Saturday, January 31, 2004

Calendar Girls
One of the most important things about going to see a movie is repeating lines from it afterward back and forth with whoever you went to see it with. This is made even more enjoyable if the movie is British, because nothing beats affecting an accent for hilarity and fun. In this vein, Calendar Girls is brilliant. (Please do remember to hear that last word in your head said with a proper British accent, from whichever part of Britain you prefer.) If you are looking for a witty break from general action movie fare, this is an excellent choice.

One might begin to think, though, that all British movies that do particularly well in the US have to involve nudity of unlikely people. There's The Full Monty, of course, but Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off both had nude scenes of those no longer in their tender years, as well. Perhaps it supports Mark's theory that "culture" always has to involve nudity.

Then again, one might also surmise that Great Britain has a much more enlightened stance on the issue of body image. All of the aforementioned movies may make light of getting naked, but it's always empowering in the end. It is no doubt far more encouraging to see real-looking people getting naked and doing well with it than it is to see Demi Moore telling Barbara Walters that all women should do a private strip tease in front of a mirror just to feel good about themselves. I'd be far more inclined to believe it from a 70-year-old ex-school teacher than an actress with a private trainer and dietician. Maybe, if we want to encourage people in this country to have better body image and love themselves as they are, they should have to watch more British movies.

Besides, laughing is good exercise.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Radio Musings
Every Friday when I am driving to karate, it's time for the "Top 5 At 5" on MSU's alt station, The Impact. For about the past month and a half, the song "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" by The Darkness has been playing. It has been described as a return to classic 80s hair rock, and it is so true. There's just something in it that naturally makes one think of long hairsprayed hair, torn jeans, and spandex.

It also makes me think of my German friend, Jan, who has the largest collection of metal (music) that I have ever seen. While I was staying with him in Berlin, coming back from Japan the wrong way 'round the globe, he made me laugh by playing his ridiculous 80s spoof band CD, Absolute Steel. He also has their very tasteless poster hanging in his bathroom. I owe all of my vast and extensive (read: tiny and miniscule) knowledge of black metal to listening to him interview his friend/famous band singer on the speaker phone for some magazine he writes for. Unfortunately for me, he actually repeated naive and unlearned comments I had previously made about the lyrics, so now I shall never be taken seriously in the circles of metal fandom. Alas.

In any case, the thought occurs to me every time I hear that song, so hey, this one's for you, Jan.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

We have a new game in our house. It's like a real life version of "Where's Waldo?," except this time, it's with a monkey. A tiny, yellow, bendy, magnetic monkey, to be exact. The rules are that it can be hidden anywhere in the house, as long as it is conceivably in a place the other person will see it eventually. It makes me take more notice of my surroundings, but in a strange way that involves evaluating everything for its magnetic properties, and trying to figure out just where Mark's devious mind has decided I might look, only not too quickly. (The new rule is that when you find the monkey, you have to take a picture of it.)

So far, the monkey has been on the office closet door, in the clothes closet, the medicine cabinet, on a tea canister, on a lamp, next to the hallway nightlight, in the microwave, underneath the TV table... Where will the monkey be found next? It is, after all, my turn to find it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Snow Day
It occurred to me while I was driving home in the snow today that there is a reason that people from the south have such a greater appreciation of snow than native Michiganers. It's because we actually got snow days when it snowed this much. Sure, all the public schools were closed around here today, but the university wasn't, and all the adults were still on the road heading to work. People in Michigan learn too early to take snow for granted. I say, when the public schools are closed for the day, the university should be too! And people shouldn't have to go to work! We should all get to stay home and watch the snow. People in North Carolina are sane, look at them. My mom stayed home yesterday and today.

There is so much snow coming down right now, it looks like I am inside a snowglobe. I have tea and reading and no class. This is how it is supposed to be on a snow day.

I decree right now that if I ever get tired of watching snow and spend more time complaining about it being on my car than I do jumping around being hyper about it, I will have lived in Michigan for too long.

Monday, January 26, 2004

We did it! Heidi and I took our ELC classes to the computer lab and actually got them all to successfully sign up for blogs. The students' assignment is to update their blogs at least 3 times a week as writing practice. I'm not correcting them in any way; instead they are graded solely on effort. This is the first time any of the classes have really done anything like this in such a public forum, and the students seem pretty excited about it. Hopefully, it will work well. If it works really well, they'll keep updating even after the class is over.

Should you be interested in reading their blogs, the links for my class can be found here and Heidi's assignment blog is here, where I believe she will be putting up links for her class.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Running Away to Join the Circus
One of the advantages of living in Michigan is that we get Canadian television, too. And on the CBC, we can watch Cirque de Soleil's TV series Solstrom. Let me tell you, though, circus children are freaky. The kid who was performing on the aerial straps (basically, gymnastic rings without the rings attached) was only 16, and had more developed muscles than some weight lifters and more control over his body than any normal human being. And then of course there are the Water Meteors, freakily talented little Chinese children, and the contortionists who have no bones but are unbelievably strong, and..., well, if you ever wanted to run away and join the circus, you have to wonder now if you'd ever make it. I'm sure I wouldn't. But I can appreciate Cirque, along with the rest of the amazed world. Yay, Canadian TV!

Around the World
Fun! Once again, from Neil Gaiman, here's a map of places I've been so far:

create your own visited country map

More Directly From Japan
Literally just after I finished writing that last entry yesterday, we went out for an errand and checked the mail on the way. There, what did my wondering eyes behold, but a small package envelope from the wonderful Kamiyama-sensei! It contained my hanko (official name stamp/Japanese signature) and two more Kitty-chan danglies. Truly, the world of Kitty-chans is a bizarre and amusing place. This one (in two different colors) appears to be dressed like a small deer, with I swear what looks like a tiny monkey (or maybe a bear) sitting on her back. Mark was of course horrified, but they made me laugh. Kitty-chans are so ridiculous, how can anyone not laugh at them? Besides, the Japanese Hello Kitties are much more interesting than the American ones. When I went through my Sanrio phase in elementary school, I always liked Keroppi and Zashikibuta better, as well as the owl. It's strange to look at these characters and realize how long they've been around.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Voices From Afar, That Seem So Very Near
I talked to all three of my coffee girls in Japan last night. Usually, I only talk to Danola and get filled in on all the gossip that way, since she has a landline. Last night, (or, uh, yesterday morning, depending on which side of the world you're on,) though, Kristel and Sharon were at Danola's too, for "brunch." I say "brunch" because when I called it was noon, and Sharon still wasn't there. Some things will never change, I'm sure. Of course, when she finally got there, she had made dessert herself, so Danola and Kristel decided it was worth it. I got to hear all this over the phone. I felt like I was practically there.

Danola told me more about her interview for the PA position with the Kencho. If she gets it, she'll stay in Japan for another year, except not as an ALT. She said they started the interview in Japanese for the first 15 minutes, so she doesn't think she's going to get it, despite the claims that it requires only minimal Japanese. I don't think she'll be too sad to go home to South Africa at the end of the current year, anyway.

Sharon is going back to England in April. She says her new (since I left Japan) apartment in Sendai is really, really close to where mine was. She recently discovered that my old subway stop, Atago-Bashi, is actually closer to her than the one she had been using, which means she walks just 2 blocks from my apartment. I wish she'd lived that close when I was actually there. She said that neither Sendai nor Shiogama seem the same since I left, even though I didn't actually live in Shiogama. I spent enough time there, though, I was an honorary citizen.

Kristel is also going back to England at the end of the year, in July. She and Sharon had a little argument over which part of Britain is better, north or south. I have orders that if I go to England, I may start in London with Sharon, but we have to travel north to see Kristel, to prove there is more of England out there.

Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, we all have a date for coffee again. I miss Japan right now.

Friday, January 23, 2004

My Own, My Precious...
When I was at Grinnell getting my Spanish degree, I had to watch a movie for one of my classes. It was sort of a buddy movie, about two girls hitching around Spain and finding odd jobs and strange places to live. One of them, though, wanted to settle down, while the other one had a lot of issues with her family and wanted to just keep moving around forever. Eventually, the first girl did settle down, and this fact was brought home to the moving girl by... an iron. Yes, an iron. Earlier in the movie, the two had talked about what home meant, and the settled girl defined it as the place where she would be able to do all of her ironing with her own iron, on her own ironing board. In the end, she was home.

So, in the interest of actually having a home, here are some things I once told myself I was going to have when I "grew up:"

1) enough bookshelves to see all of my books at once
2) a vacuum cleaner
3) a subscription to National Geographic

I've got the bookshelves, I've got the vacuum cleaner, and just today, I got my first issue of National Geographic. Thanks, Grandma! My very first impulse was to drop everything else I had in my hands and sit down to read all about Mars. It's fun to be a geek.

Comment Away
Okay, there, I did it, are you happy? Both Will and Melanie browbeat me until I gave up and installed commenting services. You people out there had better have a lot to say. Make use of the darn thing, now that I've installed it.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

I was sitting at the table eating dinner tonight, and my mind was ambushed by a memory. For some reason, I looked at my salad and remembered that salads in Chile were completely diferent. They had each of the vegetables rigidly separated on the plate. People in restaurants would stare at you if you mixed them together, as Americans were wont to do. The only exception was ensalada chilena, which is diced tomato and onion in a very light dressing. I remember explaining this to my parents in the little cafe restaurant next to their hotel when they came to visit. And I remember climbing Cerro San Cristobal and riding the funicular down, and watching my dad manage to order everything in restaurants in English no matter whether my mom or I had just told him the Spanish, but it didn't matter, because all the waiters and waitresses spoke enough English anyway, and then watching my mom try to read all the menus without any help, and hearing her comment that my Chilean Spanish sounded all funny the first time I arranged a tour for them on the phone, not at all like what we had learned in Costa Rica those 4 years ago, and going to Mt. Aconcagua, and introducing them to the wonder of Chilean ice cream, and seeing my host mother and parents manage to have a perfectly understandable conversation without really speaking the other's language much at all.

Salad is good for you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

I'm in my second week of classes now, and my schedule is becoming more and more clear to me. What does this clarity reveal to me? I'm going to go insane.

-Teach IEP Level 2 Reading/Writing class, MTThF 9:10-11:20am
-Teach TESOL practicum Level 500 Conversation class, second half of the semester, MW 6:30-8:30pm
-6 hour-long sessions of grammar tutoring for "Grammar for Teachers" class
-extra Wednesday hours required for IEP class at various times in the semester
-karate, 2 hours/week at least
-read for fun to maintain semblence of sanity


Gee, I love grad school. It has to get better after this semester. They can't possibly give me any more teaching duties. Can they?

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Fictional Characters
Over the weekend, Neil Gaiman talked about his response to the question "Which fictional character would you choose to be?" I've been thinking about it ever since. The truth is, I don't know what my answer would be. I've been so many characters. I am every character I ever read about to some extent. Usually, I make up other, side characters who occasionally interact with the main character, but mostly just live their own lives in that world. What can I say? It was boring walking home during middle school. There were lots of interesting people to talk to this way.

I keep wondering if I'm going to become more creative again, or if I used up all my fiction and art creativity when I was in middle and high school. Or is this what being a grown-up is like, this lack of time within my own head? While I was at Grinnell, Roy once proposed the theory that Grinnell sucked the creative energy out of people, like a big black hole. My perhaps more charitable theory is that at Grinnell, I was actually interested in far more of my classes, and thus did not retreat quite so far into my own head for entertainment. This was a good thing, educationally speaking, and certainly not something I would ever call a downside to my college years, but sometimes I missed all those people I used to be, and used to talk to.

It's kind of like there's a certain amount of energy my mind has to devote to bridging this reality with the one where all my sustained character interactions take place. If I'm using too much of that energy on school or *gasp* real life, I can't get there, except for occasional glimpses and short little conversations. Sort of like how all my friends are now scattered all over the US and the world, and I only get to talk to them every once in a while on the phone, I suppose. I'd like to think now that I'm taking kind of not-so-fascinating classes again, I'll find my way back to that creative land inside my head, but then again, I might just find my mind spinning off into thinking about what I need to teach my ESL class the next day instead.

I miss the days when I could devote my free time to devouring books, to sending my mind all over the imaginable galaxy, to making up fascinating people to interact with. I miss the days when my work didn't follow me home and beyond. I miss the days when I could be anything and everything, but I didn't have to decide just yet, because those days were a long way off. I miss being other people.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Wedding Pictures
In the absence of photographer Kate's pictures, you'll have to make do with ours.

Ellie's Wedding, January 3, 2004.

(Read the story first, and they'll make more sense, maybe. Or be a slacker and don't. Your choice.)

Okay, finally, here it is...
New Year's: The Wedding
Once again, Mark and I got up "bright and early" to hit the road for our next destination, Cape Cod. For some reason, my mental geography of the East Coast has never really allowed Massachusetts to be north of places like New York and Pennsylvania. It's more down around Maryland and Delaware and those other small states. This is despite the fact that I can recite all of the 13 original colonies in order, north to south. (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Thank you, 8th grade social studies.) Anyway, now I can actually say I have been in New York City. We stopped there for gas. Also, I would like to say that the Northeast has a rather inflated opinion of how much toll it is entitled. We spent more on tolls from NC to Massachusetts than we would have going straight from Michigan to NC, and back again. We did eventually reach Massachusetts, whereupon we discovered...

Cape Cod is the most confusing place to drive, ever. Roads labeled as running south actually run northwest; straight roads take 90 degree turns and dump you onto residential roads rather than the interstate; "short" drives can take 45 minutes, so long as you're still on the Cape; and last but certainly not least, it is the only state in the nation that has "rotaries." Everywhere else in the whole world is content to call them "roundabouts" or "traffic circles," but not Massachusetts. On the other hand, it was kind of reminiscent of my life in Japan, what with never having a clue which direction I was going and the constant use of cell phones to get more directions.

Because I was a bridesmaid, my time was scheduled. There was the bridesmaid luncheon, the rehearsal, the rehearsal dinner, bridal shower preparation, the bridal shower, the wedding, and the reception. Poor John, the "maid" of honor, was somewhat freaking out about getting everything done right, but as people kept telling him, so long as Ellie and Matt ended up married, everything else just added memorable moments of character. Ellie seemed to be taking it all well, and given the amount of preparation she had to do prior to this weekend, it's probably fair that John decided to freak out enough for both of them. (By which I mean freak out in a cute and endearing way, of course.) I hardly saw Matt at all, as he was spending most of his time with his relatives from New York and elsewhere, as well as all the groomsmen, imported from their grad school life in Maine.

The bridesmaids' luncheon, which also included attached boys and some other Grinnell people that Ellie wanted to see, was at a diner actually 45 minutes away, but somehow, all of us coming from the hotel thought it was only supposed to be 15. Hence, we were all 30 minutes late, and got to experience some marvelous Cape Cod driving, with not one, but two rotaries. The food was good, though, and Ellie had presents for us all! I got an extremely soft knitted hat, fitting since Ellie was one of my knitting teachers at Grinnell, and two pocket hand warmers, with accompanying lighter fluid and a windproof lighter, so I can make them work anywhere I go. Jennie got a teapot with a base for a tealight under it to keep the tea warm; John got a journal, book marker points, and a handmade pen; and Kate got special liquor in the shape of a giant Russian bullet. After we finished eating, though, Ellie and John had to run off to do wedding things, and the rest of us were instructed to be at the church in time for the rehearsal.

The rehearsal was easy enough. All the bridesmaids were there, as was the flower girl, but only one of the groomsmen, so we used Matt's sisters instead. The wedding was in an old, historical (as everything is on Cape Cod) Unitarian church, and was officiated by a very cool minister, who had obviously had a lot of practice with weddings and what can go wrong. She emphasized drinking lots of water during the day before the wedding, and especially emphasized to the groomsmen not to lock their knees. Apparently, groomsmen are prone to passing out.

The rehearsal dinner was in a hotel dining room. There were a lot of people there, basically every relative who had been invited to the wedding, plus the wedding party, which is rather more than usual at a rehearsal dinner. The best man and other errant groomsman showed up there, finally. There was lots of mingling, lots of toasts, and Ellie's step-father presented them with three Chinese figurines to bring health, wealth, and prosperity (I think).

When that was over, we dropped off the boys, (Mark and Jennie's husband Dan,) at the hotel and then the bridesmaids were off again to Ellie's mother's house to prepare for the bridal shower the next day. John and bridesmaid Kate made french toast while the rest of us, (me, Jennie, and photographer Kate) wrapped sparkly Frango's mints in little packages as favors for the next day. Ellie sat and entertained us by teasing her cats with extra ribbon. On our way back to the hotel, we got lost on the famous straight road with a 90 degree turn, with the added excitement of dense fog (did I mention I was driving?), but eventually we made it back and got to visit with Rikhei and Liz, two other Grinnellians not actually part of the wedding party, until I was well and truly tired and went to my own room to sleep.

The next day, the bridal shower started in the morning. The french toast had been turned into strata by Ellie's mother, from when Ellie seems to have inherited her culinary superpowers, much to John's relief. It was delicious, along with the vegetarian sausage and three kinds of syrup. Ellie opened her presents, which included many kitchen things. I gave her (and Matt) a matching set of chopsticks in red and blue from Japan, along with rests. Matt's mother, though, had knitted a gorgeous shawl with a peacock tail pattern, which she presented to Ellie at the shower, so Ellie could wear it in the wedding. But then we were all shooed away so Ellie could go be primped before the main event.

The wedding was in the evening. We got there a little early, to help with bringing in all the food. Ellie appeared to greet people wearing her "decoy" dress, since Matt had requested not to see her in her actual wedding dress until she was walking down the aisle. All of the bridesmaids were in gray pinstriped pants and off-white silk shirts, with white roses for our bouquets. The flower girl was in a green velvet dress with one white rose. We barricaded ourselves in the cloakroom with Ellie while she changed dresses, and when we came out, everyone had been seated, and all the groomsmen were actually present and waiting this time. The wedding itself went smoothly, in usual wedding fashion, except with a moment of meditation instead of a prayer before the vows were exchanged. Matt promised to love Ellie and wake her up every morning, and she promised to love him and fix all his technical problems, while hopefully teaching him to fix them for himself. And then it was done.

The wedding party led the rest of the guests down the hall to the reception room and then went back to the sanctuary for formal pictures. Those were done in rather amazingly short order, so we were soon back at the reception as well. The catering was all vegetarian, and there were 7 cakes of varying flavors, from white to chocolate to cheese to carrot to lemon. Ellie had set up her iPod connected to an elaborate set of speakers, so the reception music was chosen by her from her mp3 collection, which struck me as very Grinnellian. At the very end of the evening, she threw the bouquet, and no one quite caught the whole thing, although bridesmaid Kate caught at least the edge of it. Who knows what that means. Then everyone dispersed and Matt and Ellie made their escape unseen.

The next morning, there was a post-wedding brunch at the IHOP, and then we were on the road for our last 13+ hour drive, back to home.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

"I've Been There, Too!"
I laughed when I read that Chileans had made the record books with the largest group of couples kissing in one place. It reminded me of our bus tour of Santiago when we first arrived for orientation. We drove past the park on the bank of the river and everyone commented on the number of couples getting very enthusiastic about their making out. As our semester abroad continued, we realized that really, college-aged Chileans just take any excuse to make out in public. Somehow, I don't think getting "more than 4,400 pairs" willing to participate was really all that hard.

Monday, January 12, 2004

"I've Been There!"
Will posted this link of a guy who photographed himself every half hour for 3 weeks and posted all the pictures. I was just scrolling through, noting the various backgrounds, when all of a sudden he was standing in front of a vending machine, and I thought, "Hey, I've been there! That's Japan!" And in fact, the next picture has him standing in front of a subway map, so I can tell he's in Tokyo. Fun, fun! All the scenes on the trains, in front of the Imperial Palace, all the drink machines, Ueno Station where I several times caught the train to Narita, ah, the nostalgia. I feel almost homesick, except I wasn't there long enough.

(Oh, then it looks like later he went to Shanghai, in case you were wondering.)

Clean Freak
It is truly amazing how good it makes me feel to have a clean house, apartment, living space, what have you. This weekend was another big cleaning weekend, and it seems like every time we have one, the shape of the apartment moves a few more significant steps toward finality. The Christmas tree is gone, which is good, since the auto-watering bottle didn't really do its job properly and the tree died while we were traveling. The lights are all put away neatly in a box, as are all the ornaments. I discovered all sorts of extra storage space in the sides of the linen closet. The mirror in the bedroom is finally actually hung on the wall, as opposed to resting on the dresser. The very last box that hadn't really found a place when we moved in is unpacked, all objects put away, and the empty box thrown away. Mark's desk has reached a stable incarnation, with the shelves painted black, to match the new flat panel monitor, cordless mouse, and printer. We can see the floor in all the rooms, and it's all been vacuumed. New flanel sheets adorn the bed. The laundry is all put away. And correspondingly, my mind feels more ordered, and I feel far more ready to take on the task of organizing teaching class this semester than I ever did last semester.

It's not something I ever realized before I lived on my own, but I truly do like having things in their place, or at least knowing there is a place to put them, should I get around to it. When I lived at home, I was greatly in favor of the pile system of organization, but then again, I kept it all in one room, and I knew exactly where things were within those piles. When I went to Grinnell, I had a limited amount of stuff and space, and to stay sane, things had to be in their own place, because there wasn't anywhere else for them to be. I got a reputation for having a very clean room, an idea which I'm sure my mother would have scoffed at. In Japan, I started feeling the beginnings of "I need this to be organized, it's driving me nuts." Hopefully, before this year is over, this apartment will have reached a point of static organization, and cleaning will not have to be done in such marathon weekends. Of course, if that happens, I won't have weekends ending on such a note of exaltation.

Here's to organization, within and without. A goal for the year, no doubt.

-PS - I have not forgotten about the wedding, I'm just waiting to get the pictures up before I write about it.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

All Good Things Must Come to an End
There goes my vacation. Good-bye!

*waves hand*

It was fun while it lasted. Now it's back to the great grinding of a new semester. For all that care, I am taking the TESOL practicum, Advanced TESOL Methods, and Structures and Functions of English (aka Grammar for Teachers). Perhaps more relevantly, since it seems to be the teaching that takes over my life, rather than the academics, I am teaching Level 2 Reading and Writing. It is my grand plan to make all the students keep blogs to practice their writing skills, so you can look forward to that in the not-too-distant future.

The teaching starts on Tuesday. In the meantime, I've been proctoring the placement exams at the glorious hour of 8am since Thursday, and I must arise to do the same tomorrow. I also have to attend my first classes tomorrow. Thank goodness I got a lot of fun reading for Christmas. Which reminds me...

The Great Book List of Future Reading Pleasure for 2004 (so far, and in no particular order)
Wicked, the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
The Singing Sword by Jack Whyte
Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James
Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith (yes, this is a work of fiction)
The Faded Sun by C.J. Cherryh
Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, and Engine City by Ken MacLeod
Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin
and a bunch of National Geographic magazines, which may be a bad thing, as it will encourage my ever-thwarted desire to travel, alas.

Thank goodness for intelligent books. I may just survive.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Christmas, Part II: North Carolina
The day after Christmas, Mark and I arose, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at the dawn-like hour of, oh, around 9. And we hadn't packed yet. Therefore, alas, we did not make a typical Watson family early start, but rather conformed to Mark and Matt's time honored "9:30," otherwise known as noonish.

To spare everyone the grisly details, 13 hours later, we arrived. Oh, but wait, I can't leave out all the grisly details. Mark found a better way through Ohio, the never-ending state, which takes us on a more bucolic and picturesque route. It goes through Amish country! I counted 6 buggies, and 4 people just walking along the road. This kind of buggy counting is much more fun that VWs.

Anyway, we finally got there, unloaded the car, and went to sleep. The next day was our 3rd Christmas day, and I got to open all of my presents from my Watson relatives who had been at my parents' house on actual Christmas Day, plus from my parents and brother. My parents got to open the mystery present, which was a ever-so-exciting vegetable steamer, and my brother got to open his more 2D, but still triangular, set of billiard ball tree ornaments. I liked those. I thought myself very clever.

Mark's NC present haul had a geographical theme. He got a giant map of Michigan, though not as giant as the world map we already have, and a big canister full of food and mixes from all over North Carolina, as my mom continues her campaign to convince Mark that the South has good aspects. (shhh. I think she's winning.) I got a whole bunch of books, which is what I asked for, as well as being the favorite gift to both give and get in my family. Perhaps print addiction is genetic. Mark is well suited in this regard, as we went to Barnes & Noble to spend our $50 gift certificate from his sister, and picked up 8 more books. Mmmm, books. I also got a Frank Lloyd Wright cross-stitch pattern and a beautiful FLW-patterned scarf, which my mother selflessly offered to keep if I didn't think I'd wear it.

Then it was time to start the visiting! The thing about my traditional Christmas is that everyone, and I mean everyone, from both sides of my family is in Raleigh. As the cousins have grown up and had to get jobs, this has been harder to get to actually happen, but it still comes quite close. The only people missing this year was my cousin Adam, due to his job, and for most of the time my cousin Laura, though she made an appearance briefly, with very festive silver Birkenstocks. I said she should leave them with us for New Year's, so we could tie one to the ceiling fan and use it as a disco ball. She declined.

Everyone else was there, though, including Michael and Becky, with the first of the next generation, their daughter Courtney. Obviously, she is the celebrity of the family. My mom had run out of film, so she instructed Mark, with his digital camera, to "take lots of pictures, especially of Courtney." On the other side of the family, my aunt and uncle from Chicago were there. Mark and my uncle Bruce got along very well. I think Bruce was very happy to have someone around that he could finally talk to about computer games to his heart's content. There was lots of visiting at various houses, lots of eating, lots of talking. It seemed all too short.

The only damper on the holiday was seeing my grandfather after so long. In the last year, his Parkinson's has gottne much worse, and dementia had a very sudden onset since I was in Japan. Our holiday traditions are changing now, as not everyone can stay in their house all at once. But we managed to farm everyone out to other houses successfully, and Granddaddy even seemed to appreciate it when people were around in small doses. He especially seems to recognize Courtney.

I was also conveniently home to take to my mother to the UNC hospital for the final test, and arteriogram, she needed to have done before donating one of her kidneys to a co-worker. The appointment, of course, was for 7am, which is just the time I wanted to be up on a vacation day. It was actually interesting, though. The surgeon drew us a diagram of the kidneys and what arteries and veins they were going to be looking for. Of course, he drew it on the sheet on the bed, but the nurse's response was, "Oh, surgeons do that all the time." After they took my mom off for the procedure, I went to the hospital cafe, which happens to be right next to the Children's Hospital, and it has the neatest ball maze ever, like that one from Sesame Street, where the ball runs through all the flags and carts and things. I sat and watched that for a while, then went back to the waiting room to watch the news until they came to tell me my mom was back in the recovery room. She had to stay there for another 2.5 hours before they would release her, but she seemed to be doing well, so we were back home in time for lunch, and my mom was ready for more visiting by dinner.

On New Year's Eve, I even got to see some of our old neighbors from when I was growing up. I hadn't seen them in years, and Betty especially was very happy to see me. We got all updated on what had been happening on our old street. I'm not sure I want to see our old house now, and I definitely disapprove of people splitting our lot in two and building another house on the front half. But then, they didn't ask me. Or anyone else on the street, it sounds like. Just in time for dessert, my dad said he wasn't feeling well, and then got spectacularly sick, as is also traditional. Thus, we went to the New Year's Eve party at Leatha and Bob's without him. Mark was happy because it was the first New Year's he ever got to spend within 500 miles of his significant other. My mom was disappointed to not have anyone to kiss for herself. I was amused by the small world phenomenon when my ex-boss from Bright Horizons daycare showed up.

After we totally confounded Mark by insisting on watching the split screen New York ball/Raleigh acorn midnight drop and drank our champagne or sparkling apple juice, we headed home, to sleep, then get up, repack the car, and hit the road again.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

As promised, here is:
Christmas, Part I: Michigan
This was the first year of trying to fit multiple families into the holiday season. The result was basically that we didn't get to spend as much time as everyone wanted in each place, but we did get there for at least a little while. Since we did Thanksgiving up in the Great White North, Christmas was below the bridge with Mark's mom's family, and then post-Christmas in NC. Next year, it'll have to get all rearranged, no doubt. Life was much easier when I lived in the same town with both sets of grandparents and all the other relatives came to me.

Anyway, first, Mark and I did our own Christmas Day actually on Christmas Eve morning. I did not spring out of bed all that early, because I was lacking my habitual anticipation of what would appear in the living room from Santa, (who, yes, does still visit my parents' house for me and my brother, even though we're both over 20). But Mark got me up rather earlier than is his wont, and when I walked into the living room, there was a dog under the tree! A full sized black Lab, too. And just perfect for our apartment, because it's a stuffed animal, with all the calming advantages of petting a real dog, without having to feed it or take it outside. Plus, its tail is posable. Someday, we will have a real dog, but this will do for now. Mark had fabricated an excuse to go out to his car after making sure I was close enough to sleep to not get out of bed again, and was very pleased with his sneaky self.

Then we opened the other presents that were actually for us under the tree. Mark gave me little amethyst earrings that match the ring he gave me last year. I gave him a code poet t-shirt, as well as an RTFM mug and t-shirt. Thinkgeek.com is my friend. From Debbie (Mark's stepmom), we accrued a cookbook, two CDs, two pictures, and a regular book between us. We also got a scanner for Mark's birthday, early. And from Mark's half-brother, we got a crockpot, which kicked off the general theme of this Christmas, which was "kitchen stuff."

Around noon, we left for Chelsea, so we could spend the night at Mark's mom's house. The house was full for the holidays, with Char (Mark's mom), Warren (Mark's stepdad), Aarisa (Mark's step-sister, previously un-met), Tessa (Mark's full sister), and Inch (Mark's aunt). In this crowd, there was a majority of omnivores, but also a vegetarian and a vegan, leading to 3 different lasagnas for dinner and a lot of strange non-dairy products in the fridge. I also got to find out about a lot of the Bacon family Christmas traditions, which are rather different from my own.

Growing up, Char and Inch's family had a huge Christmas tree that sat in the middle of the two-story winding staircase. There was a protocol for dressing the tree. The lights had to be wound around each branch from the trunk out, so the tree was lit "in depth" (as I heard from Mark over and over again this year). Tinsel was hung one strand at a time along the length of the branch. Ornaments were hung in size order, small at the top, large at the bottom, as well as according to shininess, with the shiny and reflective ones near the trunck to reflect the light outward, more decorative ones toward the outside. This kind of tree decorating has now been passed on. Our own tiny 3.5-foot tree has 400 lights on it. A Bacon decorated tree can provide the illumination for a whole room on its own. It is pretty, quite true, but not something I'd ever do on my own.

Then there are the presents. Even Mark's mom admits that she might have gone overboard on the present wrapping this year. The tradition is that the presents are wrapped thematically by the wrapper, but have no tags, only a cryptic numbering system. They are then displayed in tableaus around the room, so everyone can try to guess who gets which present beforehand, but there is absolutely no touching. My family goes in more for disguising presents by using weird shapes and bogus packaging, so shaking is allowed, and weight is often used to confuse the giftee beforehand. Mark considers me a horrible cheater for touching presents beforehand.

Touching was not a problem at Char's house this year. Two sets of her presents were done in impeccable department store window style, with coordinating paper and ribbon, and set on top of cabinets and shelves. The main display, though, outdid anything ever done before. She had used plain brown paper with a slight gold sheen, then gone out in the yard and picked up dried leaves, twigs, seed pods, Queen Anne's lace, and a fallen wasp nest. She brought all these back in, and proceeded to handpaint them in shimmery metallic paints. She then attached them to the presents, with thematically linked haiku written underneath. No one wanted to unwrap them, and when they did get unwrapped, the wrapping was reassembled after the present was removed. I wish I had the pictures already. They have to be seen to be believed.

But that was the next morning. On Christmas Eve itself each family member opened one present (which was admittedly a break from tradition) from Warren. He had made letter openers for each person in his forge out in the garage. They were beautiful. They were all different in the style of the curve, handled with peach wood, and in a carved wooden holder with magnets to both hold the knife in and attach the whole thing to whatever metal surface desired.

Shortly afterward, Aarisa crashed, having taken a red-eye flight that morning from California, and Warren wandered off for a nap. That left the rest of us still up, and Char suggested games. We played Wordsters, which is an evil game that Tessa is far too good at. But then we moved on to Taboo, and Mark and I cleaned up. There are definite advantages to playing that with someone you live with, as well as playing it with an over-educated crowd who have fun playing with big words to get around all the taboo ones on the card. We need to own that game. Mark's mom apparently had a lot of fun watching me and Mark play, even though she and Tessa were losing.

Eventually we all went to bed, too. The next morning, the present extravaganza started. In addition to having such extensive wrapping on the presents, there were just a lot of them there, plus a very stuffed stocking for each person. Mark got 5 new cookbooks there alone, and a mid-sized cooking pot. We also jointly got a rice cooker (yay!) and another crock pot, the same kind as the other one, except this one has a divider so you can do a main dish and a side at the same time, plus a carrying case. My own personal theme there seemed to be "Dana is Southern, and therefore frequently cold," so I got silk long underwear, as well as a hat/glove/scarf combination, and a fleece sweatshirt. In my stocking, amongst many other things, I had a little stuffed tree spirit, or kodama, from Princess Mononoke, and a notepad with little Japanese-speaking soybeans, complete with a sticker page. We wrote all our driving directions in it for the whole trip afterward.

After lunch, we went to Mark's uncle Drew's house for the Bacon family party. Like most other people in their family, Drew has inherited something of a mania for being "neat and tidy." His house is decorated in black, chrome, mirrors, with red accents. Even his pool table in the basement had black felt, and the chalk is black instead of blue, so it won't show. He has the most incredibly organized tool room and garage that I've ever seen. It is oddly inspiring, and we reorganized the kitchen when we got home that night, ostensibly to make room for all the appliances, etc. that we'd accumulated, but really, I think, from a feeling of inadequacy.

After dinner, there were the guessing gifts, which is a family tradition that no one actually really likes, but it survives anyway. If someone feels so inclined, they get a small gift for each person or household, but no one gets one, or gets to open one, until someone guesses what it is. This year's items were fortune cookies, refrigerator magnets, and, I kid you not, corn-on-the-cob butterers. The person who brings the present becomes visibly more and more pleased the longer it takes for people to guess, but eventually we got all of them. Mark and I have no idea what to do with the corn cob butterers, but we've got two, should you ever need them.

Then we drove home, tried to put some stuff away so we could still walk in the apartment, and fell asleep to get up the next day and head to NC, which is our next installment.

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