Ginger Lincoln and the throng of bands

There's a white lined index card tucked behind a jar on our kitchen counter. It looks like a wacko list of unrelated terms but it represents a mini tradition we acquired a few years ago where we create random future band names from word combinations that come up in our regular conversations. 

For example: One day Sam is especially excited as he broke open a freshly purchased loaf of our usual brand of bread in Australia (Helga's). As he takes out the first two slices he announces, "Oh, I love first-day Helgas!" We look up with a grin and say it in unison: "Band name." It goes on the list.

If future anthropologists discovered the card, I'm not sure what they would make of the kooky random word pairings. Each entry takes me back to the moment: the laugh of recognition, the race to jot it down on the card. It's one of those organic little traditions that have emerged in our midstage family life and I love how it pins down the elusive moonbeam of a moment. When we packed up to move, that little battered card was one of the few documents precious enough to tuck into my journal to bring along with me, in person.  

Here are a few of the bands--you can probably imagine some of the backstories. Others are pretty...situational and need a little explanation: 

  • First Day Helgas
  • Ginger Lincoln
  • Involuntary Doughnuts
  • Defective Tomato
  • 6 a.m. Shanks (This one probably needs a little explaining: Greg had a weekly early morning call with a guy in the US with that name)
  • Dichotomous Key
  • Sticky Figs
  • Downton Abbey on the Sly
  • Rogue Pinky
  • Time Zone Overlap
  • American Dairy
  • Bat Pee Rainstorm (after we made the unfortunate choice of sitting under a couple of trees at an outdoor concert that ended up being the home to a whole fleet of bats)

If I were fancier I'd turn it into a special journal or chatbook but that might make it too precious and ruin it. (In fact, I'm hoping that just writing about it here won't mess with the band name juju!) It's just a battered list on a notecard. But it's also more than just the paper--it's a snapshot of a laugh, an artifact of connected delight. 

What little artifacts do you save that represent aspects of your family life? What tiny, random traditions mean the most to you?

Building community -- one meatball at a time

Annie's last post on the shrinking family hit me hard. My third child is a senior this year, so I'm reluctantly heaving myself aboard the she's-leaving-home-soon roller coaster. But for now, Maddie is home for a few weeks from New York, and Jordan arrives in Houston on Sunday. Then, for ten glorious days, I'll have all of my chicks under my roof. And then they will leave me. I find it all very rude.

As we've adjusted to our own shrinking family, we've found that the quiet (while often welcome) can, at times, become deafening. Also, we need people. And perhaps it's these very holes in our lives that made an idea like Friday Night Meatballs all the more appealing -- hopeful even.

Photo by   carina romano  via  serious eats

Here's the story of Friday Night Meatballs: A couple in Philadelphia instituted a tradition of weekly Friday night meatball dinners to connect with family and friends -- and in so doing expanded their community on a global level (they have pics of people in the Ukraine having Friday Night Meatballs). Sarah Grey, the mastermind behind Friday Night Meatballs, sent out a Facebook message informing friends of the new tradition and asking for participants. Each week they had folks sign up, Sarah's husband Joe mixed up a pot of sauce and meatballs, and they had an informal but lively get-together that Sarah describes as "a comforting, relaxing, energizing cross between a Shabbat dinner, a salon, and a playdate." 

It was "salon" that got me. I've always wanted to host a salon.

The cool part about Friday Night Meatballs is that you can connect with your regulars -- your family and close friends -- but it's also an opportunity to get to know other people, those further outside one's immediate "group." The Greys have people sign up online (I'm sure in a safe and responsible forum), so they get a variety of interesting folks. And voila! Their circle expands! 

The recipe is simple and delicious (the meatballs can be made and frozen ahead of time). A few Sundays ago we had several families over after church to give the recipe a test-run, and I can testify that the meatballs were a success. And while I cannot wholly commit to Friday Night Meatballs on Friday nights in the crush of football season, I'm intrigued with the idea of branching out, moving beyond my comfort zone, meeting new and interesting people. Maybe in this season of shrinking and reworking our family life, marinara is one simple answer. If I cooked up a pot of meatballs, would you come? 

Valentine's day with big kids

Now that the calendar has ventured into February, I'm keen to say something about love and hearts and sparkly, pink glitter. Personally, I tend to leans toward the state of a mind that Valentine's Day is a made-up, greeting card holiday. But my kids love it, and I feel duty-bound to try to make a tradition out of every little thing so they'll forget those times when I was a screaming lunatic and locked myself in my room because THREE HUNDRED SOCKS ON THE LIVING ROOM FLOOR.

Plus, Valentine's Day can be a bit of let down for teenagers, particularly girls. I've realized of late that Rebecca is a hopeless romantic, and hopeless romantics especially love Valentine's Day. And sometimes, you've just got to help a hopeless romantic out.

From the time our kids were little, Sterling and I have celebrated our kids with a special Valentine's breakfast. We decorate the table and use heart plates, and I gather a few small, lovey gifts to put next to each place setting (and by lovey, I mean clothes for the girls and something weapon-like for PJ). In years past Sterling has made pink, strawberry milk, pink scrambled eggs, and heart shaped pancakes alongside hashbrowns and bacon and any other fatty breakfast concoction we can dream up. One year we even hung pink and red and white streamers and balloons in the doorway to the kitchen so the kids could run through. It was very . . . celebratory.

As the kids have entered high school (with early morning activities), we've had to adjust the festivities (because no one really enjoys a Valentine breakfast at 5:15 AM). I think this year we will have a Valentine dinner the night before (Thursday night) -- but we'll be serving breakfast for dinner, which is one of my favorite things in the entire world. So I'd better get thinking about decorations and menu items.

This recipe for Cream Cheese-Stuffed Lemon French Toast with Strawberries seems, well, divine. 

Or these Mini Puffed Oven Pancakes with Berry Sauce. I've actually made these before and loved them, but be sure to double the recipe because the kids need a lot to fill them up.

via OurBestBites

via OurBestBites

Oh Happy Day has an entire list of fun ideas. I'm kind of hip on Heart Balloons in a Closet. It's a simple but unexpected surprise to brighten up my family's day. 

These fantastic fruit stickers have been making their way around the Internet for a few years now, and I'm thinking of printing some out for lunches. Nothing says 'high school cool' like lovey fruit stickers. 

I'm also considering this heart t-shirt. They had some hip, raglan-sleeve heart shirts for a while, but they seem to be gone. Need. Raglan. Valentine. Shirt.

And for my daughters who are far, far away? Love these printable love cards by Jones Design Company. 

via JonesDesignCompany

via JonesDesignCompany

Sharing a little love on Valentine's Day is a fun, memory-filled tradition for our family. And since that family is currently winging its way out the door -- I plan to live it up while the getting is good! Hearts for everyone . . .

Our BEST CHRISTMAS EVER

Guys, I'm a bit under the weather. Nothing major. . . probably just too little sleep over the last few days. But fear not, I'm posting a little essay I wrote last Christmas season on my personal blog (which I promised I would keep up after I started Nest & Launch, and therein proved that I'm a big, fat liar). This is the moment where I decided to poll the kids for their top Christmas activities. Also, here's where I show you that sometimes I'm materialistic, and sometimes I like to punish myself psychologically. And sometimes I just put it all down and take a nap. Enjoy! (P.S. I'm 87% finished with my Christmas shopping. What about you?)

wool felt balls.jpg

During our Thanksgiving trip we did some shopping near downtown Austin. There are a couple of places we like within walking distance to each other: Book People, Anthropologie, Paper Source, West Elm, and then Whole Foods for treats. The West Elm store is the BEST EVER. It's huge. It has more stuff than our West Elm...and it's merchandised in just such a way that screams in my ear. Want to know what it says?

Sure you do. West Elm shouts this at me: YOU COULD LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE IF YOUR ENTIRE HOUSE LOOKED JUST LIKE ME!!

And I really, really want to live my best life, so I listen so, so carefully. I plan little vignettes of West Elm-y stuff in my head. I exhort myself (forcefully) to CLEAR OUT and SIMPLIFY, so that every room is serene, and clutter-free, and studded with just the right amount of mercury glass and natural fibers. On that particular trip I got it in my head that I NEEDED a faux deer head mounted above my fireplace JUST FOR CHRISTMAS. Because then, under the benevolence of those faux horns, it would be the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER.

I'm going to come right out and tell you that the deer head was $99. The price wasn't necessarily a deal breaker -- seeing as how I somehow spent $74.23 just the other night at HEB on the stuff for homemade pizza, some chocolate covered pretzels, and shampoo and conditioner for the girls. But still, those $99 deer heads add up and pretty soon the serene and the clutter-free is completely covered up with faux animal parts and my bank account is suffering.

And so I find myself endlessly see-sawing between simplicity and excess, between practicality and frivolity, between meaningful Christmas and magical splendor. I talk myself in and out of each end of the spectrum several times a day...and it's plumb tiring.

Just last night I wanted the whole family to watch the First Presidency Christmas Devotional. Come on people, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Christmas carols, some sage words of advice about remembering Christ this season...all with popcorn. Now THAT'S Christmas, right? And it was okay. Except I yelled at one kid for texting and had to continually shush Parker and Sterling who were threatening to break into fits of rough housing. In the end I was grouchy. Hmmmm. Maybe the deer head would have helped after all.

After some thought this morning, here's my grand plan. I'm going to sit the kids down and we are going to orchestrate our BEST CHRISTMAS EVER. Meaning everyone gets to pick one or two favorite activities and then Sterling and I will do our darnedest to make them happen. Also, I settled for the (pictured above) wool-ball garlands in lieu of the deer head. Simplicity folks. That's what will make my best life ever, and I'm going after it with the vigor of Santa's elves the night before Christmas.

Except with a bit of mercury glass and natural fibers.


P.S. Here's a fun Christmas wall paper for your computer. I downloaded it and it's making me feel a bit festive.

The case of Father's Famous Flapjacks

Once upon a time somewhere in my kids' early childhood, my husband made a long-remembered meal. I say made a meal because, though he's a great cook, at that stage in our lives G was working insane hours at a DC law firm and we rarely saw him, let alone ate any food he prepared. It was a sad couple of years for us all; the dad landscape was pretty desolate and we all missed him. But, as I said, this one time he was home and he made some pancakes for the kids. But wait. Not just pancakes. G made Father's Famous Flapjacks [jazz hands], inspired by those featured in Sendak/Minarik's Little Bear series. He made the most of those pancakes, whipping the kids up into a frenzy of excitement and transforming humble pancakes into sought-after delicacies. In this fun-dad moment, he accidentally marketed the heck out of those Bisquick pancakes.

Man, they had longevity, too. For several years whenever they were asked what their favorite food was, do you know what the kids said?  Father's [freaking] Famous Flapjacks. When we went around the birthday table saying what we loved about G, those flapjacks were consistently mentioned. Let me say this: they were probably delicious but they were just pancakes. The magic was in the enthusiasm, the story, the hoopla. And I'll admit it, I was a little perplexed. I made dinner 364 days a year but that meal G made went down in history. (And, yes, the element of "specialness" certainly didn't hurt.) I admit I wasn't very gracious about it at the time, but I did appreciate and respect that he was turning the time he did have with the kids into highly memorable moments.

Jacques Tati  via 

Jacques Tati via 

This phenomenon was not limited to their younger years, mind you. As they got older G would take the girls on much anticipated Daddy Daughter Dates. He created a signature goodbye gesture when we dropped him off at work or at the airport: he blew a kiss and then kicked it like a soccer ball in our direction. And as recently as last year when I spent a week out of town, I came back to a lot of family chatter about G's newest creation, the Best Chicken Ever.  These are things my kids readily and happily remember about their dad without a moment's pause. And I guess what bothered me is that I wasn't really sure they'd be able to do the same for me (that is, boring old day-in-day-out mom). And then I realized: G is a lot better at branding his particular contributions to parenthood than I am. 

Oh, branding, that ubiquitous term of our era. (Some of you are probably rolling your eyes but stay with me here, okay?)  According to Wikipedia, a brand is the "personality that identifies a product, service or company and how it relates to key constituencies." Successful brands are memorable, identifiable, connect on an emotional level with the audience, and contribute to myth making around the person/service/product. Father's Famous Flapjacks anyone?

We hear a lot about branding in the business & marketing world but I think it probably happens in families, too. Whether or not we're aware of it, our parent "brand" is the personal contribution we bring to the family, the stories we tell, the way we frame our thoughts and ideas and interactions for the rest of the family. Just as a regular old trip to Chik-fil-a can turn into a mini tradition of Chik-fil-A Wednesdays maybe our regular old interactions can be more memorable and meaningful with a little pizzazz: a catchy phrase, a signature gesture, a highlighted personality quirk.  I liked what Annette said at the end of her guest post here, "I occasionally told them back then, and I've told them a few times since they've left home: I have many weaknesses and have made errors, but one thing I know about myself and about them is that I was a really good mother. They seem to believe my press statement." Well, here's to the occasional parenting press statements and to leaving our own individual flourishes in the mundane interactions that ultimately make up a life.

Even if the word "brand" makes you shudder with its corporate undertones, think of it this way: how will you be remembered as a parent? What stories will they tell your grandkids at your 80th birthday party? How do we let our personalities better shine through in our parenting? 

Mini traditions

Parker at our Starbucks breakfast date.

Parker at our Starbucks breakfast date.

When Sterling and I first started our family, we (probably mostly I) were dead-set on instituting FUN FAMILY TRADITIONS. I was so gung-ho about establishing and carrying out those TRADITIONS that, in some instances, I plumb wore myself out. It's taken me many years to learn the beauty of simplicity, and even now I have a penchant for taking the easy and beautiful and turning those elements into a 36 hour, gut-wrenching, sweat-laden PROJECT. It's a weird part of me that I'm trying to squelch.

Some of those old traditions have stayed with our family through childhood and into the teen and young adult years (my kids are still expecting a glass ornament every year), and some have understandably fallen by the wayside (we have a great Christmas picture book collection that no one will let me read to them!). Some traditions have come and gone and come again (like delivering the 12 days of Christmas in secret to an unsuspecting family). But I've found lately that it's been fun and satisfying to institute mini-traditions -- things we do for a season without any pressure to continue until the end of time.

For instance: For the first two months of school Parker had a cross country meet every Wednesday after school. Sterling, Becca, and I drove out, watched him run, and then brought him home with us. Because we had a limited window between the meet and church that night, we instituted Chick-Fil-A Wednesdays. Each Wednesday, after the meet, we'd drive through Chick-Fil-A and pick up dinner. Everyone looked forward to Chick-Fil-A Wednesdays (especially me because it meant no cooking). Guys, do you see what I did there? I made the Chick-fil-A drive-thru a tradition by giving it a name! It was easy, and my kids still talk about it. Are you getting my drift? Making memories through easy traditions! I'm going to write a book: 200 Family Traditions That Require Absolutely No Work on Your Part.

Bestseller, right? 

Here's another good one that fell right into my lap: When a cold front blew through recently Parker asked if I'd take him to Starbucks for hot chocolate before school. His school doesn't start until 8:15, so it's fairly easy to throw him in the car at 7, have a lovely hot chocolate and muffin at Starbucks, and deposit him at school afterwards. And he was so appreciative. I'm thinking maybe every other Friday until Christmas? I'll call it Made-It-to-the-Weekend Hot Chocolate.

And voila people! Traditions and memories without stress or hot glue gun burns.  

What about you? Any fun (and stress-free) traditions you can share with us? Please! I need them for my book! 

 

Great expectations, birthday edition

A few months ago G. realized he'd be on a business trip over my birthday, accompanied by Maddy who was going along as an early birthday gift of her own to tour some universities and visit friends. He offered to try to juggle it around better to be home but I shrugged it off. "Nah, we'll just do it another day instead," I said. "No big deal." And I really meant it at the time, too. After all, I'm a big girl, a grown woman, right?  

You'd think.

Sadly I forgot to inform my inner 10-year-old about my mature response. That Annie was raised in a celebrating household, conditioned to anticipate birthdays and expect kind of a big deal. She had great expectations, that birthday girl.

My 10th birthday party

My 10th birthday party

October 15 rolled around. Poor Sam. Suffice it to say that 15-year-old sons (no matter how kind and great they really are--and he is)  are not really equipped to carry the burden of their mothers' unspoken birthday expectations on their shoulders. To his credit, he remembered it was my birthday a couple of blocks before we got to his school drop off and gave me a chagrined/apologetic/cheerful "happy birthday" when we were almost at school. 

[As a side note, birthdays for Americans living in Australia are kind of out of sync, where our calendar is a day ahead of the US. On the bright side, having most of my family and many of my friends in the States means a two-day birthday-wishing fest. On the Aussie day, a few kind local souls left lovely, much-appreciated Facebook birthday messages. G, knowing me well, sent flowers.]

But it was a tough day, you guys. The mature Annie was willing but the inner youngster was weak. When it came down to it, no presents, no cake, no calls, and no birthday dinner meant that my inner birthday child felt kind of mopey and prone to pity partying instead.

Here's the rub: this was entirely avoidable! It's a lesson I keep learning, to either lower my expectations (and not expect mind reading) or speak up about them. Otherwise I'm just left with a cranky heart and bewildered loved ones. The naughty, told-you-so gremlin who lives in a little tarnished corner of our hearts is fed by the disappointment when people forget/fall short of our inner hopes. He makes us feel strangely virtuous and puritanical to have our wishes denied or withheld, as though it feels better to have our fears confirmed than our dreams fulfilled.

At our house we call this unnecessary martyrdom chicken-neck mom syndrome, our tendency to say--even when there's plenty to go around--"oh, no. Don't worry about me. You guys go ahead and take all the good meat. I'll gnaw on this chicken neck instead" with an air of ascetic self-righteousness. I could have spoken up when G offered to postpone. I could have told new local friends it was my birthday and scheduled a lunch out. I could have reminded and spelled it out for Sam and he surely would have risen to the challenge. But I settled for the chicken neck and a pity party instead. That's on me.

. . . 

p.s. We ended up having a lovely birthday do-over the next week when everyone was home. My inner birthday gal did a happy dance. All's well that ends well.