Thursday, December 30, 2004

Blogs Are My Newspaper, Part II

Ariel Gore wrote this appalled and disturbing reflection on the tsunamis in Asia. RedHeadDread posted the link. I read it, and now am even more appalled than before, and grateful for the chance to read it. I hope you'll read it, too, and maybe send some support here.

We will now return to Travels In Booland's regularly scheduled mishmash of cute-kid stories, autobiographical snippets, and paeans to unattainable food items.

That is, we'll return there as soon as I finish packing for my own return to the Great Northwest.

98% Fact Free*

I'm not usually very up on what's going on in the world. Even less so when I'm on vacation. But when we got back from our trip-within-a-trip (to a resort where a gaggle of other relatives are staying) a couple of days ago, I did find out about the tsunami.

It turns out that my sister-in-law and RW (and probably my brother, too) knew about what was going on, but RW told her not to tell me because I've have a morbid fear of tsunamis ever since I moved to the West Coast (in New York I had a morbid fear of apartment prices). I found out, in spite of her attempts to shelter me, because even though I don't read newspapers I do read blogs.

I know it's pathetic, but that's how I heard: reading blogs when we got back to my brother's house.

In light of which that "feel the world and find out what the weather's like" post below seems sort Wrong. Maybe I should delete it, but then I'd never remember in twenty years that Mermaid Girl said it. Because not only is the Internet my newspaper, it's my baby book.

*In truth, this is RW's line, about herself. She proudly admits to being even more fact-free than I am; she says she figures if something's important, someone will tell her about it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Weather mom

Mermaid Girl, this morning, surveying the dresses, jeans, and shorts she brought to wear:

"Would you go feel the world, and come tell me if it's shorts weather?"

Sunday, December 26, 2004

In remembrance of a cream-filled pastry

Consider, for a moment, the humble cannoli.

When I was growing up, in New York and suburban New Jersey, I don't remember giving much thought to cannoli. Unlike, say, shrimp cocktail, or black-and-white cookies, cannoli did not loom large in my pantheon of treats. We weren't Italian; we didn't eat it regularly; we didn't have any favorite place to get cannoli. It was just a part of the landscape.

The summer I turned eighteen, I worked in lower Manhattan (near what is now Ground Zero) as a sub-underling at the Federal Court House. The job consisted mainly of filing loose-leaf updates to law journals. It was boring and isolated, and the pay was pretty bad. Also, I was always late to work, partly because I never got used to how slow the elevators were, and so I constantly felt guilty and anxious.

But in the plaza outside the Federal Court House building there was a sort of outdoor food court, with stalls set up so office workers could buy quick lunches and snacks of any kind. And, since most days I hadn't had a chance to eat anything before getting to work, I usually bought a cannoli to eat in the elevator for breakfast.

A cannoli. For breakfast. For a dollar. Almost every day that summer. And I never gave it a second thought. It was like having, I dunno, a Pop Tart. Only better. That was how much I took cannolis for granted.

One day, when I'd been in Seattle for a year or two, I was lying in my studio apartment reading a book set in New York City (this one, I think). At one point, one character suggested to another that they go get a cannoli. I put down the book and thought, "a cannoli! I haven't had one of those for years! I'd like a cannoli!"

So began my Quest for Cannoli. And an arduous quest it was.

Because, it turns out, Seattle's Italian neighborhoods were destroyed before I was even born, torn down to make room for the interstate that runs like a scar down the middle of our city. Most of the Italian restaurants in range were not the unpretentious, spaghetti-and-meatballs, red-vinyl-checked-tablecloth joints of my youth, but upscale, carmelized-onion-sauce-laden yuppie bistros. And not only were they way too expensive for me, but they didn't have cannoli.

The pastry became more than an unattainable dessert: it was a personal symbol for the many things I'd taken for granted on the East Coast (rapid public transportation, ethnic neighborhoods, late-night takeout restaurants, to name a few) that either didn't exist in my new home or were so radically altered as to be unrecognizable. (The Zero Boss has written a lovely essay about a similar East-coast-to-Seattle epiphany, but he's less whiny more gracious about it than I was.)

When RW and I got together, she joined me in my search. We would accost innocent maitre d's at posh Italian places, asking if they had cannoli. Almost invariably, the answer was, "No, no cannoli, but we have some excellent tiramisu. Would you ladies like a table for two?"

Tiramisu! Not the same thing at all. We'd stomp out and go for Thai food instead. (That, for some reason, you can get in Seattle. On every street corner, even. And it's very good! But it's not cannoli.)

We began plans to launch a website, The site was to serve as a record of our search: we would list all the restaurants where we had tried and failed to find the dessert on a "Cannoli Wall of Shame," and review any place that actually offered the stuff. We also envisioned as the focal point for an "Alice's Restaurant"-type mass movement, wherein thousands of people would storm their local Italian joints, singly and in groups, ask the eponymous question, and walk out upon hearing a negative. We figured it wouldn't take long before some enterprising restauranteur caved to popular demand.

When we had a baby, this scheme, like any visions of less-silly social activism, fell by the wayside. A year or two ago, on a rare grownups-only date, we went to a little Italian place not far from our house and were thrilled to see my long-lost cannoli listed on the Desserts menu. We ordered it, and it was good. But it didn't change my stubborn sense that, whatever its amenities, Seattle lacked certain fundamentals.

All this flooded into my mind this afternoon, when the six of us (me, RW, Mermaid Girl, Baby Cousin Little Bear, and her parents) strolled into town for pizza. This is a medium-ish college town in Florida, with a downtown two blocks long; it's a nice enough place to live, but no one would mistake it for a metropolis. The pizza joint had no maitre d's, no waiters even. My brother ordered the pizza and slung it over to our linoleum-topped table.

As we dug in, RW gasped and pointed at the menu, which was displayed in plastic letters above the counter. There, taped below the lists of toppings and soft drinks, was a crudely lettered cardboard sign, an afterthought, barely important enough to mention: "Cannoli--$2.50."

"Oh," said my sister-in-law, "there are about three places in walking distance where we can get cannoli."

Now I know for sure: we might be on the western coast of Florida, but we're back East at last.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Greetings from Stormy Florida

We're in Florida! With the wee little baby niece and her parents! All is calm, all is bright over here. Well, actually all is calm, all is rainy. But nice weather would've been wasted on us anyway, as all we wanted to do when we got in this morning after coming in on the red-eye was sleep. And we did. All afternoon.

Or rather, RW and I slept. Mermaid Girl stayed up, cuddled her baby cousin, nagged my very patient sister-in-law to bake cookies, decorated their tree with innumerable candy canes, and occasionally jumped on my stomach and admonished me, apropos of nothing that I could tell, that she was very angry at me and that she wasn't going to get over it. I'm not sure what I did. I was just soooo sleeeeeepy.

Then, just after we finished opening presents, and just before the Chinese food was to arrive for dinner, she sacked out cold on a living room chair. She is there still.

So many things to write about. It feels like it's been weeks. Maybe it was that all-night flight that aged me. (Did you know it's snowing in Detroit? Also that their airport has the coolest red shuttle train? It was an educational if exhausting layover, over there at 3 AM our time.)

Wishing the happiest of holidays/Christmases to those of you celebrating. I miss you folks. I was thinking of you on the plane. Is that weird?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Trio of Snapshots


Mermaid Girl is on the floor, deeply absorbed in playing with all the coins shaken out of her Humpty Dumpty bank. First she lines them up, then she sorts them into various containers (a mini-treasure-box, her shoes, etc.)

"Now they are all lining up to go into the box... now they are all going to graduate school. They're getting on the buses!"

(Later, I asked her about graduate school: What is it? "It's the school you go to when you graduate from your regular school." And how old are the people who go to graduate school? "Oh, about five or six." So graduate school is like kindergarten? "Yeah."

Thinking back on library school, I have to say she may be more right than she even knows.)



We have a CD on and the Girl is dancing around the kitchen in full ballet regalia. She looks so graceful and serious, I stand for a moment in the doorway between kitchen and living room to admire her. She stops and glares at me: "Mommy, please move. You're in the way!"

"In the way?"

"Yes, you're in the way of the people." She gestures past me into the living room.

"Oh-- the audience? The people watching you dance?"

"Yes!" (Very stern and exasperated)

"Oh-- um, sorry. I'll move. I didn't know."



I just made tea for the two of us, and MG wants honey in hers. I'm dithering around the kitchen counter, muttering, "Honey, honey, where's the honey?"

She points at the honey, which is half-hidden behind a bag of something, and says, with perfect inflection, "What's that? Chopped liver?"

Monday, December 20, 2004

I am healed!

Thanks to all for the good-health wishes and recipes. Here's a weird thing: even though I skipped my nap yesterday so I could read this splendid comic, stayed up past 2 AM last night reading more stuff, and was awakened promptly at 8 this morning by a bouncy and chipper 4-year-old all excited about having a home day with just me--even with all that abuse to my system--my cold is better! I can breathe! I'm only coughing a little! My ears are popping regularly! It's the miracle of Chanukah!

Oh, wait, Chanukah's over. Thank goodness. I mean, eight days? By the end we were getting a little blase blase' jaded: All right, light the candles, open your presents, and let's go brush your teeth. Our weekday evening schedule is tight enough as it is; with Chanukah thrown into the mix, Mermaid Girl didn't have a bath for over a week, and was still getting into bed on the far side of nine most nights. I did feel a small twinge the first night after it was over, though: no more candles. At least, no more Chaunkah candles; there's still the tree.

The Girl is now puttering around in her room, moving each obect in it to a new and different place, under cover of "getting dressed." And I'm letting her, because what's a home day for? Also, all these bloggable thoughts have been swirling around my head.

Like this little doozy: What is the true meaning of Christmas? And what should we tell our kid about it?

other bloggers have been dealing with and writing about this issue, and I've been reading with a lot of interest, between attempts at repairing my own botched explanation of the holiday.

Yesterday, as we watched the credits of RW's prized vintage video of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" (the cartoon original, with Boris Karloff, not the travesty of a remake), I asked Mermaid Girl diagnostically (and somewhat pedantically): "So, did the Whos need presents and trees and food to have Christmas?"


Okay. So developmentally maybe she's not quite there yet. For her, the happy ending to that story is that the Whos got all their stuff back. Fine. Take another tack.

"Hey, bun, you know that story we talked about before, about Christmas, about that mom and the baby and the speck and all that?"

"Yeah." (Somewhat guarded: is Mommy about to lose it and start sputtering again?)

"And you know how we don't believe it? And Mama doesn't either?"


"Well, lots of people who don't believe that story, like Mama, still celebrate Christmas. For a lot of people, like for the Whos, Christmas isn't really about that story. It's about thinking of other people, and being with people they love, and having lights in the dark winter times, and warm things when it's cold out."


"Yes, hon?"

"Can I watch another video?"

But I am waiting for the inevitable question from our 40-pound litigator: If Christmas isn't about the little baby Jesus, how come it can't be a Jewish holiday?

What on earth am I going to say?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Cautionary Tale, With Many Capitalized Words

I am sick. Right at the start of Winter Break, yet. I am hacking and coughing and blowing my nose and in general feeling like crap. Bleah. Of course it's my OWN DAMN FAULT because I stayed up too late EVERY NIGHT THIS WEEK. Why? Why? Why, oh why, didn't I go to bed early just once?

And there appears to be nothing in the medicine cabinet that causes drowsiness, aside from some old tylenol with codeine left over from when Mermaid Girl had her tonsils out last April, and I don't really want to take that. Codeine, no, not quite desperate enough for that.

I ask you, what is the point of cold medicine that doesn't cause drowsiness? Especially if you finally went to bed early hoping to knock this cold thing away and then woke up at FIVE IN THE MORNING?

If you, Dear Reader, are reading this late at night, because some link brought you here and you felt compelled to follow it and are now about to click on all the links on my blogroll to see what other reading material is out there in the vastness of the Internet, before heading back to your own blog to see if anyone has commented in, say, the last ten minutes: welcome, kindred spirit. Thank you for coming to visit. Please say hi, and save this link if you are so inclined. And then learn from my sad story and GO TO SLEEP.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

It's too much work to come up with a title for this

I got to talk with a real live friend on the phone tonight! She lives just a couple of miles away, but I haven't seen her for almost a year. That's how little I get out. Sad, sad, sad.

I was telling her about how focused and goal-oriented Mermaid Girl can be, like how she practiced swinging on the monkey bars at her preschool until she could get all the way across (it took weeks, she got blisters on her hands but was completely matter-of-fact about it and just kept going until she could do it), and how totally not-that-way I am, but how that's probably good for the Girl, since a driven kid with driven parents can be a really scary combination.

Friend: Or a not-driven kid with driven parents. That's not so hot either.

Me: Yeah, us slacker parents, we're a pretty great deal all around.

Friend: Yeah. Yay, us! We don't finish what we start, but we're good for our kids!

Me: Yay, slacker parents! Gimme an S, gimme a...oh, whatever. You know what I mean.

Friend: *chortle*

Me: *snort*

Well, we amuse ourselves, anyway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

One More Latke

Thanks to everyone who sent comments and good thoughts out to the universe about the tiny baby born last Friday. I have to admit to feeling kind of self-conscious, and maybe selfish, posting about this; I've seen a number of "please send support and prayers to..." messages on blogs I've read, but mostly they're on behalf of other bloggers, not random friends and relations. But it was just about all I could think about that day, and I was grateful to have cyber-company.

It sounds like the baby is hanging in there, and from what I read online, the odds get better every day. She'll probably be at the NICU for at least another month, though. My friend--hmm, she needs a pseudonym, how about Nell--called RW yesterday for advice on choosing a stand-alone freezer; apparently the in-laws want to buy them one. Nell sounded dubious about the need, and RW offered, "well, it's really useful for storing baby food." "Oh, God, baby food!" said Nell, sounding totally freaked. That must be one of the weird things about having a baby come that early: she and her partner just weren't prepared to be parents for another three months or so.

Monday morning I went to an early-morning weekday synagogue service, because another friend called and said Nell would be there and might like to see people. During the service Nell and her partner were called to the Torah, and then the rabbi said the prayer for the birth of a new baby, and all of a sudden they were announcing her name and she seemed that much more real.

I'll be calling her Little Latke here--what we called her at our house before we knew her name--due to lack of permission from the parents; somehow I don't think "Can I write about you all on my blog?" would be up there on their Favorite Voicemail Messages of the Week hit parade.

So: welcome to the world, Little Latke, you tiny scrapper, you. Another miracle for this season.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Bad Moms, Unite!

Why is it that few hours ago, at Mermaid Girl's bedtime, I was ready to pass out on the floor, but now that it is 11:30 I am awake! awake! awake!

Why is it that two of the three new blogs* I've just added to my blogroll are called, respectively, Bad Mama and Bad Mother? Does this say something about my own parenting? You think?

Here's our Bad Parenting Story of the Week:

Yesterday RW picked Mermaid Girl up from Hebrew School, and she fell asleep in the car. Perfect! Because we were getting ready for our Big Holiday Party and had no time for little niceties like taking care of our child. The Girl has been napping in the car since she was a wee thing. When she was tiny we used to actually run the baby monitor out to the car with an extension cord; now we just peek out the front window at her every minute or two. We live on a safe and fairly quiet street, and if we even crack the car window we can hear her yell when she wakes up.

Well. Usually.

So RW was checking on her between running back and forth through the house picking up the chaotic mess, and suddenly there's this pathetic knock, knock, knock at the front door, accompanied by even more pathetic wailing coming from the other side. She opens it and there is Mermaid Girl on the front porch, sobbing as if she's been left for the wild animals to eat, and across the street is a woman STARING at her with a very perturbed look on her face. As if she is right on the verge of calling CPS on whoever would leave their own child alone outside in the cold. To cry. I think she suspected that we weren't going to let the poor waif back in until she sold all her matches.

Mermaid Girl had woken up, unsnapped the seatbelt to her newly-acquired booster seat, opened the car door, and gone up to the porch, where her Atavistic Fear of Being Abandoned Outside (previously activated only when she's stalling and whining on the way from the car to the house and I say something horribly mean like "fine, you can stay out here and have a meltdown, I'm going inside where it's warm, I'll leave the door cracked open for you") kicked in with a vengeance.

She was okay after some hugs and reassurances. And gelt. And CPS hasn't come yet, for what it's worth.

I don't know why she's so scared of being abandoned. It's not like we ever...uh...leave her alone in the car, or anything.

*The third blogroll addition is a new kids' book review blog called Book Buds, which I found through the Best of Blogs (BoB) Awards Nominations. As usual I am late to the party here, but it's not too late for you all to join in, if you haven't already; BoB nominations are open through 12/24. This award is shaping up to be a truly cool blogging community builder, and I'm not just saying that because I--along with about fifty other GLBT bloggers, including some of my favorites--am nominated for one of them. (Thanks, you two; you know who you are ;-) And there are lots of other categories, too: know any good knitting blogs? Or sex blogs? Or, hmm, mom blogs? Go, nominate!

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Just Call Me Mollie*--Updated!

I updated this after cooking it today and realizing that some of the directions below were somewhat... um... misleading. Misleading, that is, if you're hoping to come out with latkes that resemble pancakes rather than very large brown potato chips. So I fixed them. Enjoy!

*Katzen, that is.

I don't usually post recipes; heck, I don't usually use recipes, these days, unless "Open box. Remove plastic wrap. Cook for 20 minutes in 375-degree oven or for 4 minutes in microwave." counts as a recipe.

But in honor of tomorrow's big Chanukah/Solstice/Jul party at our house, I, like some others in the blogosphere, will be cooking latkes. Many, many latkes. In the old days, BP (Before Parenthood), we had this party every year, and my latkes became famous. I also became very crabby because I would spend the entire party in the kitchen, frying and sweating and getting coated in layers of grease, as everyone else cavorted and made cute little ornaments and played dreidel.

Finally, around the time we became parents and realized we had to get organized, I did two things:

  1. Admitted to myself that it really does take three hours to make latkes for a crowd, and timed the procedure accordingly
  2. Wrote up a recipe so I could remember how to do it again once I'd come up with a method that kept the potatoes from getting discolored.

And this is what I came up with:


Equipment needed:

  • At least two large bowls
  • Large pot with lid
  • Three or four large frying pans (nonstick preferred), or two griddles
  • Colander
  • Sharp knife
  • Wooden spoons
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Spatula
  • Grater (I like to grate the potatoes by hand, 'cause I'm nuts)
  • Food processor (for onions and potato ends, because my craziness has limits)
  • All the cookie sheets you own, plus broiling pans, old LP covers, etc.
  • Paper towels
Ingredients needed:

  • 15-18 potatoes
  • 2 large onions
  • about 1 cup of flour
  • 4 to 6 eggs
  • 1 tsp or more of salt
  • pepper to taste
  • oil for frying
  • applesauce and sour cream
Before Starting:

  • Wash all dishes
  • Run dishwasher and put dishes away
  • Dismantle all smoke alarms
  • Open window (even if it's cold outside. Trust me on this.)
To Cook:

  1. Grate onions in food processor. Set aside.
  2. Put on a big pot of water to boil.
  3. Grate potatoes into cold water.
  4. Plunge grated potatoes into boiling water and parboil for 2 to 5 minutes.
  5. Drain potatoes into colander and rinse with cold water.
  6. Mix all ingredients (except oil, applesauce, and sour cream). Use two bowls if necessary.
  7. Coat frying pans with oil and heat until a drop of water sizzles. Turn heat down to about medium.
  8. Drop batter into pans to make pancakes about three to four inches in diameter. Smoosh down with spatula.
  9. Go take a quick shower while latkes are frying, as otherwise you will just be standing around poking at them while they refuse to turn brown.
  10. Return from shower. Are latkes on stove golden brown on one side yet? No? Do some kitchen cleanup.
  11. Poke at latkes. Are they falling apart? Put a little more flour in the rest of the batter.
  12. When latkes are golden brown on one side, turn over and fry some more; it shouldn't take quite as long this time.
  13. Put some paper towels on some cookie sheets. Put cooked latkes on paper towels to drain and keep in 200-degree oven until guests arrive.
  14. Repeat steps 7-13 (without the shower) until all batter is cooked and your counters are covered with greasy latkes. (This is where you will find out whether you really dismantled all the smoke alarms.)
  15. Note: If your stove and pans are like mine, each individual latke will cook at its own unique rate, like they're always telling us about children. So you'll be kept busy from here on out pushing them around the pans, moving them from one pan to another, moving the pans around on the stove, etc. in an effort to even everything out.
  16. About half an hour before guests are due to arrive, put all cooked latkes in preheated 150-degree or "warm" stove.
  17. Shower again if necessary. Change into party clothes.
  18. Put batteries back in smoke alarms.
  19. Beam and collect compliments as guests devour latkes with applesauce and sour cream on top.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Double Chai*

Not the tea-like drink.

Today is my brother's 36th birthday. Like a dope, I didn't call: he's on the East Coast, I'm on the West, and it's tough to find a time when we're both awake and home and not trying to feed our kids dinner.

It's hard to believe my little brother's on the downward slope to 40 now, just like me. I remember walking next to my mom while she pushed his baby carriage along a path in Riverside Park, and old ladies stopping us so they could coochie-coo at him.

Today is also the day one of my best friends became a mother. Her partner gave birth this morning, three months early. There hadn't been any sign of trouble in the pregnancy before last night. Birth-mom and baby are in one of the best hospitals in the region; the baby's in the NICU on a respirator.

If you believe in prayer of any sort, to any deity or combination thereof, and feel like sending one out for this baby girl, it would be a really, really good thing.

*"Chai" [with the "ch" pronounced as in "Chanukah"] is the Hebrew word for "life." The number eighteen is spelled using the same Hebrew letters as the word "life," and 18, and multiples of 18, have come to signify life in the Jewish tradition.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Oy, Tannenbaum

I've been trying to work on the promised Interfaith Holiday Post for a while, and it's such a big subject I keep getting bogged down.

Essentially, what it comes down to is this: RW, though she has no affinity for any organized religion, feels very strongly about being Danish; her immediate family immigrated when her mom was a teenager, and she still has extended family in the Old Country.

And Danes, at least the ones she knows, are way, way, way into Jul. That's Christmas, to you non-Danes, though RW insists it's a completely different holiday from American Christmas. (She used to claim that as a child she felt just as alienated from American Christmas as I did, but she stopped saying that after a while. Can't imagine why. Maybe it was how my face kept turning puce?)

Here's how Danish Jul is a completely different holiday:
  1. It's the day before American Christmas: December 24, rather than the 25th.
  2. There's no Santa Claus; instead, there are nisse: are little elves who do your housework if you leave rice pudding for them and put straw in your shoes if you don't. (Won't it be great if that one works someday! You know we're right there every year with the rice pudding.)
  3. No stockings, either.
  4. The youngest child hands out the presents in the evening.
  5. There's this ritual with rice pudding (more rice pudding!) at dinner, in which one person has an almond in theirs and gets a special prize. Though I read about a similar Christmas ritual when I was a kid, in a Natalie Savage Carlson story about a French orphanage, so it might not be as purely Danish as RW claims.
  6. You make little woven paper hearts and hang them on the tree and stuff them with candy. There's a jaunty little Danish Christmas Jul song referring to this custom, whose lyrics translate roughly as "First it shall be shown, and then it shall be eaten."
  7. There are candles on the tree instead of electric lights.

RW feels passionately about the deeper spiritual and historical ways in which Jul diverges from Xmas-as-most-of-us-know-it, and wishes me to note that the extent and significance of those divergences remain a source of contention between the two of us. And so it is noted, and indeed it is true.

HOWEVER, the Big Problem for us doesn't lie in the question of whether Jul is essentially Christian or Pagan, but in one troublesome four letter word.

I'm referring to the T-R-E-E.

Now, I actually love Christmas; when I was a kid we celebrated at a family friend's house and did the whole shebang: trees, presents, stockings hung up, special dinner, etc. etc. I also grew up with the notion firmly pounded into me that JEWS DON'T HAVE CHRISTMAS TREES IN THEIR HOUSES. Jewish kids, in particular, don't have Christmas trees in their houses. My family was far from religiously observant, but we never, ever would have even considered it. A Christmas tree was to us the big symbol that you'd gone over to the other side, assimilated completely, given up your Jewish Identity Card.

When RW was pregnant and we agreed to raise the baby Jewish, the C-word (or J-word, if you prefer) inevitably came up. I was okay with the nisse. I had no problem with the presents from various relatives (hey, presents, who could object to presents?). I could even live with the advent calendar that RW's mom sends every year (she's even more virulently anti-organized-religion than RW, so it's guaranteed no manger scenes).

If we could just do a standing Christmas in Wyoming with the in-laws, I'd have been totally happy to admire the tree with its candles and woven paper hearts and homemade ornaments going back to RW's childhood.

But we can't, for various complex reasons having to do with airfares and driving across mountain passes, not to mention our plethora of other relatives. Besides, RW took a dim view of being categorically forbidden this important symbol of Danish identity in her very own home.

So: the Tree.

It was a sticking point, if not a deal-breaker, for most of the rabbis we spoke with about sponsoring an infant conversion, which I felt was necessary so that other people besides us and our nonreligious friends would recognize our child as part of the Jewish community. I felt like I had to bring up the Tree Question, because what's the point of fudging your way through a discussion about religion? One said, Absolutely Not; two looked very uncomfortable and said, Try to Play it Down.

The fourth one was the rabbi at one of the big congregations around here. I knew of him and was kind of intimidated, but everyone else I talked with kept telling me to talk to him, so eventually we made an appointment--for RW's due date, no less--and went.

He was great, after he got over the misapprehension that it was RW who wanted to convert (his eyes kind of bugged out when he saw how pregnant she was). We talked for about an hour, with both of us waxing eloquent about my commitment to Judaism, RW's support for the tradition and culture even though she didn't want to officially join it, the lengthy and thoughtful process that had brought us to this decision, etc. Very high-minded and spiritual. He said we'd have to join a synagogue--not necessarily his--and promise that the child would have a Jewish education. No problem; we'd been planning to do those things anyway. He went over a few logistics, told us to phone to follow up a few months after the baby was born, wished us well, and we stood up to leave.

I turned around in the doorway; as I remember it, I had one hand on the doorknob. "There's just one more thing..." I said, and continued in a semi-coherent rush, talking as fast as possible about trees and Denmark and candles not electric lights and RW's mom's anti-Christianity and also incidentally her grandparents' heroic rescue of Jews in the Danish Resistance.

When I stopped--I think I'd run out of breath--he said, very calmly, the following astonishing (to me) thing: "Well, of course it's not ideal, but not celebrating Christmas is not the most important thing about being Jewish."

I resumed breathing. He expounded a bit on the importance of a rich Jewish experience all year round, and I think also about placing That Holiday in a culturally Danish context. I don't know exactly what he said, it's hard to remember, I was just so relieved. I gabbled profuse thanks and more promises, and we fled before he changed his mind.

So, the years when we're here over the December holidays, we have a tree. A small one. RW digs through her box of homemade ornaments and weaves a few fresh paper hearts. We light the candles and turn out the lights and admire the soft glow (and keep a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher nearby). Mermaid Girl and RW open up the little windows on the Advent calendar each morning. And we excitedly await the Nisse's repayment for the rice pudding we'll be leaving them. This year RW took the Girl to the Jul Celebration at the Scandanavian Cultural Center in Ballard, and she came home with a little paper Santa Lucia crown of her very own.

And we celebrate every Jewish holiday we can dredge up, and have long bedtime discussions about God (who I'm not even sure I believe in), and sing Mermaid Girl the Shema every night. Her Israeli grandma sends her books in Hebrew. We light candles and bless wine and challah on Fridays and even go to services on the occasional Saturday morning. And starting this year, she goes to Hebrew school, and comes home on Sunday afternoons bearing hand-decorated challah covers and Havdalah spice boxes, and singing cheerfully mangled versions of the songs I remember from my own childhood.

I dearly hope that Mermaid Girl grows up to consider herself Jewish, or at least with fond memories of her Jewish upbringing. But if she doesn't, I don't think one tree, once a year, will be the reason. Unless I make it the reason, and I continue to struggle not to.

And that's how we handle the December holidays: imperfectly, with a lot of negotiation and some fairly repetitive arguing. And presents from enthusiastic and loving relatives. And, last Sunday, a marathon shuttle across town from the synagogue to the Scandanavian Center to an evening performance of the Nutcracker. And, next Sunday, our quasi-annual Holiday Party with latkes, dreidels, gelt, menorah-lighting, tree-lighting and paper-heart-weaving.

And the baggage of two tradition-laden heritages.

And many candles to light the darkness.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Come Light the Menorah

We celebrated the first night of Chanukah tonight with the traditional candles, latkes and applesauce (thank you Trader Joe's), the gelt that saved a 4-year-old girl from apostacy, and a ceremonial reading of the funniest Chanukah picture book known to humanity.

More coming later, but tonight it's time for bed.

Happy Season of Lights, all.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Now I'm One of the Cool Kids

because my mom gave me a gmail invitation! Thanks, Mom!

Now, about those car keys next Saturday night...

The rest of you, come say hi at e l s w h e r e a t g m a i l d o t c o m .

P.S. watch out for the weird way "elswhere" is spelled. It's on purpose, long story.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

My Biggest Fan

Some months ago I installed a statcounter on this blog, so I could see exactly how few many people were reading it each day. It was free, and easy to install, and even included the option of blocking my IP address from the count so I don't inflate my own stats every time I check my blog.

At first, things were pretty slow, with visitors in the single digits, but gradually more readers landed here, and I had the pleasure of seeing the little graph nudging upward every day. Sometimes when I was feeling depressed, I'd cruise BlogExplosion for a while and then check my stats. Even though I knew most of my BE hits were totally meaningless, it was still a thrill to see the line spike up.

Then, a few weeks ago, I started getting a ton of hits. My total readership didn't go up much, but one particular IP address in New Jersey was hitting my site dozens of times a day, with visits that lasted for hours and hours. "How nice," I thought. "An anonymous fan."

Day after day, the hits continued, always from the same IP address. Whoever it was didn't appear to be commenting, just reading. A lot. I began to get a little creeped out (didn't this person have a life?), but also kind of thrilled that I was racking up so many hits.

This afternoon, after posting the most recent entry below, I checked in on my statcounter. There was my New Jersey friend, on my site for hours, as usual. In fact, my fan appeared to be reading my site as fast as I was writing it. There was a hit on the earlier post I'd just linked to... and the Archives page I'd looked through to find that post... hmm...that was weird: my fan appeared to have viewed those pages even before I'd posted the link.

I looked more closely at the times of each hit. There were a bunch this morning, but they stopped right around the time...oh... right around the time I turned off the computer so I could take Mermaid Girl to Hebrew school. Then they picked up again just after I got back.

I smacked my forehead as the humiliating truth dawned: D'oh! My online stalker, the fan responsible for jacking up my stat counts, was... me! RW manages our online connections, and our ISP has apparently changed IP addresses and now lives in New Jersey. All those hits, hundreds of them-- they were all me!

At least now I know who my core readership is ;-)

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Schoolishness: the Sequel

Wow. Thanks for the thoughtful (if sometimes freaked-out) comments, links, and glowing referrals (Angela, can you write Mermaid Girl's college recommendation in 12 years? We can say you're guidance counselor. Yeah, that's it.)

We're pretty set on public school for Mermaid Girl, due to being genteelly broke, and not wanting to quit the jobs we love in order to homeschool, and, oh yeah, our deep-seated commitment to public education. Seriously, Mermaid Girl is a pretty solid kid, much more socially savvy than either of us ever were, a social butterfly in fact, and bright enough without being so scarily gifted that she'll throw the average classroom out of whack. Our girl gets so much doting one-on-one attention from her adoring moms (when we're not ignoring her in favor of our respective laptops) that honestly I think she could do with a little rough-and-tumble, and, as Angela wrote in her lovely comment on my last post, some exposure to different kinds of kids.

As long as it's not too rough. And the teachers aren't mean. And it's not all dumb workbook sheets. And the other kids don't form a clique and leave her out. And...WAAAH! My tiny sweet baby's gonna go to a huge impersonal institution and spend her day waiting in lines and sitting quietly and being bored and get beat up by 5th graders who will take her lunch money!

For those of you (hi mom!) who wonder why we are so anxious when the schools are all pretty decent, please note the contradictions inherent in the above two paragraphs.

Many of the other parents at Mermaid Girl's preschool feel the same way, so we had an evening meeting last Tuesday to share what we knew, and invited some parents of graduates who are now in kindergarten or first grade, all in public schools as it turned out.

Mermaid Girl's classmates tend to be the kids of teachers and social workers and vaguely lefty and/or artistic sorts, as befits the unstructured, quirky nature of her school. It's also a day care center, and a lot of the kids, including ours, have been there since they were babies; there's a really nice feeling of community.

We all went around the room and said what we were interested in learning from the alumnae parents (or, as someone put it, "those of you who have passed over to the other side"). People wanted to know about negotiating the byzantine application/registration process, and music and art at various schools, and how they'd decided which school was the best fit for their kid's personality, and good, thoughtful (there's that word again!) questions like that.

No one asked about test scores, partly I think because we can get that info off the school system's website, and partly because there was general understanding that test scores mostly correlate with parental income. While really low test scores can be a red flag because they indicate that everyone's energies will be spent getting most of the kids up to grade-level, high test scores usually just mean it's a school with lots of professional, achievement-oriented parents, not necessarily with great teachers or programs.

Whew! [/rant]. Where was I... oh, right, questions. So when it was my turn, I said, "I want gossip. I want to know which great principal is retiring next year, and which school has one good kindergarten teacher and one bad kindergarten teacher and how you can get your kid the good one, and what the parents say in the parking lot. I want the dirt." Everyone sort of laughed but I was dead serious. I know from my job that that stuff is what makes or breaks a school; it can be destructive, but it can also go a long way towards telling you the real story. And you sure don't get it from the website or the tours.

I got it at that meeting. And mostly it was reassuring: everyone had good--but not PR-like--things to say about the schools their kids go to, and about other schools their neighbors go to (including our Reference Area School of the mediocre reputation), and helpful tips for getting through the process and about what to look for and ask on the tours, and stuff like that.

They also said the stay-at-home-mom volunteers pretty much run the places, and that they'd had to get over another level of guilt and defensiveness after some years of being comfortable members of our preschool/day-care community, and that if you work full-time (which most of us do) you'll almost never see your child's teacher, but there are lots of great after-school programs and teachers are responsive to e-mail.

The best part was that the meeting was at someone's house. Everyone brought food. The dad even broke out some wine. The kids were at a couple other houses where we'd pooled to hire some teachers for childcare, or else home with the other parent. There was a festive, relaxed air about the whole thing that I don't think would have been there if we'd been sitting in the tiny chairs at the preschool with our kids rampaging in the next room.

And if had been an official school event, someone from the school would have been there, as well as the Parent Educator who most of us can't stand, and I don't think the gossip would have flowed quite so freely. And I am all about the gossip.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Bored by school talk? Don't read this.

I don't think I've mentioned this much on the blog, but RW and I are both completely obsessed with kindergarten.

Kindergarten! Next year! For our little baby! And because she has an August birthday, she'll almost certainly be the youngest in her class. Somehow that makes me extra panicky.

In our city we have school choice, which is a special bonus for neurotics like us, providing us with lots of extra obsessing material. We even started going on school tours last year so that we could get a head start on freaking out about HOW MANY OTHER PEOPLE WANT THEIR KID TO GO TO THE SAME SCHOOL WE WANT AND HOW HARD IT IS TO GET IN OHMIGOD! etc.

Without going into nauseating detail, the whole deal basically works like this:

1) You take lots of time off work and tour a bunch of schools and/or go to Open Houses in January in February.
2) You fill out an exhaustive, zillion-page application, including several dozen proofs of residence, and list the schools you want in order of preference.
3) You wait for the Gods of the School District to work out their complex lottery and ranking system and tell you which school your child got into.
4) If you hate the school, or think the school district made a mistake (like someone I know whose second child was denied entrance into the school her older brother went to, even though there's supposed to be sibling preference, because someone forgot to key it in), you embark on an apparently hellacious appeals process.
5) You try to line up Before-and-After-School Care, either on the school grounds or somewhere else.

It's sort of like applying to college: you're advised to list at least five or six choices. You get preference (and school bus transportation) within your "cluster," which is a large-ish geographical chunk of the city with 6-10 elementary schools in it. You also have a "reference area school," basically your neighborhood school, to which I think your kid is guaranteed entry. Though I'm not too sure of that because I've heard rumors of kids in other clusters being bumped out of their Reference Area School and sent to the Scary School No One Wants Their Kid to Go To at the other end of their cluster.

But all the schools in our cluster seem to be at least decent. The one with the "worst" reputation is actually... our Reference Area School! Though I have a sneaky affection for it, on account of it's in a nice old homey building, and is just a few blocks away, and the 4th grader down the street goes there and could walk our girl to school. It also has the most Ethnic Diversity of the schools in our overwhelmingly white--not just white, but Scandanavian-- area of town. Until recently it was the magnet school for homeless kids: wherever they moved, all over the city, they went to that school so they could have some consistency. And because most people aren't clamoring to get their kids in, class sizes are smaller than the average.

So I really wanted to like it. Then I went on a tour last year and was underwhelmed. The principal and librarian struck me as pleasant, but unimaginative and hidebound. The place felt uncomfortably stretched for resources. Everyone seemed very focused on getting kids Up To Speed on reading and basic school skills. And I know that's important. And it's not like I want my kid to be constantly entertained and challenged, or like I think she's some kind of genius. I don't. But with two librarian parents, she's already pretty literary, and if all the attention is going to just getting kids up to grade level, she'll probably be bored and get cocky and obnoxious. (Just what the world needs: Mermaid Girl with an even more inflated self-image than she already has.)

Then there's the Groovy Alternative School that's also in our cluster: they do multi-age groupings, and innovative arts programs, and project-based learning, and it's a K-8 school so we wouldn't have to go through all this craziness again in 5th grade, and yada yada yada everyone we know wants to get their kid in there, including us. We hear it's about 50-50 whether you get in. I went on the tour there last year and boy was I glad it was last year and not this year because there were a TON of parents there. It seemed like about a hundred. For just one tour out of the eight or nine they ran over the winter! Whenever I started to hyperventilate I'd look at all the parents and remind myself "these people aren't our competition. Next year's people are our competition."

Aside from the Reference Area School and the Groovy Alternative School (let's call them RAS and GAS), there are two or three other neighborhood schools we've heard good things about, and one that runs a Montessori program, and another alternative school that's clear across town. They're all... pretty good. Not as much arts as we'd like, bigger class sizes than we'd like, but basically okay schools.

So of course this choice thing is driving us completely insane, because how do we choose which schools to list first? And no matter how we choose, and how much research we do, and how much we pore over the district web site and press our friends and neighbors for gossip and read PTA minutes and make lists of questions to ask and qualities that are important to us, it's almost totally the luck of the draw where Mermaid Girl ends up going, and whether she gets a teacher she loves or even clicks with, and what friends she'll find, the friends who are going to be her companions in the long passage from the tail end of toddlerhood to the cusp of adolescence. It seems like such a huge decision, all dependent on pure chance and a lottery number and whether her parents took a fancy to the school with the cool mural or the school that's near the zoo.

Aside from which, we might be moving to Canada in a couple of years. Then we could do it all again!