Monday, December 24, 2007

A little something for the adventurous...

Know who David Sedaris is? Then you might know why I say this is for the adventurous. But it's incredibly funny and terribly topical for those those of us who a) like David Sedaris, and b) like Christmas, and c) like David, Christmas and see the humour in gently mocking our cherished traditions.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Cushion Spirit!

After cushions die, they turn into cushion spirits. So says FDPG.

And it would appear that Toffee is one of them! So says FDPG.

There are three categories of cushion spirits:
-the ones that are alive
-those that have just died
-and cats named Toffee


My kids like making stuff. We paint, we experiment with home-made playdough, we draw and colour, some of us do origami, but most of all my kids love making ornaments at Christmas time. For my kids there is something so exciting about making little Christmas trees, tiny snowmen, reindeer, stars, and even little Santas, painting them, and then hanging them on that lovely, fragrant tree right before Christmas Eve.

With the advent of the internet we have way more exposure to different sorts of stuff, and we've made cinnamon/applesauce ornaments, paper chains, window Bon Ami designs, and others, but in the end, the old favourites are still, well, the old favourites. Two of our favourites are: the salt dough ornament, and the paper snowflake.

Here are the dough ornaments:
We used the usual salt/flour/water mixture, then baked them (tip: prick them lightly with a fork so they don't puff in strange places when baking), then, after priming them (with regular old white paint), we adorned them with finery, using those little plastic containers of acrylic paints you can get at places like Michaels, which means that you can get a huge array of colour. Then we sprayed them on both sides with a light dusting of urethane. You don't need to use urethane, particularly if you have a nice dry storage place, but for us it ensured that the more treasured ones have lasted through our at-times-rather-damp-basement storage-and-then-moving-to-other-countries-in-less-than-ideal-containers periods. You can see the spread of the years in just these four: the Traditional Period, represented by Santa and the Tin Soldier, the Woodland Pagan period (when we started incorporating the solstice), and the kid years when Max was small and utterly obsessed with all things train-like. One year, I even cut out several ornaments using train cookie cutters, printed out some faces from a Thomas the Tank Engine site, painted them to resemble Thomas trains, and used them as gift tags on his presents. I think he might even have gasped when he saw them, he was so delighted. Now they represent our Nostalgia Period.

I took a few pictures of the snowflakes, but despite my (quick!-take-a-picture-for-the-blog-but-haven't-had-my-morning-coffee-yet) efforts I was unable to get anything that really captured how lovely they are. Here is one shot:

These look truly lovely glittering in the white of our fairy lights, but what is even more amazing is how easy they are. You take your generic snowflake pattern (we used three from Martha Stewart's Kids 2002 magazine; this link gives one of the designs), cut it out (we used printer paper), flatten it so you don't see the folds afterwards, get some spray glue and superfine glitter, then spray and sprinkle each side, letting one side dry for at least 5 minutes before you turn it over and do the other side. We have experimented with regular glitter, and it looks very pretty, but the superfine glitter makes the snowflakes look unbelievably unearthly. And that's what we want in the Greenridge House this time of year - something gorgeous and unearthly!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Uses For Origami 101

Looking for something to do with all the origami you no doubt have lying around the house? FDPG spent an inordinate amount of time this week making stars and stockings. She accumulated so many little teenie tiny stockings that I eventually strung them up along the fireplace, where they sit, looking extremely atmospheric (they also make it look as though we either have many many little children or as though we have a lot of mice in the house, and I'm not sure which scenario I prefer).

Here's what I finally did with 18 of the 32 origami stars she made (she made them in three distinct colours: yellows, blues, and pinks, which shows, for her, an unusual tendency towards order). I strung them onto the door of the family room, and we're all quite taken with the effect.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ushabtis I have Known

We're moving our way through Story of the World: Ancient Times right now, which means that we're reading about places like Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt, tracing our way somewhat lightly through battles with kings and pharaohs and warring tribes, dynasties on their way up, dynasties on their way down, and lots of folk tales, with the odd Amazing Discovery (Silk! the Wheel! Copper!) thrown in for good measure. My kids love history. I love history. It's engrossing, it's full of intrigue, it can be funny, and (for me, anyhow) it shows how little we differ from people of old: we worry about similar things, we want our basic comforts, we think about how the world will be after we're dead, and we pursue the things that interest us.

I like the similarities in each area we study, too. One of the most striking things for me has been the proximity of river to settlement. Babylon had the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Egypt had the Nile, India had the Indus, and China had the Yellow River Valley. It's an obvious essential - fresh water - but I like the symmetry all the same. The pantheon of gods was similar, too: gods of harvest, gods of rain, gods of birth and death, gods of protection. All the variables Out There before the days of meteorologists, obstetricians, supermarkets and deep freezes. It reminded me of an incident at the end of our last read aloud: Little House on the Prairie (a lesson in self sufficiency if there ever was one), when the Ingalls family had to move from their homestead because of Indian Land Allotment issues. They ride off into the sunset and come across a couple who have had their horses stolen by rustlers. The couple are sitting dejectedly by their horseless wagon, and despite the entreaties of the Ingalls' they refuse to budge. As the Ingalls ride away, Pa remarks to Ma that the couple were silly to be without what he considered to be essentials of the homesteader: chains for the horses (so no one could rustle them in the night) and a big dog (ditto). They had no business wandering around out there, in his mind, without the necessary items for their own survival.

Sometimes I get mixed up with my gods and monsters, but the kids, never. Today I quizzed them on some of the stuff we've studied so far, asking questions like What does the word canopic refer to? What organ didn't go into one? or Who was Sobek? or What was the symbol for protection, said to come from Horus? And finally, What were ushabtis for? At this, the kids all scrambled for our handy dandy diorama, a cereal box we converted last week to an ancient Egyptian tomb, inspired by Egyptian Reno World (Wednesdays at 8 on HGTVBC). It's full of ushabtis, or clay figures Egyptian craftsmen made for the tombs of the pharaohs, there as workers to till the fields in the afterlife so that the pharaoh never need work. The idea of an eternal slave really caught the imagination of Max, who, at age 10, is deeply feeling his position as Cleaner of the Downstairs Bathroom. So when we decided to build a diorama, I asked him to make the ushabtis, and he did this with enormous zest, no doubt channeling his own frustrated ambitions into these small statues ("clean the bathroom for me!" "Don't forget the breakfast dishes!"). I tell him a little hard work never killed anyone, but I don't think he's convinced. He's remembering Little House in his own way.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Reflections on Reading a Little House Book

We finished Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie a few weeks back, during our morning read-alouds, and I can't seem to get them out of my head. Perhaps because I live an ever-so-slightly similar life to Caroline Ingalls, albeit with far less day to day grind and toil: I stay home with the kids; I can; I sew; I garden with an eye to storing much of it; I do lots of cooking. Or perhaps because Laura Ingalls Wilder knew how to craft a taut story line, and I got myself good and hooked while reading it aloud to my kids. Even though we left the Little House series (couldn't get On the Banks of Plum Creek from the library in time) and read The Water Horse AND several stories from the excellent Kingfisher Christmas Stories treasury, and now are deep in Half Magic, I still think back to the Little House books, and wonder about some of the things that went on that Laura the narrator never mentioned. For instance:

Just where did that family keep their toilet? Nary a mention of anything toilet related (as the mother of two boys, believe me, I hear enough about toilets that they are on my radar whether I like it or not).

What the heck happened to Baby Carrie when the rest of the Ingalls family got malaria?

What did Caroline think each time they packed up and moved? Was she really so blithe? Did she ever get completely pissed off at Charles, or was that just the way it went back then? Did they squabble tensely and quietly when the girls went to sleep, whispering into the night, or was she a fatalist, knowing that she'd already made her choice a long time ago?

Why oh why did Laura and Mary give their Indian beads to Baby Carrie when the kid couldn't even wear the damn necklace? Ugh. The unfairness of this whole scene drove me and my kids to distraction. Really it did. Why did Ma stand by and let them do it, even? I would have said, "Sweet gesture, girls, but keep the beads. God knows you have little enough toys as it is. Carrie's a baby and we all know she'll eat 'em if she gets 'em." (yes, I suppose this is what separates me from moral stalwarts like Caroline Ingalls)

Where did the cornmeal they ate every day come from? It seemed to be an inexhaustible supply for people who'd had to squeeze all their stuff into a covered wagon, leaving so much other stuff behind.

Did the beautiful carved shelf Pa made Ma for Christmas get left behind? Seemed like it, but seeing as how the toilet situation never got a mention, maybe the shelf came along and never got mentioned either.

Was Ma really that even tempered? I guess this is where she and I really differ, because there isn't a person in my family who would ever describe me as even tempered. But Ma never seemed to shout, or tell Pa to get her a gin and tonic ("with ice, Charles!") when he went to town, or even break down when scary Indians had just left with all Pa's tobacco. She didn't appear to have glimmers of PMS, either. No snapping at Pa when he dropped the logs on her, no bitching about making endless pans of cornmeal mush. She didn't even lose it when the Indians were making plans to massacre them. Makes me feel incredibly weenie, because I quail when Richard sets his alarm for 6am.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bow Tie Protocol 101

Going to a fancy dress party this Christmas time? Need to know how to tie your bows? Check this fellow out. Just don't look at the sidebars, which claim to help you "Undo her bra with one hand" or "Care for your komodo dragon." Who knows, maybe you do want to know those things, but it strikes me that someone who has a komodo dragon really has no business undoing bras with one hand. What's the other hand doing? Holding down the dragon?

The Water Horse

When I choose our read alouds, I usually choose them based on a couple of things. Are they classic children's books that I'd like my kids to hear while they're still kids? And by "classic" I mean are they something that's been around for a while, that gets read over and over again and even referenced in other work? Think Black Beauty, Eagle of the Ninth, Charlotte's Web, The Jungle Book, The Phantom Tollbooth, Robinson Crusoe. Alternately, are they just plain old great reads? We've read some books that made me wonder how they ever got published. Also, are they age-appropriate, and not terribly dense or way too mature for my lot? Will my ten year old be as riveted as my 2 six year olds? Or will my six year olds, and I mean FDPG here, be terrified by scary content? And finally, will I enjoy reading them aloud? (this isn't so goofy as you might think - I find slangy language very tedious to read on a continual basis)

This year I made more of an effort, seeing as how we'd started doing a group read rather than individual bed-time ones (which Richard still does), to find good reads for the kids, and managed, through many a book list, Yahoo! group, and word of mouth, to compile a list that should take us through to late spring, my voice willing.

Our latest read aloud is one of the brilliant Dick King-Smith's books: The Water Horse. Even if you aren't familiar with his name, you've probably heard of his stuff. He wrote the book Babe - remember the talking pig (no, not that talking pig, the other one)? His work is usually filed in the Primary Reader section of the library, which means that unless you've got young kids you might not have seen them around much. But in our house we love his work. When Max was young he listened to audio CDs of DKM's work by the hour. And when I saw that one of his books had been made into a movie, I knew we had to read the book, and read it before we saw the movie. There were two reasons for this, really. One: I'm one of Those People who like their kids to read the book before seeing the movie; and two: FDPG was seriously balking after seeing the QuickTime preview and I knew I'd never get her into that theatre unless she read the book first and could see that it wasn't scary.

I should probably add here that the film looks vastly different from the book. I guess this is to be expected. It seems that all film adaptations have their own voice, whether for good or bad. I can see already that there are some differences I'm not going to enjoy so much, but for the most part it looks fun. The book, though, is a classic. We loved it. It took us three days to read, we loved it so much. It turned from a morning read-aloud to a lunch-time-too read-aloud, to a what-the-heck-so-it's-right-before-dinner read-aloud, and before we knew it, we'd finished it. It has a wonderful twist at the end that had my kids captivated and insistent that we visit Scotland almost immediately.  Now we're either off to the land of Half Magic, or diving deep into schoolyard politics, with Frindle. Wish us luck. 

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Music and Books We Have Known

Music we play ad nauseum come December:

Carols From Clare: Clare College Singers and Orchestra (EMI)
A Christmas Festival: The Gregg Smith Singers/Texas Boys Choir/New York Brass & Percussion Ensemble (Sony Classics)
The Mystery of Christmas: The Elora Festival Singers (Naxos)
A Ceremony of Carols: Carols From Around the World (VOX Allegretto)
The World of Christmas Carols: The Bach Choir (London)
Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity The Cambridge Singers (Collegium)
On Christmas Day: New Carols From King's Choir of King's College, Cambridge (EMI)

Jingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics (Rhino)
Christmas With Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin
Barenaked for the Holidays: Barenaked Ladies (I can't stop playing Elf's Lament)
Starbucks Hi-Fidelity Holiday (mostly because of Winter Wonderland by the Cocteau Twins)
Starbucks Winterludes (also because of the Cocteau Twins, this time singing Frosty the Snowman, plus a just plain peculiar Little Drummer Boy by Marlene Dietrich)
Classical Kids Christmas

And FDPG's very very very favourite (I like it because I found it in a bin for 99¢ a few years ago when FDPG was just a glint in my eye):

Rudolph, Frosty and Friends' Favorite Christmas Songs (Sony Wonder) FDPG and I like to sing a duet of Put One Foot In Front Of The Other most every morning! (bet you won't be dropping in for coffee after hearing that, now, will you!)

And my favourite, given to me by my pal Sandy, who I've blogged about before because her repertoire of cool stuff is incredible:

The Roches Sing Christmas Songs (I've had to iPod this because my kids renege after a mere 2 listenings)

And now for the printed page, here are a few books we've recently found that we're reading this time round:

Herschel and the Hanukah Goblins (I know, I know, but we got it last year when Hanukah coincided and my kids LOVE this book)
Follow That Star by Kenneth Oppel (he's written a few kids books besides the Airborne and Sunwing series, and my kids love them - they are partial to Cosimo the Cat right now)
Tomten's Christmas Porridge by Sven Nordqvist (all the Tomten books are charmers)
The Story of the Three Wise Kings by Tomie dePaola
Max's Christmas by Rosemary Wells (we found this book when Max was 2 and we've read it every Christmas since - the kids know all the words now: "That's enough, Max!")
The Kingfisher Treasury of Christmas Stories
The Twelve Cats of Christmas (forget the author, but the drawings are utterly superb)

Well, that's all I can lay my hands on right now, and I'm sure I've forgotten a few critical items, but this gives you a good idea of what we listen to, and read, around this time of year.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Poetry Friday

Danny Elfman channels Edward Gorey...

What's This? (from the film The Nightmare Before Christmas)

Oh my, what now?
The children are asleep
But look, there's nothing underneath
No ghouls, no witches here to scream and scare them
Or ensnare them, only little cozy things
Secure inside their dreamland
What's this?

The monsters are all missing
And the nightmares can't be found
And in their place there seems to be
Good feeling all around

I was listening to this yesterday and marveling not only at the lyrics (the entirety of which can be found here, by the way) but also the way Mr. Elfman sings them. He's unique! Inspired!

Happy Poetry Friday all ye blogmates! Don't look under the bed!

Poetry Friday is being hosted here at Becky's Book Reviews.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Feast of St. Nicholas

Richard comes from a Dutch family, and a couple of years ago I decided, in the spirit of equality and all, that we would incorporate something peculiarly Dutch (because, let's face it, the Dutch are a decidedly odd bunch) into our family traditions. Most of what Richard remembers, from living in Holland, are things like speculaas (a spiced cookie), chocolate sprinkles on his toast (didn't believe this until I saw the box), krupok (a dried chip made from prawn dust and potato starch that magically puffs up 5X its size when you chuck it into hot oil), sambal oolek (a hot chili paste), ketchap manis (sweet & thick soy sauce), and nasi goreng (a rice dish). Notice a certain theme here? All this, coming from my skinny husband. All food memories. Proust and his madeleines would be proud.

Another one from the memory bank was the celebration of Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas. St Nicholas, so the story goes, was a young man born into a rich family in what is now Turkey (c.300AD), who was later orphaned when his parents died in an epidemic. He grew into a very pious young man, and according to the stories was responsible for many quiet acts of generosity. One concerns a very poor family, with three girls, who were too poor to give dowries to their daughters (so they could marry). Nicholas heard of this, and on three separate occasions tossed bags of gold into the chimney so the girls could later marry their sweethearts. There are other stories about him, ranging from restoring children to life to calming the waters so that fishermen would not drown in a storm. Nowadays he's the patron saint of children and sailors.

According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas, his white horse Piet and his trusty sidekick Knutselpiet (or Swarthy Piet, a dark-skinned character who carries a large stick with which to smack bad children) arrive on December 6th, laden with candy and small treats for children, which they then hand out: slipped in through doors or tucked into shoes that have been left by the door (if you're a good little Dutch child you will have filled your shoe with hay and carrots for white Piet). At night the feast is all about fun and games: people wrap small gifts with accompanying poems that gently mock and tease, and at each place setting is a chocolate initial - the first letter of the person's name. Now you know why you always see those Droste letters in stores right about now!

So last night we had our own little celebration for Sinterklaas. We cut out little stand-up figures of him (in his Bishop's garb), made little boxes out of cardboard and tucked little treasures the kids had dug up into them, and made speculaas.

The twins rushed around being extremely excited, Dominic concentrating meticulously on his colouring work, FDPG, being the equine fanatic she is, was extremely concerned that white Piet would not have enough carrots, while Max, who is at the time of his life when kids begin to doubt the existence of things like Santa Claus and Sinterklaas - and even the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny (gasp!), watched all our efforts with a rather mournful skepticism. He doesn't want to, in the words of C.S. Lewis, "grow up out of the nursery" but it's hard straddling both worlds. He was extremely grumpy when he was finally dispatched to bed and both Richard and I rolled our collective eyes at his no-doubt coming adolescence. This morning, however, I noticed that he was the first one up, rather breathless about having discovered his chocolate initial and little golds coins where the straw and carrots had been. Habits die hard when you're ten years old, it would seem.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Norval Morisseau: 1932 - 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Rain 2

Need I say more, living here as I do, on the wet, wet, wet coast of British Columbia? Yes, that's right, O Gentle Reader, I am experiencing a deluge at the moment; well, I'm not actually experiencing it, the roof of the house is experiencing it. Technically I'm just listening to it. It's pounding on the roof and drowning out my NPR feed, amazingly enough. It's even made the front page of the local newspaper, which has a photo of a truck plowing through a massive amount of water (probably my BIL, who finds this sort of activity highly amusing). Sadly, it seems to have affected my email provider, so I can't check my email, something I usually do with my morning coffee. This has thrown my schedule right off. I feel, dare I admit it, bereft. Now I know how Toffee the Feline Diva feels when I hide the litter box on cold days when he'd rather pee inside (not that it'll stop me from continuing to do so, I should add, just now I know how he feels).

I've lived in enough dry-in-winter places to find the constant rain a little on the irritating side, and to still be mildly horrified when I see my postie wearing shorts in the middle of December (doesn't he ever get a chill?). The rain gets downright depressing after a while, all that gray and damp and lack of bright sun. I'm sure Roald Dahl could've written an excellent children's story using my locale as a prop: lots and lots of rain, a couple of nasty aunts, some poisonous mushrooms in the backyard (rapidly multiplying) a few curious and undaunted-by-the-aforementioned-aunts children visiting for the summer because their parents have been sent off to Borneo as missionaries, and everyone getting up to mischief because of the weather. Naturally, it all takes place in the UK somewhere, although if they make a movie of it they'll probably need to film it here because of the constant rain. Did I mention that it rains a lot here?

My husband's parting words this morning, as he boarded his kayak, err, car, were this: "Check for damp patches, would you? I'm a little worried about the weeping tiles." So here I sit, pecking away when I should be downstairs hunting for puddles (not cat puddles, rain puddles). I didn't even know tiles could weep. Sigh.

(I call this Rain 2 because I've already written a Rain 1...see here)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Another Martha Moment

Brought to you by the crafty folks at
Greenridge Chronicles, issue no.432

FDPG and I were thumbing through my Christmas issue of Martha Stewart Living the other day, when FDPG caught sight of the living wreaths, which were, we were told, "guaranteed to breathe new life" into our holiday traditions.

Martha's minions, naturally, had made some superlative ones: a lovely little number in cushion moss hung sumptuously from a door (I found myself rather coveting the door on which it hung, and I was pretty sure that door could breathe new life into my holiday traditions, too); another made from various sedums hung, dusted with snow, on a very attractive garden gate (I found myself getting sidetracked a bit, as you can probably tell); and then, there it was: the wreath that would change our holiday traditions. At least, FDPG thought so, so off we went to make it.

We were rather lacking the lemon button fern and two types of maidenhair fern that Martha's minions used (our budget, sadly, isn't as lavish as Martha's), so ours doesn't quite have the "uniform rhythm" or "textural richness" of the "colourful orb" in the magazine, but we like it, and it does spice up our otherwise "bland entrance hall" (ack, someone stop me from quoting this stuff!) It's now jostling for alpha position on the front door with the fairy light wreath from IKEA. Which will win, I wonder?

Love Letters

Can you read the message above? It was written by FDPG, acting for Dominic, who uses her much as the kings of old used scribes to write letters for them. Fortuitously, FDPG is happy to be Dominic's scribe; she is a truly compassionate sort, under all that sturm und drang.

Anyhow, the message reads "Dare Mum I have a surprise. I hope you like it Love Dominic" Attached, in a little paper twist, was the green blob you can see sitting on the paper, which you may or may not recognize as one of Cushion's babies (see here if you have no idea what I'm talking about). Dominic brought it up last night and very carefully presented it to me. And of course FDPG couldn't resist coming up to tell me how she'd written the note, using her very own spelling-mind: "I thought of the words and then wrote down what they looked like in my head" she told me.

It was almost painfully sweet to think of these two working together so cooperatively; she writing thoughtfully, with Dominic dictating his message (clutching baby Cushion, no doubt). According to FDPG, this often goes on after they've gone to bed, Dominic coming into her room to ask for various favours: flipping the cassette for him, writing notes for him, reading him one more bed time story, and she does it all without complaint. So solicitous. I'll have to remember this next time I see them shrieking and flinging Lego at each other...