Monday, January 31, 2011

Two links

At the women’s retreat I did get my nerve up and ask if anyone wanted to participate in writing challenges.  But there were no takers – maybe next time.  I have posted a writing challenge response here on the blog. It’s one I wrote in November 2007.

The topic of our women’s retreat was “Prayer and Healing.”  My thoughts about the retreat are mixed.  I found the best expression of thoughts on the retreat topic when I returned home and read this blog.  

Water Voyage

Writing Challenge: Write about a water voyage you once took. 
My response:

The wind whipped through my hair, partly obscuring my view.  I thought of the others who had made this trip, knowing the impossibility of escaping from their island destination. When I had left the mainland shore, the sunlight was warm and the breeze was strong but friendly.  Now the wind showed its true nature – combining with the cold waves below the boat to confirm the inhospitable nature of the world.  Perhaps those people who long ago made this water voyage had always been surrounded by an inhospitable world and that turned them into the evil pitiable creatures they became.  Perhaps they were simply evil and it was they who made their own surroundings inhospitable.  As I disembarked from the boat I shivered as the ghosts of evil welcomed me – the ghosts of Alcatraz.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Writing Challenges

In our extended family, there are a number of young aspiring writers.  And there are some of us (like me) who don’t consider ourselves writers, but like to hang out with the aspiring writers, in the hopes that their youthful enthusiasm will rub off on us.

When we get together we like to do an activity we call “Writing Challenges”.  We gather in a group with paper and pens.  Someone issues a challenge (some examples are below), and everyone writes for about 5 minutes to address that challenge.  Then we read out loud what we have written.  It is non-competitive and spelling doesn’t count. 

I am thinking of introducing this activity this weekend at my church’s women’s retreat.  I don’t know if I will have the nerve to do it. First I will have to overcome the Presbyterian Mindset – if it’s something new, we’re not interested, because of the 11th Commandment:  Thou Shalt Always Do Things The Way Thou Hast Always Already Done Them.  And it could be that there aren’t any aspiring writers attending the retreat.  But I thought I would practice introducing the activity by proposing some challenges here.  Next week, if I remember, I’ll post some results here.  Feel free to try it on your own.  Don’t be shy – share your results!

Some examples of writing challenges:

In the “Memoir” category:
Write about a water voyage you once took. 

In the “Write a Midrash” category
The scene is this:  God is about to give the Ten Commandments to Moses.  Imagine and write down the conversation that Moses has with God.

In the “About Writing” category:
Write the first sentence or two for an imaginary book in each style of writing:  horror, comedy, romance, adventure, sci-fi.

In the “Silly or Strange” category:
What if you were a Barbie doll that was only active at night?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Snow Fairy

On mornings following a significant snowfall, when I am at breakfast, the Common Household Husband enters the kitchen and says to me, “I see that the Snow Fairy shoveled the front walk.”  Then he adds in a hopeful voice, “Did the Snow Fairy by any chance also shovel the driveway?”  And my answer is almost always “Yes.”

Dear Reader, I will divulge to you that I am the Snow Fairy

On mornings when the Snow Fairy is needed, I wake up early, usually to the dulcet tones of the salt truck driving by.  The environment be damned; I love the salt truck.  It makes possible Life As We Know It in Northern Suburbia.

I arise and flit down to the computer to check for a two-hour delay or cancellation of school.  As much as these drive me crazy, I am glad for a two-hour delay – on those days it seems like my children are leaving for school at a reasonable hour.  But delay or no, I know that there is no chance that either of my teenagers is going to wake up in enough time to shovel the driveway.

I put on my heavy winter clothes and shovel the front walk so that I can retrieve the newspaper.  Invigorated by the brisk air, I carry my favorite snow shovel through the house and down to the driveway.  Please note that “brisk” is my cheery term for “bone-chilling.” 

It is often still dark when I go into Snow Fairy mode.  I check for certain conditions to be met.  If snow is not blowing in my face, and if no one else is out using their snow blower, then the Snow Fairy is in her element. – the world is dark, quiet, and calm. 

Then begins my methodical task.  The peace that comes is indescribable.  Here is a finite task involving little brain thought.  It has quick and visible results.  It is utterly unlike child-rearing, doing laundry, or analyzing data.  It makes my husband happy.  There may be other tasks in the Common Household Mom’s life that fit that description, but those tasks cannot be accomplished while wearing snow pants.

There is just one dilemma that the Snow Fairy faces.  When I am finished shoveling our driveway, I should go shovel the driveway of my recently widowed neighbor.  It’s true that another neighbor will come later and clear out her driveway with his snowblower.  Shouldn’t I go over there just to show I care?  I am wracked with guilt, but the outside world has grown inhospitable. I am feeling less like a fairy and more like an extra in the March of the Penguins movie. 

Once I am back inside, the Snow Fairy disappears, and it is just me.  Time for a hot shower and breakfast, while reading that newspaper I fetched so long ago. 

Is there a snow fairy at your house?  Or perhaps you have not needed a snow fairy this winter?  Lucky you!
The front walk, after a visit from the Snow Fairy

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It Was Dad's Idea

Last Friday we suddenly discovered that it was a long weekend, with a day off school on Monday.  The Common Household Husband suggested that our Youngest Daughter have a spur-of-the-moment sleepover on Sunday.

When 11-year-old girls see each other for the first time in two days, they feel compelled to scream with delight.  As our guests arrived, they hugged and screeched in the front hallway.  I walked past the girls into the kitchen, where my husband was standing, holding his fingers in his ears.  I said pointedly, “This was your idea.”  He said, “But I thought they would be quilting.”

Dad-sponsored sleepover activities:

Eating Pizza 
Stuffed Crust Pizza! Yay for Dad!  After dinner, the girls jumped up and down in the kitchen singing camp songs at the top of their lungs.  You probably know the song “Bananas”, which starts, “Eat – Bananas, Eat, eat bananas” and ends with “Go – Bananas – go, go – bananas.”  These girls knew several other verses, for oranges and cows and such.  We heard all verses.  The neighbors probably heard too.

Scientific investigation
At about 8:30 PM, two of the girls rushed into my office and said, “We need the computer!”  I asked why, and they said breathlessly, “We need to look up eosinophil!”  I figured this was some character in a video game that they wanted information on how to beat.  “You want to look up who-what?” I said.  They exclaimed, “It’s something scientific! But first we need to know how to spell it.”  “Oh,” I said, “a scientific endeavor. Well, you certainly can use my computer for that.  And I’ll bet the Common Household Dad will know how to spell it.”  Sure enough, he did.  

We have a microscope in our spare bedroom (every spare bedroom should have one) and the Common Household Dad had gotten out the prepared slides, one of which was a sample of eosinophil.  The microscope activity probably lasted a full 15 minutes.

Observing nature
The Common Household Dad owns and operates a fish tank containing a few fish and one adult snail.  I will have nothing to do with the fish tank, which is a kindness to the fish considering my track record on taking care of the rest of the house.  To young children the fish tank is a good source of amusement, and our sleepover guests were no exception.  Apparently a spontaneous generation miracle occurred, because, as the girls were looking in the tank, one of them cried out, “Oh, look!  There’s a baby snail!”  Much proclamation of cuteness ensued.  “Oh, my gosh!  The baby snail is gigantically tiny!”  Then they started trying to explain how a single snail could have babies.

Mom-sponsored sleepover activities:
- Salad with the pizza.

- Getting up at 2:15 AM to turn off the light and make the girls go to sleep (at the request of one of the girls).  Dad slept through this part of the sleepover.

- Making misshapen eggs and rubbery pancakes for breakfast

- And attending weddings:

The next morning after breakfast I was invited to attend some weddings.  The Common Household Dad was not invited because he had already left for an important appointment at the casino.  The game room was an utter mess, but was a good site for each of the girls to marry a stuffed animal.  The most important role seemed to be that of the flower girl.  Flowers were represented by cards.  The flower girl threw the cards up in the air and they landed all over the room.  The second most important moment was when the groom was instructed “You may now peck the bride” (when the groom was a penguin) or “You may now devour the bride” (when the groom was a polar bear).

A successful sleepover.  Good job, Dad!

Activity for this weekend: clean up the game room.  This will be a kid-sponsored activity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Notes from the Judges' Lounge, Part 2

My stint as a judge at a debate tournament
(Part 2)

For those who haven’t already lost interest, here is a description of the first event I judged:

At 9:40 I am assigned to judge a “Public Forum” event.  Public Forum is a debate with two students on each side of the argument.  When I arrive in my assigned room, the competitors (high school students) are already there.  All the students wear dark suits and look lawyerly.  I am not in a suit, though.  Right off the bat, one of the students politely asks, “Will you permit us to use a cell phone as a timer?”  These students are all so earnest, and so destined for greatness.  And they know it.   Would they ever break a rule?  I can’t tell, but possibly their earnestness hides a vicious cut-throat mentality.
I allow cell phones for timers.  I also admit to these students that this is my first time judging.  I detect no crestfallen looks, but I feel that already I have let them down.  They are thinking to themselves, This housewife knows nothing about how to do this, and she is going to be a dud as a judge.  I am destined for greatness and she is destined to clean the house.  I do not let on that I am no good at cleaning the house either.

I reach back in my mind to my successful job interview technique:  I pretend to be somebody else.  I am pretending to be Judge Joleen.  Tough but fair.  Knowledgeable and in charge. My thoughts are not judge-like, though.  I am thinking, Listening to the arguments and giving time signals is beyond my mental capacity.”  I am also thinking, Breakfast was about 3 ½ hours ago.  Where’s my doughnut?

The resolution to be debated is “In the United States, plea bargaining is detrimental to the criminal justice system.”  I am supposed to flip a coin to determine who gets to choose the side they will argue.  Flipping the coin goes badly, tarnishing the reputation of Judge Joleen. 

We proceed.  The solemn dark-suited students address me as the authority, urging me to vote for their side.  I furiously jot down their arguments, missing half of what they are saying. Ooops!  Time to look at the stopwatch.  

The first speaker (arguing the PRO side) is nervous, and has some trouble getting some of his words out, but I like his contentions: The justice system is there to provide our rights to a trial by jury, and plea bargaining is coercive.  The second speaker (arguing the CON side) seems more self-assured and launches into a tirade about plea bargaining’s efficiencies.  The court system would collapse without plea bargaining.

The whole thing is rather ridiculous.  It seems so unlikely that any of these four kids will have to make a plea bargain before a real judge.  They go at it: 4 minutes for this side, 4 minutes for that side, 3 minutes to shout at and interrupt each other.  And again, and again. I find that by the time we get to the end of this experience 45 minutes later, they have simply managed to repeat their initial arguments two or three times. I got one good quote: “This is the justice system, not the efficiency system.” 

When the CON side says that justice is served during plea bargaining because the accused has a lawyer to give advice, the PRO side makes an excellent point that those lawyers are probably not well paid; what incentive do they really have to provide excellent legal advice?  I agree with the PRO side on both those counts, but they begin to lose when they try to refute CON side’s proof that plea bargaining has been ruled constitutional.  The PRO guys say, “But slavery was once considered constitutional.”  I have to agree with the CON folks that slavery is tangential to this resolution, and that we are not arguing constitutionality.  (Or are we?  The whole criminal justice system relies on the authority of the constitution, doesn’t it?)

At the end I want to go back and ask them, “What was it you said about….”  and “What did you really mean by…”  but I am not allowed.  The four earnest students thank me, shake my hand, and leave me to JUDGE them.  

The thing is that I don’t care very much how I judge them.  I am like those lawyers they mentioned – not very well paid for my services today. In fact, no one is paying me anything, I am paying $6 for parking.  But I genuinely believe that both sides were well prepared, the contentions were well argued, so I give the PRO side 28 points and the CON side 29 points (out of 30 possible points).  It’s an easy A with Judge Joleen. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Notes from the Judges' Lounge

My stint as a judge at a debate tournament
organized by local college students
(Part 1)

Resolved: College students should hire The Boy Scouts to organize their debate tournaments.

Contention:  I don’t know what things college students are learning at college, but organizing events is not one of them.

Supporting Evidence:
- Total time I devoted to this event: 13.5 hours.
Time spent I judging debate: 1.5 hours. 
- We arrived at the debate tournament at 7:30 AM.  The ‘organizers’ were surprised that the building we were supposed to be in was locked up tight.  We eventually got our first judging assignments at about 9:30 am.
- Some of the students competing in the tournament didn’t get their lunch until 5:30 pm.
- Judges had many stories about mix-ups in room assignments. One judge was sent to Room 326, while the students were sent to room 236.
- At the end of the tournament, we waited three hours for the results to be tabulated so that the prizes could be awarded.
- The Boy Scouts would have had us out in 6 hours max.

* * * * * 

Resolved: A high-fat, high-carb, no-caffeine diet results in a fat, cranky, somnolent judge.

Contention 1:  In this country there exists rampant discrimination against tea drinkers.

Supporting Evidence:  At about 8:45 doughnuts and 2 jugs of coffee arrive in the so-called “Judges’ Lounge”.  Too bad for you tea drinkers.  I conclude that my best move that day was to have my cup of tea at 6:15 am before we left home.  That one cup sustained me throughout the slings and arrows of the day.

Contention 2: College students have not gotten the message about a high-carbohydrate high-fat diet being detrimental to one’s health. 

Supporting Evidence: We had the aforementioned doughnuts for breakfast.  For lunch they gave us lukewarm pizza, and seemed rather proud of it.  That was it, for food. No dinner, even though we were there past 8 PM. I had planned to bring an orange from home but my daughter had assured me they would serve fruit.  No.  No fruit. We were forbidden to leave the “Judges’ Lounge” because we might, at any time, be needed to judge a debate round.  So there was no chance to go buy a soup, salad, or anything else more healthy.  I thought fondly of the orange I had left at home. 

* * * * * 

Resolved:  College students do not have the same bodily needs as middle-aged housewives.

Contention: College students do not need to pee.

Supporting evidence:  I walked around the entire first floor of the Huge College Building With Over 300 Rooms, and did not find a single bathroom.

* * * * * 

Amusing moment:  Because the building we were first told to go to was locked, we were sent to the Huge College Building With Over 300 Classrooms.  I was looking for my Oldest Daughter and she helpfully sent me a text which said, “we are in a lecture room”. Well, which one of the 300 are you in?  To her credit she was doing her best in a confusing situation, and I did find her pretty quickly. I was very touched that she thought of me and how I would be looking for her.  It did help that the reason I was looking for her was so I could give her some money for lunch.

One word says it all: At about 3:30 PM I was back in the judging room. Another judge went up to the blackboard, where it said “Judges’ Lounge.”  He quietly erased “Lounge” and wrote “PRISON.”  Well put.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ready for Hibernation

A letter I sent to some young relatives today:

Dear Nieces,

This week we got about 8 inches of snow, which makes a total of about 1,326 inches on the ground.  It is now time to begin hibernating.

Two days ago school was closed because of the snow.  Your cousins used their time wisely, and made sugar cookies.  They made cookies in the shape of a teddy bear face, in the shape of a house, and in the shape of The Continental United States (one cookie, not 48 cookies).  Because, yes, we have a cookie cutter in that shape. 

Yesterday I made peanut butter cookies.  For some of them I pressed a chocolate kiss into the middle of the cookie after baking.  Then Your Cousin came in and took over.  She wanted to put peppermint kisses on some of the peanut butter cookies but I wouldn’t let her, because that would just be an incredibly wrong flavor combination.

All these cookies were a way of recovering from filling out the FAFSA* and the CSS-Profile** forms.  These are wicked, wicked forms.  But when you want someone to give you money, you have to be willing to grovel and fill out wicked forms, telling a complete stranger your most private business. The crowning irony was that for the CSS-profile you have to pay money to send your request begging for money to the colleges! 

So I, your meddlesome aunt, am writing to you today to ask you to be extra kind to your parents when they are filling out these forms.  Here are a few suggestions:  Bring them a cup of hot tea.  Make peanut butter and/or sugar cookies, being sure to clean up afterwards.  Do the dishes without being asked.  Offer them hand lotion (the parents, not the dishes). 

Or come up with your own ideas.  If you do, send your ideas to me, so that I can get your cousins to do them for me. 

Today I ate the Continental United States.  Because there is not much else to do when one is hibernating.  As Toad said to his friend Frog, “Wake me up at about half past May.”

            Aunt Common Household Mom

* FAFSA = Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
** CSS Profile stands for “Come on, Sucker, Spill it!” and requires you to tell a web site with hopefully decent security every little thing about you and your household. 
The neighbor girl says this is "One foot plus 5 inches of snow."  I rounded that up.

Teddy Bear face with clover eyes

Our house is a very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard. 
 On the left, note the "Duck pond with standing duck."

The Continental United States

Still Life with peanut butter cookies and cookie cutter

Friday, January 7, 2011

Reducing global warming, one fat cow at a time

My plan was to reduce our meat consumption by making more tofu dishes.  I saw some tofurkey sausages at the grocery, but forcing tofu to masquerade as meat just doesn’t cut it for me.  I want to learn how to make a cuisine where tofu feels at home, like the Pad See Ew I had at the Thai restaurant.  Despite its unfortunate name, it was delicious.

My battle against global warming began with finding a tofu recipe on the internet.  For many recipes I noticed that in the comments, people said things like, “I made this recipe, but I used chicken instead of tofu, and where it calls for broccoli I used mushrooms, and I put in salt and thyme instead of soy sauce.”  America, if this is what you are doing with tofu recipes you are missing the point! 

Usually I am suspicious of recipes from the internet, but I proceeded boldly, keeping my lofty mission in mind.  I found a recipe called “Hot and Spicy Tofu.” 

I had an inkling of how the meal would be received when my husband came home from work, saw this dish of bean threads on the counter, and said, “Oh, look, it’s a bowl full of glass.”

The “Hot and Spicy Tofu” turned out to be neither hot nor spicy.  My husband said, “You know, this recipe would be pretty good if you leave out the soy sauce, substitute cream of mushroom soup, use chicken instead of tofu, and put French fried onions on the top.  Oh, yeah, and you should add some green beans.” 

Yet another culinary failure for the Common Household Mom.   Then I admitted to the family that I had been trying to fend off global warming with this recipe. My confession prompted this exchange:  

Husband:  “Eating tofu reduces global warming?”
Me: “We are reducing our consumption of meat.”
Son:  “Yeah, cows contribute to global warming.  They –”
Me:  “The details on that are not something we are going to discuss at the dinner table.”
Husband: “But if I eat MORE meat, then there are FEWER cows around to contribute to global warming.”
Oldest Daughter, exasperated:  “Dad!”
Husband:  “In order to get the meat, they have to kill the cow.  Fewer cows!”

There ensued a discussion of how many cows my husband could eat, and if increasing his cow consumption would reduce the cattle herds enough to have an effect on global warming.

My noble attempt to reduce global warming failed.

But no, I am not ready to give up on this.  Does anyone have a good tofu recipe?  Please send.

Hot and Spicy Tofu - the Common Household Version

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy Random Passage of Time

To celebrate the recent Random Passage of Time holiday, I give you this memory.

Age Celebrates the Passing of Time

            When I was a teenager I went to stay at my Grandmother’s house for part of the winter break. My grandmother was probably about 85 years old.  During the day, she usually wore her white hair neatly in a hairnet.  She dressed in appropriate grandmotherly dresses, and moved fairly slowly. 
            When I would stay at her house, I would sleep on the couch in the living room, defying the tick-tock-whir of the clock to keep me from falling asleep.  During my stay that particular time, it came to be New Year’s Eve.  I had no interest in going to a noisy party, and didn’t really know anyone my age in that town anyway.  So Grandmother and I both happily went to bed at the usual time, before 10 pm, figuring that we would welcome in the New Year in the morning.
            I fell asleep there on the couch, having won the battle with the ticking, whirring clock.  In the middle of the night, I awoke with a start.  Was that a ghost?!  A pale figure in a white nightgown, with a shock of white hair, was standing in the living room.  My heart beat faster. The figure lifted a hand – was that a weapon?  No, it was – a saucepan.  The figure’s other hand held a spoon.  As I came to full consciousness I realized it was my Grandmother.  She said, “Come on. We have to go outside on the porch.”  I glanced at the clock – it was exactly midnight. 
            Filled with amazement I followed Grandmother out into the quiet chill.  She stood on the porch in her nightgown, and began banging the pot with the spoon, for the whole neighborhood to hear.  She continued to make this noise for about a minute, as I watched in silent amazement.  Then without another word she went inside the house and went back to bed.

* * * * * *

That was the first, and last, time I had encountered this New Year’s tradition, until this year, when some kids in our neighborhood welcomed the New Year by running up and down the street at midnight, banging on pots.  It’s good to know some strange and useless traditions haven’t disappeared completely.  Happy New Year.