, where he was...well, '70s clothes and hair can take ANY guy and kick him squarely out of the Romantic Lead Zone.

Where was I? Oh, yes! So I was watching P.S., and there's a scene where the 39-year-old main character goes back to her childhood bedroom to retrieve some old stuff. And the room is, like, just exactly as she left it. Her high-school clothes still hanging in the closet! Her shoes still on the floor! Her posters still on her wall! Her stuff still messy on her desk! Her boxes of memorabilia still stacked precariously on closet shelves!

My old childhood bedroom is at the other end of the spectrum: when I went to college, I cleared it out as if my parents were going to be leasing it to a new tenant. I left behind two large boxes of things I didn't want to get rid of but couldn't really bring to college, either, such as books and my prom dress (did I think I was going to need that again some day? I tossed it out a few years later). Those, I put in the closet. Everything else was GONE. CLEARED OUT. Walls bare. Desk drawers empty. I MOVED OUT at that point, or that's the way I saw it. I still came back for Christmases and a couple of summers, and I liked to stay in my old room when I did, but it wasn't really my room.

My parents apparently got some flack about this from their friends, which was unfair because I don't remember it being THEIR idea that I strip the room like that. I remember just assuming that that's what the next step was, and doing it, and then showing it to my parents after it was done: here's the heap I'm taking to college, here's the suitcase for the drive to get there, here are the boxes I've shoved way back in the closet, and here are the trash bags full of Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers that were under the bed.

Now, in my mid-thirties, my room has been not-my-room for so long, I kind of forget it ever WAS my room. Right now it's a playroom, with toys in it for when my kids play over there. I don't think of it as My Old Room, I think of it as The Playroom. It's a different color (yellow instead of white-with-magazine-pages) and the floor is different (hardwood and throw rugs instead of the schoolroom tile I was supposed to mop and rarely did). The only lingering trace of my old room is the rainbow glitter hairspray I unwisely sprayed on a corner of my closet door.

November 7, 2008

Chocolate-Mint Brownies: A New Twist

Do you want to DIE HAPPY? I'll just fill in your line of dialogue for you: "Yes, as long as you mean the happiness literally but the death figuratively." Okay, I accept your terms!

First, make up a batch of my favorite brownies, which is a recipe I altered from the back of the box of Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9x13-inch baking pan.

In a largeish saucepan (I think the one I use is 3 quarts), melt 1 and 1/2 sticks (3/4ths cup) butter and 5 squares (5 ounces, which is 140 grams) unsweetened chocolate. When melted, remove from heat. Then add 2 cups of sugar, 3 eggs, 1 cup of flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon of peppermint extract (not mint extract: it has to be peppermint). Mix it all up and put it into the pan and the pan into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes.

As soon as you remove them from the oven, pour a whole bag of mint chocolate chips over the top as evenly as you can.

Like so.

I used Andes Baking Chips, but I've also used Hershey's mint chocolate chips (which are only available nearer the holidays in my area). Let them sit there a few minutes while you go cycle laundry or something, and when you come back, cut the brownies: they're really too hot for this (oven mitts!), but this will keep the top coating from breaking as much as it would if you tried to cut them after it cooled. Cutting them will also leave pretty swirls in the mixed brown and green of the melted Andes chips.

Let them cool---and it will be agonizing, because it will take SO LONG for the melted chocolate to de-melt. I finally put them in the refrigerator because I couldn't stand it any longer. But it was worth it, because I ended up with these brownies that had a pretty, swirly, chocolate-mint COATING---like an ice-cream bar. Mmmmmmmmm.





November 6, 2008

Middle Finger Warning

I am not sure how offensive a middle finger is. Like, is it an "adult content, not safe for work, don't click if you'd be offended"-level thing? Or is it like saying, "That sucks!" or "I'm pissed!" or "Screw that!" where our parents wince but the rest of us forget that anyone winces? Well, just in case, I'll give you the heads-up that this post is on that subject and may contain images.

I am intrigued by this guy's idea. He says that if you're married and you're pissed off about Proposition 8 (which bans gay marriage in California), you should switch your wedding ring to your middle finger and take a photo of it.

I tried taking a photo like his, and I looked like a HUGE IDIOT. If you clicked through, you'll have seen that he looks pretty awesome: he looks cool and friendly but definitely he's got a strong stance, and he looks like he feels comfortable using his middle finger to express that stance, and also his wedding ring is really cool.

But when I tried it, I managed to give the impression that I was NOT giving the finger but in fact just happened to have my middle finger separate from the others, and also like I didn't realize I was wearing my wedding ring on the wrong finger and too high up. Also, I LOOKED the way older people SOUND when they try to use teenaged slang words.

And since I was trying to take a photo of MYSELF, in some versions I missed my hand entirely. In others, my hand was blocking my face. But in ALL of them, I looked like an aging mother who was trying to be all gangsta or something. And also, I looked like I was pointing at something, perhaps at the last wisps of my evaporating youth and coolness. Pitiful.

PLUS, I was painfully aware of how displeased my parents (who read this blog) would be to see their daughter giving the finger, and also I'm wary of cheesing off the friends and family who would take the opposite stance on this issue. In general, I don't want to go around telling you what to think/do (unless it's about COOL BABY CLOTHES you should DEFINITELY BUY), because I think everybody should think/do their own thing and not screw around with what other people think/do. But in this case, what's happening IS that people are telling other people what to think/do, and THAT'S what I'm objecting to.

So, hey, Prop 8! Yoo hoo! Over here!




P.S. If you do this, too, be sure to go over to Diary of a Modern Matriarch and add your name and link to her list.

Edit: I want to say for the record that I realize the way I expressed my feelings on this subject was highly disrespectful. I would be equally disrespectful about a decision to, for example, ban black citizens from voting in elections, or invalidate heterosexual marriages, or make it illegal to worship God.

November 5, 2008

Cute Shirt Alert

Yesterday the kids spent about six hours playing with an office chair and three empty rolls of tape. What's next, playing with the box the toy came in? Sometimes I think children have turned my life into an embarrassing cliche.

Look at this cute shirt I bought:


Rob saw it and said scornfully, "It looks like a SPORTS shirt." But do you see what it says? "Junior Scientists of America." And those are, like, atoms zooming around the A. Hee! I bought it in 12-18m (or did I get 18-24m?) (like it matters) for Henry and in 4T for Edward.


I'm a little peeved, though, to see they are now $3.99, since that was what I paid for them AFTER a 15% off coupon, and I was feeling all triumphant about it. I've noticed with Old Navy that either there is a 15%/20%-off coupon, OR everything is 15-20% off. Well-played, Old Navy. Well-played. Now perhaps I will also have to buy the grey "mathletes" version:


"Cuter than the sum of our parts," it says.

November 4, 2008

Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Muffins

This morning William said, "I saw a band-AID in the trash." And I went, "Mm." And he said, "I said 'AID' like that because of my spelling words"---which are all words with AI in them. So I praised him for being smart, and then told him his shirt was on backwards.

You definitely want to come over: I baked pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins, and I've got a pot of coffee brewed.


Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Muffins
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 and 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 12 muffin cups with muffin papers.

Mix the melted butter, pumpkin, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla in one bowl. Mix the flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, and chocolate chips in another bowl. Combine the two bowls and mix just until you don't see powder anymore. Scoop into muffin cups and bake 25-30 minutes.

November 2, 2008

Pay It Forward Updates!

And please do keep sending them to me! It is fun to see the ripples going ever outward! And, er, sometimes back inward!


Ya Ya's Mom is showing the giftie she got and starting a new contest.

Secret Mom Thoughts is showing the giftie she got and starting a new contest.

Midwest Mom is showing the giftie she got and starting a new contest.

The Q Collective is starting a new contest.

November 1, 2008

Spacing and Baby Names and Killer Spiders and Italian Sweet Cream

I'm about to go to Target ( <-- said in starry-eyed, lovestruck voice), so some quick notes:
  • It is really fun to have older kids and younger kids at the same time. I love when the baby talks to Rob and Rob answers so kindly. Henry says "AH-LO!!" (hello) and Rob says, "Hello, Henry!" in the same "you sweetie!" voice we grown-ups use. Or just now, I heard a crash and a baby starting to fuss, and I heard Rob saying in that same grown-up voice, "Oh NO! Are you o-KAY? There! You're okay!"

  • I stupidly sent my sister-in-law and brother, who are expecting MY NIECE in February, a snarky article about baby names. I didn't read it very carefully; I was just like, "Oh, this is about baby names, it is relevant to them!" But it was so snarky! And it turns out that about 80% of the snarking was in the direction of names actually on their lists! And not only that, in the direction of names I would LOVE to have on a niece! So now if I don't get a niece named Ruby, Flannery, or Matilda, it is totally my own fault!

  • I'm so glad Halloween is over. I'm kind of a BIG CHICKEN, and I get scared/startled by Halloween merchandise. In our neighborhood there's a huge fake spiderweb with a fake PERSON caught in it, with the person's head...removed by the spider. And it is FREAKING ME OUT. I want to see CHRISTMAS decorations now, please!! Nice happy snowmen and jolly Santas, is what I'm thinking! No more killer spiders!

  • I am SUCKING DOWN the coffee this morning. I'm getting a cold, and I need the artificial energy. Plus, I want more of the Italian Sweet Cream creamer, which I love.

  • I wish I could format this with a space between each bullet point. This whole big solid block of text is FREAKING ME OUT. [Edit: My dad told me how to do this! Enjoy the pretty spaces!]