Sunday, December 31, 2017

Luke Star Wars

Well, we finally saw the new Star Wars movie this afternoon, and it was pretty good. I have spent the last few weeks actively avoiding spoilers, but even so, I was well-prepared for the ending, both because it seemed inevitable and also due to a garbled conversation I overheard between two sixth graders on the Monday after it premiered. I guess "Skywalker" and "Star Wars" do sound kind of similar.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Keep Those Rags and Machines Humming

After 8 hours on wintery roads yesterday, our car was encrusted in a thin film of salt. Of course, I had no idea that was true until I brushed the new-fallen snow from it this morning. At any rate, a trip to the car wash was definitely in order, and so this afternoon on the way home from the grocery store I made a quick right into an express outfit and waited in line to pay at the kiosk, but not before turning down two offers of unlimited daily washes for 25.99 a month.

Next we pulled around to the entrance where employees literally danced and bounced with signs reading first Pull Forward and then Put it in neutral and step off the brakes. Oh, they laughed at my indecisiveness, but the existence of the signs reassured me that I was not the only clueless client. I could not think how long it had been been since I rode through the car wash, but it was like a sudsy amusement park attraction with flashing blue and red lights and giant rags and brushes and soap and water squirting everywhere, so thrilling that it made me giggle.

"Maybe I will get the unlimited pass!" I told Heidi and Elaine as we drove out into the cold evening in our newly clean car. "That was kind of fun!"

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Night Closes In

After several hours of driving through sub-zero temperatures on the way home from Buffalo a bit of road fatigue hit me somewhere on I-70, and all of a sudden NPR was making me a little sleepy. "How about some Name that Tune?" I suggested to Heidi.

Ours is a road trip-ready version which involves hitting scan on the radio and racing to identify whatever comes up on the next station in range. Of course the tunes vary considerably depending on where we are, which is all part of the fun. At that point in the trip there was a lot of country music, both classic and contemporary, some current pop, some straight up rock, a little classic rock, and... then there was Max 92.9 broadcasting from Buddy Lou's restaurant in Hancock and playing deep cuts and hits from the 70s and 80s.

It turns out that there's nothing like recognizing Exile's Kiss You All Over in 2 bars after several decades to reinvigorate a weary driver in her mid-50s, folks. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017


It was zero degrees when we landed in Buffalo this evening, but you wouldn't have known it by looking at some of our fellow travelers. A frigid draft chilled the baggage claim area each time the sliding glass doors whooshed open, but those guys in shorts didn't flinch at all. And I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck before zipping my coat all the way up and putting on my hat and mittens, but that perma-tanned lady with the in the hot pink Vera Bradley shift and matching slides never wavered once as she shuffled straight out into the bone-chilling night without even a jacket.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Honey Do

Heidi does not love playing games, but she knows her in-laws well.  As stocking stuffers, she got each of us a game to play.

AND even more impressively, she spent the day playing them with us today.

Now that's the Christmas spirit!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Process to Progress

After a delicious dinner and some traditional Christmas cracker hilarity, one by one the family members drifted from the enormous round dining room table, some with unkept promises to return and others with goodnight wishes for those of us who stayed behind. At last it was only Treat, Victor, Courtney and me, and the conversation turned to politics and the state of our country in these tumultuous times. For two hours we spoke and listened earnestly, trying to reconcile our beliefs, experiences, hopes, and fears.

"Are you guys solving all the world's problems?" Jordan asked me when I stepped into the kitchen for some ice water.

"No," I sighed, "but we're doing a good job identifying them."

We laughed.

"I guess that's the first step to fixing them though," I shrugged and headed back in.

Monday, December 25, 2017

White Christmas

3:45 came early this morning after a fun Christmas Eve of dinner and gifts. Lucy spent a restless night, too, sighing and snuggling hard into Heidi or me on the bumpy foldout couch. When I opened the back door to let her out, she bounded into six or more inches of new fallen snow, and the flakes were still swirling steadily from the sky.

A quick check confirmed that our 6 am flight was still on time, but a glance out the front door revealed a silent wonderland of undisturbed drifts with not a plow to be found. With a knot in my stomach, I called the cab company to confirm, but my call went straight to voicemail. The minutes crawled by as I sent text messages and emails to ensure our ride to the airport was on the way, but without a word in return, we finally woke up Heidi's dad from a sound winter's sleep.

He was ready in a flash, and in a few moments we were crunching our way over the luster of the unplowed thruway. We made it with a little time to spare. "White Christmases are over-rated," the gate agent had joked as he scanned our boarding passes, but I couldn't agree, even though when at last our plane climbed above the storm and headed south into the starry dawn, I felt like I'd had a full day already.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Taste Testing

I got an email early last week from SOB, Step Out Buffalo, describing "5 Hidden Gem Chocolatiers You Probably Don't Know About". They were right about that, living 381 miles south as I do, but I wondered if Heidi's parents were equally in the dark. And so yesterday I proposed a little tour of the five, and despite snow and ice, the four of us headed gamely out.

Heidi's dad actually grew up in a candy store in Buffalo, his father's business until business turned bad in the early fifties, and he was rather skeptical that these places might exist without his knowledge. We hit some matinee theater traffic on our way to the first one, and on top of the weather, it was closed when we got there.

The next stop was around the corner, though, and we found parking right in front of an early 20th century brick building wth plate glass windows and a wooden door with jingle bells. Inside wide floors creaked a little under a shiny pressed-tin ceiling. Wooden shelves held packages of handmade chocolate in holiday wrappers, and an old brass cash register sat next to a glass case full of single truffles and turtles and squares of bark. A green accountant lamp spilled yellow light over a big desk in a cluttered office, and in the way back of the place we could see stainless equipment in a tiny chocolate factory. The clerk offered us generous samples, and the chocolate was delicious-- creamy and sweet, but not too sweet.

We left with a shopping bag full of treats and headed off to the next place which was a vegan chocolatier and bakery. Heidi was especially pleased with the maple sponge candy, but I was impressed by the guy sculpting donuts and cupcakes with the snow he shoveled from the walk. We decided to stop for lunch to balance the sugar, and ended up at a fun burger place with 24 beers on tap, all offered in 5 ounces.

I could have stayed there for a while, but it was a little early in the day to start drinking, so we headed off to the last stop, a place outside of town and closer to home. They had ice cream and 25 different types of filled chocolates and truffles, but by then, I couldn't try another bite, and so I was content to sit in my wire and wood parlor chair and chat with Gary as he polished off a turtle sundae. The owner of the place overheard our conversation, and mentioned a couple of other places we missed. Agreeing to save those for another day, we piled into the car just as he was leaving too.

"Have fun with your chocolate crawl!" he waved, and I laughed, because that's exactly what it was!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Now That's What I Call Christmas Lights

There is no question that holiday light technology has come a long way in the last 50 years. A quick stroll through the neighborhood tonight furnished views of spiral trees and giant candy canes, illuminated reindeer, polar bears, and even a golden doodle, giant inflatable snowmen and minions, Santas with and without sleighs, neon-style snow flakes and trees and angels lighting up windows, and laser shows ranging from red and green confetti to messages such as Let it snow, Happy Holidays, and Ho Ho Ho. Some houses draped their trees and bushes with LED light strings, heavy on the blue and purple, and there were some with white icicle-style lights of the type very popular 20 years ago or so.

Collectively, all these lights gleaming in the snowy night were thrilling, but individually they were a little soulless, sad and cheap. Especially, when now and then we saw spotlights brightening up a decorated evergreen in the yard or wreathe on a door. Oh, and there were even one or two places with single candles glowing in each window, and a few others with old-fashioned strings of ceramic C-9 lights neatly following the roof line, in classic form.

Friday, December 22, 2017

One Stop Shopping

We were out running a few Christmas errands in an unfamiliar section of Buffalo early this afternoon when we came upon a wondrous sight:

a shopping center with both a huge Target and an enormous Wegmans!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Who Knew?

After dinner tonight we were all sitting around the table when Heidi's dad pulled a screenshot up on his phone. It was her brother's DNA profile. I glanced at it politely, but without much interest; after all, I had spent some time studying Heidi's DNA, so I really didn't expect any surprises.

Oh, me. It turns out I don't really know everything. As often as I learn that lesson, clearly it hasn't quite sunk in yet. Sibling DNA is not identical, and ethnic markers can be very, very different. For example, in the case of Heidi and Mark, she's 46% British Isles, and he's only 2%.

Holy cow! Maybe there is some American Indian in our past that I just missed out on! DNA tests all around!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

For Goodness Sakes

Lucy was awfully quiet this morning while I was in the kitchen packing lunch. On a hunch I poked my head out to check on her, and sure enough, she was in the living room surrounded by shredded cardboard and wrapping paper. Her project? A small gift addressed to Tibby and Milo. It didn't even contain food; a small cloisonne fish ornament lay among the ruins of the package.

As for Lucy, she was actually smiling and proudly wagging her tail...

right up until she heard the tone of my voice scolding her.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


"Ms S.?" a student raised her hand just as I finished giving directions.


"Your pants are split in the back," she told me quietly.

MY eyes widened in horror as my hand dropped to my bottom and felt a fairly large tear along the pocket. There was definitely skin and underwear exposed, and I racked my brain to try to figure out when it had happened. This was 5th period! How long I had been walking around with my booty hanging out was anybody's guess.

But then? I relaxed. This is middle school, I thought. If anyone noticed, I would know it.

I looked around; nobody was paying any attention to me. I took my sweater off and tied it around my waist and continued on, business as usual.

But then I went home and changed as soon as I could!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Demanding Curriculum

One of my students is off to India tonight for winter break, but before going she did the responsible thing and asked all her teachers for any work sh might miss over the next three days. I commend her, but lordy! The 3 days before vacation are crazy, and who knows what we'll get done.

Still, she (and her parents) are definitely in the Type A category, and so I pulled together a few resources to help her write the first draft of her essay. "Thank you!" she said as I handed them to her this morning. Then she frowned. "Do you happen to have a folder to put them in?" I did.

Later in the day I saw her again. "Have a great trip!"

"Thanks!" she answered. "I have my folder right here," she patted her binder. "You know what?" she asked. "You are the only teacher who had a packet for me today!"

I shrugged. "It's a busy time," I said on my colleagues' behalf.

She gave me a thumbs up. "You were right on point, though," she assured me.

"Thank goodness for that," I winked. "See you in January!"

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Cookie Monster

8 dozen mandel bread
4 dozen chocolate peppermint crinkles
4 dozen cherry apricot rugelach
5 dozen chestnut spice
3 1/2 dozen thumb prints with bourbon chestnut cream

and tea cakes yet to come!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Making the Season Bright

A few months back friends of my sister-in-law were actually moving overseas because of the election results last year. Big foodies, they had an enormous pantry to dismantle, and we scored a few luxury items. The roasted hatch peppers are still in the freezer, as is the duck fat, but the demi-glace is gone, and there is a dent in the Chinese cooking wine as well.

Today I also used the roasted chestnuts in my Christmas baking. I filled brown sugar and bittersweet chocolate thumbprints with a homemade bourbon crème de marron, and I also made some chestnut spice cookies rolled in cinnamon powdered sugar. I'm pretty pleased with the results, and it was fun to try something new using such an old-fashioned traditional ingredient.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Rights and Wrongs

A couple of the boys in my intervention group came roughhousing in the door.

"Whoa whoa whoa!" I stopped them. "What are you doing?"

"He pushed me!" one of them accused the other.

"He called me gay!" the other guy defended himself.

"And?" I raised my eyebrows.

What followed was an interesting discussion among all 8 boys in the group about whether or not such a remark justified such a response. The pushing guy held his ground firmly. "If someone says something I don't like, I can defend myself," he insisted.

"Have you ever heard of the first amendment?" another guy asked him.

"No," he shrugged dismissively.

"Freedom of speech?" the other kid continued. "You can't just attack someone for saying something."

The first boy grimaced. "Well, that's stupid!" 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Report Card

I looked at my wrist when the text message alert chimed.

Richard got a  92 on his exam and a 98 on his free verse, my sister wrote. Yay! This 6th grade ELA teacher was strangely relieved and even a little elated by the news that my 6th grade nephew did well on the ELA assignments I helped him with over the weekend.

But why? Just this morning I had a conversation with one of my own students about her assignment.

"Is it an A???" she asked urgently.

"Probably," I answered as I glanced at it, "but more importantly, what did you learn?"

"A lot!" she assured me. "So, is it an A?"

"We'll see, Franny," I told her.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Primary Sources

As part of my genealogical toolbox, I have a subscription to a searchable newspaper archive service. It hasn't proven to be very valuable when it comes to family history, but it is fascinating to look through scanned original news pages anywhere from 200 years to 2 weeks old. I can easily get lost for hours.

On a whim, tonight I did a quick search for "Christmas Recipes" for December 1962, and tucked between fabulous mid-century graphics and fonts, found a few fun cookie recipes that seem promising. I may try them, but imagining the breakfast tables where first the recipes were read, and then the formica countertops and linoleum floors of the kitchens where they were prepared, and finally the living rooms where perhaps the cookies were served, with Christmas trees and colored lights and tinsel and holiday records spinning on the stereo in the corner, was satisfying in its own way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Home Remedies

“Are you sick?” a teammate asked me today, perhaps noting the hoarseness in my voice.

“Oh no,” I assured her. “It’s just a little congestion.’ Regular readers may recall that I refuse to use the verb to be when describing any health conditions. In my mind, I may have them, but they do not have me, and I certainly am not them.

A new teacher on the team seemed to get it right away, nodding with understanding. Later she poked her head in the door, catching me blowing my nose with more than a little gusto. “Hey,” she said, “did I ever tell you about my friend the naturopathic healer?”

I shook my head.

“She says that tea with honey and lemon and chicken soup really do have healing properties, especially when you have,” she paused meaningfully, “congestion.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “I love chicken soup!”

Monday, December 11, 2017

Peeping Teacher

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to help my nephew with his 6th grade English assignments. A book project and semester exam study guide on Google Classroom and IXL were an open window into the same class I teach 600 miles north.

It was interesting to peek through, and even more fascinating to see the whole shebang from the student and family's point of view. I wish I had some profound insights into the state of American education today, but to be honest, it was really just business as usual, and my nephew completed his assigned tasks with resignation and without joy.


Perhaps there is a bit of profundity there after all.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


"Look how big Richard is!" I said to Heidi pointing the facetime phone in his direction. "Can you believe it?" It didn't matter that we had seen him 2 weeks ago, he just seemed older and taller than before.

"But he is as awesome as ever!" she answered from Virginia. "Think of all the things we say that came from him."

I nodded and laughed. "That guy is moooooving!" we said at the same time with double barreled pointer fingers, just the way Richard had at 4, racing out to the front porch as a dump truck hurtled by.

"Wouldn't that be a good idea?" I said, just as five-year-old Richard had at the aquarium, explaining why he should be allowed to get a giant blue fish-shaped lollipop.

"Oh! What a healthy lunch!" Heidi replied, remembering six-year-old Richard's approval when I presented him with a small plate of rolled up turkey, string cheese and a few olives and cucumber slices.

And now that guy is 12! And just past that tweeny shrug and beneath that mop of hair, still as quirky and cute as ever.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cutting to the Chase

As I sat at the breakfast bar this morning, Jack whispered loudly in his mom's ear. "Can she play with me?"

"Who?" she asked, listening as he urgently whispered some more. "Courtney? Annabelle? Richard?"

He shook his head fiercely and then looked at me. "Her!" he pointed. "My cousin! Can she come to the playroom and practice my basketball with me?"

"You mean Tracey?" his mom asked, and he nodded vigorously.

I laughed. It's not every day a 55-year-old lady gets such an invitation from a 5-year-old boy. Plus, I liked the way my first cousin twice removed simplified our relationship. "You bet!" I replied hopping off my stool. "Let's play!"

Friday, December 8, 2017

Driving Conditions

A rare early December winter storm made its way from Texas across the gulf states and up through the mid-Atlantic on the very day that I was making a rare early December road trip to Atlanta. Winter storm Benji and I first met in Richmond; he heading north and I traveling south, but that did not prevent us from spending the day together. Freezing rain, sleet, and snow pattered against my windshield the whole 11 hours. Fortunately, the temperature stayed above freezing and the roads were clear most of the way, but even when they weren't, the snow was too pretty to complain, so I just turned on the Christmas music and sang along.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Be My Guest

My room is clean and organized, my lesson plans written with resources well-prepared.

Too bad I won't be there to actually enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Selective Amnesia

When it comes to gifts, I want to be surprised. So much so, that I intentionally wipe my mind clear of any request or suggestion I may have made related to the holidays, and I refuse to even guess what this package or that might hold. (Of course there are exceptions-- I'm talking to you, record albums and books, but even then, one can never be sure of the title until the paper has been gleefully torn off.)

My policy even extends to our Christmas decorations-- I am delighted every time I open the box and start pulling them out. Each one is a perfect, oxymoronic, familiar surprise.

And this year, I also found a little note when I opened the merry red and green container.

Dear Heidi and Tracey,

it read in my handwriting,

Merry Christmas! Remember to pull out all the ornament layers this year before you start.

I have no recollection of writing it, but it was excellent advice! (And Merry Christmas to you, too, Tracey of 2016! I know your holiday was very happy.)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Right Here, That's Where

What was I thinking when I placed 10 of the wildest, non-readingest boys in my morning book club?

That I could tame them with the magic trick of staring into all their eyes without blinking once (and donuts!) and that maybe we would find a wild rumpus of a book to celebrate together?

It looks like I'll be sailing in and out of weeks to find out.

And I may need a wolf suit.

Monday, December 4, 2017


"Can we bring our own birthday treats?" a student in my homeroom asked the other day. Her birthday was coming up, and it is my practice to bring donuts or some other sweet to celebrate.

"Sure, if you'd rather," I shrugged. "It's your birthday!"

I smiled and she did too.

To be honest, it was one thing off my plate, but I was curious when the big day rolled around. I announced the celebration with the same fan fare as always, and we all sang and wished her a hearty happy birthday.

"Can I help you serve?" I asked as she pulled a rather small bag out from under the desk.

"Oh no," she said, "I can do it," producing a stack of napkins, a ceramic soup spoon, and a plastic container of...

pomegranate seeds!

It was a brand new experience for most of the kids, and as they chewed the tart little morsels their facial expression were mixed, but they are a gracious group, and I like that about them.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


I heard a story on NPR recently about how Paris is putting sparkling water fountains in parks all over the city. The objective is to eliminate plastic bottle waste, and indeed all of the Parisians interviewed for the piece were quite enthusiastic, many filling their containers to enjoy later at home. The high quality of water in Paris was definitely a subtext; one woman spoke about rotating the sparkling water she drinks weekly to optimize her mineral consumption, and how she was happy to include the new free bubbly in her regime.

"She's like Lucy!" Heidi noted when I recounted the report to her. "Lucy loves her upstairs water, her downstairs water, her kitten water bowl water, and now her Christmas Tree water."

It must be the minerals.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Counter Surfer

It gave me a little pause this afternoon when I found a glob of cinnamon roll on the floor. Did I drop that? I wondered. until I noticed that five were missing from the tray, and it became clear that our little puppy had obviously become a stealthy thief.

Oh, she paid for her transgression, moaning and sighing her way through the afternoon, but after a little bout of loose stool, she was more ravenous than ever for her dinner. Too bad! we thought as we cut her regular portion by half, a little moderation will be good for you.

Later on, when both the raw hamburgers on the counter were gone, we reconsidered.

Friday, December 1, 2017


You bought us a whole tree????? asked the puppy and two kittens.

Merry Christmas!