Monthly Archives

December 2014

Goals & Dreams & Sandwiches

Resolve to Fail

In 2012, I joined a gym. At first, I even went there. Sometimes to work out. Sometimes for sandwiches. But I grew tired of elliptical machines and turkey burgers, and by 2013, I faked an old track injury and finagled out of my contract.

In 2014, I started running again. I bought plush socks and shoes with impressive treads. I downloaded an app to chart my progress, and figured I’d knock out a 5K by Memorial Day. Or Labor Day. Or Thanksgiving at the latest. According to my log, the last time I jogged was June 13th, and I sustained that run for a total of ninety-three seconds.

And so it goes with resolutions. This year, I set out to lose the baby weight, and by next year, I’m pregnant again. On January 1st, I swear off dairy products, but by Valentine’s, I’m hiding chocolate around the house, and eating cheese fondue for dinner.

I had come to view yearly promises as an absolute waste of time. But something happened yesterday that turned my cynicism upside down. Literally. Because yesterday, I held my first handstand in yoga.

I know, I know . . . yoga. Every time I hear someone ruminate about the virtues of chakra and chi, I feel like running from the room. But as those who know me can attest, my pear-shaped figure and copious rear end do not flex easily into any yoga pose, especially the airborne variety. So hear me out. Yesterday, aided by guilt over the apple pie I ate for breakfast, and urged on by an instructor skilled at breaking difficult exercises into manageable steps, I stood upside down on my hands. And smiled. For a few blissful moments, I ceased to be a middle-aged mother of three. I was a child tumbling in the front yard. I daydreamed about the circus, the Olympics, the moon.

Afterwards, my teacher shared the following tidbit: “It was absolutely impossible, so it took a little longer to achieve.”

It is easy to dog on resolutions. But that is such a cop out. I have been practicing yoga on and off for fifteen years. The first fifty times I attempted a handstand, I failed. I blamed weak wrists and shoulders, and flabby post-pregnancy abs. I failed so often that I gave up trying.

But yesterday, I remembered why I had begun yoga in the first place. In my early twenties, I worked at a rehabilitative program for juvenile offenders. Gang members, drug addicts, kids who had been tossed from school. Failure was what brought them to me. And one of the first things we did was set goals. Goals for the month, the day, the week. Sometimes they were loftily worded psychobabble: Beatrice will use ‘I feel statements’ to express anger and opposition about her quality world. Sometimes they were basic: Jackie will wear clean pants every day. In the beginning, most of those mouthy, broken teenagers screwed up their goals before breakfast.

But every day, we helped them try again. And in the end, after months and sometimes years of failure, many kids ultimately triumphed. They graduated high school, got jobs, had families. I read a note recently in which a young lady named Shannon credited the program for saving her life. One of her first goals had been to brush her hair and teeth.

Maybe the trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that we assume they are to be completed within a single calendar year. Or maybe we have simply forgotten that in order to rise up, we first have to fall.

As I stand on the precipice of another new year, I am tempted to channel Janus, the ancient Roman god of transitions and passageways. He is often portrayed with two faces, one looking forward and one looking behind. I am torn between idealistic hopes of the person I might become, and backward glances at the only person I have ever been.

But this year, I am channeling Shannon instead. And I double downward dog dare you to do the same. Toss the cigarettes. Give that white bread a break. And when you flub up next week, figure out why, and try again. Make New Year’s resolutions and St. Patrick’s Day resolutions and Arbor Day resolutions. Set goals for yourself the whole damn year. It does not matter if you achieve them today, tomorrow, or ten years from Tuesday. Just don’t quit until you reach your handstand.

dadvmom.com_resolvetofail_rihandstand

Originally appeared in the New York Observer, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2014.

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Christmas Past (2011)

Our Christmas tree gets uglier every year. It’s not the tree’s fault. This year we sprung for a Fraser fir, cut fresh at a local farm. It has soft needles, that ideal pine-cone shape, and a pointy top perfect for holding a star. But when we got home, I felt like apologizing. This tree did not deserve what we were about to do. We re-cut the bottom, mounted it in its holder, and gave it water. For about five minutes, our tree looked beautiful. Then came the decorations.

My wife and I watched as our two children vandalized the bottom half of the tree. Katie hung multiple baubles on the same limbs, causing them to bend and bow, as though the tree was gesturing “why me?” Ornaments were shoved directly onto branches: An angel dangled by its halo; a smiling Santa impaled through the nose. Our 2-year old, Lizzie, sat chewing our Nativity scene, throwing body parts into the tree.

To be fair, my wife and I are partly to blame. We suffer from that common seasonal malady I call ugly-ornament-itis. We can’t seem to throw any away, especially those made by our kids. Or anyone’s kids, really. More than half the construction-paper-and-popcorn curios are mine. When I left home, I inherited these homemade gems from my parents, who were eager to regain their own tree’s dignity. I see the 30-year-old hunk of dough my wife attempted to shape into a wreath, and a mouse-like creature I vaguely recall molding from melted crayons.

This year, our 6-year-old was in charge of the lights. Katie looped them tightly around the trunk, as though dressing a wound. In a way, I suppose she was. When the strand ran out, she dove into a bag of Mardi Gras beads. Shiny purple necklaces now hang in bunches from the middle limbs. In third grade, my wife wrote an Arbor Day poem entitled: “What does it feel like to be a tree?” Today, she thought she heard the answers whispered through those laden branches.

About halfway up, the tackiness halts. Cotton-ball snowmen and pipe-cleaner candy canes give way to glass stars and holly sprigs. The effect is a bit schizophrenic. It’s as though our tree got tipsy one night and started decorating itself, but passed out halfway through. If I lined up photos of my childhood Christmas trees, I bet I could arrange them chronologically by how high the ugly goes.

Some day, my wife and I will get our tree back. The kids will move out and inherit their own boxes of Christmas tacky. I picture the two of us in our holiday cardigans, sipping port by the fire, gazing at our tree. It will be elegant, majestic, refined. Then, one of us will venture into the attic to retrieve the box kept behind. We’ll hang Katie’s clothespin Rudolph, Lizzie’s headless baby Jesus, and every last memory we find. And somehow, I know our tree will thank us.

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Originally published on NPR’s All Things Considered, in December, 2011.

 

Holidaze

Tidings of Comfort

“If you are traveling this holiday season, make your destination a Bethlehem.”

I heard this advice in church last weekend. Since I spent much of the service trying to prevent Henry from crawling beneath the seat in front of us and/or helping Lizzie use spit and an old Kleenex to wipe marker off of the hymnal she had used to draw Santa on horseback, I am amazed that I heard and retained anything at all.  A mini-Christmas miracle.

But I love this advice.  If you are at all like me, and you have had the wonderful opportunity/misfortune to travel frequently during the holidays, you know the joy/horror of staying with family and friends.  There are five of us now.  And a dog.  And even though we try to be gracious and helpful houseguests — zipping to the grocery store, chipping in with laundry and dishes — we still require lots of food and pillows and toilet paper.  That we are inconvenient to host is a fact not lost on me.

But it is also not always easy to be hosted.  I ate snails for dinner last night.  Lunch today was something coated in mayonnaise and cheese.  Right now, I feel like curling up with cocoa and a book, but instead, I need to dress for dinner guests.  In short, when it comes to visitors during the holidays, the stress goes both ways.

I don’t always know what I believe about Christmas.  Was He or was he not the son of God?  Smarter folks than I have tried to suss this one out.  But I do know this:  two-thousand years ago, weary travelers found refuge one night, made the best of unfamiliar circumstances, and their child grew up to be a gift to many, many people.

May we who host, and may we who are hosted, be Bethlehems to one another this holiday season.  May we offer comfort and make do, since we never quite know the miracle unfolding in the hearts of our children or in one another.

Merry Christmas.

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Holidaze

Christmas Cards Against Humanity

I am not sending Christmas cards this year.

This is not news. I did not mail any last year. Or the year before.

In fact, the only time I ever attempted December correspondence en masse was fifteen years ago, when we got puppies. I bought antlers and a Santa hat, and took photographs of our furry babies. I printed wallet-sized images on do-it-yourself photo paper – you know, in case my friends wanted to carry my dogs in their wallets – and made a list of forty-two folks whom I figured deserved a letter. In the end, I wrote, addressed, and mailed maybe six cards. I have not tried again since.

The holidays are busy and sending cards is a chore. I am flabbergasted anyone manages to do it. As a perpetual recipient and lackluster sender, I have developed a few theories about why these missives continue to crowd my December mailbox.

  1. Narcissism

Where there used to be images of shepherds or candles, cards are now adorned with portraits of perfect families. Archangel Gabriel is out. The Nguyen-Chestertons are in. When I rip open the envelopes, I am greeted by ruddy-cheeked children in gingham and plaid. There’s the family at Disney. And again at the seashore. Isn’t it neat how everyone is wearing khakis?

  1. Competitiveness

If you send someone a card this year, the rules state that they should reciprocate. If two years pass unrequited, you don’t need to waste any more stamps. They’ve moved on. And if at the neighbor’s eggnog soirée you notice a card on the mantle that should have gone to you, it is permissible to throw it in the fire. It is like a grown up game of Pokémon, or bad reality TV — The Real Holiday Cards of Somerset County.

  1. Duty

Every year, on December 8th, my grandmother used to set up a folding table in the downstairs bedroom, lock the door, and “do the cards.” She rolled up her sleeves and did the dirty business of communicating with family and friends. Who got married? Who dropped out of school? Who got pregnant with someone else’s baby, but we are all okay with it and the christening was Sunday. We send cards because we are supposed to. It’s what separates us from the goats.

  1. Love

Despite the fact that I see most of my friends on Facebook, and we exchange phone calls, emails, and Tweets, I still love receiving their preposterously darling cards. Especially the ones with actual writing – elementary school penmanship brought out once a year, just for me. And for those friends I haven’t seen in years, the ones off the grid — keeping bees in Cleveland, curing meats in Poughkeepsie — these cards are our only tether. I have watched hairlines recede and families grow and blossom. And I have watched my friends grow up happy. That is how I get to think of them year after year.

No matter where you come down on holiday cards — narcissist or Santa, baby Jesus or Grinch — I hope we can agree on one thing: they make for one hell of a drinking game. Some time this season, when you can’t face another ugly sweater party or white elephant exchange, just deal out the Christmas cards and pour the tequila. The rules are simple. One shot for fall foliage, two for matching cardigans, three for kids cuter than yours. And chug the whole bottle, worm and all, for anyone ridiculous enough to put antlers on a dog and send out wallet pics.

HoundnShadowChristmas2

Originally published in the New York Observer.  Special thanks to my Aunt Kathy for the image of Grandma “doing the cards.”

 

 

 

 

 

Holidaze

Wallowing in a Winter Wonderland

So we stood in line to see Santa yesterday.

There were some problems.

For starters, the Santa-to-child ratio. I’m no mathematician, but my estimates put the number of kids ahead of us at just under 17 million. Number of Santas ministering to those children: one. Those were crap odds.

We know that Santa is clutch. He’s up against heftier numbers on game day, and he always comes through. But that must be due to his crackerjack support network — the elves, the Mrs., the deer. Our Santa… he had staffing problems.

From what I’ve researched, elves are of paramount importance to this whole seeing Santa business. These green-clad minions move folks along. They keep the action merry. But there were no polar aide-de-camps working our line. No one in or out of tights jingled a bell or cheerfully hinted we were getting any closer to the Big Dance. There were no elves staging photographs. Terrified children stood in awe of Santa and/or picked their noses, allowing precious seconds to pass. No elves hustled anyone off of Santa’s lap or hurried families through a candy cane exit.

Seeing Santa is not work you want left to parents. If we wait all that time, when it is finally our turn, we want the perfect shot. We have Facebook pages to update, and friends to Instagram with photos of our kids in complementary reds and greens. We want Santa to hear everyone’s complete list, even little Timmy’s. He is shy, but if you just give him a minute or two, he’ll open up and tell you everything for which he is quietly hoping. The choo choo train. The blocks.

In short, parents are Santa hogs.

Which is why, after an hour-and-a-half, my kids and I were still nowhere near the jolly man in red. I tried bribery. “How about some kettle corn?” And cajoling. “Wouldn’t it be way more fun to see Santa next week at the mall?” I even tried to dash hopes. “Seeing Santa isn’t that big a deal anyway. Who wants hot chocolate?”

My 9-year-old wavered when I mentioned a beverage, but sensing my desperation, insisted on a pizza, too.

My 2-year-old had already bumped into everyone in line near us, so he was eager to break out of the queue to knee-cap new victims.

But 5-year-old Lizzie would not budge. Her eyes were full of hope. She wanted to ask Santa for a Barbie doll. “I know we’ll make it, Mom. We just have to believe.” What could I say?

So for 93 minutes we believed.

But then Santa left for a smoke break.

And there was some sort of program involving hand bells, and carolers, and a speech about a Christmas tree. I tried to watch. But we were standing in a line that was no longer moving, waiting to see a fictional character who was no longer there.

I lifted the red velvet rope and gently tugged my children out into the darkness.

There was crying on the way home. Also an argument over burritos. I tried to engage them in conversation. “If you had been able to see Santa, what would you have asked for?”

“A new mother,” came the first response. It was fair. They could not be angry with Santa. They could only be angry with me.

dadvmom.com_wallowinginawinterwonderland_heartcandyanesAt home, after a dinner that was neither pizza nor burritos, we wrapped presents for a family whose name we’d pulled at church. A Barbie doll, a train, some matching jammies in red and green. For a little bit, anyway, we played at being their elves.

We drank cocoa and laughed when Dad tried to play “Jingle Bells” on his ukulele.

We told each other what we wanted for Christmas.

And as I snuggled with my children on the couch, once they had determined they no longer hated me, I decided that Santa Claus could kiss my ass.

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

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5 Things Our Kids Are Not Getting for Christmas

It is the holiday season, and parents everywhere have begun the mad scramble to acquire more/better/bigger stuff for their kids. Stuff that will equal happiness. In years past, we’ve been guilty of taking part in this ritual, throwing presents at our children to make them love us.

This year, we are trying something different. Out with the big gifts, the expensive, over-the-top extravagances. We are also putting the kibosh on the “But, Daddy, Everyone Else Has One!” gifts. If it’s so popular, go play with it at someone else’s house. We’re not buying it.

So here they are, the five things our kids aren’t getting:

1. An iPhone

Despite the pleas of our 9-year old, and the poster presentation she prepared for us on Tuesday, she will not be getting an iPhone. Or an iPod. Or an iPad. The child is 9. She is not ready. Even if she was, we would not be. Kids her age need to shoot hoops and ride bikes and journal and OCCASIONALLY play Fruit Ninja. We will not send her signals at Christmas that our priorities are the other way round.

2. Elf on the Shelf

No. Just… no. The kids get enough build-up to Christmas without some profit-driven “tradition” that forces parents to create nightly narratives involving spilled marshmallows and creatively-placed Ritz crackers. Elf Found Poisoned on the Shelf? Now that’s a tradition we could get behind.

3. A puppy

Strictly speaking, a puppy is not a Christmas present. It is 15 years of poop wrapped in fur. We know. We’ve had two. They are cute and lovable, but destined to break your heart. Much more suitable for Valentine’s Day.

4. Any variation of the American Girl experience*

Since when did a $100 doll become an “experience?” They’re pretty, and the stores are worth strolling through for their museum-like perfection. But why do we shop there? Isn’t this a classic example of parental peer pressure? Buy the $20 knock-off at Target instead. Then you won’t have an aneurysm when your kid cuts the doll’s hair or actually (gasp!) plays with it.

* Exception to #4 — If Grandma is involved, give in. Grandparents get to indulge in ways parents do not.

5. Super hero toys

We get it — Batman rocks. But we encounter real heroes every day. We should not have to invent fake ones. Spring for fire trucks, doctor kits or pilot helmets. Let’s cultivate qualities in our children that actually matter — bravery, wisdom and service to others. Not x-ray vision or cars that shoot flames.

Christmas will be upon us soon. Will we be sitting around with lumps of coal? Hopefully not. But we will simplify. The kids will be getting outdoor toys — baseball gloves and hula hoops. They’ll be getting experiences — theater tickets and surfing lessons. And they’ll be getting books, lots of them, because kids can never have too much to read.

December does not have to be a mad scramble. Our kids don’t need to unwrap seventeen presents to know we cherish them. This year, we are loving them by giving them less.

 

Read more DadvMom on the Huffington Post.