Thursday, December 30, 2010

Signs of Christmas

The sole holiday decoration inside our house:  The Advent/ Chanukah paper chain.
Each link has a family activity written on it, such as “Read the Christmas story in Luke” or “eat potato latkes” or “sing a Christmas carol” or “light the menorah”.  When we complete that activity, we add that link to the chain.

My favorite part of Christmas:  sending and receiving cards!

Santa had to find room in his sleigh for all this stuff (just the boxes and bags, not the furniture).  This is what happens when 13 people get together for Christmas.

 But here is the list of the REALLY important stuff we wanted to take to our destination.  You can see where our priorities lie.

This is the sign which appears every year on Christmas Day.  For some reason it is important to some of the younger members of the family to get up in the middle of the night.   Note that the teenagers feel they share at least one attribute with God.  But I never heard God say “HA!” about it.  I guess that’s the difference between teenagers and God.

Here’s hoping that you all got enough sleep this Christmas, and have seen signs of God’s love.  For me the best sign was that my parents were able to join us on Christmas Eve and Day.  It wasn’t easy for them to travel, given my Dad’s further decline in health due to Parkinson’s disease.  Thanks to God.  Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Snow Globe of Honor

Here in suburbia, we highly prize stability and safety.  There are many people who work to provide this for us, and this post is in honor of them.

At about this time of year, the chemistry teacher abandons his pyromania activities in favor of something more suitable for the season: making snow globes.  This has something to do with chemistry, but I’m not sure what.

This is one of those school projects that is also a parent assignment.  An assignment which my son told me about a full week in advance, and which I promptly forgot about.  So the day before the materials were due, the Common Household husband rushed off to buy some Gorilla Glue, I washed and de-stank a pickle jar, and my son and I were combing the basement for a small toy appropriate to put in a snow globe. 

I had my mind on small aquatic animals or flightless sea birds.  Something that would be appropriate for a cold water environment.  (Wait, was this MY project or his?)

I was just about to go look for the old bath toys, when we found the toy soldiers.  And a toy American flag to go with them.  My son liked this idea a lot.  I said, “Iwo Jima!”  But when he positioned them in the pickle jar lid, it didn’t look like Iwo Jima.  Plus I think Iwo Jima is a tropical Pacific island, no?  It probably doesn’t snow there too often. 

His snow globe has two soldiers on the lookout, guarding the American flag.  And when he brought the finished project home from school, I realized that wherever these snow globe soldiers are serving, it is really cold and snowy.  They are standing in, like, four feet of snow – it comes up to their chests.  When it “snows” in there, the visibility goes down to zero.  At first I thought this was totally unrealistic, but maybe somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, there is a lot of snow.

As we approach Christmas, I invite you to include in your prayers these four groups of people who strive to provide stability and safety for the rest of us.  These groups do not cover it all, so feel free to add your own.

1. People serving in the U.S. military and diplomatic corps around the world.
2.  People working to protect and stabilize the global and local environment.
3.  People working to alleviate and even end poverty.
4.  People of any faith or religion or none at all who can see the humanity of the person opposite them, and can therefore treat others with dignity.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Macaronic carol translation

At Christmas-time I like to do a hymn-sing.  I muddle through the songs on the piano, and whoever is around sings. While I was preparing a lyrics sheet for this, I found something interesting about the carol In Dulci Jubilo.  The only lyrics I could find were half-Latin, half-English.   For some reason the adjective for “written in a mixture of languages” is “macaronic,” which prompted the Common Household Son to ask if the hymn was written by Kraft.  In Dulci Jubilo is cool, because mostly the lines rhyme, whether in Latin or in English.

My son is our local Latin student, so I asked him to translate the Latin bits.  The best part was his translation of the second verse (segments in italics were translated from Latin):

O Jesu, little chap, For thee I sing alway;
Comfort my heart’s blindness, O excellent boy,
With all thy loving kindness, O glorious chieftain
Drag me behind you.  Drag me behind you.

I looked for the original, which I supposed to be all Latin, but it isn’t. The original is Latin and German.  We have no German students in the house, so we did not attempt any further translation.  It’s good, therefore, that this carol is available to us in all-English:  Good Christian Friends, Rejoice, or in the original male chauvinist version, Good Christian Men, Rejoice.  (The women couldn’t rejoice because they were too busy wrapping presents.)  Or maybe it has been badly punctuated all these years, and it is supposed to point out a good find to unmarried women looking for a mate:   Good Christian Men!  Rejoice.  

With the original Latin:
1. In dulci jubilo, now sing with hearts a-glow!
Our delight and pleasure lies in praesepio
Like sunshine is our treasure matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O!  Alpha es et O!

2. O Jesu, parvule, For thee I sing alway;
Comfort my heart’s blindness, O puer optime,
With all thy loving kindness, O princeps gloriae
Trahe me post te!  Trahe me post te!

3. O Patris caritas! O nati Lenitas!
Deeply were we stained Per nostra crimina;
But thou for us hast gained Coelorum gaudia
O that we were there!  O that we were there!

4. Ubi sunt gaudia in any place but there?
There are angels singing nova cantica,
And there the bells are ringing In Regis curia,
O that we were there!  O that we were there!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I am not making this up

When I pulled my husband’s car out of the garage on Sunday morning, it made a horrible screeching noise as I was backing up.  Uh oh!  Sounds like brake work is needed.  I pulled forward again, but didn’t hear the screeching.  Backed up, heard it again.  It was loud!  So I went and got My Man because since the Third Century, that’s what a woman is trained to do when the car is making a noise.

He came down, and I gesticulated haplessly at the car.  But he was in his slippers, and preferred to listen from the doorway while I went out and drove the car back and forth to demonstrate the nefarious noise.  I did, but the car purred like a kitten.  So my husband had the privilege of saying to me, “I don’t hear anything,” which is what husbands have been saying to their wives since the Third Century.  I had to admit that I didn’t hear anything either.  So I drove off to church, and the car hasn’t made that noise since then.

I also have okay eyesight. I can tell when there is water dripping from the garbage disposal.  It happened several times last week, and I saw it with my own eyes.  So of course, being a Third Century housewife, I told my husband about it.  He called the plumber and started researching garbage disposal prices. We even had a date at Home Depot to window shop in the garbage disposal section. But the plumber couldn’t come right away.  On my husband’s part, doubt set in. He ran the garbage disposal himself.  No dripping.  And it hasn’t dripped since then.

Today I was out running errands.  I spent over an hour in Target, leaving my poor car to shiver in the windy, snowy parking lot.  This is a different car than the car in paragraph 2, but it must have heard that the joke was on. When I was done, I started to drive home, and noticed a light on the dashboard.  The light was shaped like an elephant foot with an exclamation point inside of it. I wisely continued to drive home, since stopping to look at the car would mean freezing my tailbone off, and I didn’t see any elephants.

I got home, pulled the car in the garage, and phoned my husband, sighing in a Third-Century-woman sort of way.  He agreed that I needed to get it fixed.  But first, I decided to look up the elephant-foot symbol in the car manual.  It turns out it is the “Low Tire Pressure” indicator.  When this light comes on you are supposed to pull over immediately to check your tire pressure.  Oops.  In the dim garage light, I looked at the tires with my keen eyesight, and saw nothing wrong with them.

I am expecting that my husband will come home, drive the car, and the light will go off.   And he will get to say the other thing that husbands have said to their wives since the Third Century:  “It’s all in your head, dear.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Humming Along

It’s about time I turned to Advent – we’re already a week and a half into it. Luckily for me, Advent is not a one-day holiday, but a season, a time of anticipation and preparation.  Also a time of realizing that it really is too late to plant the daffodil bulbs.  This year it seems to be a season of excessive talk about Likiweaks.

Last night at dinner, Youngest Daughter asked, “Is there a song that goes, It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?"  Her Dad replied by singing, “Toys in every store” and I replied by grousing, “Yeah, even the bookstore has been taken over by toys.”  Our daughter decided that was her cue to sing those two lines over and over, forgetting the Common Household ban on singing at the dinner table.

That song talks about preparation of a sort.  The fact is that it began to a lot like Christmas in the stores in about mid-October.  Please, let’s not rush things.  This week I have running through my head a song about a different sort of preparation.

Verse 1
People, look east. The time is near 
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

I like this Advent hymn because it is grounded in reality (but loaded with metaphor too). Other Advent hymns are more monumental (Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, y’all) which is wonderful, too, but this one takes place right here in my house and back yard.  I guess that’s the point of Advent and Christmas.  It’s like our preacher two weeks ago pointed out: Advent is about preparing for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth.

The first verse starts with a GPS instruction and a calendar reference. “People, look east. The time is near for the crowning of the year”.  I don’t use a GPS, but the calendar rules my life, so this puts me on familiar ground.   Next comes a Martha Stewart admonition, but with mercy built in.  Martha would say, “Make your house fair,” but the poet, wisely not expecting me to live up to Martha’s heavenly standards, adds “as you are able.”  I don’t know about trimming the hearth, but I have been trying to trim certain areas by going to Jazzercize more often in these few weeks before the next festive feast.   The kids usually set the table, so we’re on top of that one.

The other verses (below) are more nature-y: furrows, birds, stars. And wintry – bare earth, frozen wings, frosty weather.  We’ve got that covered too, at the moment.  Last Friday the marching band nearly froze at the football game.  We’ve already got 4 inches of snow on the ground, and it’s only December 9th.  But in the midst of all this cold and bleak stuff, there is hope.  Love is on the way.  I hope so, because what the world needs now is love, sweet love.

At the end of each verse this hymn helps us toward the right attitude about all these preparations – Sing!  You’ve got a guest coming!  Love is the guest!

I must remember that it doesn’t say,
“Shop!  The guest is on the way!”
  “Vacuum! The guest is on the way!”*
“Eat! The guest is on the way!”
It’s good to do all those things in preparation for a guest, but even better if it is possible to sing at the same time.

So whether you are observing Advent, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Football Season, or Garbage Day, how about a song to go with it?  Go ahead – set every peak and valley humming, because...

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas; 
Soon the bells will start, 
And the thing that will make them ring
Is the carol that you sing 
Right within your heart.

*Good thing, because the vacuum cleaner is broken.

People, Look East
by Eleanor Farjeon

1. People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

One more light the bowl shall brim

Shining beyond the frosty weather

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Moving Right Along

Here is the turkey that my brother brought for Thanksgiving.

If we had eaten that turkey and its stuffing, we would have been excused from Jazzercize class yesterday.

I have more to say about Thanksgiving, but it’s time to move on.  No lolling about in the Common Household, because the next holiday is upon us – Chanukah starts tomorrow night!

What does this mean?  First of all, it means more food, of course.  Not having fully recovered from the carbohydrate- and fat-laden Thanksgiving table, we forge ahead to the potato latkes which await us.  Well, they don’t await us; we have to make them.  This year we will not be making Boy Scout Latkes, but will go for the traditional recipe, partly because we have 9 pounds of potatoes to use up.

Latkes are served with applesauce, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that they are low-fat.  The reason latkes are traditional at Chanukah is because of the OIL.  Most Jewish holidays are designed to remind us of a previous holy event.  (I guess that’s true for Christian holidays, too.) The oil for the latkes reminds us of the holy oil for the menorah in the Original Temple in Jerusalem.   Anybody who wants to hear more on why oil was so important should speak up in the comments, and I’d be happy to explain.

After focusing on latkes, we had better revert to more inflatable turkey (very low in calories) and Jazzercize.

Common Household Potato Latkes

Takes about 15 minutes to mix; about 1 hour to cook the entire batch.
Makes about 40-50 3-inch latkes

cheese cloth (or thin towel)
5 large baking potatoes = 10 cups potatoes, grated in
food processor or by hand
1/2 cup diced onions (finely diced)
3/8 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
 1/8 tsp pepper
3 eggs
about 1 cup oil, total

Dice the onions first.  Grate potatoes.  Put grated potatoes into the cheese cloth, and when you get a critical mass, squeeze out excess liquid as you go along (this helps keep it from getting brown too soon).  Put squeezed potatoes into bowl, and keep covered as you go along.

Mix together onion and potatoes. Add flour, salt, pepper, and eggs.  Stir.  Let sit for 5 minutes.

Get ready for finished latkes by putting paper towel out on plate.

Put 2 Tbsp oil in pan.

Make the pancakes small (about 3 inches diameter) and flatten them out when you put them in the frying pan.    Fry in oil until brown.  Remove from frying pan and place on paper towel in a single layer.

Add oil to pan as needed.  It probably uses a total of 1 cup of oil.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Conversion

Tonight I made an advance attack on Thanksgiving meal prep.  There is already an arsenal of pies (one apple, one apple & raisin) in the freezer.  Tonight’s task was to make the green bean casserole.

Some of you have had your gravy made and frozen since the first frost back in October.  That is excellent Original Pioneer Suburban Housewife planning! You should give yourselves pats on your backs. But this is as far in advance as the Common Household Mom can cook.  Anything done ahead of time is in great risk of being eaten before the big feast.

It was a surprise, the first time we hosted Thanksgiving at our house, to find that the Common Household Husband feels that it just isn’t Thanksgiving without Green Bean Casserole.  He had politely done without it, for lo all those Thanksgivings, since he wasn’t the host.  I have usually looked askance at serving anything that comes from a can at a fancy meal.   I could just imagine the Joy of Cooking recipe for this culinary delight:  “Read: About Opening Cans, p. 246.”

Once I saw how my husband’s eyes lit up at the thought of two cans of green beans, one can of cream of mushroom soup and one can of petrified French fried onions, I knew that we had to serve this dish.  It was very popular the first time, and every time thereafter.  It is also the easiest Thanksgiving recipe ever invented. So much for scoffing at cans.  I am converted.   I no longer use Joy of Cooking either.  It requires too much advance reading.

But I will also honor my personal tradition of serving fresh vegetables.  In addition to green bean casserole, we will also be having caramelized Brussels sprouts and roasted root vegetables (yams, carrots, and onions).

What kind of vegetables will you be serving this Thanksgiving?

French’s Green Bean Casserole
(from the French’s Fried Onions can)

1 (10.5 ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
¾ cup milk
1/8 tsp black pepper
2 (14.5 oz.) cans French style green beans, drained 
OR 2 (9 oz) pkgs frozen cut green beans, thawed
1 (2.8 oz) can French’s French Fried Onions (original) = 1 1/3 cups (split in half)

Mix soup and milk, then add pepper, drained beans, and 2/3 cup (half of the can) of onions in 1 ½ qt. casserole dish.
Bake at 350F for 30 minutes or until hot.  Stir.
Top with remaining onions.  Bake 5 minutes.

Note: You can make this ahead of time, but in that case don’t put the onions on top until the last 5 minutes of reheating.

Psst.  I make it with skim milk and lower fat soup.  Shhh.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Permission Granted

On Saturday I spent two hours cleaning out the refrigerator.  This was partly to escape testosterone.  That morning I went over to church to help at the semi-annual work day, where we all pitch in to clean up the church campus.  I brought my rake and work gloves.  But when I got there the place was crawling with Cub Scouts and men armed with leaf blowers.  The noise was unbearable, and my rake was not infused with enough testosterone to be effective.

So I told everyone I had to go home and clean my refrigerator.  When you tell people at church you are going to do a particular thing, you had probably better make it turn into the truth.  The truth is that cleaning the refrigerator was already on my list of things to do.  It is an annual ritual I perform as part of my preparations for Thanksgiving.  The problem is that there are still 7 days left for it to get dirty and filled up with toxic leftovers.

In honor of all the people who work hard to make Thanksgiving gatherings possible, I post this Note of Permission.  It was issued by Youngest Daughter in July, but I keep it posted on the refrigerator to remind me that someday it might actually come true.

It reads, “Dear Mommy,
This is your day off.  Today, you are not allowed to do any work.  Instead, you can do whatever you like.  Read, rest, and watch some TV.  It will help a lot with stress.  I heart u!  Sincerely, Youngest Daughter.  P.S.  Computer work does count.”

So, Dear Reader, go sit down.  Relax. Read a book.  Watch TV.  Ignore the yard filling up with leaves, the fridge filling up with leftovers, and the laundry baskets filling up with clothes.  Take a pre-holiday Sabbath.  It might be the last chance you get to sit down for a while.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thanks for One Last Pie

I love Thanksgiving.  Some people feel it is just an attempt to make us feel that God blesses overeating.  Some people don’t even bother to give thanks to God before the overeating.  Some people have difficulty getting along with the family who show up.  But I like the gathering of family, preparing the food (as long as you don’t try to run my kitchen), giving thanks to God, enjoying the meal together, singing Thanksgiving hymns, lounging around after the meal, and doing writing challenges.

This year one of the things we will give thanks for is the final fruit of our apple tree (may it compost in peace).  Today Youngest Daughter and I made a pie out of the last apples I managed to pick from the tree before it was put out of its misery.  My niece has accused me of being a murderer for having this tree cut down.  On Thanksgiving I will offer her a piece of this pie as repentance.

And as a final tribute, I offer this living art:  The Common Household Husband as Apple Tree, posing on the very spot where the dear tree itself once stood.  What are your thoughts about Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Halloween Science

Dear Mr. Chemistry Teacher,

Thank you for the inspiring pre-Halloween demonstrations you gave to your chemistry classes last week.  My son told me that you showed how to make flames come out of the eyes of a jack-o-lantern, and you also set the top of the desk on fire.  My son was so impressed that he decided to try the flaming jack-o-lantern feat himself.  We were visiting my brothers (his uncles) who were happy to egg him on in pursuit of this goal.

I was relieved when my son said that he planned to use ordinary all-purpose flour, rather than flash powder which you used in your demonstration. 

He carved a traditional scary face into his pumpkin.  Then he looked for a candle to put inside the jack-o-lantern.  A tea light proved to be too small, so his uncle took a thicker, fancier candle (belonging to his wife, who was not around) and sliced it in half so that it would be the correct height.  Next was the search for an appropriate tube to blow air through. A straw didn’t work, but a turkey baster promised to do the trick. 

Next my son needed a fire-proof shallow dish to put the flour in.  First he tried a metal cup.  After numerous unsuccessful trials, which blew flour all over the inside of the pumpkin and repeatedly blew out the candle, he determined that edge of the cup was too high.  So his uncle then supplied him with a small paper plate to put the flour on.  This is the same uncle who, when he goes hiking and encounters a sign saying “Danger – Path Closed – Turn Back Now” goes right on ahead down the path. 

After my son achieved the right conditions – success!  Man, those flames shooting out of that pumpkin were impressive!  It was very exciting to see a home-made science demonstration work right before our eyes.  We put the pumpkin on the front porch, and after a few more fiery demonstrations, my son went off trick-or-treating, leaving the candle lit inside his pumpkin.  I stayed home with his aunt to hand out candy.  She did not seem to miss her fancy candle.

After a while we noticed that if we kept the front door open any length of time, the smoke from the pumpkin would set off the smoke alarm inside the house.  So we closed the door.  Soon after that, the doorbell rang.  I opened the door to see a large group of costumed preschool-aged kids and their mothers. I expected to hear “trick or treat” but instead, one of the mothers said, in a calm voice, “Your pumpkin is on fire.  I think you need some water.”  I looked down and saw flames shooting out of the pumpkin, even without any turkey baster action on the flour.  I took the lid off the pumpkin, looked in, and saw that the paper plate and flour-coated insides of the pumpkin were fully ablaze.  I quickly got some water and dumped it in the pumpkin.

Our next science lesson here at home will be to review the meaning of “fire-proof.”  I just wanted to thank you for providing a very extra-exciting Halloween for us, and for continuing to make science an interesting school subject.  However, if my son decides to replicate the light-the-desk-on-fire demonstration, I think I will encourage him to do that at school.


            The Common Household Mom

Friday, October 29, 2010

An Uplifting Day

The Common Household Mom experienced lift this week.

I first learned about lift at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, on a date with a man who, being a biologist, knew as much about lift as I did.  I later married that biologist, so naturally I associate lift with good things.

As this non-physicist understands it, lift is a feat of physics requiring a curved shape of wing and speed.  The air pressure over the wing becomes less than the air pressure under the wing, and this lifts the wing up.  I find it to be an amazing concept, and even more amazing to experience it. Of course, it does require forward motion at a fairly terrifying speed.

I experienced lift because I went on a business trip.  It was a surgical strike on Chicago – in one day and out the next – for a 3 hour meeting.  This was the first time in three years I had traveled by air.  I didn’t think it was possible, but airline travel is even more annoying than it was three years ago.  Going through security is a demeaning process involving removing crucial items of clothing – coats, shoes, and – a particularly embarrassing requirement especially for men – belts.  In this state of humiliation, you must put these items in a bin.  And do it quickly, because the person behind you is wondering why you are so hopelessly slow.

After this partial disrobing, I was pulled aside for a full body scan.  Perhaps I look like a ter*ror*ist.  My husband said later that maybe it looked like I had a suicide jacket on under my coat.  I told him that I wasn’t wearing a coat - I had already put my coat in the Bin of Humiliation.  Perhaps they mistook my rolls of fat for a weapon.  “Put your feet on those squares, ma’am.”  “Put your hands over your eyes, ma’am, and raise your elbows.”  I realized a few seconds later that this was not to shield my eyes, but so the full body scan could get a good look at me all around, if you know what I mean.  So I posed for intimate pictures of my body in an extremely public place.  I wonder if they store those pictures somewhere.  They might be useful in a horror film.

After all that, I was glad to sit down and wait, and then finally get on the plane and experience that lift.  It thrills me every time when the wheels leave the ground and we begin to soar above God’s good earth.  The trees looked cozy in their red, brown, and burnt sienna hues.  There was an uplifting moment when the flight attendants served us what they called “breakfast peanuts.”

I have to say, though, that the best “lift” I got was when I arrived back home and saw my family.  Because for the Common Household Mom, one day is a long time to be away from home.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bean Counters of the World, Unite!

The UN declared today, 10-20-2010, to be World Statistics Day.

That date looks cooler if you are not American:  20.10.2010.  

By profession, I am, in essence, a bean counter.  My job is to use statistical methods to predict how many soybeans (and other crops) will be produced.  I celebrate my world day with these 5 thoughts about statistics.

1. 67.8 % of all statistics are made up.  I know because I read it on a t-shirt.

2.  38.6% of statistics are silly.
I heard on the right-wing radio station yesterday:
“There was a survey taken of small business owners, and the survey found that 65% of small business owners ... (big pause by right-wing speaker for effect)  ... are worried.”

See also these alarming statistics about bread.

3.  Statistics are important.  For instance, when my mother-in-law reported to us that her blood pressure measured at 400 over 70, we needed to compare that to statistics of the usual range of blood pressure measurements.  We concluded that she was inflating her systolic pressure by a factor of about 4.  At 400/70 her head would have popped off.  Never fear, her head is still on.

There are other statistics that are important in families.  The parent’s favorite statistical question is, “How many times do I have to tell you to hang your coat up?”

3.  Some things are hard to count, but it’s important to try anyway.
- How do you count the number of homeless people in your community?  Many of them are not living on the street, but are staying with Uncle Joe.

- How do you count the number of hungry people in a community?  Set up a food bank, and then go count them again to see if your food bank is effective.

- How many people are there who profess faith in Jesus Christ, and are in an interfaith marriage with a Jew, in which both partners practice their religions and are actively involved in their faith communities?  The answer is: not very many.  One of them is me.

4.   Statistics is biblical.
Starting with the fact that one of the books of the Bible is named “Numbers,” many chapters of the Bible are devoted to the taking of censuses.   There is also counting the spoils of war (the spoils being sheep and goats) so they can be divvied up among the victors (Numbers 31).  David takes a census without God’s approval, and everybody suffers (1 Chronicles 21).  Perhaps my favorite biblical statistic is found in the gospel of John 21:11 – “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.”

5.  Probability (used closely in conjunction with statistics) is useful in everyday life.
For example, I sent an e-mail to my husband and kids detailing my plan to work out the complicated logistics we were facing a few days later, with debate team practice, marching band rehearsal, swallowing of dinner, a football game, and a string orchestra gig.  I concluded my e-mail with the question “Does that seem like it will work?”  My son wrote back:
“There is a 40% chance of it working, a 10% chance of it not working, and a 50% chance of it only working for one person.”

And there is a 100% chance that the one person it works for is not Mom.

When I told my husband that it is World Statistics Day, he said, “What are the chances that anybody is observing World Statistics Day?”

Friday, October 15, 2010

Prayer without words

Although our family enjoys music, singing is banned at the dinner table.  Otherwise we might find ourselves living in a perpetual opera, with every line sung rather than spoken.

Sometimes the rule is ignored. One evening in August the Common Household Daughters provided dinner entertainment by singing the word “ectoplasm” to the tune of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

For our Friday night dinners, we use Jewish Sabbath blessings.  These blessings can be sung, and so we do, except for the blessing for lighting the candles, which we don’t seem to agree on the tune for.  But there is No Singing After the Blessings.

The Youngest Daughter, when asked to say the blessing before dinner, often puts her prayer into song, including a little scat singing for good effect:
“Dear Lord, thank you for this food-dee-dood-deeda-dee, even though there is nothing on the table that I like to eat, and thank you for all of us, swaba-daba dooba, and thank you for all-la-la-la-la the things we have to be thankful for.”

Singing nonsense syllables is actually a quite acceptable form of prayer in Judaism, called niggun.  It often makes this Presbyterian uncomfortable when we are at synagogue and sing “bim, bam, bim-bim-bim-bam” or “lei, lei, lei”, but Presbyterians ought to get out of their wordy heads sometimes and just sing some of that na-na-na-nee-nonsense.

The idea behind a niggun is that words cannot fully express our prayers.  Plus, nonsense syllables make it possible for all to participate, even the youngest child.  After all, as Paul says in Romans 8:26, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  Maybe the prayers without words are the most heartfelt prayers. 

Here's an example of a niggun.  It is not in a worship setting, but you can get the idea after a few seconds of listening. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Anniversary Gift

Today is our 20th wedding anniversary!  We are celebrating this evening by
1) having leftovers for dinner
2) me taking my Son to his piano lesson and then dashing over to parents’ night at one high school and
3) the Common Household Husband going to hear a college rep at the other high school.

Oh, sob, we will be apart!  But on Sunday.... Oh, on Sunday! We are all going out to the most delicious brunch that this town has to offer!  Because we love food!

The traditional gift for the 20th year of marriage is china.  Well, I did go buy four Corelle dinner-plates, because I left some of our set at my mother-in-law’s.  I think Corelle is a great symbol of our marriage – not fancy, but really unbreakable. Plus plates have to do with food, which seems pretty central to our lives.

In choosing a gift, I decided to go in a different direction.  Here is my anniversary gift to us as a married couple:

Yes, my gift to us is that I vacuumed up the dust underneath our bed.  Because my allergies were driving me crazy, and there was about 20 years of dust under there.  

But wait, there’s more!  All by myself, I also flipped the mattress.  Folks, I do not recommend that you do this by yourself.  It was probably the third stupidest thing I have ever tried to do by myself.  A miracle occurred: I managed to do it without breaking any light fixtures or my back. (In this candid photo, you can see some of the dust that was under the bed.  It was worse than that in some spots.)

My friend, who is a psychiatrist, phoned while I was doing this onerous task.  When I mentioned what I was doing, she talked me through the three “Ps” which prevent most people from de-cluttering:  Passivity, Procrastination, and Perfectionism.  So while I talked to her (procrastination), I lay on the bed (passivity), and looked at my cluttered closet which I knew I could not tackle right then, despite my best intentions (perfectionism).  My friend brilliantly helped me get the three Ps out of the way. She said, “Set a timer for one hour, and after one hour stop cleaning and declare yourself done for the day.”  And that’s what I did.

Happy Flipped Mattress and Under-the-Bed Vacuuming Day, dear Common Household Husband!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Common Household Dinner Conversation

You can judge for yourself how much headway I am making in training my children to speak about proper topics at the dinner table. 

As we all know from the movie “Sense and Sensibility” the two appropriate topics for conversation in polite society are The Roads and The Weather.

We do talk about travel during dinner:
Youngest Daughter:  “Our city has the most bridges of any city in the U.S.”
Husband:  “But how many of those bridges actually carry traffic?”
Youngest Daughter:  “Only one. The others are just for terrestrials.”

Oldest Daughter:  “Is there a place we can go to have free yoga classes?”
Husband:  “Yeah.  It’s called India.”

Husband:  “The next lesson in physics will be to land the lunar module on the moon.”
Son, dismissively: “I did that last year.”
(He did, in a simulation.)

* * * * *

Sometimes there are lessons in logic:
Me:  “It looks like we have to go to the store. We’re running out of milk.”
Son:  “Don’t we have a cow?”
Me:  (nasty look)
Son:  “If we had a cow we could also have hamburgers!”
Me:  “But then we wouldn’t be getting milk from that cow any more.”

* * * * *

Usually the dinner conversation reverts to the fun topics that arise when scientists and their progeny are around.  The first three tidbits all come from the same evening.

Friend of Son: “Early humans ate the marrow from the legs of dead animals!”
Son: “I think primitive humans ate grubs.”
(Or maybe it was my husband who said that.  I was too disgusted by the first comment to notice who said the second.)

Youngest Daughter: “Did you know that a potato has the same number of chromosomes as a human?”
(I am not quite sure this is correct.  But it could explain the existence of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.)

Someone brought up the fact that humans have a large number of symbiotic bacteria living in their bodies, making us more like a colony of animals than a single organism.  I said, “So we are more like the Portuguese man-of-war than we would have thought?”  The reply:  “But we don’t eat fish with tubes that stick out of our bodies.”  I admit that one was my fault, for bringing up the Portuguese man-of-war.

We were at dinner, discussing Youngest Daughter’s field trip, where she did science exploration of the river water.  She was describing what she saw in the river mud, but it wasn’t gross enough for her sister.  Oldest Daughter asked, “What about leeches?  And worms that crawl into your body through your fingers?  And through your nose?” 
I protested, “We’re still eating dinner here.”
Then a few minutes later I asked my Son to describe the cybersurgery activity he was planning to attend.  It actually is a pretty tame topic, since it is just a simulation.  But Oldest Daughter couldn’t take it, despite having dished it out earlier, and said, “Oh, please, let’s not talk about surgery! That’s disgusting!”

Youngest Daughter:  “According to cannibals, humans taste like chicken.”

I think they are not quite ready to dine with The Queen.  Or perhaps I should say that The Queen is not ready to dine with them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An Apple Dessert A Day

It’s fall, and that means apples!  On Saturday I picked up about 500 apples from the front yard.  Despite my propensity to collect data and count things, this number is an estimate, based on how much my legs still hurt 6 hours later.  I collected 6 bags of apples to be thrown away.

The real reason I harvested the apples was not to count them, but because my husband wanted to mow the lawn one last time. The apples on the ground were covered with dead leaves, and so walking on them would have been like walking on a floor covered with marbles obscured by napkins.  Add a lawnmower to that, and it’s a volatile mix, pretty much ensuring a visit to the hospital.  Thanks to my efforts, which will most likely go unrecognized, there was no hospital visit that day.

I kept some apples which looked to be in pretty good shape in the hopes of making apple crisp.  I do this because it makes me feel like the Original Pioneer Suburban Housewife, baking from the ingredients I raise here on my farm.  Kind of like I feel after manually shoveling 2 feet of snow off the driveway, or battling icicles, only less sore.

Another reason to harvest and use the apples is a bit sadder.  This apple tree, if it had legs, would be on its last ones.  Last year we had to cut off numerous dead branches. It bore a large amount of fruit this year, perhaps as its last hurrah.  It even has some fruit on branches that are now dead.  There is probably some sort of theological metaphor there, but I don’t know what it is so you will have to make up your own. 

These are not the genetically enhanced gigundo apples you can buy at the grocery. We do not spray any chemicals on this tree, so the fruit is small and likely to provide a haven for insects and dessert for chipmunks.  It takes about 5 of these apples to make one cup, peeled and sliced.

On Sunday I made apple crisp, which was quite popular. Yesterday I tried my hand at apple upside-down cake.  We’ll find out if it’s a good idea to just substitute apple slices for pineapple in the pineapple upside-down cake recipe.  Tomorrow, will it be apple pie?

Thanks, Apple Tree!


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Department of Home Security

One morning this summer, I came downstairs for breakfast and found this sign posted on the inside of the front door, right where everyone could see it as they came down the stairs.

P u b l i c
You will acually be asked to sign first
A n o u n c m e n t

I am searching for people to be spies.  Come to the room of the little one when the flute rings an old tune.  There, you will greet me, learn the rules of spying, and, if you still wish to join, sign the document of secrecy.  Come and join!
P u b l i c
You will actually be asked to sign first
A n o u n c m e n t

On the other side of the paper was this:

Document of Secrecy

I do hereby swear that all
 activities, notes, sayings, and
 everything generally done in being a
 spy will be kept in utmost secrecy.

I, ________________, do solemnly swear.
I, ________________, do solemnly swear.
I, ________________, do solemnly swear.

Note: If you break this solemn
 swear, you shall be punished
 severely.  You shall have no screen
 time and no desserts, or any
 kind of sweet food, for a week.

Pigpen code:  .....

Three people signed the secrecy document, although I do not recognize any of the names there. I wonder who they are spying on?  At least now I know what constitutes a severe punishment around here.

I feel safer already.  Don’t you?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ingredients for a sweet new year

Challah and grape juice/wine:

Apples and honey:

Tall candles:

Jewish bacon:

Add family, and you're all set.  
Happy Rosh Hashanah to All

Friday, September 10, 2010

Early Fall, Cloudless Blue Sky

In memory of the Falkenberg family.

On Sep 11, 2001 I was home with my 2-year-old daughter, cheerfully going about my day, when the news began to filter through about the planes hitting the World Trade Center.  After a bit, I couldn’t stand being by myself any more, so we went up to my neighbor’s house, where she was with her small kids.  They had the TV news on the whole time.  The news reports were confused and sometimes conflicting.   They kept playing the same tragic video scenes over and over.  My neighbor’s 5-year-old son understood enough to know that something horrible was happening, but it was impossible to explain. 

Eventually I decided that subjecting myself and my 2-year-old to the constant barrage of news was doing neither of us any good, so we went home.  I knew my other 2 kids were safe at school, but by about 2 PM I decided I just had to have them at home with me.  There are times when the need to just be with your own family is overwhelming.  So I was one of those foolish parents who picked their kids up at school.  Not from fear, but just from my own need to have them near me. 

I later found out that an entire family, my brother’s dear friends, were killed on the plane at the Pentagon that day.  The parents were Leslie Whittington and Charlie Falkenberg, traveling with their children Dana and Zoe.  Dana was 3 years old and Zoe was 8 years old.    Leslie was a university professor going to Australia for a sabbatical, and Charlie and the children were going along for the semester.  These precious girls were the same age as my children.  I still weep when I think of the fear those poor girls must have felt.  

That day there was a cloudless blue sky with the warm temperature of early fall.  Since then, that kind of day brings me a tinge of sadness, because it reminds me of that day and the loss and fear that it has brought us.   

For every perfect blue-sky cloudless fall day, I offer these words:

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 8:21)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy New Year! Let's Talk About Human Sacrifice!

Perhaps faith should be redefined as being able to love God even after reading Genesis 22: 1-14. This scripture passage, “The Binding of Isaac,” always puts me on edge.  This is the passage traditionally read at the Rosh Hashanah holiday.  Which starts tonight.  Happy New Year!  Let’s read how Abraham nearly sacrificed his son!  Hooray!

It just so happens that this was the topic of the sermon this past Sunday at church.  I’ve studied it before, and always leave it behind without being able to say, “Oh, now I understand.”  There are only two lessons I can truly claim to get from this passage:  1) God is inscrutable and 2) Life contains paradox.  It is difficult for me to say that the nature of God revealed in this passage is one I can claim to want to worship and adore.   

The basic story: God decides to test Abraham, and tells him to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there.  Abraham binds Isaac as a sacrificial animal, raises the knife to kill Isaac, and at that moment God stops Abraham.  There is a ram nearby and Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac.

Our pastor quoted John Chrysostom as saying that in this passage, the command of God conflicted with another command of God.  The pastor didn’t spell out which commands, but I’m guessing they are 
     a) You shall have no other gods before me = Obey me, versus 
     b) Do not murder.  
“The faith was fighting against the faith.”  There is the paradox.  I agree – this passage is an unsolvable conundrum to me.  And that is true of many things in life.

Why did God test Abraham?  I have heard the pastor say in a previous sermon that God wanted to test Abraham, not to prove something to God, but to prove to Abraham himself that Abraham had the necessary faith.  Some scholars say that this was God’s way of driving home the point that the Hebrews were not to engage in child sacrifice.  My father conjectures in his commentary on Genesis that God needed to know if Abraham had faith in God just because of what God had promised him (descendants and land), that is, for the reward, or if he would remain faithful even without the prospect of such a reward.  (If Abraham kills Isaac, then there will be no descendants.)  This Sunday our pastor said that the test is not a pass/fail test, but more like a test pilot taking the airplane out to find out what the limits of the plane are. 

Perhaps these are good explanations, but they still don’t sit well with me.  Of course, nobody said that we have to like scripture.  If that were the case, scripture would probably look more like a Hallmark card.  That would be equally awful in the other direction.

There is a glaring inconsistency in the text, which the pastor did not mention.  Often in church we don’t notice these Biblical inconsistencies because we only read one snippet of scripture.  The part we read says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love...” (Gen 22:2). But from our study of Genesis two years ago, we know that Isaac is not Abraham’s only son.  Ishmael supposedly was 14 years old when Isaac was born.  Does Ishmael not count as Abe’s son any more because 
     a) he has been banished  or
     b) his mother is just a slave-girl   or
     c) he is considered a man because of his age   or
     d) the inheritance will not be passed on through him.  
Maybe these reasons passed muster to the ancient tribes hearing this story while sitting around the campfire, but they offend my modern sensibilities of how a father’s love is supposed to work.

The pastor tried to convince us that in this story everything turns out peachy keen at the end.  Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac, and so everybody is happy (except the ram).  I say, not so.  I think Isaac would have been one messed up dude after this near-death experience. 

So this Presbyterian enters the Jewish New Year hoping and believing, against all the evidence I see in this passage, in a compassionate, merciful, and loving God.  And may we show those qualities, as parents, to our own children in the coming year.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I claim that I love to read.  But lately I find myself unable to finish many of the books I start.  I’m rather sensitive, so usually I find novels by current authors too traumatic or scary.  For instance a few years ago it was all the rage to read The Shack, but once my mother told me what it was about, I knew I wouldn’t be cracking that book open.  I did finish The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, but it was agony for me.  The only thing that kept me going was being able to recognize the author’s tribute to the Bronte sisters’ novels.   Maybe I should just go back to reading 19th century novels and children’s books.  Except sometimes even those books fail me.

Here are some books I thought I would find fascinating, but gave up on.  Are there any books that you have finished and can recommend?

Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East, by Deborah Amos. –  My son, noting that the word “eclipse” usually goes with the word “sun”, insisted on calling it “Eclipse of the Sunnies.”   This book is anything but sunny. It’s about Iraqis after the beginning of the US war there in 2003. Many Iraqis had to leave their country to save their lives. The book describes in detail how difficult it is for them as refugees in Jordan and other places. It was too depressing for me to read any more. 

Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi – too disjointed.  The chapters alternate between the obvious and the obscure.  The author spends a whole chapter pointing out that people send e-mails during short bursts of time – nothing earth-shattering about that.  Then he takes us back to an obscure event in Hungarian history.  I suppose if I had finished the book I might have found out how that event was related to the theme of the book.  When I was in 11th grade English class, my teacher taught me that when writing an essay, the writer must make it clear how each paragraph relates to the central theme of the essay.  Doesn’t happen in this book.

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey – This was recommended by NPR, but it was too crude for me, although funny at times.  By the middle of the book, they hadn’t even gotten to America yet.  I think I would be better off reading Alexis de Tocqueville himself, instead of this spoof.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire – By the end of the third chapter, I just couldn’t sympathize with any of the characters.  I suppose that’s true to life – we all have faults that make us unsympathetic in some way. When I’m reading a novel, though, I want to have someone to root for.  I read enough novels starring the "anti-hero" in college. 

Emma, by Jane Austen – I have tried twice to read this book, but I found the central character to be an annoying ninny.  I loved two other books by Austen – Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility.  What gives with Emma?

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander.  When I was a girl, I LOVED this book.  I started to re-read it, with the hopes of recommending it to my 11-year-old daughter.  This time around it gave me nightmares!  Admittedly, I read it after an evening of discussing the bedbug plague that is rampant in some US cities (not ours, not yet).  The title refers to a magic cauldron that gives birth to undead soldiers.  Too scary.  Add to that the idea of bedbugs, and it’s just Nightmare City.  Check your mattresses. Now.

The Bible – I tried the “read through the Bible in a year” gig, but broke down in Leviticus.  I retained almost nothing of the parts I did read. The experience convinced me that it is a waste of time to read the Bible without actually studying it.  Now I am in a good Bible study with a group of people who like to read, study, and discuss the text. That’s the way to do it.  Quality over quantity.  

Monday, August 30, 2010

Which Would You Pick?

Where is the national outrage over the building of a gambling parlor less than ½ mile from national hallowed ground?

Developers want to build a casino ½ mile from the battleground at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Over 400 people are scheduled to speak at the public hearing related to the development.  Some of them will probably speak against the proposal, but there is no outrage expressed at the national level.

What is the difference between a casino at Gettysburg and an Islamic center 2 blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center in New York City? 

Why haven’t fearmongering national leaders come out in protest of the Gettysburg Casino Project?  Is it not insensitive to put a gambling establishment so close to the site of this heart-wrenching Civil War battle, surely hallowed ground for our nation?

I’d take the Islamic center over the casino any day.  Not that I am against gambling, per se, but the Islamic center would probably be smoke-free.  And it might have a swimming pool, and a quiet place to pray. I don't reckon you'll find either of those at a casino.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Taking it One Day at a Time

I am recommending to myself that I take things one day at a time. Otherwise I will fall apart just anticipating future events.

Today uncannily marks the following future events:

     1 day until the beginning of the school year
     1 week until the beginning of September
     2 weeks until the beginning of the Jewish New Year

     1 month until my Dad’s 82nd birthday
     3 months until Thanksgiving
     4 months until Christmas

     51 weeks until my 50th birthday
     1 year (approximately) until we send Oldest Daughter off to college
     2 years (exactly) until Youngest Daughter’s bat mitzvah

How on earth will I be prepared for those things?  I’d better go figure out what to have for dinner.  Tonight.  In 1 hour.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Signs Around the House

Are we the only family which posts signs around the house?  How effective are signs as a method of communication?

Here are some signs which members of the family have posted around the house:

Posted by the Common Household Son:
"The blueberry bagel is MINE!!! No one else can eat it!

Posted by Oldest Daughter, on her bedroom door:
"Beware of Evil Sister," accompanied by drawings of girls in happy and harmless athletic activities.

Posted by Me, on various days during the winter.  I put the sign up on the bathroom mirror, and then the kids can see it when they get up, and then they'll know they can go back to bed.  For some reason, my son likes to save these.  Note my futile attempt to ask for help shoveling the driveway on Feb 10.  On that day, it had been snowing for 2 days straight.  Or maybe three. I have pushed it out of my mind. 
"Friday Jan 8 School closed!" (written when a school closing was all new and fresh to us. Notice how the signs after that do not have any exclamation point.)
"2 hour delay today Jan 28"
"No school today Wed. Feb 10 - Get up and shovel the driveway"
"2 hour delay today Feb 26"
etc etc etc

Posted by Youngest Daughter, on her bedroom door:
"Wand Shop!
Get your wands  made, cleaned and fixed here!
You also can get wands here!  So come!
Time:  4 pm - 8 pm Mon-Fri
8 am - 5 pm Sat-Sun
Payment: In this shop, pay with crayons and markers"

There are more, but I will post them at a later date.