Goodnight 2017; welcome 2018

Tonight’s cocktail is an elderflower liqueur and sparkling wine treat.

New Year cocktail - 1My favorite thing about this drink is the soft, floral sweetness of the elderflower liqueur. Thank you, St. Germain, for relieving me of the need to harvest my own elderflower heads in the spring.

My husband does, in fact, have at least one elderberry bush in our yard. His only interest in gardening is the production of edible berries! I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not sure that, if I harvest its flowers, it will still produce his berries.

If I write about divorce come late summer, this may be the instigator.

A very near second is the simplicity of throwing in a few berries—I’ve used both blueberries (tonight) and cranberries (a Christmas party)—which result in a fancy looking beverage with a minuscule amount of effort.

I’m a big fan of zero effort.

I’m using dry cava because I traveled to Spain recently. Specifically, we visited El Pla del Penedès, and that’s where the best cava is born if my host is to be believed. And my experience suggests that she should be believed!

All of my best wishes for a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2018 to everyone reading.

Hanukkah family fun, night 8: Find the fun & SNAP, the job’s a game

Click here if you missed Night 7.

Mary Poppins* fans may have caught the quote in the title for this post. In the “Spoonful of Sugar” song from the movie, she makes the point that one can lighten a chore by adding a little fun.

Our boys aren’t working graveyard shifts in a factory, but we do see practical applications for teaching them about electronics. Tonight’s gifts come from the series of educational toys from Elenco, Snap Circuits

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits 300Snap Circuits do great job of easing a task that some would categorize as work. They are packaged sets of pieces that allow kids“from 8 to 108” per the boxto do experiments with real, working circuits without any messy, skin-singeing soldering.

Go on: ask me why I’m concerned about singeing oneself with solder. No, don’t, because I’m clumsy and easily distracted, and burning flesh is gross. I loved my electrical engineering classes, but lived in fear of implementing what I learned. I would’ve enjoyed these Snap Circuit sets in college!

Instead of soldering wires, the connections are made with oversized snaps like you would find on common garments. They’re as easy to click together as Lego bricks. Unlike a simple Lego connection, however, one must develop an understanding of how electricity flows in order to create working circuits that make electronic projects work.

Never studied electronics? Don’t worry! There’s a very specific manual to walk kids through the different projects.

The boys have had a Snap Circuits starter set for years, and the SC-100 Junior Starter Set is a fine place to begin at any age. Once you have your kid has a grasp on the basic working of the components, you can add on additional kits that either continue with a general education in electronics, or follow a particular theme that might appeal to the user.

For the eighth night of Hanukkah, my older son and possible future game designer received the SCA-200 Snap Circuits Arcade kit. His brother opened up the UC-30 Upgrade Kit SC100 to SC300.

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits AAs a parent, one of my favorite things about this company and these kits is the commitment to keeping the sets modular and re-combinable to extend their value. I really appreciate having the choice to buy just the additions I need to move from a beginner’s set to one with more advanced experiments and projects.

Unlike some other company’s products, I’m not forced to either:

  • pay extra for parts I don’t need, or
  • carefully work through lists in tiny print on the back of the box for multiple, similar sets to determine whether or not I’ve missing anything that sounds fun and/or important.

And it isn’t all work with no play! The kids genuinely enjoy fooling around with Snap Circuits kits because they can make real, working models that do stuff. Lights will light up and buzzers will sound, and they will do so more reliably than most kids can manage with regular electronic components even in an educator supported environment.

Naturally, the stuff my boys want to do usually includes “make a loud, obnoxious buzzer in Mom’s ear” or “try to launch the spinner into my brother’s face,” but Elenco isn’t selling magic beans or the promise of more perfect kids. With Snap Circuits, they are selling appealing sets that let children experiment with—and learn about—real electronics without too much muss or fuss.

A supportive adult could be helpful for a total novice or a younger child, but no supervision is necessary to make these kits diverting for kids who like to take stuff apart and/or build things.

Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts are generally things that we can enjoy as a family. These fit the bill because they give the kids something to play with that leads naturally to learning experiences we like sharing with our boys.

How does that project work? Why did it fail before? What else can you do with those elements? What does that inspire you to try next time? What’s the correlation between this toy and the circuits you can see in household electronics?

I worried a little about ending eight days of holiday giving with the “educational” present, but I shouldn’t have. Snap Circuits are too good. The boys were genuinely pleased to expand their collection.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 8 hanukkiah extinguishing itself - 1


*If you’ve never read P.L. Travers’ novels about Mary Poppins, which served as inspiration for the popular 1964 Disney film, please consider doing so. The books were much darker and weirder than the film version, and I loved them as a little girl. This is a case where I think the film is a real classic, but almost a completely different creature from the original work.

Some people on GoodReads seem to find old-fashioned child rearing methods so inappropriate, they can’t even enjoy the books. All I can say is that none of it bothered me as a girl. I would gladly put up with an imperious guardian to enjoy magical adventures; why not let today’s children make that choice for themselves, too?

Hanukkah family fun, night 7: Making tracks with a small gift that has an outsized impact

Read about our celebration of Night 6, here.

I’ve learned over the years that more gifts can lead to less joy, at least for my little not so little boys. Spacing out the individual presents helps, and so does avoiding too many extravagant gifts at the same holiday.

This has been one of my hardest parenting lessons to internalize: don’t overwhelm the kids with gifts that attempt to quantify your infinite love.

  • It’s impossible.
  • You’ll spoil them.
  • Your house will overflow with stuff at a cost far exceeding its value.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I also try to alternate bigger impact gifts with simpler pleasures, and spread out amongst all eight nights the presents I believe will most please different members of the family.

Yes, that’s right: I had a plan all along. Could anyone who knows me think I just wrapped this stuff up and grabbed boxes at random to throw at my family? There’s a spreadsheet, of course. It’s all about the pacing.

Hanukkah 7 simple track on table - 1Night seven was one for simple pleasures, and enjoying what we’ve already got.

The boys opened two boxes of additional Lego train tracks (Flexible & Straight Set 7499 and Switching Tracks Set 7895) for our Winter Holiday Train and its Station. You’ll want to begin with Nights 1 and 2 to hear more about those.

We spent the rest of the evening building circuits and inventing ridiculous scenarios for the minifigs and trains on the table.

Hanukkah 7 minifig throwing switch - 1

What’s she up to? No good!

I thought about providing the track right after the train, but this seemed to be a better plan. For one thing, we often but not always get a set built in one evening. Why rush the extra track onto the scene if the train wasn’t ready to roll?

More importantly, my little guy has had several days of marveling over the Station’s details and pushing the train up to the platform on its simple loop of track. Each time he immersed himself in the scene, he became more aware of how much he would enjoy expanding it and connecting it to another part of his imaginary world.

He’s been musing to himself for a few evenings:

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a track that led to…”

Now, he can make that happen, and he’s ready to put in the effort to make it happen with no other distractions for the evening. The boys even dug into our existing Lego sets and pulled out an older, motorized train Grandma bought for a Christmas past.

This led inexorably to the aggressive shunting of steam engine and holiday trucks by a Diesel locomotive. Shades of the Island of Sodor, anyone? If you don’t get the reference, commence reading the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine immediately.

A few pieces of track don’t make an extravagant gifteven at Lego prices, but today it has an immediate value to my younger, somewhat more materialistic son.† He also receives the gift of a modest object that gratifies his imagination above all else.

Too many toys are too easily forgotten in the chaos of more, more, more. The right accessory on Night 7 served to reignite all the excitement from those first, bigger gifts.

At least, that was my nefarious plan, which will be discovered if my kids start reading my blog.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 7 hanukkiah lighting - 1


Stay tuned for the final night of Hanukkah, Night 8.

The big kid just loves to build. He always sees the value in a gift of parts to expand on a modular set. The trick with him—and, it must be noted, with Mommy—is to remind him to graciously allow the younger child to assemble some tracks and learn for himself why symmetry and careful planning are so important when it comes to engineering a system of moving parts.

We didn’t mean to make the little guy cry! Sigh. And, eventually, he did get to play, too.

Hanukkah family fun, night 6: Volumes for our library

Revisit Night 5, here.

Whether you’ve read my posts or visited my house, it should be fairly obvious that I love to read.

Books are a vital ingredient in my happiness, and I think I’ve successfully passed that addiction preference along to my children with plenty of assistance from my equally bibliophilic husband and both of our families.

I doubt that a single gift-giving occasion has passed in our household without someone giving or receiving a new book.

For the sixth night of Hanukkah, I gave each of my boys something interesting to read.

The younger one got an audiobook about his latest obsession: D&D*.

Hanukkah 6 gift graphic novel - 1For the older one, there was one book of comedic philosophy by a pair of authors we’d enjoyed together in audio form, and one graphic novel set in a video game universe he likes that was on his wish list. It hardly seemed fair to make a gift of something to which I’d introduced him as schoolwork, though the philosophy book was a really fun read/listen.

Both had a book that tied in to the game night theme from night five, and all volumes were graciously received, even the educational one.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. We still read together, though even our youngest child is himself now admirably literate.

I think it’s a shame when parents believe ability to read means the kids no longer benefit from reading aloud together. Language was meant for communication, and stories were created to be told and shared.

Audiobooks make a great shortcut when Mom and Dad are tired; having a kid with young eyes become the nighttime storyteller works great, too.

Wishing everyone a sweet bedtime story on this winter’s evening.

Happy Hanukkah!


Hanukkah 6 hanukkiah lighting - 1

Click on for night seven.

*The role playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, whose other books include Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearly Gates: Using philosophy (and jokes!) to explain life, death, the afterlife, and everything in betweenand Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington: Understanding political doublespeak through philosophy and jokes.

Hanukkah family fun, night 5: Game night!

Go back to Night 4, here.

Board games. Card games. Role playing games. Heck, even video games. I’m open to almost any game, as long as we can play as a family.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy together. Games are an obvious choice.

Personally, I like any game better when I have a good chance to win. That rules out quick action games with a lot of hitting like Slamwich, but leaves plenty of great options for agile minds that can outrun nimble fingers: Syzygy (my favorite letter tile word game, released in 1997, but similar to widely available 2007 knockoff Bananagrams), Settlers of Catan, and Robo Rally are popular with me.

Hanukkah 5 gift game - 1Yeah, that’s right. I’m not one of those moms who throws a game for her kids’ self esteem. I like to win! Here’s hoping there’s some evidence somewhere that says my kids will turn out okay in spite of that.

After yesterday’s electronic extravaganza, and with some heavy metal tunes percolating in the background, tonight, the kids opened two small gifts before we turned our attention from Hanukkah to the celebration of a family birthday.

Hanukkah 5 gift game D&D Monster Manual - 1There was a D&D Monster Manual for the little boy whom I imagine sweeping the world’s competition to become the ultimate dungeon master someday, and a card game from Think Fun entitled “The Last Letter opened by DS1.

With a house full of company, we didn’t play any of our new games tonight, but some of us took care to spend a little time learning their rules. After all, how else is Mommy supposed to maintain her winning streak?

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 5 - 1


Watch this space for Night 6.

Hanukkah family fun, night 4: Shout to the Lord… with giant stereo speakers

Go back to Night 3, here.

The King James Bible translates Psalm 100 as:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness…

A Chabad reference gives us this English version of the same verse:

A song for a thanksgiving offering. Shout to the Lord, all the earth.

Serve the Lord with joy…

Today, the latter may be more apt for our situation. I gave DH and the rest of the family a set of three Polk Audio speakers for the fourth night of Hanukkah. These were installed in our main living area, and will be used for both music and to add surround sound to our television setup.

Hanukkah 4 speaker with soundbar - 1

In case you’re wondering, a Polk Audio CSi A6 center channel speaker fits perfectly in an IKEA Pax Wardrobe Frame (shallow 13″ depth.) I’ll tidy those cords later. Demoted soundbar shown at front.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. While it is true that we are a household that places limits on media consumption by the kids—probably more so than an average American family—it is also true that, like most modern humans, we spend a fair bit of time on our couch in front of the tv.

We’ve had our various media components hooked up through a receiver for several years, but, when our old bookshelf speakers got disconnected during out last move—relics, themselves, from a former audio system—I did the expedient thing and replaced them with an inexpensive sound bar from Costco.

I’m not an audiophile, but I did notice that a puny soundbar in one corner leads to tinny sound when I play music for the dinner table at the opposite end of a 1000 square foot great room.

I’m not interested enough to become truly educated about speakers and sound systems. I am smart enough to read up a little then consult an expert for specific buying guidance. Many thanks to my advisor, CJ from Crutchfield. Having had success being talked through installing our own car stereo by these guys, I figured the purchase and installation of a set of speakers would be manageable, and trusted their advice.

Hanukkah 4 speaker with kid - 1

The speaker, Polk Audio model RTi A7, is the one not wearing sweatpants.

Measuring at about the height and weight of a seven year old child, the powerful front speakers provide a strong presence in our very large room on several levels. They fit our space, then can provide sufficient sound to fill our space, and the cherry wood veneer complements our living space visually.

Being prone, as I’ve admitted, to serial enthusiasms, it took a great deal of self control to stop at a 3.1 system (two large, floor standing front speakers and a center channel for the all important television dialogue) once I dove into the world of Big, Awesome Sound.

Hanukkah 4 speaker in box - 1

Any bigger, and our teen and his grandfather couldn’t have gotten these speakers up the stairs

I can see how our receiver could use an upgrade. A subwoofer would really thrill my guys during the action movies they enjoy. And, without rear speakers, how will we ever hear those creatures creeping up behind us when the suspense is building?

Ah, but there are only eight nights of Hanukkah, and the budget has its limits. These new toys should prove delightful in and of themselves. Though it was a struggle given my nature, this is me practicing self restraint.

And the new speakers? They sounds great!

DH was even prompted to hook up some music components that had been gathering dust since our move. He doesn’t take enough to time to enjoy his own hobbies, always working too hard and taking care of us first, so it was great to watch him fool around with a stereo and play some of his own tunes.

I did have to tell him to turn that noise down after a while, but, with speakers like these, that was to be expected.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 4 light candles


Click here to read about Night 5.

*Psalms are known as Tehillim in a Jewish context. Tehillim translates as “Praises” from the Hebrew, just as Psalms does from the Greek.

Hanukkah family fun, night 3: Lego Train heading into the Winter Holiday Station!

Go back to Night 2, here.

If you read yesterday’s post, you probably saw this gift coming, and full steam ahead at that.

That’s right: the Legoset 10254Winter Holiday Train has arrived at Winter Village Station. Thank heavens we got the platform built in time!

Hanukkah 3 train gift

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I’ve gone on at length about our family love for Lego toys, but I think this photo might best express the joy a train can bring.

Hanukkah 3 train fans

That’s joy, I promise, and not terror (that the gift was a Trojan Horse promising to unleash a conquering army while we slept?)

Hanukkah 2 train station barista espresso - 1

Commuters into Bricklyn have received the greatest holiday blessing of all: Espresso! Okay, that’s a little blasphemous. So sorry. But it couldn’t be helped. Or, rather, I won’t help myself.

For those of us with espresso obsession, I’d also like to point out that the Winter Village Station has finally brought to Winter Village that most essential of services: a coffee window with barista working her espresso machine.

Lest you think these gifts are getting too predictable, I’ll share one hint about what’s coming tonight: it’s something the whole family will enjoy, but with a much greater focus on the long-held dreams of the grown up boy in our household, my darling husband.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 3 hanukkiah


Click here for night four.

Hanukkah family fun, night 2: Let there be Lego of the Winter Village variety

Go back to Night 1, here.

On the second night of Hanukkah, our family received the gift of Lego set 10259, the Winter Village Station.Hanukkah 2 - Lego front

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. While some parents may think Lego is just for the kids, those of us who still love to build would argue that a Lego set is a great starting point for creative family togetherness.

It is possible that I threaten the kids on “one gift shared by two brothers” nights by saying they should either enjoy their collective present peacefully, or the joy of building reverts to Mommy.

I may as well admit right now that I’m a tyrannical dictator albeit with benevolent intentions. I’m supposing that’s been obvious for about as long as I’ve been writing about parenting.

We’ve been collecting the “Winter Holiday” series from Lego since it was introduced a few years ago. While it is true that their “seasonal” decor leans more “Christmas-y” than secular, it is also true that the classic holiday look reflects fairly closely what we see in our community.

Hanukkah 2 - Lego back

Reflects our New England community, except maybe for the steam engine. Our local commuter rail employs modern diesel-electric locomotives.

It’s not hard to construct our own hanukkiah* to add to the Christmas tree in the winter village square.

Considering the number of aliens and other non-traditional types who populate our Lego scenes, we consider Bricklyn** to be a tolerant and accepting community where every minifig can worship or not as s/he sees fit.

And this particular contribution to the Winter Village? A train station? With a level crossing?

Oh me, oh my, there was no chance I would let this set slip by.

This mom likes trains. I like to travel by train, and I like to build toy tracks. I’m a sucker for the romance of the rails.

My oldest child was a Thomas the Tank Engine nut as a tot, and he still enjoys model railroading. To this day, he can name more of those little wooden trains than I would think possible. He’s our greatest engineer, and will build the best layout for our space, with our tracks.

DH is less an enthusiast, but will play with any radio controlled (RC) or motorized vehicle when given the chance. The trick with that man is keeping him within the bounds of our Lego city and the established decorums. He never builds according to the rules! We appreciate his creative nature, but sometimes have to reign in his wildest innovations.

And DS2? He’s a natural storyteller. You could give him a bowling set to play with, and he would weave a complex tale of the pins’ interrelationships and the great tragedy of the upcoming ball. Seriously! He might already be the most compelling narrator I’ve ever met, a fabulist in the best sense of the word. I often see my role as protecting him from having his boundless talent for spinning yarns educated out of him by a well-meaning system run by dull-witted bureaucrats. This little boy breathes the breath of life into Bricklyn, animating its subjects, and inspiring everyone else’s constructions to add dimension to our shared story.

Someday, we plan to have a model train—probably of the Lego variety—permanently set up around an open atrium in our living room. Blame it on my early exposure to Mr. Rogers and his trolley, but it’s been a dream of mine since I was a child, and my family seems equally keen on the plan. In my most elaborate fantasy, we will sandwich a Lego public transit system between two layers of acrylic sheet and create an entire subterranean level for our Lego city. My heart flutters when I think of it!

But, for today, we have a Winter Village Station to build. I promised the little guy that DS1 and I would get the main building assembled before he got home from school; he wants to make the old-fashioned truck by himself.

With the holiday school break approaching, we should have some serious hours to spend together in our invented winter wonderland.

Happy Hanukkah!



Click here to go to night three.

*The nine branched candle holder used specifically for Hanukkah is a “hanukkiah.” Notice the raised position, in the center of my hanukkiah, for the helper candle, or “shamash.” We use the shamash to light the other candles.

A “menorah” is a (now purely symbolic) seven armed candelabra that dates back to the days of the First Temple in Jerusalem where it would have been lit by the priests in a nightly ritual. Our Temple was destroyed, so we now make religious observances together in a house of prayer or “synagogue” instead of the Holy Temple.

**Read more about our family Lego project and its pride of place smack dab in the middle of the living room in this post.

Hanukkah family fun, night 1: Percussion instruments for drum circle dreams

Go back to my holiday greetings to all readers, here.

DH might have been entranced by the joys of a drum circle at a recent event that took place in California, where New Age regularly rubs shoulders with Neuroscience. He might’ve put percussion instruments on his wish list.

Hanukkah Night 1 gift - 1

How does a scientist gets a djembe out of a bag? Pretty much the way a dog gets peanut butter out of a jar: face first.

Here’s what that led to: a joyful noise!

For the first night of Hanukkah, a djembe, tambourine, and various shakers made their way into our home.

Hanukkah Night 1 djembe gift - 1Will my tender ears come to regret this gift? Let’s hope not. I can always lock the instruments in DH’s office if the kids get too percussive when Papa isn’t home.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family, not the more personalized items we receive for birthdays.

Hanukkah 1 shakersI may not be beating any drums with my arthritic fingers, but I can shake a maraca with the best of them. Well, maybe not with the best of them. My sense of rhythm and timing is mediocre at best. I also drop things when my joints are stiff. But, hey, maybe I was dropping it artistically!

Let’s get back to that “joyful noise.” We can definitely accomplish that as a family, though melodious may be a pipe dream.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah Night 1 table - 1


Move ahead to Night 2, here.

Thanksgiving lessons learned: one mom’s (grateful) battle to enjoy labor-intensive holidays

I love that Thanksgiving reminds me to take stock and be thankful for the abundance of blessings in my life. I am blessed. I am thankful. I’m grateful for a holiday devoted to that awareness.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1But then there is the reality of celebrating Thanksgiving in America as a mom. It involves a lot of cooking, a lot of shopping, and a lot of stress.

Let’s all keep in mind that I’m not a great cook. I can produce reasonably healthy and palatable food for my family; I don’t enjoy cooking.

Shopping the gauntlet

I start shopping right after Halloween. I buy the wine as early as possible for obvious reasons. I pick up our family celiac’s favorite gluten free stuffing mix from Trader Joe’s as soon as it arrives for the season.

Pantry goods are easy to buy ahead of the rush, and doing so helps spread out over multiple weeks the costs of a sit down dinner for 20.

I’m grateful for Amazon Fresh delivering my last minute, fresh foods on the day before Thanksgiving. Grocery stores are hellish just before this holiday! Having the items I want dropped off right to my door is a Really Wonderful Thing.

We enjoy seasonal, local bounty direct from family-owned farms in New England via Farmers To You. This year ’round service is especially gratifying as the autumn harvest rolls in. I’ve posted before about my commitment to support our regional food shed with my grocery dollars.

A humanely raised turkey from Misty Knoll Farms as the centerpiece of our feast is something I’m proud to feed my family and friends.

Cleaning the house

As we catalogue my faults, let’s remember that I’m not much of a housekeeper, either. Hosting a large meal raises certain expectations for minimizing the usual daily clutter. Having out of town relatives to stay means prepping the guest room and the downstairs bathroom, too.

I have to confess: this year, I didn’t get as much done as I’d have liked to prepare for houseguests. I struggled to forgive myself for that, but I used up every iota of energy that I had prepping for Thanksgiving in other ways, choosing to prioritize the feeding of 20 people from seven households over the immediate comforts of close relatives.

I’m grateful that I’ve gotten better at acknowledging my limits; I’ll keep working on accepting those limitations with grace.

Planning on the level of a precision strike

The only way a less-than-stellar cook is going to get a meal for twenty on the table in something resembling good time is to create a plan that incorporates all the prep and cooking times for multiple recipes and integrate them temporally. Continue reading