Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On Christmas Cards...

In 2003, I received a Christmas card from my son Jack. This was only odd, because at the time he was about four months old. There he was—not the best picture of him mind you—in one of those typical drugstore slicks with a framed heading that read, “Baby’s First Christmas.” Underneath? Nothing but “Jack Emerson.” Apparently, I had not sent my Christmas cards out in a timely enough fashion for my mother-in-law, so she had taken it upon herself to convert a photo we’d shared with her via e-mail and sent them to our entire collection of family and friends. The big kicker was that our baby announcements had yet to be sent, so this was Jack’s very first introduction to the world at large.

It’s been years now, so I’m over it, but I can say with conviction that in the moment I wanted to muster up the little energy I had left from months of sleepless nights, and max out my credit cards for an airline ticket home so I could see her face when I called her every name I could eek out without taking a breath. I’d also rehearsed giving her permission to queue up child services, because I was pretty sure his baby book wouldn’t be filled out by the time he was 16 either. The fact is, my mother-in-law is one of the sweetest women I know…and me? I’m not usually that insane, so I can only conclude that the subject of Christmas cards just has a tendency to bring out a little of the crazy in all of us.

Christmas Cards. Just the mere mention of the phrase has the little hairs on my neck doing their best tiny soldier impressions. I literally start to panic sometime toward the end of summer, suddenly desperate to find a beach, crisp linen shirts and bribe my boys to hold hands for more than two seconds while my digital camera pauses between takes and misses every perfect shot. Then I think, “No, a Fall setting would be nice,” but before I know it, it’s December, the trees are bare and I’m dragging the both of them to the mall hoping that the Santa on duty has a good sense of humor.

In any case, Christmas card season calls for a special group of coping skills, and in order to survive it with any modicum of success, I believe you must first decide who you are. For instance, you may fancy yourself a determined idealist and therefore will cling fiercely to the hope that all the stars will align and you’ll find that perfect smiling, good hair day, stain free moment regardless of how long it takes. Or maybe you aspire to be the carefree technologist. In this case, capturing the perfect moment holds no anxiety for you because your computer skills allow you to fabricate it. These folks simply find the best faces out of the year-long photo library, pair them with bodies that are all facing forward and Photoshop them together to simulate perfection. Of course if you want to go this route, I would highly suggest that you’re already competent in this area to avoid ending up somewhere between Joan Rivers and a Picasso. Now if you’re a true realist, you’ll simply commit to the inevitable failure of it all and use a card that has separate spots for each child. I’d like to meet the designer who came up with that idea first. I’m thinking it was a woman. Whoever it was, their bonus was NOT big enough. But my personal favorite and own tendency is this: embrace the comedy. Put out whatever tragic attempt you’ve made with all the kids on Santa’s lap and send out the card with little Susie bawling, the baby spewing something green on Santa’s beard, and wee Johnny making an extra special mug for the camera.

Regardless of where it all ends up, I wish you more success than failure. But for those of you who do have success, God forbid you get it totally right, because come January 1st you’ll be the ones wondering how you’re going to top it next year. Good luck with that and the happiest of holidays to yours from ours.

Friday, November 7, 2008

On Thanksgiving...

I can’t help but laugh as I thumb through the truckloads of catalogs that find their way into our mailbox this time of year. I especially get a kick out of retailers like Pottery Barn Kids who portray the darling —and let’s face it, they ARE darling —place settings, Turkey headbands and themed utensils amid fresh-faced, squeaky clean, equally attractive children playing nicely alongside the idyllic setting. We all know the parallel, more realistic universe finds my son Jack and his cousin Cole playing swordfight with the forks or using the newly ironed napkins in a phantom bullfight. The centerpiece cornucopia has been dumped for its much more entertaining use as a makeshift bull horn. My toddler is busying himself pulling the remaining placemats off the table and subsequently wearing a path on the floor from the dining room to the kitchen, on his way to hand them to me one by one. And last but not least, one, if not all four have somehow managed to stain their holiday best in the first five minutes. And by fourth I mean my 41-year-old husband.

But it’s a tradition, right? Perhaps not what I had imagined when I gave birth and flashed forward to all my perfect holidays and Christmas photos, but a tradition nonetheless. Most of us have family traditions that warm our hearts – like my tiny grandmother painstakingly making at least 15 yummy pumpkin pies from scratch every Thanksgiving. And then there are those you’d rather forget, like at least two of my cousins ending the evening not speaking to each other over something as silly as duplicating efforts on the deviled eggs. Some traditions we’d like to keep and others, well, we could do without. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, it’s never too late to start a family tradition that’s all your own.

Like many in Northwest Arkansas, we live far away from our families. But it only took one painful trip back home for us to decide to permanently avoid the busiest travel holiday of the year. While peaceful, it made us a bit lonely so we invented the Thanksgiving “Leftovers” dinner—a tongue-in-cheek reference to all the leftover friends who also stick around and have no plans of their own. Our friends here are like family, so we couldn’t imagine a better swap. I also dug up a number of other good ideas for starting Thanksgiving traditions. Here are a few of my favorites:

Write Your Children a Letter: Spend some time thinking about all they’ve accomplished, how they’ve changed and all the reasons you’ve felt blessed to have them in your life the past year. If they’re old enough, read them aloud after dinner, and if they’re still in diapers, put them away for safe keeping.

Keep a Blessings Box: It’s too late this year, but you could at least decorate a special box and paper cut outs with your children in preparation. All year long, write down every wonderful thing that’s happened to the family – the baby finally slept through the night, Lucy got her first “A,” Dad earned a promotion — then date it, and put it in the box for reading aloud on Thanksgiving. It’s also a good way to keep a record of the year if you’re anything like me and still can’t seem to finish the baby book.

Remember: Spend time remembering family members who have passed. Talk about all the things that made Grandma Dorothy special or tell funny stories about crazy Uncle George. Bring pictures of them out to share. This is a great way to give your children insight into their family history, and the lives of people they may have never had the opportunity to meet.

Giving Thanks Turkey: Have your kids cut out the head and body of a turkey with construction paper. Art degree not necessary. Hang it on the wall. Make several feathers in fun colors and set aside. Starting November 1st, after dinners each night, have all members of your family take a feather and write down or tell you what they’re thankful for so it can be written on a feather and attached to your turkey. On Thanksgiving, read them all again. If you’re really ambitious, you could date and laminate the feathers as a fun reminder of how your kid’s answers have evolved. This year, I’m pretty sure my five year old would say that he’s thankful for “snack.”

Focus on the “’Giving”: Have a family vote on which local shelter (battered women, homeless, animal) or nursing home you’d like to give and spend time collecting warm clothes, toys, food, etc. to donate. You could even spend a little time for a visit. There’s nothing more healing than a dose of happy children on a day that can often be quite lonely.

An Oldie, but Goodie:
Find a soup kitchen that needs volunteers and as a family help cook and serve meals to those less fortunate. My mother had us do this as children, and it really helps to give a “face” to the lesson. Make sure to call ahead and find out if they still need people and/or there’s a prior orientation of some kind.

While you’re all deciding if any of these sound good to you, I’ll just look forward too fluffing the dressing while intermittently checking the temperature on the turkey. Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t go on with a straight face. I admit it. I can’t even touch a naked chicken. My husband does all the Thanksgiving cooking – and quite frankly, it’s the reason our holiday doesn’t come to a rousing end at the local emergency room for a stomach pump. Now that’s a Thanksgiving tradition I’d like to keep!

Monday, October 6, 2008

On Halloween...

Ah, October! The crisp fall air, the smell of burning wood, and, for me, the most dreaded of all holidays: Halloween. I know, I know – there are those who love Halloween so much they get married on October 31st…on purpose. And clearly Halloween is so popular among the masses that Hollywood is on like, Sequel 26 of its original thriller of the same name. Michael Myers: stay in the ground. Please!

Anyway, Halloween and I just don’t get along. Okay, so I don’t like to be scared. I don’t like to dress-up. And quite frankly, I was not born with the creative genes necessary to pull off Halloween successfully in any way, shape or form.

Perhaps my ghosts of Halloweens past can illuminate the source of my Hallo-phobia. For instance, there’s the fact that as a child I dressed up as a hobo five years in a row. I’m not kidding. While I have a vague memory of this sad testament to my lack of creativity, lest I forget, there they are in the scant photo archives of my childhood. The conversation usually goes something like this.

Me: “Oh, here I am as a hobo, what year is this? “
Mom: “1977.”
Me: “Hmm…wait, here I am as a hobo with my ‘Mork & Mindy’ suspenders…”
Mom: “Yep, 1978.”
Me: “Hobo with creepy clown make-up?”
Mom: “1979, Honey...”

I was the third child, so while the photo albums of my older siblings take up yards of space, mine, mere feet. Sure, no memorable shots of my first steps, and yet five years of hobo. Good times.

For ghost number two, it’s important to mention that when forced into wearing a costume, I have forever thrived on finding the path of least resistance. I mean – you’ve gotta appreciate the sheer brilliance of “Wind-blown Guy” - a little hair spray to create a side Mohawk, and a wire hanger to direct your tie in the direction of the gale means your good to go. Or “Static Cling.” Finally, a purpose for all those socks that emerge from the dryer as singles, hanging around in the vain hope that one day its match will show up. And then there’s “Gum on the Bottom of a Shoe.” Just tie a sneaker on the top of your head and wear a pink shirt. Unless, of course, you decide to be Big Red. (from experience, on this last idea, I’d like to suggest modeling classes and a course of pre-emptive Advil).

All that being said, there was one year that my tattered list of excuses failed to spare me from braving one such celebratory party of pain. It was at my house. Yes, thanks to an overzealous roommate who wouldn’t listen to reason, we ended up hosting a party with invitations that featured the three most frightening words I know: “costume not optional.” I mapped out my do’s and don’ts: Don’t want to look like a dork. Do want to check off the costume “yes” box. Do want to minimize prep time, but still want to be as clever as the Halloween dysfunctional can get. So I’ve got it. My boyfriend dresses up like the local station’s weather man and me, I’m “Partly cloudy with a chance of rain.” My mother, for reasons unknown, had hung on to a vintage ‘80’s blue and white tie-dye outfit complete with a t-shirt clip to cinch the shirt to the side of the leggings. Nice. And the utter beauty of it all? Only a few clumps of cheap sewing batting were needed to finish the look. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, my boyfriend and I got in a huge fight that night and we broke up somewhere in the middle of the festivities. So there I was, walking around my own party, nothing more than an awkward forecast. Oh, with one update – chances of rain just got better.

As a mother, my contentious relationship with Halloween has only intensified. About two years ago, my oldest son, who was three at the time, dressed up as Elvis. This kid believes in committing to his character. After a sweaty night of party hopping, he threw up all over me, his mini blow-up guitar, and his glitzy polyester suit. I don’t even want to mention his shiny new shoes. It still brings a little tear to my eye…and sometimes, even a little nostalgic wretch. Truly astounding what can be expelled from so tiny a body.

But the plot thickens. Today, at five, my son Jack is dead-set on being Jango Fett from Star Wars, even though he has zero understanding of what happened a long time ago, in that galaxy far, far away. The costume comes with a blaster gun which serves as the perfect loophole to our “no guns allowed” rule and really, what more do you need to know? This in and of itself would be fine, but he’s now decided that a “family costume” is really the best idea he’s ever had. This means, of course, his little brother would be a perfect Baby Yoda, my husband would be the most menacing Darth Vader ever, and I, the ideal Princess Leia…because, well, let’s face it, there aren’t enough girl characters to go around. So let’s just forget every other Halloween I’ve ever had, because if this were to ever come to fruition, it would indeed be the most frightening holiday past, present or future. I assure you, if I could pull off a Princess Leia costume in any way other than disturbing, I’m pretty sure that I’d be rich, famous, or both.