Christmas

Home For The Holidays, Part II: Merry and Bright

On Christmas morning I experienced my first-ever Catholic Mass. I enjoyed it a lot. I was glad to be there with friends who helped me navigate through the service, though, because I would have been lost on my own.

That afternoon and evening we attended a family Christmas party, where I had the surreal experience of watching a nanobug escape from its habitrail and scurry into a hole in the wall. It became trapped just out of reach, where it buzzed, loudly and indignantly, for the rest of the night. First world problems, man. But the party was great, nanobug infestations notwithstanding.

The following evening my friends and I rode atop a 1950s British double-decker bus on a tour of neighborhood Christmas lights.

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The bus is owned by a mortuary, and bore this reassuring notice:

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The tour was amazing. We stopped and sang “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” outside a few of the best-decorated homes.

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The bus went all the way down to the Mission Inn in Riverside, where it parked for an hour while we wandered around admiring the lights and festivities.

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We sang every Christmas carol we could think of, all the way down to Riverside and all the way back up. People on the streets waved and honked and called “Merry Christmas!” to us, and we waved and shouted it back to them. The whole thing was wonderful fun.

Next up: my geocaching adventures!

Categories: Christmas, Friends, Humor, Life, Music, Travel | Leave a comment

Home For The Holidays, Part I

Luke and Elizabeth spent Winter Break with their dad in Anza. I drove them back to California, stayed with friends over the break, and then we drove back to Texas. I came home with 400+ pics on my camera, so for the next week or so I’ll be sharing my favorite images from the trip.

The whole thing went really well. We arrived at my friends’ house on the night of the 23rd, very restless from sitting in the car for two days. First thing the next morning, I took the kids out to stretch their legs on the little mountain at the end of my friends’ road.

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It’s a nice climb, with a nice view at the top.

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Those tiny dots above the mountains are hot air balloons. I climbed this mountain almost every morning of my stay, and I saw the balloons almost every time.

My friends’ road, seen from the mountaintop:

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At some point since our trip to the Grand Canyon a few years ago, Luke apparently lost his fear of climbing around above long drops. The boy was scrambling over the rocks like a mountain goat, he even gave me a scare or two.

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Elizabeth is as fearless and surefooted as ever.

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We felt a lot better after the hike. Washed off the road dust, had a really nice Christmas Eve with our friends, and then Steve picked up the kids and I didn’t see them again for more than a week. It’s the longest we’ve ever been apart.

My friends did their best to keep me too busy to miss them, though. More pics to come!

Categories: Christmas, Family, Friends, kids, Life, Travel | Leave a comment

Our Grand Adventure, Part I

This week the kids and I got to cross two more items off our bucket list: traveling somewhere by train…

…and seeing the Grand Canyon.

When we first started talking about this trip, we’d planned to do it sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The kids would be out of school, the garden would be in low-maintenance mode, and it wouldn’t be too hot to hike the Rim. I mentioned the idea to another mom in my hiking group, and she must have mentioned it to others, because pretty soon it had become an official group outing. This was awesome, for several reasons. One, I’m realistic about the risks of a single mom and two kids traveling by themselves, and a group feels safer. Two, it’s more fun to hike with other people. And the biggest reason, the lady who organized the trip did such an amazing job of planning and finding discounts, that we ended up doing WAY more fun stuff than the kids and I had originally planned, for hundreds of dollars less than our basic plan would have cost! It was unbelievable how inexpensive and FUN this trip was. The only downside was that the trip was scheduled for October rather than December, which actually turned out to be an upside, as we realized later.

We left Anza on Saturday morning. Most of the group were carpooling from the Temecula or Hemet areas, or taking Amtrak from Riverside CA to Williams AZ, but it made more sense for the kids and I to drive straight from Anza to Williams via Palm Springs, rather than detouring in the opposite direction to follow the others.

The weather was autumn-brisk, and this was our holiday trip after all, so we blasted Christmas music the whole way there. Trans-Siberian Orchestra makes the miles fly past, and the drive felt shorter than the six or so hours it took. We arrived at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel around 4pm, checked into our room, met our roommate (sharing rooms was part of the package) and then explored the grounds. We found a heated indoor swimming pool and a jacuzzi, and wished we’d brought our swimsuits. Then we found a gym, stocked with a dozen different kinds of workout and weightlifting equipment. We had it mostly to ourselves, so the kids had to try every single step-trainer, spinner, cross-trainer, weight press and treadmill in the place.

At 6:00 we met with the rest of the group for dinner. One of the really cool things about this outing was that nearly everything was covered by the incredibly low package price that we’d already paid, including dinner Saturday night and breakfast Sunday morning at the Railway Hotel Restaurant. It was buffet style, so no shortage of food. After dinner the whole group relaxed in front of the fire in the beautiful lobby, and discussed hiking plans for Sunday and Monday.

Brief tangent: the furniture in the hotel lobby was enormous. When I sat on one of the sofas there I felt like a child. Luke and Elizabeth looked like toddlers.

That fireplace in the photo is HUGE, but it looks normal-sized next to that giant furniture.

Anyway, so we planned our itineraries. Some of us really wanted to get out there and hike the trails, others preferred to make use of the shuttle tours, and some were looking forward to just relaxing and socializing in the Village. There were something like 23 of us altogether, so a bit of organizing was needed to make sure everyone had the experience they wanted.

Once all of that was settled, most of the group went out to enjoy the Williams nightlife. The kids and I headed back to our room, relaxed for a while and were asleep by ten, because we are party animals that way.

Alas, our roommate stumbled in very late (or early, really), puttered around noisily for what seemed like forever, and then finally went to sleep — and began snoring at such an impressive volume that all our hopes of sleep were shattered. Well, Elizabeth managed to doze off, but Luke and I buried our heads under pillows and blankets to no avail. I think I finally managed a fitful sleep sometime after four, because when the alarm went off at six it did wake me up. Luke apparently had the same thought, because he sat up and said in a surprised voice, “Wow, I DID fall asleep!”

One thing about Luke: if he feels that someone is in need of chastising, he ain’t shy. Until we’d gotten dressed and left the room I had to constantly shush him, because he fully intended to give our roommate a lengthy piece of his mind. Once we’d checked our luggage and were heading to breakfast, I was able to explain to him that some people stay up later than others, and some people snore, and it’s just the luck of the draw when it comes to matching up roommates, and she wasn’t trying to keep us awake on purpose, and under no circumstances was he allowed to scold her. He accepted that, though not particularly gracefully, and then we went to the restaurant and comforted ourselves with orange juice and eggs and sausage and fajitas and biscuits and gravy and muffins and pastries and yogurt and frittatas and toast.

After breakfast we gathered up our carry-on belongings and headed over to the train depot. Once there we were treated to the obligatory goofy Western shootout show.

Luke thought it was hilarious. Elizabeth thought it was amusing. I am a cantankerous old fart and was glad when it was over.

Then we boarded the train, and we were off to the Canyon! It took about two hours and 15 minutes to get there, and the scenery was wonderful.

We saw a herd of antelope in a meadow; there was wildlife everywhere. Near the end of the ride a guy came to our car with a fiddle and entertained us with corny jokes.

Being a cantankerous old fart, I enjoyed that about as much as I’d enjoyed the Old West show. Sorry Fiddle Guy, but your jokes are lame. Make funny jokes and I will like you.

Once we arrived at the Grand Canyon Depot on the South Rim, we caught a shuttle to Maswik Lodge, where we would be spending Sunday night. It was too early to check into our room, but our checked luggage had already arrived there and we were able to drop off some of our carry-on stuff for safekeeping. Then the kids and I walked up to the Rim to get our first look at the main attraction.

Technically, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen the Grand Canyon. My parents had taken me there a few times as a kid, so I had a vague memory of it. And to be honest, I was a little concerned that Luke and Elizabeth would be too jaded by the wonders of modern technology to be impressed by a canyon, however grand.

So we walked up to the Rim, and there it was, stark and colorful and impossibly vast.

It’s so big that you can only can only see parts of it at a time. As long as it took us to drive from Anza CA to Williams AZ, that’s how long it would take if you were to drive from the South Rim around to the North Rim.

I said, “Wow.”

The kids didn’t say anything for a long time.

We walked along the rim trail for a while, killing time until it was time to rejoin the group. I could see that the kids were not unimpressed — quite the opposite — but they seemed to be having trouble finding the right words to describe the sheer enormity of the thing.

Elizabeth finally found a comfortable context in technology. “It looks fake,” she decided. “Like a painted backdrop.”

“CGI maybe,” I nodded. “It’s gotta be special effects.”

“Yeah.”

Luke took longer to put his reaction into words. I think it was a couple of hours later; he’d been unusually quiet since his first glimpse into the abyss. “There is NO WAY,” he suddenly burst out, “that Paul Bunyon could have made that by dragging his axe along the ground. I don’t care HOW big he was.”

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Read Part II Here.

Categories: Christmas, Family, Friends, Humor, kids, Life, Love, Road trip, Travel, Wildlife | Tags: , | 1 Comment

He Can’t Eat What, Now?

A few weeks ago Luke was at the doctor getting a checkup and I asked them if he could be tested for food allergies. He doesn’t have any major symptoms, but he always seems to have dark circles under his eyes and a stuffy nose. So they did a blood test and the results came back positive for a ridiculous number of allergies. Wheat, corn, soy, peanuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, plums, scallops…clearly some massive dietary changes were in order. Toss in my dairy allergy and gluten intolerance and I was starting to wonder if we’d have to resort to cutting pictures of food out of cardboard and eating those.

In the summer it’s easier; we eat from the garden and orchard and life is good. But in the winter our diet tends to be grain-based, and we are running out of acceptable grains. Basically I need to organize a complete overhaul of our wintertime eating habits.

Not being able to eat bread is a fairly huge handicap. Over the past year I’ve gotten okay at making gluten-free bread, but I’m not crazy about it. It involves a lot of added starches and gums, which offends my whole-food inclinations, and it doesn’t keep well. I like my food to be simple, healthy and relatively undemanding. But man, do I miss bread. And pizza, and donuts.

One thing I don’t have to miss is pancakes and waffles, because I finally invented a GREAT recipe for those. Here’s something I’ve discovered about GF baking: the texture will be infinitely better if you add some kind of fresh fruit or vegetable to the batter/dough. The natural fibers are a surprisingly good substitute for gluten. If it’s not something you can add fruits or veggies to, try psyllium husks; similar effect with no noticeable flavor change. Here is my GF pancake/waffle recipe:

2 cups millet flour (sorghum flour would also work)
1 TBL psyllium husks
1 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 TBL oil (I use organic extra-virgin coconut oil)
1 banana, mashed
1 cup rice milk (any dairy or non-dairy milk would work)
1 TBL lemon juice
1 TBL sweetener (honey, agave nectar or maple syrup)
2 eggs, or 3 if you’re making waffles.

Yum!

But most of my baking is still a work in progress. Last October I was browsing through a catalogue and saw a mini-donut maker that works on the same principle as a waffle iron. “Wow, I’d love to have one of those!” I commented.

Luke and Elizabeth heard, and remembered, and mentioned it to my ex-laws, and there was a mini-donut maker under our tree this Christmas.

(Tangent: this is another one of those unexpected things that I’m not sure how to feel about. This is the first time since the divorce that I’ve received a “from the kids” gift financed by Steve or his parents. And it’s pretty much the first time I’ve EVER gotten a Christmas gift from Steve or his parents that was even remotely relevant to my interests. I love the donut maker. I appreciate the gesture, truly. It just feels…a little…baffling.)

Anyway, the nifty thing about the donut maker is that it seems to be able to bake any “quick bread” (ie, no yeast) batter perfectly. I’ve been experimenting with biscuits, mini-pizza crusts, etc, with good results. Sure, they’re all shaped like little donuts, but that’s fine.

The best part is how easy it is — the most time-consuming part is milling the flour. Whole organic millet is my current grain of choice; it makes a tasty, light, cakelike bread. In theory I like quinoa better, but for some reason it disagrees with my digestion. If you’re gluten-free but not milling your own flour, sorghum flour is also a very good choice.

Once the flour is milled, it’s just a matter of mixing the ingredients and pouring them a tablespoon at a time into the preheated donut receptacles. Each batch cooks in about three minutes. In no time at all you have a plateful of delicious donuts or biscuits or whatever the bread du jour is. And it doesn’t even matter that they’re only really good the first day, because tomorrow you can take a few minutes and make more! SWEET! It’s a great energy-saver, too. No heating up a big oven, no use of propane and only a few pennies’ worth of electricity.

So we’re still working on creating a new wintertime menu, but my new gadget has gotten us off to a great start. Bread is a wonderful tummy-filler, and now I can make it with only healthy, allergen-free ingredients! Yay for mini donut makers!

Of course, now I miss polenta. I don’t suppose there’s a corn-free substitute for that….

Categories: Christmas, Family, food, frugality, Gluten Free, Health, kids, Life, Nutrition | 4 Comments

Love, In Focus

For a good part of this past year I’ve been grumbling that I need reading glasses, and not actually doing anything about it. It usually slips my mind until the kids’ bedtime, when I read a chapter aloud from the Bible and find myself holding the book at arm’s length to focus on the tiny words. Or when I’m trying to read the microscopic list of ingredients on some container. It’s typical middle-age presbyopia; there’s no problem unless I’m trying to read fine print. Anyway, for some reason I just kept whinging about needing the glasses and never got around to buying them.

Guess what I found in my stocking on Christmas morning?

Elizabeth bought them for me. With her own money.

And to appreciate the significance of that, you have to understand that my sweet girl is, let us say, Not A Financially Generous Person. To my knowledge she has never spent her own personal money on anyone but herself before. This is a kid who can spot a penny on the ground fifty feet away, and will stop what she’s doing to go and pick it up. A kid who loves the annual Christmas Gift Shop at her school because it offers lots of inexpensive shinies for her to buy — for herself. True story: last year both kids ended up getting a lot of cash for Christmas from various relatives. We went on a shopping trip and Elizabeth had soon frittered away all her money on useless shiny objects. Luke, who had received everything he’d asked for for Christmas, came home without spending a dime; he just hadn’t seen anything that he wanted. And within a few days Elizabeth had wheedled him into spending all of HIS Christmas money on stuff for HER via Amazon.com.

Another true story: last week when we went to Riverside, I was feeling very budget-conscious because of all the money I’d spent on Christmas, so I packed a lunch for us to eat at the park and I told everyone to eat a good breakfast because I didn’t want to end up having to buy any food in the pricey Mission Inn area. Apparently both kids were having an off morning, because Luke neglected to eat any breakfast at all and Elizabeth neglected to put our lunch into the car (the one task I’d assigned to her). I was pretty exasperated when I found out, and not just with them. I realized that I’d fallen into a pattern of picking up the slack in these kinds of situations, rescuing Luke and Elizabeth from the consequences of their carelessness, smoothing things over, so they’d had no motivation to improve. Even then my impulse was to say, “It’s okay, we can get lunch at that sandwich place near the Inn.” Which we could, but that place is freaking expensive like all the other places to get decent food near the Inn, and I really and truly could not afford to drop thirty dollars on lunch that day. So what I said was, “We can go to that sandwich place near the Inn, and anyone who wants to eat can pay for their own food.” They both had this year’s Christmas money, so I don’t think I was being unreasonable. I paid for my lunch, Luke paid for his lunch, and Elizabeth….

Well, Elizabeth bought herself a cookie, because she could not bear the thought of spending her precious dollars on anything as mundane and transitory as food. (She had the last laugh though, because Luke’s lunch was too big for him to finish. She helpfully polished it off for him.)

This is not a girl who is lavishly charitable with her money, is what I’m saying.

But she went into an actual grownup store and spent a fair chunk of her beloved lucre on a lovely pair of reading glasses for me, so that I would have something in my stocking on Christmas morning. (And probably also so she wouldn’t have to keep listening to me grumbling about needing them, but still.)

This is one of the things I like best about Christmas: the way it inspires people to show their love in ways they normally might not. The happy surprises.

Happy Love Thursday, All. Here’s to the moments that help us see our loved ones…a little more clearly.

Categories: Christmas, Family, frugality, Humor, kids, Life, Love, Love Thursday | 4 Comments

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