Friday, December 18, 2015

A Guest Blog from Julianna

NOTE: Below is an essay (written at the very last minute!) by my step-daughter for an Art class - which, she wants me to tell you, explains why some of the paragraphs towards the end are "boring" - but her mother and I found them ALL pretty amazing! Enjoy

Julianna Kriston
Professor Nichols
Art and Human Needs
11 November 2015
Hometown Assignment
            When I think of the past, I think of tradition. Traditions are in a sense, the past reincarnated. Commitment to traditions and other family ties can remain constant even through change, pain or loss. There is a certain healing power in being surrounded by those you love and participating in familiar activities as a whole. Traditions not only facilitate the reunion of loved ones, but also the commemoration of those who have passed away. By continuing traditions started by family members in the past, we can be comforted by familiarity while simultaneously paying tribute those who can no longer participate. Physical works of art such as monuments or mausoleums also help fulfill our natural human need to remain connected to those we love both near and far. Both tradition and art are necessary and effective forms of expression that aid in the process of commemoration and acceptance of loss.
            With the holiday season soon approaching, the decorating of our family Christmas tree is a specific tradition that comes to mind. This is a ritual many people observe, that mixes both art and spirit to create a unique experience. For my family, this tradition begins with finding a tree. It seems each year we take home the most “Charlie Brown-esque” of the lot. We laugh as we turn it every which way in an attempt to expose its fullest branches. Whatever eccentric Christmas themed playlist my step-dad has created that year is always the soundtrack. I am usually the first to disagree with our choice of tree, however after it is finally in its stand I do take a step back and appreciate its unique beauty. The bright colors glowing in the dimmed light of our family room, is quite a sight to see if you make sure to squint your eyes just right (“squinty eyes” being another tradition that always takes place upon that first igniting flick of the switch).
Once we have collectively admired the lights through squinty eyes, my step-dad retrieves from the attic what somehow seems to be way more boxes of ornaments than we had the year before. As they pile up we wonder where they all came from and, more importantly, how we will fit them all on our scrawny Charlie Brown tree. Regardless, we begin to pull ornaments out of their boxes, unwrap their protective newspaper layers, and place them on the tree. It seems my step-dad naturally gravitates toward the top branches, while my mom and I gravitate toward middle branches. With the birth of my younger brother, who is now 6, even the very bottom of our tree manages to become riddled with our eclectic Christmas ornaments and the answers to our aforementioned wonders begin to unfold. Even as time changes the size of our family and the number of ornaments we possess, we still make the tradition work. Tradition trumps change, and the ability to realize and appreciate that fact, as well as watch it unfold is a gift in itself.
As we miraculously manage to find a place for each piece of our excessively large ornament collection it is an unspoken yet unavoidable part of the tradition to discuss the history and origin of every ornament we pick up. We have naturally given each piece sentimental value, as each has been consistently present in the tradition. After participating in this tradition with my family every year, I have concluded from my experiences that Christmas ornaments of any kind are tiny works of art that we purchase or create to be included in a sacred family tradition. We place value on the artwork or even the artist if it happens to be someone close to us.
One work of art featured on our tree each year is especially close to my heart. The piece is a large ceramic bulb with a simple gold ribbon tied around the top for hanging. A soft, but bright emerald green envelops the entire sphere serving as a backdrop for the focal point of the piece. Occupying most of the front surface area is a 3-Dimensional image of a hearty, and highly detailed Santa Clause face. His beard is snow white and carved in a way that gives it a texture similar to braids or curls. Only a small portion of a cheery, bright red mouth is visible through its density. Chubby cheeks, painted a subtle rosy pink protrude above his full beard. A crimson red Santa hat sits atop more billowy, stark white hair. Most notably, two small almond shaped eyes are accented with dainty black lashes that help draw attention to their deep blue centers. The bright colors offer a drastic contrast to the pure white of the beard, which makes the image stand out. Santa’s facial expression is joyful and friendly, just as he is most commonly depicted. He even seems to be making squinty eyes (a tree decorating necessity, as previously mentioned). Volume is only evident where the 3D shapes of Santa’s face and features are raised from the original spherical shape, giving the illusion that Santa is peeking his head out from inside the ornament. The lack of chiaroscuro gives the work a simple, clean look. Overall, the style of the piece is very classic, because of its clean lines and use of traditional Christmas colors. The piece is essentially the epitome of a typical Christmas ornament. Contextually speaking, it is clear from the generic materials and design that this piece is not the work of a professional artist, although it is still neatly and accurately done. The artist of this particular Christmas ornament was in fact my grandma, Kathleen Cribbins. During a ceramics class with her friends in 1975, she crafted this heavy ceramic bulb featuring this cherubic Santa Clause because of her love for Christmas. I imagine that between chatter and laughter with girlfriends, she carefully created what I consider to be the most beautiful ornament featured on my Christmas tree to this day. Its bright colors and simple, yet bold image have always stuck out to me. I often admired it as a child and fondly remember seeing it prominently displayed on my grandparents Christmas tree every year when I was young. Forty years have gone by since my grandma created this work of art, and began the tradition of hanging it on her own tree with her daughter. Today, 4 years have gone by since the passing of my grandma. With her passing, the ornament made its way into the possession of my mom, who now carries out so many family traditions in place of her mom, including of course decorating our Christmas tree. For me, this simple Santa Clause ornament that was once held and cared for by my grandma, now holds so much of her spirit. Each year when we finally stumble upon her creation during our tree decorating tradition, it is as if we have the privilege of opening one last Christmas gift from her.
In dealing with loss, commemoration is a natural human need. The loss of a loved one is not easy to accept or endure. Humans are comforted by the idea that those who have passed can somehow still live on. To facilitate this, we project significance onto worldly possessions, like pieces of artwork that we can connect to our loved ones, as a means of physically experiencing and enjoying our memories of them through these possessions. Throughout history many cultures have decorated tombs, named grave stones, built and visited shrines, and erected monuments, all for the sake of remembering and honoring their pasts. These are all examples of both art and tradition being utilized as means of commemoration.

Each year, in accordance with tradition, my mom and I choose a spot that catches our eye and display my grandma’s artwork proudly. In doing so, we transform our tree into a sort of monument commemorating the spirit of my grandma. Her hand crafted Christmas ornament will always be one of my favorite works of art, as it serves as a constant reminder that she is with us not only in our family traditions, but in our memories always. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Inside an Inside Joke

I’ve always been intrigued by inside jokes.  When everyone is laughing except for me, I want to know why. And when “my” people are laughing and others are left looking on, perplexed, I feel almost powerful. To me, inside jokes are a defining characteristic of “family” – whether it’s the traditional family, a football team, actors on a movie set, or colleagues at work, there’s something so intimate and personal, yet typically silly, about sharing in such secrets.

And needless to say, I’m on the inside on many an inside joke. So this morning, when I found myself singing to Eli, “Who’s got a big red ding-a-ling?” and then wanting to share how funny that was with the rest of the world, I realized, it would not be all that funny without a lot of explaining. So, here it is…

First, the ding-a ling, which surprisingly, has two parts.

Part One: The Ding

My wife, Sarah, and I are both teachers, so from the time our son was 6-months old, getting him up and ready for the day while getting ourselves up and ready for the day by 7:00 a.m. is quite the challenge. So, to meet the many needs, we had to establish several routines, one of which revolved around breakfast. Our son, Eli, is pretty easy going and easy to please, so pretty much every day, he has frozen waffles for breakfast. Typically, I wake him up, carry him downstairs, and deposit him in bed to snuggle with Sarah while I boil the water for his hot chocolate and toss two waffles in the toaster. And for about two years, the “ding” of the toaster indicating it was done was enough to have him come running into the kitchen to eat.

As he got older, I had to enhance the ding with my own voice to drag him out of bed, so when the waffles are done and cocoa is ready, I now holler “DING!” (or "Ding a ling ding DING!” – see below) and he comes running.

Part Two: The A-Ling

For the past few years, we’ve been doing lots of camping with our cousins. To keep the kids busy, and ourselves entertained by the locals, we tend to participate in lots of the campground activities. At one place, Heath, the BINGO caller, ended every game with his own personal catchphrase of “Ding a ling ding DING!” He had a raspy, somewhat tired (maybe slurry) voice, and after 10 rounds of Bingo, it had become a thing. So much so that we continue to use it years later anytime one of us (including the kids) wants to celebrate a success or indicate approval.  In fact, we liked it so much, we actually returned to the same place last year (even though we prefer to try out new places) just to play Bingo with Heath!

Now that we established that members of my family are prone to shouting out "Ding a ling ding  DING!” at seemingly random moments, let’s move on to the next part

Part Three: “Who’s got a big red…”

Eli LOVES to sing. And I love to hear him, so even though I am NOT a singer, while we’re in the car, or alone, we often play singing games. Our latest is a seasonally appropriate one based on the Mitch Miller version of “Must be Santa” – the song where Mitch sings, “Who’s got a big red cherry nose?” and a chorus of kids shouts back,” Santa’s got a big red cherry nose! Mitch: “Who laughs this way, ho ho ho?” Kids: “Santa laughs this way, ho ho ho!” and so on. Only, we’ve modified so that I’ll sing out things like, “Who’s got to go to school today?” And Eli responds with, “Eli’s got to go to school today!” Me: “Who likes beer on a special day?” Eli: “Daddy likes beer on a special day!” And so on.

So, now that we have all three parts, you might find it amusing to hear how this morning, when Eli came running into the kitchen JUST as the waffles were ready, negating my need to shout out “Ding!” Or “Ding a ling ding DING!” I heard myself sing out, “Who’s got a big red ding a ling?” And without missing a beat, he sang back, “Santa’s got a big red ding a ling!”

Or, you might not. In which case, yots of yuck on your yawn! Sorry, that’s an inside joke

Friday, June 19, 2015

Change, Not Chains

Today was my last day at the school I've been teaching at since 2001. A population decrease in the district necessitated lots of cuts and movement, and while no one lost their jobs (this time!) many people were displaced. Before I knew I was going to be one of them, I spent a lot of time talking to people about the benefits of change and I guess I must have convinced myself, as I wound up volunteering to leave (even though seniority would have allowed me to stay.) Below is the letter I sent out to the staff, explaining my decision, and even though it's personal to my situation, I've heard enough talk of change and transition out there (and not just about Caitlyn Jenner) to justify sharing it with you all as well. So, for what it's worth, here it is...

Hello, when I walked into school last Tuesday, the only thought on my mind was how relieved it felt to be "safe" from getting moved down. Sure, I felt a little guilty knowing others were getting displaced, but mostly I was just glad it wasn't me.

 6 hours later, I found myself VOLUNTEERING to be the one to go!

I was as surprised as anyone, and frankly, am still trying to wrap my head around it. But basically my thought process was: I LOVE teaching LA. I live in a world of words. I've read close to 40 books just since January. I've WRITTEN a couple books. I think and act and cope with life through the knowledge gleaned from books. I even have an English degree (which, apparently my professor was right, is not worth the paper it's printed on!) Plus, for the past 14 years, I've worked on the local, state, and national level to develop and improve the LA curriculum and assessments, as well as my own instruction and practice. So when I was informed that I'd be teaching Math next year, it just didn't work for me. I'm HORRIBLE at math. It's not a strength. It's not my passion. And while I'm sure I could have been good enough, I think the kids deserve better than that.

I only had a few short hours to process and decide all this, and in that time, I kept asking myself, "Why?" Why leave the comfort and security of a place I've known for the past 14 years? Why leave the friends and colleagues that have welcomed me into their classrooms, their homes, and their lives since 2001? Why have to pack up ALL my stuff and move? Why change my routines? 

The answer was NOT because I don't like math!

No, the answer was, as much as I fear it, I LIKE change. I truly believe that change keeps us young and sharp, and fresh. Change slows down time and keeps us from going through life on auto-pilot. Change is good.

Yes, I hear some of you wondering, "Well, isn't teaching math enough of a change?" And to that, all I can say is, I found myself more excited about the scary prospect of establishing myself in a new building than the safer choice of learning how to teach a new subject.

Granted, this all happened over the course of an evening, so I may soon be regretting this decision, but I know I made it with the best intentions, for me and the students. If all works out, our math teacher will stay where HE belongs, teaching 6th grade math, and I'll still be doing what I'm highly qualified to do...just away from the people I love. 

And that's the hardest part. We've been through so much together. Forget the school stuff. Over the past decade and a half, we've gone through everything from wakes to weddings, funerals to bat mitzvahs, concerts to happy hours, and from tailgating at retirement parties to illegally dumping a colleague's ashes! 

I do not expect to find another group of people who are more dedicated and generous in the act of teaching children as you all, but I promise to carry that spirit with me wherever I go. And for what it's worth, I don't plan to be gone long!

Thank you all for everything, especially your understanding. 

See you in town and around,


PS - don't worry, this year's staff party will still be at my house!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Don't Ever Leaf Me!

I collect stories the way others collect shells – shotgun or sea, it does not matter - I pick them up, brush them off, shine them up a little, examine them, and then either toss them back or place them in my pocket.

I’ve got stories about friends that I share with strangers, and stories about family I share with friends (and stories about myself I share with anyone who will listen.) Recently I heard what very well may be the BEST story ever told. It has memorable characters, an interesting set-up, a relatable premise, and an absolutely HILARIOUS pay-off – but, unfortunately, I can’t share it here...yet!

Ask me in person, and I’ll gladly tell it. Just be forewarned, it is awesomely awful! The sort of story you can’t unhear. I’ve already told it a dozen times since I picked it up last week, and it gets better each time.

As for a story I CAN share here, allow me to offer up an all-time fave. It’s one of many that come courtesy of my in-laws.  And while knowing them definitely adds to the humor, it’s still a good story for anyone...

Back about 25 years or so ago, my father-in-law was taking an Environmental Science course, part of which required a weekend of camping and canoeing down the Connecticut River with his classmates. 

He had his wife drive him up there, and when they arrived at the drop-off site, she was surprised to find a bunch of much younger students, mostly artsy, bearded dudes and  attractive, bra-less, free love hippie type women, all waiting to paddle off with her husband (and father of her two children) for a weekend in the woods.

As she waved goodbye from the shore -  he may have waved back – it was hard to tell among all the jiggling boobs and hoisted beer cans - she was certain she would never see him again.  So much so, that when she returned home, her first action was to remove the leaf from the kitchen table as her children looked on.

“Why did you do that?” the kids wanted to know.

“We don’t need it anymore,” she said. “Your father is never coming back!”

Of course, he did come back.  And remained a wonderful and faithful husband right up to (and through) her death in 2010 - but what I really love about the story is my mother-in-law’s physical reaction to cope with an emotional response. In her heart, she knew her husband would return, but the way she dealt with that shadow of a doubt in such a dramatic, yet sensible, manner, really pinpointed her personality for me. And even though I did not know her at the time it happened, hearing it retold cemented my respect for her. 

I know that to an outsider, this is probably just a funny story about the ups and downs of marriage. To friends and family, it might be the essence of Kathy captured in a nutshell.  To me, it's a time capsule peak into my wife's family before I came on the scene. And to you...well, you can share your reaction in the comments below! But that's the true mark of a good story, when both teller and listener come away with something to put in their pockets. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Stuff It!

Eli, with his latest acquisition 

Our house is overrun with my son’s stuffed animals. There are HUNDREDS of creatures, from armadillos to zebras. Aliens. Robots. Dinosaurs. Not to mention the entire cast of Yo Gabba Gabba, all the Wonderpets, and a whole flock of Angry Birds.

I feel like Noah when I sit on the couch, or E.T. in the closet, surrounded (and in some cases, upon) my son’s menagerie. Admittedly, some DO make good pillows, but most have pointy pokey parts that violate my more sensitive areas. And many tend to squeak, shriek, or sing when you apply pressure on them, which never fails to freak me out.

So, after we recently managed to remove a carload of “hard” toys that he had outgrown by donating them to a local preschool, I thought we could do the same with the stuffed ones. Knowing how much he likes them (and recalling how he reacted when he caught me putting his Weeble Treehouse in the donation pile), my wife and I offered him a reasonable deal: For every ten stuffed animals he got rid of, we would buy him one new one.  It seemed like a true win-win, and I saw NO problems with this plan

Until he showed us the ten he designated for deportation.

“You can’t give away DJ Lance Rock!” my wife said.

“I LOVE those Ugly Dolls,” I whined.

“Grandma gave that to you!”

“He was you FAVORITE when you were a baby…”

“You won that at the carnival!”


It seemed like everything had sentimental value, and the ones HE wasn’t attached to, WE were.

“Try again,” we told him.

The Ten Castaways

The next time, he came back with the ones pictured above.  And while we (my wife and I) felt a little better about this selection, there were still some choices that left us with misgivings (indicated by sad faces L)

Top Row

Little Blue Bird: part of a cute shape sorting set that I got him for his first Christmas L

Little Bunny: something my wife had since SHE was a baby L

Bug Eyed Raccoon Looking Thing: Christmas gift from his cousin Jamie. I think it’s cool, but not overly attached

Green Alien in Underpants: Came with a book. I think he’s funny, but won’t miss it

Blue Moose: Eli’s favorite toy as an infant. It was strapped to his car seat and provided hours of entertainment. So much so, that when it got left behind in a restaurant, I drove back the next day to retrieve it L L L

Bottom Row

Red Bear(?): Good  riddance. That thing yelped and yodeled whenever you squeezed its belly, and could seriously bite your finger! NOTE: My wife just informed me she felt a tinge of sadness, as the Blue Bear(?) is still here, and apparently they hold hands and yelp and yodel in unison. I say trash them both!

Oogie Boogie: Bought last year on a whim. Eli shares my love for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but apparently not for the bad guy in it L

Mangled Sock Monkey: Even though it only has one barely attached arm, no eyes, and stuffing coming out of it, his sister, Julianna, made it with her own two hands L L

Dollar Store Baby Doll: bought as a prop for a movie making camp I run. I have dozens of them, and we usually destroy several a summer. Eli found it in the back of my truck. Zero sentimental value (or real value, for that matter!)

Creepy Monkey: When its batteries are on, this armpit hair covered chimp emits oddly lifelike baby noises, and moves it eyes and mouth in a very unsettling way. Given to ME as a gag gift by my niece many years ago, this thing has made the rounds. I have regifted it several times, but it somehow always manages to find its way back to me. Jury is still out as to how I feel about it.

5 out of 10? In all honesty, this is shocking to me. I truly believed I’d be happy if ALL the animals disappeared, yet here I am, fretting over 50% of them? What the hell happened to me? Did I suddenly turn softer than the creatures I was looking to evict? I’ve never been particularly sentimental. Sure,  every once in a while, I’m surprised by what I find myself attached to, but this is ridiculous!

Personally,  I think it was the selection process. Had a genie showed up and took them all away with a wave of his wand (or whatever the hell genies use) I think I would have been okay. But seeing the poor little guys getting selected and rejected by the boy who once loved them made be sad.

Not sad enough to save the furry freaks, mind you, but sad just the same.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hide and Sneak

I’m not sure what I just did…

I just got back from Home Depot with my 5-year old, where he had made a heart-shaped box that he wanted to give to his mother on Valentines Day, and he asked me where he could put it so she wouldn’t see it.

I refrained from the obvious joke: “In the closet, next to the vacuum cleaner,” and went with the obvious answer: “In your bedroom.”

He looked at me wide-eyed. “In my bedroom?”

Now, up to this point, I had taken full responsibility for the hiding of gifts. Christmas and birthday presents that “we” bought for her, I left in my truck. Handmade things he created for her, I stowed in the garage.  So, I mistook his confusion as simply surprise that I was deviating from the script.

“Sure,” I said. “Run up there now while she’s in the other room.”

“But she goes in there!” he said. “She’ll see it tonight, because it’s her turn to read me a story.”

“Just put it somewhere where you don’t think she’ll look…”

“You mean, I can hide things in my room?” he asked, his eyes gleaming with mischief.

Oh shit, what did I just do?  Did it really never occur to this boy that that’s precisely what bedrooms are for? 

I know he’s only five, but isn’t it ingrained in our DNA that bedrooms have doors, and doors equal privacy?

Then again, based on how he disregards bathroom doors, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It took me weeks to train him that, when in a public bathroom, it was not polite to peek under the closed stall door to “see who was in there.”

At least he’s always been pretty good about bedroom doors, knowing he should knock before entering.  Granted, he does not wait for our permission to enter, but there’s usually enough time for us to, um, disengage, thus saving any awkward explanations about why we were just acting out the cover of Hop on Pop.

But there I was, enlightening my son that his room was not just a place to sleep and play, but also a place to keep secrets from his parents.  And even though it’s common knowledge, and a basic human need, it still felt wrong.  It was like I was teaching him how to be devious. 

Growing up, I had three older brothers, so I knew all about closed doors and hiding spots. But even if I was an only child, there’s no way my dad would have taken me aside and said, “Son, see how this here mattress lifts up? It’s the perfect spot for hiding thin items, like, maybe, that Cosmo mag you “borrowed” from your mom. As for things that you don’t want to crush, like, say, that pack of cigarettes you stole from me?  That old Boggle game in your closet, the one with the missing timer and no E cube, is a great place. Now, let me tell you what you can do with those socks in your top drawer…”

Disturbing, right? But I feel like that’s what I just did. On a much smaller scale of course.  It just never occurred to me that being sneaky is a learned behavior.  I assumed it was something we are all born with. Yet, I clearly just taught my kid his first lesson on how to hide things from his mother. Sure, it was for a cute reason, and he has the best of intentions, but how long until he’s using the same strategy for “bad” reasons? 

I’m not looking forward to those days, but at least I’ll know where to start looking!