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Thursday, December 20, 2012

She with the ugliest tree…

We’ve been married thirteen years, and by that calculation it’s been 13 years since my prettiest Christmas tree.  Young and full of energy, we were gifted beautiful glass ornaments for wedding gifts.  Each was packaged in safe space age padding, and I specifically remember hanging each and every beautiful one.  Delicate glass icicles hung and the thinnest of tinted glass sparkled in the soft glow of the Christmas lights.
Back then, without the general rigors of family keeping me overly occupied, I actually did something I can barely bring myself to mention.  I, um, used to watch crafting television shows. I thought it would be decorative and clever to tie tiny rustic bows on the tips of each limb, and I remember posing by the tree that took me hours upon hours to embellish, wearing my best Martha Stewart grin.  Those were some different times.
Nowadays they are but faint whispers on a faded photograph of times gone by and thankfully never to return.
When you start having children, you never really think about things like Christmas trees.  You think about hanging extra stockings and leaving cookies for Santa.  You think about the fascination of Christmas morning and the piles of perfectly wrapped gifts with giant bows arranged underneath the billowing tree, each ornament radiant.
You don’t think about glitter glue.
You don’t think about popsicle sticks.
You don’t think about wads of dough with buttons stuck in there willy nilly that is so heavy that you have to either hang it directly from the trunk or reinforce the poor chosen branch with steel rebar.
But when you’re a parent (and a good one, I might mention) that’s what you get.
This year as we set out to decorate our tree that our children chose (read: not the one that mom wanted) we opened our boxes of ornaments from years past.  There they were-- a thousand different decorations all placed ever not so gently between wadded up newspaper and others just tossed in with the box of lights because we must have missed a few last year during disassembly.  
I don’t know about everyone else, but when it comes to the holidays and my kids, I run myself ragged trying to make each year a memorable one.  We annually have some commemorative ornament that my children make, and I save and savor every one.  Sure, when they are young there isn’t much ornamental about a piece of wood with some fuchsia paint smeared across half of it, but still I cherish it.  When you have three children, though, they start piling up over the years.  And then they go to school and if they’re lucky, some sort of crafting class.  And if each kid makes an ornament with you, in school, and at a class, I am up at least nine ornaments each lucky Christmas.
When I opened the boxes this year, I looked long and hard at what I was faced with.  The delicate crystal icicles were still there, amazingly in one piece, right next to a glittered snowflake that had somehow maintained a good portion of its red sparkles even though the slightest touch of it leaves you shimmering for days.  I needed to make a choice.
You may have guessed, but I hung the glittery glob.  And the fifteen pound hunks of dough.  And the giant photographs in foam photo frames.  And the paper cup turned angel.  And the clothespin reindeer made by my husband as a child.  And even the pile of sticks that I glued together and tied with the ugliest of golden ribbon so very many, many years ago.
When I had finished, I stepped back and looked at the most beautiful tree I have ever seen, with nary a speck of fancy and not even a dollop of taste.  Just a bunch of the loveliest love I have ever seen hanging from tree branches, even the ones drooping low from the fifteen pound d├ęcor.

ps.  The look on our dog's face gets me every. single. time.  

When the star touches the ceiling. Then it's big enough.

There is never a time when I want more to live in a house with a vaulted ceiling than during December, when we go shopping for a Christmas tree.  Not because I really long to decorate and manage anything so massive, and not that I really want to rearrange my whole house to accommodate the girth for something so large.  Mostly I want to live up to the challenge and the memories of my youth, when the star brushing against the ceiling was all my parents really wanted for Christmas.
You know how, when you look back at the way your parents acted when you were a child, you stop and chuckle and wonder deep down in your heart if you missed something because there’s no way they could have been that nutty on purpose?  That’s how I feel during the annual event that is the Christmas tree.  In my own life, I just can’t imagine trying to tackle anything near to what they did.  (I think they must have sniffed a little too much eggnog.)
But these are my memories, my wonderful and crazy memories.
We used to borrow my Grandfather’s brown El Camino, whose nickname I cannot disclose to anyone outside my family.  He loved that vehicle and it surprises me to this day that he’d let us drive it out into what we thought was the country on dark snowy nights.  It always used to be dark and snowy when we got our Christmas tree.  Global warming is really ruining this for our kids.
Off we’d go, my father driving, my mother white-knuckling the door handle as we slid down the road, and I, the only child, was smashed between them on the seat that was never ever comfortable.  We’d put on a cassette tape of some country artist singing carols and change all the words and laugh our heads off until we pulled down the gravel drive and parked.
“Give me the biggest tree you’ve got,” my dad would say.  And the salesman, who grew to know us over the years, would lead us into a special garage where the extra large trees were kept.
Some years, there were no trees big enough to satisfy my parents, but when there was, life was good.  They’d strap it across the top of the El Camino and it would dangle dangerously in front of the windshield, impairing our vision and further increasing my mother’s grip on the door handle.
We always made it home safely, even with the laughing spells and the snowy nights.
Furniture was shifted, the bright lights were turned on, and they would strain their backs attempting to get it in the house and, by some bit of a miracle, standing straight enough for my father’s liking.  At this point, when the tree was in and up, he would disappear, leaving my mother to tackle the rest.
With the sweet sounds of Willie Nelson singing “Pretty Paper” coming from the record player, she’d prop the extension ladder against the wall and start stringing lights, strand after strand after strand.  I think it must have taken 4,000 ornaments to cover the tree, but all were hung with care using bits of string and make-shift hangers made from distorted paper clips.  We hid the Christmas Spider and hung tinsel everywhere that the dog couldn’t reach.  (A lesson was once learned about how much dogs love to eat tinsel.)  The nativity scene was set up under the tree, and while I moved the Three Wise Men around to bring their gifts to the Baby Jesus, my mom would carefully place the star on the top so that it just barely touched the tip of the vaulted ceiling.  
When it was finished, boxes were simply stashed away, the bright lights turned dim, and with the soft glow of the giant tree, Willie Nelson kept sang me to sleep.

Friday, December 7, 2012

RACK-ing ‘em up for Christmas

Come December, we are all suddenly reminded of the spirit of giving.   It’s more than just buying presents for your family and friends, it seems that the whole giving thing has spread out and bubbled over onto every bit of life.  Teacher gifts, extra tipping, kettles of every color.  Every organization I know has some sort of charity for which they are raising money, and I admit at times I feel overly obligated to give away everything I have and then some to the point where, honestly, I get a little exhausted by it all.
But even with the barest of pockets, I still find myself wrapped up in the spirit of giving because it just feels so good.  As if you can actually feel your heart getting bigger every time you do it but you just can’t quite explain it.  There are plenty of places and programs that I feel I need to donate to, but it is the other small things that I don’t really have to do that get me giddier than a gingerbread girl.
That’s why I decided to RACK it up this year, an incredible idea that I admit I didn’t create, but wish I did.  RACK stands for “Random Acts of Christmas Kindness” and while the acronym is pretty catchy, the whole act of RACK-ing is starting to catch on, too.   You can do it however you like, but a lot of people like to count down the days to Christmas by doing one small act each day in December.
With dozens of ideas online, it’s hard to pick what random acts of kindness we’ll end up doing.  Hang a candy cane on a few parked cars?  Stash a dollar bill with a note in the toy section of a store?  Tape a quarter to a vending machine?  Surprise a favorite librarian/postman/etc. with a treat?  Perhaps just something as heartfelt as writing a note to a friend telling them how much they mean to you for no reason at all?
Being kind will never be more fun.  And with little clever notes attached, it’s sure to bring holiday cheer to others and snickers of delight to our family.
My son wasn’t quite as sold on the idea as I first was.  The thought of sneaking a gift to a stranger was appealing to me—kind of like the opposite of playing a practical joke on someone and still getting the benefit of hiding in the corner and watching the action.  His response was simply, “but why don’t you want them to know that you did it?  And how come you are giving gifts to strangers when you don’t have to?”
And then came a long and wonderful explanation about paying it forward, how one simple act of kindness might just change the mood of someone’s day, and maybe that person will be inspired to spread a bit of joy to someone else.   “It’s a lovely and vicious cycle,” I said, nearly choking up by the end of my long drawn out soliloquy.   “There’s so much bad in the world, that we have to remember to celebrate and share the good.”
And so that’s what we’ll do, as we celebrate the days leading up to Christmas, counting our blessings and sharing our joys with people we know and total strangers as we RACK it up all over town.  
And if even half of the RACK’ed people decide to spread their own random kindness, and just one half of those people decide that a-RACK-ing they will go, what a crazy happy mark we will make on this season of caring and sharing.  And sneaking and snickering.  And non-planned niceness.  And randomly RACKing and making the world a better place.

Print your own!  Spread some cheer!  Trust me, you'll love it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Man vs. Woman: brain style

I once read an article that perfectly explained the woman’s brain.  (I’m guessing now that I’ve got the attention of plenty of men.)  So often in my life, while harboring so many tasks and duties in my head that I feel like it is near explosion, I go back to that tidbit of psychological knowledge and feel just a tiny bit better.  There’s just something so comforting about knowing that you’re not alone and understanding why you are the way you are.
Because personally I know that sometimes I feel like a cartoon character with my tongue hanging out and dripping, running so fast that the artist only has to draw my image once when I start, then a giant blur bouncing off all four walls, and then finally again when I crash into one of them and collapse in a heap with little stars and birdies flying in circles above my head.
This particular article clearly depicted a man’s and a woman’s brain by using the analogy of a room with doors around the walls.  Each door was labeled something specific.  “Work.”  “Children.”  “Chores.”  Other such things.
The great difference is the manner in which all of the doors are visited.  Men apparently open only one door at a time, totally immersing themselves in whatever activity their brains tell them to choose.  This explains why my husband can watch his favorite TV show while I run around like the aforementioned drooling cartoon and not even notice.  It also explains why he is unable to put his dirty dishes into the dishwasher and instead sets them directly on the counter, on top of the empty dishwasher.  He simply can’t open that door.  In his brain.  Or the dishwasher.
If you are a woman, you might already guess what our room of doors might look like.  Our set of doors is seemingly larger, especially if we take on the role of mother or homemaker.  My own personal set of doors might rival a fun house at times, with doors labeled things like “work,” “laundry,” “food,” “shopping,” “sewing,” “cleaning up dog barf,” “scrubbing grass stains from my son’s pants,” “forcing the children to bathe,” “instrument practice dictator,” and just a few thousand more.  The distinction with the female door system is that we are mentally unable to close doors.  Or rather, the doors just don’t ever shut themselves.  While I am trying to make dinner, the children need help with homework, someone is yelling for help from the bathroom, and inevitably the phone will ring.  And it’ll be my mother, who is making dinner too, and can’t remember the recipe and will test the hinges on my ol’ memory door which is getting rustier and rustier each long and weary day.  
I realize that I am making generic gender generalizations here and that assumptions cause nothing but trouble.  But there is scientific backup.
A study published in the American Sociological Review showed that women are indeed better multitaskers than their male counterparts.   For men and women in similar working situations, women spend an average of 17 hours per week on chores, compared to men’s 10 hours on the same tasks.  (My husband would argue that they are just more efficient.  I would argue otherwise after I finished with the silent treatment.)
The study also mentions that the time that dads doing multiple chores made them feel pleased about it.  The mothers were more likely to be stressed out in the same situations.
I can’t help but wonder if they stopped here to ask me my opinions, but I was conked out in a pile of drool in the corner, and the circling birdies scared them away.

Batty for bats

Even in the aftermath of Halloween, when a few soggy decorations linger and pumpkins begin to rot, I can’t help but think about bats.  And thinking about bats takes me back in time to the most stressful interview of my life. At first I was not asked about myself at all.  I was asked about our flying mammalian friend.
There I was, a high school student still trying to learn to like the taste of coffee and trying not to look like a dork, and I sit down to my first interview for a college scholarship, and she asks me about bats.
Nothing specific, just something like, “tell me about bats.”
Truthfully, I don’t remember how I answered the question.  I was so nervous that probably all that came out were a bunch of “uh’s” and “um’s” and a trickle of drool down my quivering chin.  I think I spent a lot of time questioning in my head what she wanted to hear, if she wanted to hear about bats as they are in the movies, or bats as they are in real life.
I could have told her that bats are mean and vicious creatures.  They fly around on spooky nights and seek out their human prey.  I could have told her that they make nests in the hair of well-coiffed ladies and have a thousand little bat babies that will suck your blood to fuel their evil plans to overtake the mortal world.
I could have also told her that bats are blind, and that they all have rabies and are just waiting to infect every non-suspecting person and animal.  I could have told her they are dirty, nasty flying rodents when they’re not roosting in Transylvania or transforming into a caped villain.
But as I mentioned before, I pretty much just say “derf.”
Now that I’m older and wiser and generally a lover of things falling into the nature category, I know exactly what I would have told that nice woman who scared the bat wing right out of me.
Bats are fantastic, amazing creatures.  They are not blind, and in fact all bats can see.  They just prefer echolocation, something that we’ll get back to later.  They do not in fact, suck the human blood of passersby, but instead most bats feed on insects.  The little brown bat (and that’s its real name, I promise) is a ferocious insect-eating machine and can eat thousands of them in one night!  I don’t know about anyone else, but I could do with a few thousand less mosquitos in the dead of summer.
These flying mammals are not rodents, but something of their very own special caliber.  Their wings are similar to our hands, and they even have something like a thumb, making me wish I could train one and name him The Fonz. Their cute little faces are not only cute, but they’re quite clean.  They groom themselves many times a day, which is something I wish my kids could manage.  And no matter how lovely your hair looks, a bat will not make a beeline for the curls on your head.  Bats roost in small cavities that provide protection, not even something super extra strength hair spray can provide.
But my favorite thing about bats is their sense of echolocation.  They send out signals and wait for the waves to bounce off their flying meals so they know where they are and can dive bomb them with more energy and speed than I’ve seen in decades.
And if I could do that interview again, I’d reschedule it at dusk when the bats just appear like little darting specks in the sky.  I would grab a handful of pebbles and say to that nice lady, “bats are great.  Check this out.”  Ad I’d toss a tiny pebble out in front of a bat and watch as it located and tried to catch it, swooping down with swiftness and grace, but never quite catching the stone.
I think I may have gotten a full ride.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Life is like a pile of leaves

Look out, Forrest Gump.  Life may be like a box of chocolates to you, but ‘round these parts when fall is in full swing, I’d like to argue that life is like a pile of leaves.
And Shakespeare might debate whether to be or not to be, but when it comes to that pile of leaves, we might argue to rake or not to rake.  That is the question in late October.
The glorious colors that light up our autumnal days with trees of bright reds and yellows eventually lose their ability to hang on and fall ever so gracefully to their final demise wherever the wind may take them.  And by wherever the wind may take them, I mean all over your lawn.  At this point in the season, we have a few options.  We can rake them ourselves, hire someone, invest in a leaf blower so the job goes more swiftly but annoys the neighbors with the loud noise, grind them up with a lawnmower, or just leave them be.
According to the experts, the option is up to you.  Some say that you should mulch them with a lawnmower and add delicious nutrients to your lawn.  The process of leaves decomposing is like dumping bottles of vitamins all over the ground.  Look at the dark, rich soil on the forest floor.   Others, however, say that you need to remove the leaves so that they don’t rot and suffocate out the grass below, especially if your grass has not yet gone dormant for the season.  And still other don’t really care about their lawn, but use the actual act of raking to beef up their muscles or punish their children.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.  On one hand, I appreciate the natural cycle involved with returning the nutrients of the leaves to the Earth.  There’s a large part of me that knows that messing with Mother Nature is never the best way to go.  But the rest of me can’t go through autumn without a bright day of good old-fashioned leaf fun.
And so starts the annual progression.
It starts with rakes of many sizes for all sizes of children involved.  (And yes, I include myself in that category.)  After only a few minutes, someone has tired arms and someone else wants some apple cider.  Pressing on, there are intermittent leaf fights and any small piles we may have formed are destroyed by the dog.
By this time, it’s lunch, and we all eat steamy soup on the back porch.  And while we eat, we hear the roar of the leaf blower starting up, meaning that dad has had just about enough of our autumnal shenanigans, and before we know it, there’s a huge pile of leaves waiting for the “one, two, three…jump!” 
But when it comes to leaf blowing, anything goes.  Anything, and everything.  Every small toy that was hiding under cover.  Every small stick with the point as sharp as a needle.  Every bit of physical evidence in the yard that we own a dog.  It’s all whirled up in the tornado of beautiful, inviting leaves and piled and ready for you to jump, too.
The safe side of you knows that diving headfirst isn’t the smartest thing, that there’s a good chance that you’ll get poked by a stick or nosedive into something rather stinky.  You could whack your head on a missing yard tool, and there’s a 100% chance that leaf litter will stick in your socks and hair and everywhere else.
But the rest of you ignores all of that and before you know it there’s less “pile” and more “kid” and less “worry” and more “smile” and you realize that life is like a pile of leaves.  You never know what you’re going to hit.
But you jump anyway.

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