Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Very Merry Christmas

Christmas felt absolutely perfect this year. Just full of that unique joy and peace and excitement and love and fun that is Christmas. I was a little dubious Christmas Eve morning, when my mom called to ask for a recipe and I teared up thinking about how EVERYBODY (except Morgan and wife) were together there in Colorado and we were missing out completely. But as any grown woman does, I dried my tears and got busy cleaning and baking and preparing for our own Christmas Eve Celebration. As I’ve mentioned, I love my traditions, so I invited two families over to our Christmas Eve dinner and program--that way I get to be in charge, and I feel in my element.

Although it seemed that the Ruiz family was doomed not to make it, with lost keys (which they found over an hour later in the dumpster!) and a car that wouldn’t start once they finally did find the keys, the evening bounced back once they arrived and the party really started. Since I babysit their kids, it wasn’t too hard to get them prepped in advance for the Nativity program.

For weeks they had been excited about their roles, and whenever we sang a Christmas carol that mentioned an angel or a shepherd, they would say, “Alex, that’s you,” or “Elodie—the angel, you’re the angel!” And little three-year-old Lanna would have to add that she and Hazel were going to be the sheep! Xander was at school for most of this excitement, but Joseph doesn’t actually have any lines to memorize, so xander seemed willing to fill the role. Until it came time to put on the costume. I don’t know if he took issue with the fact that it resembled a dress or just wasn’t in the mood to be in front of a crowd, but he was not feeling the role of Joseph. At all. After a little conversation about how silly it would look if I had to play Joseph with my big belly and reminding him that sometimes, we do things not because we want to but because it makes other people happy, namely me, the show went on. Luckily, the donkey was hilarious and helped Xander snap out of his funk and into the giggles pretty quickly. That and Hazel the sheep who just wanted to grab the “Baby!” (her favorite and best-enunciated word) right out of his manger, causing Joseph and Mary to switch seamlessly from their role as adoring new parents to vigilant manger guards. Everyone had a great time with it and I don’t think I was the only one who felt the resounding peace and joy as we read the real story of Christmas from the scriptures.

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After regaining our strength by heavily sampling the treat platter, it was chime time. Ah, it felt like home. Did I mention how much I appreciated Aaron’s Christmas present this year? I love seeing the excitement on the chimers faces as the tune is really coming together and we finish the song and they just want to do it again! Christmas music is the best!

We ended the night by reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and leaving Santa his plate of cookies before saying goodbye to our friends and tucking the little ones all snug in their beds. I just love how excited our kids get! For me, the anticipation of Christmas morning is about as much fun as the real thing!

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I think that’s why the Christmas morning breakfast in the bedroom before discovering the stockings and presents is a must for me. It draws out the anticipation of the morning! This year, we enjoyed Alaskan-grown, Alaskan-made reindeer sausage in addition to our usual fare of orange rolls and hash brown breakfast bake. Do you think eating reindeer for Christmas is festively fitting or atrociously appalling? Xander and Elodie were obviously savoring every bite!

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The anticipation of lining up on the stairs…

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I am so glad that Xander hasn’t grown out of his excitement. His reaction was perfect—“Ahh! Toy Story Train Lego Set—this is what I wanted all year!”

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Elodie’s gratitude and excitement were equally endearing. Man, is there anything better than watching your kids enjoy Christmas morning so thoroughly?

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Hazel enjoyed her cell phone from Santa and opening presents, too, but not as much as she enjoyed the contents of Xander’s stocking that he left on the floor! I loved watching Xander and Elodie open the presents they had gotten for each other. “Wow, a tank, I love it!” “I thought you would like it!” “Elodie, you are the best sister. I really wanted this!!” “It’s beautiful, Xander! I wanted a ring just like this!” And so on. Aw, absolutely adorable. In every way, it was just what Christmas morning should be.

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Then we all put on our Christmas best and headed to Church. A young man who had just returned from a mission to South Africa spoke, and then we had a wonderful Christmas program. Perhaps it felt especially wonderful because I was up singing with the choir while Gine Kirk juggled Hazel and the other two! The chapel was packed, and as I looked out over the crowd, I just felt such love for the wonderful members of the branch up here. After sacrament meeting was over, it was like no one wanted to leave yet, even though we were only having the one hour of Church (and it had gone over by at least a half an hour). Everyone just milled around, exchanging Christmas greetings and presents and cards and treats. I felt so at home and so loved. Aaron’s home teaching companion, who is about to leave on a mission, has been like an uncle to the kids and brought each of them the perfect present. I think he gave Xander his 7th Lego set of the day, and he was no less grateful than with the first. He had that Toy Story Army guy jeep built before our dinner guests even arrived. The Davis family, with their 6 children, 4 of them Lego-loving boys, spent the afternoon with us. The kids played and played and we munched appetizers and prepped dinner and chatted and everyone enjoyed a perfect Christmas afternoon. We are so grateful for the friends we’ve made in Alaska and for this, the most wonderful time of year.

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Chime TIme

I love Christmas traditions. More specifically, I love our family’s Christmas traditions—a lovely blend of Dahle and Fillmore traditions, a bit heavy on the Fillmore. It’s not just ‘cause I’m the pushy one, my family really did have some pretty awesome Christmas traditions growing up. Many years ago, I don’t really remember when, my Uncle Steve sent our family pretty much the best Christmas present ever—a set of homemade chimes. 18 pieces of metal pipe cut to just the right lengths to become a musical instrument. Everyone comes together on Christmas Eve, grabs a butter knife and a chime, and follows along to turn the cryptic number sequences into Christmas carols. Aaron first experienced it Christmas 2004 and has loved it as much as I do ever since. It’s just simple good times. Chime time. This year, we would be off on our own for the Christmas celebrations. Away from my family, away from the chimes. So back in November, I left Aaron a rather non-subtle note on his pillow, with printed directions on chime-making from Uncle Steve himself and a note that said, “Hint, hint: This is all I want for Christmas this year.” (I found earlier in our marriage that subtlety doesn’t work very well on my dear husband.) For Aaron and me, the whole project of making Chime time happen turned out to be one of the highlights of Christmas Season 2011. We had been hoping not to have to make a run to Fairbanks for supplies in the winter, but getting the materials for chime-making was a good enough reason to make the trek, so we headed up one Saturday. Home we came with very sturdy steel electrical conduit, a pipe-cutter, and hundreds of dollars of Sam’s Club and Walmart stock-up stuff to make the trip even more worth it.

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Aaron was so excited that he got to work that very night, despite the long day in Fairbanks and the long drive home. Per Uncle Steve’s wonderfully specific instructions, he cut that first pipe to 13 and 19/32 inches, drilled a hole in it, strung a string through, and hit that baby with a butter knife. It was supposed to be an A. But using our keyboard and our untrained ears, we determined that it was about a B. For experimental purposes, he cut what was supposed to be Chime Number 2, an A#, and it came out as something close to a C. Both chimes sounded a touch off, but with our untrained ears, we couldn’t quite tell if it was slightly sharp or slightly flat. We knew just enough to know that we were going to need some help with tuning and calculating new lengths since Uncle Steve’s electrical conduit must have been a bit different than the kind we found up here in Alaska. We surfed around a bit and came across two excellent websites. We couldn’t have completed the chimes project without them! On the first, I found a beautiful formula for calculating chime length based on one reference note and a table of note frequencies. I simply copied the frequencies table into Excel, put in the formula just like Milan taught me, and POOF, I had the lengths we needed for our specific pipe type. Being the math nerd that I am, it was SO SO fun for me to take the square root of the reference frequency times the squared reference length divided by the desired frequency and find the desired length in millimeters which are so much easier to measure than 29/32nds of an inch. Aaron found an online tuner, which could determine the frequency of sounds it received through our computer’s microphone (on our webcam, thanks again, Milan!). It told you exactly how many “cents” sharp or flat you were of the note, which allowed Aaron to grind that B, which had gratefully been slightly flat, into near perfection. Aaron cut the next chime based on our calculations and we celebrated when the online tuner showed that the formula worked! We went to bed tired and very happy with our first night of chime production.

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Aaron spent the next 3 weeks measuring and cutting and grinding and fine-tuning in whatever spare time he could find. When he wasn’t on call or at Church meetings or taking Xander to hockey, he was my chime factory. I love that guy!!

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It was definitely a labor of love, and I felt the love! Our excitement built as we saw the chime sets grow. We were having so much fun with the project that we decided to make a set for Milan and Rachael since we had their family for Christmas this year. Aaron was so overflowing with excitement about the chimes project that he couldn’t help but show it off when we Skyped with my family one Sunday. I was afraid that would ruin the surprise, but Aaron thought it would just increase their anticipation and excitement wondering, what if they make one for us? At least it did confirm our suspicions that Milan would like a set, since he admitted that he is a chimes fan himself.

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Every time I saw Aaron slaving over those chimes, his face covered in metal shards, I just got that holiday feelin’.

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Besides the calculations, tuning support, and eye protection purchasing, my main job was to sew the chimes case. I was having no luck with finding durable Christmasy fabric around here, so I dropped the Christmasy requirement and just went with durable. And free! I was excited when I found this random thing in my material bin. It was the fabric from a broken patio table umbrella that Aaron had scavenged years ago. Not the most attractive shade, but sturdy.

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What a sense of accomplishment we both felt looking at the finished product!

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We painted some packing paper to turn it into wrapping paper and packaged it all up to ship it on down to Colorado. I was doubly happy when I got it to fit in a flat rate box, making it less than $15 to ship the 17-pound package instead of $48! I left the post office with a smile on my face and a great feeling of DONE! We were happy to hear that a little over a week later, the package had arrived at its destination. We set up a time for them to open it via Skype so we could see their reaction. And we wanted to see the condition of the package because they told us there was a note on it that said it had been retaped in Denver. Hmmm. That was the first red flag. The second was when we were skyping happily and saw Milan lift up the package so easily. We commented on how heavy it was—17 pounds—and Milan said it didn’t feel heavy at all. Uh oh. So as Milan was taking out the plethora of pictures and cards and notes and pipe cleaner creations that the kids had made for their beloved Uncle Milan and Aunt Rachael, Aaron was sweating bullets wondering if the chimes he slaved over had made the journey safely. Then Milan pulled out the remnants of the wrapping paper, in which the chimes had formerly been wrapped. Oh no. Milan, What else is in the box? Just some broken shards of toffee, scattered around the bottom. No big heavy bag of chimes that looks kinda like this?

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He moved the webcam to show us the pathetic contents of the box. One set of chimes MIA. Aaron freaked out internally a bit before reminding us of what President Uchtdorf had said in the recent Christmas devotional—that when you think Christmas is ruined, remember, Christmas is not that fragile. Apparently, if there’s one thing the Grinch hates, it’s all that noise, noise, noise, NOISE from those blasted chimes! So we sang Dabudore and began hoping and praying for a Christmas miracle. Oh post office, please find those missing chimes!

As for us here in Alaska, we had a wonderful time with our chimes. The Christmas Eve program was complete! I was impressed that both Xander and Elodie can chime without assistance this year! I was so proud when neither of them wanted to stop chiming after we had done every song in our new huge chimes book, which was at least 8 songs! May the Chime Time tradition continue through generations to come! Aaron, thanks for the best Christmas present ever!

Note: If anyone would like the specific instructions on how to make your own set of chimes, let me know and I’ll email them to you, including the Excel spreadsheet! We added our tips to Uncle Steve’s wonderful directions so they should work for anyone!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What did I do today?

You mean besides make 2 batches of toffee, take four kiddos to library story time, bake 7 loaves of cinnamon swirl bread and 2 loaves of regular bread, whip up some Shepherd’s pie for dinner, check math homework and take advantage of the opportunity to introduce the concept of multiplication, get Xander geared up for hockey, throw together one pan of magic cookie bars, watch the original Miracle on 34th Street, stir up a batch of Mexican wedding cakes, sing peaceful Christmas songs to tuck exhausted kiddos in bed, dip a sheet of buckeyes, and cover snowflake Ritz in mint-chocolate? Not much in the way of housework, that’s for sure. You can imagine what my kitchen looks like, but I think I’ll save that till morning! Ahhh, I love Christmas. I promise you I know that Christmas is not ALL about the treats…

Monday, December 5, 2011

Talkin’ ‘Bout the Weather

This is the highway right by us. In Alaska, it seems like every route is the scenic route. I saw a view almost identical to this one last week (although I was not the one to capture it; some other local did and it was the photo of the day on our local web news). wintry alaska

The sun rises at about 10:00am these days and sets just before 3:00pm. But being so far north, it takes the sun an hour to rise and set, so we have daylight from about 9:00am to 4:00pm. It’s really not too bad, and in less than three weeks, the days will start getting longer again. Although the dark mornings do kind of mess with my brain. Getting out of my cozy bed has never taken more will power! Saturday morning, I heard Hazel wake up and I peeked my eyes open; it felt like it was really early, maybe 5 or 6. I thought, “maybe if I change her diaper and give her a bottle, she’ll go back to sleep.” Then I looked at the clock. It was 8:52! Nah, I don’t think I’ll try to get Hazel to go back to sleep—she’d been in bed over 13 hours! Wow, nice weekend sleep-in for me! Thank you, Hazel, for also being affected by the darkness!

In the last 2 weeks, we’ve had a day where we set a new record for the coldest that day has ever been and now yesterday, a record for the warmest December 4th has ever been. I think meteorology is really interesting—in Junior High, I wanted to be a weather woman when I grew up. Instead, I settled for taking one Meteorology class in college when I needed a brain break from all of the humanities classes required for my major. So I think it’s kind of cool to look at what the actual temps were for the previous day and to see that the record high was set in 2011.

Sunday morning, we heard some really fierce winds when we woke up. The data says the gusts were up to 72 mph! So when I saw that the temp was 50 degrees in the morning before the sun rose, I remembered the Chinook wind phenomenon I read about on Wikipedia back in March when we were scoping out Delta Junction. “There are usually several days in the winter when the temperature is in the range of -40° (C or F) when a wind (known as a Chinook wind) begins to blow. A few minutes later, the temperature climbs to above +32 °F. When the wind stops, the temperature returns to its colder value.” With that in mind, it was pretty interesting to look over the hourly data and see that when the winds were gusting from the south yesterday morning, it was in the 40s and 50s. Around noon the direction and intensity of the wind started to change, to go back to normal, and the temperature started to drop again—10 degrees in one hour.

This interesting phenomenon made for some nasty roads. Snow packed roads have great traction when the temps are near zero and colder. But when the temps climb to the freezing point and above, that packed snow starts to melt, and it gets pretty slippery. The Stake President asked all the units to inform members of the icy, dangerous road conditions and to advise people not to come in to church if they felt the roads were too bad. So church wasn’t cancelled, but attendance was officially optional! It was a bit tricky just to drive out of our garage because the snow had melted off of our roof and plopped in a big hill around our house. But the BEAST made it without having to shovel through the hill. We determined that the roads were passable, with Aaron’s experience and the Beast’s beastliness, as well as a good measure of caution. On our way to church, it was crazy to see how the beautiful white winter wonderland I’d seen the night before driving home at 9pm was now interrupted by ugly brown patches of grass and dirty puddles. The roads were slippery, but in most places, they were more wet than icy. The worst part of the whole drive was the church parking lot, which was just a thick sheet of wet ice. Elodie took 2 steps on her own, slipped, and had to endure the trauma of a wet dress. During Church, the temps dropped again and it started to drizzle, then sleet, and then snow. A lot. Throughout the night, it accumulated to 5 or 6 inches. The beautiful winter wonderland is back; those brown patches and puddles didn’t even last a day! As for the roads, underneath the pristine blanket of snow, that wet sheen and puddles refroze into sheets of ice, making the roads even more treacherous this morning. In all of the weather talk we engaged in yesterday, none of the locals seemed to think that a balmy 50 degree day was a good thing. Their experience told them it meant nastier roads the rest of the winter. But it was kind of nice to go outside without bundling to the hilt! Ah, the adventure of the Chinook!