Halloween Traditions

Today is Halloween, the favorite holiday of kids everywhere! They get to dress in costume and  act out of character for a few hours, being as goofy or scary or flamboyant as they wish. On top of that, they get to hang out with friends after dark and collect loads of candy as they roam the neighborhoods. Some houses go all out with their decorations and even have sound or light effects to enhance the mood. Others purposely leave their lights off, creating a haunted house feel where no one should dare to go.  We have a singing ghost who hangs on our front porch and a giant Grim Reaper who guards the door.

Every year my family has grown its own pumpkins. Some get very large- as in 200+ pounds! We carve them out and illuminate them for Halloween. Everyone in the neighborhood knows my husband is the pumpkin man. He is in charge of them from seed to carving time, always saving some seeds for next year. He carefully plants them, weeds and waters their bed, decides on several to keep-plucking off the extra buds, and transports them to our front yard. He requires a chain saw to carve them, but he lets the kids draw the design. Then he lights them with bright lamps backed with aluminum foil. Once it gets dark they look very impressive!


My specialty is Halloween costumes. Ever since the kids were old enough to trick or treat, I have been involved in their costumes.

When they were very young, they would tell me what they wanted to be and I would buy materials to sew into their homemade costume. Ariel had an amazing “wig” of red shaggy fabric and a shiny “tail”, Dorothy had sparkling ruby shoes and Captain Hook had a flashy belt and hook. One year we even dug out a homemade Native American costume that had been mine as a child!


While my designs were les than perfect, they were certainly recognizable and the kids got plenty of comments on how great they looked.  I got my Halloween kicks in by watching them parade around in their costumes and by taking their pictures.  Unfortunately, by the time they reached 3rd or 4th grade they felt it was too embarrassing  to wear a “mom” costume. They begged to pick something out at the store. Those were the years of Glinda, Batman, Spiderman and the Wicked Witch.

But by middle school something changed….They started designing their own costumes. At first they pieced together leftovers from previous years, or cut up old clothing to create their look. That was when we had cheerleaders, Red Sox fans, zombies, Goths and cowboys.


For the last few years my son has shown his dark sense of humor. He has been both Freddy Krueger and Dr. Evil. We looked up costumes online and decided we could design decent look alikes for a fraction of the price. Using fabric and basic sweat shirts or pants along with some accessories, he has looked great. The only difference is, many people don’t realize who he is portraying. Maybe he is too deep for them.


This year he wanted to be Wilfred- the man/dog. Again we checked online and saw we could buy a costume for $99 plus shipping. Instead I went to Wal-Mart and bought a sweat suit, a shaggy throw, a hat and gloves. He helped me measure, cut and sew pieces of the throw onto the outfit. It was a great mathematical challenge to cut the fabric in the most efficient way so we didn’t waste any. It took a few hours of work, but for $30 we had the satisfaction of a great costume that he was very excited about and had designed and made himself.

It is funny how traditions come full circle. You start early and plant them, they may meet some resistance along the way, but somehow they come back to you and carry on. While I never denied my children the right to buy a costume, they did get the message that it was much cooler to make their own. I am not sure what my daughter plans to dress as tonight, but I am sure she will come up with a great plan by herself.  And I can’t wait to see what our pumpkin display will look like- only a few hours until it’s dark! Happy Halloween!

p.s. Here is an update since some of you were asking about Wilfred. He had a great time being a dog for a few hours, and even got some recofnition. I have to admit, it was one of the best costumes I saw all night.

First Snow

There is nothing like the excitement of the first snow, even though it signals the beginning of winter. It creates a beautiful blanket of white which prompts me to run around with my camera and capture the solitude of the moment.

It had rained most of the day, but the temperatures continued to drop and by late afternoon the precipitation had switched to snow. The flakes grew large and heavy, sticking to the grass and bushes. Once an inch had accumulated, my son dug out his snow boots and heavy gloves, determined to build the first snowman of the season. He raced out in his shorts and t-shirt to make the first snow angel and then got rolling snowballs. The snow packed nicely although he had to cover a lot of ground to gather enough snow. He set up in the front yard, where the commuters could wave to him as they returned home and give him credit for the first snowman of the season. Once he achieved the shape he wanted, he came back in to get supplies for the face. Chestnuts became the eyes and nose while apple slices formed the mouth. By the time he was done, he needed to warm up by the fire. I offered to make him some hot chocolate.

After it got dark, the whole family put on bathing suits and went in the hot tub. We had so much fun catching snowflakes on our tongues or tossing a snowball around, occasionally dropping it in the hot water where it melted before we could save it.

This morning I went out to admire the way the layer of snow glistened in the bright sunlight and observe which of my plants had succumbed to the change of season.



Something about they way they lay there, buried under the lush blanket, looked very serene. I think that is why the first snow is so special. It creates a sense of peacefulness and gives us permission to stop what we are doing and enjoy the moment. It only comes once a year.

Time for a Change of Season

I look out my window and see a cascade of yellow leaves twirling to the ground. The trees are almost bare. Soon it will be time to rake the leaves into piles and put them in my compost or use them for bedding on my sleeping gardens.        

The raspberries hang on through October, still producing a few succulent berries;

but the brussels sprouts are energized by the colder weather, producing their little bulbs which will be harvested in a few weeks.

My flowers are winding down for the season. I am able to cut a few dahlias, brave enough to bloom but I have to supplement them with more hardy chrysanthemums and sedum.

A lone Morning Glory still tries to greet the day, which gets later and chillier with each passing dawn.           

The Holly is producing brilliant red berries in anticipation of a new season ahead.       

But for the most part, all that is left of my flowers are dried hydrangea heads and puffy seed pods. I leave them standing as a display of textures.


I feel compelled to buy a few potted mums for a splash of color on my doorstep, but it is time to prepare for winter.    

I turn over the soil around my pruned stalks and scratch bone meal into the surface where my spring bulbs are planted. I gather fallen leaves and lay them over the flower beds. It is time for them to rest and prepare for their Spring activity. It is time to prepare myself for winter, too.

I swap out the baseball caps for hats and mittens, knowing it won’t be long until it snows.     

I cook a big pot of chili and curl up in front of the fireplace, which has been lit for the first time in months. Like my gardens, we all need to time to rest… at least for this evening.

More on Books and Technology: A Conflict of Interest?

Last month I wrote about the shift in entertainment interests of children, away from books* to video games or apps. I also touched on the immediate gratification of streaming movies**, rather than waiting for them to be aired on tv. So here is a follow up based on those two posts.

At one time, my son was a big Harry Potter fan. He would stay awake past his bedtime, reading the latest book under the covers, eager to discover what would become of Harry or Dumbledore. Once that series came to an end, he tried reading other books in a similar genre. These interested him for a while, but within a year he no longer wanted to read. I am not sure what was the cause – the pressure to read at school, the distractions of video games, or the inability to choose a captivating book; but no matter what my efforts were to encourage him, he would only read when it was mandatory.

As all parents know, we are supposed to limit our children’s screen time (tv, computer, video games) but with so many options, it is a challenge and unless we are willing to battle over the principle, we often lose. The latest electronic device is the Ipad2, which my son got for his birthday. He uses it alot- for doing research, as well as playing games, talking with friends and listening to music. All of these uses allow him to get what he wants when he wants it. I tried to slow him down and stretch his patience by asking him to wait before buying things, but the result is that he has stopped asking my permission to do so.

The other day he approached me asking for help to locate a book at the library. I was so eager to see him read that I immediately got on the computer to look it up. The book he wanted was an autobiography, which I thought was unusual. It was by Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, the same one about whom Bob Dylan had written his ballad, and of which my son knew all the lyrics. We discovered the library copies were checked out and decided to look for it at a book store online. If it was available, I could pick it up for him tomorrow, only a short wait. But then he told me his report was due next week and he really needed it sooner. So much for trying to hold him off.

I have a Kindle so I offered to download it onto my device for him. I looked it up on the Kindle site and then figured out we could download it onto his Ipad using a Kindle app. Within 2 minutes, the book had been purchased, transferred to his ipad and he was laying on the couch reading it. The entire process took less than 20 minutes since he had made his initial request.

It certainly seems like a conflict of interest to me- trying to teach patience but buying something over the ethernet, wanting to limit time spent on electronics yet encouraging him to read on one. I want to tear my hair out! The use of this at bedtime can be even more clandestine than the good old flashlight trick. Where do we draw the line?

This new technology certainly presents a hoard of parenting challenges, but on the bright side, he is reading this autobiography and excitedly reporting what he has learned after every section. That is a side of him I haven’t seen in several years. I did ask him whether he liked the book because of the format, and he immediately countered that it was the actual story that was interesting. Maybe I shouldn’t give up on paperbacks yet…

*My Father’s Books in the Age of Tech   posted 9/23/11

**Cancelling Netflix: A Lesson for my Kids  posted 9/20/11

Matzah Ball Soup

My fifteen year old is home sick today. For the most part she stays in her room and rests, but I know she appreciates me coming to check on her from time to time. When I went in a few minutes ago, she asked me to make her some Matzah Ball Soup. In our mixed faith household, matzah ball soup has become a comfort food. Even though my mother never stocked matzah meal in her house, I always make sure to have some on hand in my pantry.   It is not hard to make matzah ball soup, it is just time-consuming. My husband will make fresh chicken stock, but I usually use grocery staples to keep it simpler. I mix the matzah meal in a bowl with eggs and oil,      

chill it while I boil the water, form it into balls

and plop them into the pot, quickly putting the lid over it.

We used to only have matzah ball soup with holiday meals, but Nana has been with the kids often enough when they were sick that she knew to pick up groceries at the local store and cook up some TLC with her more traditional recipe. For my daughter, the request for this soup translates into a subtle plea for attention. She needs me to acknowledge she is not feeling well and deserves some special treatment. I recognize this need but do not mention it. Instead I obligingly fill my role as mom and caregiver, one that does not come up as frequently in her teenage years. It is a tacit agreement that she needs me more than she cares to admit and that she knows I love her, even though she won’t say it.

The parent-child relationship changes so much over the course of a lifetime. We start as completely dependent on our parents and grow to break away from them. As we mature into adults, we reform our view of our parents and gain mutual respect. While we live independent lives, it is still reassuring to have a parent to ask advice of, or to give moral support when you are down. As our own parents age, we know they may need our assistance too. After a lifetime of pouring out love for us, we want to give some of that back to them.

Now I am in the role of sending that loving message to my own child. By taking the trouble to make her this matzah ball soup, I am letting her know how important she is to me and how much I care. I already know there will not be much of an exchange, other than a brief expression of thanks; but a lecture is not necessary to convey my thoughts. The matzah ball soup has become a symbol of comfort and love. It shows us that we are family and will do what it takes to keep each other well. And I know on another day it will come back from her direction. But for now, this says it all…

Fall Traditions: A Trip to the Apple Orchard

It would not be right to let Fall pass without a trip to the local apple orchard. Ever since my kids were little, we would head out on a nice fall day, purchase a bag for our apples and walk through the orchard in search of the best trees.

We always sampled the apples first, because we wanted to know what kind we were getting. Empires, Galas, Macintosh, Cortland, Pink Lady, Yellow Delicious, Granny Smith each has their own distinct flavor. Some are sweet, others are tart; some are better for baking, others keep fresh longer and we can still enjoy them a month later.  We usually found a favorite to load up on, but we always mixed in several other varieties, depending on what was available.

At first, we looked for the trees with lower branches that the kids could easily access and as they got older, they liked the challenge of reaching the top ones with an apple picker- a long pole with a grip on the end. The grip would loosen the apple and release it into the bag hanging from the pole. They enjoyed seeing if they could catch more than one at a time.

Once we had picked our fill, we would head over to the farm house where we could purchase hot apple cider and cider donuts. We would take our snack and sit at a picnic table near the petting farm. When the kids were little, they got a thrill feeding kibble to the sheep and goats. Afterwards, we would head home where I would make applesauce and apple pie with our surplus. There is nothing like a crisp apple you have picked yourself for lunch!

This year our trip was considerably shortened and more focused on the purpose of picking apples. We had time restrictions which did not allow us to wait in the long queue for our cider donuts, and the kids were no longer interested in petting the animals. Regardless, I know the kids felt it was a tradition they wanted to do.  Establishing traditions is an important job of a parent. Traditions create a sense of continuity and calmness in today’s busy and often unpredictable lifestyle. Even though I could not say we wandered aimlessly among the trees since we did have an ultimate goal, we did not have a step by step plan to follow and could randomly choose where to go, depending on how full the trees looked or how the apples tasted. Traditions also are a way of learning about life and it’s lessons.

The kids worked together to choose the trees and sample the flavors (respect). They were also assigned the task of transporting the bag (responsibility). It took both of them to carry it, balancing the weight of the apples between them (cooperation).  They had to deal with the mishap of a handle breaking while the apples poured onto the ground (problem solving). The unexpected happens, we pick up our apples and carry on. It’s what happens in life.

Family traditions give us a chance to step back and think-  this is what is important, this is what really matters. Traditions can be passed on from generation to generation and hold real meaning. My parents took me and my sisters to the apple orchard every year for a similar family bonding activity. I have fond memories of dad lifting me on his shoulders to reach the highest apples or of helping grandma peel the apples to bake in a homemade pie. The memories are so special to me, that now I have passed this seasonal ritual on to my own children. And if we have apple pie as a reward for our efforts, well that isn’t half bad!

“Me” Time

These days it is rare to get much time to myself, other than working on this blog. The rest of my days are spent attending to my house  (including errands), my dogs or my family. Someone or something always seems to need my attention. But this is not a whinefest, I am happy to do all those things. Instead, this is a reminder to us all to take time for ourselves. As they say, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. And that is what I did last week…

Let me say, my husband was very supportive and I could never have given myself this break without his help, knowing he would do his best to take care of things in my absence. So with his blessing, I boarded a plane a week ago, to fly from the Northeast US to the Northwest CA. It was a long trip, but I was going out to spend time with my sister. Even though we had been together for the cruise last summer, it was not the same intimate time that we both wanted. This was going to be a special visit for us to really catch up.

At first it was a big adjustment for me… not having to think about what everyone else needed, only being responsible for myself. When we went out, I only had to bring what I needed- not organizing a group.  Often all I went out with was a water bottle and my camera. How enlightening! (mentally and physically)

I actually had time to stroll along the beaches   with Sis and Dog  .

I had time to take some glorious hikes over the hills and through the woods which lined the shore, coming out to rocky overlooks and beautiful panoramic views.


I even had time to take photos of the algae or wildlife that caught my eye…


Over the weekend, we took a ferry to one of the islands, checking out the cormorants on the way…

We stopped at the local farmers market, where I bought thoughtful gifts to take home. But that was really the last thing on my mind. I was in no rush to return. The wares everyone was selling were so colorful and creative. My sister and brother-in-law bought cheeses and fresh vegetables so they could continue feeding me well. I focused on taking in the sights, such as these chili peppers…

 Then we headed to the Grape Stomp at one of the local wineries. BIL and I took off our shoes, rolled up our pants and gave it a go. The green grapes were cold and slippery. We hung on to each other for balance while we squished the juicy fruit between our toes and under our heels.


After that excitement, we deserved some wine. We went to the wine tasting bar and sampled several varieties. They were offering oysters to go along with it, but the line was too long so we bought a few bottles to bring home.   

It was liberating  to not have a schedule to follow, these spontaneous activities were so much fun. However, we did have Dog in the car and we all wanted to take a hike, so we headed out to the trailhead. We were able to get a great view from one of the beaches, and Dog had a long swim- her favorite activity, even in the frigid waters!

We returned home on the ferry at sunset and caught the lingering sunlight as it reflected off the snow-capped mountains!

During the week, Sis and I took the time to sit and talk over meals. Time to connect with where we are at in our lives, to share concerns or offer support to each other. We enjoyed our meditations together during our walks or in an evening yoga session on her deck. And most of all, we were able to drop everything and rush down to the point at the end of her street to observe the beautiful sunsets (we were never up early enough to catch the sunrise- but that is a good thing). On the last night I was there, we watched the best sunset of the whole week.


It was a spectacular celebration of our connection to nature, and to each other, and a good reminder that we all need to have a “pause” button on our busy lives. It is important to take some time to free ourselves up from our daily routines and responsibilities. If we don’t refresh our minds and bodies every now and then, we only become clogged with stress and desensitized to the joys of life. I know it is hard to do; I was very fortunate and I don’t expect this to happen again any time soon. But what I will do, is try to carve out an hour or two of “me” time every week- whether it is for a facial or a trip to a local museum or art gallery. I will make time where I can relax or think about something other than what my next task will be. And if I need inspiration, all I have to do is look at these photos to remind me of how great that time with my sister was! Thanks, Sis.

Day 9- A”Maze”ing Mykonos

Today we arrived in Mykonos, a popular Greek island for tourists. Everyone was excited to get out and explore after our previous day at sea. Hillary and Susan wanted to walk through the town together, shopping and sampling the local food. Mike, Amy and myself planned to take the kids to a beach for some swimming in the lovely blue Mediterranean waters.

We had done some research the day before and decided on a beach which was slightly farther away, possibly less crowded. Mike wanted to give David a thrill by renting a scooter for touring around. Amy and I planned to take Megan and Kate on the bus and meet up later.

We had all been informed by the cruise director that Mykonos was originally designed with natural foils- winding streets and alleys which were not laid out in any logical manner- in order to prevent capture by invaders. He promised us that we would get lost. Sure enough, while searching for the bus depot, we seemed to wander in circles, passing points over again until we got lucky enough to spot the buses.

The schedule was complicated to figure out and led us to believe we had just missed the bus to our destination and would have to make other plans. Just then we saw Mike and David filling up their gas tank nearby. We told them our new plan and they said they would meet us there.

When the bus arrived a few minutes later, we saw that it was in fact going to the beach we had preferred to visit. Oh well, so much for meeting the guys. At least they had a scooter and could get around on their own. We were stuck with where the buses went.

We had a comfortable ride up and down the coast of the island and could appreciate the layout of the different beaches. We arrived at our stop about 20 minutes later. The turquoise water was very inviting and the warm sand felt soothing between our toes.

We plunked our towels and backpacks down and went for a swim. Kate and Megan had a great time splashing and diving together. It was nice to see them having so much fun. And that was the point of taking a relaxing beach day where we weren’t focused on seeing the historic attractions. Amy and I lay on our towels, soaking in the smell of the salt air, the rolling sound of the waves and the glow of the sparkling sunshine on the waters.This was close to Paradise…

Unfortunately, our reverie would soon have to end in order to catch a bus back to our cruise ship. We collected our things and headed to the washroom. When we walked into the cafe, lo and behold, Mike and David were sitting at the counter having some sandwiches!  Apparently they had gone to the beach we told them, discovered we had not made it and decided to come here anyway. The funny thing is that they had not even considered looking for us on the beach,because we had stayed close to the moped parking area just in case.

We had to get going though, so we headed to the bus stop and then took the return trip back into town. Now all we had to do was rewind our steps through the maze to locate our loading area. At one point we came to a fork in the road. We were not sure which way to go and Amy suggested walking out to the water to get an idea of where our ship was. We passed through an outdoor cafe to the seaside lookout. We spotted our cruise ship and knew the general direction to head.

As we walked back through the cafe, Megan spotted her Grandma and Nana sitting at the table an arms reach away! They were so surprised when she gave them a hug! We pulled up some chairs to join them and told them about our earlier meeting with Mike and David. Of all the places where the reputation was for getting lost, we had some pretty remarkable encounters!

We spent a half hour or so, sharing our adventures over some Mojitos and lemonades. It was funny to think what the chances of meeting up were, especially if Amy had not insisted on looking for the ship. When we got our bill, we were dismayed to learn that our Mojitos were outrageously expensive (12 Euros each). Fortunately, the ambiance of our gathering- surprise, family, view- made the whole experience “Priceless”.

Payback Time: Helping parents with health concerns

While I feel totally blessed to be a member of “the middle generation”, enjoying the benefits of supportive parents at the time I am raising my own children, there are moments of pause when I realize I really need to be looking out for them.  Most of the time when my parents are having a routine test or blood work, I am happy to hear they are taking care of themselves and leave it at that while we wait for the results.  Inevitably, though, we get some reports which indicate more testing needs to be done.

That is when the realization that they are so far away kicks in. I want to be there for them and give back all the support they have given me over the years. If it were not for all the advances in communication (email, cell phones, Skype), I would want to jump on the next plane to see them. Instead, I take advantage of the internet and try to learn something about the test and the possible conditions that could be indicated.

That is where the danger comes in, though. It is one thing to educate yourself about the possibilities, it is an entirely different beast to self-diagnose. That is when we start to make random connections between what we read and what we think may be happening. Before long, the symptoms we never noticed we had are starting to appear. This is how our mind goes into the dark places.

From my part of the planet, I try to keep a straight head and stick to the facts, knowing my mom or dad will do all the wild interpretations for me. It is my role to offer rational thinking and patience while we wait for more information from the doctor. During the waiting period, I rarely discuss the possibilities but rather talk about daily events as a distraction. I think they appreciate my efforts at calming them and helping them stay focused. And I try not to dwell on those ideas in my mind.

However, I always seem to have a contingency plan in my head: what I will do if and when I am needed and what would constitute that need in the first place. I check my calendar to see what an emergency trip would require changing. Obviously it is the old balancing game, weighing your priorities- children, parents, husband, job, self. Why did I just list myself last? I guess that’s how life is in the middle generation…

Boys, Toy Guns and Video Games

Why do boys like to play with guns? My son turned 13 this weekend and for his party wanted to have an “Airsoft War”. What this means is that you divide a group of 13-14 year old boys into teams and they try to ambush each other, capture the fort or take each other out with biodegradable bbs. Note: this does not mean they don’t sting.

Now before you roll your eyes and wonder what kind of terrible parent would let their kids do this, let me give you some background info based on my experiences as a parent and as a preschool teacher.

When my son was born, I did my best to interest him in the creative projects my daughter liked to do. She could sit for hours drawing, painting, molding or cutting and pasting and she had a good imagination. He never had the patience for such creativity and preferred physical activity. He was always in motion.

When he got older, he started to play shooting games. I don’t know where he got the idea since we rarely watched anything not G-rated. I tried to squash it in the bud and anytime he wanted to play, I offered a distraction. However, even though I refused to buy toy guns, he found a way of turning sticks or Legos into weapons- and if all else failed, his thumb and pointer made a perfect pistol.

My son was not unique to this interest. Over the 10 years I taught preschool, 90% of the boys in my classes gravitated towards play fighting, dressing up as police officers or having dinosaurs stomp on each other. Sure I had some  boys who liked art projects, dressing in girls clothes or acting out more amiable dinosaur games; but the overwhelming majority seemed to have an innate attraction to guns.

The first gun I ever broke down and bought for my son was a tiny, relatively harmless water pistol- one that could be classified as a fun summer way to cool down. Before long, though, he wanted a Nerf gun- and not just a single shooter, but one loaded with about a dozen velcro bullets.

This satisfied him for a while and then kind of faded from his radar while he moved on to virtual gun fights in video games. I tried to hold my ground on the M rating, but eventually lost out since he played them at his friends’ houses anyway.

I spent some time watching the video games- analyzing how gory or violent they were- trying to see if there were any lessons to be learned. Unfortunately I never discovered the bullet with the silver lining.

By the time he was 12, he had owned 3 different gaming devices (not including hand-held ones). I had resigned myself to letting him play online with his friends (we did have rules about that) and made sure to keep talking to him about violence in reality. This past summer, though, the gaming reached a disturbing peak. He and his friends were no longer going outside to ride bikes or shoot hoops. Instead they were gaming on beautiful summer days. I limited my son’s time, but he could never seem to get a friend to quit gaming and play outside.

Thus, when he told me he wanted to round up some friends to host this “war” for his birthday, I agreed and even offered to help him carry it off (obviously my thoughts were on safety).

The event occurred this afternoon. He and 5 friends, dressed in long pants, shirts and face masks carrying AKA-47’s, looked very intimidating. My husband and I camped out in the field in order to monitor the situation- stocked with Gatorade, a first aid kit and extra ammo.

The boys played their games for over 2 1/2 hours. It was a gorgeous Fall afternoon- unseasonably warm for this time of year. I had nothing better to do than sit in my chair and watch how he and his friends translated their video gaming experience to real life strategies.

Watching them sneak thru the woods, cover each other or run straight for the target, was very entertaining. They have so much more patience than I do. And there they were, running around in this glorious fall breeze, having fun like in the good old days before we had video games. The only difference is back then we used sticks.

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