Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year’s Eve Feast

I am the queen of appetizers and New Year’s Eve is a night when I can show off.  Tonight we are enjoying a feast of favorites.

- Texas caviar (with black-eyed peas for good luck in the New Year)
- queso & chips
- homemade boursin cheese, homemade cheese ball & crackers
- potato skins
- tiny pigs in a blanket
- lil’ smokies in bbq sauce because...of course we are

We’ll eat, play games, scratch off our lottery tickets, and drink a toast (or two!) to a happy new year.  That’s happy!

December Book Report: An Irish Country Christmas

I first read Alice Taylor’s collection of stories when I was in my early 20s and lived in Nashville.  Over the years, I’ve made time each December to re-read the book.  In those 20-plus years, the story of Taylor’s Christmas traditions has become one of my Christmas traditions.  

Taylor’s book is a collection of stories about Christmas traditions from the year she was 9 years old.  The setting is rural Ireland in the mid-1940s and the memories of our 9 year old narrator are balanced by an author now in her mid-50s, reflecting with fondness and affection on the traditions of her childhood.

The story is sentimental, but never cloying.  At various points, it’s funny.  Written by an adult reflecting on her 9 year old self, it captures the arc of a lifetime of holiday memories.  There is great charm in remembering the magic of childhood.  Over the years that I’ve read these stories, I’ve remembered my own childhood Christmas memories, planned Christmas treats that will become JT’s holiday memories, and thought about what I value most about holiday traditions.

I read the book to JT when he was still a believer.  When he sees me re-reading the collection each December, he recalls the best moments of the stories as he experienced them.  We still laugh about a scene caused by a cat and repeat the phrase, “where did that frigger of a cat come from?” as we remember.  I like the fact that Alice Taylor’s stories of Christmas have become part of my family’s traditions during the holidays.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Oh, 2016

This year, I wrote a monthly book report on the last day of the month.  I managed to fulfill that goal and there is a book report coming your way tomorrow.  So I’ll take the day before the end of the year to note my reflections on  2016.  

It somehow seems fitting to try and bring this painful year to an early close.

For the record, 2016, you were a real pain in the ass.  In hindsight, the Blizzard of 2016 may have been the metaphor that set the stage for 2016.  There was only one big snowstorm in my neck of the woods last winter, but it was a doozy.  In so many respects, 2016 was a typical enough year.  But when it made a punch, it was playing for keeps.  The stunning, horrible, no-good election of Donald Trump to be the American president has to be the worst event of the year from my point of view.  That it happened because notions of facts and truth seem to have been replaced by “I read it on the Internet” may be the enduring bad news of my life time.

2016 reminded us that racism and violence go hand-in-hand and are ever-present in our nation.  We learned that accomplished women can be dismissed by unaccomplished men and women who’ve drunk the patriarchy koolaid.  In Aleppo, Syria; the Sudan; the Congo; the Philippines, and other places we’ve learned of the depths of human depravity and the limits of the world’s willingness to help the powerless.  


Though I’m eager to see the year’s bad news come to a close, I remind myself that 2017 will bring the inauguration of an unqualified, self-absorbed Cheetoh Kleptocrat to the presidency.  I fully expect 2017 to be the year Americans discover that we no longer rule the world and, worse than that, perhaps aren’t even qualified to govern ourselves.   

I try to live on the optimistic edge of the universe but 2016 has made that a challenge.  But I prefer to live in hope.  I know so many others who will join us to do the heavy lifting to make sure that hope prevails.   And so I choose promise over fear and look to 2017 with hope in my heart.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

12 Months of Miss Read: December

The backstory: At the start of 2016, I pulled out my very favorite Miss Read book, Village Centenary.  The novel is structured in months and each chapter explores a month in the year of a village school that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  This year, my own school is celebrating its 250th anniversary and as we think of our past and look to our future, I thought that Miss Read would make a lovely companion for me.  For each month of 2016, I plan to read Miss Read’s reflection on the month.

Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English author who wrote between 1955 and 1996.  Her novels were tales of every day life in small English towns.  Village Centenary is set in Fair Acre, an imaginary Cotswold community.  As is the case in nearly all of the Fair Acre novels, the novel is written in the first person and it is through our narrator, school teacher Miss Read, that the story unfolds.

Miss Read in December
Miss Read ends her school’s 100th year with a celebration at the Fair Acre schoolhouse, one that features re-enactments from the school journal, a daily report that the head of school writes.  The re-enactments are a collection of charming, amusing, and poignant periods in Fair Acre School’s history, meant to include the community and celebrate both the history and changes the school has experienced over the years.  Miss Read’s celebration closed with the school annual December tradition, a holiday tea.

At my school, we’ve had various celebrations of our school’s 250 years, including publication of a book detailing the school’s last 50 years of history, an update to an earlier historical edition.  This part of the celebration appeals to me the most, of course, because history is a big part of my world.  Each year, I teach my students about the Great Awakening and I tell them the story of the founding of our school as a direct outcome of that historical time.  Whether they are 7th graders or 11th graders, the students enjoy learning about their school’s origins; they feel proud to be part of something so enduring.  

The older I get, the more I value the ways in which a sense of our shared history is empowering.  In 7th grade, I teach the first half of American history and my students and I explore the notion of who we are as a nation by exploring how that identity first came to be.  For most adolescents, the 7th grade year is all about change, some of it thrilling and some of it anxiety-producing.  I hope that in my class the students can see what has endured; that a sense of history will serve as an anchor as they navigate the waves of change.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Amaryllis Tuesday: Week One, December 27

I received an amaryllis bulb for Christmas.  Planting the bulb is among my most favorite Winter traditions.  I am excited to watch it grow and I expect to be pleased and impressed with the flowers the bulb will generate.   This bulb is named "Aphrodite Double" which sounds impressive.

Watching my amaryllis bulb is both a celebration of Winter and a reminder of what the next season will bring.  For the next few weeks, as the bulb gets ready to flower, I'll be sharing a photo of the changing bulb each week.  That’s happy!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Boxing Day

While I don’t have a “wrestling mom” sticker on my car, be assured that many a New Jersey wrestling mom does roll up to meets proclaiming that she is the mother of a wrestler.  T declares that it’s just a reminder to bring your insurance co-pay to the match and often I fear that she is correct.

The wrestling season of matches is blissfully short —— it lasts from late December to mid-February —— but what it lacks in length in makes up for in a crazy practice schedule.  After school practice started just after Thanksgiving and most days, JT doesn’t get to my office until 5:45 pm, a sweaty, stinky mess of a boy with a scratched and mat-burned face.  I long ago learned not to greet him after practice by proclaiming, “what happened to your face?!” but the temptation remains.

Where the wrestling season really exacts its toll is during Winter Break, when daily practice happens at 9 am and skipping or being late is not an option.  We had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off but there is practice for the rest of the week, through the 29th.  I’m happy about 3 days off for the New Year celebration, though I won’t live it up that much.

Guess who is running a 5k on the first of January?

The blessing of wrestling season is that JT loves and respects the coaches and his teammates.  The work ethic he’s learned from the sport has carried over into his school work and his other sports.  The ability to work hard, be a good teammate, and then stand on your own in the spotlight are life skills that will stand him well in life.  So I get up early and drive to practice with nary a peep, glad for a happy and hard-working boy.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Blessings

I have a good friend who is the mother of two young children, four year olds who are firm believers in Santa.  I thought of her as we were both playing Santa last night.  I could very well imagine children so excited for Santa that they could barely lie still in their beds, let alone sleep.  It wasn’t so long ago that I had a small child who was thrilled beyond measure at the prospect of Santa leaving him surprises on the red bench at the foot of the stairs.

As E played Santa for four year olds, I played Santa for a 16 year old who was wide awake and talking with his friends via the app du jour.  I played Santa and then tucked into bed, advising JT to stay upstairs for the rest of the night to preserve his Christmas morning surprises.

I’ve long believed that Christmas morning makes up for the times when being a parent is hard.   I still believe that’s true, even when it's your 16 year old taking joy in Santa’s generosity.

The magic is different, but the blessings are the same: the smile of a child who receives a gift that shows how well he is known and loved.  The pleasure of being told “thank you” by a 16 year old who is well-aware of his blessings isn’t the same as the unvarnished joy of a four year old.  But though it’s different, it’s no less rewarding.   We are lucky and blessed and happy to say so.

I’ll take it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve Planning and Preparation

This morning finds me closing in on the last of my Christmas chores.  I don’t feel like chore is the right word, because I enjoy the planning and preparation that happens today.  My dining room table, currently filled with supplies for lesson planning (thinking of you, 6th grade!), cards, stray treats, and wrapping supplies, will be cleared off and made ready for the feast and celebration to come.

The living room will be cleared of baskets of folded laundry and the rug vacuumed in advance of Santa's arrival.

There is plenty of advance cooking yet to be completed —— pumpkin pie to be baked; potatoes to be wrapped in foil and roasted for our Christmas supper potato casserole; tonight’s appetizers to be finished and ready to set out when the boy returns home and the twilight arrives.  The last of the packages will be wrapped and the bin of holiday wrapping paper will be carried back down to the basement.

I enjoy this day of busy planning and look forward to the evening.  My boy may be big and 16 but I still play Santa, for myself as much as for him.  When our stockings are filled and set out later tonight, I will remember previous Christmas Eve surprises and plans;  the memories will bring me a lovely happy glow.  I will count my blessings and feel very merry indeed.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Pretty Packages

We are closing in on the big day and happily, I am nearly done with my wrapping. 

I don’t tire of this task and will be sorry to put away my wrapping supplies.  But Christmas is calling and a day of relaxation and gifts exchanged with the people I love does sound quite lovely.  Merry, merry!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice.  Officially, the day of the Winter Solstice is that point in the earth’s orbit when the North Pole is it’s furthest distance from the sun.  The North Pole has plunged into total darkness and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will have a day with the least amount of sunlight.  For the next few weeks, our sunlight will be in short supply.  Come mid-January, the minutes of sunlight will begin to slowly tick upward.  By the first days of February, there will be weak daylight past 5 pm and I will celebrate because by then I will have grown weary of Winter's darkness.  

For the most part, I don’t mind Winter’s cold but I do find the darkness trying.  As Winter descends, I turn my face toward the sunlight, looking to soak up as much light as I can.  I also admire the plants that make good use of the winter, including the rhododendrons that live on either side of my front steps, which I have the advantage of seeing every day.  I take time to admire the twilight because in Winter those minutes of fading light can be splendid.  I love all the seasons, largely because each one helps me to be grateful for the seasons to come.  The ease of flip flops in the Summer is made that much sweeter thanks to the bitter cold of Winter.  That Winter Solstice's darkness will one day be followed by June's Summer Solstice light is Mother Nature's reminder that each season must have its due for us to be complete.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Irish Cream

Among the most delicious of my holiday traditions is the making of homemade Irish cream.  I’ll add it to hot cocoa or coffee as a delicious holiday treat.  On Christmas Eve, I’ll leave some for Santa to enjoy.

It's a happy treat when I wrap up a busy December day by enjoying a few minutes with the Christmas tree.  That’s happy (and delicious)!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Pretty Packages

The arrival of Winter Break finds me with more time for the holiday traditions I love the best.  Bring on the wrapping!

Friday, December 16, 2016

On Time: Winter Break

The last few weeks have been busy and full.  Today’s school day in the Middle School will feature  a host of community-building activities —— from community service to just plain fun.  It will be filled with energy and excitement and it will be exhausting. When the day closes at 3 pm, our Winter Break will begin.  That means that two weeks of time off stretch before me.  It’s a most welcoming prospect.  I’m looking forward to some leisurely mornings, afternoon naps, long hours with good books, time to work out without being rushed, suppers served before 7 pm……the list of things made better thanks to time off stretches before me.

That’s happy!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Pretty Packages

’Tis the season and I have been wrapping up some packages.

That’s happy!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Cookie Day 2016!

Each December, I bake cookies for my students.  The project requires that I make somewhere on the order of 300 cookies, so it requires a bit of planning.  I serve them on Cookie Day, an event that features a whole lot of homemade goodness.

I invite my students to have some cookies and I thank them for being the source of my daily happiness.  They are a blessing and I am lucky, I say.  

Then we have cookies; lots of 'em.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Marking the Seasons

For this school year, I decided that I would seasonally swap out a picture on my bulletin boards. September apples were replaced by October and November pumpkins.  For the next few months, there are tree limbs in the Winter blue sky in both my office….

and my classroom.

That’s happy!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Peaceful and Bright

The busiest months of the school year are May and December.  That both are followed by generous breaks is a very good thing.  Last week was as busy as expected and when each evening came I was good and tired.  JT and I decorated our Christmas tree last Sunday night.  That meant that each night of this busy week, I had twinkling lights and decorations to enjoy before I crawled into bed.

Quiet moments by the tree with a warm mug of tea are one of my favorite things about December and a welcome reminder of the blessings in my life.  That’s happy!

Friday, December 09, 2016

Pretty Packages

It’s the Christmas season and that means lots of pretty packages to wrap.  This is the first package to go under the tree at Sassafras House.

That’s happy!

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Front Porch in December

It was the month of December that got me started on projects to decorate the front porch.  I enjoyed it so much that I made it a point to make the porch just as welcoming the other eleven months of the year.   But December started it all and this month’s decorations always make me smile.

I leave a light strand on the front porch for most of the year.  It’s plugged into a light-sensitive timer so that when the sun sets, the lights come on.  On a practical level, it ensures that the porch is lit when we come home in the darkness.  For this December, the lights are old-fashioned Christmas lights, the sort I remember from my youth.  T has warned me that the “Let it Snow” flag courts trouble, but a little snow in December is a good thing.

The table is cheerful with greenery and the sorts of seasonal primitives that I especially enjoy.

Elsewhere on the porch there are happy reminders of the holiday season.   Greenery, packages, and red ribbons always make me smile.

The Parent’s Association at school sells wreaths as a fundraiser and the smell of evergreen greets us when we come home and open the door.  That’s one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season.

December always finds me aware of the shortening of daylight hours.  Candles, twinkling lights, and the traditions of the season are my remedy for the darkness; beacons of the cozy comforts of home. That’s happy!

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Real Life Texts with JT: Annoyance is Universal edition

The backstory:  JT has been studying Spanish since he was in the Lower School but he’s never quite taken to the language, having inherited his mama’s poor foreign language skills.  He studied for a test on Sunday night as I made a last-minute emergency run to Target in search of Christmas lights, having discovered that mine had died.

Me:  Long line at Target. I am triggered.  note” triggered is JT’s favorite word when he is annoyed.

JT:   Still better than studying Spanish?

Me: Si.

La manzana didn’t fall far from the tree.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Corporatism and the Cheetoh Kleptocrat: Why the Carrier “Deal” is a Problem

Please Note: For obvious reasons, including my complete lack of respect for him, I have taken to calling president-elect Donald J. Trump the Cheetoh Kleptocrat (CK for short).  

The Cheetoh Kleptocrat’s promise to “make America great again” hinges on CK’s claim that he will both retain and renew manufacturing jobs in the United States.  Later this month, I’ll write about free markets and economic development, so we’ll hold off on CK’s claim that he will bring more manufacturing jobs to the economy.  Spoiler alert: it’s bullshit.

For today, let’s explore the ways in which government (also known as the state) can help to maintain manufacturing.  This is a timely topic in light of CK’s bragging that he made sure the Carrier Corporation kept 1000 jobs in Indiana.  I’m thinking about the deal and the whole premise of government and manufacturing cooperation.  In the world of political economy this is called corporatism, and it’s fascinating.

Warning: political discussion to follow.  You may wish to close up the browser and call it a day.  My feelings won’t be hurt.

Corporatism is the word political economy scholars use to describe an economic circumstance in which the state is involved with private industry, typically in a cooperative fashion with shared benefits for workers, the state, and private industry. It not particularly common in the United States, though it did sort-of happen under FDR in WWII (think of the Detroit automobile production conversion to war material).  In the modern context, it’s more than the National Labor Relations Board managing a contract dispute between labor and industry, though it’s related.  Corporatism is an enmeshing of private industry, the free market, and the state.  In the contemporary western political world (and that should be our comparison, the U.S. is a representative democracy), corporatism is most often a tool of Social Democratic states —— think Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, even Germany at various points in the post-war order.  It can be an enormously successful method of responsible economic management to ensure economic growth combined with support for the needs of labor in a capitalist, free market economy.

It can also be a tool of authoritarian power.  Corporatism was integral to Hitler’s Germany and to fascist Italy.  So the story here isn’t all cheerful and those facts make for a cautionary tale.

Traditionally, a corporatism model isn’t about one company in one place (the Carrier deal) but about support for an entire industry —— say automobile manufacturing.  Corporatism recognizes the free market need for profits, the labor market need for decent wages and good working conditions, and the government’s need for reasonable tax revenues.  It is always about shared benefits for all the parties.

In the United States, the auto-bailout of 2009 is an example of American-style corporatism, which tends to be modeled in a limited style, as was the auto bailout.  As a temporary solution to an immediate crisis,  it was a success.  The auto industry got some cash via government-sponsored loans, workers retained their decent-wage jobs, and the industry survived, prospered, and paid back the state.  But it was temporary by design.  Historically, the United States does not engage in corporatist policies.

That’s a shame: there is room for the government to work with industry and labor to structure economic incentives that benefit all three.  The corporatist model fundamentally seeks to preserve free market capitalism.  It creates a kinder, gentler, capitalism, with special focus on labor and wage standards.  It doesn’t shout about punishment for private corporations who export production in order to get lower labor costs.  Rather, it bypasses the private company motivation to do this by structuring incentives for corporations and labor to work cooperatively together within the domestic market.

That doesn’t mean that jobs don’t leave.  Low skill jobs are always at risk for export to nations where labor and production costs are lower.  That is a persistent effect of free market economies that cannot be erased.  Indeed, this sort of competition for labor and goods is exactly what is required for free market success.  But corporatist policies can seek to maintain manufacturing and industries within the framework of an advanced and developed economy.  That’s a good thing.

CK’s actions in Indiana were not about corporatism.   His announcement that he will  bully manufacturing employers into retaining jobs on a case-by-case basis (in the model of the Carrier deal) is not a developed and systematic plan to develop and maintain manufacturing jobs.   Carrier got $7 million dollars worth of tax breaks (and possibly more, the deal isn’t transparent) to retain 1000 jobs.  That’s an insanely good bargain for Carrier and an incentive for every manufacturer in the nation to threaten to take its jobs elsewhere.  It is a gross defiance of free market capitalism that incentivizes bad corporate behavior (what economists call a moral hazard).  

I’m not always a fan of capitalism, but its relationship to successful, stable, and thriving democracy is undeniable.  Capitalism can be made kinder, gentler, and more effective by thoughtful government-labor-industry partnerships.  Indeed, that should be our goal.  Something tells me that the CK is not the man for that job.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

December 1: In the Backyard Neighborhood

My project to post pictures of this corner of my backyard began on January 1, 2016.  In the last 11 months, the backyard corner has come full circle.  December finds my peach tree a bit taller.  The hosta patch is ready for some rest.  My clematis vine has gone on Winter holiday.

This yard is my daily view and in all seasons it is a source of great pleasure for me.  Its changes and growth reflect the changes in my own world.  It is a daily reminder that with patience and cultivation, beautiful things may grow.

We’re headed into the dormant Winter season.  Years of gardening have shown me that even amidst the quiet of Winter, there is progress and change in the garden.  That reminder is a lesson itself.

There will be a new first of the month garden project for 2017 and it too will be a reminder of the power of the natural world in my life.  That’s happy!