Friday, December 30, 2016

The Magic of Phở

As the name of the restaurant promises, this food is "good phở you."

When you go out for a bowl of phở
In your own little American world

But the tastes and textures of the soup
Along with a plate of fresh spring rolls

Transport you across the ocean to Danang
And make you feel strangely at home

That is when you know
Vietnam has stolen your heart.

My Christmas Miracle

His fur doesn't exactly coordinate with our gold and white wrapping paper scheme, 
but Ranger is every bit a gift. 

Here is my Christmas miracle.

Good ol' Ranger has made it through to another holiday season.

He can't climb up the stairs anymore but he can still clamber up on the couch and spread himself out for a comfy nap.

He is pure skin and bones but he happily eats meals of freshly roasted beef, browned turkey, or his favorite, boiled bratwurst, as I feed him each delectable bite from my hand.

He doesn't tear up and down the sidewalks like he used to. But every day, when I ask him if he'd like to go on a walk, his sweet little head pops up and his brown eyes dance with delight.

And while I do not dare to think too much about Christmases of the future, nothing makes me happier than to enjoy every minute of my sweet dog's miraculous life.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Perfect Christmas

^ My Christmas Eve began with some maddeningly crumbly cookie dough, 

^ a shortage of wrapping paper that forced me to MacGyver together a few patchwork presentations,

^ a sick husband who missed out on Christmas Eve worship, 

^ and a failed post-church photo shoot.

Shoot. I really needed a good photo to send out with my annual holiday letter.

I began to seriously wonder if my Christmas cards will ever get mailed this year

But it was on Christmas morning, when the ceremonial cinnamon roll landed on my breakfast plate in two pieces (though still tasting of heaven), when the message finally got through to me.

This was not going to be a perfect Christmas.

* * * * * 

Now, I've been around the holiday block a few times and I know perfectly well that there is no such thing as a perfect Christmas. 

There's always something to take the edge off the holiness, and that's just part of being human.

But this year, more than ever, I'm aware of people who are hurting at Christmas time.




And suddenly, the tiny imperfections in my day took on new meaning. In fact, I no longer saw them as imperfections at all - more like pinholes through which I could see beyond my fairy tale and into the stark reality of other's lives.

^ Our brightly colored and childishly festive stockings still clashed with this year's minimalistic gold and white decor,

^ my carefully staged branch of eucalyptus turned out to be wilted, 

^ and my Christmas dinner didn't come together quite as beautifully as I'd hoped.

But as my imperfect Christmas unfolded, my heart turned outward and my thoughts traveled to friends, loved ones, even perfect strangers, whose day was much more humble than mine. 

And that made my celebration something much closer to perfect after all. 

P.S We finally nailed the family photo on Christmas afternoon. I may just get those cards out!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Good To Great

"I have a simple philosophy: Fill what's empty. Empty what's full.
Scratch where it itches." -Alice Roosevelt Longworth

I have such an attitude about Christmas decorations this year.

Well. Let's be honest. I have an attitude about pretty much everything these days.

Less is more. 

So when it came time to splash some holiday cheer on this little corner of my world - the place where I probably spend the most waking hours of anywhere in my home - I just could not bring myself to drag out the usual tinsel and fanfare.

I tossed up a tree trunk garland, purchased for a song from a Target clearance aisle, and I tucked a tiny little Merry Christmas message into the preexisting art arrangement. 

That precious dollop was a gift from a word-art-loving math mom. Bless you, Julie

I'd like to say that I thoughtfully added the splash of ivy and two white vases to bring some life and round contours to the composition. 

But that would be a lie.

Truth is that I pulled those vases from another room where they were no longer needed and set them down by the sink till I figured out where to put them next. And when I came back a few minutes later, I decided that they looked fine right where they were, and crossed that challenge off my to-do list.

Bam. Problem solved. Moving on.

And you know, compared to what I've done other years, this Christmas display is next to nothing.

But guess what. Next to nothing is suiting me just fine. 

But what happened next was a stroke of genius. When I came back into the kitchen to make dinner, I impulsively grabbed a bit of greenery from a nearby vase and wedged it into the arrangement.

So happy with that decision.

The moral of the story is that less is still more. But there's nothing like a tree branch to take a simple Christmas look from good to great.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Fresh Air

i thank you god for most this amazing 
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees 
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything 
which is natural which is infinite which is yes 

- e e cummings

When your father dies

And he was a bad dad

You reflect, one more time, upon your hopes and dreams about what a father should be to his daughter, and you admit to yourself, with trembling finality, just how far he fell short.

And yes, you find a way to make your peace with that storm.

He did the best he could.

And now with his life finally over, you shudder one last sigh and acknowledge, for once and for all, what a futile, pathetic waste it all was.

No way to go back,
No way to dodge the damage.
No way to create a happy ending.

But at long last, the storm is over. The last waves of sadness and loss ripple away to the edge of the pond and the water settles. You have made your peace.

But then, most unexpectedly, a new breeze begins to blow across still waters.

There is a brother.

A new brother.
A secret brother.
A half-brother.

Who has borne his own losses in the sad wreckage of his father's life.
My father's life. Our father's life.

While nothing will take away from the gusts and gales of our pasts, there is hope that good might come in our future.

And that thought is a glimpse of clear blue sky and a beautiful breath of fresh air.

Friday, December 9, 2016

It's Snowing!

My climbing rose captures the first few flakes and sparkles in the light of Christmas.

It's snowing!

High in the dark night sky, 
Clouds accumulate
Perfect six-sided snowflakes form within
And slowly, silently, begin their descent.

Down through the frigid air
Snowflakes fall
Blanketing the ground in their pure joy
And filling our hearts with inexplicable happiness.

It's snowing!

* * * * *

My first-ever post was all about snow and you can read it here.

Christmas Tree-Hunting Blues

My husband snapped shut his map app and steered the car back onto the country road as I delivered my line with perfect timing and my best Chicago twang:

We're on a mission. A mission from God. 

He's not one for laughing out loud, but I saw the hint of a smile on my husband's face as he gunned the accelerator for effect, scattering a satisfying spray of gravel across the pavement. 

Our hunt for a Christmas tree had indeed assumed somewhat epic proportions. The first tree farm was sold out; the second one had a line-up of at least a hundred cars - no joke - waiting to get in. That's when we held an impromptu family pow wow, agreed to double down on one last farm, and conducted a quick roadside Yelp session to find another option and make our Christmas dreams come true. 

We really were on a mission from God

And thankfully, He provided. 

^ Finally we found ourselves in a field full of lovely options. But before we get into the delicate negotiations of selecting a tree, there's some Instagramming to be done.

^ There are advantages to late afternoon tree-shopping: sunlight filtered through the trees and brilliant highlights shimmered on each delicate needle. 

^ Peace signs, hack saws, and two daughters happy to finally be out of the car. 

^ Fish Creek Tree Farm did not disappoint. The Christmas tree of our dreams was soon harvested, paid for, and strapped to the top of our car.

Our mission from God was successfully completed.

Now, if only my daughters would catch up on their 1980s comedy so they could understand my clever reference.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Making Science Cool

I went to my husband's office holiday party last weekend. 

He's an accountant. 

For a company of research scientists.

Images of dweebs with pocket protectors and glasses taped at the bridges of their noses, standing around in somber circles making agonizingly inept small talk, must surely swirl through the mind of anyone who hears those facts, but the truth is a big surprise.

This is a total hipster scene. 

Located in Seattle's trendy South Lake Union neighborhood, Institute of Systems Biology is on the cutting edge of scientific research. These people make science cool.

ISB networks with other systems labs around the world to coordinate research.
A focus on lab-to bedside care emphasizes real-life needs and a human touch.
An education team works with high school science teachers to gear students up for 21st centurt science careers. 

Also, their party planning game is totally on point.

But even as the crowd of a hundred or so hipster scientists turned an on-trend cocktail and dinner gathering into a well-lubricated dance party, my curiosity led me elsewhere.

Show me around the office, I asked my husband.

So off we went on a tour. 

^ Now even though my husband is signing paychecks rather than peering through a microscope, I've always entertained the fantasy that he spends his days shoulder to shoulder to Bill Nye the Science Guy types, all the way down to the white lab coats. I was so happy to find racks of fresh specimens hung here and there around the hallways.

^ Beakers always make me want to be a chemist. 

^ Yes, that is a giant wookie magnet on that piece of probably expensive and entirely legitimate lab equipment. Oh my gosh, nerds really do work here.

^ Personalized lab coats hanging on the backs of the chairs, waiting for another day of rigorous research to begin. I can only hope that there is a pair of goggles stashed in the pocket of each one. 

^ "Watch out for the bio zones," my husband casually intoned. I have never encountered a bio zone before. I was impressed. 

^ Even the kitchen area looks ready for some high level dissections and chemical mayhem. 

^ Finally, my husband escorted me to the place where the real ISB magic happens.

His office.

He's the finance director for the company.
And he shares his space with the lead IT guy.

They have done some great things with the place.

Family photos.
Quotes from favorite TV shows.
More monitors and keyboards than two men could possibly power up and use on an average day.
A collection of rocks that visitors often rearrange and stack into towers.

And while there are no lab coats, chemical compounds or hazard warnings in sight, the truth is that not much scientific research would get done without cash and computers.

Which means that - just as much as any scientist - these guys are making science cool too.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Prince-ly Presents

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. -Newton's Third Law 

My bookshelf is filling up with copies of the Prince. 

The exchanges began almost two years ago

I had just restyled my family room bookcases and shared the story here in these pages.

You can read the original post here.

In one of the photo captions, I mentioned that I'd love to have a copy of The Little Prince in Spanish, affectionately known by my high school self as El Principito.

Little did I know that a lovely Spanish lady would soon read those words. But so she did, and the kind and generous Mónica reached out to me and offered to send me a copy.

I said yes in a heartbeat.

Once I held that adorable muchacho in my very own hands, I wanted to return the favor. Monica had told me that her daughter collected The Little Prince books in different languages, and since I was soon on my way to Vietnam. I decided to make it my mission to find a copy for her there.

Alas, no Vietnamese Princes were to be found. So I settled for a Taiwanese Prince, which I discovered at an airport bookstore during my layover in Taipei. Off it went to Mónica's hija in Spain.

A few months later, on a shopping trip to Hoi An. my daughter came across a copy of the Vietnamese version and snatched him up for me. Eventually, that Prince made his way to España as well.

This past summer, Mónica and her family holidayed in the south of France, and thoughtfully purchased a copy of the French Prince for me.

If you would like to send me a book from your country too, just ask. I'll certainly say yes. 

He arrived in my mailbox just this week, along with a gingerbread house ornament and a sweet Christmas greeting from my dear Spanish amiga.

I'm thrilled to add another volume to my rapidly expanding collection.

I'm delighted to have such a special friend and interesting, international ritual.

And since my third-born will soon be moving to South Korea, I'm already planning my next Prince-ly present for Mónica.

Friday, December 2, 2016

White Christmas

The decking of the Streicher halls is officially underway. Today's progress:

^ I'm feeling so much white this year. With my ubiquitous paper snowflakes. a pair of fuzzy sheepskins, and white candles for dayz, the room is slowly capturing that pure and simple Christmas spirit that I crave. 

^ Last January, I was inexplicably inspired to buy three strings of paper lanterns. I'll confess I had absolutely no idea how I would use them but their white simplicity spoke to me. 

Today I pulled them in from the garage and showed them to my third-born, who took one look and created this scheme of three curving lines. Just exactly what I needed. 

As the afternoon progressed, my table full of mostly white baubles and bangles slowly emptied until just this item remained: a tiny white box of bold mini bulbs. Just this one splash of color, I told myself, will take this igloo look to the next level.

Pour them in a bowl,
spill them across a shelf,
string them from a doorknob.

But you know what? I couldn't do it.

Nothing looks cuter to me than those tiny ornaments tucked into that perfect, tidy - and yes, very white - storage box.

Looks like I'm headed for an all-white Christmas this year.

Brain Food

It's not much to look at, but I'm telling you, this stuff works miracles. 

On my busy teaching days, my brain gets quite a workout. Driving from house to house to house, I meet with my students for intensive sessions that cover a lot of material at an aggressive pace.

Fractional exponents
Abstract equations

Rationalizing denominators
Completing the square

Linear vectors
Circular permutations

Between delivering lectures, working examples, troubleshooting homework problems, and administering weekly quizzes, my cerebral cortex wears itself out pretty quickly.

In order to make it through the day, I need a lunch to nourish those overworked synapses, and I have found the perfect cure.

PCC's Perfect Protein Salad totally does the trick. Living up to its prideful name, one serving of this magical stuff - typically wolfed down with a compostable plastic spoon behind the wheel of my car in the store parking lot - restores my clarity and sets me right for my afternoon sessions.

And on the days when I am really feeling ruffled, I grab a second serving to eat - all calm and collected - when I'm back at home.

Both my brain and my stomach thank me for it.