Monday, December 31, 2007

Comfort Food for the New Year

Here at Sassafras House, we celebrated the end of 2007 by putting Mama's new square baking dish to work to make chocolate fudge pudding cake. I wanted a square baking dish pretty much for this cake alone. The recipe is from Cooks' Country and it's a no-fail warm and tasty treat on a cold evening. Guaranteed comfort food (now served in my lovely warm red dish).

1 cup sugar
½ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup milk
4 tablespoons butter, melted (I use salted butter......if you use unsalted, add ¼ teaspoon salt)
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup chocolate chips
1 cup boiling water

Place your oven rack in the middle of the oven and then preheat to 350 degrees. Spray an 8 inch square baking pan with non-stick spray. Whisk ½ cup sugar with ¼ cup cocoa powder in a small bowl.

Whisk flour, remaining ½ cup sugar, remaining ¼ cup cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk milk, butter, egg yolk, and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth. Stir the milk mixture into flour mixture until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips (the batter will be stiff).

Using a rubber spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread into corners. Sprinkle the reserved cocoa mixture evenly over the top of the batter. Gently pour boiling water over the cocoa layer. Do not stir.

Bake for 25 minutes. When the cakes come out of the oven it will look cracked and there will be sauce bubbling. Cool on a rack for about 10 minutes. To serve, scoop the warm cake into individual bowls. Top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and your little boy will give you a hug.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Set Addiction

Last Christmas, I first learned how to play Set, a card game that I highly recommend.

I've been a junkie ever since, playing the on-line puzzle every day and recording my score when it was particularly awesome. When my score suggests that I am painfully stupid......well a girl has to have a few secrets.

Santa left JT the Set card game in his Christmas stocking, but we all knew what would happen with the game. I've made JT play me every day since Christmas. And, as JT sighed this morning and agreed to play yet another game with his Mama, he announced, "You're addicted to Set."

The first step in getting help is admitting that you have a problem.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Best Laid Plans

The weekend of December 15, when I should have been grading papers, I instead made Christmas and New Year's cards for various friends and family. By the end of the weekend, my cards were ready to place in the mail. To save time and avoid waiting in line, I went on-line and ordered stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. It was December 18 and I figured that the stamps would arrive in time for me to mail off my cards by the 24th at the latest.

Thus commenced my daily anxious checking of the mailbox. As my cards gathered (figurative) dust, the mailbox was empty. Finally, the stamps were delivered.


So the cards were stamped tonight and then JT and I took an evening walk to the mailbox down the block. If you've been waiting for a greeting from Sassafras House, be assured that the cards are on their way to points south, north, and east. And, if the post office is true to form, they should be there in mid-January.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Big Daddy Revealed

JT has a lovely wooden advent calendar that provides a daily pre-Christmas treat. On Christmas Eve the treat was to open a Christmas package early. It was quite clear to both of us which package would be selected that day......the big daddy, the package sent his way by his California cousins (whom, I believe, had a whole lot of help via JT's Auntie KO).

He was very excited as he prepared to tear into the paper.

It was a Playmobil Roman ship.

Mama put it together straight away.

And they sailed off into the sunset to conquer foreign peoples. Don't worry: the boy is a benevolent ruler.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Day 2007

Going to bed on Christmas Eve is a tricky business when you are 7 years old. You want to sleep, of course, because only then will Santa come. But sleeping is counter-intuitive when you are simply quivering with excitement about Christmas morning, which is finally within reach.

In my mind, Christmas morning is the best day of the year to be a parent; watching JT's face as he sees what Santa has left for him is simply a glorious pleasure. For me, playing Santa and selecting the things that I know will most thrill my boy then setting them up to await his morning excitement makes the hard part of parenting worth while. JT's excitement filled the house.

After we opened the presents under the tree, we had a quiet afternoon (Mama even enjoyed a brief nap!) while JT played with his new buddies.

We wrapped the day up with a lovely Christmas supper shared with some very good friends.

It was a good day.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Santa: Outsourcing

My son is 7 years old and he is in the 2nd grade. It's a nice age because he retains the charm of childhood even as he begins to develop reasoning skills. For this reason, Santa Claus is a complicated figure. JT very much wants to believe and I think that he still does believe. But he asks pointed questions: how is it that Mama promises to wake up if a bad guy comes in the house and yet she sleeps soundly through the night on Christmas Eve? The world is a big, big place: how does Santa get to every house on Christmas Eve?

This year's suspicion centered on just where it is that Santa gets his goodies. In our sometimes cold corner of the world, Santa frequently delivers the gift of fleece. Last year Santa brought a fleece vest. This year Santa left new fleece mittens and a new fleece hat in JT's stocking. Like many of the clothes worn in our house, all of the fleece items came from Lands' End.

"Oh," JT announced as he emptied his stocking, "Santa gets things from Lands End, just like you do. Mama , why don't the elves make these things for Santa?."

Obviously, this query called for a quick response. So I went with the obvious as I explained, "Santa has lots of things to make for people so he asks for help. And the nice people at Lands' End make good warm things like jackets and mittens so Santa must have asked them to make mittens and a hat for you."

He seemed satisfied with this explanation, but I think that I just accused Santa of outsourcing.

My Christmas Stocking

My ex-partner and I always filled a stocking for one another on Christmas Eve, playing Santa for one another and then playing Santa together for JT. Filling her stocking was one of my greatest Christmas pleasures; I would search high and low for the perfect items for her. As Christmas approached last year, and I was playing Santa alone for the first time, I suddenly realized that there was no one to fill my stocking. And, as excited as he would be on Christmas morning, I realized that JT would notice if Santa didn't leave me a stocking.

So I set about collecting items to fill my own Christmas stocking. It was a sad and lonely business. It brought me little joy.......honestly, I felt pathetic. But JT noticed that Santa had included me, and he looked through the treats in my stocking (sad for me that no toys were involved). I was glad that I had looked after the detail.

This year, I was absolutely determined to enjoy the process of filling my own Christmas stocking. Key to that was acquiring things well in advance of the holiday, tucking them into a secretive corner, and then promptly forgetting about the tiny treats I had bought myself. The Etsy artisan website was key to this process. And I'm pleased to say that it was a great success. When I filled my stocking tonight, I succeeded in making myself actually excited to explore the treats tomorrow morning.

And I wonder if this is an appropriate metaphor for the larger questions in my life. But tomorrow is Christmas, a day for childhood joy and wonder, and so I will leave those questions for another day.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Creature Comforts

Last year, in the fall, when JT and I both tried to manage the open wound of our freshly broken family, we picked out two kittens to join our family. I thought that caring for other beings would help to heal our hearts. And the kittens – Tiger and his sister Lucy – were a great success.

Though they sometimes try our patience, they have mostly been a wonderful addition to our lives. They make us laugh, they are good for a cuddle on a cold evening. When they join us for stories each night, we cuddle up together in JT's flannel nest. They nap quietly in a cozy sunny spot, and it seems like they have always been here. In so many ways, they help to make our house feel like a home.

They greet us at the door when we come home from school, happy to see us at the end of the day. They sometimes join JT in his playroom, curling up for a nap in the sleeping bag. On the cold winter days, Tiger and Lucy sit on the radiator in the dining room, looking outside the window and keeping me company as I write and grade papers.

Whether curled up on an afghan, or stretched out in a patch of sunlight, they warm our lives in so many ways. When JT is away for the evening and my house feels terribly quiet, they are my comforting creatures.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Big Daddy, part II

JT's affection for the big daddy package has continued unabated. Everyday, he suggests that we open before Christmas morning. I ignore this request, of course, and then suggest that I actually know what is inside the big daddy box. Naturally, my goal here is to horrify JT. And I am proud to note that I have been quite successful. The suggestions which engender the most boy distaste:

- Barbie dream house
- Dora the Explorer play set
- nothing
- lots and lots of My Little Pony toys (hey, that pony is little)
- Strawberry Shortcake (it got him to sniff the box)

It would seem that Mama still has a little game in her.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Vacation!

The holiday break started yesterday afternoon at 3:05 when school let out. The first thing I did when I got home was turn off the alarm on my alarm clock. No more 5:45 am wake-ups for me (well, at least for two weeks).

Then I had a nap.

Today, the boy and I enjoyed a luxurious 9 am sleep in. And then I played Monopoly Junior with this shiftless ne'er do well.

He beat me twice.

But it's a few minutes after 12 pm and we are both of us still in our pajamas. So you'll hear no complaints from me.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What Santa and George W. Bush Have in Common

It is a reality of life with a 7 year old that, more than most people, we discuss body functions. Just saying the word 'fart" sends a 7 year old into paroxysms of laughter. Saying it repeatedly is even better.

But I was startled to be informed by the boy that neither Santa nor the president farts. He was washing up in the shower, with a head full of suds, when the announcement was made. When I countered that all animals fart, JT denied such a slanderous claim. The subject was not open for debate and so we moved on to a more dubious discussion: how do Santa's reindeer poop when they are flying from the North Pole?

I expect that the resident expert will soon formulate an explanation for this most pressing issue.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Although there are times when I am no longer sure of anything related to the past I shared with my former partner, I still believe that we did holidays well. I know that I enjoyed all of the holiday traditions that we created and sustained. I loved sharing them with our son. And Christmas was the best of those traditions. From our yearly selection of an ornament for JT's collection to playing Santa on Christmas Eve, Christmas and the traditions we built were always a wonderful experience for me.

As I unpacked the ornaments and the lights, and all the things that make up Christmas in my home, memories flood back to me. I have memories of how we carefully filled the boxes of JT's advent calendar, memories of filling his stocking together, memories of a present I had specially selected for her. At one time, these were treasured memories that I carefully remembered. But now these memories hurt. Things that once brought me great and unmitigated joy are now fraught with a more complicated set of emotions. When I bought her that lovely, detailed elf shoe ornament that I knew she would love, was she even then plotting her removal from our family? When she took JT out of school for a few days in 2005 to bring him with her to visit her family and I was left behind, assured by her that we had a lifetime of holidays to share, was she experimenting with leaving me? When we selected three new Christmas stockings to hang in our new home, was she even then counting the minutes until I would only need two?

I feel like I was living a lie and didn't even know it. So I unpack my holiday traditions and I feel like a fool. Now I understand why holidays like Christmas are so very difficult for some people. Given the choice, I suppose I would retreat and pretend that December wasn't happening.

But I have a young son and he is enraptured by the joys of the holiday. From the sparkly lights outside to his special ornaments on the Christmas tree, he is charmed by the promise of the season. We spent hours together talking about Santa getting ready to journey the world and bring presents to good little girls and boys. He counts the days on his advent calendar and practices the Christmas songs he has learned at school. He admires the packages under the tree. He can hardly wait.

And so I move forward, participating in our old holiday traditions and building some new ones as well. A friend helped JT to make an advent calendar for me. Each day I get a treat from my son ----- a hug, or help clearing the table. It helps to build new traditions. And I also remind myself that I don't really have a choice; I must play cheerful for a little boy who believes in Santa and all things good. And I want to believe there is a little Santa in all of us. So I try.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Comfort Food

A cold wind blew icy rain through my corner of the world tonight, but I made the perfect remedy: baked potato soup. It's the ultimate in winter comfort food and a sure sign that winter has arrived in my world.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Celebration Friday

Yesterday was the 2nd grade holiday show. JT played Super expert on Santa Claus. It was typecasting.

The parents provided finger foods for the after-show celebration and so earlier in the week JT and I cut out and frosted sugar cookies.

He was very proud of his offerings, though I worried that the cookie-to-frosting ratio was 1:1. It's a good thing that I make a thick sugar cookie.

After the show, Santa arrived to visit the children. JT tried to adopt the sophisticated veneer of not giving a darn, but he was pleased and excited to sit on Santa's lap.

It was also the day when I brought cookies to my students. Each class arrived in my room to find a cookie tray. I like to bring an impressive celebration their way, so this year's cookie tray featured:
- crispy oatmeal cookies
- molasses cookies
- peanut butter cookies with chocolate kiss
- chocolate dipped almond shortbread cookies
- rocky road fudge
- chocolate peppermint chip
- sugar cookies
- chocolate-dipped pretzels

Nothing says "it's time to learn" like cookies. Lessons began as everyone munched on a treat.

So yesterday was a day in which the mama and teacher in me were equally satisfied. It was a good day.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hell of My Own Making

A few days ago, we arrived home to find a large package from California on the front porch. We brought it inside and opened it up to set the presents under the tree. One of the presents is a fetching little silver box. JT was intrigued by what he called the "fancy package."

But the tag says it's for his Mama and I recommended a hands-off policy.

"Who is it from?" he asked.

"It's from Auntie KO," I told him.

He nodded his head knowingly and announced, "she told me what it is."

"Oh yeah?" I said.

"Yes," he confirmed. "In the box are six little buttons and when you open the box, each of them will grow into a little boy just like me. They will be loud and they will jump around."

Then he delivered the piece de resistance. "They will talk all the time," my chatty boy informed me.

"Thanks for telling me," I said. "Now I won't open the box."

'You have to," he said. "For each day you wait, another little boy will appear."

The bad news delivered, JT spent the rest of the evening explaining to me that soon I'll need to make supper for seven little boys and then all seven will need washing. They will all need a bed and clean pajamas. Things are going to get pretty busy around my house.

My sister has some explaining to do.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Big Daddy

There is a large package under the tree, to the left in this picture. It's a present for JT from his California cousins. It's the biggest package under the tree and as soon as JT saw it, he christened it the "big daddy." We talk about the big daddy package nearly every day; it is clearly the most impressive present under the tree.

Today, the cats tipped over the tree. AGAIN.

But the big daddy is unharmed, so all is well.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Real Life Conversations with JT: New Hampshire Primary edition

The backstory: Driving home from school today, we listened to a story about New Hampshire voters on NPR. As the Santa in the town square greeted the local children, the reporter talked to different voters about the upcoming primary election. This led to the obvious question........

JT: Mama, is Santa a Democrat or a Republican?

A perfect question for the week when I've been teaching my government students that we receive our first political exposure from our families. I've used examples from my own family, which was a politically engaged atmosphere. JT's great grandma would be so proud.

And another thing is certain: clearly I brought home the right baby from the hospital.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Real Life Conversations at Prep School

My 9th graders are working on projects in class and, as they worked, they were talking. Talking about dictionaries.

JM: I'm hard-core; I like a regular old dictionary.

JP: Yeah, I know that is okay, but I really like to look in the dictionary and read the whole entry. Then I can read about other words.

I found this conversation comforting. If the 14 year old digital natives like an old-fashioned paper dictionary, then my preference for one doesn't make me hopelessly old-fashioned. It makes me old-school cool.

Or that's what I'm going to pretend.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Oprah Primary

In the world of politics, time can move at a glacial pace. But in the world of political elections, time moves with amazing speed. This reality was driven home to me this weekend, as Barack Obama stormed the nation with Oprah Winfrey by his side.

Do you remember the Arsenio Hall Show? Hall was the host of an 11:30 pm late night program in the late '80s and early '90s. It aired on the then-fledgling Fox network. Hall was a young African-American man and he represented a distinct challenge to the white late-night hegemon, Johnny Carson, who had by then been hosting his Tonight show for more than a decade. David Letterman had a 12:30 am show that aired after Carson. Jay Leno was the hardest working comedian in America but didn't host his own show. Conan O'Brien wasn't on the air.

So Hall was a distinct break with tradition. His show cultivated a much younger, much hipper, more ethnically diverse audience than the Tonight Show. And in 1992, while the presidential primaries were underway, a Democratic Governor from Arkansas came on Hall's show. He wore dark sunglasses and played his saxophone. He was charming and engaging; he played a creditable sax. Hall welcomed him with open arms and the audience was charmed.

The sax player's name was Bill Clinton and by the end of the year he was the president-elect of the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of Clinton's appearance on the Hall show, the mainstream media and political elite had the equivalent of a political hissy fit. Clinton was mocked for the appearance on the Hall show. It wasn't presidential; it was informal and undignified; what political agenda could he advance by playing the sax and looking cool? What real political issues would he talk about with Hall? It simply wasn't done, this appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show.

The subtext of these criticisms was significantly more troubling: black male power in the form of Hall and his guest, a Washington outsider who was a political unknown from a white trash state, was a challenge not just to Johnny Carson and traditional television programming. It was a challenge to the political hegemony of the day. Clinton used the Arsenio Hall show to present himself as a real person. He was willing to engage with the voting public on all levels. He would discuss the issues, certainly. But he would also discuss himself in terms other Americans could easily understand: as a regular guy who was once a teenager who dreamt of playing in a rock and roll band. The mainstream media didn't understand. Clinton's '92 opponent, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, an elite's elite, certainly didn't understand it. But the voting public, especially young people, did understand. And they responded to Clinton and his new method of seeking America's vote.

Clinton's gambit on the Arsenio Hall Show was a significant paradigm shift in the business of winning the presidency. It changed everything. By 1996, presidential candidates all expected to give an interview on MTV; they went on late-night television and laughed. Al Gore and George W. Bush both spent an hour with Oprah Winfrey in 2000. In 2004, John Edwards announced his candidacy for the presidency on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a show that is a parody of a political news program.

Much of this info-tainment politicking was devoted to introducing the candidate as a real person. They poked fun at themselves, told us their childhood dreams, and disclosed the contents of their grade-school report cards. On one memorable occasion we learned whether the candidate wore boxers or briefs. By the 2000 election, appearances on late-light television and daytime programs like Regis and Kelly and Oprah went from being wildly outrageous to being de rigeur.

And now things have come full circle: this weekend Barack Obama is campaigning with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah, who once interviewed the candidates and presented them to the nation as real people, has now endorsed a candidate. Her considerable social power has now been leashed to help Obama's campaign in the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

It would seem that the Oprah/Obama show is a success. In South Carolina, Obama was originally booked to appear with Oprah in a venue that accommodated 18,000 people. But demand for tickets was so great that Obama's folks found a new venue ------- one that would seat 30,000. Obama, campaigning as a new Democrat, is also changing the ways that candidates campaign.

Whether or not Obama wins the nomination, I suspect that we'll look back on this weekend and realize that he changed the ways that campaigns court voters.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Driving Advice from JT

The other day, JT and I were headed west on Route 22, stuck behind a car that wasn't exactly keeping pace with traffic. I held my tongue because my child was in the car. But then JT took care of things and made the following observation, "I've got one word for you: acceleration."

More and more it's clear that the boy is from Jersey.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

30 lbs of Stapler Power

Sometimes, when I require a little extra motivation to get out of the flannel sheets in my nest and go to work in the morning, I think of the stapler in my classroom. I feel pretty strongly about's mine. It has some sort of innovative spring that enables me to have 30 lbs of stapler pressure at just the touch of a finger. I can staple whatever I damn well please.

That kind of power is just intoxicating.

But the other day my stapler went missing. It had been seen in first period but was MIA when I needed it during 2nd period. My two day investigation revealed a few suspects but I wasn't able to apprehend the perp. So a new stapler has been procured..........and liberally identified as belonging to room 211. Let's hope this one sticks around because a cold wind is blowing and I can already hear those flannel sheets calling me to sleep in tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Last month – November – was NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post-every-day Month) and though I was too lazy to download the icon and proclaim my participation, I posted every day of the month (you can go back and check, but, hey, why not just believe me? because it's true).

If you are a regular reader, you know that I mostly post every day anyway. That's a function of the whole reason for this blog: to motivate me to write and record my thoughts on a frequent (read: daily) basis. It's also because I like the challenge of writing every day. So I thought that NaBloPoMo would be no big deal for me. But November was a busy month and there were days when I was ready to crawl into bed only to realize that I hadn't posted. In the end, I was a tad surprised at how much of a challenge it was.

And I'm not even you, gentle reader, so I didn't have to read the drivel that I wrote every freakin' day.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Real Life Announcements by JT

Events in my home tonight were awfully exciting. As the wind howls outside, Tiger has succeeded in biting JT's toes while the boy lies in bed preparing to rest. Tiger is victorious; JT is annoyed and announces, "Two words for you Tiger: Pet Shop."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

First Snow

Though it's early December, I awoke this morning to a blanket of white in my town. It's the first snow of the season. I love the quiet hush of snow and this was a beautiful morning, with thick white flakes gently falling on the trees outside my window as I enjoyed my morning coffee in the quiet.

This evening, after darkness had come, JT and I resumed our winter ritual: a walk through town to admire the snow. He enjoyed a snowy snack and made a few snow angels. JT asked if I went for snowy walks when I was a little girl. So I explained that we didn't have snow in California and then I told him about the time it did snow in the Bay Area when I was in the second grade. My sister and I made a tiny snowman (no more than 12 inches tall) and put him in the freezer to show our dad when he came home from work.

JT can't imagine a life without snowmen in the yard (not to mention the prospect of a snow day at school!). And I am fascinated by the idea that his childhood world is so different from my own.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

December 1

On the first of each month, I've been taking a picture of and recording my thoughts about the tree in my backyard. This month the tree looks bare.

Though we had a leisurely fall, one filled with many warm days, the cold has finally arrived to stay. In the last 10 days, my tree has lost all of its leaves, as have most of the trees in my corner of New Jersey. Suddenly, I can see all the bare branches against the twilight sky. Things feel cold and still.

Winter has arrived.