Sunday, November 27, 2011

Squirrel Trouble

"My neighbor Mr. Greenhalgh loves tomatoes," I begin.  "Every year, he carefully plants them in his sunny garden.  He waters them and watches every day as the plants begin to grow."  I continue, telling my class how Mr. Greenhalgh watches the small yellow flowers blossom.  "What do you think happens next?"
The students know.  "The small green tomatoes begin to grow!" 
Slowly, I build the suspense.  I tell them how Mr. Greenhalgh's mouth begins to water as he watches his tomatoes grow big, juicy and red.  I tell them how much he is looking forward to eating his tomatoes.
"Then," I say, "Mr. Greenhalgh has some trouble.  Squirrel trouble."
With lots of dramatic flair, I tell them that the squirrels decide to eat Mr. Greenhalgh's tomatoes. 
"Mr. Greenhalgh runs outside with his fist in the air, like this," I show them.  Then he yells to the squirrels, "Hey you squirrels!  Get off of my tomatoes."   (For the record, I'm not sure if Mr. Greenhalgh ever really did that, but this small embellishment is the best part of the story.) 

I love to share stories of my life with the kindergarteners.  After a few months, they are all familiar with the antics of our dog Tatum, the adventures of my children and various funny tidbits that occur throughout the week.  Occasionally, I will share a story of a friend or relative.  I think it is important that students know me as a person, not just a teacher.  By telling my stories, I hope I am modeling that we all have stories to tell-- little moments of our day that are funny, sad, scary and exciting.   In kindergarten, students practice telling their own stories through oral language, drawing and writing. 

In November, our science unit is squirrels.  It is the perfect time to share Mr. Greenhalgh's story.  Next, I ask the students for advice.  "Boys and girls, does anyone have a suggestion for Mr. Greenhalgh to help him solve his squirrel problem?"  On a large sheet of chart paper, I record their ideas.  Then the students draw and write their solutions down for Mr. Greenhalgh.  Here are some of this year's suggestions:

"Get a scarecrow."

"Mr. Greenhalgh should have a dog."

"He should have two dogs."

"Mr. Greenhalgh and his family can take turns guarding the tomatoes from the squirrels."

"He should get a cat."

"Mr. Greenhalgh you could throw snowballs."

"He should get some small, red water balloons and tie them to his tomato plants.  Then the squirrels will be tricked and get squirted with water when they take a bite."

"Mr. Greenhalgh should build a big fence with a cage on top."
"Mr. Greenhalgh you should plant poison ivy."

"He should buy some squirrel spray."

Of all the advice, my personal favorite didn't tackle the squirrel problem at all but looked at the issue from a different perspective:  "He should ask you for some of your tomatoes."  Yes, Mr. Greenhalgh, you are welcome anytime.  In kindergarten, we learn to share.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Coffee Pots and Marriage

My  coffee maker used to drive me crazy.  An obscure brand, I bought it on sale last year when our old one broke.  The pouring spout was curled around the lip so when I tipped it, the coffee would cling to the edge of the pot and trickle down the side leaving a puddle on the counter.  I would gauge the success of my pour by the number of paper towels it took to clean up.

In the spirit of reducing our paper towel usage, my dear wonderful husband decides to surprise me with a new, beautiful, deluxe coffee maker.

I hate it. 

Our new appliance has a stainless steel pot.  While its opaque finish may be aesthetically pleasing, I have no way of measuring the amount of water in the pot as I fill it.  In addition, its insulated lining means a smaller capacity than our old model.  Not as practical for serving company, I think, as the holidays approach.  Worst of all is the coffee itself, if that's what you want to call it.  More like brown hot water.

Staring down into my steaming mug, I mull over my dilemma.  If I act grateful for a gift I don't like, I will have to drink this excuse for coffee every morning indefinitely.  If I tell the truth, I risk hurting Paul's feelings.  I risk giving him the message that he is not helpful and should just leave the errands to me. 

I decide to be patient.  "Sweetie, I am having trouble with the new coffee maker.  I'm not sure I'm using it correctly.  Could you please try making a pot?"

I watch as Paul carefully measures the grounds.  I watch as he pours in the water.  After it brews, he pours himself a cup of coffee.  He takes a sip.  I notice his nose wrinkle up a little.  "Hmm, seems a bit weak," he says.

"Yes," I agree. I decide this is the perfect time to point out the coffee maker's other deficiencies.  I look at Paul.  He looks crestfallen.  Oh no, I've hurt his feelings!

"Well, I guess I just shouldn't try to do errands for you," he laments. 

I put down my coffee mug and give him a big hug.  "Honey, this coffee pot is not perfect.  But you are perfect for me.  I love you." 

Today Paul and I celebrate our 15 year wedding anniversary.  In a card from his parents, his father writes to us, "Marriage, mirroring life, generally is not a series of ongoing earth-shaking events.  Rather, it is the ordinary day to day routine in which we are given the opportunity to piece together a mosaic of little special happenings into a beautiful picture." 

Nothing earth-shaking happened to me today.  I went to work, walked the dog, returned the coffee maker and chose a new one.  It's probably not perfect either.  It will break someday as well.  But as long as we're able to drink our coffee together, it's perfect for me.  Just like Paul.

November 23, 1996

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pop Pop's Challenges

Question: What do the following items have in common?
A letter to a veteran
An apple pie
A handful of paperclips

We never know quite what to expect when Pop Pop comes to visit but we know it will be stimulating.  Pop Pop loves learning.  When I was growing up, we used to go to the library together.  As I browsed around for my own selections, I remember my dad checking out all sorts of biographies from the youth section to read for himself.  Now that he is a proud grandparent, Pop Pop loves to share his passion for learning with his grandchildren.  And thus began Pop Pop's Famous Challenges. 

Often Pop Pop's challenges begin with something to read.  Once he brought a bird identification book along with the challenge, "Identify five birds outside using the bird book as a reference."  Another time we read a book about a little girl with polio, after which Pop Pop administered a quiz.  One September he brought a book called How To Make An Apple Pie and See the World.  Guess what the challenge was that week?  Mmmm, I still have the recipe. 

When a newspaper article sparks his interest, Pop Pop brings it along.  Once we read an article about two World War II survivors from the 99th Infantry Division who became friends.  Pop Pop had tracked down the address of one, 93 years old, and the kids wrote a letter to thank the veteran for his service to our country.   They were thrilled when he responded! 

Other times, Pop Pop's Famous Challenges are more fun and games.  He will engage Jack in a round of chess or encourage Katherine to beat him playing Blokus.  He regularly brings jokes, riddles and logic puzzles to solve.  "Pretend these paper clips are gold links," he says as he pulls a handful from his shirt pocket.  "and you are the jeweler for the king."  Soon Jack and Katherine are busy manipulating the clips into a necklace, trying to figure out the best design.

Pop Pop's Famous Challenges are occasionally inspired by events in his own life, such as when his dog Nukie was treated by a veterinarian for scabies.  That week's challenge was to create a skit to teach the audience about sarcoptic mange. 

Pop Pop always has a reward for a completing a challenge successfully.  A piece of candy here, a dollar there.  Sometimes a Challenge can be completed in a day; other times it takes longer.  Currently he has challenged Jack and Katherine to read 365 Bible verses during the year and track their progress on a little calendar.  Each quarter he rewards them for their progress by contributing money to their college savings account. 

Pop Pop's graph explaining the merits of a good education

I think the real rewards are more intangible.  Pop Pop loves to share with his grandchildren his enthusiasm for learning.  He is teaching them the value and interest in topics they had never considered.   In this day and age, he is developing a relationship with two young kids that doesn't rely on TV or video games for entertainment.  Just puzzles such as this one:

You're the bus driver.  At the first stop, 4 people get on.  At the second stop, 8 people get on.  At the third stop, 2 people get off.  At the 4th stop, everyone got off.  The question is, What color are the bus driver's eyes?

Answer: Same as yours--you're the bus driver!

Friday, November 11, 2011


We are on a road trip.

In my recollection, this is when it begins.  Whether or not this is true is irrelevant.  I'm telling the story. The way I remember it, we're in the car for a long time so we're conscious of the clock.  We distract ourselves by looking for alphabet letters on license plates and listening to the radio, but we are all the while cognizant of the miles and minutes ticking away, bringing us closer to our destination. 

Someone--probably Katherine--notices the clock has a double number.  "Look!"  She says.  "It's 8:08.  Make a wish."  So we do, closing our eyes for a brief instant and thinking of a silent hope.  And so it goes at 9:09 and 10:10 until we get to 11:11.  This, we decide, is the time for the Macdaddy of all wishes. 

I look around at my family and say, "I love you and you love me.  My wish has already come true."

Who knew my off the cuff comment years ago would create a special significance for 11:11 in our family.  If Paul is at work and he notices the time, he'll email me.  On a busy chore-filled Saturday morning, the kids pause at 11:11 for a family hug.  11:11 has become synonymous with "I love you."

Today is November 11, 2011.  11/11/11.  At first the kids are upset that we won't all be together at 11:11 this morning.  I tell them the beauty of today's special date is that we can say 11/11 anytime at all today and it will always be true.  Tonight, the calendar is free of social plans and obligations.  On 11/11, I'm going to stay home with the people I love.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tennis Elbow

I've got a bona fide case of tennis elbow.  The good news: it is not impacting my tennis game AT ALL!  This may be because I don't play tennis.  Well, I pick up the racquet a few times a year and talk about playing more...but I digress.  This isn't really about tennis at all, It's about keeping a budget.

Yes, there are many benefits to cutting back on work hours but 'more money' is not one of them.   In September we faced the reality of my reduced salary.  At first I think we don't really need a budget.  We're not extravagant spenders and we rarely go out to eat.  How hard can it be?  For a month I track our income and expenses to get a baseline of our spending unchecked.  Guess what I discover?  We need a budget.

Now I could argue that September has some unique expenses--school supplies, gym uniforms, new shoes, school fundraisers...but every month it's always something, isn't it?  I take a look at our receipts to see where we can make some adjustments and tweak our spending habits.  In an effort to reduce our grocery bills, I find myself at the bulk store.

The bulk store definitely has the potential to save money but it takes some effort.  First, I'm learning to plan ahead and cut coupons, which can be time consuming but rewarding.  Next, I realize that I have to buy only what I know we will use.   The bulk dry pasta for $1.00 per lb. is a good deal but the bulk boxes of Chocolate Cheerios that Katherine really, really wanted are getting stale in the pantry.   I'm also comparing the cost of staples.  A gallon of milk at the bulk store is $3.23--that's a whopping 96 cents less than what the grocery store charges. 

As I budget I also learn to be careful.  Who knew saving money could be dangerous?  The tennis elbow was a rookie mistake--trying to pick up a 12 pack of canned soup with one hand while carrying a jumbo-sized laundry detergent in the other.  Then there was the coffee bag incident. 

I usually buy a small bag of good, quality coffee.  This time, I buy a giant bag of inexpensive bulk coffee.  I pour some of the new coffee into the old empty bag and store the rest in the freezer.   Now we can pretend that we are drinking good, quality coffee.  When my mom visits, she doesn't know my new system.  She uses up the coffee and unknowingly throws away a perfectly good empty coffee bag!

The danger comes when I tell her what happened.  After she returns home, she mails me a new empty gourmet coffee bag.   Apparently, however, the post office intervenes.  When my mail arrives, the envelope has been sliced open and the contents inspected.  I remember reading that coffee grounds are sometimes used to disguise the scent of illegal substances from drug sniffing dogs.   I wonder what the postal inspector thought when he opened a bag that smelled like coffee and found...a coffee bag.  Luckily we avoided the SWAT team descending on our house for the drug raid. 

Despite the dangers of being on a budget, I will persevere.  I'm heading back to the bulk store this afternoon.  Right after I finish icing my elbow.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...

"Is it almost Christmas?"  Jack asks me this morning during breakfast.  I pause from my grapefruit to look at him.  His hair is still sticking up wildly--the effect of last night's Halloween hairspray.  I'm pretty sure I see remnants of chocolate smudges on his cheek. 

"Christmas?  No.  Christmas is...let's see..." I do a quick mental calculation.  "Christmas is 55 days away." 

"That's coming up," he nods, seriously.  "I'd better get started on my list."

Jack Frost
Halloween was yesterday.  Can't we talk about Halloween?  Let's talk about Jack's costume: Jack Frost.  Last year he was Jack in the Box.  The year before that he was Blackjack after creating a sandwich board with the Ace of Spades behind him and the Jack of Diamonds on the front.   He's already brainstorming theme ideas for next year.  Will he be a Cracker Jack or a Jack Hammer? Only time will tell. 

Let's talk about Katherine's costume: Little Red Riding Hood.  This year I decided to sew her cape--my first garment!  Yes, I got overconfident after hemming one pair of shorts.   I was remembering my own Halloween costumes, among them a witch, a princess and a bride.  Every year mom sewed my Halloween creation.  No store-bought overpriced plastic for me.  I had high-quality, unique outfits year after year.  It made me feel special and loved. 

Mom also had a lot more experience sewing than I do.  I'm proud to say I finished the cape and learned a lot from my mistakes along the way.  I learned to check the price of the pattern before I buy it.  Before I learned this I spent more on the pattern than I did on the actual fabric.  Oops.  I learned that it is worthwhile to vacuum up all the dog hair from the sun room floor before I lay out all my fabric for cutting.  I learned that lining is very slippery and should always ironed on a low setting or it will pucker.   I learned that sometimes, when the directions don't make sense, it's OK to just wing it.  And I learned that the best part is finishing.
Little Red Riding Hood

Katherine loves her cape.  She is so impressed with me and I'm glad when I overhear her tell people, "My mom made my costume!"  She really appreciates the time and effort I put into the project.  "Thank you for making this the Best Halloween ever!" she told me.  It makes her feel special and loved.  Because she is.

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner but I'm not quite ready to turn that corner.  I'm going to keep my Jack O' Lantern on the porch for another day or two.    Happy Halloween!