A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

Tannenbaum Christmas Coffee Cake

At some point in my late teens, I came across a recipe for Christmas tree-shaped coffee cake. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but I fell in love with the recipe and made it anyway. It turned out to be a hit, and I’ve made it nearly every year since. 

I can’t remember now where I found the original version of this recipe.  It’s scrawled in my embarrassingly cute recipe journal, which is pink and enlivened with a photo of kittens on the cover, and I recorded it before I began my habit of referencing the sources of my recipes.

I’ve altered it somewhat from the original over the years. I use the original recipe for the dough, but since the recipe made two huge tree-shaped coffee cakes, I now cut it in half to be more reasonable for a small family rather than a large gathering — in fact, this year I’ll use this half-sized recipe to make two small ones  instead of a single large cake, and freeze one for New Year’s morning. Besides adjusting the amount of dough, I tweaked the original filling, adding spices and dried fruit and increasing the overall amount. So, while I do wish I could give credit to the original creator, the evolution over the years is enough to erase any compunction I might feel for failing to cite my sources.

This sweet treat is more like an elaborate, decorative cinnamon roll than the coffee cake I grew up with, which was a cross between a quick bread (like banana bread) and a cake, with a cinnamon streusel topping. Instead of baking soda, this coffee cake uses yeast, and it needs to be made the afternoon before you’re planning your breakfast to give it plenty of time to rise overnight. 

You may scroll all the way to the bottom to read a more concise version of this recipe, and print a PDF.

Start by collecting your ingredients:

Dough:

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups flour
  • Oil or cooking spray

Filling:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 cup dried fruit, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter (for brushing onto the dough)

Glaze:

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • Water or milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Maraschino cherries, for garnish

Royal Icing (optional)

  • White of one pasteurized egg (one ounce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup of powdered sugar

You’ll mix and knead the dough and shape the coffee cake the night before you want to eat it, so be sure to plan enough time — and enough refrigerator space to let it rise overnight!

Start by getting the dough ready. Heat the milk and butter together in the microwave. In my microwave, about a minute and a half is enough to warm the milk without scalding it. The butter won’t be completely melted — let the mixture sit on the counter a few minutes, and the butter will finish melting while the milk cools slightly. You don’t want the milk to be hot, just warm. Hot milk will curdle the egg and kill the yeast.

While the milk cools, mix your dry ingredients in a medium bowl: 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, and yeast.  You’ll add the rest of the flour later.

Lightly beat your egg, and stir it into your milk and butter mixture, after testing to make sure the milk is just warm. It should be just a bit warmer than body temperature — a shade warmer than a baby’s bottle. If you drip a bit onto your wrist, you’ll feel warmth without getting burnt.

Stir the milk mixture into the dry mixture to make a sticky dough — you may need to use your hands to get all the flour incorporated into the dough.

This is a good time to point out that you can do this whole process using a stand mixture, if you want, from mixing the dry ingredients to kneading the dough. I would use the paddle attachment at first, and then change to the hook for kneading. However, I prefer to knead by hand, partly because I’m a traditionalist and partly because I think you get a better feel for the texture of the dough when you use your hands. My husband likes to use the mixer, because you can use the highest setting and get the kneading over with quickly.

Once the dry ingredients and milk are mixed, sprinkle about a quarter of a cup of flour onto a clean counter and turn the dough out onto the flour. Sprinkle another quarter cup on top, and knead the dough. To knead, use both hands to press down on the dough, fold it toward you, and give it a quarter turn before repeating the process. Continue kneading for about ten minutes (or as little as five minutes if you’re a very vigorous kneader). Add more flour as needed, sparingly — too much will make the dough feel dry when it’s baked. When the texture of the dough becomes firm and springy, it’s been kneaded enough. It’s not the addition of flour that causes the texture change so much as the kneading. Working the dough causes the wheat gluten to form, which is responsible for giving it the elastic feeling of a yeast bread.

When the dough has been kneaded to an elastic consistency so that it springs back when you press it, form it gently into a ball. Lightly oil a bowl (I just use the one I mixed the dough in), drop the ball of dough in, and then turn it over once so that it’s covered with oil. Place a cloth over the bowl and set it aside to rise for about an hour, until it’s doubled in size. The warmer the place you leave it, the faster it will rise — just don’t put it in a hot place, or the dough will start to bake and the yeast will die off.

While the dough is rising, make your filling. Start by chopping your dried fruit. What fruit you use is really your choice. Last year I used golden raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apricots, and papaya, along with pecans. This year I’m using dried cherries, cranberries, mangoes, dark raisins, and hazelnuts. The dried fruit, combined, should come to about a cup, and the chopped nuts should be about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

 

Combine the sugar and spices. Add the melted butter and combine completely, then stir in the chopped fruit and nuts.

When the dough has risen until it’s doubled in size, the coffee cake is ready to shape. Give the dough a good punch to make it collapse. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter. Lightly flour a rolling pin, and roll the dough out into an isosceles triangle with a 12-inch base and 15-inch sides. I use the length of the rolling pin as a guide for the length of each side.

Once you have a good triangle shape, brush the dough with about a tablespoon of melted butter. Cover the dough evenly with the filling, leaving space along the edges.

Bring the sides together, pinching the filling-free edges firmly together to make a tight seam. Seal the bottom as well so filling doesn’t fall out when you transfer it to the pan. The best way I’ve come up with to get it from the counter onto the pan is to slide a rigid plastic sheet dusted with flour underneath the filled triangle (I use the plastic placemats my kids use for play dough), and then support it with a hand underneath and a hand on top as I quickly turn it over, seam downward, onto the oiled baking sheet.

Now, lightly score a guide line down the center of the triangle, from peak to base. Use sturdy kitchen scissors to cut slices into each side, ending about a quarter inch from the line. I made eight cuts in the one above. You could do more for smaller slices, but fewer cuts would make the slices too wide to easily do the next step.

Starting at the bottom, give each slice a firm downward twist, toward you (assuming you’re at the base of the triangle). Twist each one so that the filling is visible, and the ends are tilted forward slightly. Cover the tree lightly with plastic wrap, and place it into the fridge to rest and rise overnight.

In the morning, turn on the oven to 350, pull the coffee cake out of the fridge, and let it come to room temperature on the counter while the oven heats. If you have enough time, give the coffee cake a good half hour to rest before putting it into the oven. (It’s not going to make a big difference, but it will be slightly lighter in texture if it has time to warm to room temperature before baking.) Bake it at 350 for 20-30 minutes, till the bread is golden-brown and the filling is sizzling.

Allow the coffee cake to cool slightly while you mix the glaze or icing. To make a basic glaze, sift the powdered sugar into a measuring cup with a pour spout, then drizzle milk or water in, whisking, until it’s a thick, smooth, pouring consistency. Add vanilla. (Another option, especially if you used cranberries in the filling, is to use orange flavoring and add some orange zest.) Drizzle the glaze over the coffee cake in a decorative pattern. This type of glaze won’t show up much — it will soak into the warm coffee cake a little. Add colorful maraschino cherries, cut into halves, or bright-colored candied fruit, to give the effect of ornaments on a tree. I’ve always used both red and green cherries until last year — I’ve been unable to find green ones for the last two years. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

If you want your coffee cake to have a bright white icing like mine, use a royal icing instead of (or on top of) the glaze. I had some left over from decorating gingerbread cookies, so I used that for the coffee cake, with a very pretty effect. The recipe I’m giving here is Alton Brown’s recipe for royal icing, reduced to a third. A quick note: I was able to do the full sized recipe in my stand mixer with the whisk attachment, but the egg whites barely met the whisk at first, until I tilted the bowl upward. Once the whites got fluffy, it was fine. The single egg white won’t fill the mixer bowl enough for the whisk to do the job. To do this smaller recipe, use a hand mixer and a bowl.

To make royal icing, use one ounce of pasteurized egg white (the equivalent of one egg white). Beat it with a hand mixer, together with the vanilla, until it’s fluffy and white. Gradually add one and a third cups of icing sugar, beating at low speed. Once all the sugar is mixed in, continue beating at high speed until the icing is glossy and stiff. Use a plastic bag with a tiny corner snipped off, or an icing bag with a piping nozzle, or even a spoon, to drizzle over the coffee cake in a pretty design. Then add the candied cherries. The icing will harden fairly quickly and will retain its bright white look.

Click here for a printable PDF of the recipe:Tannenbaum Coffee Cake

Concise recipe format:Tannenbaum Coffee CakeTannenbaum Coffee Cake2Tannenbaum Coffee Cake3

 

“Oops!”: Time For Honesty

Lately, I’ve been considering honesty in my writing. It’s not so much that I’m concerned about a personal habit of lying. It’s more that I suspect I may be guilty of contributing to a common Facebook phenomenon: by presenting only the best of my life, my stories may make readers feel inadequate.

Let me give an example. On November 30, I posted a glowing report of writing 50,000 words of my very own novel! Some of my friends shook their heads and marveled at my accomplishment. How on earth do you do it all? they wondered. Well, it’s time for honesty. For the entire month of November, I folded laundry once. That’s right. By the end of November, I had three weeks’ worth of unfolded laundry piled in baskets, overflowing onto my washing machine. I also allowed my kids to watch far too much TV. I neglected the garden, and left the kids (and myself) in PJs for large portions of the day. I didn’t have my son write thank-you cards for his birthday gifts — a fact brought home by the arrival of a thank-you card from a friend whose birthday was a few weeks after his.

Here’s the truth: every time I accomplish something of which I’m proud, something I wish to share with the world, or even just any task outside my daily routine, something else remains undone. Yesterday I worked my way through nine months’ worth of photos, deleting 1600 of them as I went, and I also wrote a post for this blog. What that means is that I failed to accomplish the following jobs: folding this week’s clean laundry, emptying and refilling the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, vacuuming the carpet, cleaning dog-nose-slime off the window, filling out paperwork to renew the tags on our car, and watering my baby beet seedlings. Oh, and helping Niko write thank-you cards!

All of these ponderings on honesty have been simmering on the back burner of my mind for some time now, until this morning when I came across a WordPress tool I didn’t know existed: a weekly writing challenge. This week’s challenge is “Oops!” The goal is to post a story that includes a photo that is decidedly not Instagram- or Facebook-worthy. The challenge jogged my memory of a photo I took some time ago — a failure of perfection.

So, my dear readers, here is my “oops” moment. The setting is the making of a batch of cinnamon-swirled bread from my own recipe. I shared a photo of my loaves on Facebook but didn’t end up making a blog post from it, because I didn’t knead the dough enough and the odd texture shows up clearly in the photos. Also, even though I included cinnamon in this particular attempt, I didn’t use enough, so it just shows up as a faint streak in the sliced bread. I didn’t know any of this as I was making the bread, of course, and I was planning to write up the recipe for my blog, so I was taking photos as I went. In the photos, there’s no hint that anything is amiss. The counter is clean and shiny, and the bread practically glows with homemade goodness.

However, as I was photographing all this domestic bliss, I happened to step back and take a look at my kitchen. Oh. My. God. It was a disaster. The only clear space on the counter was the one I’d cleared for photographing the bread! The floor was unswept. The sink was piled with dishes. Just awful. On impulse, I snapped a picture. In fact, this is far from the worst my kitchen has been when I’m in the throes of creativity, but it’s the only photo I’ve taken of the mess.

But, honestly, that’s my life. If I’m putting extra time into writing, or cooking something special, or making an interesting project, other things are left undone. I’ve learned to accept that. I can catch up while the kids nap or after they go to bed, or I can set aside a day later in the week to focus on cleaning, or whatever it takes to recover from a day of focusing on projects.

Still, the truth is that this mess-making and catching up doesn’t show in my blog posts or Facebook status updates, and too much of that kind of omissions constitute a dishonest representation of my life. It would be easy to read the highlights of my life and see a perfect mom and housewife, gliding through life with grace and good humor. Nope. Not me. I’m the one with a disaster of a kitchen and stacks of unfolded laundry, sitting the kids in front of the TV so I can finish my project, and clearing six square inches of counter space to take a photo worthy of showing off. That, my friends, is the truth. I’m normal, human, disorganized, messy. Far, far, far from perfect.

I’m taking this opportunity to push back against the deluge of Facebook perfection. I don’t want to contribute to someone else’s sense of inadequacy. We all struggle; we all make compromises. We’re in this together, even if our social media accounts indicate otherwise.

Anything For a Year

My dad used to say, “You can survive anything for a year.” While there are obviously some exceptions to this observation, it’s a useful point to keep in mind. If you know a difficult circumstance will have an end point, the hope of a better time can keep you going. It’s especially helpful if you know the time frame; it’s not so easy when you have no way to gauge how long your circumstance will last, or how to move out of it.

I’ve been thinking about milestones, years, enduring, and survival lately. Today, after I loaded photos from Sofia’s second birthday, I began going through our photos, deleting duplicates, unfocused shots, and other unwanted photos. As I was deleting literally hundreds upon hundreds of photos (about 1600 today), I came across two photo shoots I’d forgotten about — in fact, I believed they hadn’t taken place, and for nearly two years I have been regretting their absence. When our daughter Sofia was born, we planned to take photos each month of her first year, posing with a blue-striped lamb. I was so exhausted those first few months, I promptly forgot about these photos after I took them at her one- and two-month birthdays. I was delighted today to discover they existed, but at the same time, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion they brought.

Looking at these photos brings back some fairly traumatic memories. I’m not exaggerating: those first five months were horrific, and in fact Sofia’s whole first year was difficult. She had both colic and a dairy sensitivity, and while eliminating dairy from my diet helped a little, the colic symptoms remained. Those first few months, I averaged two hours of sleep a night. And those hours often consisted of bits and pieces of time: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. By the time she was a year old, I generally got five hours of sleep at night and considered myself lucky.

It wasn’t just the nights that were difficult. It was nearly impossible to put Sofia down for more than a few minutes at a time. Those photos above were the result of holding Sofia in the Ergo baby carrier for hours until she dropped off to sleep, then gingerly lowering her onto the bed to snatch a few photos, until she awoke once again with screams. Then another quarter hour or so of comforting, then more photos, and so on until the light changed too much for photography. There were far more photos of blurred fists pumping in rage, mouth open in anguished wails, than there are of these peaceful moments. In fact, as I looked at the sweetly resting little girl in the photos, I could hardly believe these pictures were real. My memories of that time consist mainly of tears, rocking, walking, bouncing, and nursing.

As I mentioned, Sofia just celebrated her second birthday. She is now a cheerful little girl, all smiles and giggles. She rarely fusses, and quickly returns to sunshine after a little grouchiness. She runs around after her big brother, who just turned five, doing her best to imitate his every move and word. Her birthday was a simple affair, with just the four of us celebrating at home.  She listened with a big grin while we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then blew out her candles just as if she’d been practicing for the occasion. Later, she proved herself to be a good sport by posing for me with the lamb we got when she was born. Her birthday was as lighthearted, simple, and fun as she herself is.

The juxtaposition of these second-birthday photos with those first- and second-month photos is jarring with the contrast in memories. Those first two months, I knew theoretically that things would get better. Had to get better. No child can scream and demand to be held for eighteen years, right? Surely it would end. But I couldn’t see it, couldn’t even visualize a better time. I occasionally remembered my father’s words — “You can survive anything for a year” — and shuddered. A year of this? I was pretty sure I couldn’t, in fact, survive it.

But around five or six months, things took a turn for the better. Sofia learned to crawl, and began to enjoy real food. She smiled frequently. She was able to lie on the floor or in a playpen for fifteen minutes, half an hour, finally forty-five minutes at a time. She began to nap in a swing instead of only in my arms. I was able to sleep for a solid hour or more at night between waking, then for two hours, and then for an occasional three-hour stretch. Five-hour nights became the norm, then six-hour and even sometimes seven-hour nights, snatching sleep in two- or three-hour increments.

By one year old, she was walking, running, climbing. Trying new words. Smiling more than crying. She rarely needed to be held except to nurse. She mastered a bottle, then a sippy cup, filled with almond milk, as she still couldn’t handle cow’s milk or even gentle formula. Finally, the time came to wean her, and it was like a miracle: she began to fall asleep on her own, without nursing or being held. 

Now, at two years old, she falls asleep readily at nap time and sleeps for two or three hours, twice a day. She goes to sleep at bedtime as soon as I put her to bed, and rests all night long. She rarely cries, and then only for a short time. Smiles are the norm. Words increase daily, as do her adventurous attempts to mimic her brother.

What I’m saying is, This too shall pass. Or, in the words of my father, “You can survive anything for a year.” You really can survive a lot, if you know it will end. I survived five months of constantly holding a distressed baby with next to no sleep nightly. I didn’t think I could do it, but here we are.

I’m thinking of the new parents out there who are enduring the same sleepless nights, the screams that can’t be comforted, the hours of walking the floor. It feels endless. It feels hopeless. But I promise: It will end, and you will survive. One day, you’ll look into your sweet child’s laughing face and shake your head as you remember the distant past, when you believed you couldn’t do it, when you wanted to give up. You’ll wrap your arms around your toddler, whom you love with your whole heart, and you’ll smile as you realized: You did it. It’s over. You made it.

You can survive anything for a year.

A Novel Idea

Screenshot 2015-11-30 21.49.54.pngNaNoWriMo. Heard of it? No? Let me enlighten you. The month of November is designated National Novel Writing Month (though, in fact, it’s an international endeavor). There is an organization dedicated to NaNoWriMo. They recruit published authors, professors, publishing venues, text editing programs, et cetera, and employ them via their web site (NaNoWriMo.org) to encourage YOU, the average literature-loving human with a secret desire to write, in your quest to complete a novel. The goal is to complete 50,000 words of your novel during the month of November.

Last year was the first time I took an interest in the idea. I’d heard of it the previous year, I think, but dismissed it. A novel in a month? I thought. Insane. There’s no way I could do that. 

By last year, I had shifted in my mindset. I now found the idea tantalizing. I probably had a book in me somewhere, I realized. After all, I’d been threatening to write a book for years; surely I could translate some of that energy into some sort of book. I tossed a few ideas around tentatively. But by the time I realized NaNoWriMo had rolled around again, the month was half gone and I had yet to even begin writing. I abandoned it before I had even started.

This year was different. I was plagued by the awareness that I hadn’t yet finished a photo story book I’ve been making for Niko, entitled Niko Picks Raspberries, starring (obviously) Niko himself. I had planned it for Christmas last year — didn’t finish it. Thought I’d do it in time for his birthday this year — didn’t get it done. As I tried to buckle down and finish this little story for Niko, I got to thinking — there is a wealth of story potential in that boy. What if I turned him into a book?

And then, the inciting moment. Mid-September or so,  I was editing a paper for Aaron, who is working on his master’s degree. He is excellent at researching and analyzing and synthesizing the material for a paper, but he doesn’t have as strong a grammar sense as I do. Recognizing my delight in editing, he kindly allows me to take over once the paper is written, editing to my heart’s content. For those of you who don’t personally know me, let me assure you that I actually mean this with no snark or irony. Editing relaxes me the way running on a treadmill works for other people. It brings me to my happy place.

One evening, I was proofreading a paper, making small adjustments using Word’s “Track Changes” option. I rarely even look at the citations, since I was taught to cite sources generally using MLA, while Aaron’s courses require APA formatting, and there’s a good chance I wouldn’t recognize a citation error even if he were to make one. On this particular day, though, I noted that a citation credited “Cautionary Brown, et al.” Huh, I thought. I didn’t think APA used first names. And then, Seriously? Cautionary? Impossible. I scanned nearby lines. Above was a similar citation for “Brown, et al.” On a line below, a reference to a cautionary example of… something, I don’t remember now. Aha. A simple typo. I fixed it and moved on.

Still, the name stuck with me. Cautionary Brown. It was the perfect name for a mischievous child in days of yore. I could just picture him. In fact, I could picture him doing many of the things Niko has done. For example, running through a patch of burr-covered weeds until his clothes were completely full of them, in order to help the plants spread their seeds. It occurred to me that a boy in 1890 wouldn’t be that different from a boy in 2015.

So a spark of inspiration was lit, and when the month of November arrived, I realized I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t sit down to write Cautionary’s story.

Mind you, the story didn’t turn out quite how I expected. It moved itself to 1933 or thereabouts. Cautionary’s name will have to change — charming as it is (as I think it is, anyway), it simply doesn’t work for that time period (quite possibly not for any time period). Still, there it is. A brand-new story, created by me, and inspired — very appropriately — by a typographical error. And it came to be thanks to NaNoWriMo, which created a necessary illusion of an impending deadline and periodic goals.

It’s not done. Not by a long shot. I have perhaps 2/3 of the story actually written; the rest is rough outlines and half-written story ideas. Once the entire thing is complete, it will need a complete overhaul. It will need to be smoothed, connected, expanded, inconsistencies fixed. There’s a good chance entire sections will need to be rewritten to make it readable for my target age group. After that, the book will be about the length of three young-reader novels for that age group, so I’ll then need to work in introductions and conclusions for each section, and then ensure that each can stand alone as its own book. In short, reaching my 50,000 word goal, as tremendously satisfying and exhilarating as it is, is just the beginning. I’m not even close to finished.

But. But. But, I have written 50,000 words of a novel. And I like what I’ve written. I’m as proud and excited as a first-time pregnant mother, full of anticipation to show the world my beautiful baby. Full of terror, too, at the thought of the work that awaits me, at the thought of the process of getting the book ready to be viewed by others, at the idea of actually presenting it to a publisher. Which leads, naturally, to absolute terror at the thought of having my beautiful baby be rejected.

Want to see the cover? Of course you do. Here it is.FullSizeRender

I need hardly add that this is a working cover. I grabbed a free stock photo, added text using a phone app, and color-adjusted slightly. It’s not exactly a professionally-designed book cover. Still, it works for now.

So, there it is. This is what I’ve been doing all month. It’s occupied all my waking moments. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. The story ran through my head as I strung Christmas lights, swept floors, washed dishes, supervised bath time. It pursued me through pulling weeds and planting fall bulbs. It kept me up late and occupied me when I should have been folding laundry. It has consumed me — and, I have no doubt, will continue to do so for some time. But at least now I can rest knowing I’ve met a pretty significant goal.

A Zombie Pie Thanksgiving

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, has been filled with dinner preparations. With our home already filled with the sparkle and glimmer of Christmas decorations, I’m in the holiday spirit. Fruitcake a la Alton Brown (our family’s kitchen god) rests on the counter, sealed into a bag, awaiting its next soaking with brandy. The turkey is soaking in a salty, herbed brine, Alton Brown’s cranberry jelly is setting up in the fridge, and this year’s pumpkin pie looks perfect.Well, nearly perfect. The blank surface is evidence that I lost track of time and forgot to add a pretty leaf-shaped pastry garnish.

This quiet day of cooking in an empty kitchen is a contrast to the busy Thanksgiving preparations of times past. Having just made a trip home last month to the commune where I grew up for an Ontario Thanksgiving, the difference stands out strongly in my mind. This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my Canadian family since I left home at the age of 18 to go to college.

My husband and our two small children and I took a two-leg flight from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then drove up along the coast of Lake Superior to the three-farm commune where I grew up in Northwest Ontario. It was a long trip, especially the 45-minute flight from Portland to Seattle, which culminated in both children throwing up simultaneously as we descended after a turbulent journey through high winds.

By comparison, the four-hour flight to Minneapolis and the nine-hour drive up the coast the following day were blissful. The kids were cooperative and calm, the roads were clear of snow, the iPad fulfilled its role of providing soothing entertainment, and the scenery was breathtaking. Oh, and — no one threw up. The only drawback was that, as usual, we forgot to calculate how much longer everything takes with two small children, so we didn’t arrive at my parents’ house till 9:30 in the evening… their time… which was only 6:30 Portland time, so we weren’t as tired as we should have been.

Anyway, we arrived in the dark, and had a delightful pre-arrival welcome from a friend who was leaving the farm on her way home as we were pulling into the commune’s driveway. She recognized first an unfamiliar vehicle (the commune is part of a small town, the entire population of which — including the three communal farms — is about 300, so an unknown car is notable) and then our faces, and we slowed the vehicles to call a hello between cars. Pleased that she’d achieved the very first viewing of our family, she went on her way and we pulled on up the driveway, already feeling thoroughly welcomed.

As we stepped through the doorway of my parents’ home and into the living room, Niko skidded to a halt as his face lit up with an incandescent glow. “Awe…some!” he breathed. There, covering a good two cubic feet of the living room floor, was a magnificent tower of wooden blocks, consisting of all the blocks in the bin that my dad keeps on hand for just such occasions. Welcome complete.

The following morning was Thanksgiving, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. We took the opportunity to zip over to another of the three farms, to see a cousin and her two children who were there just for the day. They would leave before the early holiday dinner, so we abandoned my mother and the other ladies of my home farm to dinner preparations and skedaddled off for a lightning-fast visit. Niko and Sofia were in seventh heaven, playing with cousins near their age, flinging just-raked leaves at each other, and exploring the brush near my aunt and uncle’s home. Other visits had to wait for another day, but we did manage to get in the essentials before we had to return to Oregon.

 

As we visited at my aunt and uncle’s home Thanksgiving morning, the phone rang — my mother, asking if I wanted pie crust made ahead for the pie I was planning to make later. Then again, asking how many apples I needed per pie. And one more time, asking if I wanted apples peeled and cut, and if so, should they be sliced or chopped? “At this rate,” I told my aunt, “the pie will be made by the time I get there, and I’ll just take credit for it!” The machinery of a communal kitchen runs smoothly, and with an abundance of cooks bustling about, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the pie had, in fact, been finished without my lifting a finger. As it turned out, the pie — a recipe I adapted from my mother-in-law’s amazing recipe — turned out to be the very ugliest pie I’ve ever made, so perhaps I should have left it to them.

I arrived in the farm kitchen after lunch and was cheerfully greeted by half a dozen busy women, all intent on one or two tasks, all moving easily around each other without friction. This is one of the things I really, truly miss — a communal kitchen. If you grew up in a large family with a big kitchen, you might know what I’m talking about. Cooking is a social activity, a companionable endeavor. It’s rare to cook alone for any significant amount of time. Someone is always wandering in to get a snack, check the mail, help out, or just say hello. If one person is in charge of dinner, likely someone else will be baking bread for the week, another person making cheese from fresh milk, and a fourth somebody putting on the coffee for everyone else.

Thanksgiving is no exception to this rule. People drifted in and out of the kitchen and dining room, sneaking samples of the feast, sharing stories, reminiscing, and, of course, drinking coffee. Women tossed cooking questions out to the group, each one triggering a rousing discussion as five different people offered opinions. As I helped wash up some of the cooking dishes, I overheard a discussion that is more or less a requisite at a farm Thanksgiving: creamy yam casserole with marshmallows, or without, or roasted? One young woman, a relative newcomer who married into the community, was preparing a marshmallow-free casserole that was traditional in her French-Canadian family, and the women were spiritedly voicing their own favorites, without rancor. “You know,” my mother said, “this kind of thing is really what makes this farm the best place. On other farms, people would argue about which one is best forever, and then they would take a vote and choose one to make, and only about a third of the population would really be happy about it. Here, we just make them all!” Sure enough, one of the other women was cutting large yams into manageable chunks for roasting, and I’m pretty sure I saw a bag of marshmallows somewhere.

Between helping with a few dishes and making my pies, I wandered the main house, taking pictures of items I’ve seen my whole life as well as the festive decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from a nostalgic stroll down memory lane:

And a few images of the autumn decor:

 

My priority was to make the apple pies. I used my own recipe, which makes delicious pie… that is, it has every other time before this. As I added ingredients, I found myself almost falling into a familiar rhythm. I’ll find spatulas here in this drawer — Hey! What happened to the spatulas? Oh, here they are. When did you change that? And sugar — aha! Right here in this giant bin where it’s always been. (I took a precautionary taste before adding it in. It wouldn’t have been the first time salt and sugar got confused.) A bit of flour — yes, right where I thought it would be. Cinnamon… nutmeg… vanilla? Didn’t the vanilla go here with the spices? “Are you looking for vanilla? I have it over here, sorry!” (The apology made me feel right at home. This is Canada, after all.)  And no,  the vanilla didn’t belong where I was looking for it…  those 15-plus-year-old memories can only do  so much.

It felt good, working with the women who taught me to cook, in the big familiar kitchen. My pleasure was somewhat tainted, however, by my observation that the pies’ filling was a little runny. And there was too much of it.  The pies were full, very full, even though I left out a couple of cups of filling, and they sloshed menacingly when they moved. What had gone wrong? No idea. There was nothing to do but to bake them off anyway. As the ovens were full with turkey and rolls, I carried them out of the big kitchen and down the hill to my parents’ little house, where I prudently placed them each on a flat pizza pan before baking them.

I’d like to pause here to point out that my reputation was on the line here. Did I mention that this was my own recipe? Published here, on this very blog? And that it had been nearly two decades since I had cooked for a farm gathering? Did I mention that everyone knew that I was the one baking these apple pies (no hiding in anonymity)? Have I pointed out that the aforesaid “everyone” also  knew that I was using a recipe I’d published on this blog, an endeavor that has been followed with mild interest by various members of the community? Oh yes, I was very conscious of the vulnerability of my reputation, as I slid the sloshing pies into my mother’s oven.

Forty-five minutes later, I cringingly opened the oven door. My fears had come true. Let me assure you: this was the ugliest pie known to cuisine. Never before have I seen, nor do I wish ever to see again, a pie this ugly. The crumb topping had been displaced by bubbling filling, and patches of it had slid off the pie onto the pizza pans underneath, and some had dripped off the pans and onto the oven floor. The weight of the sliding filling had broken the edges of the crisp and flaky crust, destroying any chance they had of looking like ordinary pies. With the missing patches of topping, the crumbled edges, and the bubbled-over filling, my pies looked like pastries that had died violently and then been returned to a semblance of life by a misguided cook. Undead pies. Zombie pies. They were horrific. I was so ashamed, I didn’t even take a picture. This is what they were supposed to look like, although even this pie’s crust could be prettier:Featured Image -- 823

(They didn’t look like that.)

I was writhing in humiliation as I carried the pies back up to the main house and deposited them with the oher desserts, every one of which was more attractive than my sad apple pies.  I tried to sneak them in, hoping everyone would forget who was responsible for them, but in vain: one of the ladies sitting in the big dining room, working her magic on flower arrangements with preserved leaves, called out as I entered, “Hope! Are those your delicious apple pies? I can’t wait to try them!” I felt like dumping them into the trash, but instead I dutifully thunked them down next to the butter tarts and chocolate roll and cherry pies awaiting dinner.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hated seeing my dilapitated desserts next to everyone else’s lovely food.

But the thing is, this was a family Thansgiving. Nobody cared, really, what those pies looked like. They were there to visit, laugh, fill up on turkey, munch on soft, freshly-baked rolls, and sample as many desserts as possible.  Sure, my pies weren’t the first to disappear. They may even have been the last to be devoured over the next few days of leftover feasting. But nevertheless, they did get eaten, and, despite their imperfect texture, they were delicious, especially eaten alongside the homemade maple ice cream that was served with dessert.

Those pies shredded my reputation, but my sense of belonging and family wasn’t hurt one iota. As I visited with folks I haven’t seen in years, watching them valiantly attack my soggy apple pie, I felt perfectly happy. It was good to be home.

Fuzzy Aliens

Recently, we made a trip to visit my Canadian family for Thanksgiving, which very sensibly takes place in early October rather than late November in Canada.

One afternoon while we were there, I took a familiar stroll with my parents and Niko down the gravel road that leads down a long hill to the Canadian Pacific railroad. The road and the railroad border the farm where I grew up, so I used to walk that way nearly every day, alone or with my cousins and our friends. We used to time our walks to coincide with the passing of a freight train. We’d wave to the engineer, who would wave back and sometimes give a couple of friendly hoots of the train’s whistle. Occasionally there would be a small boy (and one memorable time, a very hunky teenage boy) in the cab of the engine, and the little boy would lean out the window as he waved in his excitement at seeing friendly faces.

I was mildly disappointed that the train didn’t pass during our walk.  I had wanted to share with Niko the experience of watching and feeling a huge train thunder by, as I’d shared with him the memory of lying in bed, listening to the comforting lullaby of a routine train whistle. He thought it was amazing that I used to wake up in the middle of the night if the train didn’t pass at its usual time. My story relieved his bedtime anxiety of the fearsome train roaring past, but I wanted to also share the exhilaration of the nearness to the giant metal beast. We didn’t get to see that this time, though.

However, we did find something fascinating. As we walked down an old road that runs parallel to the railroad, we paused periodically to look at items of interest — purple asters, dainty white asters (probably some sort of fleabane, quite possibly Lesser Daisy Fleabane), the seed heads of black-eyed Susans. Niko occupied himself harvesting flower seeds to “plant” later.

As we meandered along, I spied an odd, white, fuzzy growth on twigs of alders growing along the road. I waded through the brush beside the road to get a closer look. The growths were made up of rows of fuzzy bumps, each sprouting long hairs along its top. I’d never seen anything like it.

Mystery white growth
Mystery white growth

As I snapped pictures on my phone, my mother came over for a closer look. “They look like scale insects,” she said. I’d never heard of scale insects, and those motionless fluff balls didn’t look like any insects I’d ever seen. However, my mother is intelligent, well-read, and experienced in the realm of most things plant-related, so as soon as we got back to the house I started doing searches online to attempt to identify the weird, alien-looking hairy bumps.IMG_5873

It took my mother and I at least an hour to identify them. We started on the assumption that they were, in fact, some sort of scale insect, an assumption that made sense once I saw a few examples. But we didn’t find a scale insect that looked quite like our white hair balls.

I got a break when I read an article that mentioned the fact that aphids and scale insects were closely related. Aphids! I changed my search parameters and brought up images of hairy white aphids. Bingo! None of them were identical to our critters, but I felt I was getting closer.

I found an article on wooly apple aphids, with photos showing hairy white growths very similar — but not quite identical — to ours. Of course, ours weren’t on apple trees. It turns out, however, that these creatures often migrate between two species of tree, like apple and elm, or apples and alders. Alders! Aha! I thought, and did a search for wooly alder aphids. And there they were, in a very useful article from the University of Minnesota. They are, it turns out, overwintering on the twigs, and they’ll lay eggs that are clones of themselves. This generation is wingless; the next generation may have wings, and will migrate to a different tree, often alternating between alders and maples.

So there you have it. You learn something new every day, as my parents say — or at least you do if you keep your eyes open and maintain a little healthy curiosity. I doubt I’ll ever need this particular little piece of knowledge, but I enjoyed the discovery nonetheless.

The One Reason I Quit Teaching

I read this piece (attached below), written by blogger Elona Schreiner, and I’ll admit it made me sniffle. I was overwhelmed because it reminded me so strongly of my own experience. While I paused my teaching career to care for my small children rather than because of the chafing of the current demands of teaching, I completely understand this teacher’s concern for the politicization of education, and the frustration it causes. Like her, I’ve had students whose greatest growth could never be recorded in a spreadsheet or charted on a graph.

I remember a second-grade student who improved from a pre-kindergarten reading level — not even able to identify a single letter in her own name — to an end-of-first-grade level… and despite my personal joy in her progress, I felt the sting of the knowledge that on paper, she and I appeared to be failures, because she still wasn’t reading at the appropriate level. It hurts, knowledge like that.

It’s been painful to see the vibrant, growing, life-loving children I’ve learned to love each year being reduced to numbers on a chart, being analyzed as if they’re products in a warehouse. It hurts to realize that a child who really needs the boost of summer school, doesn’t qualify because — oh terrible irony! — he and I worked so hard that year that his score was too high by one percentile to fit into the program, because of reduced funding.

I know teachers who teach with energy and inspiration, who rise above the politics and the tests and assessments and charts and Excel worksheets, who lead their students to a love of learning with passion and fire. But maintaining that kind of energy is exhausting, when over half the time spent working is recording, analyzing, moving numbers from one spreadsheet to another — while less than half the time is spent with the children. I spent easily 60-80 hours working each week; only about 30 of those hours were spent with my students.

I’m not trying to gain sympathy, really. It’s just that what teachers love is, well, teaching; and maintaining passion for teaching as we watch it shift away from a focus on children, toward a focus on numbers, is disheartening — and that won’t change until it’s a widely recognized issue.

I look forward to returning to teaching. But I dread it, too, for all the reasons outlined in Ms. Schreiner’s piece that’s attached here. Maybe someday those things will change; in the meantime, our students still need us, and I’m grateful for my colleagues in the trenches even as I’m reveling in my opportunity to take a step back and breathe. I’m grateful to those who set an example of grace and strength, who maximize every moment they have with their students, who refuse to be worn down by politics and by our nation’s appetite for numbers on graphs.

elonaschreiner

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September means apples, bulletin boards, foliage, name tags, a new class and everything else about going back-to-school! After over thirty years of starting the fall in a classroom, as a student or teacher, I decided to take a break this year. I taught for thirteen years all over Oregon, and it was not an easy decision to take a year off from teaching. We moved from Oregon to Texas and I knew that now was the time to step back. It’s now been two months since school started for the rest of my world, and I have had time reflect upon the decision to change careers. I can now articulate the many things I miss about teaching and the one thing that I do not.

Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. There were moments when I saw myself as a lawyer, a rodeo cowgirl, a photojournalist, a…

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Home: Anticipation

The kids’ shared suitcase has been packed, checked, re-packed, second-guessed, items added, items removed. A bustle of tidying-up in preparation for the journey has swept our home: little boy’s hair has been trimmed despite protests and wiggles; little girl’s tiny nails have been trimmed with surprising cooperation to the accompaniment of chortles and chatter.

For my part, it’s a case of long-forgotten skirts hauled out of the farthest corner of the closet, expressing amazement that they fit once again, and a frantic procession of shirts and skirts to find outfits that coordinate and somewhat flatter. Photo texts sent to best friend, who, like me, grew up in a religious commune: Does this look okay? Can I wear this in the kitchen on the farm? Does it look dumb? Opinion begged of my husband: should I wear a camisole under this dress? Which is more important, modesty or confidence? Or comfort?

I’m going home. Home to the triad of Christian farming communes where I was raised. My parents still live there, as do other family members. I’m excited, but there’s still always an element of anxiety each time I go home. How will it be different? What will be changed? Each time I’ve visited over the last decade and a half, the community is a bit smaller, the property a bit more worn down. Flower beds have overgrown and sunk into the lawn; greenhouses have disappeared; paint has flaked off the porch of the tabernacle, the main gathering place. There just aren’t enough people to maintain those things to a level that matches the rosy glow of my nostalgic memories, though photos on my social network suggest there’ve been recent renovations.

Other things have changed, too. Electricity has crept in; nearly all homes now have lights that can be flicked on with a touch of a finger. Bathrooms have toilets that flush, instead of a wooden seat on a bucket or a port-a-potty. Kitchens have running water and sinks that drain to sewers (no more hauling water in buckets to wash dishes, then throwing the dishwater outside). And there are even a few TVs, those tools of the devil that were banned in my childhood. Television! Movies! Flushing toilets! Such changes. Not all the homes have caught up with the times, but more are modernized than when I lived there.

And with these changes comes another: work. The farms are no longer entirely self-sufficient; they haven’t been for a long time, really, but as time passes, and the community and its families shift toward modernization, and there are fewer families contributing both time and income, more money is required to maintain each family as well as the community. So, more and more, people go to work off the farm to earn money to support their families and the community. People who stay on the farm to maintain buildings and lawns, and care for animals, and plant and harvest, and bring in the hay — all the necessary jobs of living on a communal farm — are fewer and fewer. Communal meals are more sparsely populated than before. And the buildings and superfluous gardens suffer, as does my nostalgia.

This time, though, there will be a welcome change: an increase in population. Part of the increase takes the form of an old friend and her family: her husband plus a trio of daughters I haven’t met. They have just recently moved back from a community in northern Canada. There’s been a new baby born to a young family, bringing that family’s number to four, though this family now lives across the road from my home farm, not strictly part of the community. Another family, a friend I grew up with, has moved back recently to another of the three communes, bringing five little ones to inject new life into the farm that is home to my grandparents. Other families from the village have been frequent visitors, contributing to the vibrancy of the life there. These are good and positive changes, bringing an increase in vitality — but changes are changes nonetheless, and to a person like me, dependent on routine and a certain degree of predictability to maintain my equilibrium, even good differences are a bit scary.

The thoughts of these changes run through my mind as I peer at my reflection in the mirror, wondering just how far the changes have permeated. Should I try to wear skirts every day? I can’t remember — do the women wear pants (anathema in my teen years, but more accepted now) even in the main house these days? Will I be criticized if I wear my comfortable old jeans, or is it worse to wear a skirt that shows a bit of knee? My friend who grew up in a similar community echoes my thoughts in a text responding to my assurance-seeking selfie, her amusement at my anxiety evident: “That skirt should be at least three inches longer. And did you remember to bend over in front of a mirror to check for cleavage?” (I did, in fact, and added a camisole to the outfit. Just in case.)

I sigh. Things really have changed. I know my worry is baseless. It’s unlikely anyone will care what I wear, even less likely I’ll be confronted. And the farm isn’t all that’s changed. I’ve changed too, gaining confidence and self-assurance. While I have no intention of disrespecting the farm’s rules, I do know my own mind, and I can defend my clothing choices if need be. I need to stop worrying. Still, I stash an extra skirt in my luggage… just in case.

Meanwhile, I’m armed with both my favorite apple pie recipe for a Thanksgiving celebration, and my sweet children, who are related in some convoluted way to about half of the three-farm community and thus are garnering a bit of excitement with their arrival. And I’m depending on the love of my family — related by blood and not — to welcome me home. Because it is home, no matter how far I’ve gone and no matter how long it’s been. Philosophies change, choices lead in different directions, but the bond of love doesn’t break.

Things change. The buildings  will look more aged (or perhaps brightly renovated — a change, either way), the gardens won’t be the same, and the new electric lights shine differently than the propane and kerosene lights of long-ago memories. The dress code shifts and even disappears. Children no longer build character through hauling buckets of water for bathing or dishes. Families occasionally rotate from one community to another, moving a few miles or across country, leaving an empty space or bringing new faces. But through the changes, I know I can be assured of love and family.

I’m going home.

 

 

Niko is ready to board the plane.
Niko is ready to board the plane.

Note: I wrote this post as we were leaving for our visit, but decided to wait to post it till we got home, so as to not advertise our absence from our home. So this story is nearly two weeks old now.