Monday, December 24, 2007

what christmas can mean

For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come--
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show
where the babe is that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers--sitting beside their children's cribs--
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, "Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night--
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.

-Sophia Lyon Fahs (1876 - 1978)

I often wonder how many people in our country celebrate Christmas and don't even think about why. In this land of predominant Christianity, it's tradition, I suppose. But very few people I knew growing up affirmatively believed in the divinity of Christ. They just weren't Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu...they fell into the vague "other" category of those who are descended from Christians, but stopped practicing Christianity for one reason or another along the way. And yet just about everyone celebrates Christmas who doesn't have an obvious reason not to. Everyone goes out and drags home a tree, makes cookies, gives presents, learns the carols. Because it's what they did when they were young, and what their parents did, too.

I can sort of include myself in with those folks. I don't believe in the divinity of Christ, my parents are no longer Christians, and yet every year we celebrate.

(continue reading by clicking "full post")

Like many Unitarian Universalists, I think I've had a somewhat awkward relationship with Christianity. It's the recurring conflict of a syncretic religion that wishes to draw upon the good values while at the same time remembering the reason we're somehow different.

I have vivid memories of a friend on the playground in elementary school, who came to us, her group of closest friends, in a panic one day. She had learned in Sunday school that only those who had accepted Christ into their hearts as their Savior would go to heaven, and that those who didn't would be condemned to eternal suffering. The other four of us were a UU, two Jews and a girl in the secular "other" category. Our friend was freaking out and told us we'd have to start reading the Bible and becoming Christians or else she'd go to heaven and we wouldn't. I was about six or seven years old.

As I grew up, I began to explore my religious identity, declaring that I was an atheist at my Coming of Age ceremony when I was 13 (much to my Episcopalian grandmother's shock and disappointment), then experimenting with earth-based religion in high school. Every year at Christmas I'd wonder what it was we were doing anyway. Was it just for a lack of something better? I felt fine putting up a wreath after I learned that the circle can symbolize the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice. But I couldn't deny that Christmas is about Christ (oh, and Santa Claus). At best, I can believe that Christ was a leader, a teacher and a healer--the parts about being a prophet and a martyr and the son of God...well, to me it just never added up.

Around the same time as the playground crisis of faith, a local production of Menotti's television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors came to my school. Something about the story captivated me--the music, the characters, the lyrics, something else. Santa Claus (being omniscient, of course) brought me a cassette of the soundtrack in my stocking that year and I listened to it over and over.

Amahl is about a boy of about ten and his mother living near Bethlehem at the time of the nativity. The mother is a young widow; Amahl walks with a crutch. They are extremely poor. The night visitors are the legendary three kings, following the star on their journey to the child who will be the new Savior. In the times that I've listened to the soundtrack (which I now have on CD) more recently, the part I still find the most moving is a responsive "duet" between Amahl's mother and the three kings wherein they ask if she has seen the child they seek, a child of poor yet somehow noble birth, to whom they are bringing offerings of great riches. She responds,

"Yes, I know a child the color of wheat, the color of dawn.
His eyes are mild, his hands are those of a king, as king he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or gold,
though sick and poor and hungry and cold.
He’s my child, my son, my darling, my own."

"The child we seek holds the seas and the winds on his palm. The child we seek has the moon and the sun at his feet."

"The child I know on his palm holds my heart. The child I know at his feet has my life. He’s my child, my son, my darling, my own, and his name is Amahl."

For some reason, this always brings tears to my eyes. This mother, like all parents, can only believe that her child is the one, just as deserving of praise and prosperity.

In the end, Amahl offers his crutch as a gift for the baby, and he is miraculously healed and able to walk again. I never liked that ending. Well-intentioned as it may have been, it always seemed like another lesson of sacrifice in the name of God.

After all of this, what sense can I possibly make of Christmas? Here is what I have been able to figure out:

Christmas is a time for me to reflect on the best teachings of Christianity, not those of martyrdom and sacrifice, not those of the saved and the unsaved, but those of genuine love for all humankind. In terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Peace on earth and good will toward men.

It's a time to honor and appreciate those we love the most, and those we barely know. It's a time to give to the potential of all to do good. It's a time of hope.

I imagine the hope the people in the nativity story must have felt at the birth of the child they considered their Savior, the one who would change this world for the better. I feel that hope when I look into the face of my stepdaughter, my best friend, every one of my fellow humans. Most importantly, I must feel that hope when I look in the mirror. No one person, divine or mortal, can be looked to as a redeemer. But we can each do our part. We are all capable of great love and great change in our time on this Earth.

Peace on Earth, Joy to the World. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

you know...

You know you put together too much IKEA furniture when you're doing laundry and you keep finding Allen wrenches and wooden dowels in the pants pockets.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

the deal with gamelan

Long ago, in a town uncomfortably close to here, I was in my third year at the University of Maryland. I was a member of the Maryland Chorus, but I had decided, for pretty much no reason, to join one of the university's non-western ensembles. They offered West African drumming (always full), Japanese koto, and Balinese gamelan. I chose the one I had heard the least about. I couldn't have found Bali on a map if you had asked me, and I don't think I knew that it was part of Indonesia. I also thought a gamelan was an instrument. I found out that it's the name for the whole percussion orchestra, the set of instruments or the people who play them.

I started out playing one of the biggest, lowest, instruments there was, called jegogan. It's a huge metallophone that comes up to a person's waist, with five heavy bronze keys, and a large, heavy padded mallet. Its function is sort of like a bass instrument in a western ensemble. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. As a soprano and violinist, I had spent a lot of time on the treble end of things. And this kind of music was totally new.

Around this time in the semester, our teacher told me and the other girl playing jegogan (there are two of almost everything in Balinese gamelan) that he needed people to play that same instrument with his independent DC-area group, Gamelan Mitra Kusuma. I started coming to rehearsals and I've never looked back. Even during the time I lived in Baltimore, I'd drive an hour each way to weekly rehearsals. And I've moved on to more difficult instruments.

A year after I first signed up for the gamelan class, at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, Jacob was starting his senior year. The college had just hired an ethnomusicology professor and procured a set of gamelan degung instruments from Sunda, or West Java, another Indonesian province. Jacob was in the gamelan for his last two semesters in college, and the next year, he moved to DC.

Jacob had really enjoyed playing gamelan in college, so once he was settled in DC, he looked around for a group to join. There was Gamelan Mitra Kusuma, the Balinese gong kebyar ensemble I had then been a part of for about two years, and there was the Central Javanese gamelan at the Indonesian embassy. Neither group's music was like the Sundanese gamelan Jacob had played in college, but he chose the group at the embassy because of their proximity to the Metro and to his apartment. For the next couple of years, Jacob learned about Javanese gamelan and dance, and started taking Indonesian language classes, and I continued to play Balinese gamelan, and never the twain did meet.

A little over a couple years ago, at a local DC Irish festival, I met an Irish music enthusiast about my age. When I introduced him to my gamelan instructors who had come to hear my Irish band play, he enthusiastically exclaimed, "Apa kabar?!"

The rest, as they say...

Maria playing with "Jacob's gamelan," the Central Javanese gamelan of the Embassy of Indonesia (Jacob is hidden behind the gongs). Melissa and Totok are performing a traditional Javanese social dance.

This fall, Jacob decided to try his hand at playing Balinese gamelan, which he describes as "loud and insane." I think he's doing pretty well. For the past couple of months, we've had special guest teachers visiting from Bali, teaching us as well as teaching dance and gamelan classes at the embassy.

This Friday evening we've got a big concert at the embassy with lots of dancers, music and light refreshments. If you'll be in the DC area and we haven't pestered you about this yet, send me an e-mail (maria AT dcgamelan DOT com) and I'll send you the invitation. It's free, but it's RSVP-only. As of last night there are still seats. The embassy is a great place to visit just to see the building.

Visit the link on the right to learn more about Balinese gamelan and our ensemble. We'd love to see you there!

P.S. Check out this video of GMK performing with dancers from Indonesian Performing Arts Chicago last year. The montage includes "Panyembrama" (a women's welcome dance), "Cendrawasih" (the bird-of-paradise dance, done beautifully here by sisters Mirah and Chika), and a crazy instrumental piece called "Jaya Semara."


Sunday, December 9, 2007

small white tooff

Precious and dear are the milestones of youth: haircuts, reading, losing teeth, and so forth. If you're a noncustodial parent, you kind of get used to downplaying all the stuff you miss because the little time you spend together is precious in itself. But once in a while, you do get to be there for one of those milestones, and you can't help but feel a pang of sentimentalism, nostalgia, tradition, poignancy...

So anyway, after months of wiggling this one and twirling that, Khymi lost a completely unexpected tooth on a piece of cucumber. It was a Chanukah miracle! She's looking forward to being a jack-o'-lantern next Hallowe'en.

Although this was her third tooth, it was the Tooth Fairy's first visit to the Small Red House. And because tiny incisors are in high demand right now in the Tooth Fairy Aerie (or so Dad theorized the next morning), the ol' Fairy left a golden envelope with a shiny quarter and two sets of butterfly stickers. After the familiar rustling and gasping that warmed the hearts of the bleary-eyed, reminiscing grown-ups in the next room, Khymi came running in to show off the envelope. It MUST have been the Tooth Fairy, she declared, because the envelope was sealed with a butterfly sticker!

She also decided that the Tooth Fairy lives in Baltimore. You see, back when Maria was living in Baltimore, we would drive past a sign for a dentist's office that was shaped like a big white tooth. This sign fascinated Khymi because she could tell it was a dentist even though she couldn't read it yet. But as she's become more aware the Tooth Fairy's existence, what more logical place for the Tooth Fairy to live than where there's a big tooth sign?

Maybe next time the Tooth Fairy visits, we'll sniff the quarter to see if it smells like Old Bay.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

white chanukah

We lit the Chanukah lights together last night for the third year running. This morning was the first snow of the season.

Hope your holidays are full of light, love and surprises.


Friday, November 30, 2007

another great used clothing resource!

Swango is a new clothes swapping site based on a system of credits. I'll be trying it out the next time I want to do a clothes purge. Anything I don't think would belong on there will go to the thrift store or the Baltimore Free Store.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

apropos of nothing

And because I am still feeling a little stressed out...

This is Sharon Jones, Soul Sister #1. She will rock your world.

As Sharon would say, "If you can't feel the music...then you must be a dead ass!"


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

feelgood holiday shopping

Almost December.

I am taking a break from freaking out about the impending end of the semester to indulge in some holiday consumerism.

Okay, so not quite. The stupid conscience is at it again. True, on this year's "Buy Nothing Day" (i.e. Black Friday) I was at my in-laws' in West Virginia, several ridges away from anywhere one could possibly hope to buy anything. But I often have Buy Nothing Day here at home. It's pretty easy when you don't have a whole lot of disposable income.

Still, the holidays are upon us. Somehow Chanukah is next week already. And I admit it, I actually do like holiday shopping. I've even been to the mall on Christmas Eve Day on several occasions for last-minute gifts, and I haven't killed anyone. But these days I figure, if I'm going to buy a bunch of stuff, maybe I should know where some of it is made, or at least feel like I'm giving something beyond the scope of my friends and relations.

Here are a couple of my suggestions for gifts you can feel good about buying:

  • Check out Etsy for handmade gifts from people like my friend Xiane. If you don't have any friends who are vendors, try using the Geolocator feature to find out who's near you.

  • If you live in Baltimore, stop by the Woman's Industrial Exchange for gifts made by local consignors.

  • Another Baltimore opportunity (sorry, my brain still kind of lives there): the Greater Homewood Adult Literacy and ESOL Program, where spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, is having a great fundraising event at the Barnes & Noble in Charles Village this Saturday. Buy books you would have bought anyway and support a great cause!

  • Look around your own neighborhood for holiday craft sales. There are at least two around here this weekend.

  • And, of course, Craigslist. And for that matter, eBay, the thrift store, the flea market. You have to be a little discerning, but know what they say about one man's trash? You buy (or get for free) something for your loved ones. Someone else gets rid of it. It's a win-win. Last year I drove out to Owings Mills and picked up a big ridiculous stuffed dolphin from a couple who had absolutely no use for it and wanted it out of their house. It ended up being a certain five-year-old's favorite Chanukah gift, and remains camped out as the only stuffed animal in her bed to this day. It doesn't matter to her what I paid (or in this case, didn't pay) for it.

  • Making your own gifts never goes out of style!
What are your suggestions for a reduced-guilt holiday?


Friday, November 9, 2007

love on two wheels

With the price of oil at $96 a barrel, I've been thinking now might be as good a time as any to make a serious effort to cut back on the driving. Since the spring, I've been keeping my brother's bike around, but I have to admit I haven't really been using it. It's a big-box mountain bike and I find it a little hard to ride in any useful capacity.

On top of that, the neighborhood food co-op is only a few blocks away. Walking there is easy...walking back with the groceries, not as easy. But I feel like such a tool every time I drive there.

I knew what I wanted. A basic, all-purpose bike for getting around. Not too cheaply manufactured, but not an expensive newfangled city bike with lots of bells and whistles. Well, actually, a bell might be good. But anyway, what I wanted was a simple and tough vehicle like the ones people use in cities with lots of bike traffic (e.g. cities in China and some parts of Europe). Fenders to keep the mud off, a chain guard to keep my pants leg from getting caught. For me, it's not a sport; it's a way to get from one place to another wearing normal clothes without burning up some more fossil fuels.

The better bike manufacturers all have some sort of "city" or "commuter" model available. And I'm sure they're great if you have a few hundred dollars or more to throw around. Trek recently unveiled the iMac of bikes, an automatic shift machine called the Lime. I have to confess that I think these are really cute, and they've sort of got the right idea with their "everyone can ride!" ad campaign. And the idea of automatic shift (powered by an on-board generator) is pretty neat. But oh, the sticker shock once again! Guess not everyone can ride.

You knew where this was going...Craigslist to the rescue! Today I took the bus and the Metro down to Alexandria during off-peak hours and picked up a 70s-era steel-frame Schwinn Collegiate. Not the fanciest, not all-terrain for sure, but it's got fenders, a chain guard, and a kickstand. I rode it home from the Metro in a chilly drizzle and I wasn't miserable. And it's my favorite color!

Pictures forthcoming on a prettier day. I've got some big basket panniers to attach, too. Perfect for all those groceries.


Sunday, November 4, 2007


it's as if this cartoonist snuck into our house, slept in our bed for a night when we were out, and made a cartoon about our cat. seriously. kneading the face and everything. it's uncanny. so uncanny that maria pretty much laughed until she cried.


Friday, November 2, 2007

so this guy walks into the bar...

If there is one professional violation that the guild of American lawyerdom cannot stand, it is UPL: Unlicensed Practice of Law. Translation: You've got to get bar certification (a very expensive and exhausting process!) if you're going to hold yourself out as qualified to give reliable legal advice or to represent someone in court. Bar authorities like to think of this as a quality control measure, a handful of cynics might call it protectionism. They can fight it out if they want.

Regardless, my fresh memories of professional responsibility class and bar lectures gave me ample cause for UPL worries when I saw the sign below next to my office door. I was proud and thrilled, sure, but I wasn't about to post it on some ol' blog for all the world -- potential clients and bar examiners alike -- to see.


Yes, that means I passed!


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween's SUPER, thanks for asking...

The hordes of urbancentrists might not believe it, but it is possible to have a First Real Halloween at age 26. The handing-out of candy - or, as explained previously, plastic nasties and raisins - the adorable costumed kids, the smiles and polite "Thank you"s and "Happy Halloween"s, even the glittery teens... it's all something you read about or watch on TV as a child in rural WV. I guess it's like the Rose Bowl or something. When there are four families on your 1-mile dirt road, you don't exactly beat the gravel for candy. And yes, this means that there's not much point in dressing up (except for the time I was Robin Hood at the fourth grade class pageant, but who's counting). Whoever thought it was a suburban holiday, but there you have it.

Which means that when I came home to find my lovely wife dressed as a superheroine, I was only too glad to hear that she'd gotten an extra red cape...

We hate to be Those Cat People, really, but our red cloth napkins just fit the occasion so well. Every super-pair needs a pet sidekick, right?


Of course, it didn't occur to me until later that when Khymi sees these pictures, she will jump for joy at our unwitting compliance with her plans for us to be Unit and Polar-Boy. Ah well. Whatever works for her.

In other news, Maria found us a real, working piano for $5 on CraigsList. Can't beat it!


Friday, October 19, 2007

Healthy Halloween?

Note: Non-registered users can now post comments. Sorry that we didn't notice and change the settings earlier. Anyone who's not a spammer is welcome!

As I was writing my long novel of a comment on Mama Monster's Halloween post, I began thinking a better place to write about Halloween would be here. She pretty much nailed my sentiments about costumes. Although Khymi won't be here for Halloween (she's making a "butterfly-moth" costume at her mom's house), I'm going to put together a Halloween costume for myself (because I am a kid at heart, or actually, still a kid from many people's perspectives). I am going to be a superhero. Hopefully this will serve to entertain the hordes of trick-or-treaters that will descend upon our doorstep. But I still need something to give them...

Every time I go to a chain drugstore or grocery store these days, I see big discounts on those huge bags of fun-size candy bars. I feel a little conflicted about buying them without a second thought. Don't get me wrong: I actually love junk candy on an individual basis. Three Musketeers, Milky Way, Mounds bars, Butterfinger, Reese's peanut butter cups...bring it on. But my buying habits have changed a lot, if gradually, in the past few years. I don't drink soda anymore, not even in a restaurant or sandwich shop where I could at least justify it by saying, "it's just this once." I hardly ever buy anything at the grocery store that contains corn syrup as a sweetener. It's difficult sometimes, because it's usually that stuff that's the cheapest (see: corn subsidies). So I'm having trouble just casting all that aside to buy bulk packs of mostly corn syrup. I don't look down upon friends and family who do buy them for trick-or-treaters, but when it comes to my own decisions, I'm a little more hesitant.

Half of me is saying, "Lighten up! It's a treat! It's just once a year!" But then I remember that the kids in my neighborhood will definitely be getting their fair share of junk candy--from all the neighbors. I won't be making that huge of a difference if I try for an alternative, but I'll feel better. So what will we give out instead?

Jacob immediately thought of one of his favorite snacks: apples. Oh, you wonderful rural boy. Unfortunately, although giving out apples would be great, and would probably do no harm at all, urban legends about razor blades and poison have pretty much ruined this possibility for urban/suburban trick-or-treaters. Parents won't trust anything edible unless it's got a factory-sealed wrapper. Wasteful, but pretty much necessary. Fair enough.

Kids seem to like those individually-wrapped fruit leathers from places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Our local co-op carries them, too. Great! Nothing but fruit, no added sweeteners, kids like them. Problem is, although 40 or 50 cents each is an easy price to pay for one or a few, buying 100 will cost you upwards of $50, and you can't get a bulk discount. I'm determined about this, but I'm also not made of money. If I had oodles of disposable income, this might be an option worth investing in. But as it is...

Okay, so what about non-edible treats? I remember getting nickels and pennies from some neighbors when I was a kid. Somehow I can't see myself doing that, though. It's sort of like the impersonal aspect of getting money for your birthday, except that usually, you can actually buy something you like with birthday money. Not so much with the pennies.

So then I started looking into the plastic nasties. Cheap plastic toys. I felt kind of weird about that, too. Something mostly useless that a kid will play with for two days and then it'll end up in a landfill. Damn you, conscience! You ruin all the fun.

So here is what I decided on for this year: Halloween bookmarks. They are plastic nasties, but they conceivably have years of use in them, provided that the kids read, which I hope they do! Plus they have the bonus feature of a little traceable Halloween design. They appeal to both younger and older kids. It's the kind of thing I would have liked (and actually kept and used) when I was a kid. Hopefully that'll be true for the kids in my neighborhood. And at four dollars a gross, the price was right.

I have loftier hopes for next year, if I can get my act together. We'll see. Any other suggestions for trick-or-treat alternatives?

P.S. Soon after I posted this, Jacob happened to send me a link to this blog article on the Washington Post website today. Take a look.


Monday, October 15, 2007

use it up

If you're still up to your ears in this summer's zucchini, try making this soup. Great with crusty bread on a chilly evening.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Is it fall yet?

It seems like every time I post I am still waiting. Tomorrow, they say. I guess we'll see.

I'll tell you how I know it's fall. The church where I grew up goes to Catoctin. I've been going there every year since I was a toddler, with the exception of only a couple times. When I was a kid our annual retreat was one of the highlights of my year: running around in the woods with other kids, sleeping in sleeping bags, helping the grown-ups make all the meals. Last weekend, we got to bring Khymi, and I don't know which of us was more excited. Khymi was mostly excited to hang out with her Dad's-house BFF, Big Girl Monster of Each Inch.

Last year it was almost unbearably cold. This year it was hot enough for shorts.

But there are always crunchy fall leaves...

There's always Cunningham Falls, and a snack from Pryor's Orchard...

There's always hot cocoa with marshmallows....

And there is always the company of a friend on the swings...





Friday, September 28, 2007

the blustery day

Well, let's try this "fall" thing again, shall we?

It's not supposed to get above 80 degrees in the next week. Today I looked out at the backyard and saw something I had forgotten about--leaves on the ground! After four years of living in apartments and city rowhouses, it's time to rake leaves again. I wonder if we have a leaf rake. There's a shed of tools and garden implements that we share with the neighbors. There's probably one in there.

It's the perfect day to be up and about without getting hot and sticky. But there's something keeping me here...


Monday, September 24, 2007

happy birthday, susie / los, panik!

First of all, a happy birthday to Susie, one of the stars of Family Hack* and Khymi's little sister!

Susie is a kid after our own hearts. Khymi informed Dad on the phone last night that, "this morning, my sister woke up and she was crying, so I just sang 'Panik' to her and she stopped crying!" Clearly, a two-year-old who has her priorities straight.

Khymi is referring to this song by Wir Sind Helden. Ever since this summer, she has decided that it fits the bill for any scenario where music is required. We're really glad she likes it so much...we just hope Mama and Papa aren't on the verge of "accidentally" running over the CD in the driveway.

*Bonus: Family Hack is Khymi's mom and stepdad's resource blog for families on the go--check it out!


Sunday, September 23, 2007

HPR Home Cinema, episode I

Everybody, meet Khymi. Khymi, the "R" part of our family surname triumvirate, turned six-and-a-half this Rosh Hashanah (approximately) and has her own way with a number of things. One of those things is now The Monkey Bars.

"...and then watch, you'll find out that that wasn't cheating after all, because I go all the way back anyway..."

My daughter, everybody: she wants to be the player, the coach, the referee, and the commentator all at the same time. Loquacious much? I wonder where she gets that...


a better grasstrap

What if I told you, dear reader, that you could have a better lawnmower?
What if I said this mower never clogs?
Always starts?
No expensive repair necessary?
No extra expense of gas or electric bills?
100 percent emission-free?
Less noisy, with only a pleasant, intermittent whir?
So safe you can even use it with sandals?
No risk of flipping over?
And best of all, cuts grass just about as well as a motorized mower, with only a little added exercise from you?

Gee, you say, why haven't I heard about these innovative new mowers?

Oh, because this technology isn't actually new. It's OLD and QUAINT and therefore supposedly OBSOLETE. You see, we just got a reel mower. You know, the kind of thing you push, and it makes the wheels turn, which makes these blades spin around and cut the grass. It uses food-calories instead of fossil-fuel calories. So you see, this new advancement, superior to the rotary mower, is actually OLD. Maybe that's why you haven't heard about it. Because hey, older technology can't possibly work better than newer stuff, right?

The best part of all? It's practically brand-new, and we got it for FREE instead of paying $100. (CraigsList: It's the new Amazon.)

Gee, you say, how does one swing that?

It's easy. You wouldn't believe how many people want to get rid of reel mowers once they get something motorized and fossil-fuel burning. On one side are all the benefits I listed above. On the other are, well, uh, a somewhat faster and somewhat closer shave, or in other words, the same quality with a little less human effort. Oh, and the technology is NEWER, so it must be better than that which is OLD.

To which we say: Fine! Please! Give 'em away! Joke's on you, suckers...

For now, I'll be nursing my blisters and - at last, after weeks cursing a broken-down gas mower - basking in the sweet smell of fresh-cut grass.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A step in the wrong direction for Maryland

I waited to post on this until today. Yesterday when I heard the news, I was too frustrated and angry, and I would have just written some long soapbox-y diatribe. I'll try not to do that now. But I do feel like I have a lot to say.

Jacob tried explaining to me that sometimes, judges make decisions that even they may not agree with because their job is to decide within the confines of the current legal framework and the particular arguments with which they have been presented. And this one was tricky because the argument, as I understand it, was that marriage discrimination is sex discrimination, not sexual orientation discrimination. If you look at the example of the lesbian couple who was forced to separate because one of them was an Indian citizen and had to return to India because her visa had expired, and if they had been married, the American citizen could have sponsored her partner for citizenship, you could say that if one of them had been a man (something that is of course beyond their control), they wouldn't have had all the trouble they did. And that's unfair. But if you say, if they had been an opposite-sex couple, then you're talking about sexual orientation discrimination. It's semantics, but it's a very fine line, and the judges weren't buying it.

That's all a little hard for me to swallow. It's hard when from my perspective, the choice should be simple, and not a question of interpreting laws this way or that way. We're at an age where a ton of our friends are getting married, and I can think of three friends and their partners off the top of my head who would probably jump at the chance (or at least consider it seriously) if it were given to them. One of them is my best and oldest friend.

We struggled with the decision to get married, not because of how it would affect our lives directly, but because we felt conflicted and almost guilty about being in a position of privilege. This summer I wrote a research paper on same-sex marriage, and it made me think critically about what the institution has come to mean in American society. The counter-arguments almost always mentioned something along the lines that marriage exists in its current form because of the possibility of procreation, and opposite-sex couples are the only ones who can procreate "naturally."

I promised no huge rant, so I'll just say, if you have children, if you don't have children, if you've dealt with infertility, if you are a woman of any age, if you know children whose parents were never married and are (shocker, this one) totally normal, if you never plan to have children, if you have children who are not your biological offspring...think long and hard about the implications of that line of reasoning. Think about what really matters to you. "Legitimacy"? "Tradition"? Not so much for me. What matters are love, respect, admiration and dedication. Between any consenting adult partners, and among any family. Among human beings, really. And when you look at all of the marriage debate, those things aren't mentioned very much. Something's wrong with that picture.

We are very happy that we got married. In the end, it was what we wanted for ourselves. But I promised myself that I would try to help the effort toward winning this right for everyone who wants it.

So what can we do, now that the final decision has been made? The next place to focus is the state legislature. What couldn't be won in a lawsuit may be possible through legislation. If you live in Maryland, I encourage you to contact your state senator and delegates and tell them you support marriage rights for all.

P.S. The Washington Post hosted an interesting online Q & A session about same-sex marriage this afternoon. The transcript is available here.


Monday, September 17, 2007


We all love IKEA, right? Sure we do. It's the whole package: a socially-conscious purveyor of inexpensive, space-saving and attractive European-style home furnishings, and a place you can take your kids where they'll actually look forward to hanging around while you're pricing sofas. If you stay through mealtime, no problem. Another family-friendly oasis awaits you in the store's cafeteria. What more could you ask for?

As if that weren't enough, IKEA is also the place where my dad has been happily employed for many years. So my loyalty runs deeper still. Dad is one of two store carpenters, which means, among other things, that he builds the larger parts of the "rooms" on the showroom floor (walls, kitchens, and so on). They have other employees (or in Scandinavian social-democratic IKEA-speak, "co-workers") whose job it is to assemble the furniture for display, but my dad can usually tell me the difference between the base model and the next best one, and steers me away from the real lemons. There's a difference between the fiberboard-and-melamine nightmare that'll only last you a year and the more durable pieces (for example, my steel-frame bed, purchased c. 1999-2000, that's been disassembled and reassembled over the course of five moves and is no worse for the wear).

Jacob had never been to an IKEA before he met me. If he had a nickel for every time I've told him, "You know, they have that at IKEA," well...he'd probably have enough for a delicious IKEA breakfast. And that includes coffee.

That all being said...IKEA's not the be-all and end-all. Since we moved into the small red house, we've been itching to put away all our boxes of books, but we had nowhere to put them. Our first instinct was to run to IKEA and come home with 300 dollars' worth of BILLY bookcases, but then we thought of the fact that a) 300 dollars might be a pretty good deal, but it's still a lot of money and b) we've been trying to quit buying newly-manufactured things when we could be saving something from the landfill.

So we decided to check out Community Forklift, a local organization that sells salvaged and surplus building materials at drastically reduced prices. What should we find on our first trip to their huge warehouse in Edmonston but a set of bookshelves, recently removed from the GWU law library:

Cheaper than BILLY, and solid oak to boot. We haven't unpacked all the books yet, but for now that bottom shelf has been serving as a "cat cubby."

Bonus: Want to get more mileage out of your IKEA stuff? Get inspired by ikea hacker.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

summer's end

The heat and humidity vanished yesterday. Maybe they'll be back, maybe they won't. Maybe that was it. The cat has stopped sprawling out on the wood floor during the day, in favor of resuming her spot on the back of the futon, curled up with her nose tucked between her paws. We turned off the A/C and opened up all the windows!

The 9/11 anniversary has come and gone. It's almost become a part of the start of a new school year--I wonder how long it'll be this way. For the rest of our children's lives? Amid the "crying bald eagle" illustrations and the trite nationalistic catchphrases, I was sobered to hear an sponsor's ad on NPR, a contribution made in memory of Leslie Whittington and her family. Leslie was a colleague of my mom's and a neighbor whose daughter I used to babysit when I was in high school. It still saddens and terrifies me when I remember that morning and the phone call from Leslie's parents in Georgia. But it saddens me just as much to think of the way our country has reacted and changed in the meantime.

Fortunately, there are nice things to look forward to about fall. Jacob's birthday and the Baltimore Irish Festival are tomorrow. We might actually get some yard work done this weekend without getting heatstroke or being eaten by mosquitoes. The band is playing a show at the New Deal Café in a couple of weeks. We'll be heading up to Catoctin again and coming back with apples, pears and cider from Pryor's Orchard.

And I'm actually looking forward to getting another semester of college under my belt. No exams this time, just hands-on work and case studies. My kind of semester!


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

finally, something you can use

A Top Ten List of energy/trash/money-saving products and tips, from what we've learned so far:

  1. Compost! Even if you're like us and freaked out about vermin in an urban-suburban area, you can get a recycled plastic compost tumbler that screws shut to keep out garden pests. Search for one on Amazon and you'll come up with something. And there is a ton of information online about what you can and can't compost.

  2. Use power strips. We have our TV, VCR, DVD player and stereo hooked up to a power strip to stop the drain of idle current--when they're not on, the power strip goes off. Unplug the microwave and the coffeemaker when they're not in use, too--chances are you've got another clock in the kitchen.

  3. Use a tank bank or other water displacement device in your toilet tank and reduce the amount of water your toilet uses to flush.

  4. We found this little gem on shower saver shut-off valve. It stops the flow of water (or brings it to a trickle) while you're shampooing or soaping up in the shower, and when you flip it back on, the water temperature is the same as before. It's inexpensive and super-easy to install. Using it every time you shower adds up to a lot of water saved.

  5. Recycle--really. Check with your local department of sanitation and see what they'll take and what they won't. The hardest thing for me to remember to recycle is paper--things like gum wrappers, small receipts, Band-Aid wrappers and other stuff you'd just toss in the trash. But it doesn't take long to make it a habit. We now both compulsively save recyclable materials that we acquire outside the house and bring them home to recycle. Cut down on the paper that's going into the recycling by canceling catalog subscriptions--you can shop online!

  6. Switch to fluorescent lighting. People have been saying this for years, but now compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are becoming more available and more affordable. Besides, the higher upfront cost is nothing compared to the money you save on your electric bills. GoodCommonSense has a great selection of dimmables and hard-to-find sizes (and some LED lighting too), but for the basics we just head to IKEA.
  7. Note: make sure that when your CFLs finally burn out (I don't think any of mine have yet), you dispose of them by taking them to a hazardous waste collection day or back to IKEA. CFLs contain mercury and should not be sent straight to the landfill with your household trash.

  8. Reuse! Any time you're about to use a disposable plastic zip-top bag, see if you can use a sealable plastic container instead. Or do what Jacob does and reuse the bag. Switch to cloth napkins and use handkerchiefs instead of tissues--I have to say this is easier if you have an in-house washer and dryer, something we didn't have up until recently. If you're a woman of menstruating age, consider switching to a cloth pads or a reusable menstrual cup (this may cross your personal Grossness Threshhold, but really: they save tons of trash and money). Use reusable shopping bags when you go to the grocery store--they're more comfortable to carry anyway. Or if that's not good enough, use them when you go to a store that's not the grocery store. Refuse a plastic bag if you're buying one or two items that you can really just carry yourself. Don't buy water in plastic bottles--get one bottle and keep refilling it. Buy used materials, too--why buy new what you can get at the thrift store or on craigslist?

  9. Wash your clothes in cold water. I switched a while ago and I really haven't noticed any difference at all in how clean they get.

  10. Avoid your car. We are lucky enough to have moved to a neighborhood where we can walk to the grocery store, the pool, the library, the post office, and the bus that will take us to the Metro station. Now if only I could get Baltimore to move down here... Anyway, even if you don't live in a city like ours, carpool or use public transportation if walking or biking isn't an option. Drive part of the way and take the bus or the train the rest of the way. And here's Jacob's favorite: slow down. The faster you drive on the highway, the worse your mileage will be. Make an effort not to go over the speed limit on your next long drive and see if it makes a difference.

  11. Eat locally. Think of where your food comes from and what it took to get it to where you bought it. Support your local farmer's market. Buy groceries in bulk if you can. Grow your own food (or even just a small herb garden) if you can.
This is what I could think of off the top of my head. We don't do all of it all the time. I happen to like certain effects of globalization--being able to buy avocados, bananas and coconuts in Maryland, for example (although having an avocado tree would be swell). But we try to contribute in ways that we can.

What would you add to this list?


return to simplicity: food and music

What a Woche! It was our third actual week in the Small Red House (only 1.5 months after moving in!), and there was a long-not-seen cousin visiting before she left for a life in Japan. And there was the darling daughter, being her usual exuberant self. And the wedding. And we put together IKEA furniture and bought bookshelves out of a law school library. And you were there, and you, and you...

It was all we could do last night to just make a (very, very late) home-cooked meal of tofu-zucchini koftas and chappatis. After a bite or two, we looked up at each other and exhaled. There we were, at last, together in our house. We'd gotten through it all, even if we never got around to sweeping the floors.

The moment was made all the sweeter by our local public radio station, which was playing a special show of Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie. I recall many a childhood afternoon spent in the den, singing along with Hazel Dickens begging for "black waters, black waters / no more in my land," and here was Jean not only singing it herself, but talking about Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the burnt swath of Appalachia lost to mountaintop removal, and the rally she attended at the UN recently, as an old lady. And her voice, like a coal-mine canary, Appalachian without shying from conventional prettiness, soulful without tearing at her own chest. So much like Doc's gentlemanly baritone, with its Carolina drawl and lack of pretension, latter-day Dixiephilic or otherwise. I got that catch in my throat like when I listen to Paul Robeson or Pete Seeger or Lotte Lenya or Johnny Cash. It's not because of any outstanding heroism on their part, per se, but because they are Big People. To hear their voices is like to walk beneath a centuries-old spruce: it dwarfs you with its majesty, humbles you with its tireless patience, and saddens you to think of its waning lifespan. These human beings possess enormous knowledge and love for mankind. Who in this world of record contracts and bohemian self-promoters will carry on when they go?

And so I put down my chappati, this small thing made with flour and hands, looked at the one I love, and sighed. What a joy is life in late summer!


Monday, September 3, 2007

the rest of it

Well, with the wedding over, the "honeymoon" over, the marriage certificate in the mail, the houseguest gone home, and the kid at her mom and stepdad's house for the next month, I'm beginning to feel a little bit like this:
My semester actually started last week, but my classes were really sort of a distraction from everything else that was going on. Jacob starts his first Real (Not An Internship or Summer Job) Job tomorrow. And we can finally look around the house and figure out what all needs to be done, and when we are going to do it all.

My job this afternoon is to make a weekly schedule for myself and factor in classes, schoolwork, internship, and (the dreaded) commuting time. I didn't plan it this way, but I have nothing but evening classes this semester, so I have a completely unstructured weekday schedule while my husband is doing the 9-to-5. I find this pretty daunting. So I'm trying to create a routine that is equal parts productive and flexible without being hectic or housewife-ish. Wish me luck.


Saturday, September 1, 2007

we deed it!

more to come...


bachelor party, SRH style?

I guess it's traditional now in our culture to celebrate the end of bachelorhood with some big, booze- and misogyny-soaked Hormone Bash. As if the Community of Like Chromosomes is bidding you farewell forever, or throwing a preemptive wake, or something. I dunno. I don't get it. (Maybe it's the appeal of people coming out of cakes?)

Once again, we have to be the low-key, nontraditional ones. If you'd like to throw a Small Red House-inspired Bachelor Party, here are two proposed itineraries, tested by experience:

1. Drive to Baltimore with fiancé/e, brother- and cousin-in-law-to-be. Eat delicious pizza in Fells Point. While fiancé/e is in class, walk around Federal Hill and go to Zeba Lounge for fleecing huka, hummus, and hot dolmades. End with Korean barbecue together, admiring the Korean beer posters and the waitresses' tonging skills.

2. Go out for family-style Chinese food with, uh, the family. Come home, put the daughter to bed. Drink a glass of cheap red wine, watch a short Netflix DVD, check email, go to bed early.

PROS: It's much cheaper, easier to plan, less embarrassing, and you're not drunk or hung-over on the wedding day. Also nobody jumps out of a cake!
CONS: Stories about the bachelor party may disappoint co-workers. Also nobody jumps out of a cake!


Thursday, August 30, 2007

I guess that's how the future's done

In keeping with the DIY nature of our wedding process (and life together in general), we decided the best way to keep our friends and families posted on any new developments would be (of course) to start a blog. Jacob? Maria? New internet projects? You don't say.

We went to get our marriage license today. Our parents and numerous others who got married in the 1970s and 1980s have asked us about the blood test. I'm happy to report that there was no bloodshed; we just had to swear we were of consenting age, not related, and that we'd never been married before, and that was that.

The next order of business is kind of an awkward one, I'm afraid. Once we had announced to all of our friends and family that we were getting married, and that we didn't really go in for the whole wedding gift thing, let alone big registries at fancy department stores, someone in my family (who shall remain nameless) offered this novel piece of advice regarding wedding gifts: "If you don't tell people what you want, they will buy you things you don't want."

Well, we'd be lying if we said there aren't things we want. Since we moved into our house, we've actually found ourselves saying to each other, "Someday when we have the money, we should get _______." Those blanks have all formed a modest wishlist, which we've put on (link to the right).

And all the wedding etiquette things say stuff like, "Don't inform your guests about your registry in the invitations. Inform them in the shower announcements." Invitations? Shower? None of those here. So here it is on the blog.

So, if you are the wedding gift sort, and are wondering if there's something we've been wishing for, we'd be happy and grateful to receive any one of those things. If you're biggie. Honestly. We don't expect anything from anybody besides sharing in our happiness.


Monday, January 1, 2007

about small red house

Welcome, friends and newcomers!

We started this blog after we moved into the small red house in the summer of 2007--one of many unofficial beginnings of our life together. We wanted a place where we could both post news and updates for our distant (and not-so-distant) relatives and friends. After a short while, it looks like Small Red House has taken on different purposes in addition to its original one, mainly as a place for us to share ideas, contemplations and stories, and a place for others to do the same. Some topics you may find here include:

  • Our ever-growing attempt to lighten our footprint on the earth, to live simply and in harmony with nature (even as we live on the edge of, as a friend calls it, "The Imperial City")
  • Sharing our perspective as parents (a dad and a stepmom) building traditions in a nontraditional family, raising our daughter as a child of our family, of her two families and of the world
  • Our experiences as amateur musicians/folk artists
  • Our current foray into urban farming and homesteading
This ended up sounding too much like a mission statement... someone's had too many nonprofit classes. We're not on a mission. Who knows what might make its way to the small red house. But we hope you'll find something you like. Enjoy!

Maria and Jacob