Sunday, December 11, 2016

By Candlelight

I'm don't think there are many things more beautiful than sharing candlelight in a dark church and singing "Silent Night" together. That's how our school's annual Vespers service ends (well, sort of: except for the recessional hymn. And the ten minutes of carols played by the combined instrumental ensembles), and it's how Christmas Eve services always ended when I was growing up. It just works on so many levels.

In the first place, it's visually beautiful. All of these human faces, each illuminated by a single candle, which combine to give a gentle glow to the whole sanctuary. Gorgeous. In the second place, it sounds wonderful, especially on the last verse when the organ drops out and it's just human voices singing together.

But it's also a wonderful metaphor for so many things. One candle's flame is shared with another candle, and then another and another, and where there was darkness, gradually there is light. It's the light of knowledge, whether that's the knowledge of a Savior born two thousand years ago or the knowledge of how the world works, illuminated through evolution or physics or psychology or literature. For the light of that knowledge to grow, it has to be shared in that painstaking process from one person to another (and sometimes, you get burnt a little for your troubles). It's the light of love, of compassion, of human connection, passed from one person to the next to the next, until it lights up a family, a neighborhood, a community, a nation, a world.

At least, that's the hope.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Although it's part of my almost-daily routine, the scent of coffee still has power, sometimes, to take me back in time. Today though, it was a word: thermos.

My father was a truck driver, which I suppose almost by default meant that he was a big coffee drinker. When I think of my dad, it's the scent of coffee. And it's two big stainless steel thermoses with lids that screwed in, capped off by another lid that doubled as a plastic coffee mug. They were big, they were sturdy, they were Dad. 

I remember Dad and Grandma drinking coffee after most meals, at least when out and about. I don't remember it at home so much, but if we went to a restaurant or a church potluck, they were both sure to have a cup of coffee after the meal, with dessert. 

Despite that, coffee didn't hold a big appeal for me. When I wanted caffeine, I turned to Pepsi or Coke, but mostly that wasn't until college when I would accompany an all-nighter with a ridiculously large Coke from the campus Pub--no ice, please, I need as much Coke as you can fit in there. 

In high school, coffee did take on another association, though: working at McDonald's for a couple of years, there were periods--particularly in the summers--when I opened to store on a regular basis (there were also periods when I closed: I guess that's part of being a high schooler, none of the adults managing the schedule give a damn about your sleep schedule). The first thing we did each morning when opening the store, before a single egg was cracked, muffin toasted, or hash brown fried, was to make a pot of regular and a pot of decaf. And even though I wasn't a coffee drinker, it was like the coffee maker there pumped the caffeine right into the air, because it was invigorating. Sure, it was 4:30 in the morning, but once the coffee pot was going, I was ready to go too. 

I first became something of a social coffee drinker at my first job, a small boarding school in western Pennsylvania. One of the traditions there was that all the faculty members--after we'd been to the day's required dinner with students--were invited to the Headmaster's house for coffee and maybe some sweets. It was a good time to grow closer with your colleagues, and if the old man was in attendance, you could hear some wild stories of the way things used to be, back in the days when teachers smokes cigars in the classroom (using the chalk trays as ash trays) and could more or less strike students at will. You know, the good old days of concussions in history class and lung cancer in English. 

I would have felt out of place there not drinking coffee, so I did what any sensible sugar addict would do: I loaded my cup with the cute and oh-so-sophisticated sugar cubes provided as well as cream, so that I had a sugary-milky substance with a dash of coffee for color. 

But what can I say, I suppose it was a gateway for later coffee explorations. I think I became an inveterate drinker of coffee when I started playing around with low-carb diets, because incredibly fat-filled coffees are kind of a staple of those dietary communities. I tried "Bulletproof" coffee, which is basically coffee blended with coconut oil and butter--it's decent, but after a brief flirtation I've felt no calling to make it my regular joe. I drank coffee with coconut milk--fine, but it seems to end up a little watery (but then, I could probably fix that if I just didn't insist on using everything that comes in the can). My favorite though, the one I come back to day in and day out, is coffee with heavy whipping cream. 

My god. 

It's just so rich and amazing. I never put any sweetener in my coffee, just loads of cream, and it's wonderful. If I'm out and about, I'll often go for the Starbucks flat white with heavy whipping cream--basically it's just espresso and heated and frothed HWC, and it's perhaps a thousand calories of fat, but what a thousand calories they are. Not something to drink every day, unless it's basically the only thing you consume  every day. Which, now that I think about it, doesn't sound half bad. 

And that's my coffee story: it's a long way from my father's relationship with coffee, but still, that whiff of brewed or brewing coffee just sometimes takes me back to being six years old and hugging my dad as he said goodbye to go off and drive a semi to the next state, putting bread on our table and coffee in our thermoses. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

St. Nicholas Eve

When I was growing up, we only celebrated St. Nick in one way: as Santa Claus, on Christmas. When I was in college, though, I discovered the celebration of Saint Nicholas Eve.

One of my friends with whom I shared an apartment senior year was a local boy--his father was a professor in the English department and his mother was a locally-famous caterer who, along with her catering partner, held a beloved "Friday Afternoon Luncheon Cafe" at the local Parish House every week. Their family had a tradition, presumably coming from their Czech ancestors, of celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas Eve, and senior year I was invited to the celebration. There were a number of our college friends there as well as adult friends of the family. It was a really nice gathering, and I felt very adult just being there, especially when the Scotch was served. I hated Scotch, but I loved being served Scotch.

At the same time, I suppose it was one of my last chances to be a kid.

The bulk of the meal traditionally is pork chops and Czech dumplings, which--like all the food served at their house, regardless of who is cooking--is absolutely fantastic. For dessert, my friend's mother brings out a cake in the shape of St. Nicholas, at which point, as my friend describes it,
Pa then starts berating her for not making enough dessert for all the guests (some years this has led to female guests attempting to kick my father under the table), then she invites someone to check a silver platter we have. No dessert, but inside the platter is a note, which tells the story of St. Nick, and says maybe he stopped by the house to leave sweets and presents. Ma then suggests that if he did the sweets and presents will be on the front porch.  The kids run to check the front porch, no sweets, of course.  So then the back porch and voila a plate with chocolate apples and marzipan and oranges and nuts, and presents (almost always books).
When I was there, my friend got to do the berating act, which is largely for the benefit of the new guest. There always seems to be at least one new guest each year, and that year it was me, which also meant I got to check the platter.

We did, of course, all run dutifully run to the porch, even though as wise old college seniors, we could smell a set-up a mile away. We could also smell the rewards of playing along, I suppose! I received the book Snow Falling on Cedars, and the marzipan was amazing.

There were just so many wonderful things about that evening, far beyond the gift and the food. It was the good company--not only other students who I liked very well, but adults as well, which is a nice social change at that age. Even more that that, though, there are just so many things to like about the ritual celebration. First, there's the simple fact that most people don't celebrate this holiday; whereas Christmas ends up being almost strictly a family event for most people, this can more easily include friends. I also love the inclusive nature of the celebration, the way that it draws in new people each year, a new group, continually including "fresh blood." The danger in a ritual, of course, is that it can become the same old same old very easily, but the ritual berating act really only works if there's someone new who isn't "in" on the joke. And that yearly re-mixing, I'm sure, brings a new energy each year as well.

I always thought that when I was older, I should like to carry on this tradition myself--my own memory of my singular celebration of the event made such an impression on me that it makes me want to perpetuate it. Isn't that where ritual celebrations really (or really should!) come from? From doing something over and over again because doing so seems meaningful and worthwhile to you? Well, we've got three children now, and I even bought a cake mold shaped like Santa Claus, but so far I haven't made the inadequate cake and we haven't invited people over for the celebration. My wife has at least driven the celebration by having the girls write letters to Santa and having them wake up to a little gift in the morning, so this whole Saint Nicholas celebration is a thing, just not the thing that I'd like it to be.

Maybe next year.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Breakfast with Santa

One thing you can say for paying in advance: it's motivating. Given than Lauren and I were up until 1:00 and then up again quite a few times with our little one, getting up and driving to "Breakfast with Santa" was not high on our priority list when we woke up--late--at 7:00 this morning. But we'd paid for this thing, so we got our butts--and our daughters' little butts--in gear to make the trek up to South Bend's Fiddler's Hearth.

With the tables all full, we "got to" sit at the bar.

You can kind of see it in the picture, but they brought out special pieces of wood to sit on the edge of the bar and give the girls a level eating surface closer to their little gobs. Also, you can play Where's Waldo? with Santa in this photo.

You had two options with breakfast: take it or leave it. They gave everyone some scrambled eggs, a couple sausage links, and some French toast sticks. Kids could choose OJ or milk, adults could and did choose coffee. I guess the kids could have chosen coffee too, but they were comparatively well rested.

If it has "oatmeal" in the name, it's a suitable breakfast food, right?

Fortified with a hearty Irish-ish breakfast, the girls went and sat on Santa's lap.

A little overawed, Y couldn't remember what she wanted to ask for (so she'll get nothing. Nothing, I say!).

Her sister, meanwhile, couldn't stop talking. We actually left her with Santa and I assume she's still talking eight hours later.

We have a tradition of pictures of our children brought to tears by Santa Claus. The tradition is alive and well:

They did reach a milk-mediated truce, however uneasy:

You can tell from the picture, she doesn't trust him one bit. She doesn't trust him as far as she's about to throw that bottle when it's empty.

But we did manage to get all the girls in for one picture.

Someone's still not trusting this dude.

Also, the older girls got balloon animals.

I mean, what would breakfast with Santa be without a ridiculously large candy cane and a poodle on a balloon leash?

Appalling, that's what. Fortunately, Fiddler's Hearth is a good place, run by good people, with sound judgment. Here's your balloon animal. Merry Christmas. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Those kids who were us

I don't know about you, but for the most part, I rather like the habit Facebook has of pushing a bit of nostalgia on me in the form of posts from X years ago. Today, this popped up:

This is our engagement photo, from 9 years ago. I saw it and thought "Who are these kids?" 

I posted it to my timeline and my wife said "So young, so well rested. You were sick during this picture and you look less tired than our normal non-sick state now." 

So. True. 

This is how we look now, nine years later:

Just kidding, that's my aunt and uncle. 

But actually, this is us over the summer:

On vacation. I look tired and old on vacation. And to think, once upon a time I had a baby face. Now, not only do they not card me at bars, they give me the first one free because they're like "Buddy, you look like you need this. Also, you could use a vacation." 

But I've been there, I know it won't help. All I want for Christmas is three weeks of uninterrupted sleep. Is that so much to ask? I mean, bears have children too, and they get to hibernate. Our girls will be fine if the two of us go into hibernation right? The oldest is a very responsible six years old. Or, as we say, she has six years making me old. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Holidailies 2016: Obligatory Introductory Story

Who am I? 

I'm a blogger. Wait, no I'm not. I used to be a blogger. One of those blog-every-day hell-or-high-water types. I went a year or two at a stretch without missing a day. Now, with the exception of Decembers, I can almost go a year at a stretch without blogging any days. It's like the evil twin of my former blogging self.

I'm a writer. Wait, am I? I don't know. I thought I was, but except for NaNoWriMo and Holidailies, I don't really show it. I've done 50k words for NaNo several times, but none of that writing has crystalized into a full first draft, much less a completed novel. I make some decent progress every so often and I go to a writer's group as often as I can, but the proof's in the pudding, as they say, and this pudding hasn't quite achieved the proper consistency yet. 

I'm an educator. I'm not, technically, a teacher any more: after 10 years in the classroom and the rehearsal room, 10 years teaching music and English, I've spent that past seven working in student life at a boarding school. I'm still teaching, though: social skills, academic skills, leadership skills, resilience, and--let's hope--just plain human being skills. I loved the classroom, I miss it sometimes, but I feel like I'm doing good work in this role, too. So I guess I am an educator even if I'm not a classroom teacher. 

I'm a father. No, seriously, I am. It's still a little unbelievable, even though my oldest is almost seven, one of her sisters is solidly four, and our last (definitely, absolutely, unquestionably our last) is 11 months old. But I think the three of them have aged me twenty years, so yes, I'm a father. They've also completely redefined so many things for me. I'm not sure I really knew what love was until I had children. There's a song that says "I'm gonna need a second heart for all this love," and it's not just the quantity, it's the whole experience. I couldn't have understood it until it happened. Maybe I still don't, but I'm working on it. And along with that, I'm a husband (at least, last I checked--she's not home right now, and it's always possible she's chosen tonight to ditch me with the kids). But being married has probably been as profound in its own way as having children, when it comes to growing and changing. She probably doesn't think so, because I still do fifteen-hundred things that drive her nuts, but hey, I've gotten a little better at closing the cabinets in the kitchen. 

I'm a jock. No I'm not. Wait, what does that even mean? I'm 39, and a few years ago a man older than me prefaced some remark or other by saying "Of course, you're a jock, so..." And I'm thinking: are you kidding me? The kid who, in elementary school, collapsed dramatically rather than finish the mile run for the Presidential Fitness Test, since he was 1) the only one still running and 2) not getting a medal with zero pull-ups and laughable numbers on the other events... he's a jock? The kid whose favorite part of junior high track--indeed, the only bright spot--was walking from the junior high to the high school, which took us into a gas station where we loaded up on candy... that little butterball is a jock? The kid whose high school activities revolved around band, drama, choir, quiz bowl (if you don't know what it is, trust me, it's as nerdy as it sounds), writing, and--finally, in my junior and senior years--tennis... he's a jock? And yet, I'm also not that kid any more. In the last fifteen years or so I've taken a more or less strong interest in health and fitness--I lift weights religiously, I educate myself about exercise and fitness, and apparently it's all paid off by adding "jock" to my list of nerd credentials. 

I'm an amateur cook and something of a foodie. The kid who, growing up, was just about the pickiest eater ever--the kid who gagged on peas and broccoli, avoided raisins and bananas, wouldn't eat apple dumplings even though he separately liked both apples and dumplings (and, come one, they're apple dumplings!), that kid grew into an adult who loves all kinds of foods, domestic and exotic, and does virtually all the cooking for his family. I've been through a number of phases, from an avid bread-baker to a "Paleo" eater of mostly meat and veggies, from low fat to low carb to cycling between the two. As much as anything, I lean toward "real foods," even though I have a whole set of sweet teeth that love nothing more than cookies, cakes, and pies. 

I'm a player. A game player, I mean. Growing up, my family played a ton of board and card games. The gifted and talented teacher at my elementary school once told a big group of parents that one of the best things they could do for us was to play games with us, and my mother took that to heart. The big card game in our family was called Five Hundred, which at the end of the day is basically Bridge. But we also played Pinochle, Canasta, Spades, Hearts, and Euchre. We played other card games like Rook, Flinch, Touring (a knock-off of Mille Bornes, which we also played), and Uno. We played all the regular board games you would expect of a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, and probably a few you wouldn't expect. And then, in the 2000s, I discovered real board games, the German and European games and the ones they influenced: games that were more complicated or interesting than mere roll the dice and move around the board types, games with interesting mechanics and deeper strategy. Things like the gateway games Settlers of Catan and Carcassone, Blokus and Rumis, and from there to games like Agricola, Ricochet Robots, Power Grid, Diplomacy... okay, I don't want to turn this into a boring list for those who don't know the games. But if there's a board game and it's awesome, then I've probably at least heard of it. As our family has grown by adding more and younger kids, the time and opportunities for these games has diminished significantly, but I hold out hope that these things are on hold rather than dead to us. 

I'm a smart-phone addict. No, I'm not, I can quit any time. Yeah right, who am I kidding? But it's interesting that I should find myself here, since I was first a late adopter of the cell phone generally (stubbornly clinging to my landline) and then scrupulously avoiding smart phones in favor of dumb ones. Perhaps on some level I knew that I couldn't restrain myself. I mean, think about it: my iPhone 5s is not just a mobile phone, it's a computer with greater capabilities than probably my first three computers combined. All in my pocket. It's crazy how good these things are. I play a few games on it, I check e-mail more often than I really need to, and perhaps my favorite thing to do is listen to podcasts and books. I'm trying to cultivate more "down time" but did I mention that this thing is awesome?!

I'm a Renaissance man. Or maybe it's a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. Somewhere on that continuum. I've never been good at limiting myself or my interests: I was a double major (English and music) in college. I went to graduate school for music and majored in choral conducting and composition, because I couldn't choose just one. Teaching in boarding schools for most of my working life has been good: I've gotten lots of opportunities to learn new things through the years and I was able to teach both English and music. And geometry for a couple weeks once. My blog kind of follows the same clear lack of a clear plan, which is one of the reasons for its name. When I blog at all--which, as we've already established, is pretty much only in December--I blog about all kinds of things. I guess the upside there is that if you don't like what I'm blogging about one day, come back the next day, since it will probably be something completely different tomorrow.

And that's more or less me. Who the heck are you?