Friday, December 31, 2010

Everyone should have a Lisa

So this week the husband and I went out to dinner with Lisa and her husband, Ali Hakim. Not really. I mean, yes. We went out to dinner. And yes, Lisa and her true love were our companions. But his name is only sometimes Ali Hakim. Whatever -- if you're not from Oklahoma you wouldn't understand.

But really, I just want to tell you how lucky I am that Lisa is in my life. She has been my best friend since I was thirteen. Think about that, my people. I don't know about you, but when I was thirteen I was a complete pain in the ass. I think it's part of being thirteen, but still -- I'm not sure why my parents didn't sell me to the gypsies. So I am eternally grateful that Lisa was willing to ride it out and stick with me, even though I was a) a giant mutant, freakishly tall; b) painfully shy and more comfortable with my nose in a book than engaged with actual people; c) new to the school and thus totally toxic in terms of coolness; d) did I mention freakish?

Lisa, on the other hand, was athletic and pretty, with curly, curly hair that she hated and I coveted, and a giant smile that said to the world: "I am here to have fun, so step aside!" She was always the one who said, "Let's go skating!" or "Meet me at the basketball game!" And whatever she told me we were doing, I did. I even managed the gymnastics team, so I could hang out with my bestie every day after school. It cracks me up that I "lettered" in gymnastics that year.

It's weird that we are even able to be friends, because we are biologically so different. She is up before dawn, ready to go for a run, or play a round of golf, or wrestle a bear. Meanwhile, I feel that a day spent lounging in bed is a day well-spent. And when I am ready to stay up all night watching Fred Astaire movies, or the fabulous "Ishtar," Lisa just kisses me on the head on her way to her bedroom.

On paper we should not be friends, but I thank God every day for her.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Straight to the source

The last door of the Advent calendar opens to reveal the Holy Bible. Today (tonight, really) is when our family goes right to the source: the Gospels according to St. Luke and St. Matthew.

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The best Christmas storybook ever. Yes, I mean ever.

As Christmas Eve approaches, the Advent calendar door opens to reveal The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. This is the one book that each of my three urchins insisted had to be included as part of our favorite Christmas book memories. The tall boy even texted me special from college, just to make sure I was including it on my list. It's wonderful.

Jonathan Toomey is a carpenter who has experienced a great sadness. When a widow and her young son move into his town and commission the carving of a new Nativity set, he initially rejects every one of their overtures of friendship. But as the figurines that make up the Nativity scene are brought to life through his skill as a carver, he finds that his heart has made room to welcome the kindness of these two new friends.

I have given this book as a gift to so many of my family's friends. The universal report back is, "This is the most wonderful Christmas story! Maybe someday I'll be able to read it to my kids without getting a lump in my throat." Maybe -- but I doubt it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I'm not ready, but I'm ready to start getting ready!

So the tree is decorated (right on time, thank you) and I feel good about that. It was touch and go for a while, because I am fundamentally lazy. But the urchins rallied and swarmed me until I succumbed to the pressure. They represent a united Christmas front and collectively they're impossible to resist. You have not lived until you've seen the tall boy, the sunny girl AND the girl in charge, all lurching toward you like zombies, chanting, "Doom on you! Doom on you!" The scariest part is the little skip they give to emphasize "you!"

But I do still feel like I have yards and yards of work to do -- buying, wrapping, cleaning, fluffing -- before the baby Jesus can be born. Do you think he'd be willing to put it off for a couple of days? No?


The book behind the door of the Advent calendar today is The Tale of Three Trees. This is a retelling of an old folktale about three trees who each dream of greatness. One is cut down and made into a manger; one is cut down and made into a fishing boat. The third is cut down and is horrified to learn that he will be used to crucify a criminal. Do you think they all found greatness?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Come on, Big Snow!

So around here we feel like we can take whatever Mother Nature dishes out, snow-wise. I mean, after all -- we did survive the Blizzards of 2010 last February. We've got to get extra points for that!

OK, now pipe down, all you Chicagoans and upstate New Yorkers, and folks who experience snow as an annual drudgery rather than as the adventure of a lifetime. We rocked our blizzard down here in the South! So this year as The Big Day draws nearer and nearer, we are hoping with a childlike hope for a white Christmas. My Doug Hill says it could happen!

So obviously the book we discover behind the door of the Advent calendar today is Katy and the Big Snow. Oh, my people -- this is such a fabulous book! It was written by Virginia Lee Burton, who wrote Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House -- so you know it's wonderful. As Katy the snow plow proceeded to dig out an entire town, the urchins used to have so much fun following her route with their fingers as she traveled from the hospital past the police and fire stations and out to the airport, before digging out the schools and the stores. This is a great book for a snowy day -- or for a family that yearns to experience one truly Big Snow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines . . . "

Behind the door of the Advent calendar, we find Madeline's Christmas. The fun illustrations are the best part of this story, but we have always had a soft spot on our hearts for Madeline -- one of the great heroines of children's literature. As for me, Miss Clavel is one of my role models. Ask the urchins how often I have stopped in my tracks and said, "Something is not right!"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A book lover's Advent calendar: Day 19

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we find Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol behind the door of the Advent calendar. We love just about every version of this story: it's a treat to curl up under a blanket and listen as the story is read aloud, but there are also so many wonderful movie versions of the tale! Whether we watch George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart or Michael Caine (love me some Muppets!), it's hard to beat the story of Scrooge's Yuletide change of heart. Coleen and I went with our fabulous friend Sylvia last Christmas to see the production offered at the newly refurbished Ford's Theater. Oh, have mercy -- I'm so glad I saw it there!

But I do always keep coming back to the book. I know I have a bias toward the printed page, but I just cannot help but believe that this is a story that everyone should read. I challenge you and your family to plunge into the book together. Dickens wrote this Christmas ghost story knowing that it would be read aloud -- and I believe that everyone should experience the story this way at least once.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sometimes Mommy gets a little punchy at Christmastime.

Tonight behind the door of the Advent calendar is a fun book just for Mommy and Daddy but mostly Mommy because Daddy rolls his eyes at Mommy when she gets so hysterical with laughter that she can't speak. Back when I used to exercise, I listened to the essay "Six to Eight Black Men" while I was out walking. People, I laughed so hard I had to sit down on the curb and put my head between my knees. Holidays on Ice is the perfect antidote to the sickly sweet junk that often gets pushed at us this time of year. I actually prefer the audio version, narrated by Dave Sedaris himself. It's perfect for your listening pleasure while you're up way too late wrapping those gifts that you waited too long to buy. Oh. Is that just me?

tangent: Every year Santa is forced into a holding pattern, circling our cul-de-sac while he waits for me to finish wrapping gifts. Air traffic controllers hate me.

Please do note that David Sedaris rarely writes essays that are appropriate for children and these are no exception -- although my urchins are old enough now that their heads won't explode if they are exposed to his peculiar and hilarious sense of humor.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shop 'til you run screaming from the mall . . . .

So today was a snow day for the urchins, but a shopping day for me. I know it shocks you to realize that I may or may not have procrastinated a wee little bit about the merry old Christmas shopping . . .

. . . but the beauty of my system is that I get to shop with every other person on the planet -- who all come to my own personal mall to enhance my Christmas angst joy. So that's a plus.


Last night was the first night of Las Posadas -- the Latin American tradition that celebrates the scripture passage, "because there was no room for them at the inn." My family has always been drawn to this tradition; the "Catholic" part of the tradition appeals, even though we cannot claim to be Latin American. Today behind the door of the Advent calendar is another story by Tomie de Paola -- this one a sweet telling of the Las Posadas story. We do love us some Tomie de Paola. I hope you enjoy The Night of Las Posadas as much as we did.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In honor of our first snowy day . . .

The Advent calendar door opens to reveal The Snowy Day. This is a great little picture book that perfectly depicts the joy of bundling up to go outside and have an adventure in the snow. A classic!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Book Lover's Advent Calendar: Day Fifteen

Today when I opened the door to my Advent calendar I found Carl's Christmas -- and the timing could not be more perfect. A beautiful picture book with no words is just what I need on a day when I have to grade seventy-five English Composition papers.

We got our first Carl book when the tall boy was a tall newborn: Carl's Afternoon in the Park (thanks, Boyce and Deneen!). Others include Carl's Masquerade, Carl Goes Shopping, and Good Dog, Carl! Each book tells a story about Carl and Madeleine, the lovely baby he takes care of. So the premise of every book is that the parents go out somewhere fun and leave their baby with the pet Rottweiler. Now that's good parenting!

And the wonderful thing about the books is that the only words spoken are, "Take good care of the baby, Carl!' when the parents leave the house, and then when Mommy and Daddy get home: "Good dog, Carl!"

Every page shows intricate details of the adventures of Carl and the baby, and the story is told with no words at all. In Carl's Christmas, he and the baby prepare Christmas gifts for several different people. After baby falls asleep, Carl is surprised by a visitor!

These are fabulous books!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As far as I'm concerned, we're ahead of schedule.

OK, so this time last year there was too much crap piled up in my living room to even think about adding a tree to the chaos. So I'm feeling pretty good that this year, the tree is in the house and upright. Don't get pushy about lights and ornaments -- I can only do so much!

The sunny girl did put up some gel-filled sticky thingies on the windows. So that's festive.

Our Advent calendar is an annual tradition, but there have been December 1sts that have been calendar-free because I just could not lay my hands on it. Those were the years we played a game I like to call "Advent Catch-Up" when I did find the calendar. This year -- win!

It's not even time for our Christmas stockings, but I know where they are, too! You have no idea how big this is. Ask Grandma Donna about the Christmas Eve when I couldn't find the stockings, so I hung six Santa hats on the mantel. One of the "hats" was actually a cloth wine gift bag decorated to look like a Santa hat. That bad boy hung there with all the other hats, like it knew what it was doing. Pathetic, and absolutely true. How cool is Santa, though?! -- he didn't even mind!

And best of all, the merry old basket of Hershey's kisses has taken up its accustomed place by the front door. This means that the merry old Hershey's kisses wrappers have taken up their accustomed places all over every floor of the home.

Some Christmas traditions live on forever.


Behind the Advent calendar door on Day 14, we find Silent Night, written and illustrated by Will Moses. Coleen turned our family on to this gorgeously illustrated book; Will Moses is her favorite artist. With the lyrics to the lovely carol as section headings, it tells the story of the Miller family as they prepare for the Christmas Eve birth of a baby girl. It's a great bedtime story.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Who needs birth control when you've got migraines?

OK, so the thing that really blows about a migraine is that once it takes you down, your perfectly good day is completely wasted. Well -- that's not the only thing that blows about it, but it sure is a huge frustration. When I have been felled by a migraine, I cannot function, but I also have a difficult time even sleeping unless I have taken some pretty potent narcotics.

As we all know, sleeping is not a waste of a perfectly good day.

Saturday night the husband and I went to the swell annual company Christmas party, where I wore this rockin' dress; of course I looked just as fabulous as this model does -- and my shoes were better than these, which is important. We had a great time, but it might be true that I had just a teensy bit too much of the migraine-triggering red wine. We stayed at the party hotel Saturday night, and met up with friends for brunch yesterday morning. The tragic news? I was where my excellent migraine-specific drugs were not.

tangent: These triptan drugs are amazing, y'all. When they work, it's like being ever-so-gently touched by the finger of God. Of course, they don't work for every person, and they don't work for every headache. And if you don't take them quickly enough, you are ever-so-gently screwed.

Well, when we got home, I took my drugs (too late) and then took to my bed. This is where the Percocet would have been a delicious option. But I do adore the husband and the urchins, because every so often I would swim to consciousness from my haze of pain, to find a fresh glass of ice water, crackers, or a nice cold Coca-Cola sitting on the bedside table.

Ooh, my dears! I know they took the cocaine out of the Coca-Cola, but what if they put the Percocet in the Coca-Cola?! Talk about the pause that refreshes!


Today behind the door of the Advent calendar, we find The Polar Express. We love all of Chris Van Allsburg's books: Jumanji, Zathura, The Z Was Zapped, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and the phenomenal Bad Day at Riverbend. The stories are all filled with just the right amount of eerie and weird, and the illustrations cannot be beat.

The Polar Express includes the eerie along with a helping of Christmas sweet; it's a classic.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Calendar: Day 12

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. So while her story is not necessarily a Christmas tale, it is part of our family's Advent tradition.

Today's book, The Lady of Guadalupe, is a sweet story recounting the miracles encountered by Juan Diego at Guadalupe. We just love the author, Tomie dePaola! Strega Nona rocks!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent Calendar: Day 11

Love, love, love it!

You know it -- you love it! It's hard to beat the animated television special, and you know why? It's because what's really going on is that you are listening to the complete text of a Christmas story, read to you by Boris Karloff. Boris Karloff, people! The animation is just delicious icing on an already fabulous cake. But you can read it out loud, too -- just put on your Grinchiest voice and let 'er rip!

Friday, December 10, 2010

One more step in her plan to take over the world . . .

The girl in charge was inducted into the National Honor Society last night, and reports that the pins in her corsage tried to kill her, her program gave her a paper cut, and she didn't get any punch at the reception because she was too busy chatting.

Other than that, it was a lovely evening!


Our Advent calendar book is Santa's Book of Names, which is a great little story about a little boy who struggles to read. But when Santa loses his glasses, Edward must travel with him on Christmas Eve, and read from Santa's book so that the right gifts will be given to the right boys and girls. It's an important job, but Edward discovers he is up to the task..

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Snapshot: Beautiful girls

Look at how pretty the girl urchins are! We were on our way out the door tonight, to various school functions that made me pray for the aid of Padre Pio (bilocation would solve a lot of my problems, yo), but the urchins allowed me to capture the glamour before we all went our separate ways.


Today's discovery behind the Advent calendar door (snuck in just under the wire) is Look-Alikes Christmas. We have always loved these quirky picture books. In a Look-Alikes book, intricate miniature scenes are created out of the most mundane and everyday items: combs, pretzel sticks, playing cards, dominoes . . . . The challenge is to find all of the items used to create the scene. For some reason, all of us took to the Look-Alike books with great enthusiasm, while the I Spy books (constructed similarly) left us cold.

It's just so cool! Do you see the erasers and the dog biscuit used as chimneys in the cover photograph? Fabulous!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It's not about the book . . . .

So I went to the monthly gathering of my book group last night, and as usual I had the swellest time. I know that many of you participate in a "Book Club" or a "Book Discussion" or some sort of regular gathering where you meet to discuss a book that all of you have read. You may even assign discussion leaders, or decide on a theme for the year, or have some sort of guidelines for participation and membership.

People, this ain't that kind of book group.

My book group started as a collection of women who began meeting in the summer of 1994. I joined in early 1995, invited by my friend Carol (who had never actually been to a gathering of this book group herself, but still felt comfortable dragging me along with her). I'm pretty sure the book to be discussed that first night was Little Women, and I'm also pretty sure that we laughed, drank wine, ate the most delicious food, and maybe talked the teensiest little bit about Little Women.

This might seem to imply that the women in the group are not serious readers, when nothing could be further from the truth. But "book group rules" don't appeal to any of us, and if our conversation veers toward a fabulous promotion, or an impending birth, or worries about health, or the capers of our cats . . . then that seems to be just fine. The size of our gathering ebbs and flows from month to month ( we all have busy lives), and some women have remained faithful for sixteen years while others have joined us more recently. Ultimately, these women are the truest sort of friends, who know me at my deepest core. When it comes right down to it, the book group motto for all of us is, "it's not about the book."


Behind the Advent calendar door today is Josefina's Surprise. My teenage girl urchins still adore their American Girl dolls, and I'm all for it. My feeling is there are worse fads to adopt than one that ties a well-made doll to books about some facet of America's history. Beer bongs spring to mind.

Josefina's story resonates with our family because she is devoutly Catholic. Josefina's Surprise tells of the Las Posadas tradition that her village celebrates every year on each of the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve -- La Noche Buena. This little book does a nice job describing the traditional Las Posadas procession, and evokes a real sense of the sacred as the procession winds up at the village church to be welcomed by their priest to the Feast of the Nativity on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My first favorite books

Today behind the Advent calendar door we find Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But really, most of the Little House books have a wonderful Christmas story included as a chapter in the various novels. This Garth Williams illustration is of Laura on Christmas Day, right after she has received her beloved rag doll, Charlotte.

My favorite Little House Christmas story is, of course, the tale of Mr. Edwards' meeting with Santa Claus in Independence, Missouri. A chapter in Little House on the Prairie, it is frequently anthologized. As a little girl I loved the picture of Santa on "a fine bay horse," leading a pack mule as he crosses the prairie.

Then Santa Claus said: "Have you ever met up, down yonder, with two little young girls named Mary and Laura?"
"I surely am acquainted with them," Mr. Edwards replied.
"It rests heavy on my mind," said Santa Claus. "They are both of them sweet, pretty, good little young things, and I know they are expecting me. I surely do hate to disappoint two good little girls like them. Yet with the water up the way it is, I can't ever make it across the creek. I can figure no way whatsoever to get to their cabin this year. Edwards," Santa said, "would you do me the favor to fetch those girls their gifts this one time?"
"I'll do that, and with perfect pleasure," Mr. Edwards told him. ("Didn't he have his reindeer?" Laura asked. "You know he couldn't," Mary said. "There isn't any snow." Exactly, said Mr. Edwards. Santa Claus traveled with a pack-mule in the southwest.)

Other excellent Little House Christmas stories include Laura's first-ever sight of a real Christmas tree in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Almanzo waking up before 3:00 in the morning to discover a jack-knife in his stocking in Farmer Boy, and the beautiful swan-skin cape and hood made by Ma for little baby Grace, in By the Shores of Silver Lake.

The bottom line is, oh my goodness, you need to read all the Little House books! I've loved them my whole life, and it makes me so happy that the urchins love them too. In fact, I think I'd better go and re-read them all now. Gotta go!

Monday, December 6, 2010

I miss her already

So last night the husband and I had dinner with dear ones, as we said good-bye to this fabulous friend. She's moving away for a time (sniff, sniff), so we just had to squeeze in one more rocking good evening of fun with her before she leaves.

All of us love her so much -- we fight for her services as a godmother or confirmation sponsor for our children. If my remembering is correct, every family in the room was lucky enough to have her as a godmother for one of our children; in our family the sunny girl claims her. She's got some strong prayer mojo, people.

tangent: OK, show of hands: how many of you think this urchin looks like a Pre-Raphaelite beauty out of a painting by Rossetti or Burne-Jones? We think so, too.

The only good thing about saying goodbye to our beloved friend is that we know she's not leaving forever. But we all sure will miss her while she's gone!


Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, so if your family follows the old custom, you might have found some treats in your shoes when you woke up this morning! Check out this cool article about the real St Nicholas; I just love this kind of stuff!

So today behind the door of our Advent calendar, of course we find a story about Santa. And I am telling you, this is the best Santa story ever! Santa Calls was out of print for a time, which was tragic -- but now it's back. Just look at the beautiful illustrations! Yummy!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book lover's Advent calendar: Day Five

The Stable Where Jesus Was Born is a gorgeously illustrated book that tells the story of the nativity from the animals' point of view. We have always loved storybooks that have a lot going on in the illustrations -- a feast for the eyes as well as the ears while the story is read aloud. This one is lovely.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Can a book be part of your snow dance?

Behind the fourth door of my Advent calendar is a book that evokes fond kindergarten memories for all three of my urchins. Over the years each of them acted out The Mitten in the winter class play, using puppets on sticks to depict the various animals who take refuge from the snow in one very stretched out mitten.

The sunny girl asked me to choose "a snowy book" for the calendar today, because she is hoping for snow this weekend. Here's hoping her wish comes true!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tall Boy Sighting

So we celebrated the tall boy's nineteenth birthday last week -- along with Thanksgiving. His actual big day was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He arrived home from Catholic University that day; after a steak dinner with the family followed by the requested birthday apple pie, he was kidnapped by Coleen's tall boy, and I didn't see him until the next morning.

What kind of party games did they play? Well, let's just say that the two tall boys' motto is, "what happens at the sleepover stays at the sleepover."

Because Thanksgiving intruded, we didn't have our big family birthday celebration until the weekend, when my folks took us out to lunch. We love these family dinners!

The tall boy loves his grandmothers . . .

. . . .the fantastically funny, quirky, and adventurous Grandma Donna . . .

. . . and the elegant but photo-phobic Grandma Carol, who is my mom's emissary to ensure that their grandchildren are spoiled and adored properly.

But the tall boy will tell anyone who asks that his all-time absolute hero is his Grandpa.


And behind door number three of our Advent calendar is this lovely little carousel book, which displays images that illustrate the lyrics to the Christmas carol, "Away in a Manger." Have you seen these carousel books? You display them so that they look like a series of diaramas -- but way prettier than the ones we used to make out of shoe boxes! The actual title of this book is Away in a Manger: A Christmas Carousel Book.

Here's how it looks when it's set up. We love this song, and we love this book -- still part of our Christmas decorating tradition!