Monday, December 26, 2005

A Christmas Ramble

Liz, Anna, and Shelagh.
All three of my girls awake and in the same room.

We had steady snow through the first two weeks of December. Now we're having an early January thaw. Shelagh came home from college three times in December, returning to Ann Arbor twice to take exams. She ended up with a 3.1 GPA, and took up residence on the couch in the living room, where she sleeps all day, kind of like the dog.

The dog got a cushy new bed for Christmas, so she's perched in the living room like the queen. The thaw has wakened the red squirrels, so every few hours we announce "Look, Rose, a squirrel!" and she tries to jump up and rush out to catch it. Rose is old, so there is usually enough stretching involved to give the squirrel time to get away. Anna made homemade dog biscuits and they are playing hide and seek with them.

This year Anna was as excited about giving presents as she was about getting them. She was quite happy with her school pictures and immediately made plans to give them as gifts, designing wrappers for them in MSPaint. She had a shopping budget of $22, which she spent at Target, taking two hours to make her choices. She also appreciated the gifts she received, particularly the remote controlled rat that she uses to tease the cat.

As I put Anna to bed last night, she told the that this was the "best Christmas of my life." For her parents, this was the leanest Christmas in a long time. We set a strict budget and tried to resist zombie shopping during the lead-up to Christmas. For Anna, at least, less presents left more time for other Christmas activities.

There was a lot of singing. The Children's Choir performed their usual concerts, but they also sang for the Christian Women's Tea, and with the Encore Society in Traverse City. When the Encore Society performance was reviewed in the Record-Eagle, the reviewer had this to say about the Children's Choir:

This is a group of singers whose purity of tone, maturity on stage and mastery of their material belies their young ages.

I like that quote. For me it is a reflection of what I like about Margaret Bell, our director. She has a keen sense of what is developmentally appropriate for kids and she spends a lot of time looking for music and arrangements that will let them shine. But, having done that, she expects them to shine -- to approach each rehearsal and performance with full attention, supporting each other with a workmanlike attitude.

I think kids know the difference, at a surprisingly young age, between a good performance and a mediocre one. Everyone is so afraid of damaging kids' self esteem that they routinely praise the mediocre, and even a bad performance gets that awful "Well, you did your best," comment. The choir respects Mrs. Bell because she tells them the truth, good or bad, and she is fierce in her determination that their performances will be top-notch.

Anna is lucky this year to also have a school music teacher who respects his students, but with a different slant. Every few years one of my kids has had to sing "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" in a school concert. They've always gotten laughs and they've always hated the whole ordeal. It is a dorky song, and even little kids resent the way the song highlights their dorkiness.

So it was a surprise when Jeremy raised his arms at the beginning of the song and the whole third grade instantly lost three inches of height. They had bent their knees, stuck out their stomachs, and stuck out their chins. Suddenly they were impersonating dorks, which meant that when the audience laughed, we were laughing at their assumed characters, not at the kids. At the end of the song, Jeremy gave a crisp wave of his hand and the whole class stood up straight again, with the best posture I've ever seen in an elementary school concert.

(For those of you who watched Fox News breathlessly reporting that Christmas Carols have been banned from school concerts in America's heartland, you can relax. Kids and audience sang "Silent Night", as we always have. I would still like to have a school Christmas concert that banned any mention of children lusting for presents.)

Christmas Eve was another night for music. Shelagh's voice, so clear and strong, still surprises me, even when she gets up from the couch at the last minute to sight-read with the church choir. Liz and Patti White sang "The Coventry Carol" as part of the prelude, and Anna sang with the children on "All is Well". Liz's classmate John Gleason shaved and changed out of his paintball clothes to open the service with "I Wonder As I Wander", a solo that he has struggled with during this Christmas season. John's grandfather closed the service singing "O Holy Night", with ease and competence. I knew then that John will grow as a singer, that he will sing for the rest of his life.

Anna made dog biscuits as presents for all of the dogs in her life. I will end my first full year of blogging with the recipe:
Dog Biscuits

1/4 cup hot water
8 boullion cubes
i Tablespoon baking yeast
1 1/2 cup tomato puree or tomato juice
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups wheat germ

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Mix the boullion cubes and hot water in a large bowl. Mix to dissolve the boullion cubes and then add the yeast. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Add the tomato puree, 1 cup all purpose flour, and the wheat germ. Mix well. Stir in the remaining flours to make a stiff dough.

Let the dough rest another 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a floured board. Knead it a few minutes, or until the flour looks mixed in. Roll out half with a rolling pin and cut into shapes. You can use a cookie cutter or cut out shapes with a knife.

Use a spatula to put the shapes onto a cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for about one hour. When they are all baked, put them back into the turned off oven to dry, for 4 hours or overnight.

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