Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Checking in Before Checking Out Again

Today the tree goes down. Tomorrow we head for the mountains. On Monday, it's back to the school for the boys and off to the dentist for me to have my teeth cleaned.

Ah, the romance of the holidays. How have yours been? Mine have left me planning already for next year, how to simplify and streamline. Is it really possible to have a stress-free Christmas without abandoning Christmas altogether? I have my doubts.

The good news is, we've had no catastrophes. Presents were given and received, appreciated and admired. Many cookies have been devoured, as well as gallons of Christmas punch (non-alcoholic, mind you) and pounds of pimento cheese on crackers.

As usual, no matter how hard I try, Christmas continues to be for me one of the more spiritually out-of-tune times of the year. I try to get into the Advent vibe, keep at least one eye on the babe in the manger, but the closer it gets to Christmas day, the harder that is to do. That's what I like about Easter--no distractions. There are no Easter commercials, no Easter wrapping paper to be bought, no Easter presents to wrap. All the retailers can to do to attempt to profit off Easter is sell Easter trees draped with plastic eggs. So far I've been able to resist.

I've enjoyed sleeping in and hanging out in my pjs, perhaps my favorite part of the holidays (besides presents, of course). And I've been knitting and reading a lot,which I do all year long, but without the sense of entitlement I have right after Christmas.

So this is a pretty dull post, but with any luck I'll be back next week energized by the promise of a new year and new resolutions and new ideas. I hope you're recovering nicely from Christmas and have a fun New Year's Eve in store. We never go out, but stay at home and drink a glass of champagne, and that, my friends, is a happy New Year's Eve indeed.

See you next year!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

True Believer

So it appears Jack still believes in Santa after all.

I was sure the gig was up, but didn't want to ask outright. So in my subtle, sly way I remarked, "It doesn't seem like you're talking about Santa much this year, Jack. What's up with that?" He hemmed and hawed a little bit, and at first I thought he was trying to buy time. Admit to disbelief and risk not getting presents? Or relieve himself of the burden of having to keep pretending?

Neither, it turns out. The sounds coming from his throat were the shocked noises of a boy who suddenly realizes he may be on Santa's bad side. He hasn't sent his Christmas e-mail, hasn't written, hasn't called. Time to get on the Santa stick!

Ever since, we've had a lot of Santa Claus talk around here. Now, I know that Jack is surrounded by loads of disbelievers in the fourth grade, and he's smart enough to ponder the physics and metaphysics of Santa's midnight ride. But Jack doesn't give up easily. Besides, he's my child, and I believed well into third grade--and, I might add, I believed even after my little brother told me Santa wasn't real (he was a kindergarten math genius with an agnostic bent, the enemy of all that is irrational and unscientific even then). I believed even after my mother confirmed that what my brother had said was true.

So Jack still believes, despite the doubts that surely have arisen in his mind, despite conflicting reports. Good for him!

It's funny, how completely consuming it is to have children, how it takes over your life until it's not your life anymore. Sometimes it makes me crazy, and sometimes I dream of the day when a day is mine to make of it what I will instead of running kids around in the van and arranging play dates and doctor visits. Still, when I think about this passage of childhood being over, when the magic of Christmas recedes behind the drama of middle school and high school, and the boys would rather spend the holidays running around with their friends instead of sitting in front of the Christmas tree, dreaming, it makes me sad. I'll miss the magic of living with true believers.

So dream on, Jack, and keep the faith. The world is out there waiting for you, but it's okay to stay inside a little longer, where it's warm and everyone loves you.

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope that you find a few minutes of peace, a handful of joy, a little magic. Much love.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Report

Here are all the things I'm not doing right this very minute: I'm not cleaning Will's room, I'm not sweeping the stairs, I'm not cleaning the bathrooms. I'm not sweeping under the bookshelves in the living room. Not hanging garland on the staircase railing, not hanging tinsel in the upstairs hallway, not putting up more decorations on the mantel.

I am: drinking coffee. Later I will: finish the Christmas cards. Of all the Christmas chores that cause much duress during this festive season, this is actually one of my favorites. I write a silly one-page letter to stuff in the cards, and I add a tiny personal note, and I don't send them to anyone who doesn't appreciate silly Christmas letters and homemade cards. I like addressing the envelopes and putting on stamps.


I have decided the boys will finish the Christmas baking. I made about two pounds of Christmas cookie dough yesterday, which ought to hold us for the duration. Jack is capable of rolling it and cutting out cookies; Will is good at putting on the colored sugar.

On Monday, Jack can bake ginger snaps. The one baking chore I'll do is make the brownies, just because there's a lot of steps involved--I use the Joy of Cooking recipe (circa 1960) that calls for bringing the eggs to room temperature and melting the chocolate and butter and letting it cool--and Jack's a good baker, but there's a limit to how much a nine-year-old boy can get right.


Yesterday I mailed out the tips to our newspaper carriers. We get two papers, delivered by two different people, only one of whom consistently lands the paper on the driveway. The other carrier plops it in the grass in the middle of the yard almost everyday. Since the grass is almost always wet in the morning, my feet are almost always wet when I carry the paper into the house. I thought about calling to complain, but I don't want anyone to lose their job because I have wet feet.

I mentioned this dilemma to a friend, who suggested I might put a nice note with a Christmas tip asking the carrier to at least aim for the driveway. So I did. I tried to make the note very diplomatic and blameless and southern--"We sure do appreciate it when the paper is on the driveway--the grass is awfully wet in the morning!"

We'll see what happens. I forgot to tip last year, so making me tramp across the yard every morning may be the carrier's revenge. Let's hope twenty bucks sets things straight.


I think Jack has finally figured out there's no Santa Claus. He hasn't said anything, but he isn't talking about Santa, either. Usually he's full of speculation about what Santa Claus is going to bring him, but this year he's only talking about what my husband and I might get him. I also think he's been nosing about the closets.

You know, I was such a sneaky kid, always looking in drawers and reading things I shouldn't be reading, that it seems only fitting that Jack should be the same. Maybe it's just the nature of being nine, almost ten. You're figuring out that the world isn't quite what you thought it was. You're suspicious. You start keeping secrets. Hiding your DS under your pillow so you can play it when you're supposed to be sleeping.

I remember being that way when I was Jack's age. I don't know if my parents had a clue or not as to what I was up to, or if it didn't occur to them that I'd peek in their closet at Christmas time to see what I was going to get (I always regretted doing this, by the way--it's no fun not to be surprised Christmas morning!). I know Jack thinks we're clueless, but both my husband and I were such conniving little kids, we know all the tricks. Most of the tricks. Boy, I hope we remember at least a few of the tricks.

The teenage years are going to be the death of me.


Off to my mother-in-law's tomorrow. The Cousins are having a party for all the little kids, which they do every year. All sorts of inappropriate gifts will be handed out--guns for the boys, street walker dolls for the girls, PG-13 movies for the five-year-olds. I used to get peeved by this, but now I just laugh as I'm dumping it all into the trash. The Cousins mean well, they really do. These are my husband's oldest cousins (he has roughly 300 of them), who are in their sixties, their children long grown and gone. They've forgotten a lot about little kids. But as long as they don't forget the barbecue and the hot sauce, everything's cool.


Have a great weekend! When you find yourself feeling stressed, sit down and make a list of all the things you don't have to do right now. Start with not cleaning the bathrooms. I recommend it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In the Nick of Time

So despite all my wise words on Monday, I started to go into Christmas meltdown today. I had one errand piled on top of another, this present to buy, that present to buy, a trip to the library with overdue books, a trip to my favorite local bookstore which unfortunately only had a handful of the books on my list, and then to school to pick up Will, and then home to make banana bread for the boys' teachers and wonder when I was ever going to get the rest of the house decorated.

I'm sure you've been there.

In any event, while at the library I picked up a copy of a book called Simplify Your Christmas. After I put the loaves of banana bread in the oven, before I started doing all the cleaning and decorating and card-addressing I needed to do, I sat down and read it.

It's a short book with a message that's plain and clear: Chill out. Drop out. Quit spending so much money and time getting ready for Christmas. Think about what you're doing.

And I thought, You know what, I really don't have to decorate the living room. I just don't.

It helped that I'd gone to my annual bookclub Christmas party over at Liz's house last night. Liz does minimal Christmas decorating--a nice tree, cards on the mantle, a few little lit Christmas village-type houses on the table in the front room. That's it. It was nice.

Now, I've never been one of those people who does five Christmas trees and decorates all the bathrooms. But I always have big decorating dreams and then feel sort of let down when I don't get around to implementing them. But reading Simplify Your Christmas made me wonder if all the decorating is worth it (and when I think about having to put away all those decorations, the answer is definitely no). Why not keep it simple?

So anyway, I'm feeling much less stressed out. Who knows, maybe next year I'll do absolutely nothing for Christmas. Well, except unwrap presents. Lots and lots of presents. Because you know what? Unwrapping presents doesn't stress me out at all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent Fight Song

You know how sometimes you hear a reference to a book or a movie or an idea you've never come across before, and then all of the sudden it pops up everywhere you look--in an article in the newspaper, in a magazine, on a radio news show or a blog? Well, over the last week, this following lyric has been following me around--it's from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem":

ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in

I first came across it over on Milton's blog; since then I've come across it two or three times. Is it a coincidence, or is meaning afoot?

At this time of year, there are at least two ways of thinking about these words. For those of us who do the decorating and the present buying and wrapping, who bake the cookies and the cakes and the turkeys and the roasts, there is a tendency to shoot for perfection. Inevitably, we'll be disappointed. To turn down our efforts--and our expectations--a notch or two might not be a bad idea. Christmas will still be wonderful, or wonderful enough, even if we never get around to spray-painting the front windows with fake snow.

There is another way the words "forget your perfect offering" resonate for me, and that's spiritually. I try to observe the rituals of the church during Advent, light the candles, do the readings, take time for morning and evening prayer. But sometimes that's hard to pull off. I get sick, I get stressed, my calendar fills up. Sometimes a perfect offering, or much of an offering at all, is out of the question.

Whatever kind of Christmas we have, there will be cracks. And I really like the idea that in the big picture, the cracks end up being the most important part. That our failures leave us open to bigger things. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who bake the lopsided cakes and whose Christmas wreaths keep falling down. Blessed are those whose dogs eat all the fudge and throw it up on the carpet. Blessed are those who forget to remove the price tags. Ring the bells that still can ring. There is a crack in everything.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Report

Sorry to have been so quiet this week--I've been sick. Nothing terrible, just a bug that has made me deeply fatigued. I actually went the clinic yesterday to get a Strep test, since when I felt this way last summer that's what I had. The test came back negative, and the doctor was all "you'll just have to suck it up til you feel better' about it. This is why I don't go to doctors much. If they can't figure out what you've got, they make you feel dumb for even bothering them about it.


Despite being sick, I finished my revision this week. I was determined to have it done by today, and by golly, I did. Won't be surprised to learn that everything I typed was gibberish, and I won't care, either, as long as the check's in the mail.


Today was Dress Whacky Day in the fourth grade, only Jack and I both forgot. I feel guilty that I forgot--not that Jack is a big dresser-upper/whacky guy, but still--and I also feel profoundly irritated that I feel guilty for forgetting something that Jack should have remembered. Of all the feelings I hate to feel, guilt is the worst. Don't like being angry or sad, but I really, really hate feeling guilty.

Note to self: Jack will forget all about Dress Whacky Day by tomorrow afternoon. Or else he'll be plagued by horrible nightmares about it for the rest of his life.

My advice to him at drop-off: Turn your shirt inside out, put it on backwards, and switch your shoes to the wrong feet. Whacky!


Will is sick. After I dropped of Jack at school, I stopped by Target to buy popsicles (sore throat) and berry-flavored ibuprofin (fever). And I finally invested in an ear thermometer. Why I've waited until my youngest child is six to cough up the dough for a thermometer that actually works, I don't know. Well, I do know: I'm cheap. Also, I'm never sure if our thermometers work or not. We're a family whose average temperatures run to 97.4, so who knows what it means for one of us to run a fever? Will was burning up this morning, and the new thermometer registered 98.3. Fever? Or ice running through his veins? Or maybe I just don't know how to use a thermometer. Beats me.

Another guilt trip: My friend Meg decided to have a last minute birthday party for her son Matthew, one of Will's best friends. It will be a small gathering at their house, a group playdate sort of thing, and she planned it around our schedule. Now Will's sick and probably won't be able to go. My fault? Not at all. Still, I'll feel guilty about it and tempted to send Will if he's feeling at all better (and then he can give all the other kids what he's got--more guilt for moi!).

Someone somewhere wrote that guilt is a wasted emotion because it doesn't make anything happen. I don't know if that's true or not. If I ever felt guilty about things that I was actually at fault for, I'd have a better idea. But I like to save my guilt feelings for stuff I have little to no control over or that don't matter in the least.


I will return to you next week in the Christmas spirit (one hopes). We are decorating this weekend. For the first time, we're going to do some decorating in the boys' rooms; nothing fancy, just some tinsel and lights. Jack is a Christmas fanatic, a fourth grade believer in Santa, who can tell you to the hour how long it is until a) when we'll get our tree; b) Christmas Eve; and C) Christmas day.

And no, that never gets annoying.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Quick Note

Last night, upon our arrival home after Danielle's fabulous 40th birthday party (surprise, Danielle!), my husband opened the pantry door to check on the status of his mousetraps. And what do you know--in mousetrap number 3, a poor (and very dead) mousie was trapped.

I think our individual responses to this sad state of affairs say a lot about us. My husband, of course, let out a victory cry--No mouse is a match for him!

Jack was disgusted. Why couldn't we have used a humane trap, then taken the mouse out back and deposited him beyond our fence?

I refused to look, weenie that I am.

And Will--dear, sweet little Will, said, "Wait, let me go get my camera--I want to take a picture!"

Um, you know, I don't even know what to think about that.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Am So Evolved

So remember earlier in the fall when I was talking about our car pool situation, with the terrible A? I haven't posted about it much since, simply because things quieted down. This is not to say they got better--Jack and A didn't suddenly become friends. They just stopped talking at all. It was weird at first, but after awhile I got used to it.

So on Monday, A gets in the car, turns to Jack, and says, "I'm tired of this feud. Let's call a truce, okay?" Jack said okay, and that was that.

I have mixed feelings about this truce. On the one hand, it's probably a good thing in general, nicer to be friends and what have you. On the other hand, as long as A and Jack weren't talking, A couldn't be a terrible influence on Jack's behavior.

But now they're talking. And today, when I picked them up for school, they asked if they could have a play date. At our house. Well, what's a girl supposed to do?

It's been a long time since A has been to our house, and it wasn't until he padded down the stairs halfway through the playdate that I remembered: When it comes to snacks, A is a self-helper.

I have discussed this with friends, and we've all agreed: There is nothing more annoying than the playdate guest who walks into your kitchen, opens the fridge or the pantry door without so much as a how-do-you-do (and you can be standing right there, it doesn't matter) and helps himself. Or herself. Could be cheese, could be chocolate. Could be the leftover chicken you're planning on reheating for dinner.

Or in the case of A, it's peppermints. He knows I've got 'em, and he wants 'em. So he takes them. Doesn't ask. Doesn't tell. Just grabs.

The thing is, I don't care about the peppermints--or the cookies or the crackers or what have you (it's never bananas or carrot sticks, have you noticed?). It's the principle of the thing. It's the horrible, terrible bad manners of it all.

In the past, I used to fume whenever A stuck his greedy paws into the Brach's Starlite Mint bag and grabbed a fistful. But today, for reasons I can't explain, I was so chill. Maybe today I finally realized it doesn't matter. The food doesn't matter. The etiquette violation doesn't matter.

All that matters is that A is not my kid.

I don't have to raise him, teach him manners or respect. I don't have to worry about whether or not he grows up to be a thief or a drug addict, a college student who cheats on take home exams, an adult who cheats on his wife and his taxes. My only job with A is to do whatever I can to make sure he doesn't break his leg while playing in my backyard. Easy enough.

So I didn't fuss or fume or feel the least bit resentful as I watched this child eat all of my peppermints (I'm pretty sure I saw him stuffing some into his pocket, too). Have as much as you'd like, I said, and smiled a big, benevolent smile. I have transcended. I am Buddha Mom.

At least for today.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Advent Connections

I have to write this morning (I'm working on draft #3 of a novel and feeling like a very bad writer who is just being tolerated by her editor), but I just read a great post over at Our Red House that I so very much want you to read. Aside from some interesting thoughts on being part of a consumer society, Kate has posted two amazing YouTube videos that are well worth watching as we enter into another Christmas season.

Yesterday I found a Web site called Advent Conspiracy (where I first saw one of the videos Kate has posted--it's brilliant), and I think it's well worth checking out if you want to get grounded about the real meaning of Christmas.

We lit the first candle in our Advent wreath on Sunday, and had a good family talk about Christmas, how Christmas has different meanings to different people. For most people it is a winter festival of lights and music and presents, and certainly that's what part of our family's Christmas is about. But that's not the whole story.

We talked about how strange the real Christmas story is--The son of God born in a stable, surrounded by cows? The king of kings born to poor parents who couldn't get a room at a decent hotel?

And, of course, we talked about how hopeful the Christmas story is--God is with us! Amazing.

I hope that each night when we light the candles on the Advent wreath that the boys will remember what's at the heart of Christmas. I love the rest of the Christmas hoopla and so do they, but if you don't remember the strange story that's the real reason for celebration, the rest of it starts to feel a little empty after awhile.

Okay, off to revise and tear my hair out. More soon!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Page 56 Meme

I've been memed! Here's the challenge, from Tracy over at Beyond My Picket Fence:

The rules:

Grab the book nearest you, turn to page 56 and go to the fifth sentence, typing that sentence and a few others around it.

The book closest to me is Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith by James Romaine. Here's what we find on page 56:

"I witnessed the effect of absent parents on the lives of many of my college students. In Lord of the Flies, Golding seems to be reacting to Romanticism by showing our tendency to sin even in a pristine natural environment. I placed the boys in a perfectly controlled man-made garden to suggest that even if man were to have the absolute dominion he desires, the results would be the same."

This is from an interview with the painter Mary McCleary.

Now I'm supposed to meme a few unsuspecting victims of my own. Okay, then, Heather, Dulce and Angela, you're up!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Against Martyrdom

This Thanksgiving I wanted to help. I wanted to help my mother in the kitchen. I wanted to help the children have fun. I came supplied with ample quantities of elbow grease and arts and crafts supplies.

You'll be glad to hear that I did help my mother. I twisted crescent rolls and washed serving spoons. I ironed the table cloth. I also ironed the apron I gave her for her birthday, which she has been wearing and washing but not ironing (I took her to task for this, which for some reason made her laugh and laugh in a If only you could hear yourself kind of way).

Helping the children have fun, it turned out, meant sitting in the basement. My parents have a large, one-story house with a huge unfinished basement. It's perfect for hordes of cousins to run around in. My dad borrows razor scooters and trikes from his neighbors who have kids and sets up a soccer goal whenever his grandchildren come to town en masse, but mostly they like rolling each other around in office chairs (they used the goal to play "Jail") and jumping up and down on the exercise equipment. They're an easy-to-please crowd.

The rule is, when the kids want to play in the basement, there has to be an adult to supervise. It's kind of a drag, but not entirely unreasonable. And in my role as Miss Helper of the Universe, I spent a good deal of time on Thursday supervising. I became the go-to adult when all the cousins wanted to play downstairs. Well, I did come ready to be of service, and so down the stairs I went, my knitting in hand. "Let the others enjoy themselves upstairs," I thought, full of kindness and unselfishness. "I'll tend to the children."

This worked the first three or four times. By the fifth trip downstairs, I could feel little tendrils of resentment beginning to form in my helpful, altruistic soul. I began to note who came down to join me and who never once showed their face in the basement. I began keeping score.

Now, I have known some martyrs in my time, God's little helpers who are the first to jump up from the table to begin clearing the plates (often before everyone is done eating) and who wave people out of the kitchen despite the hundreds of dishes piled up on the counters. As I sat in the basement feeling those little tendrils of resentment taking root and beginning to form little, black buds, I realized I was in danger of becoming one of those people who thinks they're helping but who in fact is ruining everyone else's good time. At any second, I was going to start getting snippy and irritable. I was going to start saying stuff like, "Boy, it must be nice sitting around and talking to other adults while someone else is keeping an eye on your children."

So I went upstairs. I poured myself a nice glass of wine and turned to the group chatting away at the table. "Time for someone else to watch the kids," I said, and one of my brothers popped up and said he'd go, and after that people seemed to do a pretty fair job of taking their turn downstairs. Well, not everyone, but most everyone, and that's about as much as you can hope for.

So it was a nice Thanksgiving. I'm fortunate to have a family that gets along, in-laws and out-laws and by-laws. On Friday, my aunts came over along with two of my cousins and their kids, so it was a big time. By Saturday, I was totally exhausted. My family is full of good will and good cheer and good health, but that doesn't mean that after three days I'm not ready to be shed of them (and them of me, to be perfectly fair). Which is to say, it's good to be home, feeling full and thankful, and ready to be of no help to anyone at all.