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Here’s an excerpt from
Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal.

Happy Solstice!

I wrote this piece a number of years ago, when my dad was dying. It was an odd sort of comfort back then, but comfort, nonetheless. I find myself taking comfort in it again this year, when so many of us again stand surrounded by death…and life. Happy Solstice!

We stand, my son Patrick and I, on a knoll high above the Columbia River. The bluffs roll golden above us to the hard blue sky. Below us lies the river, ruffled blue by a baking wind. This is a respite, a hiatus in a day-long car trip to my parents’ house. I wonder if my father will be able to eat the corn chowder I have packed frozen in the ice chest in the trunk. I wonder if he’ll be able to walk. I wonder if he’ll be able to sit up. I wonder if he’ll still be alive. He is dying with the year, fading as the trees fade from their July green to their late August grays and tans.

Facing his death is  in some ways easier than facing his life, a fact that shames and saddens me, but it is true, nonetheless. I do what I can, which is not much. I drive the eight hours from my home in Medford to my parents’ home in Pendleton. I make corn chowder, one of the few things my father can still eat with some pleasure. I clean the house. I talk to my mother. I help my father to the bathroom. I try not to wince when he touches me. I hug him back instead. And at night I lie in my childhood bed in that painful house and I read into the early morning hours because even though I’m a grown woman with a child of my own I’m still afraid to turn off the light.

We have turned off the freeway, crossed the Columbia on the delicate, spindly bridge that spans the river at Biggs, and followed the winding road up the hill, turned right, then turned right again onto a small side road, and then turned right one more time onto gravel. Few people come here, and those few were usually brought by someone else in the beginning. I was brought here myself years ago, and now I am bringing my son, although to be honest the trip is more for me than for him.

It never changes here. Grass ripples tawny and amber around the massive stone circle. It looks like savanna grass, the kind from which lions might spring. But this is Washington, and there are no lions here. There will be no heart-stopping roar, no tawny mane, no gaping, powerful jaws, no sabre-tipped massive paws. There will be no drama, no last-minute rescues, no animal savagery. Which is not to say that death does not live here. We stand above rimrocks rising like ziggurats from the river to the sky. A miss-step, a stumble, could send us plunging into the abyss. Diamondback rattlesnakes love these places. They take refuge from the sun’s heat in the myriad tiny caves and grottoes, slithering out in late afternoon and evening to hunt and sun themselves in these very grasslands. And then there are the standing stones, silent sentinels to the memory of local boys for whom death came far away, not on a sun-baked grassy hilltop, but in a muddy trench, a heaving ocean, a roaring sky. These stones and row upon row of white crosses in red-splashed fields are all that mark their lives these days. They died young. I doubt many left wives or children.

I look around me and feel the emptiness of the place, and think that death can come in many ways, most of them small, quiet, and mundane. I think of my father, lying in a hospital bed in the living room, waiting for death to claim him, and suddenly the grassy mountaintop with its savanna grass and rattlesnakes seems like a pure, clean, and safe place. I look down at my son standing beside me, tanned knees bare below his shorts, feet shod in sturdy leather boots, honey-gold curls tossing in the wind. I wonder what he’s thinking. Surely he’s not standing here thinking of death, as I am. Patrick tucks a hot, sweaty, slightly sticky hand into mine and we scuff wordlessly through the waving grass to the center of the place.

There are others here. A middle-aged couple in golf shirts and white shorts moves quietly from stone to stone, reading the names on the brass plaques. A man poses his wife and three children beneath one of the massive, empty stone doorways—“Smile nice, kids…not like that, smile nice,” he commands. “There, that’s better…just one more for Grandma…” His children bare their teeth as he snaps and snaps. A lean couple in skin-tight rivet-studded bellbottoms and slinky black shirts stands entangled, hands shoved deep into each others’ back pockets, heads slanted, mouths devouring each other, at the edge of the drop-off to the river below. I see a flash of tongue before I avert my eyes. “Look, Patrick…see the stones?” I say, hoping he didn’t see the tongues, too.

We wander from stone to stone, reading names unknown to us, as dead now as the boys who bore them. None of us here today are old enough to have known these men, to feel their loss as anything but a vague regret. These men are as lost—and as unknown—as the builders of the original stone circle an ocean and an age away.

Patrick and I finish the circle of stones and wander out into the grass, seeking the heel stone, touching the tall obelisk to the east, then ambling back to the altar stone at the center. He is silent and still sleepy. I keep an eye peeled for snakes while I try to explain a mystery that has puzzled archeologists and historians for centuries. The afternoon ages. The circle slowly empties until at last our car sits solitary in the dusty parking lot, and we stand alone by the massive stone altar in the center of the circle.

I lift Patrick to sit on its flat top, then lean beside him. A cooling wind cuts the baking heat the stones reflect. A hawk screams high overhead. Patrick drapes an arm around my shoulders and we gaze around at the massive worked stones, the dark brass plaques bearing the names of men as surely dead as my father will soon be, the waving grass, the heel stone, the river far below, and the blue, blue bowl of sky overhead. I realize that in my years away—in the flight from the pain of my childhood—I have missed this clean, open space where my soul can stretch. I have remembered the pain, the blows, the shame, the browns, the grays, the dust, the wind, the heat, but I have forgotten the campfires orange against black fir forests and diamond-studded night skies, toasted marshmallows and frogs going courting at sunset, the ice cream sandwiches on hot afternoons, and how it feels to stand on a high bluff with nothing between the golden grass and blue sky but myself and the wind blowing through me.

I stand anchored by the little arm around my neck, and lift my head and pull the day into my lungs, and a part of me that has been bound lifts its head. I tighten my arm around my son and tell him about Stonehenge far away, about how the stones mark time, how the sun rises around the circle as the year turns, about how each midwinter day, as the sun rose above the special stone, the people rejoiced not because spring had arrived, but because they knew it was coming. Through the remainder of the winter, through blizzards, ice storms, endless gray days, starvation, disease, and death, they clung to the circle’s message. Spring is on its way. Life will triumph. The cold, bleak days will end. Stonehenge was more than a calendar. It was hope, set in stone.

I fall silent. Patrick sags against me. I look around me and see the stones with their brazen reminders of death standing tall and silent against the tawny hills and the blue sky, and I realize that as surely as the stones with their brass plaques surround me today, death surrounds me—but I am not confined by it as long as I can see the world beyond the stones—the tawny grass, the blue sky, and the sun. The circle goes round. Summer, autumn, winter, spring. Better times are coming. I think of my father looking out over the hills and valleys, dying on a hilltop far away, and I know that I have not reached midwinter yet. It will be worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I may never know what the standing stones said to their creators, but I know what they have said to me today—and I am grateful to the depths of my soul for their voices. The hawk screams again, and together Patrick and I watch it soar high above the stones, over the rimrocks, beyond the river, and into the blue beyond.

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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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Yes, we at the Magic Dog House know that it’s too early to start celebrating Christmas. I mean, we’ve still got skulls and femurs in the flowerbeds, and the teddy bears are still “hanged by the neck until dead,” and horrifying the neighborhood parents. The neighborhood children love us, but I digress.

Thing is, Christmas is coming, and many of us are looking around for ways of celebrating that won’t break the bank. Well, look no further. From now until Christmas, we’re going to be profiling an assortment of gifts that your kid and your wallet will both love. In order to keep from disappointing your kid too badly we’ll try to assign age ranges where appropriate.

Before we get too specific, though (that will come later) here’s a quick overview of ideas.

Video Games. Yes, they can be very, very expensive, if you buy them new. If, however, you have a young one just starting out Amazon and the used game stores are full of wonderful, engaging games that kids have been loving since the days of Atari. And here’s the kicker–many of the modern game systems like the Wii will play the old GameCube games. And GameCube games can often be had for a song. So you’ve got a kid. You’ve got a Wii. I’ve chosen these based on a fairly stringent standard. First, they need to be games that small children can play without succumbing to nightmares.Every child is different, but these games generally have funny, engaging, and non-threatening  bad guys. Second, I’m not a big fan of parking small children in front of video games solo. These are games that, in most cases, you can play with your child, and children of very different skill levels can still play and enjoy. Most are games that allow for either focused play, which will allow you to win the game, or aimless wandering, ideal when you’ve got a toddler in the house who wants a turn but doesn’t have the skills to actually do much.

The Legend of Zelda. You can’t go wrong with Zelda. A great starter game is the Ocarina of Time. It’s been re-mastered and re-issued a couple of times, so it’s possible to get some of the old GameCube versions for virtually nothing, but watch out–some of those old games are Collector’s Editions, and priced accordingly. Twilight Princess is another great game, and I just found it on Amazon for $10.

What makes Zelda games so great for new players? They allow for endless exploration. We got our first GameCube when The Boy was about six. Ocarina of Time came with the starter pack. It took him years to play his way through the game, because a) we didn’t know about walkthroughs, and b) you can get on Epona the horse and ride and ride and ride. Forever.

Another thing that makes the games great is that you can go onto the Zelda site online and get hints for how to solve some of the puzzles. You can, of course, also buy a used guide. They often look pretty ratty, but if your kid isn’t critical, why should you be? You might want to disinfect the thing, but your kid will be reading before you know it.

If you choose to download your walkthroughs start at http://www.gamefaqs.com. They provide a lot of good walkthroughs. Some of my fondest memories are of The Boy and I scavenging the internet for walkthroughs, then curling  up on his bed, him with the game controller, me with the instructions, and working our way through the game together.

So, Zelda games are great. Here are some other names to look for. These games are suitable for small children–the characters are fun and engaging, and the enemies aren’t scary.

Ah, Tak–where else will you find a game where one of the main characters farts?

Tak 1, 2, and 3–these games are probably some of your best game deals online today. The graphics are hilarious, the characters likewise. All of the games have at least some options that allow for multiple players. The dialog is amusing for kids and adults alike. Challenges are challenging, but not so very challenging that young children can’t enjoy them. And these games can be yours for under $5 each. I found some for sale for 50 cents. Yes. Two bits. You just can’t go wrong at that rate.

Donkey Konga–This is a wonderful game for anybody. Here’s the deal. The game comes with a set of bongo drums (make sure the game you order has the drums with it), and you beat on the bongo drums in time to the music. If you manage to keep time, you get points and unlock more songs. If you don’t, well you still get to make a lot of noise, so there’s really no downside. This is a game even a two-year-old can play. And you can get the game and the bongos for under $15.

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 1, 2, and 3. The first two games are the best, but the third’s all right. Again, these are adventure games that allow little ones to wander aimlessly forever, pick up jewels, and feel like they’re accomplishing something. If you actually want to advance through the game, of course, there’s more to it than wandering aimlessly, so this is a game that grows with the kids. The basic plot is that Ty must outwit his archenemy Boss Cass using nothing but a pretty spiffy collection of boomerangs.  Ty is fun. He talks with a thick Aussie drawl. And he can be yours for between $1 and $5.

Crash Tag Team Racing. Crash Bandicoot has a lot of games. The Boy loved him, but as far as I was concerned he failed to grip, EXCEPT for tag team racing. You build your car. You drive off stuff. You get points for doing flips, rolls, and spins. And you can do it for under $5.

Mario. It’s hard to go wrong with Mario games, but if you’re shopping for small children the best would probably be Super Mario Sunshine, another game that provides entertainment for children who play at a wide range of levels. It can be had for under $15.

Super Smash Brothers Melee. Most of the games on this list are rated E, for Everyone. Super Smash Brothers is, for some obscure reason, rated T, for Teens. I tend to take ratings seriously, but this is one you can safely disregard. Kids of all ages love Super Smash Brothers. Again, it’s a game that all skill levels and ages can play (up to four kids at a time), and the game can be set up to handicap the more skillful players to give the less skillful players a chance.

The folks who put this game out have done it in three versions: Super Smash Brothers (that’s the first one) Super Smash Brothers Melee (that’s the GameCube version) and Super Smash Brothers Brawl (that’s the actual Wii version). Though we got Brawl for the Wii, we generally find ourselves going back and playing our old Melee version. For one thing, some of the character attributes are better. Take Princess Peach, for instance. In Melee her special power is this very cool hip slam. I usually play as Peach, and so the hip slam is important to me. In Brawl I believe it’s either gone or modified into some lame thing with hearts. Brawl has a fun feature where you can build your own levels, but play on those levels is fairly limited. SSB Melee is a huge game, lots of levels, lots of characters, lots of options for each character. We’ve had this game for going on ten years now, and The Boy and his friends STILL pull it out and play it. You can get it for under $15.

Enough–we’ll do this again. The nice thing about these games is that they’re all old enough that your young player will feel like he’s discovering something new–and you’ll be able to look like Santa.

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