Category: Family

A Little Night, Christmas Music

“I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.”
– attr. George Frederic Handel, on being complimented for Messiah

Holidays for me are entirely bound up in my family’s traditions. What we eat, when we decorate, even how the decor looks is deeply meaningful to me. It’s also an at-home holiday for us, we hang out together (friends are very welcome if not required!) but we’d rather stay in eating our sugar cookies, rib roast (Christmas Eve meal) or special baked french toast breakfast (Christmas morning). One year we varied it up and went skiing in the Tirol of Austria, which was a great holiday, but the consensus of all the family afterwards that even though it was amazing, it hadn’t felt at all like Christmas.

Jeff’s family has their own traditions as well, and it’s been really fun getting learn and incorporate a new set of them – particularly breakfast at a particularly wonderful diner and getting to enjoy the excitement of nieces and nephews of Christmas morning.

For the four years we’ve been married we’ve been able to alternate Thanksgiving and Christmas with either family and it’s been a great compromise but this year…well, Thanksgiving turned out a bit unexpected. And as for Christmas, the Atlantic Ocean is not small and plane fare beyond us currently, plus we really like being in London! So Jeff and I have had a few discussions about the new phase we’re finding ourselves in about having to rely on ourselves to either perpetuate the traditions we want to keep and forge new ones for ourselves. We’re going to have to tweak this a bit over the next few years. I have to admit, it always feels slightly less Christmas-y without my parents, siblings, and friends around to spend hours playing games with, dinner at the big table, and lots of time and good conversation.

But as for building new traditions for just the two of us, I wouldn’t mind an annual repeat of Saturday night! Feeling just a bit detached from Christmas this year, in spite of the gorgeousness of London in full holiday splendor, I booked us a couple of tickets for a performance of Handel’s Messiah at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, which makes up a part of Trafalgar Square.

Handel. By candlelight. No way we were passing it up.
Handel. By candlelight. No way we were passing it up.

St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields is an old church, it’s been around for nearly a thousand years, even though the present incarnation has only been around since the early 18th century when the building was discovered to be in desperation need of renovation. Plenty of significant people are buried there, and it actually serves as the parish church for the Royal Family, and Downing Street.

Supreme Head and all that.
Supreme Head and all that.

It’s still very much in operation as a church, but in recent years it has cultivated a role for itself as a major hub of classical music support as well. It puts on regular concerts and performances throughout the year, including some free ones meant to be taken in during a lunch break or afternoon out and about.

The justifiably famous organ.
The justifiably famous organ.

Jeff and I got dressed up and bundled against the wet and cold and took in an evening of the entire Messiah by candlelight.

We had a beautiful view of the organ, lectern, and even the conductor and soloists from a side box pew.
We had a beautiful view of the organ, lectern, and even the conductor and soloists from a side box pew.

The setting was lovely (garlands and candles everywhere), the music was beautiful, and I for one came away feeling much more seasonal. Sometimes you just need to hear something unabashedly Baroque! It was a lovely way to gear myself up for this week – when we shall be attempting the formidable Rodgers family feast with just two people in the kitchen instead of the typical six minimum. Because new traditions are important, but some old ones are vital.

Video Killed the Radio Star

“The whole country was tied together by radio. We all experienced the same heroes and comedians and singers. They were giants.”
– Woody Allen quotes

Girl_listening_to_radioHaving much younger siblings is really fun because our collective cultural consciousness spans a much longer time frame. I was born when the Berlin Wall was still a thing, they can’t remember a time before the internet. It’s fun! We’re constantly introducing one another to interesting stuff in the broader zeitgeist.

But occasionally we treat ourselves to a real throw back and everyone benefits.

Being about the same degree of nerdiness, I introduced them to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original radio series, which I happen to have on MP3. We all love absurdity, particularly of the British science fiction variety. The other night they asked me to put on the next episode in the queue and the next thing we knew we’d listened to a couple of hours in a row and were laughing uproariously.

Sure we were sitting around my iPod plugged into Brig’s amp and not a huge box that took up half of the room, but if felt very old fashioned and fun to just sit back and let the story lead you away without visuals. I love the radio medium and even if I get my favorite shows via podcast, I think radio still is relevant and can tell stories in a unique way.

I’m pretty well versed on the NPR canon, but are there any other radio shows, programs, or podcasts out there I should be listening to? I’ve got to start filling up a queue for a seriously long flight here soon, so help a girl out!

(image via)

Friday Links (Lady of the Manor Edition)

“Hands up if you’re ready to do something you’ll regret this weekend. Go forth! You have my blessing.”
― Florence Welch

Ah summer.

My work pace has been frantic the last week, minions. Traveling to Virginia, doing last minute reporting projects, trying to cram in months of advance work for one client before I take August off for the move, and so on.

And this coming week we have to redo some travel plans because the first phase of our visa application has been approved and came with specific travel dates for us to use (which of course everyone refused to tell us before so that we could plan accordingly). I may have to fly back at some point so because J. and I will probably have to make our biometric application together. It’s never ending.

Peaches and cream pies ready to go.
Peaches and cream pies ready to go.

But I like the busyness. On top of work and moving I’ve been keeping house for Mum, doing my level best to get into jogging (so far sticking with it but hating every second of it), missing J., and planning adventures. Marie and her husband are coming down for the weekend (huzzah!) starting today, so I’ve starting cooking up a storm to keep us fed and make sure all we’ll have to worry about is deciding between local summer weekend festivities, or going someplace like Charlottesville instead. We may even start harvesting some honey this weekend – Dad’s beekeeping has become prolifically successful! I might be an average housekeeper but I am a pretty impressive hostess when I put my mind to it.

Here are your links, tell me what you’re getting up to for the last week of June – and where is the year going, by the way?! My neglect of you is ended and I have all sorts of Virginia backwoods posts coming your way to keep you entertained, so stay tuned.

Know your place… settings.

Know your place…names.

Nerds of all types: You. Are. Welcome.

So, how accurate? Mine said I like rocky relationships and tend to end up with disastrous boyfriends. Nope! One “bad boy” boyfriend in high school fixed that, and I married (as you know) a pretty awesome guy. On the other hand, it said I love problem solving and projects. Check and check (as I plan my house deep cleaning schedule for the week…).

Love live the (front man of) Queen.

State Senator Wendy Davis from Texas is a bad ass, and I will brook no argument here today. The reviews of her justifiably famous pink sneakers on alone back me up on this.

Speaking of, inquiring (and somewhat bizarrely prioritized, but whatever) minds wanted to know.

Have you been selecting your Camembert cheese wrongly all these years? Quelle horreur!

Ascot has come and gone once again. Here’s the headgear rundown.

Something to make you weep, in a good way.

Great authors getting hitched.

Now is the summer of our upheaval…

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

So, Mum got accepted to a classical language program (yay, Mum!) and will be gone for 8 weeks. She’s asked me to stop in and mind things a bit for a few weeks so that Dad can get to work, Buddy can get to the dentist, and Snickers can get to swim practice. And also that this fate may be avoided, which I think we can all agree is a worthy cause.

This is perfect! I get to spend time with my siblings and parents (once Mum’s back) before I skip the country, play with my dog, see all the girls on the East Coast, and boss people about professionally – what is not to like!

And just like that, my summer in the woods is back on! This has been the most roller coaster year…

Also we booked a bunch of plane tickets yesterday and today. Things are happening.

Mothers’ Day

An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.
-Spanish Proverb

My mother, as has been established, is certifiably awesome.

Some of my favorite memories with her have been the day trips we took together, when I finally got out of the twerpy teenager phase and could really appreciate them. When we lived in Belgium she and I went down to Versailles together overnight, just the two of us, just because. We also wandered through Antwerp, Ghent, and Brugges. In the UK we did Cambridge regularly. It was great fun and I didn’t appreciate them close to enough at the time.

But I’m going to make darn sure I do the same with my spawn. Those hours or days, just the two of us that she carved out just to be with me, we’re just extended “I Love Yous” with hyper impressive scenery.

Maman à Versailles.
Maman à Versailles.

So, just in case I didn’t say it enough then, I love you back, Mum.

Good Girls Don’t

“There are no good girls gone wrong – just bad girls found out.”
― Mae West

A lady.  A hardcore, don't mess, step off lady.
Ladylike and bad A are not mutually exclusive.

Last Thursday I got to attend a storytelling event featuring one of my personal feminist and academic heroines.  I even got to meet her after the show and had to stop the litany of fangirling going on in my head as I went up to shake her hand, “Don’t say anything stupid, don’t freak out, smile don’t drool, stop grinning like a hyena…”  After I thanked her for the work she’s doing in multiple mediums, she gave me a hug and I went away skipping.

But next to meeting this woman, the coolest moment was when audience members were invited to contribute a story of their own on the evening’s them: Good Girls Don’t.  I’d always wanted to try it so I volunteered as available, and to my surprise I was picked.  Here’s a brief riff on the story I told.  The story at the event was a lot less polished, but it’s still worth the retelling.  (Sorry in advance, Mum, but it’s my favorite story of you ever.)

My mother has a good life, I think, but parts of it could have made a Lifetime Original Movie.  She’s overcome abuse, depression, and family issues to come out on the other side with three degrees, four kids, world travel, and a survivors mindset hidden behind a beautiful house, antiques, and academia.  My mother believes in being strong minded, independent, and educated – but in addition to this, she believed in being a lady.

Ladies aren’t rough, they are firm but polite.  They speak well and keep their elbows off the table.  They sit up straight.  They converse intelligently but in measured tones.  Above all they are not crass: bad or rude language was not permitted in our house.  We could ask any questions we wanted, all the kids were given a lot of independence, and we were given a lot of intellectual leeway in some ways, but we could not swear.  This got to be difficult for me as I got older because frankly I love a good “damn!” and think some words, while perhaps less than savory, are absolutely the appropriate words to use in some situations.  But not for Mum.  Ladies don’t use coarse language and heaven help me if I did in her presence.

I think, and this is just speculation on my part, that being ladylike was so important to my mother because she’s overcome a lot and coming out of it with the moral high ground was important to her.  Behaving properly and speaking well are markers of success, intelligence, and sophistication – my mother earned all those descriptions and it was important to her that her children acquire them as well.  To become ladies in the case of her daughters, and gentlemen in the case of her sons.

But I was there the day my mom broke.

When we were living on that tiny island in the Pacific, my father had achieved considerable rank in his career and with that came some perks.  We had designated parking spaces, respectful nods, and my mother was able to be a part of organizations with some prestige in the community, even rising to become the president of one.  One day she had to run some errands and pulling into a parking lot towards her designated spot, she accidentally cut someone off.

It was a man, who promptly lost it.  He started banging on his steering wheel, screaming obscenities that we couldn’t hear and culminated with lifting one hand and flipping my mother off.

And my mother, in her nice suit and pearls around her neck, sitting in her minivan with four children, with a lifetime of hard knocks behind her just looked at the guy.  Years later I’d still give anything to know what went through her head because I never saw what was coming.  I have no idea why this was the moment that snapped her, but apparently the time had come.  Her jaw tightened for a moment, she raised both her hands…and returned the gesture.  Double barreled.

All four kids stared at her.  The man, his jaw hanging open and his face draining of color as he recognized the markings on our car that indicated my father’s rank, faded in the rear view mirror as my mother turned into her designated parking.  And my mother, composure restored, shut off the car calmly in her spot before turning around in her seat to look at us.  “Never do that, children,” she said in precise, correct tones.  “It’s rude.”

Mum thinks that this “might not have been her best mothering moment,” though I disagree.  All four of us kids still speak of that day in hushed tones, it was that earth shattering and awesome.  Without a doubt, even at the height of our teenage angst and parent despising, every last one of us respected Mum for this out-of-character act.  She somehow became more human, less image conscious, taller, braver, and far more imposing in that moment than we had ever given her credit for.  In spite of what we knew she’d gone through in her life, there were suddenly sides to our mother we realized we didn’t know, and we knew that wherever they were hiding, we didn’t want to mess.

Well behaved women might not get angry, fight back, or use bad language… but then again they might and it’s okay, no one is going to revoke your pearls.  In fact, some people might even grudgingly admire you.  Good girls don’t raise both fists to the skies, but I learned in one spectacular moment that sometimes…just occasionally Ladies do.


“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
― Jon Stewart

Going home for the holidays is always so restful for me – sure a tiff or two might crop up, but they’re rare, usually solved with a tussle or a game, and the food more than makes up for it. Besides my house is the only place where the following conversation could take place and everyone would think it was normal:

Me, to Buddy: “You needed a fez for that.”
Buddy: “I know, but I couldn’t find one.”
Dad: “What do you mean?  I have a fez.”
Buddy (incensed): “How did I not know this!”
Dad (matter-of-factly): “Not my fault.  You have never asked me if I had a fez.”

A typical Autumn evening with the Small Dog clan.

This image of my brothers might provide some visual clarity to our collective mental state.

This year the turkey surprised us all by finishing a full two hours ahead of schedule (seriously, we’re baffled, we’ve only ever experienced the opposite) and we had to scramble and mobilize all the troops to get things finished and the table set for our feast.  But all was well!

It is not possible that you could sense this through the screen, kittens, but these are the two best pies in creation – both recipes family secrets – and I will fight anyone who says differently.

These pies were the source of much hilarity.  You see, that pie on the right is my mother’s rightly famous one, and she has always had very particular ideas about how it should be done.  Namely, there is normally a piece of dough fashioned in the shape of autumn leaves that it left on top and bakes nicely into the pumpkin filling (made, traditionally, from the remains of our Halloween jack-o’lanterns).  The last time we were there for Thanksgiving my mother, upon realizing that she had popped the pie in the oven without it’s customary finishing leaf, whipped up a special batch of dough just to put the darn thing on.  This year I pointed out that the leaf was missing and she tossed her head with a magnificent, “Whatever!”

The road to our land, loving referred to as The Estate.

My father’s land is also the source of some hilarity for me, but perhaps I’ll save that for another post.  It’s his pride and joy.  When he first bought it, the handful of acres that weren’t forest were covered in brush taller than I was at the time.  Now he has several cleared acres that support his berry bushes, a small orchard in the making, and plans for a pond.  He was born in the wrong century, he was meant to be a gentleman farmer.

Fun fact about our land, American Founding Father Patrick Henry had his first job as a lawyer in our town, the road he walked to get to work runs across our property, and won his first election to represent the county locally.  Also, the parents of J. Sargeant Reynolds (of the aluminum fame) are supposedly buried somewhere on our property as well, though we don’t have a lot of proof for that one.  There are an amazing amount of old houses (with fantastic estate names) and many of the families have been in the area for generations (and a handful for centuries) so many properties have private family cemeteries on them – but alas for the Reynolds, they’ll only be discovered if we ever break ground for a house or something.

Dad’s latest project is bee-keeping. And those little guys are prolific, we have several pounds of wild honey stored in the basement.

That J. and I have puppy lust is already well documented, but he compounded the problem by spending the entire vacation playing with Mika, supplanting all of us in her affections by tummy rubs, sneaking her treats, and taking her for runs.  The man needs a dog.  We also went out to play with Maxi and Niney, the dogs on our property to keep it deer and bear free.  Oh, and a bear apparently lives in a copse behind a house just up the street from my parents and likes to set all the neighborhood pets off at night by wandering around.

One of the dogs frolicking.

A week of doing next to nothing means that in the eternal balance of things, I’m now absolutely swamped at work.  The continued lack of a replacement for Officer Lampost really is affecting my ability to work as effectively as I would like (which is a much less whiny way of saying that I had a twenty minute lunch break on Monday and Tuesday, and still had to stay after a full two hours on the latter to just get through my list of things to do).  Vacation is over, friends, and no mistake!  Luckily, I’m working on a few projects I’m really interested in and my work seems to be impressing several of my bosses, so onward towards Christmas, minions.