Thumbkin Turns Two

Thumbkin turned two last week.  It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since his birth, but he (and the other kids) have certainly kept us hopping.

Since his birthday falls in Easter season (actually in the Octave this year), the celebration just keeps on going.  It’s fitting, then, that his favorite word is “Alleluia,” which he says every chance he gets.  Actually, I’ve heard him say it in his sleep while napping.  Yep, he’s our Easter boy for sure.

The older kids were on spring break, I took the week off work, and his grandparents came for a visit to help celebrate.  Since he was turning two, I gave him his first haircut, calling it a “big boy” haircut.  It’s basically a bowl cut (done without the bowl), but it does make him look much older (and, incidentally, like his older brother).  The day before his birthday, we took trip to the zoo where we made sure to stop at the lions (his current favorite animal).  On the day of, we had pancakes for breakfast and pizza for dinner (his favorite foods, both of which we did not do during Lent) and a banana cake (recipe at Smitten Kitchen), decorated with a lion, of course.

I believe he felt adequately feted, especially for a two-year-old Alleluia boy. DSC08010




On the Cusp of Language Development Breakthrough

Thumbkin, a rambunctious toddler, is very close to a breakthrough on his linguistic development.  Last week, he started making “g” sounds, followed by “l” sounds.  Over and over and over.  Yep, he was basically making the syllables for “giggle,” but it was coming out in toddler babble.  I was changing his diaper while he went on a chain of gg-l-gg-l-gg-l, and asked him if he was saying “giggle.”  In reply, he complied with a cheerful giggle, and went back at it.

Thumbkin manages to communicate and express himself quite well, which I think is a survival mechanism with four older siblings.  He HAS to be able to get a word (or babble) in edgewise just so we know he’s there.  Still, once he really starts talking, it’s going to be hard to get even a moment’s worth of peace around here, giggling aside.

Happy Epiphany

Note the song comes more from tradition than scripture.  As Yakum put it, “Wait, so the Bible says that there were magi, plural, but names three gifts.  So we know that there was more than one king, but exactly three gifts.”  Still, tradition gives us names for three of the (possibly many) magi, which influenced the carol.

Enjoy, and happy Epiphany.

Advent: A Time of Preparation

I went back and forth several times between the adjectives patient and prayerful to describe the preparation, but couldn’t settle on either.  Really, because the preparation of Advent, regardless of whether it’s external (decorations, cookies) or internal (more prayers, confession, adoration) should be both patient and prayerful.

I use the word “patient” to describe the preparations of Advent because preparing for the King ought not to be rushed.  Just as the ancient Jewish people, we do not know when He will be coming.  On the one hand, this gives us time to prepare thoroughly, and keep ourselves prepared–we have the time.  On the other hand, it is imperative (as we are told many, many times in the Bible) that we get ready and stay that way.  Sustained preparedness is not possible without patience.  Not only is there patience in waiting, there is also patience in learning how to prepare, and practicing it.  This applies either externally or internally.  For example, you shouldn’t rush putting up lights because you’ll either fall off the ladder, or they’ll look really terrible.  Internal preparation requires some patience with yourself–recognizing that we are subject to the effects of sin, and that we will fail in our efforts to get and stay ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Internal prayerful preparation is pretty obvious–that’s where the hard work needs to be done with prayer.  I suggest, however, that even external preparations ought to be a work of prayer.  Think about it this way–the reason you put up decorations, or bake cookies (or other holiday foods), or whatever you do to get ready for Christmas at least starts to put you in the mindset and to think about the coming of Christ.  At that moment, the thought of Christ’s birth and second coming, becomes an act of prayer.

For us, at least, we keep the external preparations during Advent to a bare minimum.  Part of it is that growing up, my brothers and I were not allowed to talk about Christmas until after my Dad’s early-December birthday.  We might get a tree before then (if there happened to be a convenient weekend prior to December 8), or put up the outside lights, but the tree would not go up, nor would we turn on the lights, until after his birthday.  I’ve carried that over to my family, maybe amped up a little bit, too, to where I’ve done the tree decorating after Christmas eve (or midnight) mass (usually by design, even).  We don’t sing Christmas carols in advent, mainly because there are so many Advent hymns to enjoy.  I find that then, when I do start some of these preparations (like baking cookies, potica, or thinking about decorations), my thoughts are turned to enjoying them during the Christmas season, and the coming of Christ.

So, however you prepare during Advent, may it be patient and prayerful, so that you can celebrate Christ’s first coming in due season.

Gingerbread Birthday Angels

The twins spend a lot of time with the track/cross-country team at the kids’ school.  They aren’t old enough to participate, but, since we help out with practices, they wind up being sort of honorary members of the team.  This year, since their birthday was on the last day of practice before the final cross-country meet of the season, they decided they wanted to share cookies with their best buddies on the team.  Specifically, they wanted gingerbread angels.

I wound up baking two batches, because we determined one wouldn’t be enough for the entire team, plus younger siblings who had been invited to the final practice, plus any adults who were there volunteering to help out.  After I counted out the five dozen for practice, there were just enough to spell out “Happy Birthday”, plus their initials.  This turned into the dessert to share with one of their godfamilies (the other family couldn’t make it).

I modified the King Arthur Flour gingerbread cookie recipe by amping up the spices.  The original recipe calls for 2 tsp each of cinnamon and ginger, and 1/4 tsp cloves.  Because we like a spicy gingerbread, I doubled the ginger and cinnamon (4 tsp each), and put in 2 tsp cloves.  I also added about 1 tsp finely ground black pepper.  I also used whole wheat flour, and added some additional to try and get a stiffer dough.  Really, this dough does need to chill so that you can roll it–the added flour didn’t actually do anything for the first batch.  However, once it is chilled, it rolls really easily.

Because the twins wanted the angels decorated, and because I was a little worried the cookies would be too assertive for a more general population, I went with the Serious Eats royal icing recipe for the halos and wings.  This recipe is easy to make, and really does pipe smoothly.  It doesn’t taste too bad, either.

The final verdict?  A smashing success.  The twins were very happy to share the cookies with their friends, and delighted when we pulled out the Happy Birthday batch after dinner.  The cross-country team loved the cookies, even if they were on the spicy side.  So, happy kids all around, and I have a good gingerbread cookie recipe all set for the upcoming Christmas baking season.

Checkerboard Birthday Cake

Ikinji recently turned nine, and we had a board games-themed party for him and a few of his friends.  Fortunately for us, only a couple of his friends were able to come– I think the noise level gets exponentially louder with each additional guest, especially after they’ve had a nerf gun battle at the park nearby.

In any case, keeping with the theme, I made a checkerboard cake.  There are surprisingly few tutorials online for how to do a rectangle checkerboard.  There are plenty for circular cakes, since it won’t matter which side you cut into–each wedge of cake will have the pattern, which is usually made by cutting concentric circles out of your cakes and fitting them back together in an alternating pattern.  For the rectangular cake, I cut strips of cake, approximately 1″x1″x9″ (the width of the cake) and stacked them alternating yellow-chocolate-yellow.  I used seven minute icing to stick the pieces together (and stick they did!) and german buttercream to frost the outside.


Checkerboard around the outside hints at what’s inside.  The top, by the way, had a chess piece piped on in chocolate.

As an added wrinkle, my wife suggested that each slice have a 9×9 grid, so that you could play tic-tac-toe with white and dark chocolate Reeses Peanutbutter Cups.  This required marking the outside with where the pattern repeat occurred.  I used a thicker line of icing for the outside checkerboard to indicate where to cut.  While it isn’t an exact match to the inside, this actually worked out pretty well.


Checks on the outside, checks on the inside. This is after most of the cake has been cut and eaten, hence the messy cake board.


What surprised me most was how quickly this came together once I had figured out how it would come together.  I had to bake two 9×13 vanilla cakes to get enough of the white, and one 9×13 chocolate.  If I had it to do over again, I would have cut .75″ rectangles to allow for loss during cutting, and to have a slight margin of error.  As it was, I had to use a leftover frozen chocolate cake for the last strip.  Still, the cutting and assembly went very quickly.  Also, since the frosting on the outside wasn’t too elaborate, that came together rapidly as well (which was a good thing, since I was frosting it the morning of the party.

The final product elicited the desired effect:  the boys were impressed, especially Ikinji, who didn’t know what we had planned.  The kids’ parents were pretty impressed, too, but the “Wow, neat!” I got from the kids was well worth the effort.


Feline/Toddler Interactions

Life with cats and kids is always amusing…never a dull moment around here.  It’s even more exciting when they start interacting.


Benson perusing Thumbkin’s favorite book.

Thumbkin is 16 months old, and very active.  He absolutely loves the cats, and I can sometimes distract him from an impending tantrum by suggesting we see where the cats are.  He usually snaps out of it, says his equivalent of “cat” (context definitely helps since other than “Mama!”  all his words sound nearly the same) and makes a vigorous petting motion with his hand.  Of course, when we find a cat, Thumbkin wants to pet the feline.  Usually, they put up with his affection with remarkable feline stoicism.

Benson is more often the recipient of toddler petting, since he’s usually more accessible.  Lavash is a little quicker to convey a feline “nope!” then Benson, so Thumbkin has learned to be a bit more cautious with her.  Still, this morning she was the target of his affection for a good several minutes, and she just took it in stride.  I even caught her purring.  Thumbkin was ecstatic about this, and, to show how happy he was with the interaction, took a break to lay down on the floor mirroring the cat’s body language.  It was incredibly cute.

Even though it wasn’t a toddler interaction, the cats got some additional attention and play time this afternoon.  Ikinji recently had a birthday, and, as a gift, received a Da Vinci catapult kit.  Think balsa wood pre-cut parts put together with dowels (and a little glue) to make a working catapult.  The instructions suggested using it to fling cat toys, which, once it was completed, he did.  Benson was snoozing on the couch and not terribly interested.  Lavash, on the other hand, played along for a couple of tosses, much to Ikinji’s delight.

Still, I suppose the cats feel they owe it to the kids to put up with slightly-too-rough petting from time to time given the number of times a week they score a snack when one or more of the kids, especially the toddler, accidentally drop food at mealtimes.


Rose Bush vs. Morning Glories

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house.  We lived in the same town, and she would look after my brothers and me during the summer and after school (at least, while we were in elementary school) while my parents worked.  It was a pretty good arrangement, actually.  We were expected to help some with yard work (I don’t know how many thousands of dandelions I pulled) and gardening (also pulling weeds, helping plant as well as harvest), but other than that, we were free to read or play.

My grandma had roses, lots of them, and she was quite proud of them.  She also passed on an appreciation of the rose to her grandkids, even though my forearms were torn up many a time from trying to rein in (no, really, tie up with stout rope) one rose in particular with half-dollar sized pink blooms, and hundreds of thousands of tiny, needle-sharp thorns.  Welding gloves weren’t even sufficient to take this one on.

She also always had morning glories; just your typical, powder blue morning glory that she would make twine up her front lamppost that stood at the corner of her driveway.   When my grandma died, my aunt collected morning glory seeds (and probably augmented with some from a store, come to think of it) and gave them to the funeral guests as a way of remembering her.   The combination in the front of rose bushes lining the driveway and morning glories going up the lamppost made for a pretty picture, and late summer always brings to mind the days at her house and this mental image.

Fast forward to now.  As I’ve documented in this space, I have a prairie rose, that seems to do OK.  It only blooms once a year, so I don’t have a second or third flush right now.  What I do have, though, are morning glories twining up, through, and over the bush.

I think my rose bush may have met its match.

Chanting–In Over My Head?

A few months back, the parish went from having an Extraordinary Form Missa Cantata (or High Mass) only on the first and fourth Sundays (with Low Mass the rest of the month) to a High Mass every week.  The challenge was that the very talented person who leads the usual schola is in very high demand, and so cannot be at our parish every week–he has commitments to other parishes.  The call went out for volunteers to round out the amateur schola, led by a capable young woman.  Well, I’ve always been interested in liturgical music, and learning proper chant can only help in other parishes the next time we transfer, so…I said I would try to help.  It turns out that Yakum was also interested, so she’s learning as well.

We practice one evening a week, then before mass.  YouTube and the St. Rene Goupil Gradual at Corpus Christi Watershed are life savers for actually hearing what the propers are supposed to sound like.  I especially like the Goupil Gradual because the videos always include the neumes (that is, the notation) so you can follow along.  On YouTube, it really depends on the video.

In terms of chant basics, the Our Lady of Guadalupe seminary for the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSPP) has an actual, honest-to-goodness teach yourself chant course online.  It is especially useful for figuring out what some of the particular squiggles mean, as well as the interval exercises.

For source books, the Church Music Association of America has several PDFs of different Graduals and Kyriales online so you can get the chants direct from the source.

I’ve been at it maybe two months now (with a break for our vacation in there).  I will be the first to admit that there have been a few times when I probably should have sat out the chant.  I think I made a breakthrough this week, though.  I realized, after listening to several recordings that chant, at least Western chant, uses a “head voice” (Eastern chant, to include Slavic, chant seems to be somewhat different on this point with prominent use of bass tones), rather than projecting from the diaphragm.  This sort of makes sense if chant is sung prayer or the psalms.  Especially when using a psalm tone (that is, the syllables all fall on the same pitch with little variation), the chant phrasing is supposed to be that of speech, not of song, especially not modern song.  So, with this realization in mind, I was actually able to hit and hold pitch without too much effort or flailing about this week.  I won’t say that we sounded great, or even good, but this week certainly felt like we were more cohesive and I think we sounded better than we had in prior weeks.

Still, I have lots more to learn about the nuances of chant, especially how to convey the meaning of the prayers, rather than just chanting words and syllables.  That, and lots, lots more practice to do.

St. Gregory, pray for us (because we really need it).


Transferring Without Moving

The primary constant in the Foreign Service is change and transition.  Approximately every two or three years, we pull up stakes and move to a new posting.  In many ways, we’re global nomads, and the itinerant lifestyle makes it very difficult to put down roots, or make any long-lasting connections with people.  Still, we have the chance to meet new people, experience new cultures and food, and see an amazing chunk of the world.  I think that this line of work attracts those who get bored pretty easily and are always wondering what’s over the next hill, or what more they can learn.

This transfer is different:  I’m starting a new posting, but we’re staying in the D.C. area.  I get to change jobs, but we aren’t moving to a new country.  I will be doing something significantly different (focused on our foreign relations with two specific countries, rather than looking at political-military issues across an entire continent), but don’t have a lengthy plane ride to physically signal the change.  I closed out my portfolio and handed it over, but (thankfully!) didn’t have the stress of also packing up and moving out at the same time.  I will move offices, but the kids won’t have to change schools.

Even though I really had hoped to get back overseas for this tour, it is a relief that we have a couple more years of stability; a stability that is in dreadfully short supply in this line of work.  I would almost say this transition without moving is the best of both worlds–I get to do something new and different at work (without going through starting with a new employer), while life at home stays pretty much the same.