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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The anti-toy

I have a very nostalgic photograph of myself, like a Normal Rockwell circa 1981.  I’m wearing my favorite cowboy hat and standing our family room, emulating my mother by playing with a child-sized ironing board and non-heated mini iron.  My mom would save all of my father’s handkerchiefs for me to pretend to iron, before she recollected her basket of laundered snot rags and pressed them for real.
I did this for many years, and eventually graduated to the real deal iron and a life-sized board and yes, I admit, actually ironed those cotton squares.
And then I grew up and got married and told my husband that if he ever wanted anything ironed, he was going to have to do it himself because I would rather scrub toilets with a toothbrush than to stand there and make things flat.  That’s what they invented all of those fancy fabrics for, right?
I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy playing with the iron as a child, copying my mother and trying my best to do just as she did.  I was smiling in the photo, after all.  But now being a parent myself and searching for toys for my own children, I can’t help but shake my head at what is available for our youth. 
It all started when I was looking for bubble bath, a treat for kiddos in this house, and a perfect small gift to give.  Next to it there on the shelf was shaving cream for girls and boys, along with a plastic non-bladed razor so that children could pretend to shave, just like mom and dad!  What fun!  And in strawberry scent!
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t ever think about shaving and say, “what fun.”  I know my husband doesn’t either because he’ll use every excuse he can to grow a big fuzzy beard.  Shaving is about as enjoyable as ironing, and I can only imagine how much I would complain now if my mother had photographed me in my cowboy hat, shaving my legs.
I’m not sure why children’s toys glamorize the rigors of adulthood.  It’s not just the iron and the razor, it’s the weed whacker and the vacuum.  Maybe the industry is trying to brainwash children into associating work with fun, so that the chores suddenly become a game and Mary Poppins starts singing about spoons of sugar.  The reality is, at least for me, that kids should capitalize on the stuff that adults don’t get to do.  What I wouldn’t give for someone to tell me, “sit down and read this book and then go outside and draw a picture of a tree.”  And while I fully understand the validity in pretend play, my kids have never owned a make-believe iron and they never will.
I’ll save that until they’re old enough to operate the real one.  What fun!

Originally written/published 1/4/15

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Unwritten rules of life: the grocery store

We learn from a very young age that rules exist in every facet of our lives.  Rules govern the way we live within our own home and within our community.  We are told how fast we are allowed to drive, how long we can borrow library books, and the most putrid of all rules, how long we have to wait after eating before we go for a swim.
Personally, I am a rule follower.  Most likely it stems from having very strict parents, but I can’t help but think that most rules are set into place for good reasons.  Granted, some rules are meant to be broken because we’ve all eaten a hot dog and jumped in a pool.  But usually rules are there to keep us in line and living happily and safely as a group of humans cohabiting on this beautiful planet. 
Yet rules are a funny thing—often they are very in-your-face, like the sign on the door to stores that state you have to wear shoes and clothes to enter.  Other times, they are just not written for anyone to see.  These are the rules that should be ingrained in our minds so internally that there should be no need to actually have them printed.  These are rules we should follow without even thinking about them, making us kind and decent people.
But then I go into the grocery store and it appears that these basic rules of human nature simply aren’t there.  In a place where so many of us convene in order to nourish ourselves with necessities, it seems that the rule of common courtesy is out of stock or was somehow left in the parking lot.
So here are a few unwritten rules for the grocery store:
1.     Please do not use the self-check out if you have 75 items and are paying with small, crumpled bills.
2.     Please do not stand with your cart blocking the sour cream and talk on the phone for 5 minutes so that no one can make vegetable dip.
3.     Please do not stop your cart in the center of the aisle so that no one can pass in either direction.  Also, if you are happened to be stopped and see that you are obviously holding up traffic, actually move your cart to the side.
4.     Please do not open a can of an energy drink and leave it with the cereal.  It’s very unattractive, trust me.
5.     Please do not cut in line at the deli counter.  We all saw you, and we need salami, too.
6.     If you happen to pass someone you know, please chat politely and quickly, don’t look to see what is in their cart, and always remember: friends don’t let friends break unwritten grocery store rules.

Originally written/published 1.11.15.

The two-headed January

I recently learned from a very special person that the month of January is named after the Roman God of Janus, a dude with two heads that point in opposite directions.  In Roman culture, he was the God of transitions and new beginnings.
The person from whom I learned this tidbit of knowledge is someone I’ve known for a few years and as time would have it, has decided to retire from a position she held for quite a while.  And she held it well.  Without going into details, I’ll just say that her bootprints will be well missed among the oaks and maples.
But there she was, even in her last days at her job, passing on wisdom to people like me, that January has two heads so that it may look in the past as well as the future.  I look at her past and admire what she has done in so many ways.  Her future as a person I may not know, but the future of her position as a professional, well, let’s just say I’ll get a first hand look.
My month of January will look forward onto a new job for myself, partially stepping into some of the roles that that wise woman once held.  To say there are large shoes to fill would be an understatement, so for that I’ll just cross my fingers and give it all I’ve got.  I’ll think of Janus as I go, forever looking forward without forgetting to look back at those who came before.
It’s easy to start a year anew by turning over a new leaf or a new page in the calendar, especially if it’s one of those funny ones with a different cartoon for each day of the year.  Even easier is to say that you’re going to do things differently, to make resolutions that you probably won’t keep, and lofty goals for the year ahead.  I know, because I do it every single year without fail.
But from what I’ve learned, the easiest thing would be a little bit of everything.  To keep one head looking on, that aspires for a fresh start and that isn’t afraid to keep going, but also appreciating the past and all that got you to where you are right now.  If I didn’t eat my weight in cookies and pork roast over the holidays, would there be a need to add an extra day of exercise each week?
As for myself in my new position, I’ll be looking back—way back—to my time when I was a little girl, trying to identify rocks and plants I found in my yard, when I first started learning that “dirt don’t hurt.” And I will look forward at the chance to share that with as many people who will listen.

Originally written/published 12/28/14.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Game vs. Closet

‘Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the house, kids were occupied with new toys and gadgets, dad was back to work,  and mom breathed a sigh of relief so big that you might think she would pass out from lack of oxygen.  Maybe it’s just me, but the holiday season gets harder and harder every time I flip the calendar to December.  This year, things got so very busy that I baked one kind of cookie.  That used premade refrigerated dough.  I am ashamed.
But after the giant buildup and the all-nighters where I wake up with tape stuck to my face and snuggled in wrapping paper, suddenly things seems to pause.  All at once, the speed of life goes from mach 3 to the pace of a snowflake, floating down in the stillness of winter.  The stress of finding something red or green to wear has disappeared and as much fun as it is to see friends and family and hug people you barely know, you find yourself with no where to go, and nothing to do. 
Relishing that bit of time with not much on the to-do list, I find myself sitting and thinking of what I should do to fill the day.  If I was an animated cartoon, I’m sure something like an angel would pop up on one shoulder, and a devil on the other.  Except it’s not an angel and a devil.  It’s a board game on one side, and an organized closet on the other. 
The board game chants from one side: play with us!  The kids got me, a great new game, for Christmas and they are begging you to play with them.  They’ll be back at school and off to college and married before you know it.  Play me!  Play me!
And the closet pipes up from the other side: clean me!  You don’t want to play that boring old board game again.  Didn’t you already play it fourteen times yesterday?  You finally have a free day.  Why not get a little organization in your life and go through these boxes and papers and whatever else has clogged me up for so long?  Clean me!  Clean me!
(In my world, there is usually also copious yelling from the laundry: wash me!  And the pantry: cook me!  And the floor: scrub me!  Etc.)

But in the silence of winter, when life slows to the speed of a snowflake, I have no problem choosing which shoulder to turn to.  As much as I would like to someday see the floor of my office or choose a clean shirt from a hanger instead of a clothes basket, I would much rather not pass up a chance to lay on the floor by a fire and school my kids in a board game.  Time flies whether you’re having fun or cleaning your closet.

Originally written/published 12/21/14.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Passing the oplatek

Each Christmas Eve, I stand my ground and won’t let traditions die.  Partly I’m a stickler for them because I cherish the unity of people in celebration and recognizing the specialness of any given day, and partly because I love to eat good food.  And as with most festivals that involve heritage, there is food involved.  Delicious, complicated, once-a-year food that takes hours if not days to prepare and mere moments to devour.
Because my family is of Polish heritage, we have celebrated Wigilia on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember.  It is one of my most favorite days of the year because just seeing all of the dishes set out with the smell of onions that completely permeate the walls takes me back to my grandmother’s dining room.  If I close my eyes I can see her china cabinet and feel my great grandmother’s mushy peas and barley stuck in my throat and taste the milk while I force myself to gag down her old country recipes.
The meal itself consists of an odd number of dishes, all meatless, and contains wonderful things like pierogi, mushrooms, baked apples, and sauerkraut, all of which need to be tasted even if you don’t like them.  I drool just thinking of it.  Any number of other little special things go into the event, but the older I get, the more I find myself finding one of them to be extra important: the opłatek.    (Don’t even try to pronounce it unless you know what I’m talking about.  For reading purposes, say it like OH-PLAT-KEY.)
It’s really nothing more than a Christmas wafer, a thin and rectangular concoction of flour and water with the imprint of a religious symbol of the season.  But it’s what you do with it, or what my family has always done, is what is so very cool.
The head of the household starts with the opłatek and to his wife, offers up a personal wish to her.  She accepts his wish, breaks off a piece of the wafer, puts it in her mouth and wishes him something back as he breaks off and eats a piece.  She then makes a wish for the next person around the table as that person breaks off a small piece and so on and so forth until it and all of the wishes goes all the way around the table.
A simple ritual, really, but hearing your family wish each other health and happiness year after year never gets old to me.
In fact, if I could, I would have a table as big as a football field and line the whole thing with people I love and pass around the world’s biggest opłatek and wish each and every one of them, and all of you, a happy and healthy holiday season and a new year.  And I won’t even make you eat the sauerkraut, unless you want to.

Originally written/published 12/14/14

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

We’ll take that one

The lyrics of one of my favorite Christmas songs tells about snow crunching and people rushing around and above all the bustle, you can still here Bing Crosby singing about those “Silver Bells.”  Of course when this song was first written and recorded in1950, the parents of the time had no idea what holiday hustle and bustle meant.  I’m pretty sure if a mom of 64 years ago waltzed into my family’s crazy life this December, she might pass out right there with her pearl necklace dangling around her neck.
So it’s a pretty good thing for the people living in this house that we prefer less than perfect Christmas trees, because I think my exact words to my husband were, “Dear, we either get a tree in the next half hour or December 20th, because that’s the only free time we have between now and the big day.” 
Even though life would be easier with an artificial tree, we just can’t let go of the tradition of a chopped down beauty that although ended its life early, might not have ever been there in the first place.  Artificial trees are perfectly shaped, don’t come with random bits of bird nests or pine cones, don’t cover you in sap, and if they are pre-lit, don’t offer you the opportunity to spear your flesh with hundreds of little needles while you fight with your spouse about the correct way to hang lights on a Christmas tree.  Where’s the fun in that? 
Some families make an entire day of it, waltzing through acres of trees, singing carols and sipping cocoa until the heavens open and they find that one idyllic tree.  They take nostalgic photos and dads saw it down, feeling a bit like a lumberjack, while the rest of the family enjoys the crisp air of a winter day and potentially frostbite.
Other families have 20 minutes and drive to the parking lot at the grocery store (which actually sells some pretty great trees) and avoid getting run over to walk through the dozen or so trees set up where each member chooses a different one and arguments ensue.

But as it goes, if mama ain’t happy, no one happy, so that family always goes with mom’s choice which, I might add, is a wise decision.  Because this mama only chooses the trees with a little imperfection.  If we wanted a perfect tree, we’d buy one that we stored in a box in the basement all year.  Real Christmas trees are about character and the smell of fir, and hanging extra ornaments in the big hole because the bare side had to go up against the wall.  We tend to hang so many ornaments that by the end of it you can barely even tell it’s a tree at all.  And if there was ever a bald spot or a crooked limb, not even a 1950 mom would be able to find it.  Not even after she woke up and straightened her pearls.

Originally written/published 12/7/14.
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