Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category


Okay. So. Several months ago I bought a farm in Stardew Valley. I moved in at the urging of The Boy, who had been farming successfully there for quite some time and had heard of a multi-player upgrade coming soon. He lured me in with intimations that it might be a game we could actually play together without me going into a snit at losing badly, or a slightly different snit at being lifted up, carried around, and thrown at whatever element I needed to manipulate with a stern injunction: “Push that!” “Pull that!” “Throw me up there!” “Mo-o-o-m….” (I’m looking at you, Tak and the Legend of Juju.)

When I arrived in Stardew Valley I found that I had a fixer-upper house (one room, a bed, an ugly stove, an ugly chair, an ugly table), and that was pretty much it except for a few tools: a hoe, a pickaxe, a watering can, and an ax. Everything was small and dull. Still, though, it was The Boy asking, and there were no enormous monsters waiting to kill me or dudes in bizarre armor shooting at me with space-age weapons, or hacking at me with medieval swords. So that was good.

I hoed a little garden, bought a few seeds…and fainted right in my freshly tilled soil before I could plant anything. It turns out I was a weak, delicate little farmer who needed afternoon naps by 2 pm, Stardew Valley time. Still, though, I persevered. When I woke up I finished planting my garden, watered it, and went to bed, even though it was only 10 am and I still had a little life left. No sense in pushing things.

Things got better, of course. My little farmer developed muscles and endurance (can you say calves like cantaloupes?), and soon could stay out working until 2am, which in Stardew Valley is Curfew. If you’re not home and in bed, you simply faint where you are, and people from the Big Box store go around and pick you up, take you home, tuck you in bed, and then dip into your savings account to pay for this unrequested service–it’s sort of like the phone company.


This is the Town Hall. I had to catch, grow, and steal all sorts of stuff to repair it. The aquarium required me to beg the boy sweetly to catch me many, many fish. I suck at Stardew Valley fishing everywhere except the Ancient Forest pond, where I can reliably catch carp.

My little farmer got her feet under her, built a chicken coop and a barn, and remodeled her house. Then things started to get complicated. It turned out she was supposed to do more than just cultivate, fertilize, plant crops, and then harvest the crops successfully; remodel the community center in town; toil in the mines for gold, coal, jewels, stone, bug guts, and bat wings; try to learn to fish; and tend to an ever-increasing pool of livestock.

cowsSpeaking of which, Stardew Valley livestock all has to be named. After running through all my friends’ names and The Boy’s friends’ names I did the smart thing and simply let the game or The Boy name my animals. So Zack, Zach, and Zach P., Dakota, Jakob, Adam, Woosers, Fija, and Meris live in the chicken/duck coop with Voldimort; and Sally Ann, Bessie, and Ferni live in the barn with Emma, Jeremy, and the King of Rock. All animals are female and apparently parthenogenic in Stardew Valley, since births happen as long as the animals are fed, happy, and there’s barn space. But I digress.

So what with all that my days in Stardew Valley were busy, busy, busy. I fell into bed at 1:50am each morning and slept dreamlessly–at least that’s what I think the black screen meant. Sometimes I had prophetic visions in the black screen, and occasionally my dead grandfather, to whom there is a shrine in the corner behind the greenhouse showed up, but mostly it was just lights out.  And then one morning I got mail. There was a town event! I was invited! There were games! I went to the event, and did very much what I do in real life: I walked around, talked briefly to random people, and tried to figure out how soon I could go home and get back to farming–I had just figured out how to make cheese and was elated at what it was doing for my Stardew Valley bank account.


This is my barn. Note all the goats and the cows. (The brown cow is The King of Rock. I can’t tell the others apart). Note also all the cheese. This is one of the reasons I’ve been making a lot of pizza lately; it’s all I can do with all that cheese. Pro tip: Goat cheese (the square ones) does not make pizza; only cow cheese (the triangular ones) do that.

I discovered that if I talked to the mayor he’d start the Participation part of the festival. I talked. I played, turning in a pretty lackluster performance, again, much like real life. And I discovered myself dumped back on my doorstep, in the dark, with a terse little note informing me that the festival was over, back to work for me. Stardew Valley folks definitely aren’t much for nightlife.

Then things took a definite turn. I got another letter, informing me that I had to “make friends” with everyone in the valley. To do this I had to seek them out every day, speak to them (chest-bumping them usually provoked these conversations), and, wait for it, I had to give them gifts.

What gifts? I wondered? All I had were seashells, jewels, and vegetables. The boy informed me that he’d put in some wine bottles and had won people over by getting them likkered up. That, in fact, was how he had courted and won his bride. He got her drunk and then proposed.

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Gus the Barkeep. Gus has no romance in his soul. All he thinks about is his bar profits.

As a Romantically Challenged Person, I felt my heart sink a bit at the idea that I was supposed to successfully court someone. I decided to hedge my bets. I picked four characters that seemed to be as romantically challenged as I was: Gus the barkeep, Clint the blacksmith, Leroy the homeless guy (his name wasn’t really Leroy, but he looked like our House Leroy, who had been homeless when he came to stay with us, so the homeless dude in Stardew Valley’s name had to be changed for the purposes of my game), and Fabio, a young writer with long flowing locks who lived in a shack on the beach (Fabio wasn’t his name, either, but I got started calling him that and the name stuck). None of these men were ideal perhaps, but they all seemed like they might be desperate enough to accept the overtures of a nice, hardworking, farmer/miner/fisher lady without too much fuss.


And so it began. I put in wine barrels of my own, but quickly discovered that I couldn’t both keep my romantic prospects likkered up and keep my bottom line happy, so I began to experiment with other gifts: diamonds, emeralds, bat wings, horse radishes, and bug guts from the mine (they didn’t care much for the bat wings, horse radishes, or bug guts, and let me know it), random fruits and vegetables from my garden, and occasionally berries, fossils, and mushrooms that I’d scavenged. I tried a stone and a piece of lumber once. My Stardew Valley Romantic Prospects just about gave up on me altogether at that point. Clearly, if I wanted to find True Love, I was going to have to make some financial sacrifices. I gave up on Gus the barkeep about halfway through our romance because every time I chest-bumped him he would only tell me I should come to his bar and have a drink. I soon learned that of all my other prospects, Leroy was the easiest to please. He was tickled pink with just about everything except the bug guts and the rock–even he questioned those.


Leroy in my game. Something else in yours. Doesn’t he look like somebody who would be attracted by a nice, strong farmer with frequent, healthy crops?

I watched the progress of my romances closely, giving gifts and then quickly clicking into my “love” menu to see if my prospects were developing Feelings for me. They were! Leroy the homeless guy, Fabio from the beach, and Clint the blacksmith all were liking me better and better. On the day my “love” meters for all three had been filled up I had a surprise visit from the grocer, who told me that he had stocked bouquets. I was to buy a bouquet and present it to the person with whom I wished to move from friendship to courtship.

Because my IRL courting skills are non-existent, I decided to hedge my bets again. I went to the store and purchased not one but three bouquets. And then I took my heart in my hand and trotted first up to Leroy’s tent, just outside the mines. After all, Leroy had lived with us IRL for eight years–I had hopes that his little Stardew Valley lookalike might feel a little residual affection. Also, he’d been dropping hints about how people misunderstood him for going through their trash, and living in a tent. Since this was Dating all bets were off, but I honestly thought if I had a chance with any of them, the homeless guy would probably be the hungriest, and I had that great garden…

So I ran up to Leroy, grabbed a bouquet of flowers out of my pack, and chest-bumped him. He looked at my flowers, stepped back, said “I don’t want those,” coldly, then turned and went into his tent. I was stunned. I had just been rejected by a dude who lived in a tent and dumpster-dived for his dinners. And this is where things got really, really strange. I ran back to my farm and buried myself in my work, which is pretty much how I respond to such situations IRL. But then the next Stardew Valley day I had finished my chores and, when I would normally go to the mine to stock up on copper and bug guts, discovered that I was too embarrassed go to that corner of the game. That was where Leroy lived, and he had spurned me.

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Fabio to me. Elliot to you. Do not be lured in by the long flowing locks. He spends all his time slouching by the refrigerator or hanging out in his old beach shack. He doesn’t help with the farming except on rare occasions, when he feeds the cows. And then he wants a whole song and dance about how he was so wonderful to do that. Nor does he help with the children. I’m hoping for a divorce court in the next upgrade.

Because I’m not completely gaga I knew this was stupid, so I dropped a bouquet on Clint the blacksmith, who also rejected me, and immediately informed me that he was pining for some blue-haired chick who didn’t even know he was alive. He clearly had no sense of irony. That left Fabio, with his flowing locks and his writerlyness. I chest-bumped him shyly handed him a bouquet. And he accepted! He invited me on a romantic row around the harbor! He began to praise my beautiful farm (I had no illusions about this–as a writer who lived in a beach shack the lure of regular meals was a big part of my charm for him), and even started asking me leading questions about Forever. Fortunately I didn’t need to answer, because I’ve never been good at those kinds of conversations.

And then one night a Mysterious Stranger showed up on the beach and gave me a pendant, which he instructed me should be used like an Engagement Ring IRL. Since my choices had narrowed to one (my other Romantic Options still lived at home with their parents, or in one case, his grandparents), I took a chance and planted the pendant on Fabio, who was riding high because he’d just published his first book (I missed the signing at the library because I forgot and went to the mine and dug coal instead).

And so it was that Fabio and I were married. I think it was a mistake. These days, Fabio occasionally says something lovely to me, but mostly he just slouches in front of the refrigerator, or goes back to his shack on the beach, where he says he “writes,” but since that first book he published before our wedding I’ve seen no evidence of it. Certainly no royalties are showing up in our bank account. When he occasionally helps on the farm he always makes a huge deal out of it, and all he does is feed the animals, who are all on self-feeders, anyway. So, all is not good there.

However, we now have two children, so things are complicated. I suspect my oldest child is “challenged.” When he was a baby he mostly just sat on the floor and rocked. When he got a bit older I’d sometimes discover him outside of the house, running around on the black space above the roof. Once he ran through the wall of the study and disappeared off-screen, doing god knows what. He seems to love me according to the “love” screen, but other than throwing a heart my way the first time he sees me in the morning, there’s nothing. Fabio says he once heard him say “dada,” but I have my doubts. Also, when my son appears on The Boy’s screen he has changed ethnicity. On my screen my child is swarthy, with dark, curly hair, much like me. On The Boy’s screen he’s pasty white with wild red hair. I have no idea what’s up with that.

My second child–a girl (The Boy named her Patrick Senior because he “thought it would be funny” even though my Stardew Valley son is already is already Patrick, as is one of my hens) also does not speak. She doesn’t even walk reliably, even though she’s now seven years old. Unfortunately there are no child therapists in Stardew Valley, and Fabio, who is buried in his busy schedule of slouching by the refrigerator and hanging in his beach shack, is no help at all.

So I did the best thing I could do–I built myself a she-shed down by the fishpond. It’s beautiful (Fabio keeps redecorating our house, and his taste sucks). It’s peaceful. I considered moving down there to get some more Fabio-free space in my kitchen, but then I thought, “The children! I can’t leave the children!” Also, I don’t seem to be able to renovate my she-shed into a babe-barn or portly-palace.

Meanwhile, things with Fabio are deteriorating. When The Boy works on my farm he sometimes gets caught short by 2am, and I return home to discover he’s already in bed with Fabio. I do what I must–I push into bed, too, before I faint on the floor. Fabio is very forbearing; still, though what kind of a husband accepts that without a word? There’s something wrong. I know it.

So far, though, divorce hasn’t come to Stardew Valley, though The Boy’s example has taught me that I, too, can climb into other people’s beds for the night if 2am comes too far from home, and I know them well enough to have been granted access to their bedrooms. So I’ve been sleeping around, but I still go home every morning to greet the children and push Fabio away from the refrigerator long enough to make pizza, which is what my crops are up to these days.

Anyhow, that’s Stardew Valley. I have no idea how it’s going to come out. I just doubled the size of my winery (cool), and have been trying to make friends with the wizard because I need his help to bomb a mine tunnel. I don’t know what’s down the tunnel, but it’s blocked, and I must bomb it. Also, I’m trying to figure out how to win the friendship of the bouncer out at the desert bar, which is behind a store where I buy all my star fruit seeds. So far I’ve only gotten a cool ‘hi’ from him. Maybe I’ll try getting him likkered up and giving him a bouquet…



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Here's the starter game pack--game, pedestal, and three action figures. The starter pack is a bit of an investment (usually between $50 and $60), but once you've got it your young player is good to go. And additional figures, if you choose to buy them, come in a range of prices and purchase options.

Yesterday I bought a Skylanders game (available for all major gaming systems). So what’s the big deal? It’s the second time I’ve done this–and our game still works. I bought the game for my son’s after-school program, which includes children who pretty much span the spectrum in age and game-play ability. And Spyro Sklanders is a game uniquely suited to accommodate players like that.

Here's a screen capture from the game--lovely colors, engaging art, nothing too scary here.

First, a quick overview. Spyro the Dragon has been around for a long time in gaming terms–I think we bought our first Spyro game back when The Boy was about five. Spyro is a charming little dragon who lollops through a series of adventures and challenges all set in enchanting, magical landscapes. It’s the sort of game that’s fun to watch, as well as fun to play. Skylanders continues this tradition. The game is designed for “free play,” which means that it can be played in a number of ways. Players can work their way through Spyro’s adventure, meeting a series of challenges and progressing along a story line. But that’s just the beginning. Players can choose to hunt for treasure, or simply explore (this is code for run around and look at stuff). But what’s nice is that, with a little cooperation, the multiple players can do those things while they’re playing together. In the same game. In real terms, what this means is that Patrick (The Boy, fifteen, and games master) can play with Olivia (three, and not yet a games master)–and they can both have a good time.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. What really sets Skylanders apart from other games is the way characters are selected. The game itself comes with three small action figures and a pedestal, which links to the gaming system. Players select the character they will play as by standing the action figure on the pedestal. Electronics in the figure’s base link with the game, and presto, the character comes alive onscreen. But this is just the beginning.

... and another setting...

The character can be changed at any time during game play except for when cut scenes are actually playing. In fact, to win the game characters must be changed, because the various levels each are designed to suit a particular type of character’s strengths. For example, last time I started out with a “crystal” character, switched to a “water” character, then a “plants” character, and so on. It sounds complicated, but the characters have been designed to make identifying their type simple. Water characters, for instance, all come in shades of blue, and feature splashes of water. Crystal characters all include a prism. Fire characters all include flames. Sorting the various types is simple, even for Olivia, who cannot read.

Because players are constantly switching characters, the old bugbear of multi-player games–who gets to play as whom–is non-existent. Everybody can have a turn playing as every character–and in the same game. This makes Skylanders a great choice for families and settings that include players who range in ages and abilities.

But what I really like about this game is its unspoken message. That message? That successful game play results from cooperation among a number of characters. Because the various action figures each have a unique set of skills, and because the game levels each require different skills for completion, no one character gets to be the hero all the time. Even the youngest players learn that everyone contributes to a group’s success.

Because I always overthink these things, I see an important metaphor there not only for children, but for adults. A game that fosters the idea that everybody’s talents are necessary for success is a good thing, the way I see it.

One last note: Because characters are chosen by setting a specially-designed figure on a pedestal in the real world, the game comes with three “starter” figures. However, there are many, many others available in a wide range of prices. This makes it nice for parents and grandparents, who can augment the set without breaking the budget. Fgures are designed to work with all major play systems (the game is not–you’ll need to buy the game for your own system).

One final note: Because the action figures are an integral part of the game it’s important to not lose them. We use a medium-size box, which holds our action figure collection, the pedestal, and the game. Skylanders is available in store everywhere, and online.

Here’s a trailer.

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Well, not exactly. Things are a bit narrow here, but not really absolutely tight. It’s been a hard year and we’re still digging ourselves out, but for the first time in a long time I find myself wanting to make Christmas–and having the energy to do it.

In the past I’ve dealt with Christmas by throwing money at it. This year there’s not much money to throw if I plan to pay the mortgage. It’s nice to think that somebody at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage might be visited by three ghosts and decide to forgive my loan, but it hasn’t happened so far. Like the Cratchits, we will be doing Christmas on the proverbial fifteen shillings.

In the past situations like this have sparked the, “Bad Mommy! Bad Mommy!” inner diatribe, the one in which I have failed as a parent and as a human being because I find myself short of funds at Christmas. This year, though, it’s different.

For one thing, the last few hard years have sent me to financial places I never dreamed I would go. When I started this journey bankruptcy seemed like a soul smear. But it’s happened, and we have all survived, and like Gwion Bach, who in surviving Ceridwen’s murderous rage becomes more than he ever dreamed possible, we have been transformed.

For one thing, we have become a family in a way we weren’t before. There has always been deep love and laughter, but surviving the times has forced us to a deeper level of honesty. When The Boy asks for things these days he first asks about what checks have come in, and what bills are due. And I no longer have the luxury of protecting him from the reality of our finances. We have learned that the things we took for granted before–money for the mortgage, utilities, and school lunches–need to be considered before we buy treats.

I have learned that I can be honest without being frightening. I’ve learned how to say, “Let’s make a list. Right now I need to save for the mortgage, but when we next get a big check let’s talk about this again.” And I’ve learned that there is no shame about acknowledging the fact that, for us, funds are not unlimited. I am not a bad mother if I can’t buy him everything that catches his eye.

Removing money from the equation has allowed us to really see the things that make our lives good. We are healthy. We are warm. We have a house that cleans up nice. We have food. We have learned to take pleasure in little things. I love frost on branches. The boy loves the narrow old bridges that lead out of town and onto the country roads that surround us. The House Leroy has found a happy substitute for cable in Netflix, which allows him to feed his passion for documentaries.

Most of all, we have friends. We have lots of friends. And we live in a town where “doing something” is as likely to be going over to somebody’s house, sitting in the kitchen, and talking as going out for an evening’s entertainment.

So this Christmas, while there will be presents, I’ve decided to plan for fewer of them, and more money for cookies and hot chocolate. We live in a town where electricity is cheap, so we have lights on the house–lots of lights. We have lots of Christmas decorations for inside. We have lots of Christmas shows on DVD and on Netflix. Our stove is working. This Christmas is going to be about people. I’m going to make hot chocolate for the people who come by to look at our house lights, and for The Boy’s friends. My goal will be to have someone over every day while he’s on vacation. I’ll bake a small batch of cookies every day. We’ll have the kids at Step-Ahead over to watch movies, decorate cookies, and play games. The house will look and smell like Christmas. And we’ll be surrounding ourselves with friends.

So if you find yourself in our town this holiday season, stop by. We’ll give you hot chocolate and cookies. The house will be lovely, inside and out. We can play games, or watch movies, or sit in the kitchen, eat chili, and talk. We’ll be spending time, rather than money this year. And in exchange we will get a Christmas we’ll love to remember.

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I first met Thomas the Tank Engine on a summer afternoon. I was hanging out at my little sister’s house while she dug to the bottom of boxes, sorting her children’s outgrown clothes and toys. Most of the stuff she pulled out went into the big garbage bag destined for her church’s giveaway program. But then she opened a huge RubberMaid bin, reached into it, and picked up a happy, smiling train engine. It had a round magnet on its back. “This was Tommy’s,” she said. “We’re keeping this.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s Thomas,” she said. “He loved it, and when he has kids I can pull it out and they can play with it.” Tommy was around ten at the time. She was going to have a long wait.

When The Boy learned to walk he had one favorite stop at the mall–the teachers’ store, where in a back corner there was a Thomas the Tank Engine table, complete with tracks, buildings, cars, scenery, and people. I learned to find a corner and sit down when we got to that store; we were going to be there for a while.

That Christmas I got him his very first Thomas. I invested in one of the starter sets–wooden tracks, Thomas the Tank Engine and his passenger cars Annie and Clarabel, and one arching bridge. My son’s first word was Mom. His second word was Thomas.

Over time, of course, the Thomas collection expanded to include more buildings, more track, more bridges, and then books, videos, a backpack, an engineer doll, dishes… We did love Thomas.

And then The Boy grew up. Now, like my sister–and like many mothers I know–I have a large RubberMaid bin, full of Thomas stuff. And I’m saving it. Because someday, there may be grandchildren. And if there aren’t, I still have my second childhood, during which Thomas and I can again ride the rails.

As you’ve probably deduced, finding used sets of Thomas the Tank Engine is not easy, not because they don’t exist, but because everybody’s saving them for the grandchildren. Here’s why:

1. Quality construction. While it’s now possible to get plastic Thomas tracks and cars, the sets are traditionally made of wood. And they’re guaranteed. For life. A Thomas track is a bit of an investment, but once you’ve got it, you can count on it being around for a long, long time.

2. Thomas builds memories. I’m not quite certain why it is, but Thomas sets become more than just train sets. They seem to catch and hold bits of childhood. I know it sounds crazy, but there it is. I can’t tell you how many moms I’ve seen get gooey-eyed at the sight of their sons’ old Thomas sets.

3. You can buy them piecemeal. And that’s why they’ve made my list of great gifts you can get for not so much money. You’ll have a hard time finding them used, and you can pay upwards of $150 for some of the larger sets–but you can also find a single engine for around $5 on Amazon, and at the moment Trains Galore has a decent overstock sale going on. If you have a young Thomas fan, why not suggest to family members that they each purchase a piece, or even team up to buy one of the larger pieces?

Here’s the nice thing–even though Thomas the Tank Engine trains are hard to find second hand, the same can’t be said of Thomas books, DVDs, and accessories. Amazon has them for prices to fit even the tiniest budget. For example, “Thomas the the Magic Railroad,” the feature length movie released in 2000, can be had for .01. Yes, children, that’s right–you can get a movie your child will love, and you can get it for a penny, plus shipping.

Thomas the Tank Engine books can likewise be had for pennies. But here’s something to consider: Preview the original Thomas stories before you buy. The stories were written in the early part of the 20th century, and there’s a fair amount of shaming and belittling going on. I bought the books. And then I donated them. I simply didn’t feel comfortable reading stories where an engine responds to failure by saying, “I’m so ashamed. I feel so ashamed,” and where Mr. Conductor says severely, “You should be ashamed.” The books produced in the last twenty years don’t reflect this unfortunate attitude, but then again, neither do they have the charming original illustrations. The books come in an amazing array of styles, sets, and sizes.

Of course,

This isn’t exactly Christmas-related, but no discussion of Thomas the Tank Engine would be complete without mentioning the “Day Out With Thomas” events held around the country. It’s a too-well-kept secret that Thomas the Tank Engine tours the U.S., stopping in towns and offering rides in old-fashioned passenger cars. There is an entrance fee, but it’s well worth it, because a “Day Out With Thomas” is far more than just a train ride–when I took The Boy years ago it involved a plethora of kid-friendly events and activities, a petting zoo, costumed characters from the Thomas stories (one of which took us aside and wangled us seats not inside the passenger cars but in the premium Observation Car right behind Thomas himself), picnic and fast food, and a Thomas shop stuffed with a bewildering array of Thomas products, many of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. Check the listing on the Thomas the Tank Engine website, and buy your ticket ahead.

You should also be aware that the Thomas the Tank Engine website has a number of free games and activities designed for small kids and their parents.

Bottom line: Thomas the Tank Engine train sets are high-quality, guaranteed, and sold in packages that range the cost spectrum. By working with friends and relatives a family can build a very nice set in one or two holidays. Or, if cost is a significant factor an engine or two can be purchased without the tracks (I see kids carrying them around all the time), and the gift augmented with some of the huge range of Thomas books, movies, and items available for mere pennies, in some cases.

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