Sunday, February 28, 2010

Things and non-things

All the awesome things I accomplished today because I am the queen of awesomeness:

1. Hacked down more brambles and holly in the back yard. Not only am I the queen of awesomeness, I am also the queen of lucky-ness because my state isn't getting multiple feet of snow dumped upon it -- at least not here in the valleys. The temperature broke into the 40's today, and eskimo that I am, I took the opportunity to hang out in short sleeves with a massive pair of clippers, hacking down more brambles outside. Where the ground was still frozen solid I cut the branches down to the ice, rather than pull out the roots. Last weekend I cleared the space from the ginkgo tree half way to the pear tree. This weekend I cleared the rest of the way to the pear tree. If we break 40 degrees next week, I'm going all the way to the fence, baby.

2. Ran errands. Including picking up more books at the library, because that's currently my favorite way to waste time, and necessary grocery shopping. My favorite store is Sunflower market, where we get a full cart load of fresh produce, plus milk and yogurt and bulk candy, for just 30 bucks. A full cart load!

3. Practiced painting. I took up this hobby again three weeks ago, when Jonathan had his little kid watercolors out on the table. I used an extra brush, a piece of drawing paper from my stash downstairs, and began playing with paint, little kid style. It has been fun. I've never been successful with watercolors before -- they are very unforgiving. But unlike oil paints, they will not poison the entire family or stink up the room with fumes or spontaneously combust in the trash can. Maybe I will learn to paint with watercolor for a season.

4. Made applesauce. I know I was supposed to have this finished in the fall. But seriously, the apples have been fine - ish -- in the garage all winter. They are getting softer and softer, and wrinklier and wrinklier, but very few have gone bad. So why spend all that time preserving them now if I can wait until later? At least, that's what I've been telling myself all winter. But as you know, March is completely untrustworthy. It may warm up to nearly 50. And what will that do to the apple supply? So I spent three hours cutting and boiling and churning and bottling and cleaning and the apple sauce is still delicious. You can't even tell that the apples were wrinkly. I will remind myself of this fact if we get as many apples in October.

5. Cleaned out the oven. This was not actually on my to do list until late this evening, when a sweet potato exploded in there. Stupid potato.

But aside from the potato explosions, I am super proud of my awesome accomplishments. What a Saturday!

All the loser things I haven't yet accomplished today because I am a loser:

1. Showered. Um, because I was going to do that after I finished gardening and changed out of the muddy clothes. I am still wearing the muddy clothes, even after the trips to the library and the market. Gross.

2. Prepared a Sunday school lesson for tomorrow. We get to kill off Lot's wife, and all of Sodom and Gomorrah. I just haven't been able to figure out the best way to apply this topic to real life. At least I hope this story doesn't apply to my real life, or all that time making applesauce was the biggest waste ever.

3. Prepared a workshop for high school girls. I mentioned this in yesterday's post. Remember how occasionally I put on my feminist hat and complain that there aren't enough women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)? And yet I have no ideas how to fix that? Well, I finally jumped in on someone else's idea, and volunteered to do a workshop for Expanding Your Horizons at the valley's other university, for middle school and high school girls. Expanding Your Horizons is a great idea, started in the Bay area in 1974. The idea is to hold workshop on STEM stuff, to show girls how cool these fields can be, right about around the time that most girls start losing interest. Unfortunately, the problems with the idea of me doing a workshop are legion. First, my workshop has to be cool, or I will just turn all these girls off faster. Second, I have to prepare said workshop presentation, which is annoying. Third, it has to be cool. Fourth, I have to prepare it. Fifth, sixth, seventh, it has to be cool. And eighth, it is next Saturday and I'm not prepared. Please send me your cool ideas.

4. Grading. But I don't do that on weekends.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Making myself happy

Earlier this week, I read in the news about five things that can make you happier.

Now, nearing the end of a rough week, I need all the happiness I can get. So I'm trying them all at once here in this post.

Thing 1. Be grateful. Studies show that people who write thank you notes experience a boost in happiness, whether or not the note actually makes it to the recipient. So let's give it a go.
Dear Mrs. H,

Thank you so much for the extra time you gave to Jonathan on Monday, and your cheerful, happy attitude. I apologize again for completely forgetting to pick him up, and making you wait patiently for my brain to catch up. When I looked at my watch ten minutes after I was supposed to have been at your door, and realized I still had a 20 minute drive to get there, I went into complete panic mode. I couldn't even figure out how to dial a phone number to let someone know that even though I was a total neglectful spacey flake of a mother, I now realized I was a total neglectful spacey flake of a mother and I would send help to rescue my son. Again, I'm so sorry you had to wait all that extra time. Thanks for being willing to do so and for being so pleasant and forgiving about it. I promise it won't happen again.

Flake Mom.
Thing 2. Be optimistic. In the studies, people who visualized an ideal future and described it in a journal entry for a few weeks reported feeling happier.
Dear Diary,

I would please like a future in which I am no longer a flake.

While I am visualizing, I also would appreciate no more migraines. And no more pre-migraines, either, where I keep wondering whether it's time to take the caffeine pill or not, knowing that if the pre-migraine becomes migraine I'll be puking in the morning, but if I take the caffeine, I won't be able to sleep and morning will be a disaster anyway.

And then let's take out the rest of that PMS thing, ok? No more bloating. No sore boobs. In my ideal future, I never have to wear a bra to bed. Maybe let's turn off the whole flow thing entirely, ok? Am I asking for premature menopause, Diary? Is that a bad idea? Is this too much information? Come on, I'm writing to my Diary here!
Thing 3: Count blessings. People who wrote three good things that happened to them each week showed significant boosts in happiness.
1. I remembered to pick up Jonathan on time on Thursday and on Friday.
2. I did not actually get a migraine.
3. Um. Found out I won't have to start forking over money for prenatal care?
Thing 4: Use your strengths. Think about the things you are good at, and try to use them in new ways.
I am good at completely spacing even important, regular events, like picking up my son after school. I will use that skill in multiple new ways, to get out of all sorts of unpleasant things. Meeting? What? Office hours? What? Teaching? What? Fired? What? Bills? What? Jail? What? Hmm.... I am becoming skeptical of whether this exercise is really adding to my overall happiness.
Thing 5: Commit acts of kindness. People who donate time or money to a good cause are happier.
Do you think the chocolate cause counts? Because weeks like this, I think I could donate more time and money to chocolate. And I bet it would definitely boost my happiness.

No? Well then, I'd better get back to writing that workshop presentation I've volunteered to give to high school girls next week. Because as we have seen this week, nothing changes happiness like a room full of hormones.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mountain west materialism

This morning, in the middle of what NBC pretends is Olympic coverage, but really barely amounts to a string bikini if you take away all the fluffy stories and advertising --

This morning, while watching the Olympics, I saw an ad that really struck me. Really. So much so that I kept talking about it through the next two ads and even into the skiing. Because somehow, amazingly, it captured this mountain west culture in one 30 second blurb.

From the beginning to the end, I saw, portrayed in soft golden hues, exactly the people my high school friends aspired to become. The perfect standard of a perfect life. And it shocked me, to have it rolled up into a single commercial like that. Manipulative. Materialistic. Posing as perfection and pro-family. And striking. And oh, high school friends, there is so much more.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The ad starts in a library, group of college age friends at a table. Thin blond girl stands, smiles, shuts her laptop. Says she has to go. Switch to a handsome man, blue eyes, graying a little, but no gut, smiling winningly at a cute brunette, confessing that he has lost his credit card, but is going out of town. She smiles and reassures him that he will be fine. Flash to a driveway. Middle aged blond woman, thin and mature, putting her arm around the blond girl, assuring her that they're ready to go. Tween aged boy there in front of the giant truck as well. Flash back to the mature, but handsome man, swiping a new credit card. Flash to a massive truck, pulling a massive trailer. Mature man handing blond daughter a brand new pink helmet. "It's perfect", she gushes, and as gold light filters down on the smiling family of four, they all load up on their dirt bikes and four wheelers and buzz off onto the sand dune. Cut to the close: "Mountain States Credit Union*, it's there for you...."
(*Names changed to protect the innocent. Me.)

Wow wow wow.

A perfect summary of everything my high school friends thought was important in life. Shall we enumerate?
1. Being blond.
2. Being tan.
3. Being beautiful.
4. Spending quality time with family.
5. With your giant truck.
6. And huge trailer.
7. Because how else will you haul your massive, expensive toys?
8. Being thin.
9. Having toys.
10. Because family time is important, and this family has it all.
11. With the help of a new credit card.
12. And toys.
13. Because they care.
14. With toys.


You know, there is more. Toys are fun, but honestly there is more.

High school friends, did you ever leave the mountain west and discover there is more? Or did you do your two year church duty, maybe even time in grad school, sheltering yourself, finding friends from your area, porting that mountain west with you all the way, carefully, heavily, just like Atlas at the end of the earth, enduring and straining, hefting it as a shield, until at last the duty was over and you could settle again in the west and let down your defenses and let the golden hued dream pour into your reality.

I don't mean to sound harsh or critical. I guess I am just harsh and critical. But honestly. There is more than the toys and the tan.

I don't remember the exact circumstances, but I remember last May, I was scoffing at the idea of somehow losing the neighbors' good will. So what? And an aunt called me on it, and pointed out that I received external validation outside of the neighborhood cliques. But for others, without that validation, it was harder to make opinions not matter.

She is right. I have earned much immunity from the local culture. I can smile without caring whether they judge me for being pale, for working outside the home, for having unimportant "callings" in the local church group. I am part of a larger community, and the local opinions are amusing, but not earth moving.

I wish I could share some of this immunity. I wish I could tell people that golden lighting aside, the toys won't really bring family harmony. And that the credit card certainly won't do it.

Heck, I wish I could even write a blog post that properly expressed my feelings about certain commercials without coming across as self-righteous and critical. But readers, self-righteousness aside, honestly there is more.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February yard work

Late last summer, the yard was so overgrown on the west side that it was nearly impossible to climb through the brambles to harvest grapes. By then I was tired of having a yard, and weeding a yard and picking plums and apples and pears in the yard and trying to figure out what to do with all that fruit from the yard. So I gave up on the brambles. I told them, Fine. You win this round. But I will get you in the spring when I am stir crazy.

Well, it's not yet spring, but close enough. We've been stir crazy for a few weeks here. So this afternoon, after the morning dusting of snow had melted and the ground was soft, we all went outside. I found the leather gloves and the large and small branch clippers. And I took on those brambles.

And after three hours of digging and clipping and pulling, I got cold and came in. But the brambles, and the neighbors' holly from under the fence, are about half way gone.

Maybe next spring I will take on the other half.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Remember your first best friend

A message on a candy wrapper instructed me to remember my first best friend. I couldn't remember that far back, so I decided I'd better eat another candy.

The message on the second candy wrapper instructed me to remember my first best friend. So I ate even another candy. But maybe the wrappers were trying to send an important message. So I will dedicate this post to remembering a first best friend.

Julie was my best friend in first grade. Amanda and I were friends in kindergarten. But if you go back as far as I can remember, there was Christopher.

Was Christopher really a best friend? I don't remember. But he and I had preschool together -- two years of it. And then we were in the same kindergarten class, and the same first grade class. He would have been in my second grade class as well -- his name was on the roll that first day.

His mom and mine were friends. I remember that they worked out at least one playdate. I remember going over to Christopher's house one afternoon, along with my brother Bryan. I was probably in kindergarten, and Bryan in first grade.

Christopher had a little sister, just one year younger than me. I remember that when we arrived at Christopher's house, it was a little messy. The boys went somewhere else to play. I played dolls with Christopher's little sister in the living room. I don't remember her name, but I remember having a fine time, in spite of the fact that she was a year younger, and the house was a little messy.

When we were in first grade, Christopher's sister went to school next door in the kindergarten room. She would come to our classroom door first thing after school, before any of the moms arrived with their cars, so that she and Christopher could go home together.

By first grade, though, Julie was my best friend, and I didn't think much of Christopher or his sister, and our moms didn't arrange playdates anymore.

That first day of second grade, Julie was in another class. But Christopher was in mine again. Or at least he should have been. He wasn't there that first day. Nor the second day. I don't remember how many days had passed before I heard the story.

Late that summer, Christopher and his sister had been playing at their grandmother's house, and the sister had followed a ball into the road. Christopher would have seen the car hit her. He would have seen the ambulance come and take her body away. Would he have understood? His distraught parents could not be comforted. They pulled Christopher out of public school. To hold him a little closer. To spend the moments they had with him, no longer trusting that those moments would last.

I remember telling my mother this story I had heard. I remember her eyes immediately filling with tears. I remember, at age six, being surprised at her strong emotion. My mother had only met Christopher's sister once, that time when Bryan and I went over for a playdate.

As I grew older, of course, I began to understand the tears. By the time I started junior high, I had a new baby brother myself, and I found that I loved him so much it hurt. I could bring tears to my eyes just with the thought of losing him. That year, I think I spotted Christopher in the halls of my school again. We were no longer in classes together, but his parents must have started the long process of letting him go by then.

My own little boy is the age Christopher's sister would have been, and writing the story brings an ache to my heart, and makes me want to hold him close.

Remember your first best friend.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Name calling

Happy Valentine's day to all.

We had a nice one.

We started at one grandma's house, then drove south and met another grandma for dinner. And grandpas were there, too.

My mother made a Valentine's day cake from a recipe she said came from my grandmother, my father's mother. Thinking about it, that grandmother probably made that very cake in my very city, just a few miles and several decades away. At the time, she would have been married to this handsome educator, my grandfather.

My grandfather was lucky enough to be descended from proud family from the Alsace-Lorraine area of France and Germany. His brother was named Etienne, a nice solid French name. My grandfather was named Erschel. A good German name. Kind of.

Me, I was lucky enough to be born female. Otherwise, I would have been named Erschel after him. It is true. My just younger brother sports the name Erschel as a middle name. I ended up middle-named Ann. Kind of plain, but nothing the kids at school would poke fun at. Because most of them had the middle name of Ann as well. Or maybe Anne.

I was named after a long line of Anna's and Ann's: my mother, her grandmother, another grandmother, and so on.

I suppose I could have been named after my grandfather, had my parents not been holding out for another boy. For example, my grandmother was named for her father. She was a twin, and they were both named after their parents. Her sister was named Anita -- "little Anna" -- after her mother, Anna. My grandma won the name Alberta, after her father. So that kind of thing happened.

Ershcella anyone?

I am saving that name for my daughter.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Loving February

(I just took some medicine for a migraine, and now I type on a laptop bouncing with caffeine jitters on my lap. It's kind of fun.)

My mother wrote in her weekly family newsletter last Tuesday that she loved February. Because the snow starts melting between storms, and there are holidays like groundhog day and valentine's day and presidents' day to distract her, and soon enough February is finally over and it's almost spring!

Tim and I have been mocking her (in private, of course) ever since. Walking Jonathan to school, we will point at a pile of ice and say, "Look at all that gray snow! I love February!" Or, "Only three weeks until March! I love February!"

Of course, this morning rain was falling instead of snow, and the gray detritus left by December's snow plows was shrinking into gray slush, and my nose didn't hurt so badly from the cold when I walked outside yesterday. Maybe my mother has a point. Maybe I can appreciate February because it will be over quickly. Because there is hope that winter will eventually will be over, but not so much hope for spring that the regular snowstorms and freezes are depressing, as they are March and April. And May. And June.

While we are speaking of the weather, our February weather is totally beating out the weather of those of you in Washington DC, and even S. California. That I can appreciate.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A note

A little over a week ago, Tim posted this note from Jonathan on his facebook page:

Within a matter of days, Jonathan received two letters in the mail containing dollar bills.

Dude. I think the boy is onto something.