What An Ice “Storm” Reminded Me About Family

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Photo by Lina, via Flickr

Photo by Lina, via Flickr

This past Friday, it rained some trace amount that couldn’t be measured, and my entire city went berserk.

All weekend, the weather, the accidents, and how long it took to get home were the only topics of conversation. Hours. We spent hours talking about it.

It caught everybody off guard. See, it was supposed to warm up Friday afternoon and melt everything before school let out, but it didn’t. So as the day went on the chorus of “oh crap, the world is a sheet of ice!” grew steadily more pervasive until all else in my Facebook feed disappeared entirely. Teachers and administrators stayed at schools until seven, eight, nine at night, waiting for busses to arrive. One principal got on the last bus of the night, to make sure the kids got home safely. Some kids didn’t make it home until one in the morning. Around town, busses were crashing into mailboxes and Jeeps. Cars were crashing into each other. A pileup shut down the interstate, and in town a drive of twenty minutes took three hours. I heard that Carl Edwards brought out his tractor and started pulling people out of ditches, trying to clear the road so people could get home.

I was supposed to have carpool duty on Friday. But the other mother was already on that side of town, and she said, “It doesn’t make sense for us both to be out. Do you mind if I pick up your kids early?” I opened up Google maps and ran the routes for her to figure out the best path home.

I didn’t know Google maps had a “burgundy.” But there it was, interspersed with bright red, right along the route from school to home.

It took them well over an hour to make a drive that usually takes 8 minutes. And then we began waiting for Julianna’s bus.

And we waited…and waited…and waited.

An hour after dismissal time, I managed to get hold of to the school. Only one bus had arrived yet. “Oh!” I said. “I’ll come over and get Julianna, then.” I mean, it’s only about a mile and a quarter from our house.

Well…a mile and a quarter that includes a steep dip into a ravine and back up the far side. We live at the bottom of a much more gradual hill, and by the time the van and I had slipped and slid past about six houses, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

I went back home and called the school back.

Between then and 5:45, when Julianna got home, I spent a lot of time fretting and anxious. It’s bad enough to have your kids caught out in bad weather. It’s worse when you aren’t with them and you realize you have absolutely zero control over their safety.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to leave me alone. I can’t work when it’s noisy. I can’t think. And this year, with Michael home in the mornings and bored out of his ever-loving skull, I am really, really short on work time. I dream of the day they all go to school all day.

And yet every so often…like, when my daughter’s safety is outside my control…I find myself imagining a world in which they don’t exist at all. A world in which I am alone—a situation one of my short story characters found herself in. (As a matter of fact, it’s the situation faced by my newest novel character, too.)

Whenever I contemplate this world, I think of the freedom I would have, the luxury of spending as much time devoted to work as I wanted, the ability to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted—and I shudder. I shudder deeply and shut my brain off, because the emptiness of that world is more than I can bear to think about. What would be the point of all that freedom and potential for productivity, if I didn’t have this gang of destructicons? Even an introvert draws her strength from the presence of those she loves.

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A good realization to ponder on the cusp of Christmas break.

Of Turkey Legs, Dancing Waters, And the Conflict In My Conscience

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Bellagio Fountains, Las Vegas. Photo by ohitzanna, via Flickr

I woke up in the middle of the night from a deeply disturbing dream about turkey legs. Not the kind of turkey leg you find on your Thanksgiving turkey, but those big honkers you get at carnivals and Renaissance fairs, deep fried. I’ve never had one, but for some reason the image of people wandering around gnawing on those mammoth things always sticks out to me. Probably because I’m wondering how they can eat the whole thing. And then I see the half-eaten remains sitting on an abandoned plate, or collecting flies in a trash can, or thrown away because it fell on the ground, and I think of everyone in the world who would eat it anyway, because they don’t have the luxury of throwing things away because they fell on the floor or they happen to be found in a trash can with flies on them.

 

I really struggle with the luxury that defines western life. On the one hand, all created things are good if used rightly, and I love, love, love good food, beautiful music, a good story, movies, and beautifully-decorated places. Atmosphere, food, trips to beautiful and exciting locations—these are things that enrich and elevate the soul. And frozen custard. Don’t forget frozen custard. And brownies. Dark chocolate. Lots of dark chocolate. A good steak, an easy-drinking glass of wine, and really good bread, flash-fried in oil and exploding in your mouth…

Ahem.

And yet I struggle so much with the abject, soul-crushing lack that defines existence in so many other parts of the world–and sometimes even here, hidden beneath our very noses. So many people live with virtually nothing, and here am I, as skimpy and miserly as I am, still living in ridiculous luxury, and complaining because my kids break things.

I remember an exchange between an uncle and a cousin, an exchange that has defined an awful lot of my world view, both in general and about parenting. It was about this village in some other part of the world that my cousin (I think) had visited—Africa, maybe? I can’t remember now. Anyway, in this village, the two parts of town were separated by an abandoned, but still live, mine field. People knew the safe path through that mine field, even the small children, and they stuck to it. My uncle couldn’t understand why they didn’t just chuck rocks into it until they blew up all the mines. My cousin said there was no need. Kids were capable of learning much more than we in the west gave them credit for.

It’s such a different approach to life, it’s almost unimaginable. We live in a crazy clutter because we have so much, and yet we constantly envy those who have more. Me, my kids, you, your spouses—all of us. I, for example, tend to consider it an act of virtue to keep using an iPad 2 instead of replacing it. Gasp! It is almost SIX YEARS OLD!

And then I think of those people in that village in Wherever, Third World, with their mine field, and I think…oh, man. Does anyone actually need an iPad at all? Can I possibly justify upgrading when so many people are slowly starving to death? Isn’t it all just “chasing after the wind,” from the concerts and movie passes right down to the books I am working so hard to get published?

I often think we just spend too damn much money on too damn much stuff that doesn’t matter. Pardon my language. Dancing fountains in the middle of the desert. I mean, really?

And yet, if people didn’t spend so much money and buy so many things, wouldn’t our economy collapse and we, too, would be struggling for survival?

I suppose this is what Jesus meant when he said “the poor you will always have with you.”

Some people are called to eschew luxury and even much of what would be considered necessities, to wear clothes that are still perfectly good although they went out of fashion a decade or two ago, to eat very little and do without almost everything by choice, in solidarity with the poor. I often wonder if I am called to that and am just too in love with luxury to be willing to do it. Where is the line between planning for a safe future and hoarding what belongs, by Christian duty, to the poor? Is there any virtue in miserliness if I don’t funnel much of what I save into helping those who have nothing?

These are the questions that cause me to live my life in an unending tug of war. I would love to know that I’m not alone, to know how others have found peace amid questions of have, have not, and Christian discipleship.

No Easy Answers

A Random Sampling of the Wanton Destruction Unleashed by Boys

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Kids make messes. They destroy things. I know this. I’ve been around the parenting block a few times now.

But sometimes, when I look around my house, I still don’t understand the sheer destructive power.

How, for instance, is it possible to crack a countertop using only a TOOTHBRUSH?

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How can the need to move fast and hard be so overwhelming that you RIP THE FRONT OFF A DRAWER?

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Why is there this inborn need to bang forks on the table, leaving hundreds of dents in the extremely high-quality oak table we invested in to accommodate large gatherings?

Why is it that after being told sixty-five times, “Put your shoes in the cubbies!” and getting in trouble seventy-three more because you can’t find the shoes you *didn’t put in the cubbies, you STILL TAKE THEM OFF AND DROP THEM WHEREVER YOU ARE?

And what in the name of all that is holy is the deal with ripping holes in knees??????????

(Why, yes, in fact I do consider the multiple punctuation justified.)

Bleach spots on the wall!

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Sharpie on the kitchen table!

Marker on my computer chair!

Marker on the basement carpet!

Paint on the basement carpet!

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DVDs snapped in half! (Have you ever *tried to break a DVD? It’s next to impossible!

Chips in the piano keys!

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Drumsticks. That’s how.

Pee everywhere EXCEPT in the toilet bowl!

Clothing that has a food stain on it five minutes—literally—after it gets put on the body!

The same food smudge across the right cheek that has been there for FOUR YEARS!

Yeah. What dirt.

Yeah. What dirt.

I do not understand this. I know I’m a girl and all, and that I grew up in a house full of girls, but we were not particularly girly girls. I mean, we played on tractors and jumped off hay bales, and we *still didn’t get as dirty and break as many things as my boys do on a regular basis.

Most of the time I am pretty philosophical about it all, but every once in a while it occurs to me that it would be nice to have a house that looked, you know…nice. And it’s an almost daily occurrence for me to send my kids out into the world with a mental groan, thinking of all those parents who manage to get their kids to school with their backpacks neat, their clothes intact, and no black jelly smudges across their right cheek.

It must be my fault, because I’m the mom. And I routinely (read that: virtually always) forget the a) canned good for charity, b) dress-down day, c) stuffed animal for school reward day, d) pajama day.

But I am not, nor do I have any interest in being, a helicopter parent. I’m pretty sure when I was a kid, I was expected to be on top of my own special-dress days. And of course, we didn’t have things like stuffed animal parties and pajama days at all.

And so I continue to navigate an uneasy truce between taking care of my kids and expecting them to take responsibility for themselves.

Besides, I figure I can always pull the “I have kids in three different schools” card. And I do so without apology. Regularly.

In Which I See My Daughter Changing

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She couldn’t do this even six months ago. I’d given up hope of her ever learning.

Julianna has been changing lately. It started a year or so ago, when we realized she had lost that wispy, delicate feel. She’s still tiny and I can still pick her up and carry her, but it’s no longer easy. She feels solid now, rather than fragile, her physical frame finally catching up with her indomitable spirit.

But the change is more than physical. This school year, she can participate in table discussions about what she did at school today. For the first time, we can trust her to remember and be able to tell us what special they had and a little bit about what they did in it. We’re no longer hearing about fire drills every night, whether they had one or not. She’s beginning to develop a more complex interaction with the world, and it shows in what she’s able to process in her school work. She can get on the computer now and navigate independently…at least, enough to get to Sofia the First.

She’s still very far behind, of course. Even in reading, her classmates have finally overtaken her, because her ability to process and retell what she’s reading still lags far behind her ability to decode words—which, truthfully, has always been a little astonishing. And her teachers (bless them!) set a goal of her doing her homework independently, which means when she gets on her math app she is working on the kindergarten level. She’s a little over halfway through it. And she’s in the third grade.

All the cognitive changes were gratifying…or perhaps I should say satisfying…until I realized her deviousness has taken a flying leap to match. Remember how, a year ago, when we were talking about going to confession, we couldn’t come up with anything she needed to confess? Because she didn’t really sin?

We don’t have that problem anymore.

She’s selectively deaf. She is not above telling a blatant falsehood in order to get what she wants, and she is very good at recognizing how to play a busy mom. To wit: last week we were sitting at piano lessons. Tuesdays are not “movie days” in our house, but she does her homework on the iPad. I was very specific: “ST Math and MyOn only. Do you understand?” Yes, she understood. She sat on the other couch working, while I worked on my computer and listened to the boys’ lessons. My mother’s instinct started blinking when she got quiet, got up and headed for the stairwell…and closed the door. It took a minute or two for my conscious brain to catch up. I realized she had gone out into the stairwell to watch Netflix. She figured I was too preoccupied to notice.

Devious, I tell you. We have had to have conversations about dishonesty and disobedience lately.

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Some things, of course, never change. I can just imagine how this went. I have never told dentist stories on the blog, but virtually everyone who knows me in real life has heard about the drama associated with those visits.

Her hold on her fan club is less secure, too. We still have those moments—like the day we went for parent-teacher conference, and Julianna was crying, “Oh, hi, girl!” to a little kindergartener—maybe first grader—who was waiting in the hallway. “Wha-wha-wha—whass your name? My name—is—Julianna!” (It comes out Dzuuy—ANNA, which causes almost everyone to repeat, “Anna?”). This girl got a strange little smile on her face. “I know who you are,” she said.

Yup, that’s my girl.

But kids are starting to be more cognizant of her differences and, if not judgmental, at least less tolerant of them. I noticed it first among the kids at church and even the extended family—a look on the face, a stiffness in accepting hugs, and so on. And just as I began shaking my head at the fact that the Catholic kids were being less Christlike than the public school kids, I got a contact from school asking us to come and talk to the class about Down syndrome, because a handful of kids are starting to say…well, I don’t know exactly what, because it was left intentionally vague. And that’s okay. Better not to know.

So, as I’ve said before, things, they are a-changing. All change brings with it good and bad. We process, we adjust, we reset, and we go on.

Such is the life of Julianna, a little under two months shy of hitting her double digits.

I. Hate. Waiting.

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Cover artI had this blinding revelation a couple of days ago: I loathe waiting. Waiting in lines, waiting in doctors’ offices, waiting for people who are habitually late, waiting for a check, waiting for my star to ignite.

I keep paper and a pen in my coat pocket so if I get stuck in line at Aldi, I can brainstorm songs or problem solve plot and character motivation. (Although it mostly just lives there, because lately I’m doing all my grocery shopping with a preschooler, and when a preschooler is crawling under the cart and running up and down the aisles pretending to be Superman, you just can’t retreat into your head. Recently I went to a consignment store and tried on some clothes, and the clerk asked me if I wanted the big room so I could bring Michael in with me, or if I wanted him to wait outside. She thought he might run off if he stayed outside. I said, “I’m more worried about your store.” But I digress.) I take my computer almost everywhere, because I live in dread of having to wait fifteen minutes with nothing at all to do. Because, you know, no smart phone. Besides, writing is a much better use of time.

But this year in particular, waiting is really sticking in my craw. Which is ironic, given that I wrote a whole book about how great an experience the waiting associated with Advent can be. And also ironic, given that I consider self-discipline and delayed self-gratification some of my strongest personality traits.

I don’t like feeling helpless. I don’t like wondering why, when I work so hard, certain goals seem so very elusive. I don’t like frustration—and there is a lot of frustration in waiting. Especially open-ended waiting. The kind experienced by writers in the querying process, for instance. And oh, the second-guessing. The reading into the silence. The internal conflict when your friends’ numbers come up and they get called out of this purgatory, and you’re still stuck here.

I try to pray my way through it, to see it as an answer to a different prayer—“Lord, help me to be humble.” Because waiting definitely humbles a soul. It’s a reminder that an awful lot of things are completely outside my control. That truism about “work as if it all depends on you, but pray as if it all depends on God” got its popularity fair and square.

I try to be philosophical, in other words—but sometimes it’s so hard. I keep thinking, as hard as I work, certain things should have happened by now—unless I’m doing something wrong. And then I wrap myself in knots, trying to figure out what that “something” is.

There is no solution to this conundrum. Sometimes you really have no choice but to wait…and wait…and wait. Sometimes I am able to be reasonably peaceful about it. More often, my brain clings fast to the frustration and gnaws on it in the background of everything I’m doing. But I can at least appreciate, if not always find comfort, in seeing the spiritual connection between my ordinary life and the spiritual season I’m walking through, as we embark upon this second week of Advent.

How To Have A Family Game Night WITHOUT Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or Chutes And Ladders

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Better a day late than never. Sometimes even a blogger forgets her Thursday morning job…so here we are, on Friday morning. And as promised, I have some games to share with you today.

Photo by Crosswinds Community, via Flickr

Photo by Crosswinds Community, via Flickr

For years, we heard people extol the virtues of Family Game Night. And in theory, we agreed. There’s too much staring at screens, too much exposure to loud, obnoxious commercials. Plus, games exercise the brain in any number of ways, and you can sneak in important lessons about planning and strategizing.

But the idea of playing one more game of Chutes and Ladders made me want to whimper, and Monopoly? I mean, we all know how long it takes to play that. That’s not family game “night,” it’s family game “month.”

Plus, how do you play games together when you have both preschoolers and preteens?

Fortunately, one of our extended family members loves games, and she introduced us to quite a few that we would never have tried otherwise. We’ve also done some trial and error, so here you go: the Basi Family’s recommendations for Family Game Night:

Games That Work With Little Ones

1. Yahtzee. Kids love to roll dice, no matter what age they are. And parents can help guide the kids through their choices. Plus, you can play “teams” with the littlest ones, whose job is to roll your dice for you.

2. Tell Tale. This game consists of two-sided round cards with nothing but images on them. There are many ways to play, but basically you build a story one person at a time, based on the images. This can be hysterically funny. We have always just used it as a storytelling game, never a competitive one.

3. Spot It: another “round card” game, which is harder than it seems. Everyone receives a card with a number of different small pictures on it. Another one card is turned face up in the middle. There is always one, and only one, overlap between the pictures on your card and those on the card in the middle. Whoever “spots it” first wins that card and thus the round.

4. Disney’s Eye Spy. The goal is to get everyone from the bottom to the top of the board before the clock reaches midnight. You get to search the intricate worlds of Aladdin, Pooh, Little Mermaid, and Pirates of the Caribbean for items—the more you find, the faster you move. But if you spin a “clock,” the clock moves ahead.

Cooperative Games

Sometimes the most daunting thing about game night is teaching everyone to lose (or win) gracefully. One of the greatest things we’ve discovered recently is cooperative games. Like Eye Spy, the idea is everyone wins or no one does, and thus you work together. This lets you teach strategy, because you’re all discussing what to do and why. Here are a couple we enjoy:

5. Flash Point. The “house” (a game board) is on fire, and there are people in different rooms who need to be rescued. But everybody only gets so many actions per turn, so everyone plans who’s going to do what in order to rescue enough people before the house collapses.

6. Forbidden Island. The island, home to four treasures, is sinking, and different tiles are constantly being flooded, shored up, or lost altogether. You never know when the waters are going to rise, so everyone has to work together to figure out how to retrieve the treasures and get everyone off the island.

The “as long as I can be competitive I don’t mind losing” games

I don’t like playing chess, because I’m so bad at it, it isn’t enjoyable. But there are games where the mental challenge, or winning a single round, can be so satisfying that it doesn’t sting if you don’t actually win the game.

7. Blueprints. You build a structure out of 6 dice, everyone pulling from the same pool in the middle of the game area. Different dice are scored differently—some based on the face, others by how many of one color you use, and so on. You earn one kind of bonus for building the structure exactly as your blueprint directs, but sometimes you can get a higher point total by playing to the scoring parameters of the different die colors. We played it straight a few times to learn the scoring rules, but now it’s a stimulating mental challenge to figure out how to win, not just the round, but the prize cards that eventually determine the overall winner. Blueprints says it’s for 8 and up, but Nicholas, who is 7 1/2, is holding his own on this one.

8 (bonus 1) Monsters and Maidens. We had to play a couple times to get comfortable with the rules, but this turns out to be a fun, low-strategy, dice-based game in which “knights” try to “rescue” a given number of “maidens” from the “monsters.” I know, it’s not politically correct. So sue me. It’s fun.

9 (bonus 2): Ten Days In the USA. Build an itinerary for yourself according to specific rules about linking states of different colors. Actually, it’s perhaps disingenuous to put this in the category of games you don’t mind losing, because I happen to be very good at this game. I haven’t lost yet. 🙂

A lot of games—like #s 4, 6 and 7 on this list—have a basic set of rules, and a “more complex” set. This gives them more flexibility to be played with older vs. younger players. They’re a lot more fun with the more complex rules, but you start out with the basic rules while everybody learns the rules of the world.

These are just a few of the games we’ve explored as a family. There are many, many more. This Christmas, do some exploring and get yourselves some games to make Family Game Night a fun reality for your family. You won’t be sorry.

What games do you enjoy playing as a family?

Of Christmas Decs, My Witty Husband, and Impossible Christmas Lists

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My husband likes white lights. I grew up turning up my nose at white lights and in love with the gingerbread house look, but for the first sixteen Christmases, he prevailed. This year, though, the kids asked for colors, and he gave in.

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As close as you’re going to get to a gingerbread house with a roof pitch this steep and a 3-story drop in the back.

Christian rethought our entire schematic for Christmas decorations this year. After all, things are very different in our house this Christmas. Not just colored lights. For the first time in almost ten years, we are using our gas fireplace. For most of those years, the gas valve has been shut off and the vents stuffed with as many plastic shopping and trash bags as we could possibly stuff in, a (failed) attempt to block the draft. Why did we have to go through this? Because some genius builder thought it would be a good idea to put the on-off switch 2 1/2 feet off the floor —at eye level for little ones with an obsession with flipping switches. (Do builders not have kids? Sometimes, looking around this house, I just have to wonder.)

Michael Mayhem turns 5 this week, so we decided to pull the fireplace out of mothballs. But of course, this means there are hot spots in the living room now, so Christian re-envisioned our entire Christmas setup, and came up with a way to use a few of the baubles we’ve accumulated over the years.

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Simple as it is, when he was finished, it stopped me in my tracks. I stared at it and went, “Wow, honey…that looks…really, really good.”

“I can do these things,” he said modestly.

“It would…not have looked that good if I’d done it,” I said.

Christian rolled his eyes. “I know,” he said. “That’s why our house looks the way it does.”

I threw up my hands. “But you know what?” I said. “I may not be artistic with a house, but darn it, I CAN COOK!”

We’re feeling anxious to finish up the Christmas shopping, so we had the kids write letters to Santa tonight. Christian’s reaction:

santa-letters

Then, of course, there was Julianna’s letter:

julianna-letter

In case you didn’t catch that, she wants a trampoline, a snowman (a real one; I asked), to learn to do a star gazer spin (it took a while to pry this explanation out of her), and snow. As in, white stuff falling from the sky.

Envision Santa beating her head on the computer desk right now. Santa’s feeling grateful that all evidence to the contrary, Miss Julianna actually isn’t all that picky, and that she will love, love, loves boots with fringes. Because that whole snow thing? Santa’s magic ain’t that good, folks.

Later this week I’m going to share some really good games for Family Game Night that we’ve discovered in the past year. Stay tuned!