Tuesday, December 29, 2009

keeping my day job

Sunday was John's birthday and over the past few years the family has been semi-regularly having a big lobster dinner to celebrate, because there is a chance that someone didn't completely over-eat on Christmas. Also lobster is one of John's favorite foods.

We have no real intentional theme for our christmas tree ornaments, but a large portion of them definitely could be categorized as simply "stuff we like". Here is one of John's ornaments:

John's sister Sue was having two live Maine lobsters delivered for him, but since his birthday fell on a sunday there are 1) no live lobster shipments that day and 2) no live lobster deliveries that day. They were shipped on monday to arrive tuesday, so our family lobster frenzy was scheduled then.

Other "stuff John likes" is the Sharks hockey team:

And chocolate cake, though we have yet to get a chocolate cake ornament. Still, this was to be my task for tuesday before the dinner. I am a mediocre baker and worse cake decorator, yet somehow I got into my head the idea that I would create a Sharks-themed cake on my own. I used John's jersey for the design (note: this is the Sharks "old" jersey. They since have changed their shark design just slightly, but I still used this one because I know John likes this design best, and it's simpler to copy.)

I made a simple two layer round (why not, it's hockey puck-shaped!) chocolate cake with fudge icing between the layers and around the sides, then I used vanilla for the top. Then I really painstakingly tried to copy the jersey design. I have steady hands, I really do. I pull tiny bits of metal and glass from people's corneas all the time, but put some icing into my hands and I just can't control the stuff very well, so the result looks as if I have Parkinson's. This is the best I could do with my rudimentary tools and inexperience:

I was really undecided about what to do about the hockey stick in the shark's mouth. I didn't get the impression that mixing up some yellow icing would come out looking too good, so I just placed some toothpicks in the proper locations, and the overall result was, well, pretty cheesy. I have a friend that makes THE most amazing cakes for her kids' birthday parties and I kept trying to channel her talent during this process, but no to avail.

In the end, it was at least obvious what I was TRYING to make here, and I guess that's something.

John's lobster friends arrived, chilly and lethargic but alive, and not too thrilled to be on the west coast, I could tell. When John got home he unceremoniously boiled them up and they joined the huge masses of already cooked lobsters that Dora and Jeff pre-ordered and picked up on their way to our house.

With a few side dishes we had a truly huge dinner. We haven't had this birthday lobster feed in two years, if memory serves, and I don't remember the girls eating much or any of it previously. Since then they have developed a huge taste for shrimp and John advised them that we'd be having a gigantic shrimp relative for dinner, so they were anxious to try it, and pleased with the result. "More lobster, please!" is what I heard a lot from that side of the table.

John liked his cake, everyone did really, and quite a lot of it disappeared quickly. Fortunately, it tasted better than it looked.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

santa who?

It's official: I have the strangest kids, ever.

When I was a kid, I used to hear stories from friends at school about their various families' Christmas morning traditions. I heard about no one in the house getting up until 8am, gathering for a leisurely breakfast with Christmas music playing in the background, and after the conversation and dishes were finished, calmly moving on to gather together by the tree to distribute and open gifts.

But such consideration and etiquette had no place in our home. At 4:00am each year, my brother and I awoke, rushed out to check the tree, then shouted at the top of lungs in the general direction of my mom's room and tore through wrapping paper and packaging just as quickly and loudly as we possibly could. My poor mom, who worked full-time and had to get up at about 5:30 every morning, never got to enjoy her day off by sleeping in. This was awfully inconsiderate of us and it went on well past the ages where we should have been able to recognize that this was awfully inconsiderate of us.

But like Bill Cosby warned in an old stand-up routine of his, you never really get away with such behavior--the consequences of your actions are merely delayed until you have kids of your own and they do the same crappy things to you. Generally speaking, this curse works, though John and I have yet to be awakened by excited children at an unearthly hour on Christmas morning. But I expected that this could be the year for payback to begin.

Grandma came over on Christmas eve and spent the afternoon and evening with us and stayed for a "Grandma sleepover!" as the girls like to say. We set out cookies and carrots by the fireplace and the girls all made notes and cards and drawings for Santa and left those nearby too. We watched "A Christmas Story" on TV. "I hope those reindeer don't make too much noise on the roof," Grandma said, "I don't want to be awakened in the middle of the night!" The girls enjoyed their very last of the advent calendar chocolates and went to bed at their usual time. In the morning I woke up on my own at my usual time, 6:30, and listened. No noise. At nearly 7:00 I heard one of the girls bedroom doors open, then the bathroom door close, then the bathroom door open and a bedroom door close, and the same thing over again a couple of more times. Still, I listened and didn't hear any voices or wrapping paper or anyone in the hallways.

Another 20 or so minutes later and I couldn't stand it any longer, so I got up and saw Erin sitting at the playroom table, all of about 10 feet away from the Christmas tree and the all the presents, just writing and drawing quietly. "Where are your sisters?" I asked. "In their room playing," she answered. I looked toward the tree and was amazed to see that nothing was disturbed.

John came into the playroom and asked, "Um, did anything happen last night? Did anyone come here last night?"
Erin: "Yeah....Grandma."
John: "Did anyone ELSE come here?"
Erin (blank stare)
John: "Anyone...with a white.............beard?"
Erin (blank stare)
John: "...and a red...........suit?"
Erin: "Santa??...Santa!!"

Then she looked toward the fireplace. "Where did my stocking go?"
Me (pointing to her stocking about 2 feet from her) "It's right there, on the chair."
Erin: "Is there anything in it? There is! I gotta tell my sisters!"
And she rushed off to get them.

It's moments like these which are the reason I merely smile when my patients look at the photos of my kids in my office and comment at how cute they are, and how surely bright they must be. It's also moments like these which make me wonder if the money we set aside for them for college would be better spent elsewhere, bringing my favorite line from "Caddyshack" to mind: "The world needs ditch diggers too."

John and I stood there, bewildered, and then Grandma joined us. "I was expecting to hear all sorts of commotion this morning, but...nothing. Who needs new presents? Everyone was just playing quietly with their old things." Then all the girls returned and surveyed the scene and started in with their stockings. It soon became the expected tornado of boxes and paper and ribbon and gifts.

Allison and Kate asked Santa for a "zoo set". And Santa delivered a fine assortment of playmobil kits, featuring a zoo, a dolphin aquarium/amphitheater, a penguin island, and a crocodile enclosure. John spent the better part of the entire morning assembling these different zoo components, because large playmobil sets, I now know, have exactly 1 billion pieces each, and a good portion of them are merely pea-sized.

Erin received the first Harry Potter book and Santa brought her something she BEGGED me to get for her on two separate occasions when I bought them for two friend's birthday parties this past fall: snap circuits. This is an electronic kit for kids where they can make everything from their own radio, to a lightswitch, to a burglar alarm or any other number of projects. She begged, begged, begged me to buy this for her when I was buying it for others.
"Santa brought me snap circuits. I wonder why," she commented. "Maybe because you asked for them. Several times. Remember?" "Nope," she answered.

When most everything was opened I started making breakfast, then cleaning up breakfast and making pies and doing other prep work for dinner. John's cousin's family joined us in the afternoon and we had a nice (huge) dinner together and a fun evening.

Even if all three of my kids did, completely unimaginably, for the first time in the history of the known universe, like totally forget that it was Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

ramp up to christmas

Sure, I guess technically Christmas is still 5 days away but it kinda feels like we've been celebrating it for the past 4 weeks already. Holidays seem to be more like seasons when you have kids, with so many different things going on.

On Thanksgiving weekend, the girls and I went to a local shopping center while John and his siblings, who were all here celebrating together, held a family business meeting. The girls didn't really want to go anywhere that day since it was lightly raining, but I enticed them to leave Grandma's house with me by promising them that we'd try to find Santa. Of course I realized what a daunting task this was going to be. Seeing Santa on Thanksgiving weekend, amidst all the holiday shoppers and zillion other Santa-seeking kids, but I couldn't come up with a better idea to give John and the others some peace back at home. I knew we'd be in for a monster wait but if the girls could endure that I promised them hot chocolate afterwards.

We got to the mall and found the set-up for Santa, totally devoid of anyone waiting around, and one of the elf/woman/photographers was preparing a sign that said "Santa will return at 6pm". It was about 1:30. "Oh no, we missed him!" I said. "No, you didn't, I'm just getting this ready for when Santa takes his dinner break. He's here!" The place was totally empty. He stood up from his seat with his arms stretched out and the girls all ran right to him. I couldn't believe it. Less than 5 minutes later they were done talking to him, the pictures were printed and paid for, and we were done.

"Now we get hot chocolate!" Allison exclaimed. Uh, yeah, that was such a grueling outing, I can see why you'd be thirsty now. A little ways down the mall was a Starbucks (sigh), and with no better alternatives in sight we headed in, only to discover the mass of people I was expecting to see earlier. It wasn't too long of a line to place an order but we waited, and waited, and waited along with a crowd of about 20 people at any given time for our drinks.

Everyone was gathered in a tight huddle and when the server would place a drink on the counter a hush would come over the crowd so that everyone could here the all-important calling out of the drink owner's name. An excited winner then surged toward the counter with an out-stretched arm while the rest of us let out a collective loud, heavy sigh.

After about 25 minutes and 50 or so "Mom, WHERE is my hot chocolate?" our order was ready. Overpriced and ridiculously slow service, as always. I don't understand why these places are so popular.

After the drinks we stopped to listen to some musicians play Christmas tunes and after a few minutes of that I figured we'd been gone sufficiently long enough and we went back to Grandma's.

Next up was a couple of events at the German school. One saturday in mid-December was the huge Weihnachtsmarkt after classes ended, with all kinds of food for sale, crafts and other gifts, music, and a Christmas show put on by the children who attend the school full-time. This event draws a really big crowd every year, there were hundreds of people. Some of the parents were making and selling fresh waffles and hot apple cider among many other things and the girls were just inhaling the waffles, while John and I ate some of the best bratwursts and rolls I've ever had.

A week later was the final saturday class of the year and the saturday school kids put on their own little show. Kate and Allison's class was first, singing a German Christmas song and for the first time ever, Kate actually sang along and looked like she was having a good time.

Erin's class did a lot more. They performed a skit and sang two songs and had some simple costumes and props. Erin was one of the angels.

Advent Calendars are a hugely popular and widespread xmas tradition for German children. I only really learned about these things last year so when I was in a store in late November and saw some cute Weihnachtsmann (Santa) advent calendars made in Germany, I didn't pass up the chance to get them. There are 24 little pockets marking the days in December before Christmas and inside each is a different little piece of chocolate. So all month the girls have looked forward to their advent candy every night after dinner. I think this will be a fun new tradition for them.

Just after picking out our tree with the girls, John rediscovered an electric train set he had boxed up and hadn't set up in years. After getting it to work again he placed it around the tree.

Last year, since we were spending our last few days in the apartment before moving into a hotel, we didn't do any elaborate decorating and our tree was only about 3 feet tall. John promised the girls that this year we'd get the tallest tree that could fit into our house. Our tree this year clears the ceiling with about 2 inches to spare, and it's a beauty. After the train was put in place the girls got busy decorating the tree and John's job became moving the concentration of ornaments from below the 4 foot level to some of the higher branches while they weren't looking.

"This sure is a beautiful tree!" Kate the contrarian announced, "But I think the little one we had was better."

This week the girls' school held a fundraiser at a local bookstore and adjacent pizza restaurant, where a portion of the sales at each place went to the school. The teachers took turns reading Christmas stories to the children and we were given the schedule ahead of time so different children showed up throughout the evening in order to hear their own teachers reading. My girls were very excited about this event and they reminded me of it several times a day for the whole week preceding it.

Erin's teacher is seated on the right, in the burgundy sweater, she was first to read in the lineup.

Later in the evening was Allison's teacher and finally, Kate's.

The last big pre-xmas plan was cookie baking with Grandma. She made and chilled the gingerbread dough ahead of time so when we arrived the girls got right down to the business of fighting over who gets to stamp what shape and where and how many into the dough.

After they were cut they fought over who got to decorate which gingerbread pieces with which decorative candy. Feel that Christmas cheer!

And finally they got to fight over who got to stand on which step ladder and help Grandma pour ingredients into the mixer for Christmas cookie phase 2: the famous green trees.

These are Jeff and John's favorites so Jeff and his girlfriend Jacqueline helped stamp out the trees onto the baking sheets. A few minutes and a few time-outs later, the cookies were all done, and started disappearing immediately.