Growing Up Snowy

When you grow up snowy in a place where it’s cold and blowy outside for months, you learn a few things.

You learn the signs of frostbite. When you grow up snowy, you learn how to remove the white stuff from a driveway in the quickest way possible. You learn how to make hot cocoa and maybe, if you have a patient, knowledgeable adult by your side, you learn how to knit sweaters, wool socks, and mittens.

One of the most important skills my siblings and I learned growing up snowy in western New York was how to coexist peacefully in a home that grew smaller with each passing snow day.

People who grow up snowy instinctively begin squirrelling away essentials as the leaves turn. Every autumn, my mother stocked her pantry with nonperishable dried and canned goods. She knew winter would bring blizzards, and, sooner or later, our family would be housebound. My father stacked a large woodpile every fall and kept a store of batteries, candles, and oil for lanterns. My parents were nothing if not prepared for the inevitable bad weather.

Wise woman that she is, my mother also gathered a supply of crayons, paper, clay, puzzles, and board games. And books. A lot of books. Library books, hand-me-down books, thrift shop books, Weekly Reader books, store-bought books.


Mom knew that an engaged, reading child is a quiet, happy child. She had three children. Better to be stuck inside four shrinking walls with three quiet, happy children than with three bickering hellions. When we got tired of making crafts and assembling puzzles, and when the mere sight of one another’s faces raised our hackles, we clamored for books.

My brother pored over the Guinness Book of World Records and books about automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. He read books that diagrammed the inner workings of toilets, engines, and light bulbs. He flipped through cookbooks and attempted several recipes in my mother’s spotless kitchen.

My sister enjoyed historical fiction and nonfiction as well as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. As she grew older, she reached for Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. The longer the book, the better she liked it.

My literary tastes were varied. I would read anything that found its way into my hands, but in the winter I was partial to fantasy, adventure, and science fiction. Fantastical worlds made easier my escape from the family togetherness forced upon us by the cold.

The winter that the boxed sets of both J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were deposited beneath our Christmas tree is the sparkliest in my memory. The anticipation of a book not yet read, the smell of the freshly printed page, the excitement of being the first reader to crease the binding—multiplied by eleven (the Tolkien set included The Hobbit)—returns to me whenever I look at the sets, now on my son’s bookshelf decades later.

Children who grow up snowy, who must shovel sidewalks and driveways every winter day, who survive long stretches of time cooped up with their siblings, and who have parents who surround them with stories and words and books, are among the luckiest kids in the world. I know. I was one of them.

Obligation 4: Daydream

Do you daydream? I do. I admit it. I was that kid with her head in the clouds, too wrapped up in her own imagination to see the giant mud puddle she was about to land face first in. I was able to focus in school—I always loved learning new things—but I lived for weekends and summers when I could read, write, and draw to my heart’s content.

I grew up, went to college and graduate school, landed one job and then another. To the naked eye, I look like your standard, no-nonsense, serious-minded adult. But that’s all a front. I’m really not. I’m a dreamer.

Dreamers get lost inside their own heads. We boil water on the stove, and then step outside for just one minute to look at a flower we want to paint, and return to the stench of melting Teflon. We file records or enter information into databases, then nearly die of fright when a coworker says, “Hello”, because we are secretly far away in an adventure story of our own creation. We miss due dates of assignments while we contemplate the Lego structure we are going to build after school.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, and poet

Don’t get me wrong. We need to attend to today’s business. We must get the job done, complete our homework, meet the project deadline, and fulfill our commitments. And we will. But we dreamers need some quiet time tucked into our rush-rush lives. We don’t want to have every waking hour scheduled. We need time for our dreams to fill our heads with ideas, solutions, and characters. We need time to practice our knitting, guitar riffs, and paint strokes. We need time to try something new, fall on our faces, and then try something different.

Today’s dreamer may be tomorrow’s great inventor, sculptor, musician, painter, civil rights activist, or teacher. Do you think Thomas Edison, Alexander Calder, Scott Joplin, Grandma Moses, Susan B. Anthony, and Anne Sullivan dreamed? We all know Martin Luther King, Jr. did. The distracted child you are frustrated with today might be dreaming of a vaccine for cancer. She might be solving environmental problems that will save our Earth. He could be our next Ralph Lauren or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We need to play hard, explore freely, and dream hugely. And we must encourage our kids to do so also.

Do you daydream? Feel free to admit it.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

Obligation 3: Use The Language

I’m a writer. It goes without saying that I love words. In fact, I’m a bit of a word geek. On a tough writing day, when the words simply won’t come, I lose time flipping through my dog-eared copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. It’s been with me since my freshman year of college. I scroll through my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and learn about the etymology of words. Sometimes one silly-sounding word can spark inspiration and save me from the dreaded writer’s block. At the very least, I’ve taken the opportunity to build up my vocabulary. My husband is not a writer, but he loves words too. He is the king of ridiculous puns. You know the type: the ones that produce groans from adults and eye rolls from children.

He has instituted a game our family often plays when we’re on a boring road trip or waiting in an insufferably long line. You’ve probably got some version of it in your household, too. We call it “A Book Never Written.” We try to outdo each other by pairing a fictitious book title with a descriptive author name. When it’s your turn you say something along the lines of, “A book never written. My Life of Crime, by Rob Berry.”  (That was my son’s.) At first, we take turns. As the game gets going, my husband and son simply shout out their book titles and author names while I sit silently, searching my brain for something clever to add. I’m not very good at this game.


Another word game our family enjoys is that timeless classic, Scrabble®. My husband and I used to bribe our son to play it with us, well, most board games actually. He prefers computer games. But that’s fodder for a different post. Back to Scrabble. My son entered his inappropriate potty talk phase, which I’m eagerly awaiting the end of, and nothing was more hilarious to him than watching me react to the word “fart”. Like the manipulative mother I am, I have found a way to turn this disgusting stage in my son’s development to my own advantage. We now play a version of the game I call “Inappropriate Scrabble”. I know the title needs some work. Feel free to send me your suggestions.

The rules of the game are quite similar to the original Scrabble, with a few exceptions. You get points for inappropriate words if they are listed in the dictionary. (No swear words or offensive names are ever allowed.) You get points for normal words, but lose a bit of respect from your fellow players. If you use a polite version of an inappropriate word, you get double points. Playing the word “fart”, for example, will earn you 7 points. Play the word “flatulence” though, and you earn 15 points times 2. And that’s not even accounting for specially marked spaces. Instead of “puke”, why not try “vomitus” or “retch”? Playing the polite word “toilet” will earn you a grand total of 18 points, but with a little extra effort and different letters, “commode” will earn you 28 points.

If our children are going to torment us with potty talk anyway, let’s take the opportunity to build up their vocabularies.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

Obligation 2: Read For Pleasure

I am a glutton. I’ve never had much of a problem with my weight. I enjoy food, cookies especially, but I mostly know when to stop.

My great weakness, the thing I must have, the thing I sometimes sacrifice my family, my sleep, my sanity for, is a good book.

I’ve been known to burn dinner because I couldn’t put a book down long enough to pay attention. The timer is beeping away in the kitchen, but I can’t pull myself out of Narnia, Middle Earth, or Alagaesia. Potatoes boiling all over the stove, biscotti turning black, the smoke alarm wailing.

I am a glutton.

I remember discovering Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish time-travel saga. I began devouring her words with Outlander, continued on to Dragonfly in Amber, and became very nasty for several weeks until my library finally had Voyager in stock. Don’t even get me started about having to wait until she wrote the next installment.

I have sacrificed my sleep more often than I care to recall. Dragging myself through a day, trying not to be cranky with my family, waiting for the night so I can do it all over again.

I am a glutton.

When my son was a wee one, completely dependent on me, requiring my constant attention every moment of the day and much of the night as well, I looked forward to the weekends. My husband was at home, on duty with baby, and I could disappear mentally for a few hours to read. The first four books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were my constant companions for one long, rainy winter. Monday through Friday: doting, completely aware mother. Saturday and Sunday: book glutton.

Mea culpa family. This is the true confession of a glutton.

As my son grew older, we’d share afternoons full of books. We’d curl up on the same sofa and read a book together, or sit on neighboring chairs and read our separate books. We’d share funny or exciting passages from the books we were enjoying. We’d replenish our supply before it got too low. When you’re a glutton, you prepare for famine.

Now, my son is seldom without a book. He drops them in the bathtub, forgets them in the backyard, litters the floor of our family car with them. He reads them over, and over, and over again.

Parents, be careful what you model. Your children may become book gluttons too.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

Obligation 1: Read Aloud To Your Kids

My son is growing up, and I don’t always handle it well. I look back on his early years with rose-colored glasses, I’m sure. Time has a marvelous way of erasing memories of tantrums and replacing them with images of familial perfection.


One of my perfect, rosy memories is the quiet time I spent reading to my son. In the beginning I’d read to him before settling him down for a nap or bedtime. He was always a busy, physical, moving boy, and reading books together calmed his active muscles. He would stop moving to focus on the sound of my voice, the words I was reading, the story I was telling. Often I’d read aloud a book I was enjoying, not a children’s book, and his eyes would drop closed as I softly crooned the writer’s prose.

As he grew older, we began reading in the late morning after my chores were done. We would read in the late afternoon when he’d just woken from a nap. We’d read after a warm bath, right before bedtime. He munched his way through board books, and I rejoiced when he graduated to ripping the pages of only every third picture book. Gifts of books from family and friends were essential in those days, as were large quantities of scotch tape.

He began requesting personal favorites. We memorized Golden Books about bulldozers and backhoes. His favorites were different from mine. I never got tired of Ox-Cart Man, Make Way for Ducklings, or The Big Snow. He wanted to hear all about the latest exploits of Rosemary Wells’s McDuff and laughed uncontrollably at the antics of Alexandra Day’s Carl. We shared affection for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

I owe Ms. Wells and Ms. Day, Virginia Lee Burton, Donald Hall, Robert McCloskey, Berta and Elmer Hader, and so many other children’s book authors such gratitude. They brought laughter and excitement to my son’s eyes. They were his first excursion into the vast, exciting world of words. They sparked his imagination and instilled in him a love of reading. And they gave me such wonderful, rosy memories of quiet mornings, afternoons, and evenings cuddled together with my son and a pile of books.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

The Obligations

Author Neil Gaiman recently gave a lecture at The Reading Agency. He spoke about the importance of libraries and reading, and specifically how essential to our human society it is to foster the love of reading in our children. You can read his lecture here. As often happens to me when I read something powerful, Mr. Gaiman’s lecture got me to thinking about my own experience. I agree wholeheartedly with him that we need to preserve and support our public libraries.

I visit my local library several times a month to prevent withdrawal symptoms. They have what I need and a steady supply of it: books.

During the years I homeschooled my son, our favorite excursion was our weekly trip to the library. It beat out park days, museum visits, even a day at the zoo. Our book bag was never large enough to carry all the treasures we discovered. At first all of our books were borrowed on my library card. But at the tender age of six, my son insisted he have his own card. From then on, he had no difficulty approaching the librarian with a request for a specific book.

These days he mostly asks his school librarian for suggestions, but on the occasional lazy Saturday he’ll ask me to take him to our local public library. He browses the stacks for books his school doesn’t have and considers himself a renegade if he borrows a (gasp) book for adults.

Back to Mr. Gaiman’s lecture. He spoke about the “obligations all of us—as readers, as writers, as citizens” have. He says we are obligated to read for pleasure, in both public and private places. He says we must read aloud to our kids and use our language. He says we have an obligation to use our imaginations. And here’s me again, thinking about my own experience. Do I agree that these are meaningful responsibilities? Yes, I do. And I’ll reflect on them in upcoming posts.

Snickerdoodles and Other Silly Words

It’s another cookie baking day. The boy politely asked for snickerdoodles and though they are my least favorite cookie to eat, how can a mother refuse? Especially when the word “please” precedes the request. As I stood in my kitchen rolling boring, bland cookie after boring, bland cookie, it occurred to me that the most interesting thing about this particular treat is its name. Snickerdoodle. Who thought up this ridiculous name? It’s not even listed in my giant-sized Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language.

I found snicker, “to laugh in a disrespectful manner” and snickersnee, “a knife”. Did some mother in generations past make a grave error in her recipe and leave out the flavor? Upon eating the insipid cookie, did she make a self-deprecating remark comparing herself to a doodle, “a foolish or silly person?” Rather than kindly eating the cookie, did her family snicker at her error?

This is just one of the many, many silly words I adore. What’s not to love about kerfuffle, “a commotion”; rigamarole, “an elaborate, complicated procedure”; or hullaballoo, “an uproar?” I called my son doodlebug, “the larva of an antlion” for the first year of his life. Don’t even get me started on scallywag. You have read The Pirate’s Booty, haven’t you?

Naughty Angus

Angus and Ivy have been plaguing me this week. I've been scribbling diligently for the past five days working on the second book in my Inventor-in-Training series. Angus has landed in a strange new world and I am so looking forward to sharing it with my readers. But the naughty twosome has not been playing nicely. I had planned how book two was going to progress. Organized, plotted, great stuff. I had worked out all the challenges they would face and how they would overcome them. But if you know Angus and Ivy at all, you know that they are willful children who do exactly as they please. They will not listen to the wisdom of their elders (me) and they are fouling everything up! If only they would behave like nice, well-mannered kids.

In a flash of frustration, a burning need to get away from the two of them, I peeked in to visit my good friend and illustrator Jennifer L. Hotes at her blog. In her recent post "Why I Read Books S-L-O-W-L-Y" she wrote:

Darroch captures the spirit of everyone’s favorite nephew in Angus Clark. He dares to dream, then duct tapes the parts together until something sizzles and pops. He’s the boy we love having over to our house to play with our children, but then need a long pull on the wine bottle after the door shuts behind him. 

And that's just it. I do love having Angus come play but because he lives in my head I won't be able to "shut the door behind him" any time soon. If he was any other type of child he would never have wound up in his current predicament. Why do I think he's suddenly going to start doing what I tell him? Guess I'll just have to trust him to clean up the lovely mess he made today.

Cookie Math

Can someone tell me why cookie recipes promise the mother lode but actually deliver a few tailings? It’s a cool, rainy spring day here so naturally it’s a cookie-baking day. The boy and I compared our available ingredients with several recipes and decided gingersnaps would be both aromatic and delicious. This particular recipe claims to produce six dozen cookies. I’m fairly good at my 12 times tables and know that means 72 cookies. I am the perpetual optimist but I’m not insane, so I knew we’d be lucky to get five dozen at best. And if you’re as good at your math as I am, you’ll know that equates to 60 cookies.

Now, I confess to a little dough munching despite the raw egg my mother always said will make me sick. But it was like, literally, half a cookie. And the boy got a little overeager with the teaspoon size on the first cookie but reined himself in on all future cookies. So tell me, why do the people who write recipes get our hopes up like this?

Not 72 cookies.

Forty-four cookies people. That’s it. That means we got a return of 44 out of 72 promised cookies. That’s 62% of what was promised. Recipe writer person, I give you a D. These will barely last me through the weekend.

The Smell of Spring in the PNW

The calendar says spring began a week ago. I consider that a mere suggestion. After all, the calendar says that summer solstice is June 21, and anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest knows that summer doesn’t officially start until July 4. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” and “April showers bring May flowers” are aphorisms for East Coast life. Out here, March comes in like a torrential downpour and goes out like a less torrential downpour. And April? That month lasts through June. But at least we don’t have to wait until May for our flowers.One of the many glories of living in this drizzly part of the world is the natural beauty everywhere you look. If you enjoy sinking your hands into the earth and conjuring up flowers, fruits, and vegetables the way I do, the appearance of daffodils, primrose, and hyacinth reminds you that you need to put in that seed order and start tilling soil ASAP.

But as vibrant and deep as all the colors are in spring, what sets spring apart from every other season in my opinion is the smell. I wish I could post the odors of my backyard for you. The sarcococca doesn’t look like much, but its fresh vanilla scent in January gently coaxes, “Don’t worry. Winter is almost over. Spring will be glorious.”

The daphne odora is slightly more daring with its demure pink flowers: “Tee hee hee, don’t look at me, but isn’t my fragrance lovely?” And the purple hyacinth trills its RRRs: “Arrrent’t I rrravishing darrrrlink?”

The calendar says spring began a week ago. I didn’t believe it until my garden told me so.

Mess or Inspiration?

I've never been accused of being a neat-nik. I tidy things before having friends over and whenever my mother visits. I try to keep a handle on the level of clutter and dust so my son doesn't grow up in squalor. I'd rather do anything than clean. Life offers us a bounty of excuses to avoid housework and it would be a shame to waste them. But honestly, have you ever seen a mess like this one?DSC_0517 (640x424)

This is just one corner of my garage. So, my choices are:

1) Shriek at someone to clean it up. Shrieking is just not nice and I try to avoid it unless I'm having a really, really bad day.

2) Clean it up myself. On any given day I have a dirty pile of laundry, a sinkful of dishes, and people and animals waiting to be fed. We know I'm not going to take on the garage.

3) Use it in a story.

DSC_0518 (424x640)Aha! That's it! The light bulb of inspiration. This is Angus' laboratory in the garage! No need to ever clean it up. It's famous. And life just offered me one more excuse.

Happy Valentine's Day

HEARTI just love Valentine's Day. Sure, it's a bit of a manufactured holiday. All that card, candy, and flower buying comes just long enough after we've recovered from holiday gift-giving credit card shock. And for those who don't have a "sweetheart", all the ad campaigns can leave one feeling lonely or jaded. I spent Valentine's Day at my son's school yesterday. A cadre of teachers and parents worked together to create a simple, fun celebration. Many talented moms led craft stations. A rousing game of "Who Do You Love" (like musical chairs) entertained boys and girls alike. Healthy snacks fortified the kids in between activities.

The highlight of the party was the Valentine exchange. Some kids exchanged little mass-market greetings. Others dropped candy in each others' bags. There were pencils, little rubber toys, and homemade greetings. The kids were scrambling to put their little tokens of friendship into each others' bags. The Valentine celebration was about the community, the comradery of classmates, and the appreciation of one friend for another.

That's why I love Valentine's Day. I love my friends and family, but I don't always think to tell them. Valentine's Day acts like a big appreciation alarm clock. It wakes us up to say to those near and dear to us, "Hey! You're great! I'm really glad you're in my life!" And I just love that heart-shaped box of chocolates. With the gooey centers please.