Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Have Yourself A Mellow Little Christmas

After the insanity of this crazy year, it was nice to hunker down and just have a small our-family-only Christmas. We had virtually no plans, other than to open presents in the morning and eat something in the afternoon, and that was really nice.

The kids as usual popped out of bed bright and early, but in a ritual common to cruel and heartless parents everywhere, we kept them pinned down upstairs until Wayne had his coffee and I had my tea in hand and we were both more or less awake.

One very sweet thing I thought about this Christmas is that after emptying out their stockings and finding a candy cane or chocolate to chow on, the first thing they wanted to do was to open presents from each other. Both had done a stealth job of wrapping to disguise size and shape of presents, using multiple boxes, bags, tape, etc. This cracked me up, and reminded me of last year when Mackenzie swore for weeks ahead of time that he was giving Asa an onion for Christmas, and actually wrapped one up as a gag before giving her his true present.

After that was out of the way, they opened their Santa gifts. Well, opened isn't really the right word for Mackenzie has he got a note from Santa saying his present wouldn't fit through the chimney!

After a summer spent borrowing my mom's kayak at every opportunity, I guess Santa figured that he would really enjoy his own, and if you look at his grin here you know that he will.

And Asa's expression in this photo more or less spells out "A karaoke machine? OMG!" She was beyond thrilled, and has been singing day and night ever since (not that she doesn't sing day and night anyways, but now she's mic'd.)

And that, plus a turkey dinner in the afternoon was more or less our Christmas. Small, mellow, fun and family. In the week leading up, we celebrated the solstice with a progressive dinner with neighborhood friends, baked cookies, sang carols, decorated, read books about the Christmas story and in general just enjoyed all of the rituals of the season as well as celebrating the reason for the season.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Snowy Days

We've had quite a week with several days of good snow and great sledding. The kids are a bit disappointed that we didn't get the dumping down here that the rest of the Pacific Northwest has been getting, as in several feet of snow! But they're happy that we got enough to keep their school-going friends out of classes for almost an extra week and so there were lots of kids out sledding on our hill.

They were really really hoping for a white Christmas this year, and the weather reports seemed to indicate that's what we were going to get, but now it has changed to mostly rain. Still, we're hunkered down and ready for a great little family Christmas together. No traveling this year after our whole year of crazy travel. And all of our family is elswhere, so it will just be the four of us together. Wayne is planning on making Christmas Day cinnamon rolls with Mackenzie, and the turkey is already defrosting. I got another big package of the world's best Oregon cranberries to make some sauce with, and we should be all set for a nice mellow holiday.

My mom and I went thrift-store shopping together yesterday (50% off day at my favorite place!) and I took her to the train station this morning where she hopped on a completely full Amtrak to Seattle to spend the holiday with my sis and brother-in-law. We got a few little stocking stuffers and had a great time.

To all who are celebrating this time of year, whether it be Christmas or Yule, Channukah or Solstice, I'm wishing you a wonderful holiday time filled with family and friends, love and laughter, and maybe a little white fluffy stuff falling from the sky!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Funny Christmas Quote

This morning:

Asa: It's only 7 days to Christmas! A week to Christmas!

Mackenzie: No it's eight

Asa: No look, it's the 18th and Christmas is the 25th, that's only seven

Mackenzie: But Christmas Eve goes so slowly, it counts as two days.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

They Did It Again!!!!!

I'm still trying to wrap my head around this one, but the kids won the robotics tournament yesterday. As in got the champion's award. Wow!

The tournament was very up and down for them. They were the first ones to go through project judging, and the judges seemed kind of "eh", but maybe they were still waking up. Regardless, the kids did great in the project (I think!). For one thing, they memorized all of the lines for their play, and some of them (most especially Asa, the narrator) had a LOT of lines.

Then they went on to technical judging, which I think they really aced. Although they're a pretty young team, they attempted a lot more technical sophistication this year, using sensors, loops, variables, and subroutines in their programs. They all explained themselves very well, and the fact that they each wrote their own programs was a real bonus I think. Mackenzie was able to explain to one of the judges his program that used input from a sensor that fed into a decision tree and executed one of several sub-routines, and I could see that the judge was really impressed.

In teamwork judging, I know they did awesome. It's clear that these kids are all good friends and they work together very well. As always, I am proudest of the fact that they are a great team and are positive to each other and to all the other teams there.

On the robot table, their first run was an unmitigated disaster. I think they scored 20 points, LOL. That's out of the 170 they could get if all of their missions went well. One of Mackenzie's programs that we thought operated within the rules was ruled otherwise by a judge, and a well-meaning volunteer interrupted one of Mikke's programs with a ruling that was then over-ruled by the head judge mid-round. So it was very confusing. Their second round wasn't much better, with Asa's program going haywire for unexplained reasons.

By that time they decided to head to the practice room and re-write some stuff in the 30 minute break between rounds. Mackenzie re-wrote his program to conform to the new interpretation of the rule, and I tried to soothe the kids' ruffled feathers. They felt like things were being changed right out from under them, and I explained that it might not be entirely unintentional. After all, in the real world when you're an engineer you might work on a project for months only to have the marketing team come tell you that due to their latest focus group or marketing survey you now need to rework it an entirely different way, or discard those features and write entirely new ones. It's good for them to be able to quickly re-think their strategies or re-work their programs. After that, they buckled down and got to work and their last table run was much much better.

It was clear that all of the teams were struggling with this year's table, which seemed much harder than last year. So I knew that even if we weren't scoring as high as we'd hoped to, the other teams were in more or less the same pickle. I figured we had a good chance of being a runner-up and going to the state tournament, but when they announced the runners-up and we weren't in there, I wasn't sure what to think. But as it turns out, they did it again and won the overall champion's award. They didn't score the highest on the table, same as last year, but their work on all aspects of the project including trying our best to exemplify the FLL core values pulled them through!

I just looked through all of the photos which are so great, and will have to post some soon. Right now though I'm just so proud of all the work these kids have done!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Insanity, Continued

Five kids, a mom/coach, a car, lots of sleet, rain, and wind, darkness, an hour and a half drive, a motel where the power keeps fluctuating due to the storm, and a robotics tournament tomorrow.

Actually, the kids are having a blast. They're in the hotel room playing D&D and just generally having a fun time. They've all worked so hard in the last two weeks, with robotics team practice several days in a row each week. Their research project is simply awesome (I'll share after the tournament) and their robot runs have been getting better and better (although as the team is largely young and pretty new to this, it's not quite as advanced as some teams will surely be.) More than anything, they're having fun and really enjoying the experience.

I'll update after the tournament tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

It's the Most Insane Time of the Year

I think I post something like this about every year in this week. What the Heck Was I Thinking????

In the next few days we have 4 play rehearsals, 3 robotics practices, 2 research project presentations to give for our robotics team, 2 performances of Scrooge that Asa is in, 1 karate belt test, 1 robotics competition in another city, and a partridge in a pear tree.

You know, I love this crazy busy wonderful fun-filled unschooling life of ours. But this one week a year, it always kicks my butt.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving to All

We've had a really gorgeous Thanksgiving weekend here, with my sister and her brother-in-law coming to stay with us. We cooked a great dinner with lots of local foods (discovered that cranberry sauce with fresh local cranberries is an amazing richly flavored and nuanced dish that tastes nothing like the usual stuff) and just enjoyed having some time with them. We played the Ungame one evening, one of our favorite family games. You always learn something new about the people you're playing with, their life, emotions, memories, etc. We played Whoonu on another evening, and that's another game that brings you close together and lets you really think about the people you're with. I'm on the lookout for another great family game for our Christmas tree this year!

The weather here is freakily gorgeous (who would think you could be out in shorts and a t-shirt on Thanksgiving weekend?) and it was nice to get out and get some gardening done, take walks down to the store with my sis, and be able to bicycle to the gym to swim without getting drenched. Yesterday we biked down to the Holiday Market and Asa got a hand-knitted strawberry hat to replace the one she's worn forever and finally outgrow (old one seen here, I'll have to get a photo of the new one).
Today it's Robotics practice, trying to get ready for our public presentation next week and the tournament (gulp!) the week after. Hope you have had a great Thanksgiving too.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stay Tuned...

I got the Blue Screen O' Death on my hard drive last week so I'm computerless right now. This is going to be a crazy two weeks with Asa's Scrooge performances and our Robotics competition. I will update if possible...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Kids Are Arguing and I Don't Care

We just got unlimited texting on the family cell phone plan, and they're having a disagreement via text message. At least it's quiet.

On the humorous front, after texting back and forth with some friends, Mackenzie said "wow, their spelling sure is bad!" I had to point out that people use all kinds of shortcuts to save time while texting and just because they spell "your" as "ur" doesn't mean they don't know how to spell, LOL.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Italia Day 4: Roma: A Day of Miscellany Adventures

I could look at today as another set of plans foiled by jet lag, or I could look at it as a day we got to just kick around and be adventurous. I guess I'll choose the latter. We were going to do the Vatican today, but sleepless night for Wayne and sleeping-in kids meant that we just had a casual day instead. We didn't really have anything in the way of plans, but just took the day as it came to us.

We went to an internet cafe and caught up on email, then meandered over to the Spanish Steps. The kids really liked the whimsical fountain of the sinking boat there, but other than that it was some nice-looking steps and a whole ton of people. So we didn't stay a whole long time there, though we did go in and visit the church at the top of the steps and admire the view out over Roma.

On the way back to the apartment, we happened upon a cool little DaVinci museum that had working models, done in wood, of many of his designs. Everything from camshafts to ball-bearings to bicycles to tanks and mortars were represented there. The kids had fun with these hands-on exhibits, and Mackenzie especially enjoyed the video on DaVinci's conical tank. The nice thing about keeping a day or two free is the little jewels like this that you stumble upon!

Then, while the kids were taking a break and playing (and Wayne was sneaking a catnap), I went out with my camera alone for awhile. I happened upon a piazza with an interesting obelisk resting on a statue of an elephant, and decided to go into the basilica church there, which was called Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (meaning that it was built sopra, or over, the remains of a temple to the Roman goddess Minerva). I found out later that this is considered to be Roma's only Gothic church, and it is one of the loveliest churches I've ever seen. Despite an unassuming facade (shown here behind the red bicycle), the inside is gorgeous, with a blue starred ceiling adorned with biblical figures.

As I walked down the length of the church, I was drawn to a most amazing statue. There were no crowds around it, the church was almost empty. But the statue was magnetic, no other word for it. It was a statue of the resurrected Christ, and He was so real, like He was looking right down at me and could step right off the pedestal at any moment. I looked around at other statues nearby and they all just looked like cold stone. I can't describe how affecting this statue was. At the very bottom was a small tag - The Risen Christ - Michelangelo. The photo doesn't really do it any justice at all. Every detail is so human, down to the toes curled slightly around a rock. When you study the great Masters in art history class, you sometimes wonder why they are considered "masters" when there were so many fine artists of the period. Now that I'm here, looking at all of the amazing art and sculpture here, I can definitely say that the mastery is evident when you look at a piece like this one (and its widely considered to be not one of his best, either).

This church and its statuary and artwork were so lovely that I brought Wayne and the kids back here later in the day and we all walked around together. There are many great cathedrals to come on our journey in Italy, and this may not be one of the grandest or most important, but it certainly is a beautiful place.

Also on my little photographic jaunt, I took some photos inside the Pantheon with its amazing symmetrical dome and oculus, and did some people-watching on the piazza outside the Pantheon, taking photos of fountains, people, and their dogs as well.

In the evening, it was very balmy and nice. We found an outdoor restaurant on a smaller side street and ate pasta. The kids have noticed that soda here tastes so much better than back at home. It's fizzier, less sweet, and is made with sugar and not corn syrup. I told them it tastes like I remember soda tasting when I was a kid (you know, back in the good ol' days). On one piazza, the columns were lit up with all different colors, very striking.

As usual, I'll leave you with an assortment of photos. These are from my little shutterbug excursion on the piazza in front of the Pantheon.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

End of a Journey and Dawning of a New Day

Thus ends our journey of politics and hope this year with the kids, we attended the Election night bash at the fairgrounds here in town. We went with some friends, met more friends there (all with kids) and saw many many people we knew as well. The best moment of course, was when they announced that Obama had won the presidency, and you can see Mackenzie's reaction here. It was definitely a "where were you when...." kind of time to remember, which is why I wanted to be somewhere that the kids would remember the excitement and electricity of all of those people celebrating together. The tears streaming down the faces of black and brown families around us, and seeing what it means to so many people. Then we settled in to watch the results of local races (many are still too close to call, a couple of days later, we may have to wait for recounts even) and wait for the speeches.
I thought McCain's acceptance speech was extremely gracious and moving. I kept thinking "this is the McCain that would've given Obama a run for his money" Not the McCain who was trying to defend the choice of Palin, or the McCain repeating platitudes about Joe the Plumber, but the McCain who is a dedicated public servant to the United States of America. I'm certainly glad that Obama won, but it did make me sad to see how the Republican party was able to drag McCain all over the place away from his previously espoused values, and essentially make a mockery of his years in the Senate.

But thankfully, the very choices that drove moderates away from McCain ushered in the historic victory of Obama. Although some found his acceptance speech too dry, I really loved his emphasis on where we'll be going now, what all of us will need to be doing. It was not a gloating speech, but a celebratory and roll-up-our-sleeves kind of speech. I think it's exactly what our country needs, and I hope he can continue to inspire the very same people who worked tirelessly to get him elected to come to the service of their country as well in this time of need (well, I hope he can inspire everyone to do so, of course!) This energy and momentum can and should continue!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween Fun

We've had a great week leading up to Halloween, and the weather was warm and lovely all week. It was supposed to rain on Halloween night but held off long enough for trick-or-treating without umbrellas. For the first time ever, we managed to grow our own pumpkins, and they came out lovely! So instead of going to a pumpkin patch, we strolled out to our very own garden and picked a few lovelies from our crop of seven to carve for Halloween. Mackenzie is being very goofy here with his pumpkin. And the lovely miss Asa poses with her pumpkin choice.

Then we carved them up
With the usual silliness from Wayne...

And lighted them up with some candles. This year I was scolded a bit for our lack of Halloween decorations from the kids, so I spruced up the porch with some cornstalks from our garden and raided the 1/2 price Halloween table at Goodwill for other decorations.

The kids were very traditional this year, probably for the first time ever, in their choice of costumes. A vampire and a witch, and I threw on some farmer clothes to go out with them. We had a great time walking around the neighborhood on a very balmy evening. Just for grins, I found this old photo from when they were 5 and 2 years old. Mackenzie wanted to go as Luke Skywalker, and then Asa insisted on being "baby Luke Skywalker". We had a couple of very young trick-or-treaters this year that reminded me of how fleeting that tiny and cute stage is!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Italy Day 3: Roma: Part 2: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of diary entries and photos from our trip to Italy this fall. You can see all the journal entries here

From the Colosseum, our plan was to walk toward Roma's Termini train station through the park that houses the Domus Aurea (Nero's "Golden House", a vast villa of over 300 rooms set on approximately 300 acres including an artificial lake at the site of what is now the Colosseum) and the baths of Trajan. The park is lushly landscaped with bougainvilla and palms, with a view back toward the Colosseum. Unfortunately, as we entered the park, it seemed as if its now frequented by large groups (gangs?) of 20-something year old males, plus maybe a fair squad of homeless people. We saw people hanging out their washing on the park fences, and more than a few of the groups of hanger-outers turned to stare at us. Feeling that prickly "mom radar" go off, I told Wayne we might be better off not wandering through and just taking a detour around the park. I would've loved to have seen the Domus Aurea, and perhaps it would've been just fine, but I got a bad feeling and so around we went.

This actually ended up being a good thing in the end, because it meant we had time to discover and explore the beautiful Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs), an astounding architectural treasure hidden right next to Termini station. After going to the train station to look at timetables and get an idea of how easy it would be to buy tickets and get to our train later in the week (very easy, as it turns out, the Italian train system is great!), we were about to wander back toward our apartment, when a set of very interesting bronze doors in the front of what looked like an old Roman ruin caught my eye. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of the unusual facade (or really, lack of a facade) to this basilica, but you can see a photo (along with lots of great information) in this Wikipedia article. The bronze doors are new, cast in 2006 by a Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, and are only one of the many incredible and intriguing things about this church. Essentially, it's a gorgeous basilica hidden inside the remains of the truly stupendously huge Thermae (Baths) of Diocletian.

Michelangelo himself designed the church to fit inside the remaining ruins of part of the baths, and it is a lovely space equaled by few others that we saw in all of Italy (in fact, I much preferred it to the overblown St. Peter's at the Vatican). The muted pastel colors and white vaulted arches of the ceiling create a gorgeous effect, and as big as the church itself is, it's hard to believe that it occupies only a fraction of the space enclosed by the structures of the Thermae. Once inside, the church is so elegant, you quite forget that you're actually inside a Roman ruin, until you step outside into a courtyard and all around you are the ancient brick walls of the baths, rising far above your head.Like so much of Rome, you are struck here by a sense of ongoing history, not just one culture but many. The rise and fall of the Roman empire, the Roman Catholic church and its many powerful popes (one of which, Pope Pius IV, was buried here in 1565), and the modern country of Italy born in the middle of the 19th century. A vast structure like the baths can be remade as a church, and used through hundreds of years.

But wait, the fascination of this place doesn't end there. Once inside its beautiful and religious spaces, you notice what looks like a large star chart on the floor, with a line running at a slant across the church floor. Made of inlaid marble and gilt edges, it's a meridian line (longitude 12° 50' that runs through Roma) installed in the 1700's as a sundial and used to predict Easter and check the accuracy of the then-relatively new Gregorian additions to the ancient Julian calendar. Because the Julian calendar didn't account for the fact that there are actually about 365 1/4 days in a year, the leap year rule was added when the Gregorian calendar came into being. This stopped Easter (which is tied to the vernal equinox) from drifting forward later and later each year. The meridian line acts as a giant sundial, with the sun coming through a hole in the wall and hitting the line at various places depending on the season. At the summer and winter solstices, the sun hits at the nearest and farthest spots along the line. Additional holes in the ceiling also allow viewing of key stars such as Polaris and Arcturus.

In short, this single spot is a treasure trove of ancient history, art and architecture, sun, stars, calendars, Popes, and music (we heard an organist playing there the second time we visited). If I was a person planning a trip to Rome, I wouldn't want to miss this almost-hidden gem. The guidebooks that I saw barely granted it a footnote, yet it was one of the most engaging places that we visited in that city. Here's a few more photos of this incredible basilica before I sign off of this day's entry: